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!]
Anyone that’s been to my house… I know all of you are always invited, especially during the Paschal season when we have our parish-wide gathering at our home in Moon Township, but at other times, when people have been there, they know that I have a dog. We have a dog, Jax, and Jax is our family companion. In fact, he’s probably as much of a member of our family as anyone else. Those of you that have pets at home feel the same about your pets. It’s a funny thing how you get to to know your pet, how, for instance, Jax often will come to me whether I want him to come to me or not. He’ll bother me, he wants something, he wants to go outside, he wants a treat, he wants to play. This is often the case, and I’ll kind of push him away: Don’t bother me. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love him; it’s just that I don’t want him to bother me at that particular point. Then other times, I’m coaxing him to come to me, and I look at him and I’m amazed at how wonderful of a dog he is.
That love and that compassion that we so naturally show to our pets is kind of an indication that we’re all capable of this love and compassion. If it’s true that we have this, how much more God is wanting for us to be with him, for him to love us, for him to pour out his mercy and compassion on us? However, it’s not always obvious to us in the circumstances of our life that God is reaching out to us. What we want to talk about is: How does God get our attention? Because often we push him out of our life. We ignore him. We live as though God doesn’t exist. We live as though God doesn’t play a role in our life, in our society, in the world. We ignore his presence—and yet we must be convinced that God is there, and not only that God is there, existing, but then in fact he is intervening. He is constantly reaching out to us, and he’s using the circumstances of our life in order to get our attention.
So the first question that we want to ask is: How does God get our attention? He uses these situations in our life in order to do that. Think about the gospel reading today. We might say the woman reached out to Christ, right? This woman, whose daughter was severely demon-possessed, it says, reached out to Christ. The gospel reading, obviously, is one of the most-loved gospel readings because it’s an enigma on how Jesus treats her. Here Jesus encounters this woman who reaches out to him, but I would submit that God was reaching out to her long before she reached out to him. How? Precisely in the situation in her life in which she then, in turn, reached out to Christ, and that is her daughter’s illness, her daughter’s demon-possession.
God can use the circumstances in our life whether we know it or not, even the circumstances of someone else. It may not be something that we did; it might be something that happens to someone else in order to get our attention, too, because it draws us into that person, and it draws us into the life of God. In this particular case, she is heart-broken. You can tell in the gospel reading she loves her daughter so much that she reaches out to Christ, but it’s precisely because she reached out to Christ that we have to see what happened beforehand: that God was reaching out to her, through her daughter’s illness.
Think about the epistle reading. It’s even more dramatic. In the epistle reading—and we kind of miss this if we don’t understand the story—St. Paul says something that we say every Sunday before we take Communion. The beginning of the epistle reading says:
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.
We say that before go to Communion. There’s a reason why St. Paul felt that he was the greatest of sinners. Do you know why? It wasn’t a humble platitude that he was expressing. St. Paul—or at that time before his conversion, his Jewish name was Saul—he essentially was terrorizing Christians. He was persecuting Christians: openly, in an organized manner, he was slaughtering them, killing them, and he was known as the one who was constantly going after Christians to bring them to the authorities to have them killed.
We might say, “Well, God is far from that situation,” but the reason that St. Paul eventually felt that he was the greatest of sinners was because he was so hard-hearted that it wasn’t the subtle situation of this woman in the gospel reading, where her daughter was demon-possessed and she reaches out to Christ. The last thing on Paul’s mind was reaching out to Christ, and if he could kill Christ, he would have killed him, too. What happened was—and we read about it in the ninth chapter of Acts; I just want to read a few verses to you.
As Saul journeyed, he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And Saul said, “Who are you, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
It’s odd language to us, and what it uses [is] this language of when a horse is prodded to move. God now has Saul. He shines a bright light, and eventually Saul, who becomes Paul, is blinded. He can’t see anything. God blinded him. It says scales were on his eyes, and it says: You can’t resist me now. “It’s hard for you to kick against the goads.” Sometimes God uses the subtle situations in our life—someone’s illness—to kind of soften our heart, to open us up. Sometimes God has to grab us by the throat and say, “What are you doing? Are you ignoring me? Don’t you know who I am?”
But the fact of the matter is, somehow, somewhere, we have to be open to that. Even Saul and his murderous threats against the Christians—he still believed in God, but he didn’t really know the full revelation of who God was, and now God has him on the ground on the road to Damascus, showing him exactly the full extent of his presence.
In other words, God uses all of these situations, and we have to somehow be attuned to it, whatever the situation is: a job, a family member, the Divine Liturgy, an accident. Whatever it is, God is constantly reaching out to us. He’s constantly showing us his presence, and unfortunately we go through life often ignoring it.
The second point is: God does this to bring us to repentance. The goal of all of this is to bring us to repentance. In the dialogue that Christ has with this woman, it’s very odd. It says she cries out to him, “Lord, have mercy on my daughter, for she’s severely demon-possessed,” and it says in the gospel reading: “He answers her not a word.” Then, when she cries out to him again, Christ is almost rude to her. She’s a Gentile; she’s not a Jew, and he says to her, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and she bows down and she worships him, to get his attention, and again he puts her off. “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” He says: the Jews are my children, not you Gentiles.
It’s hard when we’re thinking about when we reach out to God that God is somehow not hearing us, but he is hearing us, even if he doesn’t answer, because if he doesn’t answer, that’s the answer. There’s another step left to take. He wants us to go further. He wants us to repent, to bring us to an understanding of what is really at stake here. When she reaches out to him, he says nothing. When she reaches out to him again, he kind of puts her off. She reaches out to him again, and he puts her off again; he kind of insults her!
God uses every available measure to bring us to repentance. Even after St. Paul converted, it says he had a thorn in the flesh. Whatever it was, his eyesight or an ailment; it doesn’t really say—but God was constantly with him, constantly reminding him of the idea that he has to suffer. In fact, it says it in the book of Acts. After St. Paul is taken away, led away, because he can’t see, and he meets a guy named Ananias who comes and prophesies to St. Paul, it’s amazing: God says to Ananias, “Go, for he (Saul) is a chosen vessel of mine, to bear my name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel, for I will show him”—what? How great he will be? No—“how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake.”
God uses the circumstances of our life, even suffering, bringing us closer to him, to bring us to repentance. That’s why we constantly say in the Church, “Lord, have mercy. God, have mercy on us. God, have mercy on me.” The woman herself was completely humbled before God. She wasn’t put off. When Christ said to her, “I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” she worshiped him. When Christ said to her, “I’m not going to take the bread that is meant for the children and throw it to the dogs,” she says, “I’ll take the crumbs. Just give me the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” The important thing to remember is God uses the circumstances in our life, and even if they seem negative, God is bringing us closer to him so that we would be humbled, so that we would be brought to repentance before him.
The final point is in all of this we have to remember that what God honors, what God is seeking, is believers who are persistent, believers who are consistent, believers who are patient, believers who are long-suffering. Yes, sometimes our conversion might be like St. Paul on the road to Damascus; we see a vision. Sometimes it might be more subtle. Sometimes it might take a day. Sometimes it might take 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 years for us to fully understand and appreciate who God is, what he wants for us, and what he’s telling us is: Be patient. Be open. Be persistent.
That’s why, when we hear about judgment and we hear about the kingdom of God, the message that we always hear in the Scriptures is: He who endures to the end will be saved. “He who endures to the end,” not “he who was saved on a particular day in a particular way and then it’s kind of over.” It’s “he who endures to the end.” Our life will be a series of ups and downs, of encounters with God, of periods when we might think God is distant from us. If we think God is distant from us, I assure you God is as close to you as your breath.
Don’t be put off, and don’t misunderstand what is happening in your life. God is not distant from you, even when he’s silent, like to this woman, this Canaanite woman, when it says, “Christ answered her not a word.” What was he doing? He’s waiting for more. He’s bringing her even closer. He’s seeing her persistence, her humility, giving her opportunity to experience all of these things.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, if we can love our pets and we can show such mercy and compassion and love and concern and care for them, no matter what they do, how much more does God love us? God is never really silent. Sure, he’s silent; he might not answer us right away, and he might not even answer our prayer in the way that we want it, the way that we envision it. God is there. God is listening. God is always able to give us not what we want; God is able to give us what we need. Sometimes what we need is just silence from him. It’s what we really need, like a non-answer, because we have to learn persistence. We have to learn patience. We have to learn suffering, to bring us closer to him.
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! [Glory to him forever!]