Fr. Thomas was the guest speaker at the fund raising reception for the St. Herman House in Cleveland - part of the ministry of Focus North America. He is introduced by Nicholas Chakos, Executive Director of Focus North America.
December 11, 2013 Length: 50:15
Nicholas Chakos: I have always wished for the day that I could stand in front of a crowd and say that I’m going to introduce a man that needs no introduction. Again, I am in that enviable position. I am here to introduce a man that truly needs no introduction. I’m sure that you all know that Fr. Thomas Hopko is the Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, and he’s the author of too many books to count and articles, and he currently produces three very popular podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio.
I think that I first met Fr. Tom some years back when I returned home after a very long working trip. I walked into my home, hoping to be lovingly embraced by my wife, who I thought was going to be very eager to see me. I hurried in through the front door and I almost skipped back into the kitchen, where I threw my arms out and gave a big “Hello, honey, I’m home!” and she looked up and she said, “Shhh! Fr. Tom’s on the radio! He’s about to say something important!” [Laughter]
But more recently it has been a real blessing to get to know Fr. Tom better, because he serves as the priest at the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, which is very close to where I live. On Sundays when I attend Liturgy there from time to time, it’s really great for me to have the opportunity for me to sit with Fr. Tom over a cup of coffee and talk about all sorts of different subjects. But every time I leave the monastery, I always tell my wife, “I just wish that my brain was bigger, because I just want to remember all the things that he told me.”
Now what Fr. Tom probably does not know and what he certainly may not endorse is that his teachings and his counsel are a great inspiration to me personally, and they very much so—they greatly inform the work and the spiritual underpinnings of all of our work at FOCUS. So I would like to welcome to welcome to the podium and I would like you all to show a very warm welcome to our keynote speaker for this evening, Fr. Thomas Hopko. [Applause]
V. Rev. Fr. Thomas Hopko: Thank you very much. First of all, I cannot tell you how grateful I am to be invited here tonight and to be with you. It’s a great blessing to me to have this opportunity, because I am among those people who talk a lot and write a little bit, but don’t do very much. [Laughter] Once on Mount Athos, St. Silouan was there, and some monk said to the other monk, “How come when the people come, they want to see him? Why do they come? He hasn’t written anything except what ultimately came out of his scribblings on paper in his kitchen, and he doesn’t speak anywhere. Why do they come to him?” And the other monk said, “It’s because he writes nothing, he says nothing, and he fulfills everything.” And it’s all about fulfilling everything. That’s what we’re about.
The Desert Fathers, they say if you write only to write, you’re weaving your shroud. If you speak only to speak, you’re pronouncing your own judgment. If you build only to build, you’re building your own tomb. So those of us who speak and who build and who write, we have to ask that question: What are we doing this for? And how do we do it?
When we were young and I know many people in this room are a little bit older than I am even at this point, good friends for many years—we were five years in Warren, Ohio, actually—we did some work of this nature at St. John’s in Hiram when Brother Ignatius used to pick up the men from the streets that nobody wanted in Cleveland. All the Salvation Army, the rescue mission: if they didn’t want them, they called Brother Ignatius, and we took them in there. I’ve known these very people here a long time.
But when we think about our church life, we know that so much when we were young was… We spoke about education. We tried to have schools and have materials. We spoke about worship and wanted to have real worship in our church and languages that people could understand in a manner done as it should be for the glory of God. We had other type of social things. Then there was a kind of explosion of spirituality: spirituality books all around about the nous and theosis and all that kind of thing that were there. But the missing element, which in some sense I’ve come to believe is the most important of all, is this kind of work that we’re trying to propagate tonight, because without it, all the rest is just going through the motions.
We have five children, 16 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, but their lives were changed by being involved in this kind of work, even though they were raised in the Church and they knew how to quote the Bible, like if you’d send them to sleep, they’d say, “I will not give rest to my eyes nor slumber to my eyelids until I find a place for my Lord.” [Laughter] Then when you’d try to wake them up, they’d say, “It is in vain that you rise early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil!” [Laughter] And, “He gives to his beloved sleep.”
But actually the most God-like of our activities is loving God with all our strength. When we were younger, as I started to say, we were… The only teaching we had in those very early days was a catechism. It was actually translated from the Latins into Church Slavonic, and we would have it, and the first sentence always that we had to… You see, in those days, they gave you the question and they gave you the answer. So the question was given: “Who made me?” And the answer that we had to repeat was: “God made me.” Then the second question was: “Why did God make me?” And the answer that we had to give was: “To know him, to love him, to serve him, and to share the joy of divine life in the kingdom to come that has no end.”
Well, when I got older and a little more snooty or whatever, I thought to myself: That’s very good, it’s true, but perhaps you could have written that catechism a little bit differently, perhaps even a little bit more accurately, because the first question would still be: “Who made me?” And the answer would be: “God made me.” Then the next question would be: “Why did God make me?” And here, I think, that we can give an answer that is more important than the one that was in the catechetical book. The answer was: “God made me to know me, to love me, and to serve me with everything of his divine reality.”
The Scripture speaks about not only knowing God… In the letter to the Galatians, St. Paul says, “At one time you were lost. You did not know God, but now you do.” And then he puts an apostrophe there; he says, “However, now in fact you are known by God.” And we want to be those that God knows, that God would know and say, “These are mine. These are the creatures made in the image and likeness of God to share the divine life forever, by my grace, by my divine energies, by my power, by my indwelling, by my Son, Christ,” who is the word, the image, the icon, the power, the truth, the wisdom, the life, who has come into the world as a poor man, a needy man, and who tells us that we will be judged on how we love one another and that has to be done in actual activity; it can’t just be done in words.
We know and it was mentioned here already Matthew 25: “I was hungry; you gave me food. I was thirsty; you gave me drink. I was sick, you came to me. I was in prison; you visited me. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.” Then it says, “If you’ve done this to any one of the least of my brothers or sisters, you’ve done this to me.” And that’s what the judgment will be on. So all these other things—education, worship, spirituality, formation, and all that—they’re all for the sake of loving with the love with which God, who is love, has loved us in his beloved Son, the Son of his love, as St. Paul says, through the Holy Spirit who has poured this love into our hearts. And that’s the proof of everything.
It’s in the Scripture, the first letter of St. John; it says this: “Do not wonder, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren.” By the way, “brethren” is an Old English word for “brothers and sisters.” “Brothers” is just men; “brethren” is men and women together. In Greek, it’s the same word, except it has a different ending: adelphos, adelphe. Here, it says:
he who does not love abides in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
And in this same letter it says that if anyone says that they love God and doesn’t love the person right next to them, whoever they are, is a liar, because you cannot love God who’s invisible unless you love the person who’s sitting right next to you. And it’s very important: you love that person as that person is, and whoever they are, including someone that we would even consider to be our worst enemy. We can only love God and fulfill the commandment of God to the extent that we love that person.
Now, some kind of fancy thinkers like to think things and say, “Oh, well, people are sinners, but you love Christ in that person. You love the image of God in that person.” Well, baloney! [Laughter] Jesus didn’t say, “Love the image of God in that person.” He didn’t say, “Love me in that person.” He said, “Love that person, and you will be loving me, because I have identified with every human being on the face of the earth, every one, whoever they are.” According to the Scripture, they are all saved, as far as God is concerned. It’s just a question of whether we receive the salvation or whether we don’t.
But John continues here: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us. He loved us first.” That’s why you want to correct the catechism. He made us to know us, to love us, to serve us, so we could know him, love him, and serve him—how? The only way we can: by knowing, loving, and serving the person right next to us, whoever that person may be and however they come and however they look, whatever color skin they have, or whatever it is.
By the way, I can’t resist saying here, with our African-American friends here: our Church is really a strange Church when it comes to this. I often felt that in popular, what we used to call the black churches, they’re very much similar to the Orthodox in many ways. They’re very chaotic. They paint this on it. They love to sing. They stay there forever. They cry. And when they fall down, they get back up again. [Laughter] No, thinking about that, though, it’s happening now—thanks be to God that it’s happening—that some of the African-American people are actually becoming members of the Orthodox Church. They want to join the Orthodox Church. I invite you to stay where you are until you can’t do it any more. [Laughter]
But in any case, one cute story I heard recently—it’s probably apocryphal, but anyway, the story goes that one very pious and committed African-American man, Orthodox believer, member of the Church, went into a big, huge Greek Orthodox church in one of our large American cities. He went in and he bowed and he crossed himself and he kissed the icons, went and stood by his place. And the yiayia there in the back of the church, she’s looking at this guy, and she sees that he seems to know what he’s doing. So she goes up to him and she says to him, “Mister, you Greek?” [Laughter] And the man says, “No, ma’am, I’m not. I’m not Greek.” “Oh, okay.”
So she walks away, she stands by her candles a little bit, but she’s still looking at this guy, and she can’t resist, so she goes over again, and she says, “Tell me true: you Greek!” [Laughter] “No, ma’am, I’m not Greek. My forebears came from Africa. I’m not Greek.” So she goes, but she just can’t get over it. She sees it, he seems… It’s church, he’s praying, whatever. And so she goes back a third time, and she says, “Tell me true: you Greek!” [Laughter] So he doesn’t want her to keep coming up and asking him if he’s Greek, so finally he says, “Yes, I’m Greek. I’m Greek,” hoping that she’d just go. “Oh, you Greek! Good, good, good, very good.” So then she walks and goes away from him. Then she turns around and comes back, and she says, “You don’t look Greek.” [Laughter]
Well, when I was younger, if someone heard Paul Finley speaking, they’d say, “He can’t be Orthodox, not with that accent.” [Laughter] And, thanks be to God, I want to say publicly, for the Evangelical-types and the movement who came into our church. I believe, humanly speaking, it saved us. It saved us; it provided a catalyst that we needed to have. I mean, there were always charitable people and so on, but that was the missing point in our church life until very recently, and it’s thanks to people like Paul and his wife and others that we’re able to have this night here. I think if it was left to us ourselves, I doubt very much if we would be here tonight. So thank you to you folks. [Applause]
So then the Apostle continues here. He said:
But if by this we know love, that he lay down his life for us, then we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers and the sisters. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or in speech, but in deed, in works, and in truth.
Now, the only way that we can prove that we believe in God and love God is by our works, by our activities, and that’s very, very important. Faith without works is dead. It’s empty. It doesn’t exist. And here the Apostle James, he said it just in so many words. [Turns pages] I hope before I really die—I used to say “before I retire,” but now I say, “before I die”—I hope I learn the order of the books of the Bible. [Laughter] But I’m Orthodox; I don’t need to know that. [Laughter] I have a staretz praying for me on Mount Athos. [Laughter] But James says:
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, you do well, but if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it, for he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not kill.” If you do not commit adultery but commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty, the law of freedom. Christ has set us free to love with the love with which God in Christ has loved us.
That’s the new commandment. The new commandment I give to you is that you love one another, Christ says, “as I have loved you.” And that’s perfectly, totally, completely, without qualification, without condition, without asking anybody their religion or their convictions or their politics or whatever it is—love them. And you love them by an act, by a word.
Here it’s a very clear teaching of Scripture, which some people have to learn, that you cannot be saved by faith alone, because faith alone is no faith unless it’s expressed in works. And this is what James says. But I’ve got news for you. You find that in the prophets, you find that in the psalms, you find that in the proverbs. It’s an Old Testament teaching. And you certainly find it in the New Testament. In the very letter to the Romans, the Apostle writes that we will all be judged kata ta erga, according to our works, our deeds, what we have done, which alone prove that we are believers and lovers. Without that, there’s no proof, there’s no demonstration. So it has to happen. And it can happen personally, in various ways, but to organize it, to raise money for it, to make it happen, that’s also something that is absolutely essential to the Christian life, to the human life, as made in the image and likeness of God. So it says here:
What does it profit, my brothers and sisters, if a person says he has faith, but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad or in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warm, be filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say: You have faith; I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one—you do well. Even the demons believe that, and they shudder. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? It’s empty; it’s barren. Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?
And by the way, when Isaac was bound by Abraham and taken to the mountain, he wasn’t killed. They put a lamb in his place, and the holy Fathers say that lamb was Jesus. When God’s Son was taken to the cross, no angel came. He got murdered; he got executed, so that we could get loved with the love with which he loves us. So that we could love God the way he loves God and that we could love our brothers and sisters and our worst enemies the way he does. And we’ve got to know that that’s part of the commandment. That’s part of the commandment of the law of Moses.
There’s a story that I tell a lot. In fact, I always say the same things. When I was working at the seminary, the students used to say, “Fr. Tom’s speaking this week somewhere, giving a retreat or a talk or something.” And they would say, “What’s he calling it this time?” [Laughter] That’s all right. Except I made the mistake of saying once in the presence of a guy who sells my CDs, my recordings, that if you buy any three of them, you’ll have 80% of what I have to say. [Laughter] But no one came when he was hanging there.
So was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works and faith was completed by works and the Scripture was fulfilled which says: Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone, and in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body, apart from the spirit, is dead, so faith, apart from works, is dead. It doesn’t exist.
Now we know, hopefully, that although Jesus gave this new commandment to Christians, that they should love as he loves, which is a very important thing… I can’t resist a story that I wanted to say I always tell, which I like a lot. I was in a Greek Orthodox church in California once, and decided to have some fun with the priest, whose name was also Fr. Tom, but he was Athanasios and I was Thomas. But in any case, we were in his church, and you know how they write things in church, like around the cupola it would say, “Who was, who is, who is to come,” or it will say whatever they put up there, or “Holy, holy, holy” or “Donated by Kovalska family” or something like that. [Laughter] Well, over their altar area, over the icon screen, the iconostas, they had writing up there.
So I called the priest and I said to him, “Father, excuse me, but it’s kind of my job. Sorry, but it is. I have to tell you that what’s up there isn’t true. What’s printed up there is not true.” He says, “Fr. Tom, of course it’s true. It’s from St. John’s Gospel.” I said, “Father, I’m telling you, it’s not true.” So he said to me, “It was here when I came.” [Laughter] But he said, “How can you say that it’s not true.” And I said, “Well, read what it says.” And what was written up there was: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” That’s all it said. Well, that ain’t no new commandment; that’s in the law of Moses. That’s in the Scriptures. That’s in just about any philosophy and religion on the face of the earth, unless you’re a Satanist.
The punchline is left out, because what the line of the Lord is, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another even as I have loved you.” That’s the new part, and that means completely, perfectly, totally, unconditionally, without qualification of any way. You give your whole life, your whole body, everything you have. You give in that act of love. That’s what it is. “As I have loved you.”
Every Sunday at the Divine Liturgy, allegedly—you can hear about this on Ancient Faith Radio—we are offering our bodies to God the Father, with the broken body and the shed blood of Christ, that the Holy Spirit would come on us and that we would be able to be his presence in this world, his eyes, his ears, his nose, his hands, his feet.
There’s a nice sign over at St. Herman’s House. We went there this afternoon. It said, “If you’re going to walk the way he walked, you’re going to have to take a few steps.” [Laughter]
But in any case, what we want to see here is that we who are Christians are called to love as he loved us and loved us first. But that commandment is somehow universal. St. Paul said it’s printed in people’s hearts. It’s there. Anyone who desires reality, truth, a human being, will discover that, that it’s all about love that is real love, and real love has to be expressed in deeds, not in speech, not in words, not saying… And it helps when you read the Bible to read the whole sentence, like this poor priest in California. Whoever read that didn’t read the whole sentence.
Well, we have a lot of troubles when we don’t read the whole sentence. Like, everywhere around the United States especially, in southern Ohio and so on, you’ll see a big sign: “We are saved by faith through grace, not by works, lest any man should boast.” It’s on every billboard down there. The only problem is, that’s only half the sentence. It says, “For God is at work in us, both to will and to do for his good pleasure. We are his workmanship.” And I like to play with language, as you know; that’s what I do. The word for “we are his work” in Greek is poema, which is where you get the English word “poem.” Each of us is God’s poem.
There’s another sentence that is quoted often. “Work out your faith in fear and trembling.” That sounds like you’re going to save yourself, right? “Work out your faith in fear and trembling.” But you’ve got to read the rest of the sentence: “For God is at work in us, both willing and doing what is according to his will.”
Here that leads to another theological point, a very important theological point, similar to the one about God created us to know us, love us, and serve us, so we could know him, love him, and serve him in return. That’s how it works. But you hear people saying this: “We have to work for God. We have to work for the Church. We have to work for FOCUS. We have to work for, I don’t know…” I would like to just offer the thought that maybe that’s not accurate. We can’t work for Christ. Christ has to work in us. God has to work in and through us. We don’t work for God. We give ourselves to God so God could work through us, and that people could come to know God and not us, that we would be his icon, his image, his presence, but the experience would be of the living God who’s working and living through us.
Now we Orthodox, we love synergia, cooperation. We say we’re not Calvinists. We have to cooperate with God. Well, synergia is very nice, which means cooperation, co-working, but as Fr. John Meyendorff used to say, “Yes, my dears, but, you see, it’s”—what’s the word that he used? he had a technical word—“it is not equal. We don’t work together with God on equal terms with God. It’s not symmetrical.” That’s what he said: “It’s not symmetrical.” We are co-workers to God so that he could work in and through us, and that’s what it has to be, whatever we’re doing, which means—running out of time? no, not yet—that all of our activity has to be God working in and through us, so that people would come, by what we do, to know God, to know Christ, to know how boundlessly we are loved, how totally we are loved by God, and that we could show this by being his instrument.
So it says in Scripture we are God’s synergos, co-worker. We are God’s field. We are God’s people. But he’s working in and through us. So I think we ought to get it out of our mind already: “I’m going to work for the Church. I’m going to work for Orthodoxy.” It would be nice if the Church would through us, that the Holy Spirit would work through us, that Christ would work through us, that God would work through us. And you know what? People know that when it doesn’t happen. No matter how many meals you give them, they know it if you’re not giving it to them out of love. And when it’s given to them without love, we condemn ourselves, and that’s probably the scariest sentence in the whole Bible. It’s in the Sermon on the Mountain, Matthew version, 7:21:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven, and on that day many (many, it says, hoi polloi in Greek) many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Lord, Lord, did we not cast out demons in your name? Lord, Lord, did we not do many might works, miracles, in your name?”
Didn’t we do that? And then we can go on: Did we not found FOCUS in your name? Did we not come here in Cleveland and go to the Herman House in your name? Aren’t we doing all this in your name? And if we try to pull that one off, we’ve got to know that we may hear these words: “Then I will declare to them: I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.” Because you are even doing all of this for your own sake, your own pride.
How many of us came here tonight to see who didn’t come? [Laughter] And that’s how subtle it can be, because to do the will of the Father is to love. The love does have to be expressed in works and deeds. I hope we made that point clear enough. But the deeds may not be inspired by love. They can be inspired by pride, by anything else but not love, and when it’s not love, it’s not God, and the people will know it.
Here I have to tell you a personal story. A woman was dying of cancer, and she did die, actually. I was present when she died. And she had two little kids, and a very rocky life before that, marriage was difficult and whatever, but she was in the hospital with bone cancer and in excruciating pain. I came in to see her one day, and I started off my blah-blah, you know, and whatever. And she looked at me from that bed, and she said to me, “Fr. Tom, please go home. Go home.” I said, “Wha?” She said, “Yeah, just get out of here, please. Go home.” I said, “Well, can I read a couple psalms and say a prayer?” “No! Go! Home!” she said. So I said, “Okay.”
So I left the hospital and went back to the seminary. It was vespers time, and I walked up the steps onto the porch at the seminary at St. Vladimir’s, and a woman was standing on the porch of the chapel. She lived in the neighborhood; she came to pray there practically every day. She had become an Orthodox; I myself actually chrismated her. Actually, I can tell you that when I was doing that with her, the last meeting we had before she was to be chrismated and receive communion in the Church, I said, “Is there anything you want to say to me before? Is there anything on your mind?” She had two things, one of them I won’t take the time to tell you, but the other one was this. She said, “I just want to tell you, if you think that I’m not ready yet or fit yet to join in and have the holy Communion in the Orthodox Church, I want to tell you, I’m going to come here and pray anyway. And if you say I can’t pray in the church anyway, I’ll stand on your porch and pray. And if you say I can’t stand on your porch and pray, I’ll stand in the field in front of your chapel and pray. And if you say I can’t do that, I will pray, and there’s nothing you can do about that.” [Laughter] That’s what she said.
Well, this woman was standing on the porch, and she looked at me and she said, “Fr. Thomas, you look terrible! You look terrible. What happened? Something happen?” I said, “Yeah, it did.” Perceptive lady. She said, “What happened?” I said, “I went to see Galena.” That was the lady’s name. “And she threw me out. She told me to come home, get out of here. She wouldn’t even let me say a prayer, just threw me out.” And this woman, she looked at me and took all her courage in her hands; she looked me right in the eye and she said to me, “You know why, don’t you, Father?” I said, “Uh…” First I went to my pocket for my prayer rope. I said, “Okay, tell me!” And she said this: “The reason was because you did not have God with you. You did not bring God.” She says, “And probably most of the time you went, you were bringing God and his word, his grace, his power, his presence. And today she saw that wasn’t there. Maybe you were preoccupied, maybe you were busy, maybe her suffering paralyzed you or whatever happened, but certainly that’s what she felt.”
And then she said to me, “And can I tell you something else?” I said, “You’re on a roll, so keep going.” [Laughter] And she said to me, “You do that when you preach and teach and serve Liturgy, too.” She said, “I can’t speak for others, but I can tell you: when I’m in church and you’re doing the service, leading it, sometimes we just know God is there, and sometimes it’s just Fr. Tom.” And then she said to me, “Nobody needs Fr. Tom. People need God.”
And we know what she meant, because certainly people need Fr. Tom. I hope my wife and kids need me. I hope people need me. I hope I’m of some use! But we know what she meant, and in that sense, nobody needs FOCUS America or anything else, unless it is brought with the God who is love itself. Now, when we love this God and love as he loves, it begins with the Old Testament commandment, the greatest commandment in the law of Moses, and it’s in Moses’ law—it wasn’t dreamt up by Jesus of Nazareth—that the greatest commandment is: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord, he is one; the Lord he is God. And you will love the Lord your God with”—and in Hebrew it says—“all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.”
And then that’s what’s quoted in the New Testament, right? Except if you’re perceptive and it’s your job, you’ll notice that in the New Testament, they put another word in; they put “mind” in there. The reason is, the Hebrews didn’t have a separate word for mind and heart; it’s the same word. And the New Testament was written in Greek for Greeks, so they had to put the “mind.” But with all your mind, it means what you think, how you see reality. All your heart means what you desire, what you will, what you want. Allegedly we want God’s will to be done in our life, God to act in us. All your soul, nefesh, it’s not the Platonic soul; it means the whole life of a person. The whole life of a person, that’s what soul means.
But then there’s also “You shall love the Lord God with all your strength,” and strength doesn’t mean going to the gym and working out. It doesn’t mean taking our rightful place in American society as—I don’t know what—the fourth major Christian faith, I don’t know what. Strength in that context, in that word, actually, it meant all your possessions; it meant your money, your property, your possessions, your power, your political power, whatever other kind of power you had. It means everything that you have that’s given to you by God, because we say, “Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal, holy Mighty God,” and that God who is strong, he gives everything. And in the Sermon on the Mount, it says, not only, “When you fast, when you pray”; it says, “When you give alms.” Terrible translation in English. It says literally, “When you do acts of mercy.”
Once I gave a retreat on Lent: what you’re supposed to do during Lent. Morning was on prayer, afternoon was on fasting. At the talk at the end, a presvytera raised her hand: “Fr. Tom, what happened to almsgiving?” It’s when you fast, when you do acts of mercy, when you pray. Actually, prayer, mercy, fasting. But that’s part of it, too. That’s essential to it. And that strength comes to us from God, and it’s his strength acting through us, and then it is given and shown and proved by how we love everyone else no matter who they are, without condition.
And just one last point, because I’m two minutes over. The second commandment, according to Christ and the New Testament, after the great commandment, is: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Now many people think, and even some Bibles translate it this way, incorrectly, that the law said and Jesus quoted, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” And you have to have that good, healthy self-esteem and self-love to begin with. Well, obviously God doesn’t make junk and we’re all value, and our value comes from God, and we should love who we are and be who we are and where we are and with whom we are, with the gifts we have, with the strength we have, with the money we have, with the properties we own, and all those things [have] to be for God. And we should be happy if, for whatever reason, we are allowed to participate in that and to be here tonight. It’s the greatest gift God could give us, to be here tonight, together, doing this work.
However—I learned this from a rabbi—it cannot be translated, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” It has to be translated, “You shall love your neighbor as or because he or she is yourself.” Your true self is found in the other; it’s not found in yourself. It’s when you empty yourself of your self and deny yourself and take up the cross for the sake of love—and it has to be for the sake of love, otherwise you’d better go to a mental institution. You deny yourself for the sake of loving. You empty yourself for the sake of giving. Then you realize, as St. Silouan said, your brother is your life. You have no life without these people, and every brother, not just the ones we happen to like and agree with us and are Orthodox or something—everyone.
So if we really are keeping these great commandments of God and including “You shall love your neighbor, your brother or sister, as your very self, with all of your strength,” then everything that we have and own, it’s not ours. It’s not mine. It belongs to everybody, and it’s a gift of God to be shared. So how much do we really need? Sure you’ve got to take care of your family, your kids, and whatever; you’ve got to do that, but we Americans have got to answer this question: How much do we really need? Because what… we have Basil up here who said any shoes you’re not wearing, any coat you’re not wearing belongs to the one who doesn’t have any, because it’s given by God.
Now this is what we are trying to do and to understand here, but you’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to ask God for discernment. You only get discernment when your own heart is broken and you know your own sin and you know how grateful you should be to God for what you have, and it can then move from there. But the chairman of the board of FOCUS of America is a man named Brian Gerich, a very wonderful man. But last month I was in Minneapolis, and he had visited the FOCUS people there in Minneapolis. The head person there is Vera Simeonovich Proctor. Anyway, the story is—I’ll end with this—Brian was in the place, in the center.
They’re talking, they’re showing him and everything, and so on. And some guy came running, and he must have been a little bit tipsy, actually, and he said, “My daughter’s getting married! My daughter’s getting married! I need a coat! I need to have a nice coat!” And they said, “Well, look around. There’s coats here and so on. You find one, you can have it.” So the guy comes and says, “I found the perfect coat! It’s just perfect. It’s like new! It fits me perfectly!” He put it on and said, “Thank you very much!” And he walked out the door. It was Brian’s coat. [Laughter] So you might lose your coat, but you might also save your life. So thanks for having me. [Applause]