Words of Encouragement for Great Lent (Mt 6:14-21)

March 6, 2014 Length: 17:07

Lent is a time of great anticipation as we move toward the celebration of Christ's holy Pascha. But Fr Thomas reminds us that it is also a preparation for our entire Christian life, where we face the challenges of increased prayer, fasting and almsgiving and in turn, learn much about our true selves. (Forgiveness Sunday)





In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ!

I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie “Captain Phillips”. “Captain Phillips” is about the captain of the cargo ship that was sailing past the land of Somalia and his ship was captured by pirates; and we know that that is going on in that area – it’s very dangerous. What’s interesting about the beginning of the movie is that he is living his life just like all of us do. He is packing to go on one of his trips, he is driving to the airport, he is talking with his wife about their children – very mundane things. It was just another day, in fact. Just another day at work. He got to the ship, and one of his first officers was talking about all of the different preparations that they were making, and he said: “Make sure that we lock all the gates, because we are going through the waters that are very dangerous, and there are pirates there.” And the first officer looked surprised. And what you got the sense of was that this man – this captain – was very disciplined. He believed in preparation, to be prepared for any circumstance, even if the possibility was very remote. And, then, of course, the story goes on from there.

As we now are only hours away, really, from our inauguration of the Great Lenten Season, of our fasting and our preparation for the Holy Pascha, the epistle reading made it very clear – it said: “Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” – The armor of light! And when we think about Lent, we think about how our lifestyle should change a bit. Things should become more focused in terms of our spiritual life. Our diet should change into kind of a fasting mode. Our prayer should intensify. Our attendance at church should increase. All of this is preparation for us. And it’s preparation not just for the season of Pascha and then we leave it go until next year, but, in fact, these forty days of Lent, and then the days afterward of Holy Week, are meant to prepare us not just for the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ, but for every day of our life. It is, in fact, to re-focus, to re-intensify, for us to re-commit ourselves to these spiritual disciplines, which – the Lord says in the Gospel – are so good for us. And he tells us how to do them. So we might say that with these spiritual disciplines in our Christian life… Let’s look at three different points about our Christian life that it’s presented in the Gospel. And the first is: the Christian life is challenging. It’s challenging – we know that. We know that it’s not easy, if we’re taking it seriously at all. We will always be presented with some choice in our life. Should we follow the path of the world, or should we follow the path that Christ has laid out for us? These are very real issues for us. And, as Christians, if we have any commitment at all, we should feel them very deeply. And the response in our life should be one that - when we come upon these choices, or when we come upon these difficulties - that we even peer deeper into the well of the Holy Scriptures, that we peer deeper into our heart, into our own soul, that we grow closer to God, and not farther apart from Him when we are presented with one of these challenges in our life, because the temptation is, we look at the challenge and we say: “It’s too much, I can’t do it. I’ll find another way. I’ll find a way around it, instead of through it.” And, honestly, as a priest, that’s what I see every day in people’s spiritual lives; that they’ve given up before they’ve even dove into the most difficult aspects of the spiritual life. They just look at it, and they say: “I can’t do it. I don’t like it. It’s not for me.” There was a famous Christian writer – J. K. Chesterton, and he said – and I want you to listen to this, because it’s really very profound, and very truthful: “The Christian life has not been tried and found lacking. The Christian life has been found difficult and left untried.” Do you hear what he says? It’s not that we try it and we say: “Eh, nothing! I’ll go do something else. I’ll go join some other religion, because I did everything that I could in the Church, and it was just lacking, there was just nothing there.” It’s impossible to enter into the spiritual life of the Orthodox Cristian Church and have that answer. It is literally impossible. What happens is that we look at the challenge and we say: “I’m not doing that. It’s not for me.” So all of the challenges that are presented in the Gospel today – forgiveness – Christ says: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. And if you don’t do it, He won’t forgive you.” There is a reciprocal relationship there. And the reason is simple, and the answer was last week. Last week, we talked about the Last Judgment, right? And we said: when we are confronted with the reality of the presence and the light of Christ, whatever is dark in us will simply burn us up. That’s the judgment. It’s kind of a self fulfilling reality for us. It’s not that God says: “You didn’t forgive him, and I’m deciding that you’re going to go to hell.” God doesn’t do that. We send ourselves there, because of our unforgiveness. That’s the challenge that we’re faced with. And the challenge – it says in the Gospel reading – of fasting - we do the same thing. “I can’t do it. I can’t not eat meat. I can’t not eat diary.” Can we try? Can we try, first, before we give up, and not decide on ourselves what is best? So, the Christian life is challenging, but we have to try it. The Christian life is also revealing. It reveals something about ourselves. If we embark on this fast, if we embark on this preparation, if we forgive someone, if we fast, if we pray, if we are merciful and give alms to other people, we’ll learn something about ourselves. And if we don’t do these things, if we cut them off and say: “I’m not gonna forgive them, I’m not gonna be charitable, I’m not gonna pray, I’m not gonna fast”, then we also learn something about ourselves – we just won’t admit it. Listen to what I’m telling you. That’s the truth. Because we don’t wanna look in that mirror, the Christian life and all of its practices, and everything that we do, it’s, in fact, very revealing, whether we admit it or not, whether we like it or not. Christ says at the end of the Gospel reading – and this is the way I read it, anyway: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Think about what that says. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Now he is saying it in the context of: “Don’t put trust in, and put all of your efforts into earthly things. Put them into heavenly things. The heavenly God will reward you for eternity.” And then He says: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. Our Christian life should be looking toward the Kingdom of God. And that’s what leads my heart to think about that all the time. But I also look at it this way: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” – whatever is important to you, that’s what you’re really gonna do. And you’re gonna reveal your hand, you’re gonna reveal what’s important to you by your actions. And it’s especially going to happen this Lent. Am I going to forgive people? Am I going to fast? Am I going to pray? Am I going to be charitable? Am I going to be merciful? Am I going to reveal to God where my heart really is? Where your treasure is, what’s important to you, there your heart will be also. Whatever is important to you, that’s what you’re going to go after. That’s what you’re going to… That’s going to lead you. So let’s think about the implications of what choices we are going to make this Lent. And the final point is this: the Christian life is rewarding. And that’s what has to motivate us also. Think of he bigger picture of what life really is. The life is not just my body, the life is not just this earthly existence, that there’s a spiritual life – there’s angels here with us, whether we can see them or not, whether we can feel it or not. We trust by faith that God, and His saints, and the angels are present with us. And we have to get to the point where we believe that, and we believe there is a life after this life, and that we trust what God says in this Gospel reading is true. He says in verse fourteen: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” That’s the reward. If you forgive someone, God will forgive you. Reward. Verse eighteen: “Do not appear to be fasting, but rather to your Father, who is in a secret place, and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you openly.” God rewards you, in fact, for your fasting. The reward can be inner peace, the reward can be a sense of calm, the reward can be clarity of thought, clarity in your spiritual life. God will reward you. The Christian life is rewarding. It will make us better people, more loving, more merciful, more godlike, in fact.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the Church brings us to this moment where we have to now take that next step into the Lenten season. It tells us to prepare hearts, prepare minds, and even prepare our bodies. Prepare our hearts by forgiving, by sincerely going to one another, ridding ourselves of any animosity, offering forgiveness to someone, accepting forgiveness from someone. And we’ll do that in the church. We’ll gather together and we’ll ask forgiveness of one another. We prepare our minds by prayer, by reading, by turning off all the garbage that is on TV, ridding our minds of the pollution of the world. We prepare our bodies by fasting, by prostrations, by worship. Our whole being is involved in this process. Remember: the Christian life is challenging, but we shouldn’t leave it untried. The Christian life is revealing: it reveals about us what we maybe didn’t know, what we thought we couldn’t do, what our misplaced priorities are. The Christian life is rewarding and we should follow the Commandments of God. That’s the beauty of this season, not just to prepare us for Pascha, but to prepare us for our entire life, and for life eternal. How wise the Church is, how loving God the Father is to reveal the love of God in our hearts, to reveal the Lord Jesus Christ, to fill us with the Holy Spirit, so that we can be with one another in this beautiful season of the year! Please, let’s join together, let’s resolve to attend the Lenten services, let’s resolve to change our way of life and make this a quiter, more reflective time, as we approach the saving Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To Him, Who is our Life, with the Father and the Spirit, be glory, honor, and our majesty always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ!