Courageous Strugglers: the Quality of Saints

May 30, 2010 Length: 18:58

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In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. [Amen.]

Words, brothers and sisters, are precious things. They possess power and beauty. Some words are more precious than others. Some words, because of their origin in God are even called in the Scripture theopnevstos; that means breathed out of the mouth of God. This is a description that St. Paul uses for the words found in holy Scripture. It’s why when you touch the Scriptures and you read the Scriptures, they affect you, your mind and heart, in ways that the newspaper doesn’t. Same letters, different source. Words are powerful, and we as Christians know that we have to use words carefully. We have to choose what words to use and also what words not to use, and also how to use words.

Many of you know the joke that I’ve played on many. It’s a joke with a message. Over the years in our parish, how many times I’ve fallen down on the ground in a prostration after asking someone how they are. You know this comes from an experience I had in seminary with one of my most venerable professors, Dr. Roger Nicole, who at that time was about 80 years old. He’s still alive; he’s about 104, I think. He had just retired after decades of service, and he’d donated his personal library to the seminary. His personal library was 70,000 volumes. It took two 18-wheel trucks, packed top to bottom into the back. We had to build a wing onto the seminary just to accommodate his books. I once asked him, “Dr. Nicole,” being a little suspicious, “have you read all those books?” He looked at me and he said, “Brother, some twice.” [Laughter]

One time on a break from seminary I was walking by him, and he said to me, “How are you today, brother?” He was from the French-speaking portion of Switzerland, and he said, “How are you today, brother?” and I said that unthinkable response: “Oh, I’m good, Dr. Nicole.” And he stopped, and he pulled his glasses down onto the bridge of his nose, and he looked down at me, and he said, “No-o-o, no, brother. Goodness is a moral quality. We must leave God to be the judge. You are well.” [Laughter] From that moment, I’ve definitely not been good, and I have learned to say other things: trying to be good, seeking to be good, by your prayers hoping one day to be good, something like that.

But he made a tremendous point that had an impact on me, about the preciousness of words. He was reflecting, in fact, our Savior’s teaching, when he was called good by someone who did not believe in his divinity, and he said to that person, “Why do you call me good? There is one who is good: God alone.” He taught that man not to take precious words and to apply those precious words inappropriately.

And it’s not just “good.” Presvytera, she has her word that she’s been on a rampage for for some decades. It’s the word “awesome.” [Laughter] She’s a zealot for the proper use of the word “awesome,” cutting off at the pass the use of the word to describe video games or clothing. [Laughter] Anything like that is not worthy. Only God, she says, is worthy of the word “awesome”; don’t use it otherwise. I think she’s right.

This morning I want to present to you on this verbal platter, a third word. Some of you have heard me speak about it in confession, but I’ve never spoken about it in any sort of teaching way. But it’s a word that we find used in the readings today and is at the heart of the icon of all saints, as we celebrate the feast of all the saints of the Church. That is the word “struggle.” We use that word very casually in our society, like this: “Well, I’m struggling with that problem” or “I’m struggling with a particular situation in my life.” Sometimes we say it in confession: “Father, I’ve been struggling with telling the truth.” Now, what that means in practice, what that actually means by its use, which is where you find the meaning of words, that means “I’m giving in to this.” When I say, “I’m struggling with lying,” what they’re really saying to me in confession is, “Father, I’ve been lying a lot. I’ve been doing a lot of lying.” And struggle has a passive connotation in that usage. “I’m getting destroyed by that passion, Father.” That’s what that person is saying.

That is not the way that the word is used in our tradition. It’s a precious word. In our tradition, the word “struggle,” one of the words in the Greek New Testament use for that is pali. Pali means to fight, to war, to grab. It’s active. Therefore, to struggle is not a description of passivity and giving in to sin. To struggle means you’re fighting—it’s a virtue. Therefore often in confession, I’ll say to the person, when they say, “I’m struggling,” I’ll say, “Do you mean that you’re sinning, or are you proclaiming your virtues in the confessional?” [Laughter] To say that you’re struggling is a virtue. As a matter of fact, if you were struggling with that sin, you wouldn’t be committing it. Do you understand the notion?

We want to become strugglers. St. Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians, he says: For we struggle, our struggle (pali), our fight, is against not flesh and blood, but against invisible forces of wickedness in the heavenly places,” against the unseen evil that exists in the world and sometimes in us. This is our struggle, and to do that you need courage. You need courage. Who doesn’t need courage to be in a fight? It’s so much easier just to give in; it’s so much easier just to walk away, and not confront, head-on, the struggle, the fight, that our Savior has appointed for us.

I just got done reading a very interesting book to my children. Some of you no doubt probably read it in your youth: The Red Badge of Courage. Yeah? You know that book? It’s a classic: The Red Badge of Courage. It’s the story of two young men who’ve just come of age at the time of the Civil War in 19th century America. They’re going to the battlefront. They’ve been called to the battlefront. They’re part of the Union army. The whole story is getting in the heart and the mind of these young men and feeling their fears when they’re first confronted with a fight that could lead to their death. In the opening battle, Henry Fleming, who’s the main character, he faces—he sees, in fact, the enemy. He drops his gun on the ground, and he runs in retreat. He flees. He doesn’t have the courage to confront the battle. And from that moment until he redeems himself at the end of the story, he is a conflicted man, because when you turn your back on the battle that God has ordained for you, you have no peace. You’ve lost your sense of self-respect, your conscience isn’t clean, and that’s his lie.

Finally, he not only rises to the occasion, but he attains his own red badge. What do you think the red badge of courage is? A flesh wound. That’s the red badge. The red badge is receiving a wound in your body, something that so many of our veterans bear. A testimony to their courage to stay in the battle. Brothers and sisters, this exactly what we need in the spiritual war. We need the same. We have to have the same red badge of courage, and those that we celebrate today in this icon of all saints, all of our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and even the saintly children who gave their lives for Christ, bore that red badge of courage. They were willing to suffer anything in order to succeed in the battle and be faithful to the Lord. Those for whom it meant death in times of persecution, then death. And those who live in times of peace like we do were willing to engage the battle against the passions and against sins, to become well-pleasing to God.

Strugglers, courageous strugglers—this is what we’re striving to be, that’s what we want to be, and that’s what a saint is. You know, a saint is a normal person. A saint is a true human being. St.  Nicholas, St. Nikolai says: The definition of a saint is a human being. That’s what a saint is: a true human being, someone living the way that God fashioned them to be. We could also add to that: The definition of a saint is a struggler.

Now, this icon gets updated and adjusted from generation to generation, because we’re always adding new saints in the Church. We just had the very beautiful glorification of one of the great theologians of the 20th century. Fr. Justin Popovich is now St. Justin Popovich. I told Deacon the other day when I was at the proskomidi and I was doing my commemorations for the departed, I caught myself, because since I’ve been a priest I’ve always prayed for the repose of Fr. Justin: “O Lord, remember thy servant, Archimandrite Justin,” and then I go on. He’s the first among the archimandrites that I remember. I can’t do that any more! No more praying for him; now we’re praying to him. And I had to remove him mentally from that list.

Fr. Justin, his face will appear—who knows? next year or the year after—on the new icons perhaps of all saints, because we’re constantly updating that icon to incorporate the newly glorified saints of the Church. Maybe your face will be on that icon one day, but even if it isn’t—if you feel like your face is never going to make it—and there’s thousands, lots of faces on the big icons of all saints—we can still bring from them and we can still share in their glory.

I want to end my thoughts on this feast day by encouraging you—even if you don’t think your face is going to make it there—that our Lord promises a way that you can share in their reward and their glory. Do you remember the stories of the Prophet Elias and his successor, his spiritual son, Elisha? Elijah and Elisha. There’s something common about their way of life. Something happened with regards to people who lived in the world and them that was similar. Elijah was cared for by a widow woman, the widow of Zarephath, remember? Our Savior was so impressed by this account that he used it in his own teaching, the story of Elijah and this widow of Zarephath, who was a Gentile. She wasn’t even a believing Jew. This woman loved the prophet so much that she made a place for him in her house in the upper room.

You remember that he had worked the miracle of multiplying the oil and the flour for her when she was on the verge of starvation. Elijah told her, “Don’t worry.” He said, “Woman, I need something to eat,” as he was passing by, and the woman said to him, “I’m out gathering sticks to make a fire. Eat the last thing, and my son and I are going to die.” Elijah said, “Don’t worry. Go home and take your last food and make it for me, and from then on you’ll have plenty.” And in fact it took place. She in faith took her last foodstuffs, made a meal for the prophet, and from that moment on the Lord God provided oil and flour her so much that she never had to worry; her kitchen was full. And she loved the prophet so much that she made a little house for him, a little room for him on the upper stories of her house. This is the Prophet Elijah. And they remained connected, Elijah and the widow, for a very long time.

Now come with me the next generation to Elisha, Elijah’s successor, who saw his master go up in the chariots of fire and received the double portion of Elijah’s spirit. He also had a connection with a woman like that, the Shunammite woman. This woman loved him also and noticed that he was passing by, and she said to her husband—she wasn’t a widow—the Shunammite woman, she said to her husband, “Sweetheart, this man is a holy man. Don’t you think we could make a little room for him, a little chamber, and put there a desk and a candle and a bed, and so whenever he passes by we could get him to stay with us?” Her husband consented because—it doesn’t say so, but the next scene, Elisha is in her house, his room, and this became [his] room. And you remember he raised her son from the dead after he had had a terrible accident in the fields.

The reason I am telling you these stories is because here you see the saint, and then you see us. You see the struggler who’s shining like a bright sun, and you see those who maybe aren’t so bright but they love what they see and they honor it and they entertain it and they ask the person into their home, and the saint does not disdain them. And our Savior goes on to say in his own teaching: “Whoever receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man,” meaning whomever you entertain, whomever you honor, whomever you bring into your house, because of what they are, because you believe that they love God and are an example to you and are holy, you will receive their reward with them. Wow.

So, brothers and sisters, on this day don’t feel bad that you don’t see your face on that icon, and tell yourself by loving them, by loving the saints, those who love God, by honoring his friends, by asking the living ones into your house, by having monks and nuns and bishops and whoever your next priest will be worthy to come into your house, whoever they are, you share in the same by the promise of Christ, you share in the same blessing, the same reward, and you have the same future. So be courageous, be a struggler, and get the reward. To the glory of God. Amen.