All the Saints of This Place

Sunday, June 30 (O.S., June 17), 2019: Second Sunday after Pentecost; Sunday of all Saints of Mt. Athos; Sunday of all Saints who have shown forth in missionary lands; Sunday of All Saints of Rus-Ukraine; Sunday of All Saints of America.

Epistle: Romans 2:10-16

Gospel: Matthew 4:18-23

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Monastics and missionaries; mill and mine workers; any number of seemingly ordinary men and women who simply lived their lives, day to day, in fidelity to Christ.

We commemorated all the saint only last week. Today we remember them again. But today we fix our gaze on them once again but now as saints of particular places. Mount Athos, the mission fields where they brought the Gospel, Rus-Ukraine and here in North America.

Men and women of different backgrounds, living very different lives, all of them united by a common faith in Jesus Christ and life as Orthodox Christians.

St. Cyril of Alexandria says that “we make images” of the saints “not so that we might adore them as gods, but that when we see them, we might be prompted to imitate them.”

And what we imitate is not the externals of their lives but their commitment to Christ; their love of God and neighbor. The form of their commitment, the form of their love, takes the shape it does based on the unique circumstances of their lives. But that commitment to Christ is the same.

As we heard last night at Vespers,

…let us praise the Saints of North America, Holy hierarchs, venerable monastics and glorious martyrs, pious men, women and children, both known and unknown. Through their words and deeds in various walks of life, by the grace of the Spirit they achieved true holiness.

Hearing this you might ask, what do we mean when we say the saints “achieved true holiness”? What did it mean for them, and for us, to be free in Christ and to experience the abundant new life that He offers?

If you know the history of the Church in America, you know that many of the saints we commemorate today were often not free in the usual sense of the world.

The bishops and clergy were bound by the obligations of their ministries. Like their parishioners, they often lived in poverty holding secular jobs to support not only themselves and their families but also their parishes or dioceses.

The monastics lived under obedience and, again, often in poverty.

The martyrs lost their lives. In some cases, they willing returned to their native countries knowing that doing so would mean persecution, imprisonment and even death at the hands of Communist or Muslim regimes.

And then there were those whose livelihoods depended on the harvest on farms in the Midwest, on the good graces of the owners of the mills and mines that built America and the vagaries of the market place even as others depended on their luck at fishing or hunting in the wilds of Alaska.

And then there was the persecution they suffered in America.

Mainline Protestants professed friendship while proselytizing Orthodox Christians.

The Klan persecuted Greek Orthodox Christians in the South.

And as they did in the Lower 48, the US  government took native Alaskan children from their families and villages sending them to Protestant missionary schools to become “American”  a process that required stripping them of their culture, their language and, above all, their Orthodox Christian faith.

And yet for all they suffered, the Orthodox Christians we remember today not only kept their faith but loved the country that was  a source of joy and opportunity of prejudice and persecution.

The witness of the saints of America is this: Holiness and being American are not fundamentally opposed to each other. Or, at least, being an American is no more an impediment to life in Christ than being a member of any other culture or citizen of any other nation.

And for us? What does this mean for us personally and as a community?

Just this. If our ancestors in the faith could become saints in their circumstances so can we. If being American, with all its opportunities and temptations, was not for them an obstacle to faith in Jesus Christ and holiness, can it be any different for us who live in Madison?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us imitate the fidelity of those saints we commemorate today, those of North American but also of Ukraine, of the missionary lands and Mount Athos. They remained faithful to Christ and His Church. And they did so in what were often difficult economic, political and personal circumstances can we, can I, do any less?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Grace is Promiscuous

Sunday, June 10 (O.S., May 28), 2018: 2nd Sunday after Pentecost; All Saints of Ukraine and North America.All Saints of the Holy Mount; Ven. Nicetas, bishop of Chalcedon (9th c.). St. Eutychius, bishop of Melitene (1st c.). Martyrs Heliconis (244). Hieromartyr Helladius, bishop in the East (6th-7th c.). St. Ignatius, bishop of Rostov (1288).

Epistle: Romans 2:10-16/Hebrews 11:33-12:2
Gospel: Matthew 4:18-23/Matthew 4:25-5:12

imageRead St Paul quickly and you’ll miss what he’s saying.

Yes, we all have sinned; on this, there can be no debate. Based on the evidence of my own life, it is simply a lie for me to suggest otherwise.

I know that I have sinned and that I have fallen short of the glory of God. The Apostle, however, introduces a distinction here that (like I said), I might overlook if I just read him quickly.

Yes, we all have sinned but this isn’t primarily why we fall short of the glory of God.

We fall short because we are creatures. Sin complicates this, it makes rigid an observation that should inspire us to humility in the presence of God, gratitude for His grace, and a desire to give ourselves over in love ever more fully to Him.

Instead what we do, what I do, is look for reasons to condemn my neighbor for his shortcomings while being willing to excuse my own. Basically, “you” fall short of the glory of God because of sin; “I” fall short of the glory of God for perfectly understandable–and so excusable–reasons.

Paul anticipates my self-justification. After pointing out that all have sinned and that all have fallen short of the glory of God, he reminds us of something else we too easily forget or overlook. God has inscribed His law in each human heart.

If sin is ubiquitous, divine grace is promiscuous.

There is no human heart that has not been touched by God’s grace. And as firmly as we are in the grip of sin, we are held more firmly–and more gently–by divine grace. Sin has neither the first word nor the last word in our lives.

Though sin would have us believe otherwise, our lives are acts of divine grace. No matter how terrible the sin, no matter how hard the heart, no matter how unrepentant the sinner, God is there wooing us, inviting us back to our one true homeland.

Sin cannot undo the fact that we belong to God and our sustained by His grace.

Today the Church celebrates an interesting feast. Last week, we celebrated all the saints of the Church–known and especially unknown. Today, we celebrate all the saints–again known and unknown–of a particular place. While the feast is the same throughout the Church, the locality changes.

Like politics, holiness is local. And so today Orthodox Churches throughout the world celebrates the saints of their nation, the saints of their place. Today we profess and proclaim in our liturgical life that God’s grace has touched the hearts of those who have gone before us in this place wherever this place might be.

So what does this mean for us?

It means this: Today we thank God not simply for the saints of North America, or the United States. No today, we thank God for the saints known and unknown, of Wisconsin, Madison, and even the Isthmus.

The challenge this places before us is this: How has God’s grace touched this place–Madison–and these people who live here?

This isn’t an idle question. Much less is it mere sentimentality, of telling ourselves “Let’s all feel good about where we live.” We are not asking the question because we the spiritual equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce or the tourist board.

Rather we ask the question because Jesus has commanded us to imitate Him. Just as He called Peter and Andrew, James and John, and made them “fishers of men” He has also called us to be His disciples, apostles, and evangelists.

And He has called us to do this here. Not in North America, or the United States or Wisconsin, or even Madison but here, on the Isthmus.

This means, to return to St Paul, that Jesus has gone before us and by His grace and love for mankind prepared the hearts of each person we meet here. Again, if sin is ubiquitous, divine grace is promiscuous; God has poured out without measure or consideration His grace into the life of each and every single person.

Our task? Our task is to discern what God has done. And so we ask:

How has God prepared the people of this place to receive the Gospel that they might be saved?

How has God prepared the people of this place to participate in the sanctification of the world?

How has God prepared the people of this place to join us in conforming society evermore closely to the Gospel?

How has God prepared the people of this place to become part of that great cloud of witnesses?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! At the Divine Liturgy we sing the Beatitudes. These outline for us how we are to go about fulfilling the task we’ve been given. We will at another time look at these in more detail.

For now though, let us draw encouragement and comfort from our Lord’s promise that if we are faithful to Him, He will bless and sustain us even when the world turns against us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory