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Simple words that make life possible

 

The lesson of our Gospel reading this morning is very simple: Say “thank you”!

The lesson is simple, but the consequences are profound. Our failure in this simple but essential act is at the root of so much of our woes. Consider only the news of the past week or so.

  • Fact: 2014 was the hottest year on record!
  • Fact: whole species of life are becoming extinct every day because of human activities.
  • Fact: terrorist attacks are now an everyday reality in most parts of the world.

And I can go on and on. But let these suffice from the headlines of the past week as a taste of our reality today.

Why are we destroying the planet? Why? Because we do not give thanks. Because we are not grateful for this marvelous gift that God has given us: Life on this amazing planet. We are not grateful, we take things for granted, we believe that we have the right to destroy whatever we want. And we destroy our interpersonal relationships because we take each other for granted. We are not grateful for each other. And that’s a sin. All failures to give thanks are SIN.

Have you noticed? Science fiction films are increasingly dystopian – the opposite of utopian, analogous to dysfunctional. The prefix dys– in Greek serves to destroy the good sense of a word or increase its bad sense. outopos as opposed to dystopos, etc.

Metropolis perhaps was the original film representation of a dystopian, bleak future. But think of most popular sci-fi or futuristic films.

  • Time Machine
  • Planet of the Apes
  • Terminator films
  • Matrix trilogy
  • The Hunger Games trilogy
  • Avatar
  • Oblivion
  • Ender’s Game
  • World War Z
  • Interstellar
  • And TV shows: The Walking Dead, for starters

All paint bleak pictures of the future. What is their message? Pessimism.

And yet, Christianity has a different view, though depending who you talk to and how you interpret certain passages of the Bible. There are Christians who believe the world is going to be destroyed, so it doesn’t matter to them whether we kill all life and whether we pollute or destroy the atmosphere. But many other Christians – including the Orthodox – believe something else.

“The whole earth is full of his glory,” Isaiah tells us. Jesus will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, Paul tells us in his letter to Philippians. He is the first-born of all creation and the head of a new humanity, Paul again tells us in his letter to Colossians. Even that most violent book, the Book of Revelation, so full of destruction and threats, reaches its climax not with a violent image but a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem descending to the transfigured, renewed earth, and with it God makes his eternal home among human beings on earth!! As the great Rumanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae said it, “The world is the work of God’s love and is destined to be deified.”

When Orthodox speak of deification/theosis, we don’t just mean an achievement of individuals. We mean more than that; we mean cosmic deification. Human beings cannot be separated from nature, from the cosmos. Saint Paul again, in Romans 8, tells us that all creation – all of nature, the cosmos – waits with anticipation for the liberation of the human children of God and will share the same glory as we!

Dear friends, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. What do we bring to the table? Faith, hope and love, those three great virtues that Paul names in 1 Corinthians. And the greatest of these is love, he tells us. But what is it that enables us to live by faith, hope and love? The ability to give thanks. How can you have faith, if you can’t say thanks to God for the gift of life and salvation? How can you have hope, if you can’t give thanks for the present? And how can you have love, if you can’t appreciate the importance of people in your life?

Martin-Luther-King-Day-Love-Quotes-1Words are important. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. I love the graphic of his image that is put together from words that he spoke or wrote. It’s brilliant, and it illustrates how important words are. Our words form the image that others have of us. Let words of thanks compose the image we present to the world.

Learn from the tenth leper and give thanks. It’s very simple, yet so profound and it affects everything. Imagine if 6 or 7 billion people in the world every day practiced the art of giving thanks! Who would kill? Who would abuse or take advantage of others? Who would be pessimistic about the future of humankind and the planet? Jesus lamented, why did only one return to give thanks? Where were the other nine? Let us pray that those words are not spoken about us too.


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Priests of thanksgiving

st-andrew-iconToday, November 30th, we celebrate the memory of St. Andrew the Apostle, the brother of Saint Peter. The Gospel of John tells us that Andrew was the first of the apostles to follow Jesus and it was Andrew who then brought Peter to Jesus. Thus, in the Orthodox Church St. Andrew is called the First-Called. He met his death by martyrdom in the city of Patra in the Peloponnese in Greece. Today this is a busy port, but it is best known for its huge cathedral church of St. Andrew where the relics of the apostle are kept for veneration by the faithful. Andrew was crucified by the Romans – but he requested that his cross not be identical to the cross on which Jesus was crucified. He didn’t feel worthy to be crucified the same way as his Lord. So he was crucified on an X-shaped cross.

standrew

Saint Andrew achieved the end of his life with a sense of fulfillment and gratitude. A much more recent man of God also reached the end of his life with words of thanksgiving. Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s last Liturgy was on Thanksgiving Day 1983 and the words he spoke at that Liturgy have been printed previously in this blog and need not be repeated here. He was a true priest, perhaps the truest priest I’ve ever known in my life. And the words he spoke on Thanksgiving 1983, just three weeks before cancer took him home, encapsulate his own priesthood, as well as the priesthood of every believer. Thanksgiving is at the heart of what the priestly vocation is all about. So I will paraphrase the words of Fr. Schmemann and claim: Everyone capable of thanksgiving is a priest.

My reflections on this theme, in today’s sermon, can be heard here. (Pardon a couple of sound glitches and my own reaction to them.)


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“Everyone capable of thanksgiving”

On this Thanksgiving Day, I’m reminded of a remarkable man who was my teacher at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary: Father Alexander Schmemann. So I want to share a 30-minute video produced by CBS to mark the death of Fr. Alexander on December 13th, 1983. This video is not only a remarkable memorial to Fr. Alexander, but it also opens our minds and hearts to the essence of our Orthodox faith. I thoroughly recommend watching it for the entire 30 minutes.

Around the 22-minute mark of this video, the narrator, Fr. Thomas Hopko, recalls the last Liturgy that Fr. Alexander celebrated, on Thanksgiving Day 1983, just three weeks before his death. He gave a short sermon at that Liturgy that began with these words:”Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.” And he ended the sermon with the words, “Lord, it is good to be here.” Those are the words of a “free man in Christ,” as Prof. Veselin Kesich called him in the funeral oration he delivered (13-minute mark in this video).

Here is the full text of that short Thanksgiving Day sermon by Fr. Alexander Schmemann:

Thank You, O Lord!

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.

Thank You, O Lord, for having accepted this Eucharist, which we offered to the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and which filled our hearts with the joy, peace and righteousness of the Holy Spirit.

SchmemannWebThank You, O Lord, for having revealed Yourself unto us and given us the foretaste of Your Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having revealed Yourself unto us and given us the foretaste of Your Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having united us to one another in serving You and Your Holy Church.

Thank You, O Lord, for having helped us to overcome all difficulties, tensions, passions, temptations and restored peace, mutual love and joy in sharing the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Thank You, O Lord, for the sufferings You bestowed upon us, for they are purifying us from selfishness and reminding us of the “one thing needed;” Your eternal Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having given us this country where we are free to Worship You.

Thank You, O Lord, for this school, where the name of God is proclaimed.

Thank You, O Lord, for our families: husbands, wives and, especially, children who teach us how to celebrate Your holy Name in joy, movement and holy noise.

Thank You, O Lord, for everyone and everything.

Great are You, O Lord, and marvelous are Your deeds, and no word is sufficient to celebrate Your miracles.

Lord, it is good to be here! Amen.

Fr. Alexander did more to restore Liturgy to its full meaning and beauty than any other man of God in the past 1,000 years or more! Is that a bold statement to make? Perhaps it is, but it is my conviction that if we Orthodox of today have moved beyond passive and mechanical participation in the Liturgy it is because of Fr. Alexander. He is the inspiration for my own approach to Liturgy and the freedom that I find within the holy tradition of the Orthodox Church. It is within the Liturgy that I most vividly remember Fr. Alexander. Here is a picture of him at the Great Entrance of the Liturgy, carrying the holy gifts. I took this picture when I was a student at St. Vladimir’s and it has been widely circulated and reproduced in the past 30+ years.

Fr. Alexander at the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy at St. Vladimir's Seminary Chapel in the early 1980s.

Fr. Alexander celebrating the Divine Liturgy at St. Vladimir’s Seminary Chapel in the early 1980s.