Monday, June 29, 2015

The Ever-Open Door

The Ever-Open Door

(~Transcribed by Katherine (Maria) Powell from a sermon given at Ascension Monastery on 06/28/2015)

I want to give you a message this morning. I want to start it by saying what we say at the beginning of the liturgy. As the the priest stands before the Holy Altar and grasps the Gospel book, he says, 

"Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages." 

We're familiar with this. We hear it at very liturgy. Regardless of which language the liturgy is said in, these words are always intoned as the invocation of the liturgy. 

It is also a very unique statement of our life as Christians. You see, we as Christians are called to be those who bless, to be a blessing to all who come into contact with us. As we always proclaim at the beginning of every service, as you know, the lower-ranked services, "Blessed is our God always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen." "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen." 

What does this mean? Well, let me give you an example. This is the story of a priest in the times of persecution. He was getting ready for the Divine Liturgy, and the pagans began coming towards the place where the Christians were meeting that particular Sunday. As the people were gathered in the temple, they were afraid. They heard the soldiers coming. The priest put upon himself his vestments as usual, praying his prayers as he put them on. He went to the altar. As he went to the altar, he heard the soldiers at the door of the temple beating with their swords against the door of the temple. He picked up the Gospel. He held it high aloft. "Blessed is the Kingdom. . ." 
At that moment, the soldiers broke through into the temple. They started grabbing everyone they could. They put them in chains. There was a great commotion - people yelling, screaming. The priest said, "of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. . ."
When the soldiers had finally made their way up to the high place, the holy place, they laid their hands upon the priest. As they ran him through with a sword, he fell upon the floor. His dying words were, "unto the ages of ages."

Many things have happened in the past few days, several things which make us wonder about the country which we live in and what it is going to mean for us to be Christians. There are a lot of people who are afraid. Now we see before our eyes a very real and present danger to our life as Christians and how we practice our faith. The secular governments have ordained, given, and created a right that really is not theirs to give. But they claim it anyway. In the past few days, I've had several phone calls from several people. I've taken several emails and answered many questions on social media. I want to have a word with you in case you are wondering what this means. 
What this means, dear beloved Christians, is that the Church will stay the same as it has always been. The Liturgies will be served in the temple. The services of the Church - the vespers, and the matins, and the commemorations, and all the incidental services of the Church - will still be served. The standards have not shifted. They have not changed because marriage is not for the secular world to give, but it is divine and ordained by God. I want to tell you what that means for us. 

The Holy Orthodox Church will never acquiesce. It will never acquiesce to the demand that we bless something which God has called accursed. We have no power to do such. 

People may wonder and may tell you because of your beliefs that you are hateful and that you are mean because you don't agree with what they agree with. Saint Anthony the Great said that there will come a time when men will go mad, and they will look at you who are sane and say that you are not like us; you must be mad. Those times are here. 

What does that mean for you though? It means, for us as the Church, there's going to be the great separating of the sheep from the goats. I will tell you that gone are the times of comfortable Christianity. Gone are the times of casual Christian attendance at churches. And thank God for it! 
From now on, for the people, the faithful who go into a Church that believes in what the Fathers have passed down to us from the Apostles and from Christ Himself, it will be increasingly difficult. God be praised for that! Now we will see who the faithful are. There will be many who will fall away. This is a great tragedy. 

If you've ever heard any of my former sermons, you know that I am really big about living and breathing the Christian life. You see, the doors of the Church are looked to as being an ever-open door. People come into the Church, and they approach Christ, and they live a life of fidelity and discipline and obedience and love. Love without discipline becomes lustful and debased. Discipline without love becomes tyranny. 
You are going to be accused of being hateful and bigoted. You are going to be accused of being unloving. As it was put to me by a woman this week: "How can you be so hateful? How can you be so hateful to be against this that the Supreme Court has passed? Isn't this a great thing?" I said, "no. It's not a great thing. It's a terrible thing." She asked why. I said, "I am not being hateful when I say to you that it is a tragedy."

How many of us, driving on the street, if you pull up to somebody and find that they're on the way to head off of a cliff would not at least honk your horn and try to stop them? How many parents seeing a child's hand approaching a hot stove would not reach out to grab it to try to tear it away lest they be burned? It is in this way that the testimony of the Church must always remain unchanged. We must always let people know that sin leads you to death. Some sins are even more heinous than others as has been foretold in the Scriptures, for liars, thieves, adulterers, and doers of sexual immorality - meaning homosexuals - will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. This doesn't mean that they cross a line they cannot come back from. The Church also calls, with that serious admonition when the Church says that these are terrible things to do that will lead you into hell, it also says that there is hope in repentance. You see, repentance is the key. 

People ask if there are homosexuals in the Orthodox Church. I believe there are. People are afflicted by that affliction as the result of the fall. It's not a result of something God gave them. It's because they were born into a fallen world, and it's one of the things that they have, the thorn in the flesh. Each of us has a thorn in the flesh, a particular sin which seems to be habitual that we have to overcome. This is why when we point out their sin, that we also, in the same breath, remember our own. We speak to each other as sinners in the hospital, as patients trying to get over that which keeps us away from God. We must never shirk from the duty of pointing out sin in other people's lives as well as recognizing the sins that are in our own. Repentance is not just a call for a few, but for many. 

When we start seeing the results of persecution, a lot of people are going to be afraid and fall away. Let me help you understand something that will help ease you: Orthodox Christians have available for them all the sacraments of the Church. For a person who is in unrepentant sin, they are barred from the sacraments of the Church. We would not baptize a man who does not believe the tenets of the Church, or a woman for that matter who doesn't wish to uphold the teachings of the Church. Those who have no Orthodox parents or Orthodox godparents - we don't baptize them. Children are brought to us by a couple who say, "we want our child baptized, but unfortunately we want to do it for the sake of just having our child baptized; we don't really care what the Church believes." That child doesn't get baptized. It sounds mean, doesn't it? But no! It is being in fidelity to what the Church teaches. If a person comes up for Communion, and we know them to be in unrepentant sin, they cannot commune. That sounds mean, doesn't it? But it's not. It's done to protect them. 

You see, we know that to partake of the Chalice in an unworthy manner, falsely discerning its nature, is to partake their own condemnation. In a way, we are saving them from that moment. If they were to partake and something terrible were to befall them, they'd have drunk of their own condemnation. They would have drunk and literally brought upon themselves the sin of crucifying Christ. 

For two people who are in a relationship that is not condoned by the Church or is not an acceptable relationship to be in - whether that be a same-sex relationship, a relationship of many partners, a relationship with animals (I hope you never go there! - they cannot be buried in the Church either. They cannot commune in the Church. By their very actions, they have placed themselves outside of the bonds of he Church's love and grace and outside of the font of salvation until they repent. You see, they may say they are Orthodox. But unless you proclaim with your actions as well that you are Orthodox, you simply are not. I'm sorry. 

You see, Orthodox Christians are Christians of fidelity. They are Christians of belief, and faith, and discipline, and love, and also obedience. Hence, the Orthodox Church will weather the storm as it has weathered all the other storms that have come against it in the past 2,000 years.

So when you see your brother or your sister wondering, "what are we going to do? What are we going to do? Oh my gosh, this is the most terrible thing that's ever happened!" Maybe not. Because now, we are going to see what it takes to truly be Christians in this age. We are going to see what truly it means to be persecuted for the faith and what that faith really means to us. They're not only going to come after the priests and the churches. They are going to come after each person that disagrees. They're going to come after each person who holds an opinion that is contrary to theirs because they cannot bear the light of truth upon their sinfulness. 

Let's use this time. While they are coming after us, remember your own pet sins. Remember your own propensity to be sinful. Deal with it. Because if you don't deal with it now, how can you tell your brother to deal with his? Now is the time for fidelity. 

Like I've said, the Church is an ever-open door. People come in, but people, by their own actions, can also walk out that door. What a tragedy it is! However, the people who have anathematized themselves, and they leave the church, and they go after their own ego, and they worship their own ego upon the altar which they build themselves. . . We are always to remember that the Church has grace even for these. 
In every early church that you will see, you will find these keyholes that are cut in the walls which lead to the outside. Do you know what they're there for? They're there to hope that those who have been anathematized and have been apart from the community - maybe they are separated by heresy or error or some sort of indwelling sin - that they would hear the hymns of the Church, they would hear the homilies being taught, they would hear the words of Scripture being spoken, and that their hearts would be changed and they would come back to us repentant. Hence, the ever-open door. 

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, 

Father Benedict Simpson
Ascension Monastery
 Resaca, Georgia

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