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Very Rev. Dr. J. Sergius Halvorsen is director of St. Vladimir’s Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry Program and assistant professor of homiletics and rhetoric.  He delivered this sermon on the Sunday of the Paralytic, May 19, 2019.

Christ is Risen!

Picture yourself driving down a country road…at a moderate speed

It is a beautiful, bright spring day, the sky is clear, no traffic at all, just clear easy driving.

And up in the distance, you see a squirrel hop out onto the side of the road.

He twitches his bushy tail a few times and then…he darts across the road.

No problem, so you slow down a bit, to give him a chance to make it across the road safely.

He’s got plenty of time, no crisis, all he needs to do is just run across the road and jump into the bushes.

Everything looks fine…but…just before he makes it across the road to safety he hears you coming,

And what does he do?

Of course, he STOPS…in the road.

He only needs to go a few more feet and he’d be safe and clear,

But no, he’s stopped in the road, looking up at this big giant thing zooming straight at him.

When I’m the one driving the car, sometimes I actually start talking to the squirrel,

“Dude, what are you doing? Don’t just stand there, you’re so close, keep going, get out of the road.

No…no…don’t turn around and go back…OK, fine, but just keep going, just get off the road

WHAT?!? No. Don’t turn around again? Will you just make up your mind and get off of the road!?!”

In moments like this, we know exactly what the squirrel needs to do, it is so obvious.

But for some reason the squirrel just can’t do the right thing.

He’s paralyzed with fear, in the middle of the road.

I imagine that inside of that little squirrel brain, barely as big as a grape, there’s a furious conversation going on:

“Road, car, noise, run, road, car, noise, run, road, car, noise, run…”

Somehow, in that moment, events have overwhelmed the tiny squirrel mind, and this leads to some very bad decision making—or, to complete paralysis.

Both options can lead to a very bad outcome.

Now I must confess, that even though I am a human being, and I possess a brain that is vastly larger than the tiny creature on the road, I find myself in similar situations of being overwhelmed, making bad decisions, or feeling like I’m totally paralyzed.

Sometimes I know exactly what I should do, but I can think up all sorts of reasons not to do it. Maybe I do something, or say something to someone in the heat of the moment. And then afterward I say to myself, “Why in the world did I do that? Why did I SAY that?”

“Oh, no, what does he thing about me? Is he angry? Maybe he’s REALLY angry. Oh, no, is he going to talk to other people? Is this going to lead to some big crisis?”

“But, wait a minute, I wasn’t entirely in the wrong, something had to be said, someone needed to put his foot down…”

“But…did I have to say it in just that way? Oh, man, I really could have said it better…”

“Maybe I should just go and apologize and ask forgiveness…BUT…what if he didn’t even notice…that could turn it into an even bigger deal…”

“OK, I’ll just say nothing, and let it pass…BUT…what if he’s really angry?”

“What am I saying? I’m a Christian! I should just ask for forgiveness…”

“Ahhh…but what if he sees that as a sign of weakness, and uses it against me…”

This is the human equivalent of being the squirrel in the road.

Asking for forgiveness is the obvious decision, I know it is the right thing to do.

Jesus says, that if I have offended someone, then I should stop what I’m doing, go and make amends with that person. But yet, it is so easy to get balled up in all sorts of reasons, and counter reasons, and arguments and counter arguments, and before I know it I’m like that squirrel that runs, then stops, then jumps back, turns…and then just freezes, paralyzed in the road in the face of danger.

Today we hear about a man who is paralyzed, lying near a pool that is supposed to have healing properties, but only if you are able to get into the water at just the right time.

Seems kind of like a cruel joke doesn’t it?

The man is suffering from paralysis, and in order to be healed he has to MOVE at just the right time. He’s in a real crisis. The one thing that he needs to do in order to get better, to get on with his life, is EXACTLY the one thing that is the most difficult.

In his mind, he thinks that the problem is that he doesn’t have anyone to get him into the pool at the right time. He might have been saying to himself, “If I just had the right kind of friends, the right kind of family, not the small, timid kind, but a the big burly, strong, loud tough kind, the kind who could hold everyone else back, and lift me up, and carry me into that water at just the right time—Ah, then I could be cured! Then I could get on with my life!“

This man is certainly not the first person to find himself in this kind of situation.

Many, many years before, the people of Israel were traveling in the wilderness, and God commanded them to enter a new country, a place where they could be safe and healthy, and prosper.

So they sent scouts to see what they land was like, and the scouts brought back word that the people who lived there were big, and powerful, and frightening.

God said to them, “Don’t be afraid, I will be with you. Enter the land, I will protect you, just like I protected you when you left Egypt. Everything will be fine.”

But the people said, “Well, we’re not so sure. Maybe we should just stay here and play it safe.”

And they did nothing. They stayed right where they were, out in the wilderness.

But after a while, the people said, “OK. We’re not quite sure if God is going to be with us, but we’ve got a plan of our own. Now we’ve got it figured out, now we can do this.”

So off they went, armed with their own plans and their own cleverness…but things turned out very badly. There was a great conflict and the people were chased away and they were forced to stay out in the wilderness for a long time, a very long time. They were stuck there for thirty-eight years. (Deut 2.14)

Sound familiar? Remember our man who’s paralyzed, lying by the pool with all of the reasons for why he can’t be healed?

Yes, he’s been there for THIRTY-EIGHT years, just like the people of Israel who had imagined that they could somehow solve their own problems through their own cleverness.

Now, to be clear, it is a blessing to have a mind, and to be intelligent, and to be able to think about the world and life, and make informed, thoughtful decisions. But the danger is that our thoughts can become the primary obstacle to doing God’s will.

On one hand, we may think that we can figure it all out, and like the people of Israel in the wilderness, decide that we can work outside of God’s plan. This can lead to disaster and being stuck in the wilderness.

Or on the other hand, we can find ourselves completely paralyzed by our own thoughts, immobilized by all the powerful reasons why we haven’t got the right family or friends or colleagues, or opportunities, and we’re stuck, paralyzed, so close to the healing pool, but yet so far away.

Today Jesus comes to that man at the pool, physically infirm and paralyzed by his own rationalization, and Jesus comes to us, and He asks,

“Do you want to be healed?”

The man starts into this classic explanation for why he’s there, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the water at the right time and other people get into the water before me.”

And here, it is like Jesus says, “Uh-uh, stop talking. I got it. You’re stuck, you’re clueless. Rise, take up your bed and walk.”

Rise, take up your bed and walk.

And that’s it.

Jesus did not interrogate the man, “Do you want to be healed? Do you REALLLY want to be healed? If I heal you, are you willing to do what I tell you to do? Do you promise?”

Of course not, Jesus knows that the man is broken: his body is broken, his mind is broken, and his heart is broken.

Jesus knows that the man is paralyzed in his body, and paralyzed in his soul, so of course Jesus is not going to demand that the guy make some demonstration of his cleverness and clear thinking.

Jeus says, “Arise, take up your bed and walk.”

And the man is healed.

This is how God works in our lives.

The Son of God came into the world in the form of a servant, lived among us, taught and preached, healed the sick and cast out demons.

And when the powerful and clever and self-righteous rejected him, he allowed them to humiliate and torture and kill him on the Cross.

And then God raised Jesus from the dead, so that we would know that the hatred and evil and sin of man, is powerless in the face of God’s love.

And God did not do any of this because we deserved it, or because we had pleased him, or because we had made sufficient promises to guarantee that we would be obedient. Because, that is not love, that is a legal business transaction.

God did what God did, and God does what God does, not because we have done anything to deserve it. God did what God did, and God does what God does because he loves us, and because he wants us to be whole, and because he wants us to find true and everlasting life in him.

Today Jesus heals the man at the pool as a gift, a free gift of mercy and grace. And today, Jesus heals us as a free gift of mercy and grace.

How does Christ heal us? Our Lord heals us through his Resurrection, because in the Resurrection we know that suffering and death are not the end of the story. In the Resurrection we see that through suffering and death, through the Cross is the way to life.

Christ did not come into the world to eliminate the pain of life, He took on the pain of life to show us how to truly live as God created us to live—how to live in the midst of suffering and death in a way that brings life and love and hope to others.

In Christ, in the Risen Lord, suffering and tragedy is no longer a dead end.

When Christ was placed into the tomb, it appeared that it was the end, that it was all over.

But it was not, for the tomb is empty, and Christ is risen.

I was once talking with wise friend, and he asked me why I had not done something, a good work that I knew I should do. And I told him all of the good reasons that I had not to do it all of the great excuses I had for not doing God’s will, for not using the gifts that God gave me.

And this friend patiently listened to all of my reasons, just like God patiently listens to all of our reasons, and then after I finished talking, he looked at me with this gentle smile.

And there was a moment of silence, and with a twinkle in his eye he said, “Do it scared.”

Do it scared.

This is what it means to live in the Resurrection of Christ.

We see the challenges and dangers of the world, we do not live a blind faith, but we are obedient to Christ’s commands, we do what the Lord commands us to do, and sometimes we do it scared, not because we are clever or tough or strong, but because Christ is risen. Because the love of God is more powerful than our fear.

This is why a parent doesn’t hesitate to go into harm’s way to save a child. Because of love.

This is why a spouse will run into a burning building to save the one they love. Because of love.

This is even why a soldier who has finished his tour of duty will volunteer to go back to war, in order to help keep his fellow soldiers safe. Because of love.

When God commands us to do what is difficult and frightening, motivated by love—by divine love—we do it scared.

This is how a frightened fisherman like St. Peter, a man so timid and confused that he publicly—PUBLICLY—denied Christ, could go on to become the chief of the apostles. In Christ’s resurrection Peter’s fears and worries and personal clever agendas were no longer a dead end, but became a way to new life.

For us, the greatest miracle of Christ’s resurrection happens in our hearts.

So, today, in our suffering, we do God’s will confessing Christ is risen. In our brokenness, we do God’s will confessing Christ is risen. In our confusion, we do God’s will confessing Christ is risen.

Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen.

Amen.

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7 April 2019

Deacon Basil Crivella is a 3rd-year Seminarian in St. Vladimir’s Seminary’s Master of Divinity (M.Div.) program. He belongs to the Orthodox Church in America’s Diocese of the Midwest. Deacon Basil prepared this sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of St. John Climacus.

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

Today we hear the story of a man who is at the end of his wits. He is totally desperate. His son, whom he loves, is severely afflicted. And this man, this father, is doing everything he can think of to help.

Imagine how much he has spent on trying to get help. How many people has he gone to see?  How many healers? How many specialists? How many doctors and pharmacists? And picture how hard he works to pay for the treatments: the long hours and blisters on his hands. All of it so he can scrounge the money to pay for the help; pay for the medicine; pay for the special equipment.

Imagine how, after working the extra hours, he comes home to his son, even though he is exhausted. Even though his back is killing him, and his eyes are heavy with the need for sleep, he stays with his son.

The father strokes his hair. The father helps to dress him and feed him. The father watches over him, lest the poor afflicted boy throws himself into the fireplace, or drowns himself in the nearby stream, or tries to hurt himself in some other way.

Imagine how this father feels when nothing that is supposed to help his son works—the grinding despair.

His hopes rise. A new treatment. A new person who might be able to help. This will finally be it.  This will finally bring relief to his beloved son.

And then, the hopes are smashed into pieces on the ground. The medicine doesn’t work. The treatment doesn’t help. The experts are all confounded.

Even the Apostles seem to be powerless.

Brothers and sisters, as most of you probably know, this gospel reading really cuts close to my heart. I have a lot in common with this father.

But it’s not just the affliction of our loved ones that brings us to hopelessness like this father. Sometimes we ourselves are the afflicted one, desperately looking for a cure. For help. All of us come to moments where we’re hurting, where things are totally messed up, and it feels like there’s no one there that can help us; like no matter what we do, we can’t find a way out of the mess life has put us into; that there is no hope.

This is the great lie that the fallen world whispers to us in these moments.

The demons say, “Your relationship with your family, your friend, or your neighbor is ruined.  Don’t even bother trying to love them. There’s no hope.”

The demons say, “Your health, or the health of your loved one is just wrecked.  It’s going to be nothing but pain and misery forever. Don’t even bother trying to get help. There’s no hope.”

The demons say, “That situation with your schoolwork and grades, or your job and making ends meet—Don’t even bother with those. Nothing is ever going to change. There’s no hope.”

The prince of lies tells us in our deepest sufferings that there’s no hope, especially when we cry out and seek for help, and nothing seems to be working.

The evil one tells us, “There’s no hope, because God doesn’t really care!”

It’s like the Tom Waits song: “God’s away, God’s away, God’s away on business.”

Business! You’re not important to Him!

But God isn’t away! He’s not off being too busy with something else. Christ is in our midst! God sees you when you’re struggling. God hears you when you cry out to Him! God is present with you in your pain. Even in your darkest moments, when you feel like everything is falling apart, you can turn to Him. Like the man who has suffered so much, we can come to Christ!  We can pour our heart and our sufferings out to Christ.

The man who kneels before Christ cries, “If you can do anything, have pity on us!  Help us!”

Christ tells us, “All things are possible to him who believes!”

The one who believes has their sufferings transfigured by Christ.

The pain, the despair, and the uncertainty no longer lead them to lash out; to look for someone or something to blame; to yell at the family and neighbors who visit or try to help; to get angry with the doctors or professionals when the results aren’t what we want or need; to just throw up our hands in despair and not care anymore.

Instead, our own sufferings become our opportunity to show Christ to others—to be like Christ when He suffers; Christ who shows love to the world despite the sufferings we inflict on Him, despite the pain He endures: the love that doesn’t look for someone to blame but carries the cross up the hill; the love that doesn’t show anger or outrage but endures with patience; the love that doesn’t give up or quit, but continues on; the love that opens our heart to the suffering and pain of others.

What I’ve learned more than anything from the suffering and sorrow of my own life, of my own situation, is that EVERYONE suffers. And even though the situations I suffer through are mine—the pain, the frustration, the fear, the sadness—they’re the same.

For me. For you. For the father in the story. For the person sitting next to you. For everybody.

And the love that Christ has is the love that He shows during His own suffering, the love that leads Him to carry His cross all the way up to Golgotha and die on it for us.

That love that doesn’t judge. That love is patient. That love is kind, even to the end and despite the suffering.

We can show that same love, and in the same way—even during our own sufferings.

To me. To you. To someone like the father in the story. To the person sitting next to you. To everybody.

And we show that love every time, despite our own pain and our own sorrows, and our own problems; we seek out someone else that we know is hurting. And we spend a little time with them. And we listen to them.  And we pray for them.  And we try to be like Christ to them. And when someone who sees us hurting and comes to us, we spend time with them, too. And we listen to them. And we pray for them. And we try to be like Christ to them.

The love that God has that will raise us up on the last day to a place where pain, sickness, sorrow, and even sighing have fled away!

And God gives us that love even now. And even during our greatest sufferings, we can share it with others.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen!

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Archpriest Sergius Halvorsen is director of the Doctor of Ministry Program and assistant professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He delivered this sermon on November 8, 2018 on the Feast of the Synaxis of Archangel Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers at the Seminary’s Three Hierarchs Chapel.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today the disciples are excited. Jesus sent them out two by two, telling them to heal the sick and proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near. And now the disciples return, and they are excited.

They say, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

And Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”

“I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.”

This must have made the disciples even more excited.

I know it makes me excited, to think about the power that God gives to his followers.

But then, Jesus does the strangest thing.  Just as I start to get excited about my power, Jesus says, “Don’t rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Wait a minute.

Sure, having my name written in heaven is nice, but having power over demons, now that is something to be proud of. That is impressive!

And this is probably exactly what the disciples were thinking: “Hey, look what we can do in the name of Jesus. This is impressive. We really have power.”

So when Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven,” perhaps it’s a warning—a warning against the pride that was Satan’s tragic downfall. Perhaps it was a reminder that “God has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree (Lk 1.51-2).”

Instead of glorifying God, the evil one chose to glorify himself, and this was his undoing. Satan fell like lightning from heaven, because he was proud, because he tried to use God’s gifts to glorify himself.

And how tempting is it for us to use our God-given talents to make ourselves look good?

“Look at my power.” “Look at my ability.” “Look at me.”

How easy is it to make the same mistake as the evil one—the mistake of thinking that I always know best, that my gifts and talents make me better than everyone else?

On the last day the books will be opened and the deeds will be tried. All my power, my status and my strength will be stripped away and my secret sins of pride will be revealed: all the times I used my God-given talents to make myself look good; all the times I put down my neighbor to exalt myself; all the times I expected others to serve me instead of, “Bearing my brother’s burden and fulfilling the law of Christ” (Gal 6.2).

God’s judgment comes upon the proud ones of the earth.

And this judgment begins today, for the way of pride is the road to hell. Because pride is more addictive and more toxic than the strongest narcotic. Pride gives you a fleeting moment of intoxication. You feel great about yourself, but like a flash of lightning, it is gone. And then I’m left in agony, craving praise, desperately looking for the next injection of self-glory. And even if we somehow manage a prolonged intoxication of vanity, we live in constant fear that other people are more popular and more well-liked; the hard work and success of others is not cause for joy, but a threat to my reputation, a threat to my glory.

There is no peace in pride, only the torment of the addicted.  Slavery to self-glory is a living hell.

Yet our merciful Lord does not allow us to languish in sin and death. Christ rescues us from our pride through his extreme humility;  through his humiliating death on the Cross, Christ shows us the humble path of salvation.

Today we celebrate Archangel Michael and the bodiless powers who show us the way of humility.

In all their angelic power, in all their spiritual splendor, in all their heavenly magnificence, the bodiless powers ceaselessly glorify God and do His will—in humility. It was the angel Gabriel that announced to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Son of God. It was an angel who told the shepherds the good news of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. It was an angel who rolled back the stone from the tomb, and said to the women disciples, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said….go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead.”

The name “angel” means messenger, and this is why we aspire to the angelic life, to be God’s humble servants, God’s humble messengers, using our God-given talents to glorify God.

But how, as flesh and blood human beings, do we glorify the invisible God?

St. John reminds us that, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1Jn 4.20).

So, if I don’t love the neighbor whom I see, how can I love the unseen God? If I don’t honor the neighbor whom I see, how can I honor the unseen God? And if I don’t thank the neighbor whom I see, how can I thank the unseen God?

Our path of humility begins by honoring the people who love us and care for us, and help us in so many ways. Honor and affirm your patient and longsuffering family. Honor and affirm your faithful friends. Honor and affirm the people who work tirelessly on your behalf. Thank the generous benefactors who support your ministry. Thank the people who do their job faithfully day in and day out. Thank the strangers whose unsung service makes our life easier.

By loving, and honoring and thanking the neighbor, we follow Christ on the life-giving path of humility. And as we follow Christ to the Cross, we are escorted by angelic hosts who are arrayed in battle formation around us, protecting us from the fiery darts of the evil one.

With fear and love we draw near to the holy of holies to give thanks and glorify the almighty God, around whom stand thousands of archangels and hosts of angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, who soar aloft borne on their pinions, singing the triumphant hymn: Holy, Holy, Holy!  Together with these blessed angelic powers, we join in that angelic song, saying, “Holy art thou, O God, who so loved the world that you gave your only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have life everlasting.”

Amen.

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