St. Michael the Archangel
Russian Orthodox Church
335-37 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19123
February 11 Sermon

Now it all begins.  It is hard to believe that we are right at the beginning of the season that we all knows helps to cleanse ourselves,  If we are honest with ourselvesand with God, it is not all that difficult to find our place.                                            The Gospel text tells us the very simple truth about salvation.  We hear the words - words that are easy to understand.  We are told: When the Son of  God comes in His glory escorted by all the angels, then He will take His seat on the throne of glory .All the nations will be assembled before Him and He will separate men from one another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats.He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on His right hand:"Come, you whom  My Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundations of the world."
And God will publicly announce His rewards."For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink.  I was a stranger, and you made me welcome".  People find themselves confused by their part in God's plan for salvation.         So where does this take all of us?  It actually prepares us to take our place in the great season of Lent.
Many people make a mistake regarding this season, and its meaning for the faithful.  Let us be certain not to do this,  Instead, let us willingly accept Lent and grow with it.

February 4 - The Prodigal Son

Sermon February 4, 2018 
Tone 2 New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia; Apostle Timothy
           When we hear the story of the Prodigal Son we know that Great Lent is imminent.  Even if nothing more jumps out at you from St. Luke's account of the parable that Our Lord told for the benefit of the Pharisees, you can certainly focus on the first words of that the younger son said on his return: "Father, I have sinned against Heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be thy son."  Brothers and Sisters, this is the boy's confession-out loud and in the presence of and directly to his father, God."  In Great Lent, when we set out on our yearly journey back to God, we absolutely must do the same, repent in a heartfelt manner in the Sacrament of Confession, out loud before God, with the priest there only as a witness.  Without this, the road back to God is closed.
       But there is so much more in this parable, some of it much less apparent without thinking hard about the meaning of Christ's words.  Because the world refers to Luke 15:11 as the Parable of the Prodigal Son (and the word prodigal means wasteful, not absent or runaway as some assume), it's easy to think that this lesson is centered only on the one son, the younger one, the Prodigal.  But Our Lord's message is much more rich, much deeper than it first appears, mainly because there are a number of actors other than the Prodigal who are significant and worthy of analysis.  Of course, the Father is God, but those "hired servants" that the Prodigal longs to join up with are the catechumens, those who are not yet sons of God, but they are on their way; they hear the Word, just as the catechumens hear the Gospel during the Liturgy of the Catechumens, and are therefore closer to God than the Prodigal was before he returned.  The hired hands are to be distinguished from those identified as the "servants of the Father."  Some say that these are the angels, the bodiless powers who serve the Father, and bring the robe to dress the Prodigal.  That robe is the baptismal garment, as the Prodigal repents and confesses his sins he puts on Christ, just as we did in our own Sacraments of Baptism, and then the angels bring a ring, symbolizing the seal of the Holy Spirit, given at the Sacrament of Chrismation by the anointing with myrrh---the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And the fatted calf, the sacrificial animal fed on wheat, is Christ Himself, who gave His body and His precious blood for us to be the Sacrament of Communion, when the bread made of that wheat becomes the body of Our Savior and the wine becomes His blood.
   And what of the envious elder son?  Is this parable really all about him?  If you read the beginning of Chapter 15 of Luke, you will find out the these Pharisees were murmuring in the crowd before Christ started the Prodigal Son story.  Why?  Because Our Lord had just finished another parable, that of the one lost sheep out of the flock of one hundred that was found, which ended with Christ saying: "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth."  The Pharisees were murmuring because they, like the elder son, thought themselves perfect before God and were outraged when sinners, who didn't do the heavy lifting, were forgiven by Christ, just as the elder son was outraged by the killing of the fatted calf for someone who clearly didn't deserve that treatment.  But here's the key: note well that the Father does not punish the elder son, instead He forgives him saying: "Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine." God's mercy is illimitable and the lesson about the elder son is such a crucial one for us as we enter Great Lent.  Like the Prodigal, who Christ said "came to himself," we too can find ourselves and rediscover the reason that we come back to God.  When we come to ourselves we will clearly see the reason that we come to Church in the first place---for our own salvation.  Today we celebrate the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia---those who were slaughtered in the bloody reign of the Soviets in trying to stamp out the Holy Church.  One of those martyrs. Archbishop Hilarion Troitsky, wrote: "There is no Christianity without the Church."  Our own Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev has been quoted many times as saying that the Church exists for one reason---for the salvation of our souls.  In the Diary of a Russian Priest, Fr. Alexander Elchaninnov, whose words you will hear quoted by me quite frequently, especially during Lent, wrote this: "We often mistake for religion a vague mixture of the reminiscences of childhood, the sentimental emotions sometimes experienced in church, colored eggs and cake at Pascha.  How shall we succeed in awakening in our soul any sense of the way of the cross which it must follow toward God?"
       Brothers and Sisters, Orthodoxy is a way of life, and our lives have a bit in common with the lives of both the Prodigal and the elder son.  Both sons could have, and each of us can, profit from this advice from St. Paisios of Mt. Athos: "The mind and the heart must be constantly fixed on how we can reach our destiny: the Kingdom of seems that, perhaps, you have not yet set Heaven as your goal.  You still have earth as your goal.  The salvation of your soul has yet to become a heated topic for you.  But then, if we do not take the salvation of our soul seriously, what will we take seriously?"
Fr. Gregory
January 28 Sermom

I thought that it would be a mistake not to remember that which brought us to where we are today. It starts as a story of some time ago and far away.

The people who came from Europe, and who founded this and other churches like it came from Lemkovia in Eastern Europe.

In those days repressions were imposed on "Russophile" clergy, both Uniate and Orthodox.  The area also had informers.  Not only the police, village clerks, and sheriffs and teachers, as well as members of the clergy denounced their neighbors. 

In some areas of Carpatho-Russia, the entire educated class: priests, lawyers, judges, teachers, high school and university students were all arrested.  The prisons were quickly filled with people accused of treason.Suddenly, the word orthodox was replaced by the word catholic.

Throughout the Carpathian region a tremendous upheaval shook the parishes. Life had become difficult for the few orthodox priests and their families in Carpatho-Russia and Galecia.

One such priest was Maxime Sandovich. He was born in Xhdynya.  His father was a prosperous farmer who also served as cantor in the local parish church. Maxime’s father could see his son was talented, and he arranged for him to live at the dormitory in Novy Senaz.  There he had the opportunity to study the Russian literature, language and history; as well as the history of the christian church, and culture.  The students were supervised by a teacher from Russia.

Maxime was able to cross the border into Russia and then entered novitiate at the great Lavra of Pochaev in Volymia.  The abbot there introduced him to Archbishop Anthony who helped those men who wanted to study in Russia.  Early in 1905 Vladyka sent this student (Maxime) to Zhitomir.

Maxime studied there and and graduated in 1910.  He then returned home to visit his family at Easter and Bright Week. Word of his arrival soon reached the ears of certain villagers who had spent some time in American Orthodox churches and making their confessions to other Orthodox priests then came to Maxime and begged him to stay, obtain priestly ordination, and organize an orthodox parish.

In November of 1911 Father Maxime and his wife travelled to his native village of Zhdynya. Walking through the marketplace, the some of the people seeing an orthodox priest dressed in a long riassa, wearing a pectoral cross, who was also not shaving or cutting his beard made fun of him saying: "Look , St Nicholas has come to the Carpathians.”

When the people there learned that Father Maxime was at his father's house, they sent a delegation an invited him to find/start an Orthodox parish.  Shortly after he served the first liturgy in the new parish, he received  a letter addressed to him as a "lay man”, which he refused to accept.

The next letter was addressed correctly. But it forbid him to conduct services.  When he refused to comply he was jailed for a month.This provides us with an idea of what life was about.  Not only was Father Maxime separated from his father and wife, shortly thereafter, he was shot.


January 21 - Theophany

For the next week we will be in the Afterfeast of the Theophany, the great Feastday that we celebrated here on Thursday evening and Friday morning with the great blessing of the water at each service. While we generally associate Theophany, or Epiphany as it is also called, with the blessing that makes the holy water that we use throughout the year, but the meaning of the word Theophany is Appearance of God.  And as we discussed last Sunday, the appearance at issue is the beginning of Christ's ministry on earth when He voluntarily came to the Jordan River to be baptized by the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John and began His ministry immediately after His Baptism.  And as today's Gospel reading from St. Matthew for the Sunday after Theophany makes clear Our Lord began that ministry with the same words that the Baptist had used before Him: "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Today is also the Sunday of Zaccheus, yes already we are preparing to enter the Great Fast, very early this year, and this signals to us the beginning of the season of repentance.  But true repentance can only come through a serious confession of our sins and a sincere desire and intention to stop engaging in the behavior of which we have confessed before God.  The only way to do that is by the sacrament of confession, in which those sins are expressed orally before God, at which sacrament the priest is merely the witness to that sincere repentance before God.  As that witness, the priest can then read the prayer of repentance over the penitent asking God to show mercy on that person and grant unto him or her "an image of repentance." Only after that prayer does the priest absolve the penitent, by that power given by Christ to the Apostles, the power to loose and remit sins.
But repentance is only one aspect of the beginning of the ministry of Christ.  There is another important aspect that we hear about throughout the services of Theophany.  In those services, there is a constant leitmotif, that the appearance of God is all about light, the miracle of light.  In the vespers of Theophany the first Old Testament reading is from the first chapter and first verse of Genesis: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness."  In the beginning of the service of the Great Blessing of the Waters we hear the choir sing: "The Baptist became all trembling and cried aloud: How shall the candlestick illumine the light?"   The Prokeimenon of that service is all about light:   "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?"  In the litany that follows and that comes before the blessing of the waters we pray "That the Lord our God will illumine us with the light of understanding and of piety with the descent of the Holy Spirit"   And as the priest prays before the blessing, we hear: "The Sun sings thy praises, the Moon glorifies Thee, the Stars also stand before thy presence. The light obeys thee."   The appearance of God reminds us that in the Creed we say: Light of Light, True God of True God." That light is the light about which we hear on Pascha: "Come take light from the light that never fails." It's the light of the Transfiguration, the uncreated light that shown forth from Christ on Mt. Tabor.  It's the light of enlightenment in the Tropar of Theophany that the choir will sing today as we bless the church with the new Holy Water: "O Christ our God thou has revealed thyself, and has enlightened the world, glory to Thee."  It's the "unapproachable light" of the Kondak of Theophay, It's that very light that we heard near the end of the Gospel today:
"The people which sat in darknss saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up."
Brothers and Sisters, let's take heed of the dual teachings in today's Gospel: each of us can come out of the darkness.  Each of us can heed the words of Our Lord and Repent!  And with that repentance each of us can place our feet on the path to salvation, the path that leads to the light, for the kingdom of God is at hand.
January 7

The church celebrates festivals that are for us to understand and to celebrate - Christmas is not one of these.
In Christmas, God shows us his divine nature combined with his human nature. This is not something we can easily understand. The only way to make sense of Christmas is to understand it as a feast of the love of the creator for his creatures.
Jesus Christ’s divine nature exists for all eternity. His human nature came from a Jewish background. The blood that flowed in his veins was from the royal house of David. This came from his mother Mary, who though poor, belonged to the lineage of the great King David.
Saint Matthew shares witness and he opens his Gospel sharing a record of the ancestry from which Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham, was born.
The name “Jesus” was fairly common among the Jews. In the original Hebrew language, it was Joshua. The angel told Joseph that Mary would “bear a son, whom they would call Jesus, for he is to save his people from their sins.”
Jesus was given another name at the same time –
   Behold, the virgin shall be with child,
   And shall bear a son
   And they shall call him Emmanuel
   Which means God is with us
Let us all remember these words. For it is the truth.
God is with us.

December 31 - St. Sebastian

Sermon December 31, 2017
Tone 5 Sunday of the Fathers 30th Sunday

On the Orthodox Christian calendar every day is a Name Day; but for many reasons today, the last day of the secular year and the Sunday before the Nativity of Our Lord, we can see as a Names Day. A treasure trove of names. The first obvious reference to names is the first part of the first Chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew that is read on the Sunday before Christmas: 16 verses that are comprised in their entirety of names. Fifty names spanning forty two generations. Fifty names of judges, of kings, and of priest, according to the three generations; but also fifty names of harlots, such as Rahab, of those born of adultery, such as Solomon born of Uriah's wife by David, and gentiles, such as the Moabite woman Ruth. All the way from Abraham the father of the Hebrews to Joseph and then to the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary, forty two generations and thousands upon thousands of names.

And the entire text of St. Paul's letter to the Hebrews, of which only a part was read here today, is similarly awash in names: Going back all the way to Abel and Cain, and Noah, and Abraham's lineage (that we celebrated on the day of the Forefathers last Sunday) all the way through Moses and Samson and Samuel and all the prophets "who through faith subdued kingdoms." The emphasis on names is continued in the celebration of the Ancestors of Christ, as the Sunday before Christmas is called, which group of names includes those in the family tree of the Virgin Mary, since the genealogy as set forth in Matthew is in accordance with the Hebrew tradition of tracing the family only through males. So today the Fathers of the church tell us that we also celebrate Joachim, the father of Mary, who was the son of Bar-Panther , son of Levi, son of Nathan, son of King David; hence, Mary is the Root of Jesse, the father of King David, just as Isaiah the Prophet wrote: "And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse will stand for an ensign of the people." And in the Tropar and Kondak for this Sunday of the Ancestors we hear more names: Daniel and the Three Holy Youths. Who are these youths? The name day for Daniel the Prophet, whom most know as having been deported to Babylon and there served King Nebuchadnezzar as an interpreter of dreams, was yesterday, December 30, and with him are celebrated the Three Holy Children: Ananias, Misael, and Azarias. These three Hebrew boys, renamed in captivity Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refused to bow down to the golden idol that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up and were thrown into the fiery furnace by the Chaldeans. But as Daniel, who by the way had been renamed Belteshazzar by his captors, wrote in his Book, the three youths survived when the Archangel Michael came to them in the furnace, cooled the flames, and led them to safety. This part of Daniel is read in its entirety on Holy Saturday, foreshadowing the Resurrection, and the three boys with six names are always celebrated before the Nativity Feast.

The name of the saint that we celebrate today may be known to many, but not much may be known about him: St. Sebastian was a Roman educated in Milan during the last days of the persecution of Christians. He rose to the be the head of the imperial guards during the murderous reign of Diocletian and, as a Christian, and as he had converted many of his soldiers to Christianity, he was interrogated personally by the Emperor who sentenced him to be tied to a tree and shot with arrows. There are many Western works of art celebrating St. Sebastian, such as Peter Paul Ruben's painting in the handout, that show him pierced by arrows, but the Lives of the Saints tell us that St. Sebastian miraculously survived that torture, and was nursed back to health by Irene, the wife of one of the martyrs with him. He was later beaten to death in the Coliseum at the order of Diocletian. The Orthodox icon of St. Sebastian in the handout shows him holding the arrows that could not kill him.

Names are important, but names of people are of paramount importance. Shakespeare was right when he said "A rose by any other name;" and we do give our pets endearing names, but the name of a human being is a name that identifies a soul, an eternal soul. When each of us approaches the chalice, both laypeople and clergy, we say out loud to God our first names, the names by which we were baptized. There is no need for a last name, because God knows each of us by our baptismal names. That's why when we pray for the living or for the departed, whether at the proskomedia or during a litany or at a panykhida, we use only first names, baptismal names, the names by which Christ will recognize each of us at the Last Judgment.

And two final names for today: for near the end of Matthew's gospel we heard the famous words: "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God is with us." The prophet who is referenced is Isaiah, for in chapter 7, verse 14 of his prophecy, it is written: "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel." Then why, one might ask, does the Gospel reading today end by telling us that Joseph called the son Jesus? The explanation by the Fathers of the church is that Joseph obeyed the angel who commanded him: "Thou shalt call his name Jesus," while the prophecy of Isaiah as interpreted says that "they" shall use the word Emmanuel; and that name is a reflection of all of the events in the life of Jesus Christ that proved that Him to be God. A name earned by doing, rather than just a name given at birth. For that reason, next Saturday at the Compline Service the choir, remembering all of the events in the life of Christ and His Glorious Resurrection by which He earned the name Emmanuel, shall sing out joyfully: "God is with Us!"

December 17 - Great Martyr Barbara and Martyr Juliana

Today’s Epistle reading was from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians; but do we know where that early church was located?   Colossae was a city in the middle of what we now call Turkey and that middle was known then as Phryigia.  It’s interesting that, while the early church grew in Colossae because of St. Paul’s teachings, the city was destroyed by an earthquake and later overrun by the Saracens, and eventually was abandoned. The people left for the nearby city of Chonae, which was the place of the miracle of St. Michael shown in this icon on our iconostasis. St. Paul wrote this to the nascent church in Colossae:    “Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.”

Two of the most famous of those “saints in light” we commemorate today and on Tuesday: St. Barbara the Great Martyr today and St. Nicholas on Tuesday with Divine Liturgy at 10am.

St. Barbara, the daughter of wealthy pagan named Dioscorus during the 3rd Century AD, secretly became a Christian, notwithstanding her father’s efforts to hide her away  in a high tower and arrange for her marriage to someone he found suitable. When the father ordered a bath house with two windows to be built on the property, Barbara secretly changed the plans to have three windows built in honor of the Holy Trinity, sending Dioscorus into a rage. He ordered  Barbara to be tortured in order  to turn her from Christ, but she refused steadfastly, causing a woman in the crowd, Juliana, to denounce the torturers. As a result both women were beheaded, Barbara by her own father.  But Dioscorus was struck by lightning for his evil deeds and because of that St. Barbara is the patron of artillerymen, miners,  and those who work with explosives, such as bomb disposal squads, of which now, unfortunately, we have way too many.   She is the patron saint of the Italian navy, and in fact the hold of ship in which explosives are kept in Spanish is “santabarbara.”  Of course, of the city of Santa Barbara, California was named after her.  In many western paintings and Orthodox icons of St. Barbara a tower appears in the landscape, in remembrance of her father’s imprisonment of her, as well as St. Juliana, the woman who stood up for her and was also martyred.  Unfortunately, her Feastday has been removed from the Roman Calendar, even as the British, Canadian, and Australian armies continue to remember St. Barbara on December 4.  The Epistle reading for St. Barbara comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians which contains the truly famous lines:

 "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus."

 "For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ"

That last phrase substitutes for “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal” in the Divine Liturgy on certain feast days and is sung in the Sacrament of Chrismation.  St. Barbara’s faith as expressed in those three windows she commissioned that lead to her martyrdom is remembered in the Kondak for her Feastday:

Singing the praises of the Trinity, / you followed God by enduring suffering; / you renounced the multitude of idols, / O holy martyr Barbara. / In your struggles, you were not frightened by the threats of your torturers, but cried out in a loud voice: / “I worship the Trinity in one God-head

Most of us know a lot more about St. Nicholas than we probably did before today about St. Barbara: that he was a Bishop of Myra in Lycia in Anatolia(now Turkey) in the 4th Century AD, that he attended the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea at which he fought strongly against Arianism (the heresy that taught that Christ was begotten of  God the Father at some point in time after the creation,  and was therefore subordinate to God), that by doing so he  was  instrumental in the writing of the Nicene Creed (which negates Arianism  completely by including  the phrase “begotten of the Father before all ages”), and that he is known for his miracles (hence the name St. Nicholas the Wonderworker) and his acts of kindness which led to the western concept of St. Nicholas as Santa Claus.  But let’s just focus on the Epistle to the Hebrews that will be read here in our church this Tuesday:

“Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

“Every good work:” the perfect remembrance of the Wonderworker Nicolas. The tropar to St. Nicholas gives us the words we need to pray to the Sainted Bishop of Myra  for the rest of Advent and always, to pray to him for the sake of our salvation:

In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith, / an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence; / your humility exalted you; / your poverty enriched you. / Hierarch Father Nicholas, / entreat Christ our God / that our souls may be saved.


December 10 - St. James of Persia
Today's Gospel and Epistle readings perfectly identify the challenges we have ahead of us as St. Phillip's Fast rolls into its third week. Challenges that, as both readings tell us, are based on the roadblocks to salvation---roadblocks in the form of potholes and detours and accidents on the other side of the road that draw our attention as rubberneckers --- all of these are strewn by the devil like so many tacks and nails and pieces of broken glass into our paths.   In Luke's Gospel (Lk. 13:10-17) the devil is called out by name---Satan---even as Christ heals the woman who was bent over for over eighteen years.   That woman's affliction---being bent over so thoroughly that she was unable to straighten herself out---is clearly the work of the Satan, and that very same affliction can plague many of us in these modern days---we just can't straighten out our lives, we can't walk a straight line, we can't straighten up and fly right. And we can't look up. Why? Because we are bent into a pretzel by focusing mostly on the temptations that the devil uses to distract our attention from our own good intentions, our resolutions to fast, to pray more, to read the scriptures, to help others during the Advent fast.
St. Luke tells us that Our Lord:  "laid his hands on her: and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God." And then Christ said: "And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?"
The Blessed Theophylact reminds us that "it was Satan who brought about our fall by which we lost our incorruptibility" and it is still the devil that takes our minds off the straight and narrow road; that's why we keep falling into the ditch.
St. Paul teaches us the way to keep on the smooth straight road in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph.6:10-17) when he says: "Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil."   In Paul's day, athletics were just as important to the people of the Roman Empire as they are in our America of 2017. So the Epistle writer uses the analogy of wrestling to teach the new Christians of Ephesus: " For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."
Principalities and powers are categories of the bodiless ones, the angels, and in this case the reference is to the revolting angels who chose to follow Satan rather than the angels, like the Archangel St. Michael, who chose to follow God. When you come up to the Cross later today, look back over the choir loft and study carefully the stained glass icon of St. Michael battling the devil. The words in Slavonic over St. Michael's head "Kto Yako Bog" are the words that the Archangel said when rebuking Satan: "Who is like God?" And that phrase is the meaning of the name Michael in Hebrew.
Brothers and Sisters, the devil is real; temptations abound around us every day, and that's real life. St. Basil the Great wrote that "Life is like a scale. On one side, the shallow plate contains the devil and all his wiles. On the other side of the balance, we have the angels of God. To whom will we offer our hearts? Which side carries more weight for us?" Dostoyevsky, took up St. Basil's simile almost verbatim when he famously wrote that "God and the devil are fighting for the soul of man. And the battlefield is the human heart."
Advent won't last very long. It's past time to join the battle. Let's all waste no more time and rise up to follow St. Paul's advice to actively fight the good fight during what remains of the forty days: "And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."