Sermon for Publican & Pharisee Sunday 2019

Not like other men’ – Reflections on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee

Written by M.C. Steenberg (Bishop Irenei of Richmond – ROCOR).

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men–extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess’. But the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18.10-14)

The words by which the preparatory weeks for the fast of Great Lent are begun, speak of a paradox. ‘He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted’. As these words are proclaimed in our churches throughout the world on the first Sunday of the Triodion, commonly known as the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, we have just come from hearing another paradox proclaimed in the same Sunday’s epistle: ‘Yes, all those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution’ (2 Tm 3.12). Humbleness brings exaltation, the pursuit of godliness brings persecution; and so we turn our eyes toward Lent.

Icon of the parable of the Publican (tax-collector) and the Pharisee.

The Publican’s cry, ‘God, be merciful unto me, a sinner!’, is a phrase not uncommon to the Orthodox world. Indeed, it is partially in reference to this Scriptural passage that the words of the Jesus Prayer in its most common form can be attributed; and in the form of the Prayer, the words of the tax collector are thus uttered by many of the faithful hundreds, if not thousands, of times in their own lives. But what of these words that we pray?

‘God, have mercy on me’ is a petition of unequalled frequency in the Church’s worship and prayer. Countless litanies embrace it as a refrain, prayer services and memorials beg it repeatedly, and there are portions of the Offices in which it is said in sequences of three, twelve, forty or even fifty. It is the one phrase that many of the faithful, no matter how limited their linguistic knowledge otherwise, will know in all three of the Church’s great traditional tongues: Lord, have mercy. Kyrie, eleison. Gospodi, pomilui.

The words are simple, yet powerful. To beg God’s mercy is a grave and awesome mystery in its own right, for the mercy of God is the foundation of the universe. We are made bold to ask for nothing less than that gift which goes beyond all comprehension and understanding, that gift by which the very planets and the stars have their being and we mortal humans have our breath. There is no little content to this cry.

But the Gospel for this Sunday does not speak so much of what the words of the tax collector say, but what they do not say. His prayer is not recounted until we have heard the words of another man, the Pharisee, one of the order of great religious teachers in the late Jewish world, the righteousness of whom must nonetheless be exceeded by anyone entering the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5.20). It is, interestingly, this Pharisee’s prayer that abounds in words, in things said. ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men–extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess’.

The Pharisee has made what might have seemed a reasonable prayer, if we strip away for a moment its uncharitable tone. He is not an extortionist, and gives thanks to God for this fact. He keeps justice, for which fact he again offers thanks. Nor is he an adulterer, nor a tax collector, the latter group being one known for fraud, deception and theft, especially of the poor and misfortunate. He keeps the fasts. He offers of his wealth in tithes to the temple. He seems in every way ‘religious’.

But his prayer has said too much, has revealed something of him that he certainly did not intend, yet which is nonetheless true. It has made objects of the elements in his religious life, and thus shown that he does not understand their true and deeper purpose. He has judged another, even if in seeming ‘justice’, and thus brought judgement upon his own head. His ascesis has made him proud, and thus not only failed to serve its intended end, but counteracted it altogether. And from the very outset, the Pharisee’s prayer has set him apart from his brethren. ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men’. Prayer, which by engendering union with God thus ought in purity to make men one, has been twisted into a divisive act that rends men apart.

Still, we must not judge the Pharisee. We must not hear the words of the Gospel and inwardly cry, ‘Thanks to Thee, O God, that I do not pray as he did!’, for then, by another great paradox, we pray exactly as he did. The holy Gospel does not recount the Pharisee’s prayer that we may see how other, poorer men pray, but that we may see with objective perspective how we pray. Though we may be more familiar with the words of the Publican, we must admit with pained heart that, of the two men, the Pharisee is far more like unto our own selves than the humbled and humble tax collector.

As with so much of the mystery that is God’s gracious revelation in the Scriptures, we find that this story is our story. It is not only the Publican and the Pharisee, two long distant and removed figures, who go to the temple to pray, but we ourselves who approach God’s great mercy. And it is we who stand and proclaim, whether in our moments of prayer or in the activities of our daily lives, that ‘we are not like other men; we are just; we are not adulterers; we fast; we tithe; we are faithful’. And it is to us that the loving Lord Jesus proclaims: ‘Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled’.

How good for our souls it is for us to cry along with St Andrew of Crete, as we shall do in a few weeks’ time:

‘Boastful am I, and hard of heart, all in vain and for nothing. Condemn me not with the Pharisee, but rather grant unto me the humility of the Publican, O only merciful and just Judge, and number me with him’ (Great Canon, Ode 4).

It is this message that the Gospel for this Sunday means to instil in our hearts: not that we pray like the Publican, no matter how often we may recite his words; but that we pray like the Pharisee–that we are proud and haughty, and therefore must be humbled. The tax collector is not our associate but our example, the one whom we are to follow and strive to emulate. ‘Grant unto me the humility of the Publican’.

The Pharisee is he who speaks of us, but the Publican he who speaks to us. ‘God, have mercy upon me’ must be the words of our prayer; but they cannot be purely our prayer whilst we still pray that ‘we are not like other men’, that we are ‘just’. Justice is far from us who are, as the tax collector proclaimed, sinners. We have no weight with God, no claim to His grace. We have only the ability to come before Him and beg His mercy exactly as we are.

Lent is coming. In three weeks, the Vespers of Forgiveness will see in the fast proper, the actual period of ‘joyful sorrow’ that marks the journey into Pascha. But even now the Church begins to situate herself into that spirit which is necessary for joy, for sorrow, for repentance: the spirit of humility which can only come as our pride is brought low and in the depth of our hearts we realise that there is no other cry which mortal man can make in the presence of his King than the words of the humble collector of tax: God, be merciful unto me, a sinner!

Sermon for Zaccheus Sunday 2019

Zacchaeus Sunday Sermon

+ Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

(This year Orthodox Great Lent starts March 11.  On Sunday, February 10, Orthodox Christians will commemorate the first of five Pre-Lenten Sundays.  We will hear in Church the lesson concerning Zacchaeus, the chief of the tax collectors, from the Gospel according to St. Luke, chapter 19, verses 1-10.  The following is a sermon given on Zacchaeus Sunday by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, on January 20, 1991).

In these weeks of preparation for Lent, we were faced last Sunday with the story of Bartimaeus to attract our attention on our own blindness; our spiritual blindness of which we are not aware, while physical blindness is so clearly perceived; but also on the fact that if we want to recover our sight, our spiritual vision, our understanding of self, of God, of our neighbor, of life, there is only one Person to whom we can turn – it is God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Bartimaeus had tried all means to recover his sight, but it is only when he turned to Christ that he did recover it.  (The story of the blind man is read on January 20 of this year).

Whether we have taken advantage of the past week to reflect deeply on our own blindness, and in the darkness to begin to see some light, I do not know; each of us will have to answer for his eagerness or his laziness.

But today we are confronted with a new parable, or rather, a new story of the life of Christ: the story of Zacchaeus.  This story speaks to us again directly and the question which is been asked from us is this:  What matters to me more? The good opinion of people around me, that people should not jeer at you, laugh at you because you are seeking to see God, to meet Him, or the necessity, the inner call to discover everything provided you can see Christ face to face? Is vanity stronger in us or the hunger for God?  Saint John of the Ladder says clearly that vanity is contempt of God and cowardice before men.  What is our attitude: are we prepared to discard everything, provided we can meet God – or not? And in our circumstances it is not so much people who will prevent us, people will not jeer at us, they will not laugh at us: they will be totally indifferent; but this does not mean that we like beggars do not turn to them, hoping for their approval, and in order to receive this approval, turn away from our search, from the only thing that can heal us and give us new life.

Also, we will find within ourselves conflicting voices, saying, “Don’t! Don’t make yourself ridiculous! Don’t single yourself out by a search which is not necessary; you have got everything… Zacchaeus was rich; Zacchaeus was known as an honorable citizen – so are we! We possess so much, we are respected – are we going to start on a road that will make us into what Paul calls ‘the scum of the earth’, debase us?”  This is the question which today’s story of Zacchaeus says to us:  is vanity, that is the search of things which are vain, empty, and the fear of other people’s opinion that will prevail, or (will it be) the hunger each of us has, at times, acute for a meeting with the living God?  Amen.

Living the Orthodox Christian Life in the Modern World: 55 Maxims

Living the Orthodox Christian Life in the Modern World: 55 Maxims

Below is a list prepared by the late Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko that I have modified for our parishioners. Please consider working these into your daily lives (printable version attached).
 
With much love in Christ,
Fr Mark
 
  1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  2. Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
  3. Have a manageable daily rule of prayer that is prayed faithfully.
  4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times each day.
  5. Repeat the Jesus Prayer when your mind is not occupied.
  6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
  7. Eat good foods in moderation and fast on fasting days.
  8. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  9. Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day.
  10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
  11. Attend Liturgy every Sunday and attend the other (non-Sunday) church services regularly.
  12. Go to confession and holy communion regularly.
  13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
  14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to your confessor regularly.
  15. Read the scriptures daily.
  16. Read good books, a little at a time.
  17. Cultivate communion with the saints by reading about them.
  18. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  19. Be polite with everyone, first of all family members.
  20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
  21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  22. Exercise regularly.
  23. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  24. Be totally honest, first of all with yourself.
  25. Be faithful in little things.
  26. Do your work, then forget it.
  27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  28. Face reality.
  29. Be grateful.
  30. Be cheerful.
  31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  32. Never bring attention to yourself.
  33. Listen when people talk to you (And put down your phone!).
  34. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are (And put down your phone!).
  35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  36. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  37. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.
  38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
  39. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  40. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  41. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  42. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  45. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  46. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  47. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  48. Do nothing for people that they can and should do for themselves.
  49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and caprice.
  50. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
  52. Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.
  53. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.
  54. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  55. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.

Living the Orthodox Christian Life in the Modern World

 

Akathist Hymn – St Elizabeth the New Martyr

Dear Brethren & Friends of St Elizabeth’s,

On July 5/18, 1918, St. Elizabeth was martyred by the Bolsheviks in Alapayevsk along with her companion, the Nun Barbara, as well as other members of the Romanov family. On most Wednesday evenings in 2018, we serve the Akathist Hymn for St Elizabeth in our parish. Attached here is the English translation of the Akathist, which can be printed for praying at home.

Akathist – St Elizabeth the New Martyr

With much love in Christ,
Fr Mark

The Kneeling Prayers of Pentecost

Dear Brethren & Friends of St Elizabeth’s,

Please click on the links below to read the full text of the beautiful and salvific prayers Kneeling Prayers (in English and Russian), which are read on bended knees during Great Vespers after the Liturgy on Pentecost. Also, there is an additional link which explains the reasons why we do not kneel from Pascha to Pentecost and why we beginning kneeling and prostrating in prayer on and after the feast of Pentecost.

The Kneeling Prayers of Pentecost

Kneeling_Prayers_Pentecost_Eng_Rus_

orthodoxinfo.com-Why Are Prayers Said In Church Without Kneeling On All Sundays and From Pascha Until Pentecost

With much love in Christ,
Fr Mark

From the Rector: How to Become a Good Orthodox Christian

From the Rector: How to Become a Good Orthodox Christian
 
Often times the Rector is asked, “What must I do, or how must I live, to be a good Orthodox Christian?” One of the keys to understanding the answer to this question is to realize that we are not saved alone, but rather within the Church. This is why it is essential to be a member of a parish or a monastic brotherhood (or sisterhood). There is no such thing as a “free agent” or “independent” Orthodox Christian. No one is in a “special category” with some level of independence from the brethren as thinking that way about oneself only leads to self-delusion (“prelest” as the Fathers call it). So, with this important proviso in mind, here are the Rector’s “top ten” things to do in order to be a good, faithful Orthodox Christian.
 
1.      Attend Liturgy every Sunday (and be on time standing attentively ready for the priest to proclaim: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…”).
 
2.      Go to Confession and Communion regularly.
 
3.      Pray every morning, evening, and before and after every meal.
 
4.      Read the scriptures daily.
 
5.      Fast to the best of your ability according to the Church Calendar.
 
6.      Tithe to the parish.
 
7.      Offer your time to the parish and to your brethren.
 
8.      Be grateful, cheerful, and cultivate a simple way of life.
 
9.      Do not gossip or get unnecessarily involved in controversies.
 
10.  Do not be self-directed in spiritual things, but rather seek guidance from your priest and faithfully work to follow his counsel.
With much love in Christ,
Fr Mark

Paschal Quotations for Week of the Samaritan Woman (from The Pentecostarion)

Dear Brethren and Friends of St Elizabeth’s,
 
Christ is risen! Христосъ воскресе!
 
The link below includes some of the stichera (verses) from the services of Matins and Vespers for the Week of the Samaritan Woman. They are taken from The Pentecostarion, which is the special liturgical book used during this season of the year – Pascha through All Saints –  for our worship and edification. The verses chosen focus on the glorious resurrection of Our Lord and how His resurrection changes our humanity and the very fabric of Creation.
 
 
With much love in Christ,
Fr Mark

Paschal Quotations for Week of the Paralytic (from The Pentecostarion)

Dear Brethren and Friends of St Elizabeth’s,
 
Christ is risen!
 
The link below includes some of the stichera (verses) from the services of Matins and Vespers for the Week of the Paralytic. They are taken from The Pentecostarion, which is the special liturgical book used during this season of the year – Pascha through All Saints –  for our worship and edification. The verses chosen focus on the glorious resurrection of Our Lord and how His resurrection changes our humanity and the very fabric of Creation.
 
 
With much love in Christ,
Fr Mark

Paschal Quotations for Thomas Week (from The Pentecostarion)

Dear Brethren and Friends of St Elizabeth’s,
 
Christ is risen!
 
The link below includes some of the stichera (verses) from the services of Matins and Vespers for Thomas Week. They are taken from The Pentecostarion, which is the special liturgical book used during this season of the year – Pascha through All Saints –  for our worship and edification. The verses chosen focus on the glorious resurrection of Our Lord and how His resurrection changes our humanity and the very fabric of Creation.
 
 
With much love in Christ,
Fr Mark

Paschal Quotations for Bright Week (from The Pentecostarion)

Dear Brethren and Friends of St Elizabeth’s,
 
Christ is risen!
 
The link below includes some of the stichera (verses) from the services of Matins and Vespers for Bright Week. They are taken from The Pentecostarion, which is the special liturgical book used during this season of the year – Pascha through All Saints –  for our worship and edification. The verses chosen focus on the glorious resurrection of Our Lord and how His resurrection changes our humanity and the very fabric of Creation.
 
 
With much love in Christ,
Fr Mark