On the Sunday of All Saints, the Church directs out attention to those holy men and women, many of whom we will never know, to honor their holy lives. The Saints were those who put God ahead of all things in their lives. Christ gave us two very important ways to become Saints. We must confess Him in front of others, and we must love Him above all other things and people. If we are going to live as Saints, like God has called us, it begins with imitating the Saints.
My brothers and sisters, we heard in this morning’s gospel about a woman who for 18 years was living a tortured life by the devil. 18 years she had been unable to find any kind of comfort or healing from anyone, from her friends, from the doctors, from the apostles. No one could heal her. I want you to imagine going through life, even for one day, let alone 18 years bent over, staring at the ground, having so much weight upon your shoulders you can’t even lift up your head to look up to God.
This is the torture that this woman lived through for 18 years. No one could help her. Finally, when she went to God, it happened to be on the Sabbath, and when God healed her, he touched her, she was able to stand up straight for the first time in 18 years. And what was the first thing she did? She was praising God. And what’s the first thing the crowd did? What’s the first thing the Pharisees did? They began to punish her. “How dare you come on the Sabbath to be healed?”
Christ, we know the story, he corrects them because in their mind she was less important than even the donkeys in the stable. He says, “Even your animals on the Sabbath, you’re going to go. You’re going to untie them so they can go get a drink. You’re not going to help this woman who the devil has bound for 18 years? She’s not worth something?” You see, they had forgotten what God had given them. They were so preoccupied with crossing the “t’s” and dotting the “i’s” they had forgotten that God gave them the Sabbath for a reason, and the reason was so they could focus on God.
They could find peace and quietness in their world because they were so strict with the rules. All the work stopped on Saturday, not so they could stay home and sleep, but so they could focus on God. God gave them the Sabbath so they had time for him. This is why it was so painful to watch them get mad at this woman. The one thing that should have been blessed and accepted and endorsed on the Sabbath was this woman being made well, having time to worship God. The one thing that they should have wanted to do on the Sabbath, they tried stopping her.
But I’ve got news for us. This story is not just about them, it is about us. God has given us the church. He’s given us a way of life as orthodox Christians, a way to pray, a way to worship, a way to focus our attention on God. And what do we do? We leave God to whatever we don’t have anything else better to do. Maybe we say our prayers when we wake up, but if we wake up late, the first thing we do is we skip our prayers so that we can get to work on time. If a friend calls and says, “Hey, let’s go fishing.” We are up before the sun.
But we live five minutes away and we can’t get to church on time. We have forgotten the blessings that God has given to us. God has given us this glorious cathedral. Yes, we have to repair it, but we repair it, not so we can show the world how beautiful our church is. We repair the church so we have a place to be with God. Because this woman in the gospel had nowhere else to turn but to God. And my fear is that as the world continues to go astray, it’s going to become easier and easier for us to forget God’s church. Because we don’t want to go out into the world and be called names from other people. And I hear it sometimes, “Oh, they think they’re holy. They go to church all the time, oh this, oh that.” Just like the crowd in this morning’s gospel.
But here’s our chance. We are in our nativity fast. As Orthodox Christians, we are preparing for Christmas with prayer and fasting and taking care of the poor. Not because fasting is some checkbox that we’re going to mark off, but because when we fast, we learn to pay attention to God. When we allow the life of the church to become our life, instead of considering the life of the church as rules that limit our behavior, I invite you to look at the life of the church as opportunities to focus on God. In our daily prayers, in coming to church as often as we can, not just on Christmas, Epiphany and Pascha, not just for weddings and funerals, but as often as we can. Not because it’s going to somehow make us more eligible for heaven, but because this is where we spend time with God, in his church.
And we, blessed as we are, one of the only churches in America that is open seven days a week, that has services seven days a week so that we can spend time focusing on God. This is why he gave us the church. This is why he gave the Jews the Sabbath. Don’t become a hypocrite, as in this morning’s gospel. Don’t try to dissuade. Don’t try to push people away from spending time with God. But more importantly, we need to come and spend more time with God, in our prayers and in our fasting.
My brothers and sisters, I’m here to tell you, unless we embrace fasting in our regular life, we will be so focused on the world that we will forget that God is right in front of our face. This is the joy of fasting. It’s not a rule. It’s a blessing, to take our minds and turn it off the world for just a moment. Even if we’re sitting in the drive through or in the, looking at the menu at the restaurant, in that moment of determining what we are eating, we can say, “No, I’m focusing on God and so I’m going to eat something different.”
Not because of the rules, but because of the blessing. And then we’ll be able to stand up straight like this woman in the gospel. We will be able to stand up straight and be praising God continually. As St. Paul says, “Pray without ceasing.” This is our opportunity, but I’m going to warn you of something. The world is going to think we are cuckoo. The world is going to think that we don’t know the better way. Let’s show them we do. Let’s show them that we are the sane ones. We are the ones who are focusing on the good of God.
My brothers and sisters, today is Father’s Day, but it is also the Sunday of All Saints. And so I wanted to dwell this morning on what it means to be a saint, because if this is the Sunday of All Saints, it’s all of us are celebrating today. Not just because our saint is being honored but because we are called to be saints. Saint Paul calls us all to be saints. Christ says, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” All of us are called to be saints. So the question is, how do we become saints?
And this morning’s gospel offers us a couple very important shall we say descriptions on how to become saints. Oh, I lost it. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me,” Christ says, “is not worthy of me.” Christ says, “Whoever confesses me in front of other people, I will also confess in front of my Father.” These two basic elements, my brothers and sisters, is what will lead us to become saints. We have to learn to love nothing more than God, and we have to learn how to confess God in front of other people. Easier said than done.
One of the opportunities that we have to confess God is when we come to every divine liturgy, of course we read the creed. “I believe in one God, Father, Almighty, et cetera.” We pray that the “Our Father who art in heaven.” These public prayers of the church is one way that we have that we can confess God in front of other people. And when we confess God, he will confess us. This is Christ’s promise. This is how we can become saints.
And then how is it that we can learn to not put anything ahead of God? It’s Father’s Day. We’re honoring our fathers today. And for many of us, our temptation is to elevate our fathers up on a pedestal. And they deserve to be honored. Don’t get me wrong. However, if we put our fathers above God, then we have placed God in another category. And Christ says if we do that, even if it’s our mother and our father, we are not worthy of him. He goes on to say, “Whoever has left mothers or daughters or lands or anything, for my sake,” he says, “shall be replenished a hundred fold and have eternal life.” God’s got our back, if only we put him first.
This is why the church celebrates the Sunday of All Saints, a reminder that all of the holy men and women who came before us, the ones who were willing to put God first in their life, the ones who were willing to lose everything just for the sake of God. And we honor them. But sometimes I think we honor them without ever intending to imitate them. Oh, of course, Agia Markella, of course she’s a holy woman. Of course, Saint Sava. These were holy people and we honor them and we pray to them.
But do we bother to imitate their life? These men and women that we honor, that we paint the pictures on our walls of the churches, they put God first. We’re lucky if we put God second or third. Most of us in our daily life, God is an afterthought. If we have time, we pray. If we have nothing else to do, we go to church. If we have nothing better to read, we read the Bible. Let’s imitate these holy men and women that we honor today. Let’s have the courage and the strength to live the lives they lived.
They didn’t have easy lives. So if you want an easy life, Christianity is not for you. But it’s a life that can conquer the world, on one condition, that we don’t put anything above God and that we confess in front of other people. I remember years ago, I was maybe in college, I don’t remember when. I’m at lunch and I’m thinking to myself, I have to do my stavro, but everyone’s watching. And I remember one particular case. That particular day, I had courage enough to do my stavro before eating. And it drew attention. “Oh,” then people would start, “you think you’re something special?” “Not really.” And believe it or not, it was enough to get me to be more quiet. I wouldn’t even do my stavro in front of other people.
I know the temptation of not wanting to be made fun of. It wasn’t that I directly denied Christ, but I didn’t have the courage to confess him. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is the reward that God has promised us. And today of all days when we’re honoring all of the saints, take a moment when you go home today and read something about your saint. Even if it’s a paragraph, read something about your saint and then say, “Now how can I imitate that?” That would be a great way to honor the saints today on the Sunday of All Saints, because tomorrow we begin another fasting period.
And so tomorrow we have another chance to dedicate time set aside for God with prayer and fasting and taking care of the poor. We have another fasting period coming up, another opportunity for us to live the life of a saint. We practice here on Earth so when we get to heaven, we already know what we’re doing.
Don’t wait until it’s too late. We all need the practice. It starts by imitating the Saints. Glory to God for all things.