There are many immigrant stories of people who leave everything behind to come to America for a better life. Our ancestors risked losing everything for something better. Christ says, “Seek first the kingdom of heaven.” We must be willing to risk everything to reach heaven. Heaven is only destination worthy of risking everything because it isn’t just a better life, it is the best life.
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, there’s a very important lesson to be learned in this morning’s gospel. I want to share a story with you. I shared one story about my grandfather in Greek, but I’m going to share a different story in English.
There was a family that came over from Greece a little over 50 years ago. A mother, a father, and two children, all with one suitcase. They arrived in New York. They were being sponsored by the American Red Cross in those days. And they were supposed to go to a family in Indiana somewhere.
Well, they didn’t get there. They got to New York. They found a taxi cab that was supposed to take them to the bus station or something like that. The cabbie put all of their bags in the back of the cab, and guess what he did? And here was this young immigrant family from Greece left with absolutely nothing. He had taken their suitcases. He had taken her purse. He had taken everything and all they had was the clothes on their back a little over 50 years ago.
And I became friends with this family, and they’ve told me their story many times. They refused to give up. They had come from Greece to America in those days for a better life. They had absolutely nothing to look forward to in Greece, but they knew there was a better life here for them, waiting in America. And let me tell you, they made a name for themselves through hard work and faith. They knew that God was going to protect them in this journey to this new world because they had faith that what they were doing was honoring God. Today, they have not just the clothes on their back, but they have extra to share with other people. And they have lived glorious and generous lives here in America. But their first day here was a true act of faith.
And I share that story not because there’s something spectacular about coming to America. There are many stories, and many of you came from Greece with maybe a few dollars in your pocket, whatever you could carry, that’s not the point of this morning’s sermon. It’s not about America. It’s about having the belief that where you are going is worth risking everything. When our ancestors, and again, I know some of you left Greece, you left for someplace better. You left everything behind and you risked everything, including your life.
The story, my brothers and sisters, is where are we headed today? We’re not headed in the upward mobility, as they say in America. This sermon is not about America. We are headed for heaven. And just like we had to be willing to leave everything behind and risk everything to come to America for a better life, we, my brothers and sisters, have to risk everything in order to reach heaven. We don’t get even one suitcase with us in heaven. We have just ourselves to present to God.
And so, in this morning’s gospel, Christ reminds us of these very important realities of life. He says, “Therefore, I say to you, do not worry about your life and what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food in the body, more than clothing.” Then he goes on, he says, “Look at the birds. They don’t build barns and yet God feeds them. Look at the lilies of the field, the beautiful flowers. No one takes a needle and thread and makes fine clothing for the flowers that are here one day and gone the next.” And so, Christ is reminding us of all of these important things. And then he says, “Therefore, do not worry saying what you shall eat, ‘What shall we drink? What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the gentiles seek, for your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.”
Now, here is what we absolutely must take deep into our hearts, “But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. And all these things will be added to you. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will worry about its own things.”
My brothers and sisters, if we want to find ourselves in heaven, we have to seek heaven as our destination. We have to be willing to lose it all to get to a better place. And heaven, my brothers and sisters, is not just a better place. It is the greatest place. It is the place where God welcomes us, where God protects us, where God comforts us, where God wraps His arms around us. It is truly worth the journey.
So I pray that we can be inspired by our immigration stories, because our ancestors risked losing everything to come for something better. Now, it’s our turn to risk losing everything to find something better in Christ, in heaven.
Let’s stop worrying about filling our barns. Let’s stop worrying about how beautiful our clothes are. Let’s stop worrying about what tomorrow is going to be. As so many of us know, we don’t know if we have tomorrow. None of our families are immune or unknown to tragedy. So why spend energy worrying about tomorrow? As Christ says, “Who can add one qubit to your height by worrying about tomorrow?” We have today. We have today to be able to open our hearts to Christ and allow him to fill our hearts with His joy, His grace, and His mercy.
And I remember thinking of this family on the curb in New York. They never gave up and neither can we. We cannot give up our search for heaven, but it starts with leaving the old world behind in search of the new. Leaving the Earth in search for heaven, the Kingdom of God. And if we search for the kingdom, as Christ says, “God knows we need clothing. God knows we need food. God knows we need shelter over our heads. He’ll help us find those things if we first seek the kingdom of heaven. Everything else will fall into place. Glory to God for all things.