We have all received gifts from God. Saint Paul taught us the gifts should be used, and we should use them with faith. Whether we have received the gift of teaching, or organization or even giving, our gifts should be used for the glory of God. They should be used with faith, with love, and with mercy.
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 in Christ this morning, St. Paul reminded us that all of us received different gifts from God. And he lists a few of them. They are not an exhaustive list by any means, but he says having then gifts differing, according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them. And that’s where I really want to rest us today. Let us use them. He continues. If prophecy let us prophecy in proportion to our faith, in or ministry, let us use it in ministering, teaching exhorting, in giving and then it says he who shows mercy with cheerfulness. You see my brothers and sisters, all of the gifts that God has given to us, all of us different gifts, but all for one purpose to be used for the mercy and glory of God.
And we saw it in the gospel, acted out right in front of us this morning. These friends, knowing that Christ was there, brought their friend to Christ to be healed. They used their gifts in this case, the gift of devotion to their friend and the gift of faith. And they brought their friend to Christ. And what did Christ say? Seeing their faith. He says, your sins are forgiven you. He says, oh, that’s not good enough. Fine. Pick up your bed and go walk. And he healed the paralyzed man. Why? Because the four friends used the gifts that God had given them.
When we use God’s gifts, great things can happen. Wonderful things, marvelous things, sometimes even miracles. But what’s important is that we use our gifts to glorify God. And remember what St. Paul says, use them in proportion to our faith. Don’t just do something, but do it with faith. Don’t just reach out and help someone help them with faith. I’m reminded many times, even unbelievers can do good things. Even unbelievers can feed the hungry and clothe the naked. So it’s not about what we do, but why we do it because God has given us gifts. And as I wrote to you in my bulletin article, there are so many of us all with so many different opportunities and gifts. This is the year for us to show God our faith and our commitment to him, and to use the gifts for the glory of his church.
If we have friends who need healing, and I’m not just talking physical healing, but spiritual healing, we can use our gifts as the friends did in this mornings gospel. We can bring our friends to Christ. If we have the gift of organization, the church always needs those who can help organize the work of the church. All of these gifts, my brothers and sisters have a purpose. A God given purpose.
Now you don’t have to raise your hands, but how many of you have ever been asked or heard a conversation, God has a purpose for me in your life. What is your purpose in life? Have you ever heard conversations such as this? God has a purpose for all of us. And it isn’t what the world might think. Our purpose is not to be a banker or to be a teacher. Our purpose, my brothers and sisters is to use the gifts that God has given us with faith and with love and with mercy. That’s our purpose. If our purpose is teaching, we teach with love, faith and mercy. If our gifts are giving, some people have been given great gifts financially, and they’ve been given the gift of giving. St. Paul says to give with liberality, to give freely in faith and love and mercy.
Think this week, my brothers and sisters of the gifts that God has given you, and then ask yourself, how can I use them in faith, in love and in mercy? And how can I use them to glorify God and to lift up his church? If we can reach that level of faith, my brothers and sisters, we’re going to see great things happen. We’ve already seen such amazing things happen in the history of our community, but today is the beginning of tomorrow. And tomorrow depends upon those of us who are living today to use our gifts for God’s church, with faith, with love, and with mercy. Glory to God for all things.