When we stop asking, “What’s in it for us,” and allow God to use us for His Church and His Gospel, we experience miracles. We have been given gifts and talents from God not for our use, but for God to use to preach to others. We receive the grace of God when we are His voice and His hands and feet to reach others. Invite someone to Church! Then watch God’s grace overflow the Church.
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, we just heard a story about a few fishermen. And I would suspect that considering the profession of so many of our people, we can relate to this particular story. These fishermen worked all night long and caught not one fish. And here Christ shows up out of nowhere. They’re cleaning their nets, they’re finally going to have some rest, and Christ gets into one of the boats. Now, can you imagine what Simon must have felt like? Not again. I just got home and Christ says, “Come on, push the boat out a little bit.”
So immediately now, Simon is allowing himself to be used by God, allowing his own resources, his boat, to be used by God, not for fishing, but for preaching. Now think about that for a moment. Think about the profound humility and love, and I would even say obedience, that in this moment Simon Peter is showing to us. You see, because when we have worked all day long and we are exhausted beyond, and someone calls, hey, can you help me out? Nine times out of 10, I’m sorry, I just got home. I can’t come. Imagine the willingness no matter how exhausted we are, no matter what our resources are, we allow ourselves in that last minute, at the end of our energy level, at the end of our resources, to allow God to use us. Not necessarily for the things that we do professionally, but to preach the word of God. We talk about stewardship all the time in our conversations.
I don’t talk about it much from the pulpit, but we talk about using the gifts that God has given us for his church. And we have plumbers, we have roofers, we have painters, and all of our people are always so generous to use resources for the church. And we’re thankful for that. But sometimes we forget we’re not painting the walls, we’re not fixing the air conditioning so we can have pretty walls and air conditioning. We do it so people can hear the word of God. We use our resources for the church so the church can preach the word of God to the people and so that people can hear the hope that comes in Christ. You see, my brothers and sisters, God has given each of us unique gifts in our abilities, but also unique gifts in our resources. We live in a society that wants always to know what’s in it for me.
You know, open up the newspaper, you this, you that. Every time there’s some bargain or some deal, the question is always, what’s in it for me? And yet, when it comes to the church, we receive nothing physical, nothing material, when we allow God to use us. The fishermen in this morning story, they receive nothing but a headache. But they received the blessing, they received the grace of God. And what was the result? So many fish that two boats began to sink. They were not enough to carry all the fish.
Just imagine what our church would be like if we stopped considering what’s in it for me and began simply to say to God, “Okay, God, I know I’m tired. I know I have tried over and over. But because you say so, I’ll give it another try.” They had no idea they were going to catch so many fish. And yet for some reason, we want a guaranteed outcome. We don’t risk anything in our daily lives unless we can somehow predict a positive result for ourselves. This morning, God is asking us to change our logic. This morning, God is asking us to embrace his request, to be his mouth, his hands, his feet, and then allow his grace to overflow. Not so that we can get something, but so that our neighbors, our relatives, who happen to maybe have fallen away from the church, our co-workers, can hear the word of God and come and receive a little bit of hope that is in the gospel.
Because what did Christ say to Peter after all of these miracles? He says, “From now on, you’re going to be catching men.” And Christ used the most basic people to spread his gospel. Nothing fancy, no high education PhD, some fishermen. And now he wants to use us. He wants to use us, my brothers and sisters, to go out and be his voice. I have a challenge for everyone this week. Go and invite someone to church. Go to anyone. It can be a family member who hasn’t been here for a long time. It can be a neighbor who you notice is always at home on a Sunday. It can be someone you work with who seems to be a little lost.
This week, go and invite someone to church. Be God’s mouth. Go out and fish. Go out into the deep of our society and throw the nets of Christ. And then watch as our church is filled with those who need to hear the word of God, who need hope in their life, who have come to experience as we have his loving grace. You’ve all been designated fishers of men and women this week. Go cast your nets and see what God has in store for our community, and let’s watch the miracles come. Let’s watch the people come. But most importantly, let’s watch God’s grace overflow the lives of our neighbors and friends because we have allowed God to use us. Glory to God.