On Forgiveness Sunday


Sermon preached by Dn. Jeff Smith on Sunday, February 26, 2022

Good morning! Welcome everyone. It’s Forgiveness Sunday!

Today, I would like to reflect on the gospel by continuing Fr. Antony's advice about fasting that he began last week and continues in today’s gospel for cheese-fare. Second, as today’s gospel asks, I also want to ask, “where is our heart” as we enter into Lent. And finally, I would like to reflect on Christian revival and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as we begin on the trail to Holy Week.

Many Pharisees of Jesus' time kept two fasts a week, just like we do. Their fasting days were on Monday and Thursday, corresponding to Moses' ascent and descent from Mt. Sinai. As we heard today, the Pharisees fasted with unwashed faces, drawn looks, bare feet, and ashes on their heads. No one could miss them. But fasting is not self-mutilation or a parade of self-righteousness. Instead, let me tell you what true fasting is:

  1. Fasting is good for our health.  Good for our hearts and general well-being.
  2. Fasting is good for self-discipline. It is the opposite of self-indulgence, our normal state.
  3. Fasting can help break bad habits. We develop cravings which feel impossible to resist, but fasting can help.
  4. Fasting helps us make do with less and ask what is essential for our lives.
  5. Finally, fasting can help us appreciate the world around us more, to look up and outside of ourselves more.

Discipline and asceticism can help us master the flesh, and fasting fits the mind for devotion and sets an example for simplicity. So, Jesus counsels measured asceticism. Fasting can be secret and joyful – just like giving for charity. As a violinist is disciplined by the rapture of music, so too can we be disciplined in gladness for Christ and love for God. So Christian discipline is positive and radiant, lowly in spirit and full of joy.

The next part of the gospel asks where we set our hearts: for treasure on earth or treasure in heaven? Treasure on earth is beset by risks. We talk about inflation, depression, uncertainty, and finally, death overtakes us. When we die, we can’t take our wealth with us. But there is another kind of wealth: a treasury of the Holy Spirit and the Kingdom of Christ. Instead of storing up money, we can store up truth and love and faith. No thief can steal this treasure from us. Instead, to be wealthy is to be generous. So, what’s it going to be? Earthly wealth or heavenly wealth? This is a choice that requires us to sit loose in this world. For some that may mean a vow of poverty, but for all of us, it means setting our hearts on Christ, allowing the world to pass away, but bending our hearts toward God without dismay. And that’s what it means to have treasure in heaven.  

Now I want to take a moment to reflect on Christian Revival. There has not been any kind of Christian Revival this century, certainly nothing newsworthy for over 25 years, until this week saw an extraordinary outpouring at a small Christian college in Asbury, Kentucky. Now I know that I am using an example outside of the Orthodox Church, but we too have had revivals, most notably led by St. John of Kronstadt just over 100 years ago in Petersburg. This week’s revival began with an unremarkable sermon, maybe something like this one that I’m giving now, in which the young visiting pastor, Zach Meerkreebs reflected on the last few verses of Romans chapter 12. His text went like this:

“Let our love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be fervent in Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in affliction, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the Saints and show hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in Harmony with each other. Do not be arrogant but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil but take thought for what is noble. If possible, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves. To the contrary, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”

Pastor Zach followed by saying this is a high bar, and the more we attempt perfection, the more we are aware of our shortcomings. But with the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can answer the call to be like Christ.

That was the text. Father Anthony, Dn. James and I have reflected on similar gospel themes many times. St. Paul is simply quoting Jesus here. But with genuine humility and vulnerability, this young pastor called on the Holy Spirit to rest on that chapel, and people chose to confess their sins and remain in prayer the entire following week. Word got out, and the chapel received over 50,000 visitors this past week alone.

It’s an interesting moment. I pray that we can also forgive each other tonight and beyond and that we also experience the gift of the Holy Spirit during this beautiful journey into Lent.

Thanks be to God.