My beloved and faithful Orthodox Christians,
God bless America!
As I look out upon this assembly, this Ekklesia, gathered in the communion of the faith and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, my heart exults in the knowledge of` the liberty that we have in our great and proud nation. And in saying this, I am in no way placing this above the liberty that we first and foremost possess in our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. For our liberty in Christ -- our freedom from the bonds of sin and death -- is the greatest freedom that any human being can experience.
But here in America, in this land of equality and opportunity for all, we have the guarantee to live out our faith according to our own Holy Tradition of 2000 years -- free from coercion . . . free from oppression . . . free from tyranny. For this is the quintessential American Way. This is what makes us truly Americans, because we recognize not only the rights of others to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience, but we have the freedom to preserve, cultivate, and practice, without opposition, the Holy Orthodox Faith of our ancestors.
And so today, my brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, when we bask in the light and the warmth of this Fourth of July, let us lift up a continuous song of praise to Almighty God in our hearts and minds. For it is God Himself Who has granted to us, through His inexpressible love for mankind, that we should call ourselves . . . Americans.
As Orthodox Christians, we have a special, and I would say even sacred, obligation to be grateful for this reality. For, as you all know, whether you have traveled abroad or not, the history of our own Church, both in this century and in the five centuries before, has been marked with the most cruel oppression by the principalities and powers of this world. Consider our brothers and sisters in the countries of the former Soviet Union. For 70 years, the Church of Christ was decimated by a systematic campaign of terror. Churches were destroyed . . . monasteries were converted into prisons and slave labor camps . . . bishops, priests, and monastics were summarily executed. All this, and more, in the name of a godless state. And what of our own Mother Church? For over five hundred years, She has suffered under the yoke of persecution . . . at times, brought to the very brink of desolation. And yet, through it all, the grace, mercy and love of God prevails. Our Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is the free offspring of a loving Mother constrained by the bonds of history. But this is no reason for despair or dejection. What does the Church say about such bonds of persecution?
Our Lord Himself was led away in bonds to stand before the tribunal of Pontius Pilate. St. Peter and all the Apostles were imprisoned in chains during the first days after Pentecost in Jerusalem. St. Paul wrote to the Church of the Colossians from Rome and made one simple request: "Remember my bonds" (Colossians 4:18).
We, my friends, who live in this land of liberty, are asked to do the same. Let us remember the bonds of our spiritual father and the spiritual father of all of Orthodoxy. Let us remember the bonds which our Slavic brothers and sisters have endured and minister to the wounds that have been inflicted on them. We, who possess the greatest religious, social and political freedom in the world cannot afford to forget those who, by no fault of their own, are imprisoned by the thorny predicaments of history. Rather, let us cultivate the freedom that we enjoy in this great country, and make ourselves truly free:
- free from sin,
- free from anger,
- free from hatred,
- free from bitterness,
- free from quarrels,
- free from evil,
- free from pride,
- free from arrogance,
- free from every spiritual malady and disease, that we may be worthy of the external freedom that God allows us to enjoy.
For with freedom, comes responsibility. Let us work the works of God, of the One who has sent us to minister love, healing and forgiveness in the world, while it is the day, as the Lord said (cf. St. John 9:4) For one day, the night will come, when no one can work. As long as we have the light of Christ in us, let us shine forth with the light, for He is the Light of the world.
We are called to work such works during our Clergy-Laity Congress, in the light of Christ. But ultimately, our works must be more than the formalities of our faith. As the Lord said again: "Unless your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven" (St. Matthew 5:20). And how proud I am, that in the midst of this Clergy-Laity Congress, that we should find one of our Greek Orthodox communities working these great works of God in all sincerity and truth.
We all know of the terrible devastation and loss that has been caused over the last weeks by the fires that are raging in this region of Florida. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land have been destroyed. Many of our fellow Americans have lost their homes, their possessions, and even their personal tokens of memory. As Greek Orthodox, we cannot look away from the suffering that is around us. It is un-Christian, and I dare say, it is un-American.
I take great spiritual joy and pride in the fact that the St. Demetrios Church in Daytona Beach, where the fires have been so destructive, has opened the doors of their community, both the Church complex and their own homes, to those in need. I understand that two nights ago, the Philoptochos Sisterhood even organized an evacuation of some 15 developmentally disabled persons from their group home, and brought them to safety. The parishioners have worked day and night to feed the firefighters and other volunteers, as well as those who have sought refuge at the church.
Now I ask you, isn’t this what it means to be a Christian? Isn’t this what it means to be an American? How many of our parents and grandparents sought refuge on these shores? How many of them sought the protection and the prosperity of this great land of America? Can we do no less for others in their hour of need?
I am asking you, all of you who have come to Orlando for our Congress, to do no less than your sisters and brothers of St. Demetrios. Can we not offer the donations that will be collected at tomorrow morning’s Divine Liturgy to the relief effort here in Florida? I believe we must. Let us share, with a generous and loving heart, with those whose lives have been hurt and deprived, something of the benefits that, by the grace of God, we possess in this land of the free.
On this Fourth of July, let us re-dedicate ourselves to the meaning of liberty -- liberty in Christ . . . and freedom of faith, thought, and action. Let us exercise the gift of being Americans to do good while we can, while we have the light. Let us express our thankfulness to our God and to our nation, in every aspect of our lives.
Let us pray to God, as did once the holy Prophet Elias, to send down showers of rain, to quench the raging fires, and bless the land. And let us also pray that he abundantly water our souls with His love, His mercy, and His truth.
May God bless us all during the coming days, and may God always and forever bless the United States of America!