A sermon on the Feast of Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco
Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
How shall we praise our father among the saints? The missionary hierarch who traveled to the East; the builder of churches, wonderworker, preacher of grace; who fasted, kept vigil, became perfect by serving the Liturgy; strict with himself but kind to his flock; who never slept in a bed; who only increased in miracles after his repose.
We’re speaking of course of our father among the saints John Maximovitch… the Metropolitan of Tobolsk in Siberia, who reposed in 1715.
It’s into his family (almost 200 years later) was born young Michael Maximovitch — who became our St John.
From childhood he loved the services of the Church, the scriptures, practiced fasting and vigil and prayer. He grew up hearing about his holy great-great (great?) uncle John Maximovitch, the saintly missionary hierarch.
If you asked young Michael what a saint looked like, St John of Tobolsk would have been his answer. That’s what I want to be when I grow up! In 1918, his ancestor was glorified by the Church and added to the calendar of saints. In fact his feast day was last Wednesday, June (10) 23.
In 1903, when Michael was only seven years old, the Russian Church glorified the famous elder Seraphim of Sarov, numbering him among the saints. The whole time Michael was growing up, he was immersed in the public veneration and honor of St Seraphim, and he loved and emulated him as a role model.
St Seraphim, of course, was sick as a child, bedridden with serious illness – until the wonderworking Kursk icon of the Mother of God was brought in procession through his city, and he was healed in the presence of this icon.
In his Life we read that from his youth, the young future Saint Seraphim was devoted to the Lord and to his saints.
Beginning to detect a theme there?
In 1928, St John preached a sermon on the life of St Seraphim. He says:
St. Seraphim calls all by his example to follow the path shown by Christ. He calls us to struggle with sin and our inadequacies, being himself a beacon and lamp for all who seek salvation. In what lies the power of St. Seraphim? What is his struggle? He strove to realize the commandment of Christ, to Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. He labored to restore in himself the first-created image of man, corrupted as a consequence of sin.
St. Seraphim reached his goal: he overcame sin and became a saint; he truly became the likeness of God. We cannot see the invisible God. But the Lord gave us to see Himself in those who become like Him: in His saints. One of these likenesses was St. Seraphim. In him we see restored, [normal] human nature, freed from slavery to sin. He is the incarnate personification of eternal victory over the transitory, sanctity over sin, good over evil.
In honoring St Seraphim, and his own ancestor St John of Tobolsk, young Michael understood something that I think we need to pause and think about:
Saints are not superheroes.
If you’ll picture for a moment an airliner taking off from LaGuardia airport… Suddenly both engines fail and the plane is about to fall out of the sky.
In a movie, people might call out, “Help! Superman!” and they’ll be saved by an extraordinary hero. How is Superman able to fly and lift a 70-ton airliner? It’s because he is an alien from the planet Krypton, and he inherited these extraordinary powers. All Kryptonians are super! How convenient for him.
But what really happened in 2009 was that US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger, a former air force fighter pilot with twenty thousand hours of flying experience in all kinds of aircraft, used his acquired skills and experience to bring that plane down safely in the Hudson River, saving everyone’s lives.
Sullenberger wasn’t an alien. He wasn’t born with extraordinary flying abilities. He spent his entire adult life in the study and disciplines and practice that made him the expert pilot that Providence placed on that flight.
A church or monastery’s whole life and worship happens according to its typicon, or ordo. The word “extraordinary” literally means “outside the established order.”
Saints are not extraordinary: Holiness and the grace of God are meant to be the norm.
“We are God’s workmanship,” Saint Paul says, “created in Christ Jesus for good works which God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them… that He might also make known the riches of His glory upon the vessels of mercy which He prepared beforehand for glory.”
“Vessels prepared for glory” is us.
We know that Grace is God in action; and God didn’t wait for us to seek him: Like a shepherd with ninety-nine sheep safe, Christ goes after the one that’s gotten lost; and when we were his enemies, he died for us. But now, through baptism, we are no longer strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints in the Kingdom of God. Now the King calls us to press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, and acquire the likeness of Christ.
The grace that makes us holy comes to prepared vessels. Ones that are set apart.
Young Michael Maximovitch saw the holiness of St Seraphim, and of St John, as something that is possible. With the help of God it was attainable. So he set out from childhood to acquire it. To prepare himself for eternity.
He knew that only in this life is there time to change our trajectory. In these handful of decades we determine what we will be when we enter into eternity. We will spend eternity becoming more, of what we let God make of us now.
I’m not much of an athlete, but I can throw a ball in roughly the direction I want. Once the ball has left the hand, though, there’s no changing its direction of flight. This life, here and now, is when God has given us the chance to choose our trajectory.
Young seminarian Michael knew this. It’s why we hear from his fellow seminarians and later from his students that he didn’t sleep lying down in a bed; his nights were spent in intercession for his students, and he walked the dormitory halls at night praying for each one.
The Russian exiles in the Philippines, on the island of Tubábao, were right in the place where deadly typhoons strike the eastern Philippines. They heard about the violence of the storms and were afraid. But the Filipinos at Tubábao reassured them, reminding them that their bishop walked the island at night, blessing and interceding for safety. The three years that the Russians were at Tubábao, there were typhoons, but not one person was harmed.
They had in their camp a man determined to acquire the grace of God.
Saints don’t appear instantly, fully-formed and holy. Saints are made, not born.
It’s the determination of Michael the youth and seminarian to pursue holiness, from his youth, that made Michael, later Father John, finally Archbishop John a saint and wonderworker.
St John told a parable:
There was a king who had a wicked son. Having no hope that he would change for the better, the father condemned the son to death. He gave him a month to prepare. And when the month went by, the father summoned the son. To his surprise he saw that the young man was noticeably changed: his face was thin and drawn, and his whole body looked as if it had suffered.
“How is it that such a transformation has come over you, my son?” the father asked. “My father and my lord,” replied the son, “how could I not change when each passing day brought me closer to death?” “Good, my son,” remarked the king. “Since you have evidently come to your senses, I will pardon you. However, you must maintain this vigilant disposition of soul for the rest of your life.”
“Father,” replied the son, “that’s impossible. How can I withstand the countless seductions and temptations?”
Then the king ordered that a cup be brought, full of oil, and he told his son: “Take this cup and carry it along all the streets of the city. Following you will be two soldiers with sharp swords. If you spill so much as a single drop they will cut off your head.”
The son obeyed. With careful steps, he walked along the streets, the soldiers accompanying him, and he did not spill a drop. When he returned to the castle, the father asked, “My son, what did you see as you were walking through the city?” The son responded, “I saw nothing.” “What do you mean, ‘nothing’?” said the king. “Today is a holiday; you must have seen the merchants with all kinds of goods for sale, many carriages, people, animals…” “I didn’t notice any of that,” said the son. “All my attention was focused on the oil in the vessel. I was afraid to spill a drop and lose my life.”
“Quite right, my son,” said the king. “Keep this lesson in mind for the rest of your life. Be as vigilant over your soul as you were today over the oil in the vessel. Turn your thoughts away from what will soon pass away, and keep them focused on what lasts forever.”
St John’s sermon continues:
If we turn our attention to our mind, we notice a torrent of successive thoughts and ideas. This torrent is uninterrupted; it is racing everywhere and at all times: at home, in church, at work, when we read, when we converse. It is usually called thinking, but in fact it is a disturbance of the mind, a scattering, a lack of concentration and attention. The same happens with the heart.
The same happens with the heart. Have you ever observed the life of the heart? Try it even for a short time and see what you find.
Something unpleasant happens, and you get irritated; some misfortune occurs, and you pity yourself; you see someone whom you dislike, and animosity wells up within you; you meet one of your equals who has now outdistanced you on the social scale, and you begin to envy him; you think of your own talents and capabilities, and you begin to grow proud. All this is rottenness: pride, carnal desire, gluttony, laziness, malice. One on top of the other, they destroy the heart — and all of this can pass through the heart in a matter of minutes!
Man’s heart is filled with poisonous serpents. Only the hearts of saints are free from these serpents, the passions. But such freedom is attained only through a long and difficult process of self-knowledge, working on oneself and being vigilant towards one’s inner life, one’s soul.
St John concludes:
Be careful! Keep watch over the thoughts you permit in your soul. Turn your thoughts away from what will soon pass away and turn them towards what is eternal. Here you will find the happiness that your soul seeks, that your heart thirsts for.
There’s a story from the seventh century, of a priest who served in a cemetery church. One night, after burying a Christian man who’d been a soldier, the priest was at his prayers, and he saw a brilliant light hovering over the grave of the newly-buried man. He went to look, and he saw an angel. At first he was afraid, but then he took courage and asked the angel why the newly-buried soldier was special, how he had come to merit the presence of an angel. The angel replied: “It is because not a single day of his life passed without him asking for the prayers of all the saints.”
Maybe you’ve noticed a theme in the lives of the saints: From childhood, St John pf Tobolsk, St Seraphim, and our St John loved the services of the Church, the Scriptures, practiced fasting and vigil and prayer. We read that St Nicholas, from his infancy, refused to nurse on fast days, and kept vigil in the Church. What a blessing!
But for most of us, it’s too late for “From his childhood.” The story of our life doesn’t have such a blessed beginning.
Saint Nikolai Velimirović told a story about a monk who was lazy, careless, and lacking in his prayer life; but throughout all of his life, he did not judge anyone. While he was dying, he was cheerful. When the brethren asked him, how is it that with so many sins, you’re dying happy? He replied, “I now see angels who are showing me a letter with my numerous sins. I’ve said to them, ‘Our Lord said: Judge not and you will not be judged; I have never judged anyone, and I trust in the mercy of God that He will not judge me.’ And the angels tore up the paper.”
Well, there isn’t time any more for our life story to say, “From his childhood he loved the Law of the Lord and he meditated in it day and night.” That ship has sailed.
But there is still time for:
- From that day, she resolved never to accuse anyone. From that day, never a judging word escaped her lips.
- From that day, he forgave everyone. He confessed that no one owed him anything. He never again spoke a word of complaint but only thanks for all things.
There is time for that! Now is the acceptable time; today is the day of salvation.
Like a baseball bat, it is in our power now to change the direction of the ball.
In the Desert Fathers, Abba Pœmen says:
As long as the pot is on the fire, no fly or mouse can get near it, but as soon as the pot cools, the creatures get inside. So it is for the [Christian]. As long as he lives in spiritual activities, the enemy cannot find a means of overthrowing him.
But we live in a culture with a small vision of “spiritual activities.” If we don’t have a prayerbook in our hand or we’re not standing at the divine services here in the temple, then we believe the lie that we are doing something unspiritual. Maybe nuns and monks are spiritual all the time, but we aren’t.
But, you know…
- Cleaning up after a messy baby,
- cooking a meal for which no one will thank you,
- refereeing arguments among your kids or employees,
- serving rude customers,
- sweating over too many bills and not enough money,
- filling out the same trivial paperwork and picking up the same socks again and again…
These are the ways we serve.
They’re opportunities to practice the presence of God.
If we can’t sing a doxology while doing tech support or talking to a social worker, we can remember Who is with us always and offer our real-life service to Him. If we can’t prophesy to the nations or feed the whole world, we can care for the humans He has put in front of us.
The cubicle worker and the parent doing laundry in the face of God, with intention, and trusting in divine Grace, is offering a sacrifice of service and love that the Lord receives like sweet incense.
And on the last day, many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
Through the prayers of our Father among the saints: John the wonderworker of Shanghai, San Francisco, and Kennewick, and to the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.