In my 18 months of preaching in our beloved Church, this has been the sermon that has generated the most discussion of any I have given. Below is the text I preached on May 7, along with answers to questions that were raised.
Several months ago at the Parochial School our children attend, the 8th grade was holding a raffle to raise money for their school trip to Washington DC. Now many of you know my attitude towards raffles, and I must say that once again I cringed to think that this Christian school had to convince people to support a worthy school trip by offering back to the contributors a chance to win a prize. As I wondered why people couldn't just support something worthwhile out of the goodness of their hearts, instead of being motivated by the chance of winning something, the loudspeaker of the school announced the three prizes of the School Raffle -- 1st prize: $100 worth of lottery tickets; 2nd prize: $100 Gift Certificate to Foxwoods Casino; 3rd Prize: $100 Gift Certificate to Mohegan Sun [Casino.]
Do you know that in Massachusetts, 47% of 7th graders, and 75% of high school seniors have played the lottery? Massachusetts sells more than $3 billion in lottery tickets each year, which comes out to $500 for every man, woman and child in the state! And today, 44 states have lotteries, 29 states have casinos, and 48 states allow some type of legalized gambling! Imagine, Americans gamble more than $600 billion each year!
Lotteries! Casinos! Raffles and games of chance! What education do we offer our children when we introduce them to such things at a young age. Of course, first and foremost we must look at ourselves. How many of our own parishioners regularly buy lottery tickets? Or how many of our parishioners enjoy the "entertainment" of Foxwoods and other casinos? I read an article recently which stated that senior citizens are the number one age group of people going to casinos, spending countless hours of their retirement gambling, while they are treated royally, getting a free meal here and there, and enjoying their time in what some try to say is harmless entertainment!
During this 2nd week of Easter, as we continue to bask in the joy of the Myrrh-bearing women who proclaimed the good news of our Lord's Resurrection to his disciples, I want to raise a difficult and maybe uncomfortable question. "Is there a message from our Lord's Resurrection about the lottery, casinos, raffles and gambling in general?"
Now, I know I'm walking on shaky ground with some of you when I talk about casinos, lotteries, raffles and gambling entertainment. In fact, I've waited a year to talk about this subject because I know how touchy it can be. Today, however, I ask each of you to stay open in listening to what the Gospel and our faith teach. This may be a challenging sermon for some, but the Church must never lose her prophetic voice in preaching the Gospel unadulterated, no matter what the opinion of the world around it may be.
Archbishop Anastasios of Albania has said, "With Christ's Resurrection everything was made new again, everything was restored." As Christians, we look at life from a radically new perspective following the Resurrection. Divine Love has conquered the world! Our Lord Jesus Christ offered Himself, the perfect person, in sacrificial love for the sins of the world. It doesn't matter that the world rejected him, ridiculed him, persecuted him, and even killed him. His love does not depend on the world, but comes from His very nature. He loves unconditionally and without limit, because He cannot do anything but love. God is love, and He told His disciples, "No greater love has a person than this, to lay down their life for the other." (Jn 15:13)
Obviously, such "agape love" is the essence of our Christian faith. To love God with all our soul, heart, mind and strength, and then to share this divine love with our neighbor around us summarizes the Christian Gospel. Our identity badge as Christians is our love! As Jesus taught, "The world will know you are my disciples by the love you have for one another."
Throughout the centuries, the saints of the Church have repeated and paraphrased this, by saying. "The other is my salvation. The other is Christ is disguise. I show my love for God by how I show my love for the other!"
Now what does this love that Christ exemplified on the Cross, this love that we see victorious in the Resurrection, this love that Christ instilled in His followers and commanded them to witness and share with the world around them, what does this love have to do with lotteries and casinos and gambling and other forms of "gaming entertainment?"
When I asked my friend Metropolitan John, the bishop of Korca in Albania, what I should focus on in a sermon about gambling and casinos and lotteries, he immediately said one thing -- focus on love!
Too often in the past, the Church and its preachers have condemned gambling from the moralistic perspective of the passion of greed. Our Christian emphasis, however, shouldn't focus on the negative, but on the Good News. And the Good News is love! God's love. Christ's divine love. Jesus filling our hearts with His love, and than granting us the responsibility of acting as His ambassadors in sharing His love to the world around us. What a special blessing, and an incredible privilege to love!
The entire gambling mentality -- from lotteries to casinos to bingo to raffles -- represents the exact opposite of love. In gambling, one wins at the expense of others. The bigger we win, the more others have to lose! Christ teaches us to love the other, even to the point of dying for the other! In contrast, our passion for exciting gambling entertainment, which feeds off our desire to win (and we can't deny, our greed for money), leads us to ignore the fact that we are winning at the expense of others! The thrill of gambling blinds us to our neighbor! When we buy a lottery ticket, in hopes of winning the jackpot 50 million dollar lottery, we're not thinking of our neighbor. We're not interested in hearing statistics that show how the poor and uneducated and lower classes buy the greatest percentage of lottery tickets. All we dream about is winning!
Imagine if I win the $50,000,000 lottery. How many people have to lose? For Foxwoods to build its multi-million dollar palace, or I recently read about a new casino complex in Las Vegas which will cost 2 billion dollars, think for a moment how many people have to lose to build such luxurious buildings? You may not have a gambling addiction, but are we acting as Christian brothers and sisters to those who do, by making gambling so socially acceptable and accessible? By making it seem so attractive and harmless? What are we doing to our children by introducing them to such temptations at young ages?
One friend of mine even had the audacity to tell me about the wonderful family vacations that the casinos in Las Vegas are promoting. It's fun for the whole family, the casinos claim! Are we so ignorant, and out of touch with our conscious and reality, to truly believe that the gambling industry is interested in the innocent entertainment of our children?
Casinos, lotteries and other gambling entertainment (and I include here Church money raffles and bingo) have nothing to do with love for the other, but everything to do with love of self and love of easy money at any expense! We justify such gambling by saying it's just fun and entertainment. Some even say, "It's MY way of passing MY time." The focus, you see, is on ourselves, not on the other. We want to gain, not through hard work, not through offering a service to people, not through teaching our people to support a good cause from the goodness of their hearts, but through the loss of the other!
We want to be entertained without thinking of the other. "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain asked God the age-old question back in the Old Testament. To which the Gospel wholeheartedly answers an affirmative, "YES, we are our brother and our sister's keeper!"
I know that this is surely not a sermon everyone will be comfortable with! I expect a reaction, and even hope for a discussion, from some of you. In the end, though, I know that we all are free to choose the path we will take, and I respect the freedom of everyone. Regardless of one's freedom and choice, however, the Church must continue to proclaim the truth of our Lord's Good News. If we shout with conviction and joy "Christ is Risen!" this victory of the Resurrection of life over death, and of good over evil, demands a response in our daily lives. Archbishop Anastasios reminds us, "[From the Resurrection onwards], the question posed for each one of us has been whether or not to participate in this restoration!"
As serious and mature Orthodox Christians, will we participate in the selfless love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and make the holistic commitment of love for one another which our faith demands? We can't just connect our Christian faith to what we do on Sunday mornings, and ignore it the rest of the week. We shouldn't remove our Orthodox faith from the entertainment in which we participate. In the end, a living faith has everything to do with every aspect of our lives (including our forms of entertainment), as well as with our relationship with our neighbor!
Remember, the Bible describes God as a jealous God, in the sense that He desires total loyalty. He looks for radical commitment! He longs to consume us with His overwhelming and burning love! He asks us to give up our self-centered pursuits, and place the needs of our neighbor, "the other," in front of our own!
Lotteries! Casinos! Raffles! And games of chance! From the perspective of divine love and resurrection, we have much to think about!!
Questions and Reactions on Gambling and Raffles
I'm not addicted to gambling. I believe everything is ok in moderation. Why not moderation with casinos, gambling and raffles?
There is an famous Greek saying, "Everything in moderation." The Gospel of our Lord, however, does not agree with this. We do not accept a moderation in adultery, or in stealing, or in lying. Our goal as Orthodox Christians is to continually strive to become saints, united with Christ. This implies a great struggle to grow in divine love, in holiness, in purity of heart, in union with God! We can never preach moderation in anything that stands contrary to our Lord's teachings and life itself! We will never reach spiritual perfection, but we must strive to be going in the right direction, never justifying our shortcomings or vices as "moderation."
Tell me what is wrong with Church money raffles? The majority of the money goes to the Church, so it is like a donation?
Our Lord asks us to give back to Him in a cheerful manner, out of sincere gratitude and purity of heart. When we offer back to God from the blessings He has given us, we shouldn't play games. We don't hope to win some monetary prize back when we give to our Creator. A mature Christian will freely and joyously give back to our Lord, and strive to give more and more as he grows in God's grace. No strings attached, and no gimmicks to motivate people. Instead we should inspire, educate, and challenge the faithful to live up to their faith!
But our Church, like so many other Churches, relies on raffles to support its budget, doesn't it?
Last year, approximately $17,000 out of our $100,000 budget came from raffles. This is an amount that we could raise in other ways. In fact, this year with our new Stewardship Program, members have pledged $20,000 MORE THAN what we were estimating to cover our ministries and expenses. This is obviously the ultimate goal - to have our faithful stewards support our Church and her ministries out of the goodness of their hearts!
In other words, are you trying to eliminate raffles in our Church?
In the Christian life, we should all be striving to come closer to God and become more and more Christ-like in our lives. This means that in every aspect of our lives, we are constantly evaluating ourselves and striving to "repent," which means to "turn back towards God." We are never perfect, but we are trying to go in the right direction. This Christian struggle is a life-long effort! In like manner as a Church, we should strive to truly be "the Church, as the living Body of Christ." We need to constantly evaluate all that we do as a Christian community, and anything that is not in line with our Lord and His teachings, we should try to eliminate over time. The important thing is that we are trying to go in the right direction! So, whether it happens over this year, or over the next several years, the important point is that we are moving in the direction of our faith!
For me, going to the casinos is a way of passing my time. Gambling Entertainment helps my loneliness. If I don't mind my losses going to the casino, what's wrong with that?
Many seniors especially make the trip to the Casinos because they get treated well, they pass their time surrounded by luxury, they can get a good meal, and they feel that they don't have much else to do. This is a serious challenge to the Church and our community at large. Our society no longer provides natural fellowship and outlets for interaction. We can stay at our homes, sit in front of TV for countless hours, then get in our cars and not come face to face with our neighbors or those who live nearby. Our Church communities need to create outlets of loving and meaningful fellowship, where our faithful can pass their time in ways that not only don't contradict the Gospel, but even help one journey further along the path towards the Kingdom of Heaven.
Fr. Luke Veronis pastors the Sts. Constantine and Helen Church in Webster, MA, while teaching mission classes at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, St. Vladimirís Seminary, and Hellenic College.