January 21, 2007
I can be a pain to travel with sometimes because I like looking at churches. Jane and I will be driving through a town and I may see a steeple and off we go a few blocks out of our way just to drive by and take a look. I like the look of churches. I like the smell of churches. Every church is unique and every one has a story.
People’s hopes and dreams used to be tied up in churches. In a culture where most people spent their whole lives in the employ of others the church was often the one place where a group of people could build something for themselves and create a legacy for the future. Even in an old church building you can still feel some of that spirit, the dreams and aspirations of people who have long since passed from the thoughts of those who serve and sing and worship in the present.
And I confess to a certain romanticism about it all. I may be naive but I do believe the world can be changed for the better by the Church. I do believe there is grace and power and life and light that resides even in the most humble parishes. Properly guided and allowed to flourish, it can change lives and communities and nations. It’s why I chose ministry and perhaps why ministry chose me and I’ve seen enough glimpses of the good stuff to know its real and there’s more out there and I’ve spent large portions of my life trying to help people discover it in themselves and their parish.
What you don’t know is that every time I come to St. Elias a transformation takes place inside of me. The church is empty when I arrive, the lights are off, and the only sound is usually Jane working on the bulletins downstairs. Almost every time as I go about the prayers before the liturgy I think to myself “Is it worth it?” “Am I making a difference?” Sometimes I’m tired. Sometimes I’m sad. Sometimes I worry. Sometimes I’m frustrated. But the prayers carry me along.
And without fail by the end of the Liturgy I am at peace and rest and any of the internal struggles have drifted away. I see your faces and feel your hearts and hope arises again. Every Sunday ends as it starts with the church dark, the sounds of Jane downstairs, and me standing in front of the altar one last time before I go. When I do I pray for revival here in the parish and I thank God for the privilege of serving you as Priest. The trip home passes in peace.
Everything in the life of the church can be taught except one thing. Our Orthodox history is full of examples for us to follow, saints to emulate, parishes who have modeled a life of holiness, service, and worship. There are a thousand techniques to make a church healthy, self supporting, growing, and thriving, and we can learn them together.
But only hope cannot be taught. It cannot be finessed. It cannot be sold like a product. It cannot be charmed. It exists or it does not and the very future of things is tied to whether it lives or has long since passed away. Everything can be taught except for hope.
If hope is present people will endure the struggle. When hope exists people will give of themselves for the sake of it. A living hope inspires. Hope gives wings to dreams, turns faith to sight, and transforms those who have it and those who need it. Hope is why this parish was founded and why it was restarted and it will be the core, if in God’s will we are to become what we were meant to be.
And what is hope?
For Christians hope is not just positive feelings or wishful thinking. Hope is not a disconnect with reality. Instead hope transforms the reality we experience in light of something larger and more real. Hope is a kind of vision that lets us see with the eyes of faith and know that God exists, God providentially has all time and history in His hands, and He will strengthen the weak, empower the powerless, bless the poor in spirit, work His salvation in us and in the world, and bring all creation back to His embrace.
Yes we must trust people and make plans but ultimately that is all secondary to this ultimate hope in God. This is the hope the Apostle Paul had as he writes in our epistle, the hope that allowed him to endure and work and see things yet to be as if they already were. Despite the troubles that often plagued him and the dangers he routinely faced he had a deep and abiding confidence in the love and care of God which guided every step he took and allowed him to come to the point where life, death, and all that we fear were swallowed up in the reality of God.
Hope in God can put a fire inside of us and give us the vision to see what we could be, what we were meant to be. Hope will give us the strength to bend our shoulders to the tasks ahead. Hope will give us generous hearts. Hope can motivate us to learn and grow. Hope stills our shaky voices and gives us the courage to stand and speak. Hope drives us to our knees to lift ourselves, each other, and our lives to Christ our God. Hope challenges us to stand together, work together, and be something greater together than what we could be apart.
In a little while we will be at our annual meeting to care for the business of this parish. Practical things must be handled but not as an end to themselves. My desire is that this meeting will be, above all, a place where hope begins to bloom, where we catch of vision of who God is that animates our future together and makes the nuts and bolts of things be filled with the life of God. Perhaps today can mark the start of our not giving in to fear, our temporary smallness, and the empty spaces in the pews. Maybe today will be the day when past struggles cease to haunt us, where our history gives us wings to fly, and hope moves us, in joy, to worship, prayer and action. Let this day be filled with an abiding trust in the reality of all that God is and because of it let us never be the same again.