This Sunday's semon in advance..

June 1, 2008

In days gone by it was often the custom for Orthodox to plant a new church simply by gathering a group of the appropriate immigrant ethnicity, sending them a Priest, and then let time and birth rate do its work. If there were enough of the appropriate group and they were reasonably pious and fertile the Parish would take root, and if not it would struggle, wither and die. Looking back it probably seems like a haphazard way of doing things, little planning, little support, limited strategic thinking, a recipe for failure. But if often worked and many of the larger and “successful” parishes in any number of Orthodox jurisdictions were built in just this way.

And how could they have known better? For the most part the Orthodox who came to this country came from two contexts. Either their church was the state church or it was a minority church living in varying levels of persecution or struggle. Either way these contexts often meant Orthodoxy was the faith of the tribe, the clan, the nation and planning, intentionality, and evangelism were either culturally unknown or considered unnecessary or impossible. The American context free of both a state church and persecution, a context where churches had to stand on their own effort and grow by conversion was unlike anything most Orthodox had ever experienced and the adjustment was, and still is, difficult. The great exception to this was Alaska where Orthodox missionaries worked hard to develop parishes drawn from the native population with indigenous leadership and liturgies in the native languages. But the lessons from that experience were largely lost on the rest of Orthodoxy in this country where, even to this day, many parishes are considered to be cultural outposts with leadership still drawn from the old country and liturgies in languages only a few can understand.

And it appears that in a general way this was the context in which St. Elias was brought into being, a gathering of an immigrant population sent a Priest in the hope that a shared culture, piety, and fertility would do their work. It was an old country model in a new world and in St. Elias’ case it didn’t succeed. There simply were'nt enough of all the things those who founded the church counted on and the parish lapsed into a netherworld of needing leadership and direction to grow but being too small to support the leadership it needed. Precious time and its potential were lost and a generation drifted away. Only the services of traveling Priests and the faith of a remnant kept St. Elias from disappearing from history until the parish was reborn. And now here I am, and you too, in this moment just a short while away from a Parish meeting to discern God’s will for the future.

The stated topic is about whether there’s enough to provide for Jane and I in full time service. Can the Parish not wishfully, not crossing their fingers and hoping the Festival turns out okay, support a Priest, any Priest, in a legitimate full time ministry? But I believe larger things are being called to mind.

Among these is one of the simplest lessons from our history, one that because it has become part of the background of our Parish is often neglected. There must be a reason why we’re here. For whatever else St. Elias is it’s a church that’s tough to kill, a church which should have been a footnote in some dusty book but has somehow managed to endure through the years. There is no rational reason why we should be here today because this Parish violates all the basic rules of how to plant, grow, and sustain a church, yet here we are. Some parishes are graced with a miraculous weeping icon as a sign of God’s favor but our every day miracle is that this Sunday the doors were open. And this quiet miracle calls us to consider that we are still, despite our circumstances, under divine favor. God still has a plan for us, some reason why we should be here, some call on our lives as a Parish. The book is on St. Elias is not yet closed, in fact we may not have truly even opened it yet.

The Scriptures tell us that without a vision the people perish. And far more then the nuts and bolts of how we can afford a Priest there is the question of our vision. It makes no sense to just send Priest after Priest into a parish without a plan, without a direction, without a sense of the call of God on their lives. The Church is a living movement, the vital transforming Kingdom of God placed in the world for the sake of the world’s salvation. The Church does have an institutional dimension, we need to pay the bills and keep the lights on, but that institution is a servant of the larger vision and not its substance. If we come to understand that God wants us here the first question we have to ask is not “How can we afford a Priest?” but “Why has God placed us here and allowed us to remain?” We are part of something infinitely larger then ourselves that wishes to show itself here.
Discover that and the rest will follow.

And from that vision comes intention and intention is key.

We as Orthodox in this country too often live without intention. We came from countries where our Faith and its life were either universal or persecuted and we became used to floating in either of those tides. We are decades past the time when we can count on our nation, our clan, our language, or our culture to sustain us. We speak in this country of cradles and converts but in truth in this country and in every country where we find ourselves whether as an established church or in persecution and struggle we must all be converts, people of intention for whom our Faith and our Parish is a central fact of our lives shaping and molding how we live in a world often deeply alienated from God.

In our personal lives this means that we have to live as actual Orthodox Christians not as Americans with an Orthodox veneer. We struggle with our ethnicity at times but truly the most dangerous ethnicity to Orthodoxy is our general acceptance of the materialistic and secular values of this country. A few words here and there in Greek or Arabic or Bulgarian are not nearly as great a threat to us as our wholesale adaptation to the values of our times. One makes some of us puzzled at times, the other kills our souls. It’s important to ask “How can we support a Priest?” but its more important to say “How do I grow in my faith, how can I let it’s life shine through me, how can I be truly Orthodox?” Answer that question and the other will be easy.

In our Parish it means we have to rediscover who we are. The dullness of so many in Orthodoxy, truthfully, often lies with those who wear these vestments. We have not taught you what the Church is and what it means and so too many have been going through the motions, feeling a sense of obligation but none of the lively substance of who we are. It becomes easy, then, when the choice is between the temporary thrill of a football game or a pleasant morning’s sleep to let the Church slide. Often when we do take part in the life of the Parish it’s out of guilt or even the sense that we have to do something so we can stand before God with our pile of good things and use it to pry open heaven’s door, but our heart is far away.

Yet the Church was never meant to be this way. The Church is a movement established by God to radically transform the world into blessedness. People have a religious fervor for politics because they’ve come to believe that politics matters because it has the power to change things. And when faced with a sleeping, passive, Church who could blame them? Too often when we see the Church we see buildings and programs, none of which are bad in themselves, but when our Lord speaks of the Church he uses words like “salt”, “light”, “yeast”, “kingdom”, words that call to mind images of life and vigor and transforming change. People who see this see the Church as powerful, dynamic, and life giving and when they do they see themselves not as passive spectators watching a show but active and intentional members of the most revolutionary group of people ever. It’s good to ask “How can we pay the bills?” but if you ask first “How can I rediscover the reality of the Church and my place in it?” the other question will be answered.

And all of this leads us to our desperate need of the Holy Spirit. We are literally lifeless without Him in our lives. Our life as Orthodox Christians, the saints tell us, is about the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and more than anything else in these days we need to open up the windows of our lives and our parishes and let a fresh wind of the Spirit blow in and through us, cleaning out the dust, scrubbing away our defilements, and calling us to heavenly things. Our friends in the Pentecostal churches can sometimes take this to emotional excess but at its core they are right when they see that in our own strength this Christian life, as individuals and parishes, is impossible but by the power of the Holy Spirit everything is possible.

In our baptism and chrismation the Holy Spirit came to us and lives in us even still but I must confess there is much in my life that has choked His life out. I am consumed by cares and sins and the sheer weight of my own mortality and I presume that my state is not unique. The truth is that before we gather and work out a way for any Priest to come to this parish and serve we first need to ask the Holy Spirit to come to us, warm us, cleanse us, and give breath again to our dry bones. As we are filled again all our other questions and needs will find their answer in God’s good time.

So, in truth I, in some ways, don’t care at all if a plan is developed today to allow Jane and I to come and live in LaCrosse. I can travel if I need to and God, in time, will provide. I would much rather have you use this time to make a more important decision. I would much rather have you unchain yourselves from the struggles of the past, open your hearts and lives to the quickening power of the Holy Spirit, and resolve today that you and this parish will never be the same again. And from this day forward if you would decide to change your lives and our lives, as God gives us strength, and become fervent in prayer, lively in faith, and full of good works the one who said “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness and all these things will be added unto you…” will answer all our questions and care for us all the way home.

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