Monday, July 20, 2015

Farewell to St. Nicholas Parish

St. Nicholas Icon from 1500

Romans 15:1-7
1We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” 4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

‘Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you,’ writes St. Paul.  Or another way to say it is, ‘Accept one another, as Christ has accepted you.’ Or, ‘Appreciate one another, as Christ has appreciated you.’ Or ‘Embrace one another, as Christ has embraced you.’ Or, ‘Forgive one another, as Christ has forgiven you.’  Or as Jesus Himself says, ‘Love one another, as I have loved you.’

However you want to say it, this is what the gospel does.  This is what happens in a community when ‘Christ is in our midst.’ This is what Christians look like when they are being the Body of Christ.  This is what I found when I came to St. Nicholas more than two years ago.

Now before we get a big head and get all complacent, I’m not saying that we are perfect.  Um, I’ve been here long enough to know that we all have plenty of room to grow, individually, and we together have a lot to learn about what it means to be Jesus in this place.  I didn’t know what I would find when I walked in through that door in May of 2013, but it didn’t take too long before I realized that Jesus is here.  And where Jesus is, it doesn’t matter if the place is a beautiful cathedral with floor to dome icons, or a mud-walled hut, it doesn’t matter if you have a brightly colored flock of clergy bustling about or a lone reader chanting a service, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a ton of programs for every demographic or if you are struggling to find somebody, anybody to teach Sunday School to the children.  Because where Jesus is, where Jesus shows up, love happens.  And where love happens, healing happens.  And where healing happens, lives are changed.  And where lives are changed you find people looking and behaving more and more like Jesus.  And when that happens, we’ve become a beachhead of the Kingdom of God in this place.

When I came here 26 months ago, I was, as we say in South Carolina where I’m from, a hurtin’ puppy.  My marriage was falling apart.  I’m a pathological accommodator, among other things, and after years of trying to make it work, it wasn’t working.  We were long time missionaries in Ethiopia and Kenya and came back home for furlough hoping that some marriage counseling might help us get back to our lives and what we loved to do in Kenya.  The fact that I am still here is a clue that things did not go very well.  When I started attending here, I was in pain.  I was disoriented, I was ashamed, I was trying everything I knew to keep my life as I knew it from falling apart.
The months went by and it became painfully obvious that we were not going back to Kenya.  Even worse, it became painfully obvious that I no longer had a marriage.  And then I no longer had a home.  Or a family.  And then it looked like my calling as a missionary educator was history, too.  This all happened in slow motion.  I went from being a university professor to losing my family, my home, my job and my calling, living in a small room provided by a kind old man in a little town in central Virginia of all places.

But as this small tragedy was unfolding in my small life, I was coming here week by week.  I got to know Fr. Robert.  Several of you decided to take a risk and sit next to the new guy during our fellowship hour.  And I decided to take a risk and let some of you know what was really happening.  I’ve been in many contexts before where the sort of things I had to share would result in being removed from positions or ostracized from the community I was a part of.  But instead of being shunned or punished, you listened to me, and you loved me.  In those moments, in those dark days, you were the very love of Jesus, listening to me, encouraging me, giving me a hug.  I will forever be grateful.

The rest of my time here is like a dream.  Out of the wreckage of my old life, at my lowest place, when I was back in Nairobi in February of 2014 to sell all our furniture and things and draw a line under my life in Africa and my career as a missionary – it’s at that point that God opened His door.  Two days before I was to come back to the States, Fr. Evangelos, a friend of mine who was now vice rector of the Orthodox seminary in Nairobi, asked me, ‘Now tell me again why are you leaving us?’  And I said, because marriage is likely ending in divorce.  I think I’ve pretty much disqualified myself from being of any further use in Christian ministry.  To which he said, ‘You know, this is precisely why Jesus came, so that our sins might be forgiven.  And not only that our sins might be forgiven, but that we might be given a second chance.  Joseph, we really need you here, we really want you here.  In fact, His Eminence Makarios, the Archbishop of Kenya wants you to come and teach at the seminary there.’  I was stunned.  I had actually come to his office to sign over my car to the Archdiocese, because I was donating it for their use.  But Fr. Evangelos took the papers that I had just signed and said, ‘I’m not going to take these papers to the Department of Motor Vehicles.  Instead, I’m going to put them in this folder, and put them in this drawer and keep them right here.  Because when you come back, you are going to need a car.’

I could tell more stories.  But it’s enough to say that somehow, God then opened the door for OCMC to take me on as one of their missionaries.  And somehow, with the astonishing help of this parish and many of you, I was able to raise two years of what it takes to keep a missionary on the field.  And that brings us to right here right now.

Tomorrow, I’ll be getting on an airplane that will take me first to Paris and another one on to Nairobi, and then I will get settled in my new home at the seminary and start teaching courses at the University.  I actually start teaching on August 10th, and they’ve assigned me a church history course to teach, ‘The History of Monasticism’!  But being a missionary is not about going overseas and being a university professor and teaching courses, even Christian courses.  Instead, that’s just a front.  I could be a gardener, or an auto mechanic, or a sales person, or a stay-at-home mom or dad, or the front desk guy at the YMCA.  Because the real thing that a missionary does is reach out to the people God brings to me, in this case my students and my colleagues, and love them as Jesus has loved me.  Any spiritual transformation that takes place will not happen through the readings I assign or the assignments I give (though God can certainly use them).  But His ordinary way of touching the lives of people with His transforming power is through relationships.  My mission is to make disciples, and that happens conversation by conversation, relationship by relationship, through serving, giving, listening, welcoming.

I’m going to Kenya.  OK, that’s pretty exotic.  And I’ve been given the label ‘missionary’, and that’s really exotic.  Sometimes the presence of people like us missionaries and us clergy give people the impression that we pay those people to do the ‘ministry’ so that we can live our ordinary lives and then come by every week or so and benefit from the good things they do.  That’s a common attitude in the churches and amongst Christians of all stripes.  But that’s not what we find in the NT.  That’s not an attitude that’s shared by the Apostle Paul.  It’s what one might call missing the point when it comes to what Jesus is doing when He calls us to Himself.

It’s really pretty simple.  Have you been loved by Jesus?  Have you been welcomed by Jesus?  Have you been embraced by Jesus?  Forgiven by Jesus?  Blessed by Jesus?  ‘As I have loved you,’ says the Lord, ‘so you should love one another.’

You see, from Jesus’ perspective, I am not the only missionary in this room right now; I’m not the only called one.  There is a call on your life today.  And there is a call on this parish today.  Many of you have already demonstrated that you get it.  Because when this hurting, confused soul wandered in your door a couple of years ago, you loved him.  And you took him by the hand when the storm got fierce.  And you helped him get to his feet when he was knocked down.  And now you are sending him on his way.

God is going to bring someone else into your lives, into this parish, for you to welcome, for you to love.  And then someone else.  And someone after them.  And as you take risks to love people, you will find that God helps you, He gives you the energy. He gives you the vision.  Resources are provided as if from nowhere. Love is a lot like the muscles of this body of ours.  Use it or lose it, I’ve been told.

But most people don’t just show up here like I did.  Most people have no reason to walk through those doors.  Most people have no idea of the hope that is the center of your life.  What Jesus said to his first disciples He says to you and me right now:  Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.  It’s not just missionaries!  It’s our call as Jesus’ disciples today, as Jesus’ Church today.  We don’t wait for the fish to come to us; instead we go to where the fish are and we throw our nets.

So here’s my parting challenge, both to you and to me.  Who are those individuals that God is bringing into your life right now.  Who is God asking you to welcome, to listen to, to help, to support, to hug, to come alongside of, to be there for?  Now that you are beginning to see, make a plan and do it.  Find ways to love this person.  And then see what happens and learn from your experience.  And then for us as a parish.  Who is God calling us to engage with?  Are these people who we will find coming through our door, or do we need to go where they are, or both?  Do we need to do something intentional with the university community?  Do we need to gird up our loins and pull together some sort of focused, intentional outreach like a bookstore or coffee shop or a school?   The need is there.  The call is there.  What will we do?  Jesus says, ‘You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:14-16)

My prayer for you as I go is that when other people come into your life, or find us as a parish, or those we get to know as we follow Jesus and reach out to those around us – My prayer is that each one of these people that God will bring across our paths will see Jesus and experience His love, just as I have, in this place.  I am so very grateful.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Parish, a year or so before I arrived.  With His Eminence Metropolitan Antony.

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