Sunday, September 27, 2015

Boats, Fish, and Some Orthodox Evangelism

I got word of the invitation to preach at the downtown cathedral church when I got home last evening at dusk.  I read through the gospel passage for today's liturgy before going for a clear-my-mind run, and what came through was Jesus' unmistakeable call to follow him.  Moreover, even more dramatically was the response of Peter, his brother Andrew, and his business partners James and John - they left all and followed him.  Since I try to preach expository sermons, and since an expository sermon allows the text to determine the message, I decided to allow the text to do the preaching.  This can be challenging in a congregation as diverse as ours, and which likely has not heard an overtly evangelistic message in, say, well let's just say a long time.

Because of the liturgical and sacramental nature of Orthodoxy as it is practiced across the globe, the assumption is easily made that everyone who is there is somewhere on the way of salvation.  However, we forget that everybody had to start at some point  Even Peter, Andrew, James and John.  So this sermon is about Jesus calling them, calling us to take that first step with him, if we haven't.  In my past as an uber serious Calvinist, I always focused on Peter's response, 'Depart from me, Master, for I'm a sinful man', as being what happens when Jesus comes into our picture - he highlights our need for a savior.  But I now think that's reading a bit much reformation theology into the story.  In fact, the moment related, with this boat loaded three feet deep in flopping fish, and Jesus sitting there in the front watching it all happen as the four men are frantically scooping up even more (they just can't stop!  It must be a fisherman thing), is pretty funny.

Anyway, here's my attempt at following the text where it goes, which is to say, my attempt at some Orthodox evangelism from the pulpit of Sts. Cosmas and Damien Orthodox Cathedral in Nairobi.  I would love to be acquainted with other efforts at evangelism in Orthodox contexts.  I'm sure it's done - I just haven't come across any yet.

Lake of Gennesaret  (all lake pictures below are of Lake Gennesaret/The Sea of Galilee)

Luke 5:1-11
1Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2He saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.  3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore.  Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.  4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’  5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but caught nothing.  Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’  6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.  7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them.  And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.  8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.  Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’  11When they had brought back their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.

Let’s talk about boats.  How many of you have ever been in a boat?  How many have ever gone fishing in a boat?  Boats are a big deal in the New Testament.  Boats are mentioned in the gospels more than 50 times.  Jesus traveled by boat across the lake of Gennesaret a number of times.  At least four of his disciples had boats and were fishermen. 

Dug up from the mud in 1986: first century fishing boat

Did you know that the remains of a fishing boat were discovered along the shores of the Lake of Gennesaret in 1986 during a time of drought when the water was low?  They were able to extract it from the mud and preserve it.  It turns out this boat dates from the first half of the first century AD.  You can see it in a special museum they built for it.  It was likely being used when Peter and Andrew and James and John were making a living in their boats as fishermen.  It could have been one of the boats on the lake when Jesus was there.  Anyway, it’s about 27 feet long and 7.5 feet wide and about 4.5 feet deep, with a flat bottom so they could fish close to shore.  But it also has a place for a mast, so the owners could sail across the lake if they wanted to.

Replica of first century boat found in the mud.

Now that you have an idea of the kind of space that we’re dealing with, I want you to think about fish.  Lots of fish.  Jesus just asked Simon to go out a bit into the deep water and let down his nets for a catch.  And Simon very politely (because he is a fisherman and knows what he is doing) explained that there aren’t any fish here right now because they just spent the whole night doing just that.  But he humors Jesus and puts his net down anyway.  And all hell breaks loose.

'Peter's Catch of Fish' by Eric de Saussure, 1968

The net is full.  Fish are spilling into the boat.  More and more fish flopping out of the net, filling the floor with fish.  Simon yells to James and John and they row their boat out to help.  And now fish are flopping out of nets filling both boats.  More and more fish.  Simon and Andrew are up to their knees in fish and the boat is riding low with fish and about to take on water.

So there is Jesus, sitting in the front of the boat, surrounded by fish.  And Simon looks at Jesus and it suddenly connects what’s going on.  He realizes that there is way more to Jesus than he can comprehend.  ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’

You see, this isn’t the first time they encountered Jesus.  Jesus moved to Capernaum from Nazareth not so long ago, and he has been teaching and preaching in all the local synagogues.  He’s been doing miraculous healings and casting out demons.  Simon, Andrew, James and John have all likely heard Jesus; they have likely witnessed healings and exorcisms.  And now they are in their boats with Jesus and with more fish than they have ever brought to shore.  And Jesus says to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is more explicit:  ‘Come follow me, and I will make you catch people instead.’ (Mark 1:17)

And Luke says, ‘When they brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Him.’ (Luke 5:11)

So I’ve said something about boats.  And I’ve said something about fish.  I want to end by saying something about following Jesus, about discipleship.  First I want to say what discipleship is not.  Discipleship is not about being a church member.  Discipleship is not about growing up in a Christian family.  Discipleship is not about belonging to a particular ethnic group.  Discipleship isn’t about attending services, or even being a choir member or a chanter or serving at the altar.  Discipleship isn’t knowing a lot about Christianity, or Orthodoxy, or Jesus.  Now understand, I’m not saying that these things are not important.  I am saying that none of these things is what being a follower of Jesus is about.

We understand what being a disciple is all about by observing the first disciples.  Jesus called them.  They responded.  They left their fishing business, their boats, their homes, their extended families.  And they followed Jesus as he went from there through Galilee and Samaria and Judea and eventually to Jerusalem.  There they saw their Lord crucified and buried.  There they met Him risen from the dead.  There they saw him ascended to heaven.  There they were filled with the Spirit and began proclaiming the good news of the risen Lord.  And now that good news has come to us, right here, this morning.

Church of the Incarnation

Jesus’ presence changes everything.  And Jesus’ call to you will mean your life will never be the same.  And we can either pay no attention and continue to live our lives the way we have always lived them as if nothing has happened, as if nothing is different, as if nothing has changed, as if Jesus is not who He says He is.

Or we can hear His call, and respond, and leave our old life behind, and choose instead to follow him.  Something astonishing has to happen in a person’s heart to be willing to do this.  We have to become like Simon Peter up to our knees in fish – we have to see Jesus for who He is.  And once we see Jesus for who He is, we understand, and we too are willing to leave everything to follow Him.
Jesus calls us to a relationship with Him.  But he also calls us to surrender our lives and our agenda and everything we have and are over to him.  We now understand that who we are, what we do, what we have and what time is ours now belongs to Jesus for Him to use as He desires.  As the Apostle Paul says, ‘He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for Him who died and was raised for them.’ (2 Corinthians 5:15)

So who are you this morning?  Are you someone with the name of Christian only, or have you responded to Jesus’ call to you that you come and follow him, that you become his disciple?  Are you a Christian because your family is a Christian, or do you know the Lord Jesus as your Savior and your Lord? Are you growing in your relationship with Him?  If you have never responded to Jesus’ call, you can do so right here and right now.  I don’t know what the equivalent of a boat-full of fish is for you.  But Jesus’ hand is extended to you.  ‘Come follow me,’ he says.  ‘All the things you have built your life on are based on empty promises that will never satisfy and will take you further and further away from the only one who can satisfy and save and change and transform you heart and your life.‘ We don’t to altar calls here, at least like they do next door.  But that shouldn’t stop me or any one of us from saying, ‘Yes, Jesus, I want to know you.  I want to follow you.  Please forgive me for my selfish life.  Please make me your disciple.  Please change my heart.  Make me like you.’  The Christian life is a relationship, a journey, and a process.  But just like with Simon and Andrew, just like with James and John, it has to start someplace.  When they got to shore, they took the first step.  Do you remember when you took your first step?  And if you haven’t yet, what is keeping you from doing so now?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.e saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Human Hand of Christ

Pope Francis with President Obama at Andrews Airforce Base on Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pope Francis, in an interview with America Magazine from September 30, 2013, made the following remarkable statement:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality.  I replied with another question: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?”  We must always consider the person.  Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.  In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.  It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.  When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.  This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace.  The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better.

We must always consider the person.

How quick we are to respond to another person with what the media has become fond of labeling as ‘outrage’.  We cannot bear the slightest interference with our perceived personal dignity, nor can we endure anyone perceived as trespassing our delicate moral sensitivities.  Genuine concern over verbal and physical violence against persons for whatever reason has evolved into turning even a disagreement into ‘hate speech’ because I cannot abide the thought that someone somewhere might think that what I am choosing to do is wrong, morally or otherwise.  ‘We are only doing to them [the former Christian majority] what they have done to us’, I have heard it argued.  But vengeance has always been a poor policy choice, especially because it always displays its avengers as being no better than the ones with whom they perceive they are getting even or punishing.

The public square has always been a difficult place in which to have a genuine conversation.  But today the cup is so poisoned that listening is essentially extinct.  We are so concerned about defending our rights that we no longer care if in doing so we are trampling those of another.  After all, my rights are more important than yours.  We have reoccupied the childhood playground where the one who shouts loudest wins.  That’s why the Bishop of Rome’s words are so bracing:  ‘We must always consider the person.’  In the rush to establish and justify and defend agendas, agendas originally perhaps envisioned as a help to persons, we end of sacrificing people to the political and social and moral gods we have erected.  There is no salvation, no love, no peace or joy in what is happening in our public discourse, and in much of the private posturing that goes on as well.  When the ‘other’ ceases to be our enemy and becomes the one for whom we are concerned, then we are in a place where we can both hear and do the words of Jesus when he says things like, ‘Love your enemy, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.’ (Matthew 5:44)  John draws the contrast even more starkly: ‘If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he who does not love his brother whom he as seen, how can he love God whom he was not seen?  And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.’ (1 John 4:20-21)

I was having lunch with a PhD student yesterday, and I found myself on the receiving end of questions that led me to open up on a part of my life that I don’t normally discuss.  I found myself being honest about the pain that I had experienced and how disorienting it was to take risks of self-disclosure in what I had thought was a place of safety and be met instead by rejection and banishment.  She was particularly interested in why I had given up my former church and career and become Orthodox.  The reason being that, in contrast, it was here that I experienced love and mercy and grace at my point of need.  Then she used a striking phrase – she said that I had experienced the ‘human hand of Christ’, as people had reached out to me in mercy.  It turned out that she, too, had experienced great pain and had learned with sadness that places, such as the church or family, that should have been the safest of places, were in fact not.  It is a painful mystery to me: why those who claim to be Christians can choose to do this to one another (much less, to those outside the community of faith) and think it's ok to do so.

There is so much anger in so many people, and they think they are justified in taking this or that stand, using their words in destructive ways, getting ahold of the levers of power (civil, cultural or relational) and letting the other ‘have it’ as they are convinced the other deserves.  Anger blinds one to the other person as a person.  Each of these people that cross the barricades into our lives is actually an opportunity, either for me to justify myself and my anger and take vengeance; or to somehow be a part of the transformation of that relationship (and of the cosmos) by becoming the human hand of Christ.

And the consequences are nothing less than life or death.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Kenya Stories - A Tin Church, Two Boys, and a Lot of Love

I finished preaching at the little tin Church with a dirt floor called St. Nectarios.  I sat down behind the chanter’s stand and I noticed a little boy came right up and sat next to me.  The end of service announcements were under way.  And I noticed that every time I moved my hands, the little boy did the same thing with his hands.  I put my hands on my knees.  He put his hands on his knees.  I clasped my hands in my lap.  He clasped his hands in his lap.  By this time he was joined by a friend.  So I bent over and asked him what his name was.  ‘George!’  And I asked his friend: ‘Newton!’  So I decided to teach George and Newton how to join one’s hands in such a way as to bring them under and up and then through the little hole that’s created between one’s arms show them how to put one’s head through without letting go – a little trick I learned that has proved useful through several generations of working with children!  Seeing further potential, I went up and asked the leader if there might be an appropriate time to teach all the children my little trick.  So now I was standing up in front of everyone with the children standing with me, all of us twisting and contorting our arms and laughing out loud at how funny it made us look.  They wanted to try again and again.  By now I looked over and saw even the grownups, even the grandmothers with their arms out and clasping their crossed and thumbs-down hands and bringing them down and then up and trying to put their head through.  It was so much fun making everybody laugh – especially the children.  Especially George and Newton.  Because both these boys live in the Orphanage next to the little tin Church with the dirt floor.  George has no parents.  Newton has a mother.  But he was rescued from a Nairobi slum because his mother was too drunk to know where he was or even to care.  And it turns out the Newton is exhibiting all the symptoms of child fetal Alcohol syndrome.  He is supposed to be in the third grade, but he can’t sit still and has trouble focusing.

I’m so glad I got to sit next to George and Newton.  I’m glad I could make them laugh.  And I’m glad all the other children and grownups could laugh together.  But most of all, I’m glad that both George and Newton have been rescued from their nightmares.  It will still be hard, especially for Newton, who must live through the consequences of choices his mother and father have made.  But at least they are in a safe place.  And have a home where they are loved and fed and cared for. And have a church home that’s filled with people who think their lives are worth the effort it takes to start an orphanage and keep it going.

Love that’s more than words.  It’s pretty awesome when one comes across it.

St. Nectarios Church near Ngecha in Kiambu not so far from St. Paul's University

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Mwingi, Martyrs and Mission

Our mission this past Sunday was to go to Mwingi, which is just enough down from Kenya’s central highlands to be seriously hot and dry.  Mwingi is on the one paved road to Garissa, the eastern town towards Somalia where earlier this year Islamist gunmen invaded the university, separated out the Christian students from the Muslims, and systematically executed them.  152 Christian students were martyred because they chose to own their faith rather than passing themselves off as a Muslim and escaping with their life.  

The names of some of the students who were martyred because they professed Christ.

I mention this because increasingly, for us Christians, the cost of discipleship is no longer hypothetical.  Despite the best attempts of so-called ‘health and prosperity’ preachers (who are legion here) to make our well-being and comfort the mark of God’s blessing on one’s life (the same sort of assumption that infects most actual Christianity in the US!), our New Testaments declare that the true mark of God’s blessing and the Holy Spirit’s fullness will be lives poured out in love for neighbor, as well as joy and peace, patience and kindness, goodness and gentleness, and self-control.  My attempt to gain the world, or even have it both ways, results in losing my soul.  The evidence of two thousand years of Church history notwithstanding, we always think that our case is different, and that what has always applied to everyone else somehow does not apply to me.  The martyrs of Garissa give the lie to all this.  Their sudden, unlooked for deaths underline for all of us the hope of the Resurrection.  Because if the glitter of this world is all there is, and that’s all we have, then we of all people are to be most pitied – we strain towards a mirage; every path ends in death.  That’s why the forgiveness of our sins, though crucial, is not enough – we need a Savior who will also rescue us from this body of death.  And that’s why this ancient gospel is such good news today, because Christ is risen, trampling down death by death.  And He will raise up all the martyrs of every age who have suffered and given themselves as an offering for Christ.  And the rest of us whose ongoing death to self has characterized our own life in Christ, He will call us by name on the last day and raise us up, too.

St. Lazarus Orthodox Church, on the Garissa Road east of Mwingi

So my thoughts were on Garissa as we drove twenty kilometers past Mwingi to what was surely the middle of nowhere.  Only here in the middle of nowhere, a small circle of men and women, looking for the ancient faith of the Church, reached out to our Archbishop to establish an Orthodox Church here.  A very generous man contributed a piece of land big enough, not just for a Church, but for a school and hospital as well.  They built a mud-walled house with a tin roof and celebrated liturgy there for years until they had saved up enough money to build a stone church.  And now, today, we were to help them with what they hoped would be their final fundraiser (a ‘Harambee’, which means ‘pull together’) so that they could finish their building.  St. Lazarus Orthodox Church is the only Orthodox Church in this part of Kenya.  To the east towards Garissa, the population is increasingly Somali and Muslim.  And in Kamba land (the people in Mwingi are Kamba), the predominant Christian presence is the Africa Inland Church, the fruit of the efforts of generations of Africa Inland Mission missionaries.  Though St. Lazarus Church is small, they have the sense of being a part of something bigger. Orthodoxy in Kenya is like the mustard seed I read about in the Gospel this morning – it may have started as the smallest of seeds, but it is growing and will fill this place with its fruit.  

What a mustard seed looks like

With their own giving and the Archbishop’s help, St. Lazarus Church will be able to finish its building, and maybe even construct a bell tower.  The children sang for us.  The ladies fixed a wonderful meal.  And then it was time to make the three hour drive back to Nairobi.

In line for the Holy Mysteries

Since last I wrote I have also taught two courses in my role as Senior Lecturer at St. Paul’s University.  The first was an undergraduate course in the History of Early Christianity at our extension site in the northwestern Kenyan town of Kitale.  The second was a Masters-level course on the History of Western Christianity up to the Reformation.  Both of these courses were ‘modular’, which means I gave all the content in one week of lecturing five hours a day.  And then the students work on written assignments and prepare for the final exam in November.  It’s not my favorite way to teach.  But I am so grateful to be back, and it’s enough to be a contributing member of our faculty again.

My Kitale class of Church Historians ('ACK' stands for 'Anglican Church of Kenya)

Our new term at St. Paul’s starts this week.  Theoretically I will have three courses to teach.  I have been assigned only one so far, a course in our new PhD program (which I helped to design back in 2012-2013) in Systematic Theology on ‘Theological Hermeneutics’.  Just now as I write this, I’ve received an email telling me that I will teach the undergraduate Systematic Theology 3 course, which includes the Holy Spirit and Sanctification, the Church and the end times.  I am guessing I will also be given a course to teach at our downtown Nairobi campus, but so far that is just a guess.  I have learned that this sort of last minute communication when it comes to course assignment is simply the way it is.  I just hope I find out with enough time to prepare!

St. Paul's Library, with the new Admin and Graduate Studies buildings in the background

Our term at Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary won’t start until October.  But it looks like we have a new class of twenty who will join us, making fifty students altogether.  It seems miraculous to me that the financial situation (while still not good) has improved to allow us to have this many.  Thanks be to God.

Here are some things to pray for:
1. Pray that I would manage my time well and have enough time to prepare the content of my courses at St. Paul’s.
2. Pray that I would take time to get to know my students and build good relationships with them.
3. Pray that funding would be secured so that all the Makarios III seminary’s needs can be met and so our compound workers’ salaries can be paid. 
4. Pray for wisdom as a committee of us works to transform the seminary’s certificate into an accredited Bachelor of Theology degree.

Here are a few more pictures from a busy month.

The little mission parish of St. Nectarios, not far from St. Paul's Limuru campus.
I helped chant the liturgy and preached here a couple of weeks ago.

Inside St. Nectarios Church

Children singing as the offering is presented.

Members of this little parish have started an orphanage.  These four boys now have
a warm, safe place to call home.  There are 15 additional children being helped here.

Amani kwa wote - Peace be unto you.
His Eminence Makarios Archbishop of Kenya during the Divine Liturgy in Mwingi this past Sunday.