Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Dearth of American Orthodox Missions

I gave this message this past New Year's eve Sunday in a parish in Pennsylvania.  This particular parish is actually one of the exceptions, trying to do their part with what they have to reach their community and also support Orthodox overseas missionaries.  There are other parishes like them.  And we have a fantastic and effective sending agency to facilitate the sending of Orthodox missionaries, the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). But as we will see, we American Orthodox Christians and our leaders still have some work to do.

This coming Tuesday morning, everyone of us who is a student will get up, get dressed, have breakfast and put our warm clothes on and head out the door because of what?  Apologies, but You’re going to school!  And when you get to school, what are you going to do?  You are going to listen, take notes, discuss get in groups - you are going to learn.  And what’s the purpose of you going to school and learning?  So you can get into a university and do more learning.   And you go and do that because that’s one of our culture’s best ways of enabling you to support yourself and your family and to enable you to pursue your dream.  That means all the young people in this room right now have a mission.  To go to school and do the best they can so that with God’s help the right doors will open for you to be the man or the woman God is calling you to be.

And you men and women here this morning,  when you wake up on Tuesday or Wednesday, there’s a good chance that you are going to get yourself ready and then do what?  Go off to work. And what are you doing going to work?  Most of us work because we need to support ourselves and our family.  And that’s important.  But God has you there for an even bigger reason, so that you can be God’s light in that place, so that you can be God’s love in that place.  So you get up and go to work because you know that God is in the middle of all this and so you have a mission.

But what about us as a church?  Why do we exist?  What brings us together?  Someone might say, so that the Mysteries can be celebrated and offered.  And yes, that is very important.  Someone else might say so that we can grow in Christ and attain theosis.  And yes that too is very important.  But many of us have lost sight that this is not all.  There’s more!  We don’t just have a mandate to love and serve one another in our parishes, as important as that is.  We also have a purpose, a calling, a mission.  We don’t just face inward.  We face outward, and with intent.  But for most parishes [there are a number of wonderful exceptions, but they serve to prove the rule], it’s sort of like getting off a plane at an airport and then collecting my bag and then waiting with other people for a bus.  And a bus comes and we all get on, and then the bus starts going.  And it is a proper bus, with comfortable seats, and a loo in the back.  It might even have an entertainment screen on the seat back in front of you.  But after a few minutes you look around, and some of your fellow passengers have fallen asleep.  Others are watching a movie.  Others are engrossed in conversation.  But you are wondering, where are we going?  And so you ask the person next to you, ‘Do you know where we are going?’  And they don’t.  And so you ask someone else, and they don’t either.  And so you go up to the driver and ask her. And she doesn’t know either.  And so you check the bus number, and it is the right bus, its the ‘ortho’- bus so to speak.  We seem to be making good time, but it’s good time to nowhere, because nobody knows where we’re supposed to be going.

Makeshift Iconostasis at a Divine Liturgy under at tent in a newly organising parish in Kenya.

Or let me put it another way.  In our gospel reading, John the Baptist is set apart because he has a mission.  And he gives everything he has to accomplishing that mission, of preparing the way of the Lord.  And when the Lord Jesus comes, he too has a mission.  And he gives everything he has to accomplish that mission, the mission of bringing salvation to all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.  And the apostles, and those other men and women who were around Jesus, who heard him teach, watched him heal and perform miracles, saw him die, witnessed him resurrected from the dead, those men and women also had a mission - to be witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

And we, Christians today, we our Lord’s Church today, we have a mission.  Because our mission hasn’t changed from when our Lord Jesus commissioned his apostles and all his followers to go in his name and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  And then he gave this promise to them - Look, as you go in my name, I will be with you always, from now until the end.  And my Holy Spirit will empower you and enable you to fulfil the mission I am giving you.

l/r Fr. Dcn James and his wife Jane, Bishop Athanasios, Fr. Agapios, and Dr. Bill,
on a preaching mission to Butali, Kenya in July 2017.

Did you know that we have a mission?  We Christians?  We the Church?  And do you know how we are supposed to accomplish this mission?  Paul puts it this way:  ‘How can they call on Someone of whom they don’t know?  And how will they believe in Him if they have never heard of Him? And how can they hear without a preacher?  And how can someone preach unless they are sent?  As it is written:  How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!’ (Romans 10:14-15, paraphrase mine)  We are Gospel people, says Paul.  We are either being sent, or we are helping with the sending.  And we are either being sent or helping to do the sending because we want all the people’s of the world to hear the good news about our Lord Jesus, we want to remove everything that might possibly get in the way of hearing and responding to His love.  And the church, our church is charged with making this happen.  Our vocation is to be a missionary community, both right here in our Jerusalem and over there in our Judea and Samaria, and even to the farthest corners of the planet.  God calls us to be his missionary people, either going ourselves in His name, or making it possible for others to go and be his love.

Divine Liturgy led by His Eminence Makarios for Maasai in the Rift Valley

Let me give you some statistics.  I was for 21 years an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  They have about as many members as all the Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States have put together.  And they are one of the most liberal of the Protestant denominations.  They have about 1,700,000 members. Do you know how many missionaries the PCUSA has overseas right now?  About 200 full time missionaries.  There was a conservative split off the PCUSA about 40 years ago called the Presbyterian Church in America.  They have about 370,000 members. Guess how many full time missionaries they have? 800.  They are 1/5 the size and send out 4X the number of the larger more liberal denomination.  The Assemblies of God, a big American Pentecostal denomination, has about 2000 full time missionaries. The Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in our country with about 16 million members, they have 3,800 missionaries.  SIM is the largest independent evangelical mission organisation, and they have 4,400 full time missionaries. 

Talking to some guys about the Gospel and Orthodoxy

And now, can anyone guess how many missionaries are presently sent out by all the Orthodox jurisdictions of the American Churches?  19 full-time missionaries.  And I am one of them.  In fact, I am the only American Orthodox OCMC missionary serving on the whole continent of Africa.  We don't have thousands.  We don't have hundreds.  We have 19. Let this number sink in.  Because I think it shows us all where our priorities are not.  We have been called by our Lord himself to be a missionary people, to either go ourselves or to help in the sending.  Are there only 19 of us?  And this one standing before you is having trouble raising his support because I can’t find enough people either interested in or willing to help with what God is doing through the Orthodox Church in Kenya and all of Africa.  And the Orthodox seminary where I was teaching, where I was the deputy dean under HE Archbishop Makarios, was shut down 18 months ago because we have no funding.  We are the only school on the continent training Orthodox priests for the African Churches, and now we have sent all our students home because we have no money.  Our lack of engagement with our missionary calling as Orthodox Christians and parishes is having serious consequences, not just in Africa, but across the globe.

Me preaching at a Pascha day evangelistic outreach sponsored by a local parish

So let me ask you, what is your mission?  What is your reason for existing as a Church?  Are we riding around in a comfortable, beautiful bus but going nowhere?  Or is your heart on fire with the love of God the way John the Baptist’s heart was on fire, the way the apostles’ hearts were on fire?  The way our Lord Jesus himself is burning with love when he thinks of you, when he offers himself for you and me on the cross, when he rises again from the dead for you and me, when he sends his Holy Spirit for the very purpose of empowering us to be His witnesses starting right here in  your neighbourhood and crossing every ocean to every hamlet and village, every mega city and every slum, even to a place called Kisumu in western Kenya where Bishop Athanasius Akunda has called me to come and join him in his work there.  The Lord is doing a great work of salvation across this world, and he is calling you to come and join him.  Will you come?  Will you help?  Remember what Mordecai said to Queen Esther when the Jews faced annihilation?  ‘Do not say to yourself that you alone will be saved in the kingdom apart from all the other Jews.  For if you choose not to heed this request at this time, help and deliverance for the Jews will arise elsewhere, but you and your father’s house will perish.  Besides, who knows whether it is for this occasion that you reign as queen?’ (Esther 4:13-15)

Me speaking to 100+ university students who came to learn about Orthodoxy.

We Americans are blessed.  We have more than we could possible need or use.  God has called us to be his partners, he is giving us a mission in our Jerusalem, yes; but in our Judea and Samaria as well, and even to the ends of the earth.  Who knows whether it is for this occasion that you are an Orthodox Christian and an Orthodox parish in this place and at this time?

Makeshift altar for outreach service under a tree.

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