Sunday, September 3, 2017: 13th Sunday of Matthew; Anthimus, Bishop of Nicomedea, Holy Father Theoctistus and his fellow struggler Euthymius the Great, Polydorus the Martyr of New Ephesus, Translation of the relics of St. Nectarius the Wonderworker, Bishop of Pentopolis, Chariton the Martyr, Phoebe the Deaconess.
Ukrainian Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI
Here in Madison, I have two distinct, but related, pastoral roles as a priest.
For the last several years, I’ve worked with the Orthodox Christian Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. Campus ministry has always been a special love of mine because it was a college student that my faith was kindled.
My second role is a new one that begins today with the first Liturgy of a mission so new it doesn’t even have a name. We’re just the “Ukrainian Orthodox Mission of Madison.”
Because we are new, we don’t have a church. We’re renting space from a local Protestant community. We’re here this morning with a folding table for an altar, icons on plate holders on that table serve as our icon screen, and we share our “sanctuary” with tables and chairs only recently stacked against the back wall.
While our situation is different from that of most Orthodox communities celebrating Liturgy this morning, it is very much like that of the early Church. Like those first Christians, we have as a community very little. And in a city where Orthodox Christians are in the minority, we are the smallest of the three small parishes.
But just as poverty and being on the margin of society wasn’t a disadvantage for the Christians at Corinth (a community to which, for good and ill, Madison bears more than a passing resemblance), it is a blessing for us as well.
Over the years I’ve heard many Orthodox Christians worry about losing their sons and daughter when they go off to college. This is a worry we share with other Christian and non-Christian traditions.
Unlike those other Christian communities though, we invest–let’s be frank–very little in campus ministry. Very rarely do students have ready access to the sacraments. Yes, local parishes are often welcoming of students when they show up. But in the main, we tend to neglect campus.
We do this not out of malice but from a misunderstanding that colleges and universities are mission fields. As such, they have their own unique culture. A college campus presents its own pastoral challenges and opportunities. If we don’t respond to these difference we shouldn’t be surprised that we lose our children when they go off to college.
Today we have our first Liturgy essentially “on campus.” Whether we will stay here is for God to decide. But for as long as we are here, or so it seems to me, we need to embrace God’s invitation to us to minister to college students.
This we do regardless of our age or education. Some of us are faculty, others staff at the UW. Others of us live and work in the area. And some of us are students.
But all of us are members of the Body of Christ. Each has his or own unique gifts and so vocation (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). This however shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of the fact that we share a common vocation, a common call, to be disciples of Christ and witnesses to His Resurrection.
We are each of us called to, as St Paul says, to “be watchful, stand firm in …faith,” to “be courageous, be strong” and to do what we do “in love.” In this our size and relative poverty can be a great advantage. Why? Because as Jesus says at the end of today’s Gospel: “‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’”
These words and those of St Paul, are directed to each of us this morning. We need to understand that these words are not simply for today but for every day, every moment, of our lives.
We must always be watchful over our own hearts so we stay close to Christ. We must be watchful as well for those moments when we can bear witness to Him.
To be watchful in these ways requires that we always stand firm in our faith. We must first commend ourselves and all those in our lives to Christ. The fathers of the Church were keenly aware that apart from Christ, the tendency of creation to change leads only to death and decay. All things change, all things pass away, only Christ remains. Without Christ, not only will even the good things in our life will disappoint us, they will fail us and yes, even betray us.
It is only in Christ that our lives, our relationships, our projects and accomplishments, acquire a lasting meaning. This is what Fr Alexander Schmemann meant when he said Jesus comes not to make bad people good, but dead people alive. What does it mean to be alive in Christ? Just this. Not simply that we endure but are constantly made new (2 Corinthians 5:17).
To remain firm, however, means more than just having an individual relationship with Christ. We must know His friends, those who love Him and those who hate Him. Above all, we must know the faith the Church. Think about what it means to know someone, to become friends.
A true friendship means I not only know you but your likes and dislikes. I know how you look at the world and what you think about yourself, other people and events. I also know those who love you and, yes, those who hate you or would do you harm.
This is why I say to stand firm in Christ, means as well to stand firm in the Church and to know what we believe as Orthodox Christians. The tradition of the Church is nothing more or less than the record of those who love Christ, and those who hate Him. In the Church’s teaching we discover not only Who Jesus is–the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16)–but what it means to be His friend. We learn Who Jesus is and we learn what it means to love Him with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength (Matthew 22:27).
And, of course, because we love Jesus, we love not simply those who love Him but those who hate Him. Why? Because whether we love Him or hate Him, Jesus loves all of us.
The courage and strength we need to love others is the natural fruit of fidelity to Christ. It is this love, and only this love, that will help us not only to follow Christ but to be His witnesses here in Madison, at UW, in our jobs and with our family and friends.
And because this love flows naturally from our commitment to Christ, our witness will likewise be natural. It will be spontaneous and there will be nothing artificial in our words or actions, nothing aggressive or disrespectful of others or their views. But, again, only as long as we draw near to Christ.
My brother and sister in Christ! Draw close to Him Who has drawn close to you! It is only in this way that the good things in your life will last and you will be able to fulfill your vocation has witnesses to the Resurrection!