Brothers and sisters

Christos Anesti!

A year ago when we gathered for our Annual Clergy Laity Assembly, there was a great deal of energy and excitement in the air, caused especially by the political season we were in, but also the many positive activities of our Metropolis. We had the opportunity to listen to and to be inspired by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, one of the great living treasures of our Church. Many of us went on to participate at the Archdiocese Clergy Laity Congress in Washington, D.C., hear the reports from the National Ministries, review the activities of our Archdiocese institutions and organizations, and offer guidance to all of them to set the direction for the Greek Orthodox Church in America until the next Congress.

Through all of these activities, we are continually reminded that we are one Church in America, comprised of many people, from many regions. Our Metropolis is no different. We are the Church, clergy and laity together, working synergistically to build up the body of Christ, the people, the programs, and institutions, and to bear witness to the Kingdom of God to our neighbors. I was reminded of the power and the promise of our unity just recently when I spoke at the National Workshop for Christian Unity in Phoenix. The theme of the workshop was taken from the prophet Ezekiel, in a passage from Chapter 37. In that passage Ezekiel calls each of the tribes of Israel to take their sticks - their shepherds’ staffs - and to join them together to form one people, one nation. I urge you to read this beautiful story. It made me consider how our Lord calls us to join together and form, out of the diversity of our Metropolis, His Church. It reminds me of how our Lord calls each of our Metropolises to be united as one Church.

But, what a difference a year makes! From excitement and energy, we have gone to anxiety and at least psychological depression, if still only economic recession. From the carefree attitudes of budgetary growth and increasing wealth, we are now stressed over the worry about shrinking revenues and potential deficits. Many are concerned about their homes, their businesses and jobs, and their future. In the process, many are becoming more careful about spending and giving. Some in the media are talking about a new era of frugality in America.

In the Bible, there are two visions for dealing with difficult economic times. One is from the New Testament. In the Gospel of Luke, our Lord tells the parable of a wealthy man who doesn’t know where to store his bountiful harvest, so he plans to tear down his barns and build bigger ones, so he can hoard everything that he will harvest. The rich man is quoted as saying, “You have ample goods laid up. Eat, drink, and be merry.” But that same evening as the Lord says, his “soul was required of him,” and the rich man died. As the parable ends, the Lord says, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:15-21).

The second vision is from the Old Testament. In Genesis, Chapter 41, Joseph was given authority over Egypt to prepare for a coming famine. For seven years of plentiful harvest, Joseph ordered that as much grain as possible be stored for the eventual famine that would come. And when the famine did come, Egypt was ready. As Genesis says, “There was famine in all lands; but in the land of Egypt there was bread.” When the people needed grain for bread, Joseph ordered the storehouses opened and sold the grain, not just in Egypt, but to people from all over the world.

We call the first, the parable of the Rich Fool and use his words “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry” as the words of the careless, while during Holy Week we call Joseph “blessed and noble” and remember that he was honored as a king. In the wisdom of our Orthodox Tradition, we are being cautioned about being too attached to our possessions and we are being instructed about being a good manager of our resources. To put this in contemporary terms, Joseph knew that the first seven years of plentiful harvest was the bubble that would eventually burst, so he prepared for the bad days that eventually came. Rather than looking for happiness in accumulating things and careless living, Joseph prudently managed resources for the benefit of the people. Few predicted the depths of our present economic situation and it seems that even fewer prepared adequately for a downturn. I recall hearing one economist say that there had been no provision in their economic models for a collapse of the proportions that we have seen in the last few months.

I don’t know when things will turn around, although if history teaches us anything, things will get better in time. Meanwhile, we are a Church in challenging times, asking us as the people of God, the Body of Christ to respond to our present situation. This is not the first time that our Church has experienced difficult times. At the beginning of the Great Depression, in 1930, our Archdiocese welcomed Archbishop Athenagoras. He brought hope and leadership at a time when it was needed. Most of us know what he accomplished in his eighteen-year ministry as Archbishop, but perhaps we have forgotten that in the midst of the Great Depression, he instituted the first financial stewardship program for the National Church, the so-called, monodollarion system. The monodollarion allowed the Archdiocese to create the programs, ministries, and institutions of our Archdiocese so that the Church could serve the faithful (don’t think we are going back to that system!). I am reminding you of this to make a simple point: at a time when the Church and her people were experiencing hardships, the faithful were willing to give more so that the Church could do more for her faithful.

In 1997, in Albania, the poorest country in Europe was ravaged by ponzi schemes that affected the entire country. One-third of the population found themselves penniless. Imagine 100 million people in the US losing their life savings in the Madoff scandal. The Orthodox Church there - just beginning in its restoration, with little in infrastructure, little money, and just a few workers - called on the poorest people in Europe to help their neighbor. Poor people helped those with even less.

I believe these lessons apply to our Metropolis and to our situation today. This is a time when our Church should be doing more to build up the body of Christ, to serve her people. The measure of our progress as a church today will not be mosaic tiles, and new icons, or even yards of concrete poured - as needed as they are in parish life. We have a far more challenging task: caring for the people in the parishes, which is a much more difficult “building program,” but a far more rewarding one.

The programs that we have implemented in the last few years, the Family Wellness ministry, the youth programs, the educational ministries, are in place, striving to attend to the needs of our faithful. Imagine trying to begin them now; but more importantly, because they are in place, they are in a position to assist our faithful in these challenging days. It’s easy to help out when there seem to be few who need out assistance. But since the needs are greater right now, so is the challenge for us to meet those needs. So, like Athenagoras so many years ago, or Albania a decade ago, this is a time to give more so we can do more.

To build up the body of Christ in these challenging times, we should work person to person, to support one another. We have talented and knowledgeable people in all of our parishes who can assist the unemployed, guide those facing foreclosure, advise us on how to invest for the future, whether or not these people are members of our parishes. We have people with time who could offer child care to those who can no longer afford it, but still must have it to maintain their employment. Even now we can still donate funds because all of us can still offer something. This is a time to be like the Noble Joseph and to open our storehouses.

Kallistos Ware for many years would tell the story from the Brothers Karamazov of the onion. As he tells the story, “There was once an old woman, highly respectable in her own eyes, who woke up after death to find herself -much to her indignation -in a lake of fire. Seeing her guardian angel on the bank, she called out: “There has been some mistake; I am a highly respectable person; I should not here in this lake of fire.” Anxious to do what he could on her behalf, the guardian angel sought to recall some occasion when she had helped others. But he could remember only a single good deed in her whole life: once she had given an onion from her kitchen garden to a beggar woman. Luckily he had the onion with him; so he told the old woman to catch hold of one end, and with the other he began to pull her out of the lake. Now she was not the only person in the lake; and when the others saw what was happening, they crowded round and hung on to her in the hope of being pulled out as well. In alarm and indignation she started kicking them ‘Let go’, she cried. ‘It’s me who’s being pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ The moment she said that, the onion broke in two and she fell back into lake; and there, so I am sorry to say, she still is -burning to this day.”

This story is applicable to our challenge today. Metropolitan Kallistos teaches about the story: “the onion snapped in two as soon as the woman said ‘It’s my onion, not yours’, as soon, that is to say, as she repudiated her unity and solidarity with her fellow humans. If only she had said ‘It’s our onion’, would it not have proved strong enough to pull them all out of the lake of fire? But once she cried out ‘It’s mine not yours’, once she refused to share, she affirmed the basic dogma of hell. The devil is the one who says ‘me’ and ‘mine’, whereas Christ teaches us to say not “me” but “us”, not “mine” but “ours” - not just “My Father” but “Our Father”, not “Give me this day my daily bread”, but “Give us our daily bread”.”

While our society and the world around us may be trying to get us to believe that this is a time when it’s “every man for himself,” our Faith and our Church tells us that God has composed the body so “that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (I Corinthians 12: 25-26).

Just the other day, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a study titled Faith in Flux. It explored the reasons for Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians to leave organized religion completely or to join another religious community. As many of us have come to know, there has been a large jump in the number of Americans who join the “unaffiliated,” that is belong to no church at all. The Pew Forum studied some of these people, and it revealed some interesting results that we can learn from. The study showed that those adults who did not attend worship services regularly as a child and teenager were more likely to either drift away from their faith altogether or to join another religious community. Participation in all the other programs of their parishes were not definitive predictors of someone remaining connected to their Church once they became adults. I know I’m oversimplifying a bit, and these phenomena are more complicated than one statistic can reveal, but this little fact challenges us to find ways of bringing our young people - our children and grandchildren - closer to parish life, especially to attend Divine Liturgy regularly, hopefully every Sunday. Parishes should explore ways of involving young people in the life of worship - participation in music, whether choirs or at the psaltiri, serving as acolytes, assisting parish council members (something our teenage girls can certainly do), as well as attending the services themselves.

We are certainly at a challenging time in the life of our Church and Metropolis. The economic situation has brought many of them to light - and is obligating us to face them directly. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the challenges. It is easy to become depressed or negative about our future. We should recall that immediately after the crucifixion of our Lord, the disciples hid themselves, because they were afraid. I would suspect that they figured their movement was over. However, in death and apparent defeat, our Lord triumphed by rising from the dead and destroying the forces of darkness. As we proclaimed at our Paschal vigil: “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him! As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before fire, let the wicked perish before God” (Ps. 67:1-2). When we light our paschal candles, a simple act that we do every time we enter a church, we proclaim our faith that God’s light - the light of Christ’s resurrection - cannot be overcome by darkness - it does not fade and cannot be extinguished.

Originally given at Saint Nicholas Ranch and Retreat Center in Dunlap, CA