In the world, but not of the world

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2009

Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
Emmaus, Pennsylvania

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Yesterday was the 233rd anniversary of our country. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the town of Emmaus and its 150th anniversary as an incorporated borough of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This parish is also 22 years old this year, depending on the starting point one chooses. And this year marks the 2000th birthday of our parish’s patron, the Holy Apostle Paul.

I mention all these anniversaries, because they have in common one thing: place. One cannot conceive of the birthday of the United States without calling to mind the continent which is its home or of the city of Philadelphia just south of us. Likewise, the borough of Emmaus has a geography and a history which define it. The same is true for our church, and even in remembering the birthday of St. Paul, it brings to mind his own home town of Tarsus, and it brings to mind this church.

Our modern society, however, seems to have an antipathy toward homes and places. Most people in America almost gladly move to any part of the country to follow their careers. We have no problem traveling to the other side of the Lehigh Valley to get the best price on groceries. If we want something unavailable locally, we simply get online and order it via the Internet. Most of us do not know the people who produce our eggs, beef or milk, those who grow our vegetables, those who build our cars. For many of us, the concept of a “home town” is almost foreign, since the place where one was born, the place where one lives, and the place where one works can easily be three separate towns.

This placelessness is nearly endemic to our world, especially as globalization turns the world not into a global village but rather into an impersonal monoculture which is piped into our homes through our television and computer screens, enabling us more and more to be alienated and separated from the people whose relationships to us used to be mediated by our basic acts of commerce and community. Though there are exceptions, and I hope that many of us are among them, Americans in general do not know their neighbors, even if they share a wall with them.

English is rare among languages in that it can make the distinction between a house and a home. When we think of “home,” what do we think of? Do we think only of our house? Do we think of a home town? Do we think about family? Do we think about our church? We might be tempted as Christians to say that we truly have no home here on Earth, because our true home is in Heaven. Stated like that, that is certainly true. But does this mean that our modern placelessness is somehow a theological good, that our society has evolved to such a state of detachment from the world that we are nearly ready for Heaven? I think any honest assessment of our culture would quickly and resoundingly deny our readiness for Heaven. Our cultural placelessness has not detached us from the world and prepared us for the Kingdom of God.

We know from the Scripture that God calls us to be in the world, but not of the world. Placelessness does not fulfill this command but rather denies its whole context. Placelessness is in fact the opposite, making us of the world but not in it. We as a culture are deeply attached to the pleasures of this world, all the while blind to the very place in which we stand. We know more about politics in California or in Washington, D.C., than we do in Emmaus. We know more about musicians born in Canada and performing on gigantic stages than we do those born in the Lehigh Valley and performing at the local farmer’s market.

So what is the proper relationship of the Kingdom of God to the kingdoms and boroughs of this world? What should we as Christians be doing in and for the places where our homes are, the place where our church is? We know that, in the end, there will be a new Heaven and a new Earth, that the kingdoms of this world will be baptized with fire and superseded by the Kingdom of Heaven. Does this mean that we should simply ignore this place where we find ourselves, just waiting out the Apocalypse?

As you may imagine, the answer to that question is “No.” We are called to be pilgrims in this world, journeying to the Kingdom of Heaven. But if you have ever gone on a pilgrimage, you know that the whole experience is dominated by place, whether it is the destination or the journey to it. One cannot be a pilgrim and be nowhere. The pilgrim is where he is. He is changed by the place where he is, and his presence changes it.

The very word parish comes from a Greek term meaning “sojourning.” We are sojourners here in Emmaus, here in the Lehigh Valley. We are taking up our residence here in this home for a while as we journey to our ultimate Home, which we shall not see in its fullness until after death or until Christ comes again. But in our sojourn, the Master of this home and of the Home which is to come has called upon us to do whatever we can to make this place reflect the Home toward which we are oriented.

Yes, we are surrounded by a world afflicted by entropy, the tendency to break down, to fall into corruption, both physical and spiritual. But especially here in this holy house, in this holy home, we are also surrounded by the divine energy, the creative and dynamic power of God which heals that which is broken and restores that which is corrupt. Though we find ourselves in a world of decay and death, we worship and participate in the God of resurrection, the God of the living.

Thus, we who are Christians wield a curious and awesome authority. We have the authority to participate in the transformation of this place, not to make it something other than Emmaus, Pennsylvania, something other than the Lehigh Valley, something other than America. History may well make those changes all on its own. Rather, we are called to make Emmaus, the Lehigh Valley, and America into what the ancient Christian Celts would have called “a thin place,” a place where the boundary between this world and the next is so thin that the divine breaks easily through the veil and touches those on the other side. If you have ever been to such a place, such as Iona or Lindisfarne, the grave of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, the relics of St. John of San Francisco, or the tomb of Christ, then you will know what I mean. If you have never been, it is time to begin the pilgrimage.

Our calling is to bring the Kingdom of Heaven into the kingdoms of this world. We accomplish this by the authority given to us by God and through the power that He alone wields. If you know anything about the Biblical Emmaus which gives this borough its name, you know that when the disciples broke bread there with the Lord Jesus Christ, they saw Him for Who He was. It was in that Eucharistic moment that true communion, true community was possible.

Every Sunday and perhaps every day, we find ourselves on the road to this Emmaus. And in this one, like the first one, we are also called to commune with our Lord Jesus Christ, to know the dangerous possibility of real community by means of the one Cup and the one Bread. And in doing so, we begin to make the boundary between this world and the next just a bit thinner, so that at this place on 156 East Main Street in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, people will say that here is a holy place. Indeed, the boundary within ourselves becomes thinner, and when people draw near to us, they find themselves encountering Christ.

The degree to which we are serious about our own faith is the degree to which this can happen. It can happen if we pray every day, teaching our children how to do so and using our authority in their lives to prioritize not the passing pursuits of this world but rather what it takes to gain eternal life. It can happen if we put our money where our mouths are, giving back to God just one tenth of the abundance He has given us. It can happen if we are serious about worship, praying not just privately at home but also corporately in this holy house, not just on Sunday morning for 90 minutes but every time we can get away from worldly pursuits to plunge ourselves into Heavenly ones. What happens here, this miracle of communion and community, is not just “a part” of our lives—this is our life.

This past week, I moved for the 20th time in my life, and for those keeping score, it was the 21st move for my wife Nicole. I have lived in six U.S. states and one unincorporated territory, including fourteen separate towns and cities. We know well what placelessness is all about, and we are tired of it. Our hope and our prayer as we begin this new chapter in our own lives is that all the many relocations which have preceded our time here turn out to be simply the prologue to the story of our sojourn for the rest of this earthly life, here in Emmaus.

Our prayer also is that together as a parish family, for as long as God may grant to us, that we work together as co-workers, building and growing not only the quantity of people in this holy house, but also the quality of those in this holy house. We pray that we and this place may become thinner and thinner, more and more transparent, that people will come here, whether invited by us or more directly by the Holy Spirit Himself, and they will say, “There God dwells among His people. In that place, Heaven shines through.”

To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

One comment:

  1. Fr. Andrew, Glory to God for your making Christian Gospel relevant to the context of modern living! I pray that Orthodoxy would be proclaimed more that Way in which humans hold Creation sacred amidst the modern “false” model of life that has desecrated Earth because it has desacralized and made our earthly Home into “things” to be abused, used up and tossed aside in the trash as waste. Such is our modern Story of Stuff that needn’t end up this way since truth of this life is that Waste=Food.

    I think that when we live for our spiritual “Home” alone at the expense of what God provides for our sustenance in our fallen condition, East of Eden in the Valley of the “Shadow” of Death, that we deny the goodness of Creation and in essence become modern day Gnostics. I also believe that spiritual “place” is the function of communion with God (human life lived in the Divine presence, which requires holiness) or lack of such communion, and that such communion takes place even in “this” life and is what makes the difference in all human relationships, be they between God and human, human and human, or human and all non-human Creation (both animate and inanimate).

    Our disposition (love, desire) toward God is what determines whether we abuse His Creation, because as the Lord Jesus Christ proclaimed, we either love and serve God, or we love and serve mammon; no if, ands or buts or two ways about it. We cannot have it both ways, our cake and eat it too; we cannot love God and abuse His Creation.

    I also think that the Church’s theology of iconography makes such essence of communion clear. See:
    Aidan Hart Sacred Icons
    Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguraton
    (Not Ancient Faith image link to Christianity and Ecology talk given at St Paul’s, Emmaus 🙂

    Given your interest in Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, you may be interested in the following comments by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo connecting Heaven as “place”, “false” Christian theology and “false” model of life:
    Utilitarian Goals of Modern Society

    May you be spiritually uplifted and enabled to continue proclaiming the relevance of Christian Gospel in modern life.

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