St. Nektarios the Wonder-worker / Seventh Sunday of Luke, November 9, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
An experienced senior priest once said to me, “Make the place you are into Paradise.”
This saying occurred to me again this week when I read the phrase from today’s epistle reading from Ephesians 5, “redeeming the time.” In this passage, which is appointed because today we celebrate St. Nektarios of Pentapolis, the Wonder-worker, St. Paul relates to the Christians of Ephesus how they are to be different from the world around them, how they are to “walk as children of light.” In addition to using the contrasts of darkness and light, Paul also uses the image of life and death, saying, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine upon thee.”
Whatever image he uses for what he’s discussing, it’s clear that Paul intends us to see that we as Christians are called to be different from the world around us. We are to walk in light while the world is in darkness. We are to rise from the sleep of death in which the world slumbers, coming to life and receiving the light of Christ shining upon us.
And it’s in this context that he says, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as unwise, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”
The days are evil. This world is corrupt. There is no denying that. Just turn on the news. Just walk outside and have a look at the billboards. Just go driving. There is so much in this world that is dedicated to false visions, to darkness, to sin, to keeping us in the sleep of death and obliviousness.
So Paul tells us to be wise, to “walk circumspectly.” He tells us to “redeem the time.” We redeem the time when we take our time back from the world and live in another way.
Redeeming the time can mean a lot of things, but one I’d like to focus on today is how the Church stands apart from the world as a place of community. The word community gets used a lot these days, but it mostly means something other than actual community. We hear about “the academic community” or “the gay community” or “the medical community” or “the scientific community,” but none of those are actually communities. None of those are groups of people living together and sharing a common life.
This is something that the Church can tell the world about now, because the world has largely forgotten what community is. Most people do not know their neighbors. Our society relies increasingly on systems and policies to keep things going rather than the face-to-face relationships that traditionally connect people together. We deflect people in need and in crisis to programs and institutions rather than helping them within our neighborhoods, within our own lives.
Yes, some of those policies and institutions are very much needed, but the main reason they’re needed is because there is no help anywhere else. It’s the “anywhere else” that should concern us.
But our society’s problem with community-forming isn’t just about helping those in financial need or in some kind of health or personal crisis. Those are just the symptoms of a profoundly dysfunctional system. Our problem with community-forming affects all of us. And Christians are not immune. We are affected by this.
Within many churches, a majority of fellow worshipers are unknown to the average churchgoer. Some people sit here, while other sit there. Some people talk to certain people at coffee hour but never others. And outside of the church building in daily life, people connect mainly in small clumps just like they do inside the building, clumps mainly defined by blood relations. They’re not necessarily being mean or unfriendly or ignoring everyone else. They’re just not connecting, not being family to each other. They’re not being community.
Yet the Church knows how to do this. The Church understands the way community is formed. The Church knows human nature and knows how to connect human persons to each other. When it comes to showing the world a genuinely humane way of being, the Church knows how to redeem the time. The Church knows how to make the place we are into Paradise.
So what do we do? In our own parish here in Emmaus, we are already doing many things well, and we also have a number of things that we need to do better or to start doing. I think this is an especially appropriate thought today, since we are having our annual parish meeting after the Divine Liturgy.
How do we connect to each other? How do we develop community? How do we treat each other as brothers and sisters and not just as “fellow church-goers”? How do we move beyond “friendly” to “family”? How do we step outside of our customary clumps and clans and serve the cause of communion?
I recently visited a parish that stunned me with the kind of community life and love they had for one another. I was asked to speak at a retreat for the weekend, but I have to admit that I felt that I was the one being ministered to rather than the other way around.
Just to give you some sense of what happened there, let me describe a couple scenes for you: First, the parish itself has a population of about one hundred in total. And this was their annual retreat weekend. They didn’t hold it at the church, however, but at a retreat center about thirty miles away. And how many people went to the retreat? It was around three fourths of their population. They shut down the church in town and went on retreat together. Getting three fourths of any church population to show up just on Sunday morning is itself a difficult task for many churches, but getting that same number to go on retreat together is really astounding.
One moment that really struck me was on that Saturday evening. We prayed Vespers together, then had dinner. Then the gathered parishioners came together on some couches and chairs near a fireplace. Together, they sang songs, and they told stories. The kids dressed up in costumes while those gathered tried to guess which saint they were protraying by asking yes or no questions. And even after this time of sharing was over, people lingered for a long while afterward.
Doesn’t that sound like family? And yet most of these people were not related. A number of them even lived more than an hour from the church. But they loved each other. That’s the sign that Christ said would make His disciples known to the world, that they have love for one another.
When I visited the parish’s church building itself, the priest described to me how it was they had developed community. He said that their parish life was founded on two tables—the altar table and the meal table. And in their building it is literally a straight line from one to the other. You could stand in the middle and see both by looking left and right. Their church temple, though small, is beautiful and a feast for the eyes and all the senses as traditional Orthodox churches are.
And their parish hall, where they ate their meals, is built around several large common tables. And along the sides were couches and armchairs and coffee tables. I don’t recall clearly, but I think there were even rocking chairs. The whole building is fashioned as a place where people don’t just do their business of church services or eating or education and then leave. It’s a place where it’s comfortable, where you want to linger, where you want that extra cup of coffee while you have a good, long conversation with someone else who loves Christ as much as you do.
To be honest, when I went there, I was overwhelmed.
I mention all this not to say that what all Orthodox Christians need to do is to copy some particular model of community building, but nevertheless, if we are to redeem the time, shouldn’t our church be a place where we want to spend our time, to linger, to love, to connect? Why does it seem that for so many, what we feel in our hearts is that we are here only until we are done with something, that we are waiting until we can move on to some other place?
And isn’t what the priest said beautiful, that their community is between two tables? I would like to adopt that phrase for us. Orthodox altar tables are the focal point of our worship space, and it is only natural that a kind of sumptuous glory extends outward from them. Within this room, there is so much to see and to experience. And even if our seating is not the most comfortable, we still like to be here, because there is so much that draws us here. And it is what happens on the altar table and what we receive from there that binds us most closely together. It is called communion for a very good reason.
And when we think about our meal tables, think about the difference between a restaurant and your home. The great tables of grandma’s houses are different from the tables of cafeterias and even of fine dining. Even the best restaurant table is not designed for truly feeling comfortable and at home. And most are of course far less than the best.
But Grandma’s table is surrounded by comfort, by welcome, by all the things that make you want to linger. You have arrived. You are home. You are family. It is not just her table, but her home—there is welcome everywhere. It is a place to be. You are not there to “do” something, but to “be” someone. You have come together as family, and your grandfathers and grandmothers and sisters and brothers and fathers and mothers are there, just to be with one another, to love and to connect. It is the image of Paradise.
I offer these images to you for your consideration. Many churches function as institutions, sometimes even as very active and well-run institutions. But they can nevertheless be cold. They may have programs, but not much in the way of communion. And such programs are sustained mainly by having a large population, so that transience and inconsistency don’t harm their stability.
But a far more sustainable way of being for a parish is to function as a family, as a community. And even if a population is small, they are bonded together by something far more precious and permanent than good programs. And even when it’s time for the family to do programs, they find that everything works better and functions more smoothly and more edifyingly because they already have love for each other, because they already know each other, because they have already lingered in each other’s presence.
Here at St. Paul’s, I think we have something of both. There are ways that our family is strong, and there are ways that our family needs to get to know the family better. So as we chart our course for the coming year and in the years to come, my prayer for all of us together, including myself, is that we will grow, that we will learn, that we will love, that together we will redeem the time and nurture this community, that this will not be a stop to some other place. This will be the place we will be.
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.