Monday, December 1, 2008

The 22nd Sunday of Pentecost

A little less than fifty years ago in Illinois, a young man was born whose name was James was baptized in the Episcopalian church. This young man’s family, like so many Midwestern American families, moved to California. And his dad went into the real estate business and also into the new car business. When the young man became a teenager, he was very uncomfortable with his Episcopalian origins and he looked for truth that God might have for him. And as he began to grow toward his senior year, he found a Moscow patriarchy church in California. Now, some people have said, “Why does the Moscow patriarchy still have churches in America?” Well, one reason was so that one would be there for him to find. He found this church, and there he developed as deep a spirituality as a young man can at the age of 17 or 18. He went off to college and met two other young men who were Orthodox Christians, and the three of them founded the Orthodox Campus Fellowship. They have a different name for it now – Orthodox Christian Fellowship – I don’t know why. Later on in life, the other two young men became abbots of monasteries. The three of them founded this organization, this Orthodox Campus Fellowship.

At the same time Jim occupied himself with studying business – he expected to go into his dad’s real estate business. In the summer he worked in real estate and learned all about buying, and selling, and contracts. He finished his senior year all ready to work for the Paffhausen family business. Instead, he told his dad he was going to St. Vladimir’s seminary. He went off to the seminary in New York and he acquitted himself very well. He earned his master in divinity degree in three years, and then he had to make a decision. He was an unmarried man, and he wasn’t sure that was how he wanted to be. In fact, he was fairly certain he wanted to be a husband and father. So he delayed his ordination and did what a lot of people do when they finish their first degree and aren’t ready to start their careers – he took a master’s degree in theology and Orthodox doctrine. Now, next to having a PhD which is very rare among our people, it’s about as educated as you can become as an Orthodox theologian, to have that advanced master’s degree. And he still wasn’t ready to decide.

So some of his friends on the west coast who were now clergy said, “Why don’t we bring Jim out here and have an internship for him?” The idea was he could come out, he could help out in some parishes, and meet girls. That’s what he wanted; it’s what they wanted. So our Rocky Mountain Deanery invited him and he came out here and he went around and visited all kinds of churches. He also taught classes in the home. Michelle here was enrolled in a couple of those classes. They were jointly registered between our late vocations program and Regis University. He did a lot of ruminating, a lot of thinking, and he and I did a lot of lunch. And as we would eat and talk he would go over and over how he wanted to have a family that he brought up. He wanted to be a dad, he wanted to have children, he wanted to have a wife, but he wanted more than anything on earth, more than his own life itself, to be a priest. And he wasn’t sure what God wanted for him. So, he went back out to California, to his own church in San Diego for a while, and then he went to Russian. He entered the Milan monastery and he lived there for a year. And for the first time in his life, he didn’t have hot water to bathe in. And for the first time in his life, he had to eat kasha sometimes four times a week. And he did it. He learned what the cycles of prayer are, and how holy men spend their hours and their days. Then, after that, he was sent by his abbot there to St. Sergius Holy Trinity, and he spent six months there and acquired a spiritual father who was famous throughout the Russian church who told him, “You should go back and be ordained as a heiromonk.”

Well, he thought he heard the call of God but he wasn’t sure. There was still that little part of him that longed for hearth and home and the consolation of a family. So when he came back after those 18 months were over, he went to his bishop and they scheduled for him an ordination to the diaconate as a celibate priest. And three days before the ordination he called the bishop and said, “I’m not ready. I’m not sure this is what God wants for me. I’m not ready yet.” So, we all called on Sunday and congratulated him on his ordination to find out it hadn’t happened.

And he prayed more, and he thought more, and he fasted more, and then he understood that God had called him to something that meant accepting what Jesus said to the apostles about giving up wives and children and houses in order to do what he had called them to do. So he was ordained a deacon, then he was ordained a priest, and then he went back to St. Tikhon’s monastery and received his monastic tonsure.

He came out to the west, and the thing he loved most of all was missionary work. He liked to go around and start new missions. He started a bunch of them. And he liked to service missions. Places that had no priest, he would go on a monthly cycle – 1, 2, 3, 4 – to these widely separated points in California and serve the liturgy so that once a month these people would have liturgy. He was always being invited to lecture at the ___institute in Berkley, or at one of the seminaries, or to give a class at the university, or to do a retreat for a deanery or a parish. The bishop kept complaining. He said, “You’re a monk. You’re supposed to be stable. All you do is travel around.” So the bishop assigned him: “Go to Point Reyes.” Now Point Reyes sounds like a comely, romantic place to you. It’s on San Francisco Bay. Let me tell you, it’s a very, very cold place. It’s very cold at night – very, very, very cold at night. And it has black mold. Black mold grows on everything there. It’s in Marin County, where a lot of the people are worse than black mold. They’re the kind of people who live for themselves and their egos and their own wants and their own desires. It’s a place where you could open a mosque and the people would all be delighted; or you could build a Buddhist temple and the people would all be thrilled. But if you put an Orthodox church there, that was an insult to them. The bells hurt their ears and they wanted them stopped. He started a monastery dedicated to St. John Maximovich. At that time he wasn’t even recognized by the OCA. He had been canonized by the synod abroad and not by any of the other churches. But with the blessing of the bishop he started a monastery dedicated to St. John of San Francisco. He started out with three of four monks living in these nasty little buildings with mold growing up the walls. Slimy, dirty buildings. And no matter how they cleaned them, they remained slimy and dirty. And these men stayed there and they prayed in the chapel. They prayed for the whole world like St. John had. Gradually, this community grew until there was no room for them there anymore.

He had been forced by the bishop to give up the work that he loved, which was traveling around, preaching as an itinerant, serving liturgy for different groups and giving lectures. His feet were nailed down to the floor of the monastery – except when he could pull the nails out and run off and do a lecture somewhere. But now he realized that if the monastery was to have real life they had to first get away from the Pacific Coast, and secondly get away from the mold. They drew into the interior of California, to a town called Manton, where they bought a farm with a nice house on it. And he built the monastery in three or four years to twelve or fourteen men, with men on the waiting list to come in. Now, you know in America, we had another name for a monastery: it was Father So-and-So and somebody else. Most of our monasteries were one guy, and one disciple at a time, one seeker who stayed until the abbot drove them crazy and then left and another one took his place. But this community grew. Why was it? Because this man, who had been tonsured under the name of Jonah, loved his monastic brothers. He said to them, “A monastery, you understand, is exactly like a prison except for one thing: the love of the brotherhood.” He took in broken and wounded people. Young adults, older people, and he healed them and he strengthened them, and he put them in a place where they could do no harm to themselves or to anyone else. And he also attracted very strong, and wise, and experienced men who were looking for the opportunity to spend the rest of their days in repentance.

And he was satisfied at that point to be the abbot of that monastery, when suddenly the bishop of Dallas called him up. He said, “I’m 85 years old. I have to retire. I’m going to nominate you for auxiliary bishop.”
He went to his bishop, Bishop Benjamin, and said, “Can I be abbot of the monastery and also bishop of Ft. Worth?”
And Benjamin said, “Yes. And you can also get married and have two wives.”
He said, “Which one are you going to be married to? To the monastery alter or to the Diocese of the South?”

And he prayed and again he did not what he wanted to do. Believe me, I know the man very well, he was our intern here for a while. He wanted to live out his life as the abbot of that community, and also be able to sneak off every once in a while and give a lecture. So he was consecrated 15 days ago as Bishop of Ft. Worth, auxiliary to the Bishop of Dallas, in preparation for his succeeding Archbishop Dmitri as head of that diocese. So he packed up all of his brand new bishop stuff. Everything the man owns, by the way, fits into the trunk and the back seat of his car. Everything he owns. He packed up and he went off to Pittsburgh. There in Pittsburgh he sat up on the stage with the Holy Synod, the ruling hierarchs of the church. And our church has had a very rough time. We had two bishops in a row who were cut from a mold that is not either Russian or American. It’s really kind of just a sort of Old-World Paranoid. It comes from a time and a place where the Carpatho-Russyn people were under the rule of somebody else and they had to handle their affairs secretly and stealthily. And they borrowed a lot from Roman Catholic ways of dealing with things – one of which was to cover up things which should have been exposed to the light.

The church was wounded and everybody was mad on Monday. They were all angry as they could be. They all wanted somebody to punish. They all wanted somebody to blame. Nine hundred people – laymen, clergy, bishops – all angry. All filled with every spirit but the spirit of God. And the grumbles and the groaning you could hear throughout the whole room. And that Tuesday night, someone stood up as we were about to adjourn and said, “You bishops promised us you were going to answer our questions. We have given you written questions. We demand that you answer them.” Believe me, that’s the way that the old timers used to talk to the bishops. And the bishops all sat and looked like a bunch of scared school girls. None of them raised his finger. Now, I’ve got to say this. Bishop Benjamin was sick, or he said he was. I think he may have been up stairs, because he was the number one candidate for metropolitan. I think that he found a way to get what he wanted.

As everyone gazed at the stage, this baby bishop – this twelve day old at the time bishop of Ft. Worth – went to the microphone, took the list of questions, and with a smile, with love, with compassion, he answered all of the questions. One by one he answered them. It sounded like his talk was disorganized – it was because he was reading the questions they were asking off the sheet and they were not in any kind of logical order. And he was answering everyone of them. And he said this, “The stuff that has gone one is metropolian. The Metropolian is dead. We will not have these problems again. The church is based on _____, on conciliarity. And we will all, hierarchs, clergy, laity – we will all work together.” He said, “Why do bishops act up? Well, what do you expect? You dress a guy up like a Byzantine Emperor. You put him on a throne in the middle of the church. You call him “despota, master,” and you tell him to live forever, and he starts to believe. He doesn’t understand he’s an icon of God. He starts to believe he’s a little god himself.” He said, “That will not happen again. It will never happen again.” I looked around the room and I saw calm sweep across the room. The anger all dissipated. A kind of quiet peace descended. And then another wave rolled across the room, and it was joy. That night Fr. Chad Hatfield, the dean of St. Vladimir’s who was with me on the Parliamentarian’s committee – and believe me, we did more mischief than any parliamentarians have ever done in the history of any church council – he called Bishop Basil Essey, the Antiochian bishop of Wichita, and said, “I want to vote for you for Metropolitan.” Bishop Basil said, without missing a beat, “God’s given you your metropolitan, Jonah. Vote for him.” I don’t know, somebody may have called Basil from there, but how would he know from Wichita what had happened in Pittsburgh, I don’t know.

The next day the lay people nominated candidates – one candidate each – and then, when no one had a majority, we nominated two candidates and the Holy Synod chose. They chose from between the old, the tested and tried, if you will, and this new, young man – this man who at every point in his life had had his plan, but who like Matthew the tax collector had heard the Lord say, “Come follow me,” and had gotten up and left what he was doing, what he loved doing. Not a man who ran away from things that bored him, but a man who left the work he loved at each stage of his life: he gave up the family business to become a seminarian; he gave up his own family to become a monk; he gave up teaching and his preaching to become an abbot; and he gave up his monastery to become a vicar bishop – and now the church laid on him the mantle of metropolitan. And the moral of this, folks, the moral of the call of Matthew is: In life, we don’t look around trying to find what God wants us to do – “Does God want me to do this? Does God want me to do that?” – in life we do what God’s given us to do, and we remain conscious and aware that at some point he may very well call us to do something different. And when he does, we don’t stop and think about it, we get up and do it. You don’t change the way you’re living your life – that is if you’re living a rotten, stinking sinful life, you change it – but you don’t change what the course of your life is just because you’re bored. But you don’t resist the call of God when he gives it to you.

This is a young man for whom I have great, great hope. I believe that our children will tell their grandchildren that they remember when the metropolitan who was still metropolitan was elected and the parish priest talked about it. Let us then be ready, each one of us, let us formulate our own desires, our own plans, our own will because God gives us the freedom to do that, but let us always keep our ears and our hearts open to his spirit, so that when the call comes – whether it’s the loud acclamation of an assembly shouting “Axios!” or it’s the still small voice speaking in our hearts – we will, like Matthew, rise up from what is busying us at that moment, take up our cross, and follow him.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, glory to Jesus Christ!
Glory forever!

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