Dearly beloved in our Lord: “Christ is in our midst!”
I am so very pleased to, once again, be among the faithful clergy and laity of the God-blessed Southeast Region. I will always consider my visits here as an Ahome-coming@, because of the many warm and cherished memories I gathered when I served as a priest in this region. Being part of the formation and establishment of this Region has always been, and will continue to be, a great blessing to my life. This is a strong Region – strong in its faith; strong in its commitment to God, and our Archdiocese.
It is with joy that I bring to you the greetings and blessings of His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP, our beloved primate, and those of Their Graces Bishops Antoun, Joseph and Basil. The faithful of the Midwest Region, clergy and laity together, also send greetings to you.
For me, our time hand in hand during this Parish Life Conference has been far too short. I have very much enjoyed seeing old friends and making new ones. The hospitality you have extended to me has been very wonderful. I know that I will always cherish the many memories of this conference, and our time spent together.
However, we are now fast approaching the close of our time together. As we have come to the end of this conference and are preparing to go back to our home parishes, I hope and pray that this weekend has been a time for renewal in your life. The purpose of attending and actively participating in our Parish Life Conferences is to grow, to learn and to strengthen our Faith and our devotion to God. Without this as a foundation, a gathering of this type would have no purpose. Here, we are constantly reminded that God wants us to leave behind our old ways and ideas and embrace the teachings and practices of the Orthodox Church with all our heart, soul and strength. This means that we are called to constantly rekindle our faith.
Indeed, the theme for this year’s Regional conference, which comes out of the book of Revelations, is, “Behold, I make all things new.” Perhaps, we should say that, it is not only the theme of this conference; rather it is the central theme of our Christian faith. Elsewhere in the Holy Scriptures, St. Paul tells us: old things have passed away, behold, all things about us have become new through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Truthfully, this is why Christ came! He came to earth, taking on our humanity, in order that we, through Him, may be able to overcome sin. He came in order that we may stop existing in a hopeless manner of life that only leads to death and the grave. He came that we may be totally renewed into His abundant life — so that we may start living in heaven while still on earth. This is the ageless Truth of our Faith.
Now, as we are gathered here, we must ask ourselves this very important question: Are we, as Orthodox Christians, renewed people? I want you to think about this for a moment, for it is a very, very serious question. When we look at our lives, and how we respond to the things of the world, are we any different from those people who are not Christians? Are we responding any differently to our neighbors, sin and the world today, than we responded last year, last week, or even yesterday?
Jesus tells us that the world will know that we have been renewed, and are thus, His followers, by the love we have for one another. Can this be said of us today? Are love and kindness words which people use to describe us? Can the world look at us and say, “You can tell that person is a true Christian by how loving they are”?
Love — God=s love — was the beginning point of our creation. Therefore, through Christ, Love has also become the manner of our renewal. Because of His great love for us, God sent His Son, so that we can live in everlasting blessedness with Him. I tell you, such a renewed life is not only our personal mission: it is our God-given heritage.
Now, having said that, the next question is, “how does this apply to my and your life?” Look at this conference – so many people have worked so hard to make it a success. But, from a Christian viewpoint, what does it mean to be a success? Is success measured by how good the parties and get-togethers are? Should the success of this Conference be measured by how much fun everyone had? Or by how well the Banquet is attended? Or by how good the music is?
No, of course not! We all know that it is wonderful to have a well-attended Banquet, which everyone likes. No one would argue with this.
However, we come together as a Christian family, united in purpose and vision, to be unified and renewed in Christ=s love. Success is measured by how we respond to the voice of Christ, and His reaching out to us to give us new hearts and minds. Success — our success as Christians — is measured by how we lovingly respond to the needs of our brother and sisters.
In her wise and continuous concern for our spiritual welfare, the Church offers us, through her many activities like this conference, the opportunity to take seriously the work of our renewal. Whatever activities we choose to be a part of, if they are not centered in Christ, following His example as shown to us in the Gospel, our efforts will be of little value. Some people have the wrong impression. They think they can be involved in worldly matters and be attached to materials possessions, and at the same time, expect the help of God’s providence.
What do I mean by this? Simply, that we are deluding ourselves if we think that we can come to this Conference, focusing solely on social activities and involvement, and at the same time fulfill our vocation as Orthodox Christians. Too often we turn our backs on the necessity to be a regular part of the spiritual life of our parish, our Region, and our Archdiocese. We are content with being “once-a-week” Christians. Our faith, for many of us, is no longer something we live. Rather, we have reduced it to something we do once in a while. Thinking that we know the Orthodox Faith, we do not study our faith to learn more about it. We criticize those who try to teach us or correct our misunderstanding it. We make light of fasting and Christian piety. Or worse, we try to rationalize our refusal to fast, or live in piety, by invoking the need to be modern or contemporary.
Jesus said, “Many will say to Me…, ‘Lord, Lord…’ [But] I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you, depart from Me.’” You see, no matter how good our intentions are, we need to make Christ the Lord of our lives B not just in word — but in faith and love — which is to say, in action and life style. To many of us, this seems too difficult a task, too great a sacrifice for us to make. As one priest has put it, we are well established in our comfort zone and we don’t want anyone or anything to come along and disrupt our “comfortable life”. Christ tells us, “But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all these things shall be yours as well.” If we wish to be successful Orthodox Christians, we must start putting the kingdom of God and His righteousness first!
What happens when we do this? To the woman at the well Jesus said that, whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life. This is a divine promise of newness of life in Christ. This promise, which has been proven true throughout the history of the Church, is a promise of constant renewal. By this, I mean to say that this newness of life is not something, which happens only once — for it, is a spring — which constantly flows and refreshes. Thus, when we do as Jesus says, and give the kingdom and righteousness first place in our lives, we will suddenly find ourselves engaged in a continual process of being filled with newness — of constantly being renewed to love and serve God, as well as our neighbors. And, in this process, we will find the joy and peace of God, which passes all understanding. This is the definition of Christian success. This is the life we are called to live.
I thank you for listening to me this evening. Thank you for taking time to be a part of my Christian family. I especially want to thank Father [and his wife ], the Chairman [Chairpersons] ___________________ of this Conference and all of the various committee members and volunteers, who have worked so hard and so diligently to ensure the success of this conference. Their efforts made our time here comfortable, and afforded us an opportunity for maximum use of our time and talents.
I also want to thank on behalf of His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP, the outgoing officers of SOYO, the Fellowship of St. John, AOCWNA, and the Order of St. Ignatius for their dedicated service during the past year. Your ministry has brought much to the life of the Region, the Archdiocese and Orthodox Church in North America.
I also congratulate the new officers who tomorrow will begin their ministry to the Body of Christ here in North America. They deserve our thanks and our utmost cooperation in their efforts to equip “the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the Body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:12)
You have invested much time, energy and effort in attending the meetings, workshops, seminars and liturgical services. You have listened attentively to the various presentations, sermons and discussions. And, God willing, you have learned a great deal here.
Now you must take all the knowledge and ideas you have gained and take them home, back to your parishes and communities. I urge to put into action what God have given you. Share what you have gained and learned with the people of your parishes.
And don’t be afraid to be enthusiastic about relating your experiences to the people who didn’t come to the conference. By coming here you have become ambassadors. Go back and plead on behalf of Christ for your brothers and sisters to join you at next year=s Conference and the upcoming Archdiocesan Convention. This is a form of ministry and I know that all of you can engage in it.
One final note, I hope that all of you will be at the Divine Liturgy tomorrow morning. I am looking forward to worshiping together with you, and hearing the choir and all of you sing. I want our voices to rise up to heaven, filling this place, so everyone will want to come and see who we are, and witness the beauty of our Liturgy.
I assure you my constant prayers for you, your families and your communities. Please remember me in your prayers, that my ministry will be fruitful and pleasing in the sight of God.
May His holy name be blessed, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. AMEN.