Looking Forward

confettifbhThis month marks the completion of the twenty fourth year of The King’s Jubilee ministering  in Jesus’ Name. People tell me that this is a feat in and of itself, while I am disappointed we have not accomplished so much more of what we set out to do. One thing is certain, we cannot run the race to win, if we are looking backward.

I think, as Orthodox Christians, we have forgotten this. We are always remembering our traditions and our Traditions. We are remembering our Saints and our feast days and our ethnicities, forgetting that Jesus wanted to take us from many and mold us into “one new nation.” The Saints looked forward to the prize and understood that the traditions are not there to bind us to a dead past. They are there to bind us into the living vine and give us a running start into the future; if we let them. But we need to understand that they are not the end in themselves. They are scaffolding, if you will. The services of the church are not just there to perpetuate the services of the church. That would be a grand Ponzi scheme or like Amway without the soap. Yes they have beauty. Yes they are worship. Yes they have value by themselves, but they are apostolically intended to equip us and save us to DO good works, not to sit around and just be saved.

St. Paul laid out the purpose of the church in his Epistle to the Ephesians, especially in chapter 4:1-15

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord,one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.  [NIV]

The church is given the gift of “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers”, sometimes called the five-fold ministry, “to equip his people”, the church, ” for works of service”; that’s the part we have been neglecting. Works of service are good works out in the world. The early church rescued abandoned infants who were left to die. They buried the pagan dead, whose families could not afford or risk the time for proper burials. These works are not recorded in our writings, because there were not arguments over them like there were over doctrines and church government, etc. They were recorded in the accounts of pagan witnesses who marveled at the risks Christians would take to do such acts of generosity, compassion and courage for people who were not even part of their faith community. It was the substance of what it was to be a Christian. These tasks are what knit the church together while they were hammering out the other issues. It was the soap.

I have been trying to communicate this for years. Recently, Richard Stearns coined the term in the title of his book which speaks of this very problem: The Hole in Our Gospel. It is not just the Orthodox who are plagued by this blind spot. We tend to get focused on organizational maintenance, instead of mission achievement.

Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” The gates of hell are not going to mess with the church if the church is not doing anything to mess with them. In that case, they are already winning. The gates of hell need to be stormed!

We have a vision to end homelessness in Center City Philadelphia in the next five years. It is very doable. However, it is impossible if we keep acting the way we have been acting and thinking that we can just be happy serving people meals on the street for the duration.

Last year, we had to sue in federal court to keep serving food to homeless people in the parks legal. I received exactly zero support from the archdiocese and the local church to do that. Two parish friends did come on their own to witness the proceedings for one day, but I received no pastoral counsel or encouragement. At the time, I was so involved in the case, my health and focus on the business suffered and we nearly lost our house. If we want to make a difference, we can’t just leave each other hang out to dry like that. I searched for the church for 30 years to have a covering for situations like this, not to be left totally alone like I was. So this ministry making it to its 25th year has been a feat by the grace of God.

The case brought into focus our reason for existence. It is not to serve ourselves and just satisfy our own religious needs to serve the poor. That would be to objectify these homeless people. No. We need to meet them as brothers and sisters like St. John Chrysostom said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.” As we serve, occasionally we are surprised by grace and we may even find Christ. In the hearing, I also learned that there are only 170 homeless men and women who live in the parkway area. This is consistent with the number we serve. I say only, because this is a very manageable number to target to help them transition off the street. But we need to do it in a caring, Christian manner, that respects their freedom and their dignity, and equips them with the social network to cope in their new surroundings. I feel there are many in the Orthodox Church, with their immigrant experience, who are uniquely suited to this ministry. There are transferable skills of adjustment.

We need to think on a larger scale than what we have been thinking. We can do so much more. And in so doing, Christ will be glorified! We have always had a motto here: “If we can’t do it in Jesus’ Name, we don’t have time to do it.” That’s why we have never received government or United Way funds and never will. We want to be doing God’s work without strings. God’s work should be paid for by God’s people. Let us set the pace and be the example. If the government likes what they see, they can try to copy it.

If you just want to make yourself feel good about helping people, or want to make the kids in Sunday School feel good about helping people, yes, we’ll take your money and your sandwiches and your power packs. People, this may help communicate a tiny aspect of the gospel to five and six year olds, but it is not the core task of the Church, and it is not the best we can do for the homeless! We need to mature in our faith. We are to be making such a difference in the world that the world takes notice and either wants to be like us or wants to kill us! I can assure you that no one was ever martyred for having chanted the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete perfectly or even near perfectly. But “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” (2 Tim. 3:12) To “live godly” is to care for the poor and the fatherless, the widows and the orphans.

There were not always homeless on the streets. There is no reason there should be homeless on the streets now, except for the greed of others. We have more than enough vacant homes to house all of the homeless. That is prima facie evidence for a failure of our economic system. But, just in Philadelphia, if we can muster the pressure and creativity, we can restructure the existing resources to end homelessness at a lower cost than what the social service/prison/shelter industry is spending today. We need to work together. We need to be prophetic. We can be the salt and the light that God created us to be in Christ. We need to understand that it is more important to be Christian than it is to be Greek or to be Russian or to be Lebanese or to be Serbian or to be Dutch, etc. We find when we get out into the world and do works of service together, that we are then “built up” and we begin to “reach unity in the faith.”

We are trying to solicit monthly pledges of support, so that we can actually have a reliable base so we can make a difference and start working our plan. We have received a few pledges. Mostly, we have received one time gifts and some people wanting to make sandwiches. Thank you. But we won’t be able to move off square one at this rate.

People have been talking about Orthodox Christian jurisdictional unity in North America for years. What would be the point? Let’s start working together. Let’s make a difference in our world for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s make a difference in Philadelphia, where no one works together! Let us show them how. We will find unity. We will naturally grow together into the head, who is Christ. The jurisdictions will eventually catch up. It may take them a while. They are not used to dramatic forward movement.