Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Homily at Saint Paul's

I was ordained as a Southern Baptist Minister in the early eighties. I spent many years in various staff positions in various denominations and independent churches. I was known as the golden child, the orator, the talent, my Dad's son and his greatest hope to fill his pastoral shoes. I could speak impromptu with limited notes and could move a crowd by the power of my appeal. I gladly and arrogantly accepted my anointed role as a chosen spokesman for God. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." 

On April 21st, 2007, I stood in the pulpit of Saint Paul's Mission as an Orthodox layman. I have never been more fulfilled. Notice the position of the pulpit in the photo. The speaker is not the center of the work of the people (liturgy). The altar of Christ is the center. We must decrease and He must increase. Saint Paul's is one of several former Charismatic Episcopal Churches now on its way to the Antiochian Orthodox Church, its members having been received as catechumens. Being a former member of Saint Paul's, I was asked by Father Denny Roland, priest of Saint Paul's, to speak the homily. I read from a prepared text, no longer dependent on my abilities to move anyone and fearful of the real presence of Christ at the Altar. My purpose and the request of Father Denny was to tell my story and encourage his people who are in transition to the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Here is the text of my message to the church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It is a combination of several BLOG articles as it specifically relates to the people of Saint Paul's.

Text of Homily:

"Father Denny once told me he thought he might be a contented man just to live in the hills and raise chickens. He said he was "the most unlikely of men to serve as a priest". I have always lovingly referred to him as a "sawed-off hobbit of a priest". His short stature and robust build, his burly beard and personable demeanor, his cultural speech interlaced with an occasional "I seen it" and "I done it", causes some, at first glance, to miss the powerhouse of a man he is. But, I have discovered that his power doesn't come from his keen mind, or his uncanny literary retention, from his masterful ability as a wordsmith or his relentless pursuit of truth and holiness, but, it comes from his unwavering heart of servanthood. The very pews you sit on were painstakingly assembled, sanded and stained by his hands. Several of us in this room have labored with him but we always found it hard to match his pace. The roof on the parsonage, the whole of the rectory, the paint on the walls, he has labored to build up, repair and restore to health. This is a physical demonstration of how he labors for the souls of men, women and children, how he labors for your souls. Christ said the servant is the greatest of all. 

That being true, I deem it an honor to have served at this very altar with one such as him. I exhort you to realize, at this time in your life and in the life of the Church, it is God who has ordained that you should be under the care and pastorate of this priest. Honor him. Pray for him. Give financially and see the hand of the Lord in your midst.

Father Denny celebrated his 10th year in the Charismatic Episcopal Church July 1, 2006. On that day, at his own request, he was released from his Holy Orders as a priest in the CEC to pursue Holy Orders with the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Little did I know or even dream possible that when we, about two years ago, asked him to release us from his pastorate in the CEC Church so that we might become Orthodox, he too would soon step over into the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church which is the Orthodox Church.

I am humbled and amazed at the work of God in the life of Father Denny and to see what God is doing in the life of this Church. I am especially thrilled that the Bishop of the Orthodox Diocese in which we serve, Father Antoun, is getting to know Father Denzil Roland as I have known him. The Church has been blessed this year by his entrance into the undivided faith of our fathers. I long for the day when I attend Father Denny's Chrismation service and am able to utter the words, "Welcome home Father. You have reached the destination and now the real Journey To Orthodoxy begins." Father, I am honored that you count me worthy to stand here today. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on me a sinner.

On April 12th, 2006 I celebrated my 50th birthday. Several of my closest friends were able to make their way to Tennessee to join me personally while several others called or sent greetings and congratulations. It was a wonderful time of hope and gratefulness for the preceding years. Much was put into perspective… 

Ten days later on April 22, 2006, Holy Saturday, I was chrismated into the Eastern Orthodox Church. Here are three common questions:

"So what's a good former Southern Baptist boy doing in a place this? 

And after 50 years of life shouldn't you know better? the way what is the Eastern Orthodox Church?" 

I have yet to meet one person in casual conversation who knows what the Orthodox Church is. I always give this 60 second explanation:
'The Orthodox Church is the original church of the Apostles. There is the Roman Catholic Church in the west and then there is the Orthodox Church in the east. The Orthodox Church has over 250 million members and is the second largest Christian group on the planet although there are currently only about 6 million members in the United States. For 1054 years there was only one united church on the planet with five main locations, Rome (Italy), ConstantinopleTurkey), Jerusalem (Palestine), Antioch (Syria), and Alexandria (Egypt), each pastored by a Bishop. Then the Bishop of the Roman church in the west claimed he had full authority and jurisdiction over the whole church. This unprecedented move was not well received by the rest of the church in the geographical east. The churches in the east remained in communion and unity with one another, while the Roman church in the west broke from that unity and became an independent body- the Roman Catholic Church. All existing protestant denominations, some 25,000 of them in the United States alone, extends out of the Roman Church during the reformation period almost 600 years after the Schism.'

Recently one of my five daughters asked me of our move to Orthodoxy. I told her I have been asking the same question of God since I was 17, "Where is the church?" That desire to find and be a part of the true church has led me on a path with many forks and dead-end. From Baptist, to Independent Bible Churches, to Charismatic Churches, to the Jewish Synagogues, to Messianic Fellowships, to the Charismatic Episcopal Church, and to the Roman Catholic Church. My puzzled Southern Baptist Father once referred to my journey as "the religion of the month" club. Perhaps now that I have traveled this road and am familiar with the paths and the dead-ends, I can, in some humble way, be a pathguide for others who are coming this way, and coming they are. Seeking evangelicals who, like me, have no idea or concept that they were born into a religious world with doctrines and practices that look very little like the church of our fathers. I have a degree in Religion from a Southern Baptist University and yet not once in any of my studies was I required to read or even informed of the writings of the Early Church Fathers. These were the men who formed and shaped the church, who knew and were ordained by the Apostles themselves, who continued to pastor the churches of Peter, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the other disciples after their deaths. In fact I was advised against reading anything other than that which was contained within the pages of the bible, the mantra being "sola scriptura", the bible alone. To look at church history or "tradition" was not necessary. The day I decided to consider what men such as Ignatius, Clement, Iraneus, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr wrote, preached, and shed their blood to preserve, the day I decided that that which was believed and taught by the undivided Church in the first 1000 years was more reliable than the latest popular author, religious leader or set of commentaries, was the day my religion was ruined. But MY religion needed to be ruined, for it was not the faith of our fathers. Could it be that my protestant university knew that if I read the writings of those so close to the apostles that I would discover a different church, a different doctrine, a different shape of worship, a different history than was being espoused in the institutions and churches throughout evangelical Protestantism which was birthed only 400 years prior? God forbid. Ignorance is much more easily accepted than intentional deception. 

It has helped me to see where the Church physically exists today, for the Church isn’t only seen in some mystic, nebulous unity of all who profess Christ, it is also a visible entity, established and indwelled by Christ for 2000 years. This priest, Father Denny, when the hands of ordination are laid upon him, will be listed with the succession of those who have come before him. We know who they are. We have their names and addresses. They are the Bishops and Priests of the Church of Antioch, where “they were first called Christians”. The Church established by Peter. You are becoming part of this Church, the church of our fathers. The Church of the Apostles… 

When Peter died, Eudoius became bishop. When Eudoius died Ignatius became bishop. When Ignatius died Heros became Bishop. When Heros died Cornelius became Bishop. There isn’t time here to list the names of all of the 169 successive Bishops who have pastored the Orthodox Church in Antioch. There were 97 Bishops in the first 1000 millennium. There were 73 in the second millennium. On June 2, 1979, His Beatitude Ignatius IV, was elected by the Holy Spirit to be Patriarch of Antioch. It is under his pastorate that we all have the honor of serving our Lord in His Church.

Today there are 14 equal, independent and self-governing Orthodox Churches who work in communion and unity with one another across the earth. Communion and unity do not mean an absence of human conflict born of flesh or selfish endeavor. I like what my Priest, Father Stephen Rogers told me when I first met with him. As we sat in his office in a separate building, he pointed in the direction of the Temple and said, 'Remember Nathan, there are people over there.' That has been true of the Church from day one. It amazes me the narrowness of some who always use the examples of the human element of the faith as fodder to discredit the relevance of the historic governance in the body of Christ. The Orthodox Church is well aware of issues facing it and speaks to these issues often. For instance there is not yet a North American Autocephalous Church. The Orthodox Church in this hemisphere is represented by several Churches in the East, such as the Greek, the Russian, and the Antiochian. All are still the same Orthodox Church but governed by individual entities which carry with them their own cultural flavors. We are moving toward having all of these cultural Churches unite into one American Church. I am delighted however, when I visit a local Orthodox Church with cultural elements different from mine, that I feel at home because the shape, ethos, and worship experience is familiar. The Orthodox Church is the original Church and has preserved the faith of the Apostles. It is unchanging and in this way has prevented in every century and culture the propensity to 'change with the times'. While 'change' may be a good word to some religious cultures, "change" is equal to heresy in the Orthodox faith. While other religious cultures are given to the newest movements or doctrines, you can be assured that when you enter the Orthodox faith, you are receiving the original doctrines of the faith of our fathers without mixture.

If I can be a little presumptuous, allow me to welcome all you who have been made catechumens in the Church. Though the CEC was a blessed bridge for many of us, into the historic faith, we now watch with great remorse as it disintegrates into disarray and confusion still locked into the false idea that any group or individual can exist separated from the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. You are not alone in your Journey. There are other CEC churches coming this way and you have led them. You are the first and history will record it so. The mission of this Church extends beyond these walls. Though men may not remember your individual names, heaven has recorded that you in this holy temple, reached, with this priest, for the hand of God and felt his touch. You are not alone anymore. You are joining with over 250 million of your brothers and sisters to worship and serve God in unity of worship and doctrine. Guess what. You are becoming a part of the Church that believes the same doctrine and worships the same way. You can spend the rest of your life, not trying to figure out what is true, but in learning what the Church has already established to be true. For the Orthodox Church is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church the pillar and foundation of all truth.

So, come on in. Let us reason together. But I will tell you right now that your closely held doctrines of the church, authority, salvation, the Eucharist, veneration of Mary, baptism, shapes and forms of worship, music, gifts of the spirit, and many other things will be challenged. You might get uncomfortable, angry or afraid. That’s understandable. God knows our frame. We die in order to live. Here are the words of Your Patron Saint-Paul. These words should be the core of your heart and attitude during this exciting time of Journey.

'For I have been crucified with Christ, yet never the less I live, yet it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.' "

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