Saturday, July 27, 2013

Learning from Christians in India and Syria: Homily for St. Timon Sunday in the Orthodox Church

          My trip to India was fascinating in ways too many to count.  With cows, water buffalo, and goats wandering the streets, which are filled with several lanes of totally insane traffic, you know immediately that you are not in Texas anymore.  One of the great blessings of my trip was to meet Indian Christians, a small minority in a country with a vast population and a wide range of cultures.  Christians are by no means a dominant group in India; nonetheless, they live in peace with their neighbors and do their best to show the love of Christ to the needy and suffering people around them. 
 For example, the evangelical group with which McMurry works there runs a home for orphans and other children whose parents cannot properly care for them, as well as a school and a ministry to lepers.  When it comes to those lepers, literally no one else in the city has anything to do with them.  I also visited St. Thomas Seminary of India’s Orthodox Church, which traces its heritage back to St. Thomas the Apostle.  The seminary has the feel of a monastery, as the students begin their day with prayers at 5 am, have permission to go into town once a week for a few hours on Sunday afternoon, and otherwise live a disciplined communal life that few Americans would accept.  Adjacent to the seminary is a home for mentally retarded children which provides a residential education for vulnerable kids who are easily neglected and abused.
By doing this kind of work to the outcasts of their society, Indian Christians proclaim the love and mercy of Jesus Christ not only by their words, but more importantly by their deeds.     In a society where religious conversion is complicated and it is often a real accomplishment for different groups simply to live in peace, the Christians quietly seek to treat everyone as the Lord treats us all.  Their practices will not make them rich, famous, or powerful, but they are signs of obedience to the humble, selfless way of our Savior who came to serve, not to be served.
The situation of Indian Christians reminds us in some ways of that of Christians in the Middle East.  In both places, they are a small minority that seeks harmonious relations with others and ministers to the needy.  For example, International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) is the most active philanthropic organization in Syria.  Apparently trusted by both sides in the conflict, they are able to show compassion to those who suffer from the effects of a brutal war, regardless of their religious or political affiliation. 
Especially as Antiochian Orthodox Christians, our thoughts and prayers are with our brothers and sisters in Syria.  Two bishops have been kidnapped there, one of whom is the brother of our Patriarch.  Metropolitan Saba of the Diocese of Hauran, our sister diocese, reports that he is able to visit only one of the communities under his care.  At his diocesan headquarters, he has set up a kitchen that feeds one hundred families every day.  Inflation is very high and so many people have lost their livelihoods and their homes.  They are caught between two warring factions and simply trying to survive with hardly any resources.
We think of Syria especially today, for it is  “St. Timon Sunday Day” in our diocese, when we remember Timon, one of the seventy apostles sent out by Jesus Christ and one of the original deacons mentioned in the book of Acts.  He became the bishop of Bosra in Syria and eventually became a martyr.  All Christians are in his debt as a pillar of the early Church.   He converted many Arabs to the Christian faith, and especially we Antiochian Orthodox should remember him with great appreciation.  For he played a crucial role in building the mother church of which we are a part and of evangelizing the part of the world where our faith began.
            So it is fitting that in the last few of years our diocese has established “the Hauran connection,” a way for us to help our impoverished Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters in southwestern Syria.  Life is impossibly hard now for everyone in Syria.  In a revolution or civil war, it does not matter what you call it, everyone’s life is at risk.  Along with people of other faiths, many of our Orthodox brothers and sisters are now refugees with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
            We sometimes forget how blessed we are to live in a country where, despite our many problems, there is not civil war or ongoing physical violence between political and religious groups.  Hunger and poverty certainly exist here, but not as they do in a war zone or a society where people have to flee for their lives.      
            None of us controls world events or the policies of our government.  If we think in worldly terms, there is not much that we can do about the problems of Syria or any other nation, perhaps including our own.  But as Christians we should not think in worldly terms for Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.   We are not called to lord it over others or force them to do our will, but instead to offer ourselves and our blessings as best we can to the Lord for Him to do with as He sees fit.  And that is why we take up a collection here at St. Luke each summer for “the Hauran Connection,” especially for our sister parish of the Dormition of the Theotokos.  I hope that you will put what you can in the collection plate today or next Sunday to help our struggling brothers and sisters in Syria.     
We can learn from Christians in places like the Middle East and India that we are not in charge of the course of human events.  We probably struggle enough just to deal with our own personal problems, much less to set the world right.  All that we can do is to offer what little we can to the Lord for His blessing with the humble trust that He will do the rest.
            That kind of offering is at the very heart of our worship in the Orthodox Church.  A couple of loaves of bread and a cup containing wine and water.   By themselves, they might make a decent snack, but not even a full meal.  But in the Divine Liturgy, we pray for God’s blessing upon the bread and wine.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, they become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the menu of the heavenly banquet.  We receive more than a mere meal, but the forgiveness of sins and life eternal in our communion.   We are nourished with heavenly food and in communion with our Savior and His Body on earth and in heaven.   
            Yes, God works miracles upon the small gifts we offer Him. He requires that we do our small part and then He does the rest, making our tiny gifts far more than they could have been on their own.  We often say in the Church that we are not simply to attend the Divine Liturgy, but to live it.  All of our life should be an offering to and communion with God, as well as with all those created in His image and likeness.  Now is the time to make whatever offering we can to the Lord for the poor people of Syria.  Like the Christians in India, let us show the love and mercy of Jesus Christ to the suffering not only with our words, but also with our deeds.  No, we do not run the world, but we are called to live peaceably and faithfully in it, doing what we can to show the love of our Savior to those who lack what we so often take for granted.     


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