Make Your Parish a Paradise
I. Make the place you are in a paradise.
Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity with a mission. They were to live in the midst of poverty, and there, to make a little paradise. They accomplished this with one bowl of soup at a time, one kind word, or just one simple smile. Whatever their small hands had to offer, the sisters offered, and they built a sanctuary in a desert.
What do we bring to parish community? Do we come to church to fulfil a Sunday obligation? Do we come to escape our problems or to feel righteous and superior? Do we come to get? Or do we come to church to learn to love God and one another? Jesus Christ said: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). To be Christian is to share a mission much like that of the sisters, to make the place we are in a paradise.
II. Christianity changed the world because of tiny parishes.
It wasn’t through politics, economics, industry or science. The Church changed the world through community. When barbarians wreaked havoc through Rome, it was the churches that pulled together to rebuild a world. When the black plaque wiped out thirty to sixty percent of Europe’s population, it was the monks and laity who came together to serve the sick. The hospitals, homes for the elderly, and universities that mark western civilization, all stem from that same Christian spirit. But most of all, people flocked to the churches because they saw something dazzling: love for one another.
The Russian mystics call it sobornost: a unity, which begins in the Trinity and flows out through the Church when we share from the same chalice. The Greeks call it koinonia: a oneness that you see in the villages when they dip their bread in one another’s plates and link arms in dance. The holy scriptures define the Church by a simple image: a community of people who have “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:42,46). Christianity is always grass roots. It grows and flourishes where people have agreed to work together with Christ as the focus of love. This vocation is in the core of Christianity, and it begins in the parish. Make the place you are in a paradise.
II. Our gospel today casts special light on Christian community.
The Gospel of Matthew accounts: “After getting into a boat, He crossed the water and came to his own town. And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven…Stand up, take your bed and go to your home” (9:1-8). When the paralyzed man lay before Christ, our Lord healed him and forgave him. However, there is a whole scene behind this miracle. Before it could take place, a group of friends had to come together to bare the needs of a brother. It says, “Jesus saw their faith.” It doesn’t say anything about the paralyzed man. He didn’t cry out for help. He might as well have been unconscious. It was the faith, efforts, and love of his companions that saved him.
IV. The group of friends who bore the sick: that is you and me.
Of Christian community, St. Paul writes, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (I Corinthians 12:26), so, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). We are here on Sunday to bear the cares of one another. It’s easy to lose this spirit in our modern times. We let individualism slip into Christianity, but when it does, it is no longer Christianity. We can fall into the temptation of Cain, to think of one other people at church, “I am not my brother’s keeper.” But the truth is, I am. You are. All of us are responsible for one another. At the final judgment, each of us will be responsible for the souls of everyone sitting in these pews.
Jesus Christ explained true religion in this way, when he said, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40). Our greatest expression of love for Christ is our love for one another. So, how do we put this in practice? It’s simple. We have to ask our selves again and again, what kind I do today to make this place a paradise?
In the fourth century in Asia Minor, St. Basil the Great struggled to nurture this attitude in the Church. He was convicted by a warped kind of religion. It was Lent, and the pious Christians were fasting rigorously. Yet, at the same time, they were criticizing one another and grumbling. He preached, “You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.” They had gotten it all wrong. True religion is the willingness to serve and to love. This is parish life.
V. What do we make of the great commission?
He adjured us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20). This vision can feel a little too lofty for people like you and me. We figure it means becoming a missionary and going out to some exotic country far away. But for most of us, it refers to our little efforts in our little community. Fr. Tom Hopko once translated this commission to parish life. He writes:
“An Orthodox parish…must understand itself to be an apostolic community with a missionary purpose. Its members…must be conscious of themselves as people sent by Christ from God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring God’s unity, holiness and fullness to all human beings in this divided, sinful and fragmented world. If a parish has no awareness and consciousness of being ‘sent’ by God to speak His words, to do His work, and to accomplish His will in this world, then it is not an Orthodox Christian parish…” (Fr. Tom Hopko).
Christ’s commission applies to all of us, in all the little things.
V. Some of you know Nancy Smith.
She’s the matriarch of this parish. When I first arrived Nancy was here every Sunday with her beautiful smile in the front pews. Now, sadly, her health has declined and she isn’t able to get out. Yet she communes with God and one another as fervently as you and I in this room. She prays. She prays for her family. She prays for the world. Day and night her heart murmurs prayers for everyone in need. When I see Nancy I always think of St. Paul’s words to the Romans, “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (12:4-5). Each of us is here because God has sent us to build his Kingdom. It’ll take each of us to succeed.
VII. What is your gift?
It may be to make coffee when Mass gets out or to prepare a meal for visitors. It may be to do finances, secretarial work or evangelism. Or perhaps, God needs you to simply intercede for one another and greet others with a smile. The scriptures couldn’t say it better than with the friends of the paralytic. They carried their brother to Christ when he was low and in need. God has put us together, in our beautiful parish, to do the same. We must make the place we are in a little paradise.