Sermon delivered by Bishop BENJAMIN at this pan-Orthodox Vesper on March 18
It has been said: Ã¢â‚¬Å“There are no coincidences in the Church.Ã¢â‚¬Â Yesterday, when I began to think about what message I would like to bring you this evening, I noticed today is the Repose of St. Nikolaj of Zicha according to the New Calendar. My own experience of St. Nikolaj has been rather limited. I sang a few of his spiritual songs when I was in seminary. I have read both his Homilies and Prologue of Ochrid in English. But, I really had very little knowledge about the man himself, his views and life. And so I began a little research. While this is neither the place nor the time to give you a biography of St. Nikolaj, I would like to share a few thoughts with you.
St. Nikolaj was, simply put, a brilliant man, a scholar, writer, poet, musician, as well as a churchman. He was, in many ways, GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s gift to both the Serbian people and the Orthodox Church as a whole at a very difficult time in their history. He was born on December 23rd and was raised by truly pious, God-fearing parents. He received an amazing education. Not only did he complete theological studies at the Seminary of St. Sava in Belgrade, he had degrees from the University of Berne in Switzerland, Columbia University and Oxford, honorary doctorates from Cambridge, University of Glasgow and taught not only in Serbia, but here in America at St. Tikhon Seminary, St. Vladimir Seminary, the ROCOR seminary at Jordanville and the St. Sava Seminary at Libertyville, Il.
It was his work in America, both before and after the Second World War that really began to interest me. St. Nikolaj was most definitely a Serb, a Serb who was not only a pastor concerned about the spiritual welfare of his flock, but also one able to communicate the plight of the Serbian and other Balkan peoples during two wars to a Western world that had, and still has, very little knowledge about Eastern Europe. In 1914 he was sent on a diplomatic mission to England to gain support for the Serbian nation. And a year later he made his first trip to America to rally the Serbs here to support their compatriots in their struggle against the Austrians. Both his travels and education abroad allowed him to develop a broader vision of the Orthodox Church and its place in the world than he might have been expected to have had.
Professor Kesich used to quote Bishop Nikolaj: Ã¢â‚¬Å“We must guard against the temptation of insignificance.Ã¢â‚¬Â And I think that might be his message to us tonight. We gather here together, Orthodox Christians from various Churches and jurisdictions, to become something greater than the sum of our various parts, the Body of Christ, the Church. We have been given a great and rich gift, our Orthodox Faith. And yet, when we look at ourselves and compare ourselves to others around us, we tend to find ourselves misunderstood, if not unknown and irrelevant, divided and impotent in a hostile, secular world. Like Moses standing before the burning bush on Sinai, we are tempted to doubt our ability to fulfill GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s great commission to evangelize and transform this society. And we are tempted to hide our treasure under the bushel of ethnic festivals and our truly Byzantine Church politics.
But, brothers and sisters, St. Nikolaj did not have this vision of us, or, should I say, lack of vision of us. He saw America as a treasure that held Ã¢â‚¬Å“the torch of hopeÃ¢â‚¬Â for all of humankind. And we, as Orthodox Christians in this great and wonderful place, have a share in this hope, in Bishop NikolajÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s larger vision. If a bunch of persecuted Calvinists who landed on Plymouth Rock could change the world, think what we could do. If a group of Deists in a hall in Philadelphia could give the world hope through a Declaration of Independence from a foreign king, think what we could do if we only worked together. But, I am afraid, we have succumbed to Ã¢â‚¬Å“the sin of insignificanceÃ¢â‚¬Â. We have allowed ourselves to be self indulgent, as Orthodox Christians, content with our lack of a vision for unity. Even within our divided Ã¢â‚¬Å“jurisdictionsÃ¢â‚¬Â we are divided by parochialism. We have exchanged and continue to exchange the Ã¢â‚¬Å“oneÃ¢â‚¬Â for the Ã¢â‚¬Å“manyÃ¢â‚¬Â and have been scattered like sheep. Can we even hear the ShepherdÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s voice calling us together anymore?
A couple of weeks ago, many of you had an experience, a brief glimpse at what we could be if we were truly able to repent of this Ã¢â‚¬Å“sin of insignificanceÃ¢â‚¬Â: the Vespers of Orthodoxy at the Getty. I regret I was unable to be there, but I have heard it was a moving experience for those who were. Is it possible we can continue to move forward, to work together, to develop a vision of Ã¢â‚¬Å“significanceÃ¢â‚¬Â? I think so.
I truly believe a step forward begins with us, the hierarchs. If we cannot sit together, eat together, and yes, even share our toys, there is no hope. If we do not have the courage to embrace each other, to celebrate the richness of our faith and even of the cultures that express it, there is no hope. Can we work together through IOCC and OCMC to make a difference in the world? Can we overcome our tendency toward insignificance and move toward each other rather than away from each other?
I would be remiss if I passed over another critical element in overcoming our insignificance and that is the personal dimension. We are in the midst of the Great Forty-Day Fast, a tithe of the year, when we are supposed to recharge and focus our inner life. I wonder if many of us here even have an inner life or have we let that too slip into insignificance. I visited a parish recently where there were less than 20 people present for Saturday night Vespers. The next morning there were almost 150 in line for Holy Communion. And this happens week after week. There might be 3 or 4 who come for confession each week. And this was during LENT! The priest feels like John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness, because, even though he preaches, teaches and urges, there is no will to change among the faithful of his parish. They are happy with lifeless mediocrity. Happy and well off in terms of the world, they are spiritually empty vessels. I was reminded of the voice of the angel in the Apocalypse to the Church in Laodicea: Ã¢â‚¬Å“I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot. I would that thou wert cold or hot. Thus, because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am about to spit thee out of My mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich and have gotten riches and have need of nothing Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and knowest not that thou art wretched and pitiable, and blind and naked.Ã¢â‚¬Â I am afraid we Orthodox of America might be very much like the Laodiceans of old, relatively rich, content, and comfortableÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ and in great spiritual peril as a result of it. There is no hope for us to become significant if we are content to be empty vessels, devoid of GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Spirit and lukewarm. How can God bless us if we donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t pray? How can God bless us if we return home each night to a full table and warm beds while we pass by the Lazarus, the homeless man or person with HIV, who lies just outside our door? How can there be a future if our children are ignorant of basic Christian stories and teaching? Our seminaries spend the first year teaching what in the old days would have been basic catechism BEFORE they can begin real theological education. How sad it is that the TV Guide is picked up more frequently than the Bible in our homes. If we cannot, will not, pick up the spiritual tools given to us in Great Lent, how will we ever become significant? To change the world, brothers and sisters, we have to change ourselves. We must rise out of our own personal temptation toward complacency and mediocrity and take up our cross and follow Christ. St. Nikolaj did this every day of his life. Even in a German concentration camp, he prayed, he enriched his inner life. And, in doing so, he became a significant person in GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s holy Church. By filling the well of his soul with the Holy Spirit, he was able give from the treasury of his heart.
May God, through the prayers of St. Nikolaj of Zicha, help us and save us.