Your Eminence, brother clergy, brothers and sisters in Christ, Christ is risen!
A few years ago I was standing in the food line on opening night at the Houston Greek Festival. We had arrived early before they had started serving the food. The line was long, and had yet to move. I was standing in line with my wife and three kids behind me, and after we had exhausted the family musings, “How was your day? How was school?” “Good.” “Got any homework?” “No.” I did what most people did when so occupied, nothing to do but stare around at all the people nonchalantly.
Sometimes (I am confessing to you know) when I am at large, outdoor events, like fairs, carnivals, rodeos and festivals, I wonder, “Where do these people come from?” You have to admit. There are some strange-looking people who populate festivals.
Anyway, there I was standing at the Greek Festival in Houston, minding my own business, and it is inevitable in such situations that eventually some stranger will strike up a conversation, usually about nothing at all—the weather, the wait, the crowd. So it happened this day in the food line at the Greek Festival, I was standing behind a guy who had bushy white sideburns, a green John Deere cap, and his name on his workshirt, and he turned to me and said, “You a priest, or something?”
Of course, I was dressed like a priest. And sinner that I am, my first impulse was to say, “You a farmer, or something?” Instead, I said, “Yes sir, I serve over at St. George on Bissonette.” Again he said, “You a priest or something?” “Yes,” I said. He glanced at my family behind me, then back at me. I said, “Oh, yes, well Orthodox priests can marry and have families.” He said, “Hurray for the Orthodox!”
He related that, though he had been a lifelong Houstonian, it was the first time he had ever been to a Greek Festival, and he had never been inside an Orthodox church. He then said to me, “You Greek?” “No, I said, I’m a convert.” (laughter) Silly of me, he obviously had no idea what I was talking about. I mean, what? I converted to Greek? “Well,” he said, “you look Greek. At least, I think you do.” (laughter) He looked behind me and said, “Your whole family looks Greek.” (laughter)
Continuing to speak like a silly man, I said, “No, we’re from North Carolina.” (laughter) I realized, even as I was speaking, that this fellow was talking about culture and ethnicity, and I was rattling on about something completely different. My newfound friend in the food line at the Greek Festival then said, “Well, come to think of it, I don’t even know what a Greek looks like.” I didn’t know what to say to that. I mean, how do you describe looking Greek? But for a fleeting moment, wishing to be helpful, I scanned the festival crowd with the weird hairdos and the weird outfits and the tattoos, the festival-type people, and what does a Greek look like? How do you describe what a Greek looks like?
In hindsight later, I was thankful that he didn’t ask me what an Orthodox Christian looks like. That would have been a conversation-breaker. I mean, if you see a woman with a veiled face and long, black garb, you assume that she is a Muslim. An Indian dressed in traditional colorful flowing attire is assumed to be Hindu. But what does an Orthodox Christian look like?
Oh sure, you have some groups of Christians in which their particular brand of beliefs dictate their clothing, or the way they wear their hair. In some Christian groups, the women have their hair teased high, piled on their heads, and for some reason, Elvis caught on very big in some Christian groups, and the men look like Elvis with the hairdo. For some reason, followers of Jesus, in the south, at least, are big on sideburns.
But really, our Lord doesn’t say anything about how we are supposed to look. Our Lord doesn’t speak about how we as Christians are supposed to look. He does speak about how we are supposed to act. St. Luke, the evangelist, records our Lord saying, “As you wish men to do to you, do also to them.”
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even the sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those that do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you, for even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, lend expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the most high, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
According to our Lord, the witness of the saints, the scriptures, and the fathers, being a Christian is not so much about how one looks, one’s culture or ethnicity, but about how one acts. We would do well to listen to the words of Ghandi. Ghandi reportedly said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Father Alexander Elchaninov, in his book, Diary of a Russian Priest, says, “Our continual mistake is that we do not concentrate upon the present day, the actual hour of our life. We live in the past or in the future. We are continually expecting the coming of some special moment when our life will unfold itself in its full significance, and we do not notice that life is flowing like water through our fingers, sifting like precious grain from a loosely fashioned bag.”
He says, “Constantly, each day, each hour, God is sending us people, circumstances, tasks, which should mark the beginning of our renewal, yet we pay them no attention, and thus continually we resist God’s will for us. Indeed, how can God help us? Only by sending us, in our daily lives, certain people, certain coincidences of circumstance. If we accepted every hour of our lives, as the hour of God’s will for us, as the decisive, most important, unique hour of our lives, what sources of joy, love, strength, would spring forth from our souls?”
Father Alexander says, “Let us then be serious in our attitude toward each person we meet, toward every opportunity of performing a good deed. Be sure that you will fulfill God’s will for you in these circumstances, on that very day.”
Father Alexander also wrote in On Protestantism and Orthodoxy, “In the little things they have, they have obtained very great results, and we (speaking of the Orthodox) who have a great treasure of things, vegetate in mediocrity.”
Think about this for a moment. No one ever asks a Greek, Arab, Russian, or Serb, “So, how did you come to Orthodoxy?” I served a church for five years that had a Middle Eastern congregation, many of them Palestinians. In their back yard were Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre, the River Jordan—landmarks that for many Americans are just mythical images we find in a book. Yet for them, it was their yard. How did they become Orthodox? Nothing to it.
I mention today, when folks ask me how I became Orthodox, somewhere in there, I tell them, “Well, I grew up Baptist. I’m from North Carolina, and that’s a requirement.” And I’m glad some of you laugh, because some people take that totally seriously. “Oh, okay. You’re right. You’re from North Carolina, you’re Baptist.”
Americans do the same. “Oh, you’re from Serbia? Romania? Greece? Russia? Syria? You must be Orthodox.”
I am a native of the south, which as you all know, can be a little different from the north. Northerners are most often identified by their family’s nation of origin. This type of identification is foreign in the south, where folks are generally identified by their family name, and/or their religious affiliation. I have often heard northerners speak of someone as Italian, Ukrainian, German, etc., and along with this description is the implied religion of those being described: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran.
This is not the case in the south. In the south, folks are defined by their religion: Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, Charismatic. So it is that northern Orthodox are often amazed that Christians would intentionally convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. What an idea! Can you convert from Italian to German?
I have a felt cap. It’s a secular cap, it’s not a clergy hat. I sometimes wear it, and I have had Greeks say to me, and I’m telling you the truth, “That had makes you look Greek!” No lie. I’ve had Russians say, “That hat makes you look Russian!” I figure they are just saying, “That hat makes you look less like a redneck!” (laughter)
To the Greeks, I say, “Culture will not save you.” To the Arabs, “Food will not save you.” To the Russians, “Vodka will not save you.” If there were Protestants among us, they would say, “Preach it, brother, preach it.” Okay, here it goes. Protestantism ain’t gonna save you either. Only love saves. Only love saves.
I have often encountered a stranger at the chalice on a Sunday or a big feast and I have had to ask, “Are you Orthodox?” To which came the reply, “I’m from Syria!” At the last day, our Lord is not going to ask, “Where are you from?” At the last day, our Lord is not going to ask, “You Greek?” At the last day, our Lord is not going to ask, “ Pravoslavie? At the last day, our Lord is not going to ask, “Do you like vinegar-flavored pork barbecue, or the sweet red sauce?” Though if he does, the answer is: Vinegar. (laughter, applause)
Red and yellow, black and white, our Lord will ask, “Have you loved others as I have loved you? Have you loved others as I have loved you?” But don’t take it from me. Take it from the scriptures and the witness of the saints. In other words, take it from the Church. What do we, the members of Christ’s body, the Church, say to those Baptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, to those nominal Christians, to the Pagans, to the nonbelievers, even to the Jews and the Muslims? What do we say to them? Well, let’s say, “Y’all come on over and convert, too. Come on home to the true faith. We’ll make room.”
Listen, we will make room, won’t we? (applause) You’re going to ruin my punchline here. Here’s the punchline: I’m just kidding. We’re not ready yet. But we’re getting there. We’re getting there. When at gatherings, and from everything I’ve heard today, speeches that I’ve heard during this clergy/laity, from talking with people, they will tell you, “Well, we’re getting there. We’re not there yet.”
What does an Orthodox Christian look like? Well, we would like to think we look good, but we know from scripture that God, alone, is good. Back in November of 1959The Word magazine published an article by Father Michael Azkoul entitled, “What is a good man?” He wrote, “The Church teaches that three things are required for a man to be good: Conversion, grace, faith.
Conversion means repentance. Literally, from the Greek, a change of mind. Conversion necessarily requires faith, the right faith, the faith given, revealed, disclosed, in Christ Jesus. A man must be converted to be good. He must be changed from a son of Adam to a son of God by grace. He must be born again, renewed, made a new creature in Christ. The result is a new mentality, a change of mind, a new attitude and approach to all things. This is accomplished, primarily, by the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, which gives grace. It is grace, an energy of God, a gift, an undeserved favor, divine and activating, which converts us, which makes us good.
In other words, no matter our culture, our language, our station, or our looks, it is God’s merciful and life-changing grace that makes us Orthodox Christians. We are not Orthodox based on how we look, though of course, Greeks are a fine-looking people. We are judged to be Orthodox, right-believing Christians, by how we act, by how we love. In my experience, there are few more patriotic groups of Americans than Greek Orthodox.
So in closing, let me say, if you could become Orthodox like a Romanian, experience it like a Serbian, be loyal to it like a Ukrainian, sacrifice for it like a Russian, be proud of it like an Arab, and enjoy it like a Greek, what a great faith you would have, and especially if, in addition, you get to call yourself, American.
Christ is risen!