On July 20, my mother was chrismated at St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church and became an Orthodox Christian. I flew out to take part and was asked to deliver the sermon. The one gift that my mom wanted from me is to post that sermon here on my blog. What follows is an attempt to reiterate that sermon as best as I am able:
When my mom decided to take on St. Elias (Elijah) as her patron saint and that she would be chrismated on the prophet’s feast, I was thrilled for many reasons. One of which being that Elijah is not only one of my favorite prophets and one of my favorite figures in the OT, but he is one of my favorites in all of Scripture. Of all of the stories in the bible that I go to to find inspiration, many of them involve Elijah.
One of the reasons is that his life, in particular, is so cinematic and visually dramatic. If Hollywood would ever get smart enough to realize that there is an entire audience out here in fly-over country that would flock to go see movies that speak to our Christian values, they could, with the technology available to them today, make a fabulous movie about Elijah.
Take the battle royale between Elijah and the priests of Baal. He challenges them to call on their god to set afire the burnt offering of a bull. They cry out, the cut themselves with swords, and poke themselves with lances until they are covered with blood. Of course, nothing happens. Then it is Eijah’s turn:
At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench — 1 Kings 18:36-38
A personal favorite that I go to all the time in my personal prayer life is when God tells Elijah to go to the mountain because God is about to pass by:
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. — 1 Kings 19:11-12
And it was in this stillness that Elijah encounters God.
Elijah’s story is full of these big, dramatic, cinematic miracles of God. We see this reflected in the services of Church. During Vespers, the OT readings not only recount the two stories above, but also the stories of Elijah raising the widow’s son from the dead and his ascension into heaven on a flaming chariot. We see these stories referred to in the hymns of Orthros. However, when we get to the Divine Liturgy, both the Epistle and Gospel readings are silent about these big, dramatic and cinematic miracles. Instead, in the Epistle reading St. James implores us to pray for one another, using Elijah as an example of the power of prayer:
Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. — James 5:17
In the Gospel reading Christ then tells us that:
there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. — Luke 4:25-26
In short, the two things that the Church highlights from all the stories we have about Elijah, are prayer and ministering to strangers. One might be tempted to consider this a bit of a let down. Prayer and ministering to strangers surely are not as dramatic or fantastic as calling a consuming fire from heaven; however, we need to see prayer and ministering to strangers in context of the Divine Liturgy.
Speaking about the faith of all the great OT figures and the miracles wrought through that faith, St. Paul tells us:
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. — Hebrews 11:39-40
Despite the fire from heaven, the resurrection of the widow’s son, and the fiery chariot that shuttles him up into heaven, Elijah did not have Emmanuel — “God with Us,” God Incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. He was not the Temple of God, sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. He was not able to gather with the people of God to call upon the Holy Spirit to descend upon the gifts in order to partake of the very Body and Blood of our Lord, God and Savior.
In this context, prayer and ministering to strangers — activities we can participate in every day — take on a whole new dimension. In this context we begin to see that we get to participate in a miracle far greater than anything worked through Elijah in his lifetime. Through prayer, we humble ourselves — Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me the sinner — and in so doing we soften our hearts. We are able to get out of the way, allow the Holy Spirit to work through us. We are able to participate in one of the greatest miracles of all time — through the Holy Spirit we are able to love as God loves. We are able to love with a divine love.
In the ancient world, when a disease hit a metropolitan area, people had two choices. If they were rich enough, they would flee the city and wait out the epidemic in their country villas. When the disease had run its course, they would return to the city and continue to with their urban lives. If they were not rich enough to flee, they holed themselves up and hoped that they would not become infected because it usually meant death.
Christianity offered a third option. The early Church would visit the sick and bring food, water and prayer. Miracles began to happen — people started to survive epidemics whereas before, they died. Our modern, cynical and scientific minds might attribute this to the fact that by bringing food and water to the sick, Christians were eliminating the most likely cause of death. Many of the diseases that afflicted the ancient world were not deadly in and of themselves. Rather, people more likely died of dehydration and starvation. This cynical point of view, however, misses the point.
Through prayer, the Church was moved by divine love to minister to strangers. They knew that it didn’t matter whether these strangers were pagan or Christian, Greek or Jew, male or female, rich or poor, young or old — because Christ is all in all. He took on all our humanity. Out of divine love, He went to the Cross for all of us. The real miracle in this story is the way God’s love was made manifest in Christians and shown to the world. With this divine love, Christianity went on to conquer the Roman Empire.
We see the fruits of this same miracle today. I don’t know how many remember me, but this is not the first time I have been at St. Spyridon. Thus, when my mom began to have even an iota of interest in Orthodoxy, I suggested that she go to St. Spyridon — because I knew of you. I sent you a stranger and because of your love, today my mom no longer stands here as a stranger, but as a child of God who has finally come home.
So today I pray that God grant us the strength and the wisdom to pray. That our hearts will soften. That we find the humility to get out of the way and allow the Holy Spirit to move us to minister to strangers. That His love is manifest in us so that all of God’s children come home. Amen.