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Oratorical Festival Winning Speech 2009

by Joel Schaefer

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Your Grace Eminence, Metropolitan Philip, Your Graces, Reverend Clergy, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Christ is in our midst!

At some time, most of you have been asked by some well-meaning person, “Are you saved?” which is code for, “Have you, at one time in your life, prayed that Jesus come into your heart?” During a trip a couple years ago, I found myself in Boston Gardens. I encountered a sizable group of teens from a mega church in Texas, who sang and danced to catchy songs, hoping to “save” those watching. Their finale was called “The J-Train” with a simple chorus, “I’ve got a ticket on the J-Train!” Their message was clear: “I’ve accepted Jesus into my heart – now my ticket to heaven is punched!” While I admire their desire to share their love for Christ, when I hear this theology preached, I am seriously troubled. People are being told that ALL they have to do is speak a few words, sincerely “mean it” and their life’s eternal destiny is set, their problems are solved, their purpose fulfilled. I have to think many of them are left feeling hollow – intrinsically we KNOW there has to be something more …

Indeed, IF this theology were correct, what would be the purpose of most of Christ’s teaching? What did He mean when He said, “Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for My sake, and the gospel’s will save it” (Luke 9:24)? Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed up our Lord’s words by challenging, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” Is that not exactly what we see in the lives of the saints? The Church has given us countless examples of those who were not content to “get their ticket punched” and then cruise along for the ride. We must be vigilant to not slip into this dangerous delusion – thinking it doesn’t matter what we do with our lives. If we’re asked, “Are you saved?”, we would do well to answer using St. James’ words: “Someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works. [I say] show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith BY my works’” (James 2:18 – emphasis added).

I find the foretelling of the Judgment Day in the Gospel of Matthew fascinating (and frankly terrifying). Do you remember, how Jesus separates the sheep and the goats, placing the sheep on His right and the goats on His left? As you may recall, they are NOT separated by those “who believed in Jesus”. Have no doubt, everyone on the judgment day will “believe in God” – for we know that “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus Christ is Lord”. Indeed, scripture confirms that even the demons believe in God (Jam 2:19), merely saying, “I believe” will save no one. Instead, our Savior separates the sheep from the goats, saying to the sheep, “‘Come you, blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me’” (Matthew 25:34-36). The only difference between the sheep and goats is what they did and didn’t do.

St. John Chrysostom is renowned for his beautiful preaching, which is why he’s called Chrysostom or “golden tongued.” Nonetheless, he was not content to just preach with words, but spent much of his time serving those in need, especially caring for orphans and feeding the poor. St. John cautions, “Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, …neglecting him outside where he is cold … For he said: ‘You saw me hungry and did not feed me, and inasmuch as you did not do it for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did not do it for me’”(Matt 25: ff). How can we worship Christ, while leaving Him outside in rags? According to St. John, caring for the poor is not an option; it is a necessity.

Last summer, I had an opportunity to participate in the CrossRoad program at Holy Cross Seminary where we spent a couple weeks exploring our Faith in action. One morning, we woke up early and went on a “breakfast search” where in small groups, we sought out homeless people on the streets of Boston and asked if they would have breakfast with us. After sharing breakfast with a homeless man I was struck by a painful reality - if this amazing person who spent his days on the streets, his nights out in the cold, were to pass away tomorrow, very few people would know, let alone, care. Experiencing the worldly indifference towards this man who had become my friend, I got just a glimpse of the sorrow our Lord must feel. Christ has called us ALL to be sons and heirs of His kingdom. Indeed, these are our brothers and sisters out on the streets. Human beings made in the image and likeness of Christ Himself. As St. James writes, “Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who loved Him?” (James 2:5). You can imagine the agony Christ must go through, as He sees His own children walk by their brothers and sisters on the streets, glancing the other way.

I’m sure you all have struggled with questions when faced with the poor among us. Why are they on the streets? How will they use the money? Why can’t they get their acts together? St. John Chrysostom, as if speaking to us in 21st century America, addressed these very issues. According to St. John, “When you see on earth the man who has encountered the shipwreck of poverty, do not judge him, do not seek an account of his life, but free him from his misfortune … The poor man has one plea, his want and his standing in need: …but even if he is the most wicked of all men, let us free him from hunger.” St. John explains, “We show mercy on him not because of his virtue but because of his misfortune, in order that we ourselves may receive from the Master His great mercy . . .”
At times, it becomes clear that the way our Lord looks upon things is vastly different from our natural inclination. Another experience I had which radically altered my outlook was serving as a coach at the Special Olympics Camp at Antiochian Village. I’ll be honest, as I watched the athletes file off the bus on the first day of camp, I was a bit stunned. At that moment, I was lost – viewing those remarkable individuals by their limitations - seeing their disabilities, not their potential, all the while worrying about myself, thinking, “What had I gotten myself into?” How little I knew what JOY the next week would hold! The Lord said He “uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise” (1 Cor 11:17). Well let me tell you, I was definitely “schooled” that week. Getting to live, train and play amongst these amazing individuals was truly life-changing. I thank God for the opportunity to have my eyes opened and my heart expanded.

As my limited experiences have taught me, we receive so much more out of serving than we could ever give. Truly, our love and care for the poor leads us towards communion with God. Fr. Nicholas, the priest who baptized me, taught me that with prayer, it is important to put our mind where our mouth is. That is – focus your mind and heart on the words you are saying. As you do, the prayer changes you – even if you are not feeling particularly prayerful when you first begin. IN the same way, when we serve and help the poor, even if we don't feel like it at first, the very act begins to change us. By demonstrating Christ's love in a real and tangible way, we are communing with Him who IS Love (1 Jn 4:8). Since our ultimate goal is union with Christ, theosis, when we bear the fruit of love in our lives, we mystically move forward on our journey towards union with God. This is what we see in the lives of the saints – like Fr. Arseny, who exhibited the love of Christ in one of the worst horrors, a Stalinist gulag in Siberia. For 19 years, under extreme conditions, Fr. Arseny brought healing and solace to many prisoners, including communists and hardened criminals. When asked, “What is prayer?” in the midst of deprivation and torture, Fr. Arseny would reply, “The prayer is my giving you a dish a food. The prayer is my giving you a towel.” In the process, Fr. Arseny too was changed more and more into the image of Christ – some say in the darkness that a light would even shine from him as he prayed, an indication of his becoming by grace one with God.

Yet too often, back here in our 21st century world of plenty, we get distracted and forget to pray, let alone truly love those around us. A sobering story for us comes from the book of Mark. Christ and His disciples are hungry, so Jesus approaches a fig tree, to see if there is any fruit on the tree. Not being the season for figs, the plant had no fruit. Christ declares that no one will ever eat from it again. The next day Jesus and His disciples passed by the tree again and it had withered. Usually we understand the fig tree to represent Israel. However, I find it as a warning to us as well. Are we bearing fruit in every season, every day? When Christ and His disciples came upon the fig tree, it was not the season for figs. Indeed, all of us have had that day where we just don’t feel like serving anyone, let alone the “least of these” – that might even be your brother or neighbor. Perhaps you told yourself, “Ah … I’ll help that person tomorrow.” Unfortunately, when we choose to ignore the poor the Lord brings in our lives, we become like the barren fig tree. Christ clearly explained no one has any knowledge of when our Savior is returning. When He comes knocking, will we be like the barren fig tree? Standing in front of God at the judgment, will we explain how it was inconvenient for us to visit those in prison, how the homeless guy we passed daily made us feel uncomfortable, that we were really busy serving at church and didn’t have time to visit the sick? It is our duty to bear fruit in every season, no matter what our inclinations may be.

Be mindful O Lord of those who bear fruit and do good works in thy holy Churches and who remember the poor. We need to mindful that the Lord looks upon things disparately from the world in which we live. On the judgment day, you will not be asked how many Oscars, Nobel prizes, or even oratorical contests you’ve won. In fact, you won’t be asked if you “believe” in God. Rather, scripture, the Fathers, as well as the lives are the saints are clear - we will be asked how we served those around us. “For we are His workmanship, created for good works in Christ, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10).