St. Silouan the Athonite Mission Parish


Homily 24 July 2016
by Fr Roberto Ubertino 

A while ago, I received a photo of one of our altar boys playing church, complete with censor and blanket phelon. It reminded me of how, as a little boy, I would play church. Playing church: can lead one to living the life of the church for real. There are even stories of martyrs who started out first just as actors, pretending to be Christians by playing as a way to make fun of the church.

Nonetheless, this photo has made me reflect on whether I am still playing church or actually living the reality of what the liturgy is. How does one know? How do I know if I am just playing the part of a priest or actually being a priest? How do I know if I just go through the motions of going to church on Sunday or actually live each moment what I profess I believe on Sunday? What does for real mean?

The Gospel today is read twice a year from two different gospel writers. I believe it can help us understand what is the transition between playing church and living the life of the church for real, the difference between just playing, pretending liturgy and praying the liturgy.

The Gospel today tells us that Jesus, after speaking about the need to follow him, tells his disciples to get into their boat and go over to the shore of the Sea of Galilee where the pagans live. He is telling them, Okay, this is what 'follow me' means, leave the Holy Land, leave the land of Israel where God dwells and go to that place where you think He is not, go to be with the demons, the unclean realities of life, the unclean people. Leave your comfort zone; go outside the safe orthodox world you know. This is the first step. So they listen to Him and they find themselves in a boat, in the night, in the middle of a violent storm, winds, rain, excessive turbulence, facing death. There they experience a stillness; a deep peace that surpasses any understanding. They realize that all they need is Jesus among them, like the three youths in the fiery violent furnace who experience the gentle breeze with the present of God's Angel in their midst, so the disciples in the middle of life's storms, at the very gates of death, experience that Christ alone is the Peace, there in the storm of the Lake they face Christ the conquer of death and hell. When they land, they again face the powers of hell, two people - "all of humanity," as St Basil says in the Anaphora, "before Christ - all humanity went about oppressed by the devil." This ancient oppression we try to control, codify, restrain, deny, even normalize, yet its aim is simple: to oppress us, keep us locked up in our fear, our fear ultimately of death. The two people live together but they are not a community, like so many people in our modern world they simply share in immense loneliness. Jesus redirects this oppression and frees the two people. Here again, we see Jesus the conqueror of death and hell. Yet the society around the two people can't economically sustain the consequences of such freedom and turns Jesus away. The Gospels answers very clearly that to really follow Jesus and not just play church, you/I must be ready to follow Him out of my comfort zone, including to those deep and dark places where people are oppressed.

Here is the third step we need to trust the conqueror of hell, not only for ourselves but for others as well. This week, Fr Nicolaie shared with me how, after listening at length to a young person, that night he could not sleep. All night he wrestled with himself alone with what he had heard and taken into his heart. It reminded me of a verse of Billie Holliday's song that sings "you don't know what love is until you've faced the morning with sleepless eyes". This is what turns a person from playing priest to a real priest.

Today I see that more and more young people are oppressed by a society that has created for them a spiritual vacuum. God is rejected, sent away, and this causes in all of us a deep suffering. For this is the greatest form of violence and abuse. An older generation has sent God away; we refuse a God who wants to take us out of the hell we have created. We who minister in the church are struck by how many young people who may be totally against the belief in a personal God are at the same time dogmatic in their belief of ghosts and spirits. One of the first prayers I did in the new mission in Scarborough was to read over a woman the prayer of exorcism of St Basil. Don't think that Satan comes to us with pitchforks and horns. He is equally happy that we don't really think he exists as he is, that we think he is everywhere. He is also very happy with a church that, rather than proclaiming that Christ has conquered hell, seems to love to send everyone there.

But to trust God even in dark places means we need to learn to speak, to name the problem. We need to learn the real face behind what oppresses us. We need, like Christ and like the Church, to talk back to hell. Jesus named and talked back to the powers that were oppressing these two people whom he obviously loved deeply, since he had gone out of his way to meet them. We need to name, that is understand, the suffering that oppresses our generation. I remember visiting a priest in Detroit who lived in a particularly violent slum area near Tiger Stadium. They ran a soup kitchen and just that week, someone was shot and killed in their church. They had a tradition to read the Psalms during the day. Why? Fr John explained to me that they had learned that when faced with evil, we need to stand up to death and talk back to hell, and that the Psalms were the words God had given the church to do exactly that. This is the reason why we love to read the Psalms in church during the week.

When we start doing this, then we stop playing church and become the real thing. This Mission began in a desire to live this life and so is now the mission in Scarborough. We follow and He leads us, He will teach us, how to talk back to hell, how to live in such a way that our lives will live the reality that Christ is risen! For the sake of each and every one.

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