Elder Arsenie Papacioc of Romania said to Orthodox monastics when speaking about their monasteries something which could just as easily be applied to our parish church: You are not going there to find a church, but to make one.
This has been the spirit with which this parish was founded nearly twenty years ago: not a church where people can drop in, get their "fix", and drop out - that's not what Christ's ever intended - but a church that is cared for, and maintained, year-in and year-out, by her faithful people.
What Faithfulness Looks Like
The past year has presented many serious challenges to our parish. Some have not stood up to those challenges. But I would be remiss if I did not take this chance to thank those who have shown the courage and the faith to stand alongside their priest and parish, for the sake of the mission of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Our faith isn't tested in the easy times - it is tested in the tough times. Anyone can stand with Christ's Church when times are good, but it takes confessors of the faith to stand with Her and not to run away when we are tested.
This past year, while some were complaining to the archbishop that the priest wasn't nice, that he was too demanding, you were helping your priest cope with the growing ongoing daily pain of his physical illnesses.
While some were raising protests when services didn't start on time, you were covering your priest's sicknesses that delayed the services, and reading and praying along with the Psalter.
While some were threatening to withhold their tithes - to undermine our ability to pay our bills - when they didn't get their way with something in the church, you gave your time and your money to restore the church, to repair the walls and the fences, to clear the water from the floods - because you heard the voice of Christ more than you heard the voice of your own desires.
This is what faithfulness looks like.
This is what the care of Christ's Church and His ministers looks like.
And for your faithfulness, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
ONE REASON To Be Here
Our parish is different from many Orthodox communities: Members do not return here because of family connections, they do not feel the pull of their language or ethnic heritage, or loyalty to any country or nation.
The only reason anyone has to return through those doors of our church each week is their desire for the Orthodox Christian Faith.
Consider this: Two percent of Canadians are Orthodox Christians. More than ninety-nine percent of those come from a traditionally Orthodox cultural background. Less than one in ten thousand - perhaps one person in one hundred thousand - has even the vaguest connection to our parish. All the rest come through the process of conversion or a fundamental spiritual commitment - nothing else.
This reality means we must take very seriously indeed the way in which we prepare those who approach the Orthodox Faith, inquiring about it, hoping to enter it. There is a very good reason 75% of converts fall away from the Orthodox Faith - just like the Parable of the Sower tells us! - and it is this: entering the Church must come through the transforming power of God and the Holy Mysteries, and a deep grounding in the Faith of the saints. Without this, we can easily join the ranks of those who sell Orthodox Christianity cheaply. We can easily turn the Church of Christ into simply a fascinating collection of beautiful icons, profound prayers, and "deeply meaningful" doctrines which make little difference to the way we conduct our lives moment to moment.
Or as my departed friend Archpriest Oleg Kirilov used to say, we become a bunch of baptized pagans. Let's not.
Never Regret Doing Good
Five years ago, our parish took a leap of faith, building on our missionary success in Hamilton, to purchase and build from nothing a mission parish in Brantford dedicated to St. George. At that time, we enjoyed a generous grant from an Orthodox foundation - $30 thousand dollars a year for mission work - and the promise from a local deacon (now a priest) that he would serve in this new mission. We took every careful, prayerful precaution, raised the funds we could, then took that leap of faith.
One year later, the foundation pulled its grant, the potential priest had left us, and our community was once again left alone in its missionary endeavours - but for God's help. For another four years, great efforts - both personal and financial - were poured into the mission of St. George's, and indeed just like St. Paul did, we robbed other churches, taking wages from them to minister to our mission (c.f. 2 Cor 11:8). Each and every year, for five full years, our ability to afford this mission work exceeded our ability to pay - but we did it, for the love of Christ and His Gospel.
In 2019, it became clear to us that our ability to pay for two parishes had long past run its course. We had no choice but to close St. George's, and sell the property. The final Liturgy will take place on Forgiveness Sunday.
Brethren: in offering me some consolation over the difficult events of the last couple years, my confessor said, never regret doing what is right, and never regret doing what is good.
While we are far beyond our financial ability to continue to operate two churches with the income from only one, we should never regret having done what was right for the sake of the mission of the Gospel of Christ and His Church. Nor should we let past difficulties deter us from doing such good again. It is one thing to learn from our experiences - we must do that - it is quite another to let them paralyze us.
EDUCATION through WATCHFULNESS OVER THE HEART
We have also, from time to time, seen the loss of those who found the missionary work of the Church - indeed, the Christian life itself - too difficult to remain in a community that exists on the spiritual front lines. The evil one hates the work of the Christ's Church, he attacks those who are new or weak, and it is always easier to retreat.
Those who are not deeply committed to the Orthodox spiritual life do not have much reason to stay. It's a lot of spiritual work. It involves repentance. And eventually, all the incense smells the same.
This is the reason so many that are drawn to our church through books, cannot put down the roots required to grow to spiritual maturity.
It is very good that we have a bookstore: it raises money for the church, and provides spiritual food for people who might not otherwise have these books. But the books are not enough. Books - and by extension, online audio talks, and retreats, and academic courses - are just playing around with God, if we are not coming to the services to pray together, to confess our sins, and to have our senses transformed by the words of the services.
One thing we can learn from the so-called "ethnic" Orthodox parishes is this: even those people who attend them for the wrong reasons understand that they have roots, and - barring some heresy or schism - they are committed to stay put and to work for the church, come what may. We must do the same. This is the deepest form of education our soul can ever receive - much deeper than books or retreats.
My friend the late Archpriest John Moses (+2019) wrote, the Church is not a cruise ship - it's a battleship.
And we are in this battle together, dear brethren.
We cannot fight it alone.
And let me say this:
It is not the waters of any flood which will bring down a church.
It is not false teachings, or immorality in the world around us.
It is not even financial poverty, although this can cripple a church for a little while.
What brings down a church is people going their own way.
Because each one of us going our own way is the opposite of what God commands: He commands us to love one another.
To forgive one another. To be the Prodigal Son, and return to the Father, and like the Father, to embrace the Son.
We will never, ever find a church. It does not come in a package, just the way we like it.
We must stay and make it - not in our own image, but in the image of God, so we can be remade in the Image of God. Amen.