Here is the transcript of a commencement address that I gave to the youth of St. George in San Diego, for what it’s worth. Hope you enjoy it!
Very Reverend Fathers, Reverend Deacon, Graduates, Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I am very honored to have this opportunity to be with you today as we celebrate the accomplishments of this graduating class.
Thank you for inviting me to be here.
I know that none of us really knows each other, so allow me just briefly to introduce myself.
I am the Southern California Deanery youth director, and I was appointed to this position by His Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH, in October of last year.
Since that time, I have had the privilege and the honor of meeting and interacting with teens, young adults, parents, pastors, and youth workers all throughout Southern California. When I meet people who are concerned with youth in our world, they often say things to me like, “We need to find a way to keep our young people in the Church.” While I appreciate this sentiment and for the most part agree, I think this view is somewhat limited.
As I was growing up, I remember my father saying to me nearly every day, “Today is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need .”
It was a big statement to be sure, but it is one that left a big impression on me as I grew up.
The Christian life is one that is marked by such a statement.
Graduates, today is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need.
As Orthodox Christians, we often become complacent in our faith, not because we don’t care or because we somehow think that it is boring, but because we think that simply being a member of the Church or attending liturgy is the extent of a Christian’s activities in life.
I speak to this from firsthand experience, knowing that it is easy to get into the rhythm of simply attending church services, feeling like I have fulfilled my religious requirement for the week.
But today, I want to encourage you to see that the life of an Orthodox Christian is one that does not end at the liturgy; the life of an Orthodox Christian begins at the liturgy, and it invades the world beyond the doors of the church.
When we Orthodox Christians think about the historical line of our Church, it is easy to become proud or overly confident in the fact that we can claim to have been in existence for nearly 2,000 years. Our uninterrupted line of apostolic succession. The rich tradition of our liturgical worship. The use of our icons…all these things are certainly cause for celebration and love for the Church, but I encourage us to think of Church in a new way. Rather than seeing it as something that is an heirloom to preserve; let’s see the Christian life as a world to explore.
In the middle of Christ’s ministry, he asks his apostle, “Who do you say that I am?” St. Peter responds rightly, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” From here, Jesus commends Peter’s belief and says, “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall never prevail against it.”
As we consider our rich tradition and the 2,000 years of our Church, it is easy to look at this verse and consider it evidence that Orthodoxy is the church. The Lord has built his Church, and it still stands. It is almost evidence that the Lord himself has defended the Church against the attacks of hell, but might this be an incomplete reading of the text?
Notice that the Lord says “the gates of hell” shall never prevail against it. Gates are not weapons, but rather, they are defensive measures. The Lord here is suggesting that the Church is on the offensive, invading hell, and hell’s gates will not be able to keep the Church out.
The life of a Christian is one that is marked by continually invading hell. This is the job of the Church. The gates of hell have already been broken down by the Lord who has descended to the depths of human death and despair. He has paved the way for the Church to follow him and fill hell with life.
Every day is an opportunity for you to invade the hell of broken relationships, diseased bodies, unjust political systems, corrupt businesses, abusive families, mislead cultures, and the hurting world and to fill it with the light of Christ.
The Church is an army, and today is the opportunity to find out where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need and God’s Mission in the world.
The Lord and the Church are on a mission, whether you realize it or not. Today you are being invited to join that mission. Today in the Gospel we heard St. Peter say that he followed the Lord and the Lord commended him and any one else that would follow him.
Today I encourage you to follow the Lord, understanding that his life lead right to breaking down the doors to hell, and now it is our job to populate hell and fill it with the Church.
We are Christ’s presence in the world. We are his hands and feet, and by us, he hopes to invade the broken, dirty, diseased, deformed and lost parts of the world and to reclaim them with his love. We are being invited to participate in reconciling the world to God.
Today is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need and God’s Mission in the world.
For some, this may mean becoming a doctor. You may be able to offer the love of God as you mend a broken leg. For others of you, this may mean going into the streets and caring for those who have been neglected, forgotten, and abused by the rest of the world. You can offer someone humanity just by sharing a meal with them. Or maybe you are particularly moved by the suffering caused by abusive parents, and maybe you can be the loving the presence in a child’s life that they never would have received otherwise. All of these things are opportunities for you to prove that the gates of hell will never prevail against the life of the Church. And it is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need and God’s Mission in the world. And it is also where the great passion of your heart intersects with the Lord’s desire to bring all things back to himself.
The thing is, though, that this means that God has a different metric for success than a good paycheck. He may have created you to be a fireman or a policewoman. The hells of this world need men and women who will care for nature and righteously uphold the law. Not everyone who sets out to be a doctor will become one. And that’s okay. The hells of this world are in the sanitation business as well, and the world will always need janitors, garbagemen, and plumbers. With “good jobs” becoming less and less readily available, we need to shift our thinking from being about consumeristic success and instead think about Church military force. Our job is to help the Lord reconcile all things to himself, and this is our primary task. More than you are Americans, more than you are the children of your parents, more than you are students…you are servants of the King, and the King wants his world back.
You are on the invasive. Now, go.
And as you go, remember that you are journeying forth from a community. You are surrounded here by adults who know you and love you. Take a moment to reflect on those adults in your life who have made a difference for you. Consider those who you believe really know you and care about you and commit today to keeping them in your life.
No one is alone on this mission to invade the hells of our world. We are the Church, and we must do this together.
Surrounding you are those who have begun to walk the path of invasion and they have some more experience than you. Get to know them. Let them know you. Share with them your desires, your fears, your longings, your passion. Share with them your heart.
Adults, welcome these young people into the church. Encourage them in their gifts. If you think one of these young people is particularly strong in some way or another, let them know. Take time to help them figure out what they care about. Take time to let them share their hearts with you. You won’t be disappointed. Help them see how they can join the Lord’s work in the world. Show them the ways that you have sought the Lord and seen yourself as invading hell for the sake of the Lord.
If the Church sticks together, and if we can know and love one another in the presence of Christ in the world, then we sincerely stand a chance of invading the hells of our world with the brilliance of God’s love.
But it takes work. And it takes time. And it takes knowing the landscape of whatever hell you hope to invade.
It means that you must remember that today, like every other day, is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need and God’s Mission in the world.