Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
With the exception of the parish priest, and perhaps a few paid staff (and in many churches not even that), the work of the church is done by volunteers. Many of the roles we need to be served in the church include obvious ones: Choir member, chanter, altar boy, usher, greeter, Sunday school teacher, parish council member, buildings and grounds, finance, GOYA advisor, youth worker, and office volunteer. And there are some that are not so obvious—like making prosphora (in our parish we use over 600 loaves of prosphora a year), or making koliva (for memorial services, fewer and fewer people are doing this). There are lots of things each parish needs that volunteers could do which most parishes have to pay for—having the grass cut, electrical and plumbing, sewing, deep cleaning the kitchen, power-washing sidewalks, tree trimming, financial auditing, and more. Of course, not every parish is necessarily going to have an electrician or a plumber in the congregation, but many do.
At summer camp each year, I ask the staff to reflect on who has the most important job at the camp. Most people will say “the camp director” or the priests. To which I will counter—while the priest teaches and hears the confession, he is only successful if the campers have fun at arts and crafts, are safe at the water front, get their energy out at sports, have food to eat and sleep in cabins that are clean and safe. EVERY role at camp is important and necessary, because if any of these other roles are not fulfilled—if kids don’t feel safe, if they don’t have enough food to eat, if they are not having fun and socializing, then they won’t be ready or able to learn about their faith or recommit to Christ.
Today’s Scripture verses are the Great Commission, which we refer to often on the Prayer Team. This was the commission that Christ gave to His Apostles before He ascended into heaven. He told them to “go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) On face value, many of us may dismiss this as the sole role of the priest. We don’t have the capacity to “go” anywhere with our jobs, homes and families. Only the priest can baptize. As for making disciples, we probably think that only Jesus did that. And as for teaching many of us would feel totally unqualified to teach Sunday school or adult catechism. We reason, since we can’t really participate in any of these things, that this doesn’t apply to us. And this is where we are wrong.
Going back to the camp example, there is no catechism or confession without crafts, cooking and fun. These make the complete package which allows spiritual growth to occur. Likewise, there can be no church, no baptisms, no teaching, etc. if the church grounds aren’t clean, if there is no air conditioning on a hot summer day or heat in the winter, if there is no bread to be offered for the Divine Liturgy, if the plumbing doesn’t work, if there is no one to sing, or no bills get paid, or any other of a myriad of things that need to happen in the church. I tell the camp staff each year, that as you see the campers coming back from confession renewed, take a measure of joy that they helped make that happen, even if their job was the lifeguard or leading arts and crafts. Because the success of camp is not based solely on the director but on every person who plays a role in the execution of the program. And likewise, in a parish, the effectiveness of fulfilling the Great Commission is not based only on the teaching of the priest or how many people he baptizes, but on every person who plays a role in the ministry and life of the parish.
It is important and necessary that everyone steps up to serve the church in some way, in order to fulfill the Great Commission that was read over each of us the day we were baptized. A young man named Kenny was a member of my parish in Asheville. Kenny wanted to go on a mission trip to Alaska. We raised money for Kenny to go, and I remember I personally gave him money and told him to buy the shoes he would wear in Alaska. I said, “I may not be able to walk a mile in your shoes, but if I buy the shoes you will walk in, I will feel that I am walking with you.” Kenny went on that trip, and in large part because of that trip, he spent many years working for the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) in St. Augustine, FL. He now works for FOCUS North America, which helps to get people off the streets and into jobs and homes. I’m his Spiritual Father and we are good friends. And a lot of that was affected by the encouragement and generosity of my former parish in Asheville. Anyone who contributed to Kenny’s mission to Alaska has by extension contributed to his life of service in the 20+ years since that trip. And anyone who contributes to the life of the parish by extension stands with the priest at the altar, sits with him in the confessional, is with him at the hospital, is part of every spiritual triumph in the community. Because there is no community without people, and we need so many things that we count on people for.
I’ll close with a story about another person from my former parish. Her name was Maria but we all called her “Yiayia” because she was very old, and she was friendly to everyone, like everyone’s Yiayia. One day, Yiayia Maria was speaking with me and she started to cry. I asked “What’s wrong Yiayia, why are you crying?” She said “Because I am too old to contribute anything meaningful to the community. I have very little money, so I can’t give much. My fingers have arthritis so I can’t come and roll cookies for the Festival.” Yiayia Maria loved to worship though. So I told her, “When you fill out your stewardship form, why don’t you just write that you’ll worship regularly.” So, on her form, she wrote, “I pledge that I will be at every service this year, unless I am at a doctor appointment.” Every time I came to church for a service, Yiayia Maria was there, sometimes before me. We even gave her a key to the church so she could open the doors and turn the lights on. As I look back at my ministry, that was the best pledge I have ever received. Because she contributed prayer to the community.
Some of us have more time, some of us have more talent and some of us have money but no time. We need all of it to make the church successful and to fulfill the Great Commission we have all received. So as we contemplate a life of service, remember that the first place we should serve is in our churches, to bring others to Christ, whether directly or indirectly. I believe that Christ will ask each of us not only how well we’ve served our families, our jobs and the greater world. I believe He will ask each of us how we’ve served the church, and what we did to further the message of the Gospel.
Lord, thank You for the gift of the Church, a place where I can worship You, learn about You, and yet another place where I can serve You. Help me to understand how I can best serve in Your church, and through whatever service I am offering to You, may I help to further the message of Your gospel and bring others closer to You. Bless all the parishioners of our parish, our priest, and all those who labor in our parish, and bless all those who do not yet know You, and lead them to us, so that we can lead them to You. Amen.
Serve the Church, and in so doing, you will help bring others to Christ, regardless of how you serve.