St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Reflections on the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee

Good morning. The Theme for this year’s Antiochian Women’s month is Faith in Action. My remarks will concern Gospel of the Publican and the Pharisee. Most of know the story but I would like to summarize it and put it in context of a Mission Trip to Bali, Indonesia. I will include images to illustrate my points.

In Gospel of Luke 18:10-14, two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, an externally decent and righteous man of religion, and the other was a publican, a sinful tax-collector who was cheating the people.

Though the Pharisee was genuinely righteous under the Law, he boasted before God and was condemned. The publican, although he was truly sinful, begged for mercy, received it, and was justified by God.

Orthodox Christians are to see that they have not the religious piety of the Pharisee, but the repentance of the publican. They are called to think about themselves, in the light of Christ's teaching, as they really are and to beg for mercy. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:14)

When I say that the Holy Spirit was part of this trip to Bali from the beginning it is no overstatement. My husband, Deacon Jeffrey, was sent to another part of Indonesia for work. As you might know, Indonesia is huge archipelago of Islands and home to the largest Muslim population in the world. Bali is a relatively small island that has a Hindu majority, a Muslim minority, a small Buddhist community, and a very few Christians.

This is a photo of a famous Hindu temple on a lake in the middle of a crater of an ancient volcano, where we stopped en-route to the orphanage.

When my friend Deno heard that Deacon Jeff was going to Indonesia he suggested we go visit Bali. Bali and Balinese culture are very exotic and based around a complex system of Hindu Gods, Festivals, and an extremely strong family structure. In fact, your given name indicates your birth order. So, I would be called First daughter instead of Natasha. This seemed like a great place to vacation. Beaches are great, the culture is interesting, it is the safest part of Indonesia and we had just enough frequent flyer miles to get me there to meet my husband. Yet something surprising happened. In the months leading up to this trip I saw on the Orthodox Christian Mission Center website that there was a small community of Orthodox Christians in Bali. I called OCMC and got the contact for the priest there and emailed him to see if we could visit and if there was anything we could bring!

There began my education. A list of supplies and gifts trickled in via email. Never once did Fr Stephanos mention that there was a mission team arriving exactly the same day as us.

From my growing list I went to Fr. Timothy at St George’s to collect an extra censer, incense and some money. You can see in the photo the censor being used at liturgy in Denpasar, the capital of Bali. This is a mission parish that holds services in a hotel. I went to the Greek monastery to get candles. The sisters sent me off with prayers and prayer ropes for the children. I also fetched a pattern for alter boy robes from another person. His Grace, Bishop John let me speak at the Parish Life Conference after which some of you contributed money which went as gifts to sustain the orphanage and community in Bali.

Let me note as an aside that since the financial troubles in Greece, the Greek Patriarch has been forced to cut off financial support for the mission parish and the orphanage. Trained Orthodox priests have no salaries, and some had to join evangelical communities so their families wouldn’t starve.  In addition the Indonesian Government also requires every citizen to identify with an established religion, and your only choice is “Catholic” or “Christian”. If you choose Christian, you are required to use Protestant materials for Christian Ed at the seminary. As you might imagine Orthodox Christian communities exist under difficult circumstances.

One week before departure I learned that we would be arriving the same day as an Orthodox Christian Mission Center team. Their mission would be teaching and visiting parishioners to help sustain the faithful in Bali.  At this point I couldn’t reach my husband but the new plans for our holiday were clear. This transformation from holiday to service trip couldn’t be an accident. Out of my suitcase came my hiking boots and extra bathing suits and in went teaching supplies and books, a censor, candles and lesson plans that could transcend culture and language.  As I boarded the very long flight I prayed for a fruitful time in Indonesia, confident that I had something to offer. After teaching Sunday school and doing youth work for 25 years, who better to go on a mission trip, I proudly thought.

As my plane descended to the island of Bali the main volcano erupted. A brief change of wind direction allowed our packed flight to land.   One explanation for the eruption in Hindu culture is that too many non-Hindu women were menstruating while hiking on the volcano. They had awakened the wrath of the Gods. Nothing prepared me for the sensory overload of landing on that island. Imams exported from Saudi Arabia were greeted by Muslim faithful. Leis and Hindu greetings for other arriving passengers. I was swept up into the loving arms of our small Orthodox Christian community and put into the Theotokos mobile. This decrepit minivan was always filled with laughing singing faithful for the 10 days we were in Bali.Our group included an Orthodox Christian translator from the island of Java, two seminarians, Roberta from California, also an experienced Christian teacher, Deacon Jeffrey and me. This was instant family.

So, what does this have to do with the Publican and the Pharisee? Well, I went to Bali thinking I was going to teach the Balinese about the Orthodox faith. Like the Pharisee I knew it all.  The Holy Spirt had other plans and for our vacation and my faith.  In a new culture where you are a minority in every sense of the word you have to let go of assumptions and your pride. I had to surrender my vacation to what God wanted. Listen He was saying: have humility.  As we were invited to the homes of the community members. Father explained that we were honoring the parishioners and thereby strengthening the community. I thought we were just trying amazing food and seeing the real Bali. The hospitality and warmth of parishioners with very meager means transcended language and culture and touched me to the core of my being.

At the orphanage we were joined by faithful from other Indonesian islands asking for missionaries to do simple dental work and provide medical care for malaria victims.  God provides so much for us here in our Cambridge. Do I humbly thank him for these gifts? Do we share the many talents of our St Mary’s community here and abroad?

In Indonesia to have faith, takes courage. Some of the boys at the orphanage were from islands like East Timor which are intolerant of non-Muslims. Being an Orthodox Christian meant persecution and being an outcast. Furthermore, I learned that a when a woman marries, by law she has to take the faith of her husband. Your faith is inscribed on your identity card which you carry at all times. If you were to convert a person, I thought, you had better convert the entire family.  When I shared this thought with our host priest he nodded in acknowledgement with a gentle smile.

Balinese life is intertwined with festivals and hourly prayers. The sound of the gamelon and temple chanting is broadcast on the radio. Traffic stops in the street for a cremation festival on a regular basis. Each telephone pole is decorated. Every taxi we rode in had an offering of fresh flowers and rice on the dashboard. Here you can see flowers in baskets for sale in the market place. In fact, a family compound always includes a temple built at great expense and maintained with daily fresh flowers and offerings of rice and incense.  Did I have faith enough to convince an entire family that the Holy Trinity was an encompassing way of life which could transcend the rich festivals and rhythms of Balinese Hinduism? Was my home in the US a little church?

Over the course of the week we prayed, taught lessons, visited parish families at their homes, and translated and learned the hymn “A New Commandment” which we just sung, together. We laughed and sang. We prayed. This video is “Come Let Us Worship” O Virgin Pure and we danced. The final departure offering was a slaughtered pig served on banana leaves. I was overcome by the generosity of this poor community. They certainly gave more than they received! Over the course of my visit I received gifts of faith, hope, love, and charity. Everything I was expecting to bring to Bali was given to me.

We have many opportunities for service in our lives that are gifts from The Holy Spirit for spiritual Growth. It doesn’t require getting on a plane. We can serve others right around the corner in Central Square. We can mentor a young person in our community or work with parishioner in need. We can clean the church.  It does require humility and listening to what our Lord wants for us. This lent may I humbly suggest that we become like the Publican and take time for silence and, in humility, notice what is right in front of us, on vacation or not.

As I was writing this homily, another lovely email arrived from Fr. Stephanos. Yes, there is another team going to Bali next summer. Many people of different colors gathering together to pray and learn and grow in spiritual understanding. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for your presence in our lives. Amen.