August 22nd, 2018

If you had sat down recently for a brief conversation with Valeriya Khudyakova and then followed by talking with me, your first thought might be that she and I are very different.  Valeriya, you would notice, is a small, thin, female from Russia who speaks mostly Russian but works hard at her grasp of English.  Pastor Bob is a larger-than-average American male who speaks only English.  You would notice that Valeriya is 90 years old, the same as my mother, born almost three decades before I was.  If you knew Russian and could learn more about her life’s work, you would soon learn that Valeriya Khudyakova was brilliant, a groundbreaking pioneer in her field with a grasp of theoretical physics.  By contrast, you would know that Pastor Bob has average intelligence, and is more of a practitioner of applied knowledge in matters of faith and the church.

Today is my opportunity to tell you that regardless of all the ways Valeriya and I were different, we were very much alike.  It’s the reason that we created such a special bond from our first acquaintance almost twenty years ago.

To see the ways that we were both the same, we turn to the Scripture passages we read a few moments ago.  The first one was chosen because it’s a text commonly used at Russian Orthodox funerals.

The Knowledge of Love (Psalm 118:1-4)

Psalm 118 begins and ends, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever” (1, 29).  Even though we are sad today as we say goodbye to a very precious lady, we also have many reasons to give thanks.  She lived a long life and made many contributions to society and to her family, and we will talk about those.

Mostly, though, we are here to give thanks to the Lord because he is good.  Even when someone lives only a short time, God is good.  His love endures forever.  These words were written by an unknown author 3000 years ago, and have been passed down from one generation to the next.  That’s why there are still those around the world today who believe in the goodness and love of the eternal God.

One of the best ways for us to see the love of the Lord is in our human families.  We love because we are created in the image of God to love and be loved.  Humans form bonds of friendship and family that no other creature God has made is capable of establishing.

The online obituary for Valeriya outlined her life story and family beautifully, and I won’t repeat all of those details.  The dominant theme was her family – her parents, Aleksandr and Elena, her brothers, Yuliy and Evgeniy.  Her husband of almost 70 years, Vladimir, and their son, Igor and his wife, Irina.  Then there was her granddaughter, Jane, and Jane’s husband, Joseph.  Her world revolved around her family.  Valeriya knew what it meant to love and be loved – by family and by God.

This is one way we were very much alike.  I don’t need to give details about my family, because this service is not about me.  But what this knowledge of Valeriya’s family does is to remind me how much we were alike, even though we were different.  I grew up during the Cold War.  When two countries are at odds like the United States and Soviet Union were in the 1950s and 1960s, you begin to dehumanize the enemy.  No one ever said this to me, but I thought of Russians and other people in the Soviet bloc as cold-hearted people incapable of the kind of love I had come to know with my Mom and Dad and siblings and later my wife and children.

Instead, as I review the life of Valeriya I see a woman who deeply loved her father and grieved her whole life that he was drafted into the military when she was only 18 and died in World War II.  The last thing he said to her was “Valeriya, now you must make your own path.”  It must have been terrifying for her to be separated from her family during the difficult war years.

I see a woman who went to university as a strong, smart, athletic woman and participated in sports parades.  There she met and fell in love with a handsome young scholar, and loved him for seven decades.  I see a woman whose son came to America and she missed him so much she and Vladimir followed him to this country. From boyhood until just last week, Igor was always her “mischievous little boy.”

I see a woman who adored her granddaughter, who learned to cook for Jane.  The Soviets had provided meals for her and Vladimir and she never had to cook until she was caring full-time for Jane. During the summers Jane and her grandparents vacationed and played at the dacha, a summer cottage Vladimir built with his own hands on land given by the Soviets.

Jane said, “I was spoiled terribly.”  Since my wife and I now have a grandson, I realize how much Valeriya is just like us.  My wife has a towel hanging on our kitchen stove that says, “Mimi is the name; spoiling is the game.”  That’s what grandparents do.

The other thing grandparents do is give advice, and Valeriya passed on to Jane her own ideas about how to have a happy marriage.  Jane said of her grandmother, “Jane added, “I remember her joking, charisma, intelligence, love, beauty, strength. She gave me so much.”

The Nations of the World (Psalm 118:5-18)

In the second part of the psalm, the psalmist reflects on the struggles of life – both personal and national.  These are connected.  When the nation is threatened, there is a sense of personal vulnerability as well.  The writer of this psalm has been hard pressed, surrounded, swarmed, and chastened.  Yet through all this he is a survivor.  All this he credits to the Lord, who has been his refuge, his strength, his helper, and his salvation.  “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in humans” (8) he writes.

This also reminds me of the similarities between Valeriya’s story and my own.  She endured many challenges in life, and many of them were connected to “the nations of the world.”  Not everyone grows up in one country and lives out his or her life in another.  I was raised in the Himalayan foothills in Pakistan as the son of missionaries.  Valeriya was born and raised 400 miles north of Moscow, a town called Belozersk, known for its monastery and its fishing lake.  She said she was one of the “hearty northern people.” Where I went to school in the north of Pakistan it was so cold and we had so much snow we took winter vacation from school instead of summer.

Some of Valeriya’s early life was difficult.  Her father was accused of sympathizing with Jews in an anti-Semitic era.  He was interrogated in the middle of the night for having Jewish colleagues.  He refused to become an informant, and that is one reason he was sent to war where he died.  His brothers were jailed and died in terrible prison conditions.  All of this terrified Valeriya and her family.  My family’s conditions were not as bad in Pakistan, but we were under constant suspicion and surveillance as Christian missionaries in a Muslim country, and were eventually expelled from the country.

Hardships, however, make survivors only stronger.  And, if we trust in God, they make our faith stronger.  I credit my early life in Pakistan for giving me greater perseverance, independence, and determination to get an education and move forward in the calling God gave me.  I am here today as Valeriya’s pastor because of the grace of God that used my early life’s uncertainties and spiritual struggles to prepare me.  Along the way I had one mentor in particular who encouraged and trained me as an evangelical pastor in the United Church of Christ.

Valeriya also took up her father’s challenge and pursued her education and career.  She was “brilliant,” Vladimir said.  She not only went to university but earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.  Her mentor saw something special in her ability to grasp complex mathematical theory.  Others applied her theory to practical problems, but her mentor taught her that “equations have to be beautiful.”  She was highly respected by her Russian colleagues for helping them personally and professionally as she led 150 people in the Union Cable Institute.  They would bring her flowers to thank her.  Jokingly they called her “Queen” because she knew how to lead well.

She worked extremely hard throughout her career and loved her work as I do mine.  This, too, is a gift from God.  As the psalmist writes, “I will not die, but live” (17).  “The Lord is with me; he is my helper” (7).

The House of the Lord (Psalm 118:19-29)

In the last part of the psalm, the psalmist brings his praise of God into the house of the Lord.  Psalm 118 is a “Psalm of Ascents,” one of many songs the Jews sang on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  It may have been written as a dedication song for the temple.  Having rehearsed his faith in God and his survival through trials, the psalmist knows that he must join the people of God in public praise to God.  “Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD” (19).  “With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession” (27).

This is the part of the psalm quoted most in the New Testament.  It becomes a major part of the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  The crowds hailed him as conqueror and Messiah-king.  It is also a picture of Jesus’ future reign.

I’m sure this is one reason the psalm has become a standard part of the liturgy for Russian Orthodox funerals.  It is a psalm that not only looks back on a life of trust in God through trials, it is a psalm that looks forward with hope and confidence to the eternal reign of God through Jesus Christ.  Valeriya’s faith was nurtured in this Russian Orthodox tradition.  The Soviets converted great cathedrals for political and military use, and in some cases destroyed them.  It was their intent to eliminate religious faith.  They did not succeed.

My early faith included worship at Anglican sanctuaries and worship services in Pakistan.  Like the Russian Orthodox church, this was “high church” – formal and proper, with much symbolism.  I think this is what we had in common.  That past experience in faith prepared both Valeriya and me for this church, Corinth – the Traditional worship service and the beautiful Gothic sanctuary.

Whether it was that or not, I don’t know for sure.  What I do know is that the souls of Valeriya and Pastor Bob connected because of Corinth.  She was a deeply spiritual person, a person who loved God and loved worship.  The language barrier was sometimes difficult for her, but she worked hard at it.  When she was attending worship, I used to print my sermon manuscript and hand it to her to help her follow along.  I never did that for anyone else until after the service.  When she became unable to attend, our office would send her the finished manuscript each week, which she read faithfully.  She also read our church newsletter.  I once visited her and saw where she had taken my “Pastor’s Pen” column in the church newsletter, circled all the words she didn’t understand, and looked them up in her English-Russian dictionary.  I never knew anyone else to do that!  It was humbling that she would work so hard.

Valeriya and Vladimir have been faithful in giving to the church, even when they were unable to attend, and that’s how they made a connection with Jan Caldwell, our Financial Secretary, who would usually be the first person to see their handwritten notes.  They also sent notes to me separately, and cards to commemorate special occasions.  I keep these notes, including one she wrote in 2009 to explain why she was not attending the church services regularly.  She had even had to leave in the middle of a worship service, which bothered her.  The end of that note said,

Still we will stay the members of the Church.  I study your letters, read the Bible and pray.  I like Corinth Reformed Church, organization of the service, your sermons, people of the church.  Yours sincerely, Valeriya

Just recently there was this note in honor of my 25th anniversary as pastor of the church, earlier this year –

Dear Pastor Bob and Linda:

Take our congratulations for your Jubilee of 25 years serving Corinth Reformed Church!  We evaluate your great job for the Service, Sermons and teaching Congregation, and their Families.  We remember with gratitude your support of us at our hard times.  We love you and your wife Linda, and wish you further success of serving, happiness and love for you and your Family!  God bless you!  With respect and love,

Yours Vladimir and Valeriya

A Merciful and Faithful High Priest (Hebrews 2:14-18)

Most importantly, the way Valeriya and I were the same was our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  For Valeriya, church was not just about religion or church service or Pastor Bob.  It was about trusting in Jesus Christ.  As someone reared in the Russian Orthodox church, she kept icons and used them as visible and tangible reminders of her faith.  Her plaque of Jesus included this inscription in ancient Russian:  “I give you new Gospel: Love each other” (John 13:35).  She would kiss this plaque before visiting the doctor, and her family kept it nearby during the final days of her life at Hospice.

In the Reformed church, we do not use icons, but I prefer to focus on what we have in common, which is Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, the Savior of the world.  Christians believe that we are all sinners, and that sin creates a wide gulf between us and God.  But God closed that gap by coming into our world.  We believe that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, and that when he walked this earth it was God himself in the flesh.  We believe that he lived a perfect life, and then died as a sinner – not dying for his sins but for ours.  When we trust him to forgive our sins, this changes everything.  We are cleansed, and made ready for heaven by faith in him.  Her friend Lydia asked her last week after the stroke, “Does Jesus Christ forgive your sins?”  She wasn’t able to speak much, but she answered, “Yes.”  “Have you forgiven everyone?”  “Yes.”

The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus is now in heaven with his Father as our “merciful and faithful high priest.”  In the Orthodox tradition the pastor is called a “priest.”  In the Reformed church we believe in the “priesthood of all believers” (1 Peter 2:5, that all Christians have direct access to God) or focus on the “great high priest,” Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the One who forgives our sins and connects us to God, not a pastor or another human being.

Even in that difference, however, I believe Valeriya trusted Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, as her Savior – not an icon.  That is what we had in common.  It is Christ who makes all the difference and allows us to be reconciled to God.  We believe that when we trust in Christ, he not only forgives our sins but gives us the righteousness of Jesus.  God sees us as perfect, just like he sees Jesus.

What the writer of Hebrews does is to remind us that Jesus was “made fully human in every way.”  He was just like Valeriya, just like me.  God assumed our full humanity and suffered with us and for us so that now, in the presence of his Father, he can pray for us.  When we pray to him, we pray to someone who knows what it’s like to be exactly like us.

Certainly there are some differences between Valeriya Aleksandrovna Khudykova and Bob Thompson.  But these differences are far less important than our similarities as human beings and as believers in Jesus Christ.  It is our similarities that help us both put our trust in Jesus Christ, also made human like us in every way except sin, so that he might become our Savior and Lord.  I urge you also to trust Christ to forgive you and make you ready for heaven.  Amen.

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