October 13, 2019
18th Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
October 13, 2019
18th Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Spencer D. Cantrell
Oct 6th, 2019
All Saints' Church
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
September 29, 2019
All Saints’ Church
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Well, it’s a good thing nothing big happened in the news this week.
Friends, if you’re here for some spiritual rest and focus while the outside world just keeps swirling ever more quickly, then you’re in the right place. We are here to pray together, to listen to God’s holy word, to participate in the holy Sacraments, and to be Christ’s body. It’s kind of the opposite of the 24-hour news cycle, of vitriol and pettiness and lies and deceit, of all that’s bad out there. I think we all have the sense that we’re in for a long 14 months in our public life. So the time to ground yourself in things eternal, things that truly give life, is now. That’s what I’m planning to do—and for what it’s worth, I advise you all to do the same. For the sake of your souls, which can be so easily bruised by the kind of tumult that is surrounding us.
So let’s start now. In spite of what I said, I actually want to point us back in the direction of the news this week—not the news in Washington, but to other, longer-lasting things. On September 20, young people around the country and the world demonstrated in a climate strike. The action was meant to raise awareness of the future facing young people as the planet’s climate changes. It was timed to coincide with the climate forum before the opening of the UN General Assembly right here in New York. Members of our parish community participated, and there was a small but faithful group of Brooklyn Episcopalians present as well at the New York march.
Many of us saw the speech of teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. The video of her speaking to the delegates went viral. As you might know, Greta sailed from her home in Sweden to New York to be present. In her impassioned speech to the delegates, she said, “people are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money, and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
These prophetic words bring us to today’s readings from Scripture, readings that deal with money. Last week we heard Jesus’ parable of the dishonest steward, who proves to us that money is nothing more than a game we play with one another. This week we hear even clearer words. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Let’s just pause there for a moment. The Bible says the love of money is the root of all evil. If you didn’t know that before, now you do. Think back to all the crazy things that have happened in the world this week. Think of the things you consider evil—then dig deep and ask yourself what the root of that evil may have been. Chances are, after you sift through the spin and cut beneath what’s superficial, you will find—the love of money. For the life of me, I don’t know why this isn’t one of the main teaching of every Christian church, why every pastor, priest, and minster doesn’t remind their flock on a regular basis of this truth. It explains so much and offers such clear moral guidance. The more we love money, the greater home we give to evil. It’s that simple.
But back to Greta. She was giving a speech about climate change. But what is the root of this evil? Why are world leaders so unable to do anything about this urgent crisis? Why are corporations—and the system of consumption in which we all participate--totally resistant to change? Paul would say, it’s the love of money. And as it turns out, that’s what Greta Thunberg says, too. “People are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money, fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
These bold words delivered by a brave young woman captivated the world not just because they prophesied the grim future of the planet. This speech captured our attention because it was a speech about money. And we rarely, hardly ever hear honest talk about money and how the love of money is the root of all evil.
Last week’s reading challenged us to examine the relationship between love and debt. This week, I believe the Spirit calls us to consider how our love of money inhibits our love of the planet, God’s creation.
When I was away on sabbatical this summer, I had the chance to think and pray about big questions, the ones that get lost in the buzz of daily activity. And one of the main themes I kept returning to was this: that in a time of climate crisis, one of the Church’s main missions should be to reconnect our souls with creation, to remind us that we are a part of the Earth, not separate from it.
This may sound like a new idea, but it’s really an old one. At the beginning of the Bible, God creates the earth first, then human beings. The place God gives us over the creation is not that of master, but steward, caretaker. This story is followed quickly by the solemn words from Genesis said on Ash Wednesday: remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Likewise, there is an ancient prayer the priest used to recite before celebrating Eucharist. Lifting up the elements, he would acknowledge the bread as “fruit of the earth and work of human hands;” likewise the wine was “fruit of the vine and work of human hands.” So in this most intimate way that we know Jesus, in the consecrated bread and wine, we experience him as the fruit of the earth. There is no Jesus without the earth.
We are dust. We are the fruit of the earth. We are formed of clay by the hand of the Almighty, given breath and life by God’s grace. We are a part of this planet, which God has created. So what happens to it, happens to us. There is no human life without the earth. It is our ground and our reality. We may be its greatest product, but that only ties us ever more intimately to it.
This thought can be comforting—but it can also be scary. Sometimes when we consider the spiritual truth of our connection to the planet, it can make it seem like we are not in control of our own destiny (which, in fact, is true.) I think this is why so much of our thinking and patterns of behavior are geared toward making us feel that somehow we’re NOT part of the earth, that we’re somehow separate. We capture nature and domesticate it. We abuse the planet’s resources and consume them to show our dominance over them. We advance our technology in part to try to outstrip the technology of nature, which we actually still barely understand.
And then there’s money. Money is not of the earth. Money is an idea. It is a concept. It is an agreement between people. And it has nothing at all to do with the earth. How much does the planet cost? What is the value of a human life? Does a flower charge you for the privilege of seeing its blossom? Or a rainstorm care about the value of the damage it causes? Of course not. And yet we persist in looking at the planet as if it were a commodity to be bought and sold. We think of climate change in terms of the cost of adaptation. But the earth doesn’t understand any of this—and yet, we are part of the earth. So the artificial separation we place between ourselves and it is to our own detriment. Money is the main vehicle by which we think of ourselves as separate from the planet, and the more we love money, the more evil we will inflict on ourselves.
We are a part of this planet and it is a part of us. Through it, we are materially connected to one another, a sacramental bond that is the expression of the universal spiritual bond that exists between all God’s creatures. The reality of climate change is laying this fact bare. The carbon we pump into the atmosphere in New York affects people living around the world. It’s as if the story from today’s Gospel reading were written not for a bygone time, but for today. The rich man ignores Lazarus when he would beg at his gate, but when they both die, he begs Lazarus from Hades for a sip of cool water. Today, we in the rich world are ignoring the witness of the poor in our world who are already suffering from desertification, rising sea levels, and changing animal migration patterns. Yet is it is very possible that within a few years, we will be begging them for what resources they do have. What happens when that day comes is yet to be seen.
Like you, I’m sure, I feel overwhelmed by the scope of the challenge. We all know that action requires more than giving up plastic straws and composting your organics. It is systemic and it is global. But so are a lot of other problems. The task of the Christian in the face of such tremendous obstacles is the same as it has been for millennia: be the light of Christ in the world. Do not abandon hope. Offer yourself as a living sacrifice for what belongs to God, just as Jesus did. In our time, with these set of problems, part of this witness must be to remind the world that we are a part of God’s creation, not separate from it. We must not allow the love of money to obscure what is true and right. We must exorcise this undue love where we see it and call for justice. We must heed the calls of the Lazaruses of the world and not let them go unheard. And we must live in the knowledge that our bodies—our lives—belong to this same planet that the rest of the world seems so intent on destroying.
I must believe that all these things matter. I must believe that my faith matters. If I did not, I would have to abandon all hope. But in Christ, we have the life that really is life—a life eternal as members of his very body. May this body grow and flourish, heal intemperate loves, inspire the broken-hearted, and return us to a right relationship with this Creation God has placed into our care. Amen.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
September 22, 2019
All Saints’ Church
If someone thinks thinks Christianity is a simple faith, an uncomplicated set of easy premises, some formula or rule or whatever, well, that person should read the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel passage.
What on earth is going on here? Jesus tells the story of a rich man and his dishonest steward. Now just a brief note on what that means: wealthy landowners in Jesus’ time hired stewards, or managers, to collect from the famers who worked the land they owned. In the case of this farm, the peasants paid their master not in money, but in an amount of the produce from the land they rented. They didn’t borrow anything; they are paying their rent, and they pay it in oil and wheat. Their debt to the landowner is that the landowner allows them to farm his land. It is the steward’s job to collect this rent, and for his services he charges a commission.
You can already see how this could go wrong. With no one overseeing the system, the steward could easily overcharge or abuse the farmers, or maybe underpay his master. We don’t know the particular nature of this manager’s corruption, but we do know that he made a pretty bad decision. He doesn’t have the strength of the expertise of the farmers he collects from, and he’s too weak for any other kind of labor. You kind of want to say, well, he’s getting what he deserves—let him figure something out for himself.
But that’s not what happens. What does happen is truly bizarre to our understanding. The steward gathers the farmers together and cuts their bills. It would be as if your landlord caught the rental agency cheating, and in response the rental agency says to you, that $2000 you pay for your apartment—just send us a check for $1000 this month.
Of course you’d think this would anger the master. But that wouldn’t be an interesting story, now would it? So instead, the master proclaims his delight in the corrupt steward. He’s actually happy the steward cut the rents. Can you imagine a New York landlord having the same reaction? The story ends with this bizarre sentence: “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
What? Make friends with dishonest wealth? What is Jesus talking about?
Let me share with you the method I use for dealing with situations like this. The Bible can be very confusing, especially when you lift a story like this out of context. If you knew nothing about this religion and came to church today, you’d think we gather here week after week to discuss how best to commit fraud. But of course, that’s not the case. There are a few places where Jesus tells us to reallllly pay attention, where he says, look, this is a longer story, and when things are confusing, come back here.
The parable of the dishonest steward is in Luke, Chapter 14. Just a little while back, in Chapter 10, Jesus has a discussion with a lawyer who asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him to open the Torah and read, and the lawyer answers, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ Eternal life is love: love of God and love of your fellow human beings.
As it turns out, nowhere does Jesus say that dishonest wealth gets you eternal life. That distinction is reserved for love and love alone. The reason we have this strange parable of the steward is that it’s not enough just to say, love God and your neighbor. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need the whole of Scripture. Love is our guiding light, our north star. But love…how? What does love really look like? How can we square love with all the terrible things in life? And how much does love really demand of us?
When you read the dishonest steward in these terms, I think he actually starts to make sense. Because where does love fit in to the concept of debt? Maybe that’s a weird thought: what do debt and love have to do with one another? But when you think about it, it’s actually pretty important. Here we are, some 2000 years after this story was told, and it’s not like debt is a thing of the past. Actually, it’s something that pretty much everyone will struggle with at one point in our lives.
And the point of the story is this: debts are just part of a game we play with one another. But love is eternal. I’ve said it before in this pulpit and I’ll say it again: money is the curse of the living. But as long as we have to deal with this curse, we might as well acknowledge that it’s part of a game, that we can use money for good or for evil, and the choice is up to us. The dishonest steward had been using his access to money for his own benefit, hurting others. He was playing the game in such a way that only he would win. When got caught, he could have made himself pathetic, or turned the tenants against the landowner, or run away in shame. Instead, he decided to stop playing the game to help himself and start playing it to help those who needed help. And that’s what the master is pleased with.
The Gospel says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” But when it comes down to it, in a certain sense, all wealth is dishonest. We did not buy our lives, nor can we buy our way out of death. The earth, with all its beauty, does not charge us for giving us what we need to live. Life is a gift freely given, and it is given to all the living in equal measure. Why do you have $10,000 in you bank account but I owe $10,000 to the same bank? Circumstance, mostly. Chance, plus decisions we have both made. But in God’s kingdom, neither wealth, nor circumstance, nor chance, nor even our bad decisions, can keep us from the love of God. Nothing, nothing at all can separate us from the love of God. If you think I’m overreaching here, remember the words Jesus teaches us to pray in Chapter 11 of Luke’s Gospel: forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. This is to be one of our most fervent prayers: that our debts would be forgiven, and that we would have the strength to forgive those whose debts we hold.
You’d think we would learn this lesson in 2000 years, but it turns out, it’s a pretty hard one to take in. This week marked the 11th anniversary of the financial meltdown of 2008. I’m sure you remember it—the weather was the same as this crystalline week we’ve had this year. Lehman Brothers collapsed on September 15, followed by AIG the next day. Washington Mutual went bankrupt a few days later. Congress passed the bank bailout at the beginning of October, but even with that, by March, the stock market had lost more than half of its peak value.
They say every generation is formed by certain events. The financial crisis was my formative event. The stock market crashed a few months after I was ordained a priest. I was supposed to be making plans for the youth group. Instead, I buried a young father who worked in the finance industry and took his own life. I counseled parishioners who lost their jobs and tried to find a way to preach God’s word about wealth in a way that was comforting but also honored the words that end today’s Gospel passage: you cannot serve God and money. I also observed something disturbing: that although the wealthier people in our community lost much, it was those on the margins who truly suffered. If you have $10,000 in the stock market, after a decline you may only have $5,000. But if you owe the bank $10,000 and lose your job, you have far less than nothing.
For me, the spiritual lesson of the financial crisis was that debt binds together the fates of the debtor and the debt holder. As long as the debt exists, their fates are intertwined. The wise debt holder seeks to lift up and empower the debtor. We may think that the lender is more powerful than the borrower, but the contract they enter into is an intimate relationship that depends on the health of the borrower, not the lender.
That’s probably why the ancient Hebrews observed the Jubilee commanded in the Book of Leviticus. The Jubilee happened once every 49 years, and on that year, all debts were forgiven, all property returned, and the earth was left to rest from farming. The game was reset and acknowledged for what it was after all—a way for us human beings to relate to one another in this life, but nothing more. Whatever you may have thought of it at the time or even now, back in 2008, the Jubilee was declared—but not for everyone. Only for the debt holders were forgiven, while the debtors’ debts were sustained. The game was reset for only half of the equation. This is the world in which we still live: a lender’s paradise. But this inequality comes at a great spiritual price to society as a whole, because a nation of exposed debtors is not one that sees the game for what it is. It is not a society that has understood the lesson of the master and the steward.
This may be the world in which we live. But it is not the world as God sees it. Jesus makes it clear that we are all God’s beloved, that there is no debt we could possibly rack up that would make us unworthy of God’s love. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive those who debts we hold.” This is the prayer Jesus taught us, and it is our prayer forever.
The game will continue to go on. Sometimes it will be fair, and sometimes not. It is a game created by the human imagination, and is therefore flawed. But what if we took Jesus at his word? What if we lived the prayer that he taught us? What if we believed that whatever imaginary money number hangs over everyone’s head was totally invisible to God? If we did this, then we would look every person in the eye and see inestimable value, a treasure beyond compare, God’s perfect gift. You, me, everyone here, everyone you will meet this week. Look in the mirror, look in the face of someone on the subway, look into the eyes of your enemy, your friend, the stranger, the outcast, the powerful, the poor, and even the indebted—and you will see neither debt or debtor, but the face of Christ. That is the way God sees the world. And God invites you to do the same.
May all debts be forgiven. May all wealth be God’s. May love be the greatest treasure known to humanity—for Jesus’ sake.
The Rev. Steven Paulikas
September 15, 2019
Fourteenth Sunday of Pentecost
Welcome to Founders Day at All Saints’ Church! On this week in 1867, Episcopalians in Park Slope gathered to officially form a church home. It was a bold move. This neighborhood was still on the outskirts of New York life. It would be another 16 years before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge provided the first land link into Manhattan. And there was already another Episcopal Church up on St. John’s Place, in the part of the neighborhood where most people lived. Still, a small group of laypeople had been meeting for a while to say Morning Prayer on this side of the Slope. On September 16, 1867, they met at the Park Slope armory to take the formal step of incorporating as a parish under New York State law. I guess it wasn’t exactly the Day of Pentecost, with tongues of flame alighting on each of the new Vestrymen. But you see, the Holy Spirit has a funny way of working through even the Church’s most bureaucratic tendencies. The Spirit is patient and constant, and the Spirit will use whatever She can to work out God’s intent to gather together ALL of God’s children.
Since that day 152 years ago, All Saints’ Church has been the spiritual home to countless people. Because that’s the mission of a church: to be the House of God for all who seek God. At the end of the 19th century, this neighborhood underwent a massive expansion, and many of the new residents sought out their parish church as an anchor in their new home. But like all of New York, the population of Park Slope has always been in constant flux. By the mid-20th century, All Saints’ was home to the many Atlantic Canadians who came to the city to work in the shipping industry. They brought with them their deep Anglican roots and made this parish the cultural and spiritual center of their community. And it wasn’t long after that that All Saints’ began to welcome new parishioners originally from the Caribbean, who would form the solid backbone of this church in its next chapter. Their deep faith and reverence for tradition—not to mention good food and fun—would keep alive the spirit that inspired our founders.
Today, All Saints’ Church is an incredibly diverse and loving Christian community that welcomes people from virtually every type of background. There are few like it, either in New York or farther afield. The most recent years of our history have been marked by a renewed energy of gathering, that same instinct the Holy Spirit has to draw us all together and ever closer to God. We are blessed to welcome a steady stream of strangers who quickly become family. We have been fortunate that for almost every year of the past decade, we have increased in membership and attendance, with the result that our congregation has almost tripled in size. Where there was one All Saints’ at our 142nd Founders Day, there is that plus two more at our 152nd.
When I explain this to people—whether they know anything about churches or not—they always ask how we do it. What’s the strategy? What was this magical formula your parish discovered? I imagine my answer is the same as yours when you get asked the same question. There is no magical formula, well, except that there is. The magic is in the unconditional, unrelenting, full-of-love welcome offered here to every single human being who crosses the threshold of this church. That’s it. All are welcome here. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done or what you believe. You are God’s creation, and to honor you is to honor God. The welcome may not always be perfect, but it’s always our intention, because it’s impossible to live out our faith without it.
Unconditional welcome. Okay, great—but isn’t that just some sort of feel-good gimmick in itself? Actually, no. It’s one of the absolutely central tenets of the Christian faith.
Listen again to today’s Gospel passage. Jesus was hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. This something no honorable man of faith would have done in his context. There were the righteous and the unrighteous, and those two groups were not supposed to mingle. The Pharisees and scribes didn’t like it. So Jesus tells some stories: a man with a hundred sheep loses one of them. What’s he supposed to do? Of course he leaves the ninety-nine and goes in search of the lost one. And when he finds it, he rejoices. There’s also a woman with ten silver coins who loses one of those. Does she just forget about it? Of course not—it’s too valuable. So she spends the night looking for it in her house.
The message is simple. Every single human being is precious to God. **Every single one of us. Not one is lost—not one. No matter what’s happened to you, no matter how cruel this world has been to you, no matter how little you may have been seen in the world, you are just as much God’s beloved creation as everyone else. This is what Jesus teaches, so if we truly call ourselves his followers, we will act on his words. We will reject the artificial boundaries our society puts up between people, and we will seek the face of Jesus in every single person.
This is how the magic of welcome works. Imagine you are invited to a party. There are people at the party you have met at various times and places in your life. You say hello to the people you know, have a little chit chat, and catch up. That’s all very nice. But there’s one person—just one—who really gets under your skin. You’ve met them five or six times, but every time you see them, they act like they don’t know you. You make one last try: “Hey, You!” They glance at you with a look of something between surprise and confusion. “Oh, hey.” And return to their previous conversation. That’s a terrible feeling, right? It’s hard to let go of. Because there is hardly anything more demeaning than the feeling of not being seen. The party is a small thing, even if it’s annoying. But it’s a micro example of what we do as a society. We all know there are huge swathes of people who go unseen, unrespected, whose gifts and talents are ignored or diminished. But the damage done to us when we are unseen doesn’t just hurt us—it hurts everyone. Because the person at the party who brushes you off—that person is hurting too. They’re not even secure enough in themselves that they can stop and say hello, that they can dare to be seen associating with you. That’s the symptom of a deep spiritual wound, and there’s only one way to heal it: by practicing welcome.
This is why Jesus talks to the tax collectors and sinners. He is God, Son of God. In other words, he has nothing to be insecure about. And if you’re secure in yourself, you not only have nothing to fear from other people, but you are curious about everyone. This curiosity eventually turns into love. And love, as Jesus tells us, is the greatest commandment of them all.
Welcome may sound like a simple or a small thing. But it’s not. It’s revolutionary, for us as individuals and as a society. When you practice welcome, you open up a space in your heart for the Other. Even if it feels uncomfortable at first, you can still keep working at it. It’s like an exercise that way. As you keep working at opening up that space, it gets bigger and bigger. All of a sudden, there’s room not just for one other person, but more, and then there’s a whole crew of people who used to be strangers but are now friends. In the process, your heart has gotten bigger—and there’s no end to how big it can get. That’s how love works—the kind of love that Jesus teaches us.
Think about it for a second: how many public places do you go where everyone is welcome? Pretty much every other place comes with strings attached. If you go to a store or a restaurant, you’re there as a customer—just try not paying the bill! Our schools are sorted by class and race. Our health care institutions are sorted by insurance status. I guess there’s always the park, which may be one of the reasons I love it so much. But even the park is the legacy of a bygone time. Beautiful Prospect Park opened the same year as All Saints’, 1867. But all of the remarkable public spaces that have opened in New York in the last decade—the Brooklyn Piers, the Highline in Chelsea, Hudson Yards—they have only been opened because of deals with private real estate developers. It’s as if we as a people have completely forgotten what it means to have a space where everyone is welcome without conditions.
People think that being a Christian means all kinds of different things, some of them better than others. But in a time like this, a time of division and mistrust, a time of alienation and isolation, a time of hate—in a time like this, those of us who dare to follow Jesus need to lead the way back to his original teaching. We need to proclaim boldly that to belong to him means opening your heart to every single person. The more we practice being a people of welcome, the more that welcome will spread, because let me tell you, it’s infectious, and once you start it’s pretty hard to stop. The more welcoming we are, the more this message will get across, and the more widely the Gospel truth of God’s love for all people will be felt and heard.
There’s no way that our founders could have known the spiritual challenges we would face in 2019. That’s why the Holy Spirit keeps guiding each successive generation to hear God’s word afresh. In our time, the stakes are high. But the message is clear. Love God. Love your neighbor. Treat each of them like the precious gift they are. Do this, and you will see the world the way Jesus does. Welcome the stranger, and you will welcome God. Amen.
The Rev. Steven Paulikas
September 8, 2019
Thirteenth Sunday of Pentecost
Luke 14: 25-33
Alan Christopher Lee
Sermon at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Brooklyn NY
August 18th 2019
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength, and our redeemer.
I want to begin by saying how grateful I am to be back in this pulpit, and to have had the chance to worship here at All Saints’ again this summer. As many of you know, I’m currently preparing for ordination, and one of the requirements of that process is something called Clinical Pastoral Education, which is typically a 10-week summer internship as a hospital chaplain. So from the end of May to the beginning of August, 5 days a week, I took the A train all the way to the end of the line—Far Rockaway, Queens—and served as a chaplain at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital.
You may not know this, but St. John’s is actually owned and operated by our own Diocese, and as I understand it, it’s the only independent Episocpal hospital left in the entire country. But the uniqueness of St. John’s doesn’t end there. It’s the sole hospital serving the entire peninsula of the Rockaways, and its immediate neighborhood is an especially underserved, low-income community. St. John’s is what’s known as a “safety net” hospital. Its clientele consists almost entirely of patients on both Medicare and Medicaid, and the hospital doesn’t turn anyone away. That means that St. John’s provides tens of millions of dollars in free health care every year, which the state reimburses—as long as certain standards are met. With very little resources, the hospital is able to meet the needs of a community that itself lacks resources. The hospital’s mission, and the folks who carry it out every day, are something we as Long Island Episcopalians, can be proud of.
St. John’s is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a place where Christian ministry is performed in distinct and powerful ways. That’s one of the main reasons I was attracted to the program there. And it didn’t take long to find out why Clinical Pastoral Education is a crucial rite of passage for anyone preparing for professional ministry. A seminary education is mostly confined to the classroom and the chapel, and focused on mastering theology, church history, and liturgy. Subjects which are obviously important. But to truly become a pastor, a minister to the body of Christ, you need another kind of knowledge, drawn from experiential, real-time learning, in a curriculum taught by those who Christ came to lift up—the sick, the vulnerable, the poor and the powerless.
Needless to say, no reading assignment, no lecture series or tutorial could possibly prepare someone for the kind of education I received doing my rounds at the hospital, encountering suffering on a daily basis, literally in the flesh, up close, and face-to-face. In these encounters, questions and habits of doctrine, denomination—and even devotion—don’t do much good. You learn to rely on pure presence, and empathy, and especially on silence. You learn that raw faith is the common currency of all religions, and that the fundamental connection between two people—our shared humanity—far outweighs the thoughts and circumstances that otherwise make us strangers to one another.
Now all of this would have been unsettling enough, but visiting patients is only half of what the program is about. Every afternoon, after morning rounds and lunch, my five peers and I spent over 3 hours in a group session, where we critiqued one another’s work. These feedback sessions, guided by our supervisors, demanded relentless honesty, transparency and authenticity—the kind of enlightening but often painful work familiar to anyone in therapy, or recovery. Because the program, at the end of the day, is not really about just training hospital chaplains—it’s about discovering who we are as ministers. It’s about learning to recognize and manage our own hidden wounds, our sins and blind spots, which have a way of coming to the surface when we’re confronted with someone else’s pain and suffering. What happens to us in these moments? Do we run out of the room—literally or figuratively? Or can we find a way to be wholly present and fully attentive to the needs of the “living human document” in front of us?
The upshot of all this is that those 10 weeks were perhaps the most challenging experience I’ve had so far, not just in ministry, but in life. And now I see there was a holy purpose behind it all. In my case, at least, being taken so far out of my comfort zone, being confronted with not just the pain of others but my own wounds and flaws, provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for growth. Indeed, it felt like a baptism by fire. Ministering in a place of great need, to people on the margins of society, alongside peers from diverse faith and cultural backgrounds, gave me unprecedented clarity about myself and confidence in my vocation. I left St. John’s believing I might actually be a pastor after all. And no wonder; this is, after all, the way it works. There is no way to grow except through challenge.
Now I apologize for spending so much time on my experience this summer, but I think it sheds some real light on this week’s Gospel passage. The Jesus Luke shows us here is not the Jesus we usually prefer—we don’t get Jesus the gentle shepherd, the great comforter who preaches only love, inspires hope, and tells us “do not worry.” Nor is it the Jesus who gives us great parables of reconciliation and empathy like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. Here instead we have the Jesus who started a riot in the Temple, who cursed the fig tree and scorned the Canaanite woman whose daughter was possessed by a demon. This Jesus challenges us and unsettles us. He comes not to make peace but to divide us. He comes with fire and waits for a baptism by fire. He even admits to being stressed out by his job—he sounds just like us!
And so in a strange way I’m almost more comforted by this Jesus, because here is the fully human Jesus. Not the otherworldly enigma or the spiritual boyfriend, but the actual man from Nazareth, the one who sweats, who weeps, who bleeds alongside his real historical first century Palestinian disciples. The one who experienced and expresses the full range of human emotions, and who will endure—in a stunning, transcendent act of divine solidarity—the unimaginable pain and suffering of the cross.
I trust this Jesus. A God who is willing to share the worst kind of human suffering, and who is powerful enough to transform a shameful human death into a gateway to eternal life is a God I can believe in, a God worthy of taking the risk of faith. So if my faith begins with Jesus’ divinity, it seems somehow to hang on his humanity. But we still might be tempted to ask why, why do things have to be this way? The Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus endured the pain and shame of the cross for the sake of joy. But why not just give us the joy? Why is there no growth without trial and conflict?
I think the answer has to do with the kind of joy Jesus promises us. This is no ordinary bliss: it’s revolutionary and radical, because it exalts the poor and weak over the rich and powerful, and exposes the injustices of the status quo. It’s bound to cause disruption and chaos, to divide us before it reconciles us, because those who profit from the exploitation of vulnerable people and the natural world—and that includes most of us, to some degree—will never just walk away from their places of privilege. This is the sharper edge of the Good News: that the road to heaven runs through human selfishness, and getting there, bringing ourselves and our neighbors to repentance, often requires confrontation. So here, in Luke’s story, we have Jesus simply being brutally honest about that. And inviting us—daring us—to join him in this baptism by fire.
But what new and wonderful things will grow within us when we are brave enough to go there, to risk seeing ourselves as God sees us? To have our need for total control and security burned away, so that we can finally discover our true selves, vulnerable and dependent, lovable in our very brokenness? The fire Jesus came to bring is the fire of purification and of judgement. Judgement has become such a bad word for us, because for whatever reason, when we think of judgement we automatically think of condemnation. But to judge something correctly is a good and beautiful thing, it’s to see something for what it is, it’s to know the truth. And we believe in a merciful God, who always judges correctly and whose judgement never condemns us. God’s judgement only liberate us, by showing us the truth about ourselves, the truth that sets us free.
Working in the hospital this summer, I started to imagine that each room I entered contained a holy fire, the burning flame of another person’s need. And I had a choice. I could choose to stand beside the fire, warming my hands, and admiring myself for daring to stand so close. Or I could risk stepping into the fire, knowing that in some sense it would destroy me, but out of which I would emerge purified, transformed, baptized.
There is no growth without challenge. I spent my summer learning this lesson: our faith can’t be made perfect apart from the purifying fire of judgement. And that judgement, in which we see ourselves as God sees us, is not condemnation. That judgement is the very source of our joy. That’s what Jesus knew, and that’s where Jesus went. And we know that we have nothing to fear as long as we’re following him.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The Rev. Steven Paulikas
June 2, 2019
All Saints’ Church
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of really good tv out there right now. You may not have liked the finale of Game of Thrones. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some other interesting stuff…
Jesse and I recently watched a documentary film called “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.” It’s about a woman named Elizabeth Holmes. Maybe you’ve seen it or heard about it. Elizabeth Holmes was an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. She founded a company called Theranos that said it had developed a machine to test blood in small quantiites, so that the next time you needed a blood test, you’d only need a pinprick instead of one of those big vials of blood. Like many things in the world of startups, Theranos claimed it would revolutionize and “disrupt” the way we do things. Instead of going to the doctor, you could test your own blood—and do it frequently—in order to monitor your own health.
Like any startup, Holmes had to raise money from private investors. They liked her and trusted her. She played the part of the bold young entrepreneur, and rich investors and the media alike ate it up. She posed for photo shoots for the covers of magazines and profile pieces. Elizabeth Holmes raised nine hundred million dollars for Theranos during its years of operation.
The problem was that there as never any machine. In fact, none of the people who gave her all that money even saw it actually work. As Holmes made bigger and bigger promises, she caught herself in a web of lies and half-truths to try to appease the investors, until the truth was finally revealed. The company became worthless, and Holmes’ reputation was ruined.
I’ve been thinking about this film for the past couple of weeks. For me, it says a lot about the spiritual crisis of our culture. It’s a crisis of faith. Because, when it comes down to it, money is nothing more than an instrument of faith. All those investors—they handed over their money based on nothing more than a belief—belief in a person, belief in the commercial application of technology, belief in their own judgment of character.
Of course, their faith was misplaced. We live in a time and place with a tremendous amount of money. In fact, this is the richest society that has ever existed. But money is just an instrument of faith. That means there’s actually a whole lot of faith to go around. The problem is that we as a people just don’t know where to put our faith. We are seduced by lies and bright shiny images—like a blood testing machine that would defy the laws of physics. This is how a rich people suffers a crisis of faith. It imprisons itself in its own fantasies.
To all this, Holy Scripture has a simple answer. Put your faith in God. Ignore the fantasies of your own making, because God’s graciousness is the most real and concrete thing we experience. God is the God of the righteous, the poor, the children, the marginalized. Those are the people Jesus loved up to the end. Put your faith in these things, and your faith will be in the right place.
Today we hear the remarkable and moving story from the sixteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. It’s hard not to feel the raw emotion of this poor little girl. She has been enslaved by an unscrupulous man who uses her sorrow as entertainment for paying customers. Could you imagine your child—or anyone’s child—being used in this way? Their challenges sold for profit to crowds eager to see something strange and exotic? It’s unthinkable. But here she is, following the apostles around. And she keeps repeating something that was bound to get their attention, saying, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
Here is this girl, herself a slave—and possessed by a spirit—saying that Timothy, Paul, and Silas are the slaves. Have you ever come across a person who accuses their opponent of being the very thing that they are? Maybe a public figure? Of course not. Anyway. The slave girl’s obvious misrepresentation tells us she is really crying out for help. Paul casts out the spirit, and the girl becomes free. But the girl’s owner is infuriated. The only way he can make money off her is if she is possessed by this spirit. He can only profit if she is unfree. Now that she has been freed from the spirit, he can’t get is money. So he turns Paul and his friends over to the authorities and has them flogged and thrown in prison.
What sort of nightmare is this money-obsessed society? One that’s willing to sacrifice children for profit? One that has misplaced its faith. The girl’s owner is so taken with his faith in money that he is willing to let her suffer so that he can get some. But the apostles’ faith is in God, and their faith sets the girl free. It also sets her owner free, free from the poison of a misplaced faith. The apostles’ faith is so strong that it eventually frees them from the prison sentence they receive for their act of faith—and sets free the prison guard to boot.
These men learned all they knew from Jesus and were empowered in their faith by the Holy Spirit. The other people in the story don’t stand a chance against these things. They placed their trust in the things of this world: power, status, a corrupt system of justice, empire, and of course, money. Their faith was misplaced. But even in their ignorance, the light of faith is not extinguished, nor is the power of God to set free hindered. In the end, everyone is free—free to put their faith where it really belongs.
Next week, we will bring our pledges and donations for the Abounding in Good Works initiative to renew our church’s facilities for our children and youth and the wider community. This whole initiative is an act of faith. It’s putting our faith in the future of our children and their spiritual formation. It’s putting faith in the future of this parish to create a place for children who have yet to arrive at the threshold of this church. But above all, it’s putting faith in God’s power to nurture, form, and equip our kids to become the saints of God.
Yes, one of the instruments of this faith is money. But let me tell you: if Elizabeth Holmes can raise almost a billion dollars for nothing based on faith alone, then I have every confidence that we can raise the money we need to create the space we need for God’s ministry. And if you have a billion dollars to donate, please see me after the service.
But seriously. I used to think that talking about money in church was uncomfortable. But now I know the only reason its uncomfortable is because our society has some pretty distorted ideas about it. This misguided faith is a spiritual crisis—and where else are we supposed to talk about those than in church. I mean, how is it possible that in a world where people will voluntarily give a billion dollars to a liar, that any of our children should go without anything they need? Abounding in Good Works is our response to the needs of the children and youth in our own community. But it is also an exercise in making sure that our faith is in the right place.
The spiritual life of a Christian is a passage into ever-greater freedom. Like the apostles, we follow Jesus from falsehood to truth, from disorder to order, from death to life. Along the way and as our faith grows, we become equipped with all the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit—the power to heal, to lighten the darkness, to speak truth to power, and to set others free. No amount of money can get you from here to there. These gifts cannot be bought and sold. No one has ever paid for a miracle. It is faith and faith alone that sets us free, and where we place our faith sets our souls on their spiritual courses. May all our hearts and minds always be set on things above and not earthly things, and may our faith be always in God and God alone.
The Rev. Steven Paulikas
May 19, 2019
All Saints’ Church
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Do you want a commandment to guide your life, a simple answer to life’s complexity? Love one another.
Are you looking for some clarity among the din of religious voices telling us what to believe? Listen: Just as Jesus has loved us, we also should love one another.
Do you want to be a disciple of Jesus? Then love your neighbors.
Do you long for a truly spiritual community but are confused as to what that means today? Have love for one another.
You know, when Jesus was alive, religion wasn’t any less of a mess than it is today. And that’s where today’s Gospel message comes in. It is a flash of light in the darkness, a lifeline to a drowning people. And we need it badly. Jesus gives us a new commandment: love one another, just has he has loved us. That’s what his followers do—they love one another, with reckless abandon. They devote their lives to this love, because love is the very nature of God, and when you love, you are taking part in the stuff that God is made of. Jesus loved us, not because we deserved it, but because Jesus IS love. This is the ground of all that is true and right about the Christian life. It is simple enough that little children understand it and yet a task that can only be completed in a lifetime. It is the beginning and the end of theology. It is a simple commandment that we as a species have yet to understand. And it is a commandment from the past that lives and breathes and speaks to us this morning as if were the first time it had ever been uttered: love one another. Love one another, as God loves us.
Keep in mind, when Jesus gives this new commandment, it’s not just a passing comment or a sidenote. This is the last supper. This is Jesus’ final chance to speak to his disciples. A person’s last words and final intentions have tremendous meaning, and this is what Jesus chose to say. He gave his friends a great gift, a simple direction and a blueprint for the future. Love one another. That’s it. That’s the great secret that is no secret at all. Love one another, and the love of God will be present. Love one another, and soon you will love everyone. Love one another, and you will have no enemies, no adversaries. Love one another, and you will be set free from the prisons of fear and hatred. Love one another, and you will begin to understand how much God loves you, and when you glimpse the love with which God has made every single one of us, love will become the guiding force of everything that you do.
No, this was no aside, no small thing. Jesus’ new commandment is the instruction for earthly salvation. It’s the basis for attaining anything that actually matters in this world. Peace and harmony between peoples. A life filled with joy and meaning. Wisdom to know the difference between what is important and what isn’t. Love one another, and all these dreams would become our reality.
I think that Jesus gave this knew commandment when he did because he knew the time would come—and very soon—when people would forget about him. I don’t mean forget about Jesus the great Messiah. I mean forget about what he actually said and did, the Jesus who ate with sinners and tax collectors, who told the story of the Good Samaritan, who gave his life not just for YOU, but also for the person you don’t understand or even like. Jesus knew that we are strange creatures who can take the clearest of truths and muddy them to suit our own individual needs. Because, you see, even though this is a simple commandment, it is a difficult one. Most of the time we would rather have an easier rule to follow. Give me something I can do or an opinion I can fight for. Give me a party to vote for or a way to judge other people. Give me a target for success or a data point to shoot for. Any of these things is easier than love. These other things reinforce the self. They give me something outside myself to measure myself by. But love, love requires you to see yourself in someone else, and to love both. To love, you have to get over yourself, and that’s usually too tall of an order for us.
Jesus knew all this, which is why I think that people who have never read the Bible or who have been taught misinformation about the Bible can definitely be forgiven for not knowing that Jesus says these things. Christians in our day—and in fact in most other days—have not been very good at following our Lord’s new commandment. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that people will know we are his disciples by things OTHER than how we love one another. In fact, we turn on ourselves, not recognizing one another as God’s own children, labeling one another and excluding one another from the fellowship of the saints.
But this new commandment Jesus gives—it’s still there, still speaking to us today. It is the basis for everything we do here at All Saints’ Church. In this place, we know that everyone will know we are Jesus’ disciples by our love for one another. And we withhold that love from no one. At times, we miss the mark. And when we do, we seek to repent and return to the holy commandment given to us by Jesus.
In case you’re wondering, I spend a lot of time thinking about this kind of thing. And I know many of you do as well. In my darker moments, I worry that Jesus’ new commandment is being drowned out by harsher voices and alluring temptations. I worry that people who need to hear these words are turned off by the shenanigans they see Christians get up to. I also worry about the statistics I see that say younger people are so turned off that they have no interested in religion at all. Because of the changes in our society over the past several decades, people in their 20’s and younger are the first generation of adults in our country’s history who are more likely than not NEVER to have had any kind of religious affiliation at all.
So I wonder: who will remember the new commandment of love? How will this sacred knowledge be passed on to future generations? Who will be there to offer love to those who need it? Who will remember Jesus and these last words he spoke to his disciples?
Friends, in the spirit of this love, All Saints’ is starting an initiative called “Abounding in Good Works.” Abounding in Good Works is about giving our young people and our wider community the resources they need to remember Jesus and his words. You may have noticed that there are a lot of children and young families coming to this church. It’s a great blessing to have this youngest generation in our midst, and we want to do the best we can by them. Unfortunately, the facilities in our building do not meet their needs. That needs to change, and so the Vestry has commissioned plans for the renovation of our downstairs facility. It may be a small step, but it’s something concrete we can do to respond to the spiritual needs of our community. And I have no doubt it will enrich and transform the lives of many.
This week, you should receive a letter explaining more about this initiative and an appeal to consider how you can support Abounding in Good Works. I ask you to pray on this matter and prepare to offer your pledge on the Sunday of our summer BBQ, June 9. Our initiative chairs, Vestry members and I are more than happy to answer any questions you might have and are eager to talk about the future of our parish.
There are so many ways to live out Jesus’ commandment. But at the core of what he requires us to do is a conversion of the heart, a permanent conversion from the ways of the world to the way of love. By his grace, let us all heed his word and follow his command: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
April 21, 2019
Easter, Year C
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Every Sunday in this place, we offer a very special welcome to anyone who is here for the first time. It takes a lot to walk into a church you’ve never been to. Maybe you’re visiting from out of town and thinking about your church back home. Or maybe you’re here just to honor someone else’s wishes. Or maybe you just decided to come to church on Easter for no reason. And that first step through the door—you don’t really know what it’s going to be like. Will the people be cold? Will it feel manipulative? Will their values match mine? What does it feel like if I do wind up encountering God?
But it does not matter why you are here or who you are. Your presence is a blessing to this place—no matter who you are, what you believe or don’t believe, you are welcome in this place. It is my hope that you will experience something holy, something loving while you are here. That’s not a marketing strategy or some kind of hook. It is the way a community of the resurrection is supposed to express its faith on Easter. The same love that rolled the stone away is present here this morning, and it compels us to love one another, without any exceptions.
And speaking of love: to our Jewish friends and guests, Chag Sameach. This is one of those lucky years when Passover coincides with Easter. It is not right that Jesus should be the only Jewish person here today. So thank you for bringing your holiday celebration to this place.
Easter is the most important celebration of the Christian year because it carries the most important message of this faith: that love rolls the stone away not just for Jesus, but for all humanity. The resurrection teaches us something very important about this love, namely, that true love is like an open and outstretched hand. When Jesus was closed tightly in the tomb, love, by its very nature, opened up that which had been shut. The Bible says that God is love. So if anything like the Christian God exists, then that which is sealed in hatred, fear, sickness, and evil is being opened—even in this very moment. And even we are being called by love to open ourselves up, to follow Jesus on this journey from death to abundant life.
We need this Easter. Or am I the only these days one feeling beat down by the world? It seems we as a people are shattering new records for pettiness and distraction. In my conversations with friends, parishioners, and even strangers, I notice that everyone else seems as worn out as I am. There is a constant, low-grade vigilance and a simmering anger that erupts in unexpected places. It seems most of us are hanging on tightly, white-knuckling our way through these confusing and upsetting times.
If you feel this way at all, you are most definitely in the right place. Because the joy of Easter teaches us a different way of being. Instead of clutching on to whatever gives us comfort just to get through adversity, love bids us open our hands, our hearts, our minds, our very being to the tremendous blessing that is this life, this free gift that the open hand of love has bestowed on us. And as we open ourselves, we become open to the people God has given us—friends and family, strangers and even enemies. We see that there is no reason to hide, cowering in the comforting shadows of the tomb. Instead, we can step out into the light of this new day, free, joyful, and as loving as the God who created this day to begin with.
The Christian story is a difficult one to digest. Because all this talk of love and new life could be very hollow. In fact, there is no resurrection without the crucifixion; there is no truly open-handed love without the pain of loss. We hear in Luke’s gospel this morning that the first people to witness the miracle of the resurrection were the women who came to anoint Jesus’ body at the tomb. They did not approach this tremendous miracle with joy. No, they were mourners, grieving the loss of their dear Jesus.
The story of the women at the tomb means this love is powerful enough to be present with us in suffering and draw us into joy, because God has also known suffering. That’s what makes the joy so potent. It is not cheap or saccharine. Rather, this open-handed love is hard-won and born of suffering.
It’s not pleasant to talk about suffering, about brokenness, about loss. That’s why we so often try to change the subject. There are many ways to distract ourselves from the hard parts of following Jesus. Some are tempted to think that maybe, being Christian should be about following a set of rules instead of living out such an all-consuming love. Or looking, talking, or acting a certain way that meets with other people’s expectations. Or maybe it should be about being right all the time. Or having a blind faith in something and trying to force other people to believe it too.
Christians are doing this all the time. So it’s no wonder that so many people are turned off by religion. But you see, rejecting one way of mishandling the truth doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to embrace a better one. Because there are plenty of ways to distract ourselves outside the bounds of religion as well. We are the richest society that has ever existed. But are we the most joyful? Are we the most loving? Has our individual freedom, our advanced technology, our money and our earthly power created a people liberated from the imprisonment of fear and hatred that Jesus spent his life preaching against?
Hardly. We are all holding on tight, holding on for dear life. And when fists are clenched long enough, there is a temptation to use them. But there were no fist fights that first Easter morning. Just amazement. Total and complete wonder at the power of this God to open every gate and portal, even the barrier between death and life.
You see, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection teach us that we need not be enclosed by suffering and adversity. When the God made flesh suffered for no reason, love, which is the essence of that same God, threw open the door to an even greater freedom. And not just for him, but for us all.
I’m not the type of preacher that tells people what to do. But let me offer this suggestion. If you are feeling trapped, if you are suffering from the anxiety of the times, if anger is beginning to close you in, there is something simple but profound you can do. Form a spiritual relationship with someone who is different from you. I really and truly believe this is the only way out of the mess we find ourselves in. The Bible is absolutely full of stories of people who have no business being together finding a common spirit. When this happens, souls are set free and love increases. Because the openness it takes to build a spiritual bond with someone different from you has a mystical quality. And it’s contagious. When unlikely spiritual relationships form, that sense of amazement and wonder that was present at the first Easter is miraculously rekindled.
I’ve learned this lesson here at All Saints’ Church, where people of different generations, races, countries of origin, and even politics come together to practice their love for one another week after week. We do this here because it is the very nature of loving Christ and being loved by him. We love one another because love loved us first. We did not create Easter; Easter rolled the stone away from our souls so that we could love God and one another.
But wherever you are or whatever you believe, it is always possible to open your heart in spiritual charity to those who differ from you. And there is no limit to the scope of this blessing.
Christ is risen. The stone is rolled away. And love of God is moving through this broken and anxious world, even today. Love is opening God’s people, unclenching their fists, softening their hearts, and bursting open the tombs of our sad imprisonment. So let us rise with him, with the openness of a love that knows no bounds.