November 2, 2019
Spencer D. Cantrell
All Souls Requiem
November 2, 2019
Spencer D. Cantrell
November 3, 2019
Feast of All Saints
All Saints’ Church
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
Blessed are you who have found your way to church on the Sunday of the New York City Marathon.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.
Do people actually believe this? Are there people in the world who think that the poverty of this life is richness in God’s eyes? Does anyone really believe that true greatness is meekness? That sorrow is transformed into joy? That exclusion in society is inclusion in the heavenly fellowship?
Does anyone actually believe the beatitudes? Yes—and they are called saints. And guess what? This is All Saints’ Church. The Feast of All Saints we celebrate today is special for us at this church. It is a reminder of our true calling, of the path God has prepared for each and every one of us, paths specific to who each of us is, but each of which leads to the same destination: sainthood. If you are here, then you are called to sainthood.
And if you’re confused about what it means to be a saint, just listen to Jesus, who tells us what it means to be blessed and beautiful. To be blessed means making room for God’s richness and not your own. It means filling up on all that is good and holy. It means having faith that sadness and pain will be transformed to joy. It means turning your back on the affirmation of the world and all its temptations and turning toward the great mystery of God in Christ.
That’s what it means to be a saint, according to Jesus. Obviously, sainthood isn’t easy. And part of the problem is that the way you are a saint is unique to you—to the gifts God has given you, to the time and place in which you find yourself, to the struggles you face. If these Beatitudes give us the principle of sainthood, the details are only filled in through excruciating trial and error. But let me tell you something I know as surely as I stand before you this morning: I have never met a person who wasn’t called to sainthood. It may confuse you. It may confound you. You may run from it and try to hide from the sheer weight of this calling. But you are called to be a saint of God.
Luckily, we who have been called to sainthood have a powerful tool on our side: this very church. All Saints’ Church is, among other things, a fellowship for those who are called to sainthood. You see, you don’t become a saint overnight. It takes practice. We come here, week after week, year after year—or even for the first time today—to practice being saints. You also don’t become a saint on your own. Many people think that saints live by themselves in caves until they are given a revelation by God, or that they are singularly talented and charismatic. But when you read the lives of the saints, you learn that every saint was born in community. All Saints’ Church is your sainthood community. Here, you are welcomed, you are nurtured, you are challenged, you are encouraged, you are held accountable, and you are sent out into the world to be a saint. There is no other place than a loving Christian community that will equip you for sainthood. There is nothing to replace a church in the formation of saints. This is the place where you encounter yourself anew each week, where you encounter yourself as a saint.
One of the reasons it’s so difficult for us to wrap our heads around sainthood as Jesus describes it is because it calls for an inversion of the way we see the world. In Jesus’ time, the great and the mighty were what he describes in the second half of today’s Gospel passage—the part with the woes. Woe to the rich. Woe to those who feast at sumptuous banquets. Woe to those who laugh, and woe to those who receive high praise. These were the things people sought after in their lives.
And as you can tell, things haven’t changed very much, even after 2000 years. We lift up the rich and the well-fed, the happy and the well-praised. There are no reality shows about those who weep. Just try starting an Instagram account about poverty and see how many followers you get. Accolades and praise are given out so readily and for so little that they hardly have any value. Did you see the news this week about Adam Neumann, the former CEO of WeWork, the company that owns coworking spaces? At the age of 40, he resigned after leading the company to utter ruin. You might think that after arranging shady financial deals and misrepresenting the company’s true value, after laying off almost a quarter of its employees, Mr. Neumann would face some harsh consequences. Instead, he received a payout of one billion dollars. One billion dollars.
That’s a lot of money, and Mr. Neumann is now a rich man for his failures. But in the inverted world of beatitudes, he is not rich at all, because his ill-begotten fortune separates him from the place of true riches: the Kingdom of God.
It is appropriate that this Feast of All Saints is also the beginning of our annual stewardship campaign at All Saints’ Church. Every year, we are called to reflect anew on what it truly means to be blessed. We recommit ourselves to the words of the beatitudes and take seriously our call to sainthood. Following this morning’s Eucharist is our annual Stewardship Café, where you can see the many ministries you can be involved in. And in three weeks’ time, on Harvest Sunday, we will offer our pledges to equip the work of the saints in this place, remembering what it means truly to be wealthy.
Today we also welcome a new saint into our midst as we baptize Lucy Rose Fontana. God willing, she will have the words of the beatitudes written on her heart. She will never forget that even in the trials of life, she is blessed. Lucy is just now beginning her path toward sainthood, and she’s going to need all of our help. Are you willing to show Lucy by example what it means to be a saint? Do you want the world she grows up in to look up to billionaire failures or to confess the richness of God’s Kingdom? When we are all gone and Lucy is still here, do you want her to remember us as a generation of the confused or as the saints who blazed the trail for her?
God has called you to be a saint. It is the highest calling one can have. You are a part of the great cloud of witnesses that envelops us even here this morning. May God be your strength and your guide. And may the saints of God shine forever by the light of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
October 27, 2019
All Saints’ Church
Today’s Gospel message is about the relationship between righteousness and contempt. Jesus tells the story about two men. One does everything that is correct. He’s the upstanding citizen, the kind of person who keeps the world running, the guy who follows all the rules and sets an example. And he is VERY happy with himself. The other man is none of these things. He has sold himself out, betraying his own people by taking a job that is anathema to his community. He is very UNHAPPY with himself, and he begs God for forgiveness.
This is a clear yet odd story, and it tells one of the important lessons the Christian faith has to teach: that unbridled righteousness leads to the sin of contempt.
Jesus tells this story because he knows it will need to be told and retold to generations upon generations for thousands of years to come, and it’s one we need to hear today. We want to do the right thing. We want to strive after righteousness. We want to do what is good and true and faithful in the sight of God. And yet, the more righteous you become, the greater is the temptation to one of the unintended consequences of righteousness, the great sin of the do-gooder, the abomination named in this story: contempt.
Why does the righteous man leave the temple unjustified while the tax collector goes home with God’s blessing? Because the righteous man has succumbed to contempt. He has convinced himself that he is good and that others are bad. He has confused following the rules with his own goodness. And then he has allowed himself to look down his nose at those who are in even greater need of God’s love and grace. He has made his pride his faith.
Righteousness breeds contempt for others. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, especially for those of us who just want to do the right thing. You know, I spend a lot of time in church and doing churchy things, and I’ve been living this way for most of my life. And let me say that from my experience, I have rarely met someone who comes to church who isn’t interested in doing the right thing. For the most part, we are a self-selecting group of people. We are drawn to God and God’s grace. We want a better world, and we want to be part of the solution to the world’s problems. We are willing to sacrifice our own immediate best interest in order to seek first Kingdom of God and its righteousness. These are all positive motivations, and we express them in so many ways. They drive us here on Sunday mornings even when it’s raining. They motivate us to serve in ministries, to tell others about the good news, and even to take on menial and thankless tasks that only God can see. Without these intentions, the Church would be nothing more than a vanity project or just another consumer experience.
But there’s a fine line between dedicating yourself to good and looking down on others who aren’t doing what you’re doing. That’s when righteousness becomes contempt. And it’s an easy and slippery slope from the one to the other.
Christianity is a funny thing. It’s a religion that proclaims God’s triumph over the sin and evil—but only by sacrificing himself on a cross. It’s a faith that believes the church is the very Body of Christ—yet it tells the story of how religious leaders were the ones who handed Jesus over to death. And then we hear this parable today—those of us who are dedicated to striving for righteousness are told that the fruit of this very righteousness can be our spiritual undoing.
Embedded within our faith is the paradoxical knowledge that the more this faith flourishes, the stronger the temptations for it to stray and the graver the consequences for when it does. Think about that for a second. The deeper you go into this mystical journey with Christ and the more you see of his grace and mercy, the more you will be tempted to betray him and your fellow human beings. No wonder so few of us choose this path! It’s not the kind of thing that gets easier as you practice it. Actually, it gets harder. The more righteous you become, the more likely you will feel contempt.
But there’s a simple solution to this problem. Jesus tells us exactly what to do when we start to feel contemptuous. He says, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” If you feel yourself becoming contemptuous, the best medicine is a little dash of humility. That was the righteous man’s problem. He kept puffing himself up. But no one is as perfect as he thought he was. He may have looked at the tax collector with contempt, but what about his own issues? That’s great he fasts twice a week—but what about people who don’t have enough money to feed themselves or their families? That’s fine he gives 10 percent of his income. But where does he think that other 90 percent comes from? As one member of our congregation reminds us every year, it’s good she’s not God because she wouldn’t let us get away with just 10 percent.
Without humility, we begin to think that every good thing we have in our lives comes from us and not from God. Without humility, we start to blame others for their own problems and lose our empathy for their struggles. Without humility, we are tempted to put ourselves in the place of God, and there is no greater sin than that.
Self-righteousness breeds contempt. And the cure for contempt is humility. That’s what Jesus says.
Unfortunately, this has been a lesson that the Church has often forgotten. Among all the crazy news items from the past week, you may have noticed a study that came out from the Pew Research Center. They’re the definitive record keeper about religion and demographics in the United States. According to their study, only 65 percent of Americans identify as Christian. Just ten years ago, that number was 77 percent. That means that in just one decade, 12 percent of the entire population of this country of over 300 million people has left Christianity.
And do you know what the largest growing religious group is in America? It’s the so-called “nones.” These are people who aren’t necessarily atheists or agnostics. They just have no religious identity at all. This group has grown from 12 percent to 17 percent of the population since 2009. It is growing across all demographics—college educated and non-college educated, urban and rural, black, white, and Hispanic, Republicans and Democrats. The energy and momentum in the faith life of this country in this time is with a category called “none.”
And to be honest, in many ways, I can’t blame these millions of people. Because I think I know why they’ve left this faith. They are people who have come to the temple in search of meaning and truth, in search of grace and hope. But instead they have heard the voice of the righteous man, the song of self-satisfaction and contempt. And why would anyone want to be part of a church like that? Especially a church that has this gospel story in its holiest scriptures?
It’s easy to point out self-righteousness in others. We can talk about the churches that have allowed abuse of children and then ignored the pleas of the victims. We can talk about the churches that package the Gospel up in a slick package of friendliness but then exclude some of God’s most vulnerable people. We can talk about pastors who make millions of dollars while conveniently skipping over the fact that our Lord lived a life of poverty. All these things have firmly put themselves in the imagination of the public, which now sees them as what American Christianity is all about.
But to point out all this hypocrisy without a look at ourselves would be to fall into the very trap of contempt that Jesus describes today. The only way to cure contempt is with humility. No church will ever be perfect, because every church is made up of imperfect people. The only way for an imperfect body of people to proclaim the salvation of God is with humility. Humility must be at the core of everything we do. We must welcome guests and strangers with a humble heart. We must worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness acknowledging that beauty comes from God alone. We must offer our gifts at the altar freely and without self-satisfaction. When we succeed, we must stand in awe at the great things God does in our midst. When we fail, we must thank God for the grace to give us another chance. And like the tax collector, we must continually ask for God’s mercy—for the sins we commit and the sins committed on our behalf.
This is what a Christian community looks like: not righteous and contemptuous, but humble and open. All that we have comes from God, and it is of God’s own that we offer ourselves back. The closer we get to God, the greater the temptation is to fall prey to pride. So arm yourselves with humility, the softener of hearts and fuel of true faith. Humble yourselves, and you will find exultation in God. Amen.
The Rev. Spencer D. Cantrell
Oct 20th, 2019
All Saints' Church
Luke 18: 1-8
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