Before I begin this morning I want us to hear one of the most repeated phrases in the bible:
Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid, God told the prophets. Do not be afraid, the angel told Mary. Do not be afraid even when you are forced away from your home, an unmarried woman, to give birth in a stable. Do not be afraid when you are then forced to flee to Egypt with your young child. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, St. Paul told the first Christians, when they couldn’t figure out who to let in. Let in everyone, do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, Jesus told us when he went to die, at the hand of a corrupt government.
Do not be afraid. Our faith tells us this again and again. Wherever your heart is this morning: Do not be afraid.
I say this to myself, too, as I step into this pulpit. Deep breaths. We’re all doing this together.
Because a sermon--at its best, and sometimes you might not feel it in the architecture of this place with me all the way up here--but a sermon is a conversation. It is a conversation between the text that we read and what we do around that altar, It is a conversation between the people who come in here at 10am--you--and the people who leave here when we’re finished--you.
So I am gonna say some things this morning, but do not be afraid.
I want to back up a phrase from the Gospel reading this morning. What happens right before Jesus gets up on this famous mount to deliver the most iconic sermon in the history of sermons?
“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news* of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”
“When Jesus* saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.” That’s where we started.
You know, there are a lot of people who are very preoccupied with taking the bible literally -- and specifically in the United States of America. That is true, more than in any other country, a dominant form of being evangelical here in America includes this idea of biblical literalism. And so today I offer an olive branch to biblical literalists because LITERALLY in the gospel this morning,
Jesus welcomes at his feet sick and afflicted Syrian refugees.
You remember those bracelets that said WWJD? What would Jesus do? Today, we might have one of the easiest answers ever.
What would Jesus do when the people in political power sign into law a command to close borders, and to close them specifically and based on religious practice?
Jesus would go to the mountaintop, Jesus would sit his butt down -- he went up the mountain; and he sat down, and his disciples came to him.
But I am thinking about the ACLU lawyers I saw yesterday at JFK sitting right on the floor to do their work --
Jesus would sit down among the people and tell them the most radical thing a sick and suffering stranger could ever hear:
God loves you.
God loves you. You are blessed. You are blessed. You are blessed. You. are. Blessed.
What if everyone could really hear this? What would the world look like if people, in their despair, in their fear, in their sorrow, knew that God loves them, that God sees them. You are blessed.
I don’t think it will be a surprise if I tell you that I have been spending a lot of time recently, for the last several months, thinking and praying very intently on the question of politics and faith.
There is an unwritten expectation in a lot of churches -- I think especially Episcopal churches, and certainly the one that I grew up in -- that the preacher does not talk about politics from the pulpit. And there is a written rule, too, in the way that the separation of church and state works, that I, the preacher, would never endorse a candidate for public office by name.
And yet there is an imperative to preach the Gospel. To look to the Syrian refugee and say, you are blessed. And not just nominally blessed, but blessed with safety, with healing, with room at the feet of God.
But it can feel like playing whack-a-mole, keeping up with all the threats to freedom, to justice, and to peace, that are happening right now. And I don’t want church to be a place where we come only to hear a litany of fear & woe, because I know most of you here do not need me to get in the pulpit and read you the news. You can read that at home.
And I don’t want church to be a place where we constantly react to the headlines. We need the headlines to react to us! We need to be bold voices of moral clarity, not just stopping every gap temporarily, but forging a new river. I want this place to be a place where you come to hear the message: Do not be afraid!! Go out into the world!
This is the good news.
The story at the heart of Christianity--a story that we tell four different ways, from four different perspectives, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--is the story of God incarnate--God as a human being. And that human, Jesus, was a refugee child born to an unwed mother, who preached sitting down, to strangers of different faiths, who healed them, who blessed them, and who died at the hands of a corrupt government. That is the human Christian story, and there is no question--you can not divorce it from politics, you can not divorce its twists and turns from the actions of the government.
What do we do now? Where is the good news for those of us who are ready to go out into the world and act?
The prophet Micah asks the same: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Last night, New York City came together to do justice--to re-open the borders to legal immigrants--and to put a temporary stay on the detention of people with Green Cards who were in the air, but this is only temporary and it is not complete. There are still 134,000,000 people who are restricted from entering the US.
So there is work to do, and we know there will be more and more of it.
Today we go out with the blessing of God
With the promise “Do not be afraid.”
With the knowledge that you are blessed,
We go out and we do justice, we love kindness, and we walk humbly with God,
We look in the eyes of of the people who are fleeing persecution and we see Mary, carrying her child Jesus, and we know that they are blessed, and we welcome them.
We do justice. Amen.
Dr. Prabhjot Singh preached the following sermon at the All Saints' Church observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 15, 2017. Dr. Singh is Director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health and Chair of Health System Design & Global Health at the Mount Sinai Health System, as well as Special Advisor for Strategy and Design at the Peterson Center for Healthcare. He is author of Dying and Living in the Neighborhood: A Street-Level View of America's Healthcare Promise.
Let me begin by sharing my gratitude for the warm embrace your congregation has shown to my family, to your brothers and sisters who practice the Sikh faith, and most importantly, to your commitment to our shared humanity. Thank you Reverend for your friendship and invitation.
Today we stand together as people who seek moral clarity, disciplined courage, and practical action to forge the right path through the challenging days ahead.
Yesterday, my 4-year old son Hukam Singh and I listened to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s 1967 speech on the three evils of society: of corrosive racism, of mindless economic exploitation, of unending and reckless war. His voice was urgent and confident, a lantern to carry within us as dusk in America draws near. I wanted my son to join me, so he could hear what a resolute and unwavering mind sounded like, to know a voice without fear.
Indeed, this week is a momentous one.
Tomorrow, I will join millions across the nation in honoring the moral clarity revealed to us by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s words and actions. By Friday, our nation will inaugurate a president who spent yesterday denigrating civil rights leader and Congressman, John Lewis, who was one of the first Freedom Riders assaulted upon entering a white-only waiting room in South Carolina, who was nearly left for dead by the Klu Klux Klan in Alabama.
As my mind struggled to put all of this together, King’s words from his 1967 speech came hurtling into the present and landed in my mind with calm confidence: “the collision course is set.”
Today, I want to reflect with you upon the mindset that could gracefully endure this collision, and ensure that through it, the moral arc of the universe bends ever more surely towards justice. I will do this in three parts…
The first is about on the work of mending an anxious and fearful mind.
An anxious and fearful mind is a wandering mind, hoping to escape or find a clever way out of its predicament.
I know this first hand.
In 2013, I was a professor of international affairs, with big ideas about health and economics. In October of 2013, in my neighborhood close to my home, I was attacked by 20-30 young men, who called me terrorist and fractured my jaw. The next day, after I had jaw surgery, I felt lost and did not know what to do. My mind was clouded with too many thoughts, and I felt trapped and paralyzed.
It was the third time since 9-11 I was physically assaulted in New York City, and the fifth time since my family came to this country. And since I had been an advocate for others who had experienced hate crimes in the past, I knew that hundreds of others go unanswered. As media requests poured in, I knew in my heart that I had to say something, and that the collision course between our family’s private lives and public hostility was set.
However, experience showed me that my own mind, roiling with ego and anger, would not think of anything useful alone. Instead, I sat with my family and tried to place my mind in the hands of Waheguru — the Sikh word for the divine force that connects all things — and asked for peace of mind so I could find surer footing for the work ahead.
As I read today’s bible readings, I saw in Psalm 40, the same message that I found in a Sikh shabad that my wife and I sang to find a way forward. I will read the Psalm first, and then the Sikh Shabad.
He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay;
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God; *
many shall see, and stand in awe,
and put their trust in the Lord.
[not read: ūthat sukhīā baithat sukhīā.
bhau nahī lāgai jānh aisē bujhīā
rākhā ēk hamārā suāmī .
sagal ghatā kā antarajāmī .1. rahāu .]
Standing up, I am at peace; sitting down, I am at peace.
I feel no fear, because this is what I understand. ||1||
The One Lord, my Lord and Master, is my Protector.
He is the Inner-knower, the Searcher of Hearts. ||1||Pause||
Through remembering the divine, my mind felt steadier. And in that steadiness, I was able to see something that surprised me. That my most deeply felt emotion, and the one that I was most compelled to share, was of gratitude. Gratitude that my wife and son were not with me, gratitude that bystanders intervened, gratitude that I would be able to share my views on restorative justice, gratitude that I was not imprisoned by hate, gratitude for the groundswell of support.
And this brings me to the second part. As a mind is made steadier by meditating upon our shared divinity, we are shown the power of compassion.
As I shared my gratitude on national media, people like yourselves reached out to my family and the Sikh community with extraordinary compassion. I saw firsthand the strange and beautiful ways that we are connected: My family received prayer cards from a church in Mississippi, letters from a Hindu temple in southern California, an invitations to meet your congregation. Support to organizations that amplified this simple message surged.
However, the most powerful response came from my neighbors. Grandmothers hugged me in the streets, shopkeepers shared their sympathies, and my patients in the nearby hospital stopped to ask me how I was feeling even as I wheeled them into the intensive care unit. People learned about the community healthcare organization that my wife had been building in the neighborhood, and found different ways to show their support. I felt that my family was *safer* in my neighborhood as a result, not less so.
Now, there are the realists and cynics who will say, this is all nice, but how does this change anything? Isn’t this just feel good talk after a tragedy? Who will be punished, and how? They will say, you must speak truth to power and confront the forces of hate. Anything less is a form of feel-good therapy; safe spaces in a world of privilege.
I know people say this because I heard all of this. I’m reminded of the philosopher Wittgenstein, who said, “of that which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.” They did not see the networks of power that were being formed and forged in the name of compassion. They did not see how a simple expression of compassion served as an invitation to act without instruction. They did not see a community getting ready to be ready. Because it takes hard work to act in ways that truly matter.
They also did not see the alternative. A world where I attacked my neighborhood, where I screamed with hate against the hate that I saw. A world where the forces of divisiveness prevail, and narrow interests give way to a war of all, against all. We do not need to wait to see if this is, indeed, true. This is what a steady and compassionate mindset affords us to know.
And yet we must act. Which leads me to the third part.
And now I read from Isaiah, followed by a Sikh activist who was assassinated for uncovering human rights violations.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
‘I challenge the Darkness. If nothing else, then at least around myself, I will not let it settle. Around myself I will establish Light.’” - Jaswant Singh Khalra
As I read both of these passages, I try to do so with a steady and compassionate mind. In doing so, I know that we must not act against narrow interests, which only serves to enlarge them. Instead, we must act for justice, which serves to repair the breaches between us, and build a house for all of humanity to live in. And each of us is a polished arrow, waiting to be loosed in service of a greater aim.
What I experienced in 2013 changed me. I saw that I could not sit in repose, analyzing the world around me as an academic. Instead, I saw, and still see my role as a physician-advocate for a healthy society, and foremost, as a neighbor. For me, it meant that I had to shift my work closer to my local community, and work in more practical ways to improve the health of those across the nation and world. Today, there is no shortage of this work, and as we hurtle towards Friday’s inauguration, the health of everyone at risk.
It is always harder to build a house than it is to tear it down.
Each of you has been polished by your personal experience or professional skill to act in a different way. Your aims will be different as you work on a different part of the house that we must build. For me, it is in safeguarding the health of those who need it most. For you, it may be to teach our children, advocate for vulnerable immigrants, to defend our civil liberties or to state clearly that this house cannot be built without women standing shoulder to shoulder with any man.
If we allow the noise, fear and anxiety to drown us, we will be paralyzed by inaction. The house of justice will crumble in plain view. If we ask for divine guidance to steady our mind, open ourselves to the organizing power of compassion, and aim to act for justice where and when we can, we will not only survive the collision course that is set, but bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.
Tomorrow, we should be prepared to have King’s powerful words act upon us, preparing us to act in turn:
“cowardice asks the questions, is it safe; expediency asks the question, is it politic; vanity asks the question, is it popular, but conscious asks the question, is it right. And on some positions, it is necessary for the moral individual to take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic nor popular; but he must do it because it is right.”
I hope that god grants us all the steadiness of mind, the compassion of heart, and the strength of action to do what is right in the days to come.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
All Saints’ Church
December 24, 2016
Merry Christmas! And welcome to the Feast of the Nativity at All Saints’ Church. Everyone is welcome here. The presence of each and every person here makes this celebration complete. The most honored guests at this feast are the newest ones—those here for the first time, those who have traveled from far away, those who come here with hesitation, those of other faith traditions or none at all. The Jesus whose birth we celebrate this holy evening is not a possession; he does not belong only to those who claim him. He took on the lowliest of births so that God could be seen by all. In doing so, he taught us that the divisions we build between us mean nothing at all to God.
Christmas touches many different emotions. For some, it is a joyful time spent with family and friends. For others, it is a painful reminder of broken relationships, or of those we love but see no longer. For still others, Christmas can be a rare confrontation with questions of faith and doubt. For most, Christmas is a messy mixture of all these things. Regardless of what this evening means to you, know this: Christ was born into the mess of the world not as we wish it were, but the way it is. This is part of the miracle we celebrate tonight.
Yes, at Christmas, we acknowledge that God comes into the world as it is, not as we wish it were. Jesus was born into a world where corrupt rulers pursued power and ignored the weak and the innocent. The rich exploited the poor. There were wars and rumors of wars. World events determined the place and nature of Jesus’ birth. Joseph and Mary were traveling from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem to be registered because of the decree that went out from the emperor in Rome. God did not change these events, but rather worked through them. And as much as the faithful of Jesus’ time may have wished for him to come as a strong and mighty savior, one who could change the world with his might--he came instead as a little child, a baby boy. This was their salvation—and ours: a little child.
On this Christmas Eve, for just one moment, think about what it means that the redemption of humankind comes to us as a child. Children have so much to teach us adults about what to do in the middle of a mess. Children are vulnerable. Children are dependent. Children approach others without prejudice. Children want to play. Children are not interested in being productive, or powerful, or rich. The thing children want most is for you to love them—and to love you in return. Isn’t that the thing we all still want, more than anything? When Jesus was born, these were the gifts he offered us, and he offered them to everyone.
To the children here tonight: thank you for reminding us adults about Jesus. We need to keep learning from you. Because this year, especially, the adults have been very naughty. We have forgotten all the lessons Jesus taught us as a baby. We stopped believing that being vulnerable, like you, makes us open to God. We looked at dependence as weakness, not strength. We let our prejudices get the better of us. And, maybe worst of all, we decided to stop playing with one another. When the playground gets tense and fights break out, usually the adults step in and reset the games so that everyone can play together again. But what happens when the adults are the ones acting up? Who will save them from their fights? The scary thing about adults is that we think we’re more sophisticated than children, in part because our weapons are bigger and scarier than the sticks and stones from the playground. But as you can see from our recent behavior, adults want to be bad just as often as kids do. So we need you, like the Christ child, to show us the way forward.
I lived in the former Soviet Union, in Lithuania, for several years before moving to New York. My best friend there told me a Christmas story from his childhood. Like all public religious observances, Christmas was illegal under communism. Understandably, this was a source of great anguish for millions, and especially for the devout Roman Catholics where I lived. Families tended to observe Christmas in secret, but if discovered, they could face punishment at their jobs or in school.
My friend told me how there was a particularly strict assistant principal at his elementary school. One December, she came into his classroom unannounced, interrupted the teacher, and asked the children to tell her whether their families planned to celebrate Christmas. At first there was silence; even fourth graders knew what the consequences would be if they told the truth. Then, the kids looked around at one another, and one by one, they raised their hands—in defiance. My friend said he sat in awe as he watched the little boys and girls in his class declare their faith in the face of this scary woman. These children had more courage and less fear than their parents, even though they had just as much to lose. They made themselves vulnerable and worked together to defend what they knew was right. Not even a totalitarian regime could take Jesus away from them. He belonged to them, and they to him.
When I think of this story, I think of Scripture. Isaiah foretold that a child would be born, and that he would be a great light for the people who walked in darkness. In the story of Jesus’ birth, even the power of an entire empire could not overcome the grace of a little child. God’s message to us is clear: the same grace of that first Christmas night will be our salvation, even in this time. We must have faith in the child who is given to us. We must be imitators of the Christ child, finding strength in humility, hope in unlikely grace, and, above all, love in all people and the whole creation. We’ve already been shown how to get out of a mess, and it looks a lot like Christmas.
If you are thinking this is a tall order, you’re right. As we grow up, we experience the pains of living. We are hurt, and we hurt others. Our wounds can turn us sour, and we can begin to forget about the miracle of this life that has been given to us freely and in exchange for nothing. When that happens, grown-ups become brats and bullies. But do not fear the bully—have pity on him, because he has more fear than you. Matthew tells us that Herod sent an army to find the baby Jesus and kill him. How humiliating it must be to fear an innocent little child. How lonely it must be to spend your life defending your tiny corner and your little things. How sad it is to fear opening yourself up to all that is good and right and true, to be scared of joining a world where all God’s children are welcome and celebrated equally. And yet, this is a mistake any one of us could make…if we let the trials of life overshadow the light that God has placed within us.
But there is good news this Christmas Eve. As much as the baby in that manger belongs to all humanity, there is a child deep inside every one of us whom nothing can destroy. That inner child knows what Christmas means and can never forget. Just as a newborn seems freshly sent from another realm, the child within us all lives close to our souls and beckons us, tenderly, to tend those souls.
Perhaps this evening, a tiny voice is crying out from within you. It is calling out, softly, tenderly. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace toward all whom God favors. Amen.