The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
February 10, 2019
All Saints’ Church
Think for a just a moment this morning about the holiest place you’ve ever been. At some point in all our lives, we find a spot that we absolutely know is hallowed ground, a place set apart from the rest. It could be a religious place—a church building or a site of pilgrimage. It could be a place in nature, somewhere where you were overwhelmed with the beauty of the created order. Or it could be a spot where something extraordinary happened, an event from the past that changed the world or that means something to you personally.
Think for a moment about this holy place. What does it look like? How did you feel there? Were you aware of something beyond yourself? Did it fill you with awe and terror? Did it inspire you and soften your heart? Did it make you want to fall down on your knees or to jump up or to scream out or to sit in reverent silence? Do you tell people about it, or is it a secret you keep to yourself because you don’t think people will understand? Do you try to go back there, or was it a once-in-a-lifetime experience? And most importantly, how has this place shaped you as a person? What has it inspired you to do, to say, to act differently or more fully, to turn back or to turn forward or to turn around in a circle--just because you knew in this moment, in this place that you were in the presence of God?
There is no denying the power of that place, of that experience of holiness. In fact, it may be one of the reasons you are here this morning—because you remember that time—maybe not necessarily in the front of your mind, but in your deep soul, in that part of you that holds the most important memories. Or maybe because you have a sense that such a thing exists and you want to feel it for yourself. Or maybe even because you have felt that holiness—right here in this temple.
If that’s the case, then we have no choice but to say, with the prophet Isaiah,
Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.
The passage from Isaiah we hear this morning is a vision of that profound sense of the holy. Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on a throne, like a king robed in glory. There are angelic beings flying around him, six-winged seraphim with sleepless eye. And the hymn they repeat to one another is nothing but a proclamation of the transcendent divinity in whose presence they exist.
Holy. Holy. Holy! Words so sacred we repeat them in our liturgy as we approach the mysteries of the Eucharist, echoing the words of the seraphim who surrounded the Lord’s throne.
Kadosh kadosh kadosh, Adonai tz’vaot m’lo khol haaretz k’vodo.
A hymn so hallowed it is recited at the heart of the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy, the Kedushah.
There is no mistaking that Isaiah is in the presence of God, and the sense of holiness is completely overwhelming. He is confronted with his smallness in the face of God’s complete holiness that fills the entire earth. He proclaims that he is a man of unclean lips, and in that moment, one of the seraphim touches his mouth with a hot coal from the fire at the altar. This is the sign that from now on, Isaiah will speak truth that has been given to him by God. His experience of standing in the presence of God’s holiness changes his life forever and equips him to become a prophet of the Lord.
Holiness is something that can never fully be defined. It is like Isaiah’s vision, in which he sees only the hem of the Lord’s garment, but not the entire picture. It is something that is felt and experienced, but can never be replicated or fully explained. And yet it is precisely because of all these reasons that holiness is such a powerful part of the human experience of God.
One way to think of our perception of God is on a sort of sliding scale. At one end is what we could call “imminence” or God immediately with us. This is the God of the everyday, God sitting beside you, God in your morning coffee. This God walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am His own.
The imminent God is comforting and intimate. It’s nice to have time with my God in the garden. But there’s a problem with this God. If God gets too intimate, then God is really nothing more than a good friend, one I can rely on in my times of need and share my personal joys with. This God leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Who or what created the heavens and the earth? Who makes the sun rise and set, the winds blow and the ocean crash? Who presides over wars and times of peace? We are here for but the blink of an eye—isn’t there some awesome presence that has been here from the beginning and will be here after us?
This is the perception of God at the other end of the sliding scale, the end that can be called “transcendence.” This is the way Isaiah sees God—clothed in splendor, seated on his throne in the Temple and attended by angels. There is no doubt that this God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts. This is the God of holiness. This God’s kingdom stretches the length of the universe, and this God’s reign began at the foundation of time, which itself is God’s own creation. We are fortunate, like Isaiah, to catch just a glimpse of this glory, and when we do, it changes our lives forever. We may not be able to walk in the garden with this God, but a moment in the presence of this holiness will shake the core of the human soul.
Christianity proclaims the impossible. Our faith claims that the Jesus we worship occupies the entire scale between imminent and transcendent. It says that there is no way to explain the love of God other than to say that it is both with us all the time and towering over us like a celestial king on a throne. How else can you explain a savior who will walk with you in the garden but is also the Word from the beginning? This is what the early Christians were trying to do when they taught that Jesus is fully human and fully God, fully imminent and fully transcendent.
Peoples’ preference for one side of the scale or the other slides back and forth over time. Going to far to one extreme or another shuts out important parts of our understanding of God. For most of history, we thought of God as more transcendent than imminent. And here’s the thing: we happen to be living in one of those odd times when the understanding of God may have skewed just a little bit too far to the imminent, the God with us side of the spectrum. 21st century American Christians seem to be pretty comfortable with the idea that God is extremely and intimately interested in the minutae of our lives, that our prayers for every little thing are heard and answered. There’s something nice and comforting about that. This preference for imminence is reflected in the way Americans worship, our casual, everyday way of approaching God. I was shocked the first time I encountered a church with movie theater seating and a coffee bar in the lobby. Our music, worship language, and even the way we dress looks and feels far more like our everyday lives than they did for our forebears—even for Episcopalians!
But the danger comes when we skew so far toward the imminent that we lose the awe of the transcendent. When we lose the memory of the Lord on his holy throne, we discard the otherness of holiness that reminds us that our place in God’s creation is actually very small. When we forget that Jesus is as much God as he is human, we ignore the fact that he belongs to everyone and not just me. You may have seen that the White House press secretary recently said that God wanted Donald Trump to be president. This is a theological statement that forgets God’s transcendence, that God’s concerns aren’t necessarily my own, and that, believe it or not, God belongs not just to the victor but to the vanquished.
It seems the pendulum might be swinging back, that people are searching for the holiness of otherness in their lives. If you follow writing about Christianity, you might have noticed a steady trickle of articles about people drawn to formality, not comfort, in worship. The Church of England has seen an uptick in attendance at cathedral Evensong services, where the beauty of music and words hovers inside ancient buildings. It may just be that something is stirring within our collective spirit, calling us back to this transcendent God.
Regardless of our own tastes, God is looking on, looking down from the great high throne. Those holy places are still out there. You may even be in one at this moment. And if you’re ever in search of such a place, just listen for the song of the seraphs:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord. The whole earth is full of his glory. Amen.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
February 3, 2019
1 Corinthians, 13
All Saints’ Church
Every year, some of the world’s richest and most powerful people gather in the Swiss ski resort of Davos for something called the World Economic Forum. The event features talks and panels with experts who talk about important global issues. This year, some 1500 private jets arrived at the nearest airport. I’ve never been, but if you ever want to take me on your private jet, let me know.
There was one panel this year that went viral. One of the panelists was named Rutger Bregman, an economist from Holland. He said to the crowd of millionaires and billionaires that the real economic issue facing the world that no one wanted to talk about was what he called “tax evasion,” or the fact that most of the people in the room pay less in taxes proportionally than working people in their countries.
Dr. Bregman was the one who got the most media attention for his comments. Aside from the courage it takes to say what he said to that crowd, I wonder if that’s also because he used a curse word in his comments. Stay tuned to see if I give that tactic a try in my sermons.
Anyway, I was intrigued, so I decided to watch the whole panel, which was actually way better than just the tax thing. The next person to speak was Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of the charity Oxfam global. She said that in 2018, the wealth of the world’s billionaires increased by 2.5 billion dollars every day. At the same time, the wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population by wealth actually decreased by 500 million dollars a day. That means that roughly 3.8 billion people were basically transferring their wealth to the tiny group of people gathered at Davos every day last year.
But the next person to speak was Jane Goodall. You remember her—she’s the British anthropologist who did all that amazing work with chimpanzees in the 60’s and 70’s. On the panel next to her, she had a stuffed animal monkey holding a banana. I found that a little weird, but I got over it once she started talking. She was asked the question, “what’s gone wrong?,” as in, how have we gotten to a point as a people where this inequality exists. To answer, she praised animals, and especially the primates she’s worked with. But then she outlined how vastly more intelligent human beings are than chimps and apes. She marveled at the human capacity both for achievement and for self-destruction, and she said that the reason for the cycle of we find ourselves in today is that, we have broken the link between intellect and wisdom.
Jane Goodall said, “if we think of wisdom as love, compassion, and making decisions not based on how will this help me now, how will it help my bank account, how will it help my next political campaign, but how will this decision I make help future generations—that link seems to have been broken.” Then she asked, “how do we address that?”
Well, we’re addressing it right now, right here, this morning. In this place, we believe that the wisdom that Jane Goodall calls “love” is Jesus Christ. He shows us what it means to be wise and loving. He shows us what the extraordinary things a human being can do, by living in love and offering compassion especially to the most vulnerable among us. He teaches us that the stranger is our neighbor and that everyone matters. He stood with the poor and was himself poor to his final day, and in doing so shows us that glory is not to be found in earthly wealth or power, but by walking in love all our days. It is this same Jesus who tells us not to store up treasure on earth, where moth and rust corrupt, but to store treasure in heaven, because where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
And this Jesus most definitely wouldn’t go to Davos. But I promise I’ll look for him when you take me there on your private jet.
If the reason we are suffering as a people from greed, the reason we are so gleefully destroying our planet, the reason a tiny group of people are hoarding wealth from the poorest among us is that we have lost the link between intellect and love, then let us learn what love is and what it does.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Paul wrote these words in his first letter to the Corinthians as a gift to them, and it’s a gift we continue to receive today. He tells us what he learned from his faith in Christ because he knows it is the thing that will restore the link between intellect and wisdom, the thing that will heal the life of a single person, or a community, or the whole world.
Love is patient.
You’ve probably heard this reading at a wedding—at least that’s the last time I heard it, at a wedding I was officiating. I wondered at the time if the couple really listened to Paul’s words. Love is patient. You need a lot of patience to spend your life with another person, because it’s hard. Without patience, there’s no such thing as a real and lasting human relationship.
Love is kind.
How could love be anything but kind? And the opposite is true too—whatever is not kind is not loving. Even a parent who disciplines her child is doing it out of kindness, even if her child doesn’t understand that at the time.
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
Oh my. I can think of some people in the news who should hear about this one. Love is not envious because it has nothing to envy. When you have love, you already have everything you need. Love is not boastful because when you have love, you know it is a gift from God and not something of your own creation. Love is not arrogant or rude because those have nothing to do with love, and when you see that someone is being arrogant or rude, you know what they need most is some love.
You might have heard these words a thousand times, and they might sound simple. But just think for a second about how powerful they really are. Think for a second about what Davos would be like if everyone got together to talk about love. Think about how people’s lives would be different if we had a love-driven economy and not a wealth-driven one. Think about how differently we would treat the environment if we actually loved people who are being affected by climate change or whose homes will disappear in the coming decades.
If we can reconnect the link between intellect and wisdom, if we can put love at the center of our thoughts, then there will truly be no end to what we as a people can accomplish! At the end of Chapter 12 of this same letter, Paul tells us to strive for the greater gifts. Now he tells us that these gifts are faith, hope and love, and that of these three, the greatest is love. He tells us that love never ends.
Why would we devote ourselves to anything else?
Why would we waste a single moment of our lives striving for anything other than this amazing love?
Why would we inspire our fellow human beings to do anything but to fill their lives with this almighty, eternal, and world-changing love?
Love is the greatest of the gifts that we have.
This love is that treasure you can store up in heaven.
It is where your heart should be.
It is the great commandment and it is our salvation.
This love is God, and there is nothing, life or death or angels or rulers or things present or things to come—there is nothing that can separate us from this loving God of ours in Jesus Christ.
Do we see through a glass, darkly? Yes.
Are there clanging symbols and noisy gongs in our time? My Lord, sometimes that’s all I can hear.
But though we may only see in part today, one day we will know fully. And when we do, we will know the fullness of this love. Because the greatest of all these things…is love.