February 27, 2020
The Rev. Spencer D. Cantrell
All Saints' Church
February 27, 2020
The Rev. Spencer D. Cantrell
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
February 23, 2020
All Saints’ Church
In the summer after I graduated college, I had the opportunity to work as a ministry intern with a very talented mentor. Our church was in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. Most of the residents were originally from the Appalachian regions of Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, and had come to the nearest big city to pursue economic opportunities for themselves and their families. But here, in this urban neighborhood sitting under the shadows of the downtown skyscrapers just a stone’s throw away, things always still felt a little bit country.
I loved the people I got to know that summer. They were warm, matter-of-fact, and tested by the challenges of a hard life. I also watched how my mentor interacted with them—sometimes with sternness, sometimes with unbounded charity, but always with deep compassion and fierce love. She was constantly worried about the children leaving the elementary school on our block as they passed the drug dealers’ house across the street from the church. She mobilized the community when a twelve-year-old boy in the neighborhood shot and killed his nine-year-old cousin over a fight about a video game. She was constantly present, and in walking with her people, she got to see them in a deep and powerful way that, I came to understand, was a glimpse of how God saw them but the world did not.
She told me a story about a parishioner who had died before I was there. Apparently she was a wild mountain woman through and through who came to church only occasionally. My mentor said she was always filthy and cussed like a sailor, but was also tough as nails. One time, my mentor went on a pastoral call to her house, which was not much more than a run-down shack with no indoor plumbing. The woman had been sick, and my mentor brought her Communion, but when she knocked on the door, the woman didn’t want a visitor. “What the hell do you want?” she said to her priest. Oh, apparently she was also totally naked.
Apparently my mentor was one of few people in the community who had affection for this woman, and when she went on to her greater reward, she was the only clergy person in the neighborhood who agreed to officiate her funeral. And this is actually the part of the story that has stuck with me in the twenty years since I first heard it. My mentor said then when she saw this woman in the casket, she looked completely different. Under all that dirt and grime, the tough talk and the tougher acting, she was a truly beautiful person, with rich hair, glowing skin, and look of peace. All this time—the world had seen this person as an outsider, a nuisance, a gadfly. But this was how God saw her, in all her beauty and splendor--God’s beloved child.
It’s no coincidence that I asked St. John’s in Columbus to sponsor me for ordination a few weeks later. Among the many things I learned that summer, I decided I wanted to be able to see people the way my mentor saw them—transfigured. I was tired of judging people by outward appearances, the way they looked or acted or what other people thought of them. I wanted to see that inner light, the radiance that shone forth from that woman. It turned out my mentor could see it coming from her all along. I wanted those eyes—transfiguraiton eyes—the eyes that give us that power to see our fellow human beings more like the way God sees them. I wanted to see the world in the light of transfiguration.
Friends, I think we all have our transfiguration stories, the ones about the times we caught a glimpse of the world as God sees it. Matthew shows us how to tell a good transfiguration story. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to a high mountain. When they reach the mountaintop, he is transfigured. His face is as bright as the sun, and even his clothes are bright and shiny. Moses and Elijah appear with him. And a great voice proclaims, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased!”
It’s important to understand a little bit of the context of this story. That woman in Columbus stands out to us because we don’t often encounter people who are habitually dirty. But that has only recently become the case. Modern sanitation and hygiene really only got rolling in the last few generations. So most hearers of this story over history would have understood how dirty and smelly Jesus and his companions were that day.
But what makes the story even more fantastical is that this transfiguration miracle would happen to Jesus, of all people. Here he was, son of a carpenter, itinerant preacher and healer, despised of the religious authorities. When Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus, it’s as if the light of his entire spiritual tradition is shining through him. And the tradition itself has been transfigured along with Jesus. His message is that God loves each and every one of us—Peter, James, and John, the sinner and the righteous man, even a difficult lady in Columbus two thousand years later. But this isn’t just a message—it is revealed to be the very force of God, shining through Jesus and out into all of us.
Much is made in this story of Peter’s desire to make the moment linger. This is not the story of a permanent transfiguration, but rather of a snapshot in time, a mountaintop moment. On the mountaintop, Jesus shines with the brightness of the sun. Very soon thereafter, he is condemned as a criminal and sentenced to death on a cross. On that day, a dark cloud covers the earth, and the curtain of the Temple is torn in two. But even in that darkest of times, Jesus’ friends must have remembered the mountaintop. The light of their memory would have pierced the darkness of the present.
I have never stopped wanted to see the world with transfiguration eyes. And the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in the Gospel of Matthew teaches us what that’s like. Like Jesus’ unwitting disciples on that day, we don’t get to choose the time, manner, or place when we see the world transfigured. Like them, we most often will be overwhelmed and even afraid when we see God’s glory transfiguring what we see into something different and bright. And like them, we may want to stay in that moment, but will instead be led back down the mountaintop. Because the driving force that lets you see the world with transfiguration eyes isn’t your own worth or skill, and it’s never going to be a situation of your own making. The only way to see with transfiguration is to be faithful. You must follow Jesus up the mountain and believe what your eyes are seeing, then follow him back down and remember what you saw.
I think most of us are here in part because we want to see the world with transfiguration eyes. I think most of are drawn to seek God’s presence because there is a deep and abiding faith within us that there is a spiritual reality within the world around us that is often hidden from our sight, but that might burst through with the dazzling light of the Transfiguration. Honestly, it’s people with that faith who shape the world into something better than what it is today. If you have transfiguration faith, then you can look at even the darkest situation or system and remember a mountaintop vision. That memory will keep you working for change even through the darkest circumstances. And the crazy thing the Bible teaches us is that that memory doesn’t even have to be yours—it can be a spiritual memory told to you by Matthew, or Peter, or even a priest in Ohio. A transfiguration faith is a shared faith, and the stories and memories of it belong to no one in particular.
I’ve shared my transfiguration story with you. What’s yours? When did you unexpectedly see God’s brilliance shining through someone or some thing? Remember your story, and if you dare, tell someone. Tell someone at coffee hour, or later today, or at some opportune time in the future. The light of what you saw will shine through your words and enter someone else’s memory. And then they will be inspired to see the world with transfiguration eyes too.
On Wednesday, we begin the penitential season of Lent. For many, this is a time for facing the darkness—both inside and outside of us. As you do, let the light you have seen with your own eyes light the path in front of you. This is the light of Christ, the light of transfiguration.
The Rev. Steven Paulikas
February 9, 2020
All Saints’ Church
This past summer, I was afforded the luxury of a sabbatical. For a little over two months, I had time away from my usual duties at All Saints’, and I used this time to relax, think, write, and travel. I had read that one thing that sometimes happens to people on sabbatical is that they develop new hobbies or interests. What I didn’t expect was the new interest that would grip my imagination: astronomy.
It happened like this. In June, I visited my mother in northern Michigan. There’s a place near where she lives called a dark sky park. Every evening, a few hundred people gather at dusk at an amphitheater by the shore of Lake Michigan to watch the stars slowly appear in the summer sky. There are astronomers present who guide you through the constellations. There are also telescopes pointed at objects in the sky.
That night, the first thing I saw through the lens of the telescope was Jupiter with its four largest moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. I learned these are called the Galilean moons, because they were first discovered by Galileo in 1610. It was an incredible sight. I mean, I could see them, right there, in the sky. I even took a picture in my phone. Then they pointed the telescope deep into the sky at an object called a globular cluster. It was a fuzzy-looking ball of thousands of stars like our sun that orbits the core of a galaxy thousands of light years away. I was already amazed to see these things, hiding in plain view just above our heads every night.
But then I saw the doozy, the one that converted me to astronomy. I leaned over the eyepiece of the telescope, and saw a sight I had seen all my life in pictures, but there it was, right there: Saturn. I immediately recognized its rings, its stripes. How could you not? I couldn’t pull myself away from the telescope. I mean, Saturn is up there, in plain view, and this is the first time I’m seeing it. And this thought lodged in my head: I’m a person of faith who believes in a God who created the universe and all that is in it—but I know almost nothing about that universe, not even this beautiful, terrifying, graceful, giant planet right here in our solar system.
Friends, after that night, I went full nerd. I spent hours and hours watching documentaries and YouTube videos. I devoured basic articles about our theories of the workings of the universe. I learned basic facts that I now realize--as someone who claims to be educated--I should have known a long time ago. Here are some of those facts. The universe is 13.8 billion years old. Gravity is not a force, but a fabric. Our own system is ringed by something called the Kuiper Belt, filled with small rocky objects, and beyond that is the Oort Cloud.
I also developed a new habit. Instead of starting the day by reading the invariably depressing headlines, I read the astronomy news. Let me tell you: getting news about the cosmos puts the pettiness of the 24 hours political news cycle in perspective. Here are the highlights of 2019. For the first time, scientists photographed a black hole. An object from outside our solar system was discovered inside our solar system—only the second such alien object recorded. The big news right now is that the star Betelgeuse has mysteriously gone dim. You can see Betelgeuse this time of year in the constellation Orion, and it’s usually the 11th-brightest star in the sky. But now it’s number 21. Some astronomers think it might be getting ready to explode in a supernova. The whole astronomical community is watching the light of this star that is 642 light years away.
And that brings me to today’s Gospel reading. Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world. The light of the world! Can you imagine? Little old you, little old me, little old All Saints’ Church—we are the light of the world. Jesus Christ himself says so. I used to stop right there, because honestly, it’s spiritually powerful enough message on its own. If you’re feeling down about yourself or the world or whatever, look yourself in the mirror and remember what Jesus says to you: you are the light of the world. We are bright shining lights in the darkness. Place your light high up on the lampstand and let it shine before all people.
But you see, now that I’ve dipped my toe into astronomy, I’ve learned a lot more about light. There’s a whole lot more to this truth Jesus tells us, because light is a complicated thing. And in fact, most of the entire science of astronomy is about light.
First off, nothing in the entire universe can travel faster than light. Think about that for a second. Your light, God’s light, the light coming through these windows, or the light of the moon or the sun or the stars—that light is the absolute fastest message that can be given or received. And that’s according not to the Bible, but to the laws of physics. So if we really are the light of the world, and the world is covered in darkness, the minute we let our lights shine, it will push the darkness back faster than anything else imaginable. The fastest way to make a change in the world is to let your light shine. Amazing.
But here’s the other pretty crazy thing. Because light travels so quickly, unlike anything else, it bridges the great divide of time. Let me explain. The sun is an incredibly far distance from the Earth, about 100 million miles. But light from the sun travels so quickly that it reaches us in 8 minutes. Still, it takes 8 minutes to get here. That means that when you watch a sunset, you’re actually seeing the sun not as it is now, but as it was 8 minutes ago. Back to Betelgeuse. I said Betelgeuse is 642 light years away. Even though a light year sounds like it should be a measure of time, it’s actually a measure of distance: the distance light can travel in one Earth year. So when you look at Orion and see Betelgeuse in his left shoulder, you’re actually seeing Betelgeuse not now, but as it was 642 years ago. If indeed the star does explode tomorrow, that would actually mean it blew up in the year 1378. We’d just be seeing it now.
I warned you: full nerd. But it’s a nerdiness with some really deep spiritual truth here. Nothing travels faster than light. And nothing connects us to the past and the future more than light. And YOU are the light of the world. That means that your light is shining out into the future in ways you will never understand in your lifetime. It means that every act of faith, charity, and love will shine light for years, decades, and centuries to come.
If you’re skeptical of my astronomical reading of the Bible, think about this. Jesus told his followers that they were the light of the world 2,000 years ago. And here we are, still talking about it. They’ve been dead and gone for a long, long time. But their light shines on. In the church, in Scripture, in the sacraments. Kind acts from that time begat kind acts after that, and so on and so on. The Letter to the Hebrews says that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. I think of them like that globular cluster I saw through the telescope—thousands upon thousands upon thousands of lights, shining through the darkness of time and space on us, even today. And you are one of them.
There’s no doubt that we are living in a dark time. But when you are light, the darkness is nothing. It’s just something to shine yourself through. The darkness doesn’t communicate anything. It doesn’t help anything. And it doesn’t last for the ages. It’s just there. When you’re light, you pierce the darkness. Scatter it. Subdue it. When you are light, darkness is nothing at all.
And you are the light of the world. Those aren’t my words; they’re Jesus’ words. So in the weeks and months ahead, if you start to feel overwhelmed by the darkness, just wait until night falls, and look up. Even in New York, you can see some pretty amazing stars. Their light shatters the darkness and bridges time and space to rest on you. Then, take a look in the mirror. Because that light is inside you. That light can never be extinguished, because it is the light of God. The same God who created the heavens and the earth, who is of time eternal, and who lights the paths of all holy people. Let your light shine brightly before all people, so that they may see your good works, in this age and in the ages to come, and my give glory to your God, the God of heaven. Amen.
The Rev. Steven Paulikas
All Saints’ Church
February 2, 2020
Feast of the Presentation
Today we celebrate a special holiday you might never have heard of. It’s officially called the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, which is a mouthful. It’s also called the Presentation for short. It has another name, too: Candlemas. Whatever you call it, it’s about the story from today’s Gospel reading, in which Mary brings Jesus to the Temple, the ancient Jewish rite performed on the fortieth day after the birth of a first male child. The Feast of the Presentation is always celebrated on February 2. Why? Well, February 2 is exactly forty days after Christmas. So this feast is meant to help us feel the rhythm of Jesus’ first days.
If you’ve never heard of today’s special day, I certainly don’t blame you. Most churches—even Episcopal ones—don’t make a big deal out of it. But the Presentation still hangs on. In fact, it’s a very, very old holiday—basically just as old as Christmas itself. Traditionally, the Feast of the Presentation brought the Christmas season to an end—which means if you still haven’t taken your decorations down, you can just say you’re following the old liturgical calendar. It’s important enough that when February 2 falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, we chuck out the regular Sunday readings and celebrate the Presentation instead. And there’s an added lovely practice. Because the Feast of the Presentation is observed in the depth of winter, a tradition of candle lighting and blessing became associated with it, which is how it got the name Candlemas.
To be honest, the Feast of the Presentation has never been very high up on my list of priorities. It always seemed like something quaint and European from a bygone era. But my perspective has changed this year. In fact, now I think that the Presentation has the perfect message for 21st century Christianity. The message I hear is this: Let yourself be presented, just as Jesus was presented in the Temple. Enter the sanctuary, and know that you that you belong to this holiness. Appear before the Almighty, and receive the blessing that is reserved for you.
Think again of the story of the Presentation is part of the Christmas cycle of readings about Jesus. Jesus was born to a human mother. The wise men came from afar to adore him. He was baptized in the River Jordan. And here today, he was presented in the Temple.
These are stories from Holy Scripture about Our Lord. But if they mean anything, if they have any life in them, then they are also stories from the holy book of your own life, and they are about you. You, too, were born of a human mother. There were those who came to adore and care for you at your birth. Your baptism is a shared sacrament with Jesus.
And now, to complete the story, you are here, in this holy temple. You have presented yourself to God. There is no greater gift you can offer God than this. There is no sacrifice more pleasing to God than your very self. You presenting yourself means that you have decided to accept God’s love for you, to allow yourself to be acknowledged as part of this divine mystery of life in which we all find ourselves.
Why is this the perfect message for today? Because we find ourselves in a time when people are reluctant to present themselves to God. I’m sure you are aware of the steady decline in church membership and attendance among most religious groups. And there are many reasons for this, some of them totally justified. The Church as too often betrayed the trust of its own people, or taken them for granted, or offered messages that run contrary to our faith.
But there’s another side to the abandonment of religious participation. I think it comes down to a refusal to take responsibility for the care of our own souls. It’s easy to get distracted by the challenges and temptations of modern life. For me, it’s an uphill struggle most days. But ultimately, we all have the obligation to ourselves to care for our own spiritual well-being. In the Christian understanding, this means devoting ourselves to lives of prayer, service, and fellowship. It means nourishing ourselves out of what The Book of Common Prayer calls “the riches of God’s grace.” And it means showing up: showing up to prayer time, showing up to visit the sick and console the downtrodden, and yes, showing up to the Temple. Over time, when we present ourselves over and over, we become transformed into the person God sees most deeply and wants us to be in the world. Sure, it takes some commitment and effort. But what greater reward could we be offered for simply being present?
I believe that the vast majority of people are aware of their spiritual lives and care about them. I also believe that one of the reasons our culture is in such a state of crisis is that now that people are no longer presenting themselves in the Temple as their means of spiritual nourishment, they are at a loss for what to replace it with. I often hear people say they are “spiritual but not religious.” That’s kind of what I’m talking about. “Spiritual but not religious” to me says, I acknowledge the importance of my spiritual life, but I’m not sure or maybe not willing to do anything about it that I’m not in complete control of. And let me say, that’s a dangerous thing. Religion shapes and molds us and forces us to confront hard truths about ourselves. If we are in control of this experience at all times, then our spiritual practices just become a flattering self-image. Going to yoga class or attending a political rally—these are both substitutes for the communal catharsis of religion. But when all you get from these practices are words that confirm your prejudices and a sense of superiority, then we’re in trouble. Then you’re trying to force the Temple to look like your house and not God’s.
If you want a special image in your head of what it looks like to be presented in the Temple, we had an incredibly moving one right here last Saturday. Chris Lee was ordained a deacon—and I have to say like many of you, I’m still riding high from that morning. If you were here, then you saw how during the Litany, he lay down on his stomach at the foot of the altar. I’ll never forget that image—this man, dressed in a white robe recalling his baptism, prostrate before the unthinkable enormity of the Almighty God. Chris truly presented himself in this Temple.
But as great of a day as that was, I don’t think Chris would mind if I told you more about everything that came before it. Chris grew up going to church, but like most people, drifted away as a young adult as he pursued his career in music, then in journalism. He went to church on occasion, and never lost his connection to his spiritual life, but I think it’s fair to say that he wasn’t necessarily presenting himself in the temple with the regularity that he does now. I remember the summer Sunday he first came to All Saints’. I saw a guy sitting in the back row. He stayed long enough for me to have a brief conversation after the Eucharist. Chris and his family live nearby, and he said he had passed this church many times and wanted to come for a service. He signed the guest register, but I didn’t see him again for several months. Then he came back, presenting himself again. And again. He kept coming back, and eventually, he discovered that there had been a path in life for him that had been waiting for him all these years. Presenting himself in this place literally changed the course of his life, and in following that path, Chris has already impacted the lives of many around him—and this is just the beginning. And it all started when he just showed up. There were no choirs of angels that day, no blinding flash of light. He was just—present. And that was all God needed to work wondrous things.
On this Feast of the Presentation, you have been present. You have showed up in the Temple and are presenting yourself to God. By presenting yourself, you encounter yourself the way God sees you—and to confirm this, you will soon be fed with God’s own body and blood. Keep showing up. Keep presenting yourself. When you get the chance, find a way to encourage those around you to present themselves too. It can be a bit scary at first to see all that truth, all that light, all that love. But these are the gifts of God we receive when we present our whole selves to the One who made those selves to begin with. Amen.