Hill of Crosses
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
February 25, 2018
All Saints’ Church
There is a spot in northwestern Lithuania not far from where my aunts and grandparents were born called the Hill of Crosses. No one really knows how it all started, but at some point about two hundred years ago, people began making pilgrimage to this hill in the middle of nowhere and leaving crosses. When I say people leave crosses, I mean literally hundreds of thousands of crosses. It’s like walking through a strange forest, each handmade cross placed with devotion and a prayer by whomever left it there.
Somewhere in this great jumble of crosses is one my father I left when we visited in 1996. Taking that cross and placing it among the thousands of others was one of the most spiritually charged moments of my life. It was something tangible that connected to me with the tremendous suffering and sacrifice of my family, just one version of a suffering endured by millions in our country and throughout the world in the second half of the last century. My dad let me pick the spot where we would lay the cross. We said a prayer—for relatives no longer with us, for my grandmother as her health was failing, for the blessings our lives, for peace in a place that had seen so much violence. I wanted to linger, there in that forest of crosses.
As I have experienced more of life and my faith has matured, I have come to understand why the Hill of Crosses is so compelling. When an oppressed people were in need of hope, when there was no earthly power to look to, when life had become vacant of human dignity, the people of God took up their crosses. They carried their burdens and their sorrows along with their faith to a holy place, and they laid them at God’s feet. To take up your cross is an act of defiance in the face of hopelessness. To take up your cross is to say: I matter, and my struggles are not in vain. Those who take up their cross share in the glory of Christ.
When Jesus says, “take up your cross,” he is inviting you into his glory. In this season of Lent, we are confronted with some difficult teachings, and this is one of them. The words Jesus offers are not very comforting. He says we should deny ourselves if we want to follow him. And yet, when I hear these words, I hear them not as a threat, but as a statement of fact and an invitation. Life gives us all crosses to bear—sickness, grief, frustration, anger…the list goes on and on. There is no such thing as a human life without these burdens. But just as these difficult things are imposed upon us, we are also given a choice. Do we take up these and follow Jesus? Or do we leave them there, indulging ourselves in the fantasy that to suffer is somehow inhuman?
To take up your cross is to claim responsibility for yourself, to give yourself the respect that Jesus himself pays you with these verses from Scripture. It means acknowledging the difficulties laid upon you—your sadness, your brokenness, your vulnerability. It is these things that confirm our humanity and open up the space in which love binds together and builds up.
On the other hand, to deny your cross is to abandon a part of your own dignity with it. When we deny our crosses, we place faith in ourselves alone. We close off the channels of love and salvation that stream from our God. It is only by confronting the burdens life has given us to bear and boldly lifting them up that those same burdens are sanctified and turned into redemption for us and for those around us. The cross is not only the sum of our burdens. It is also the instrument of our salvation.
Like the rest of you, I have watched with awe and inspiration as the youth of this country have taught us all the lesson of the cross this past week. The Florida students who have organized following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been a powerful refusal to allow the senseless deaths of their classmates to pass without dignity or redemption. These are youth who face all the challenges of their phase of life—worries about their futures, family issues they are powerless to control, and social pressures that surround them while society around them is careening into an uncertain future. And yet…when the most unspeakable of tragedies touched them, they have had the courage to take up their crosses—and the crosses of their slain classmates. They are making sense out of the senselessness of suffering and loss and refusing to give in. In devoting their time and effort to demanding an end to policies that permit gun violence, they are denying themselves, just as Jesus said. Seventeen of their classmates have lost their lives. These youth believe, with Jesus, that lives can be gained out of this loss.
There is a reason taking up your cross is so difficult. It is not simply a matter of shouldering your own burden. There are forces arrayed against those who dare take up the cross. During Soviet times, the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania became a site of defiance. Whenever there were too many crosses, the authorities would send in their bulldozers and obliterate any sign of the faith on display. They were threatened by what the crosses represented—faith in a higher power than their own oppressive force, belief in people’s own dignity in the face of unyielding injustice. Yet every time this happened, people would sneak back to the hill, usually under the cover of night, and the next morning, a small yet visible cluster of crosses could be found on the same spot.
I thought about the threat of the cross this week as I watched our youth confront the powers that have allowed violence to continue in our country. They were met with the political equivalent of bulldozers. When they demonstrated in Tallahassee, the Florida legislature refused even to debate a measure on banning the kind of assault rifle used in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. When they demanded that politicians take action, they were told it wasn’t even worth bothering creating laws that could make a difference. They have accused of lying, acting, and even of harassing the same powerful adults who refuse to do anything. One of the high schoolers who was classmates with the victims said he deleted his Facebook account because the death threats posted on his page got too scary.
And yet, they refuse to put down their crosses. Can we do the same in our own lives? Do you believe that every human life is precious in the sight of God? Do you long for a world in which every human life is viewed as a miracle and a blessing? Do you believe that the sufferings of this life are but nothing compared to the love of God and the healing balm of God’s grace?
Then come, take up your cross. Jesus is calling us all. Let us deny ourselves and take up our own cross. Your cross is your burden. But it is also your dignity. Your faith. And your salvation. Amen
Out of the Wilderness
The Rev. Steven Paulikas
February 18, 2018
All Saints’ Church
I came out a bit later in life than most gay people do. There were many reasons for this -- some of them actually pretty good ones. But it eventually became obvious to me that I was going to go through life as a gay man. The only thing standing between me and that life was embracing this fact and being honest with myself and others.
But I just couldn't do it. I was so scared—frightened of what people would think of me, of the difficulties I knew waited for me. Up to this point, I had made decisions more or less so that I would never have to disappoint people, and I imagined this would be a huge disappointment. What would my family think? What about friends I wasn't totally sure of? And church -- that was a complicated one. Unlike most churches, the Episcopal Church has been openly and officially affirming of LGBTQ people for almost a generation. We are fully included in the life of the Church, from marriage to ordination and everything in between. That being said, there are precious few LGBTQ leaders our church has raised up. There are no openly gay bishops in charge of any of our 106 dioceses, and even here in progressive New York City, there is not a single queer rector of a major parish. So as a seminarian trying to figure out what life would be like on the other side of coming out, there was no leader for me to look at, no model for what could be.
I suspect that our Church is right now where I was back then: open to the work that the Holy Spirit is doing, but not fully trusting in God that it’s going to be okay. And that presents a problem. I was stuck in the wilderness. The term we popularly use for being open about queerness is 'coming out of the closet.' But for me at least, that closet felt more like a vast wilderness, a dry and barren place where I was living a malnourished life, yet so big that there’s seemingly no way to find your way out.
The ultimate hurdle for me to exit the wilderness was coming out to my family. I finally resolved to tell them on a visit home. I was terrified and kept putting it off, telling myself I was waiting for just the right moment. As time was running out before I was to leave, I decided to go for a run to clear my head. It was a misty Florida afternoon, and as I hurled my body forward through space my mind was racing too: "Now is the time, but I just can't bear to do it. Life will never be the same, so maybe it's best to wait. I can't do it, but I can't not do it, either. Help me, God.”
And just then out of nowhere, I looked up from the pavement under my feet and I saw… a rainbow. Not a big one, but one of those tropical rainbows that appears at ey-level when the evening light refracts through heavy moisture. I was by myself. No one else was around. It was my personal rainbow.
I got home, took a shower, said a prayer, went downstairs, and came out to my family. There were tears. Then some silence. Then some awkward words. Then we all went to bed. But I was out of the wilderness–forever.
In this first Sunday of Lent, we hear two stories. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is driven out into the wilderness after his baptism, where he fasts and prays for forty days. But we also hear in the Book of Genesis of God’s covenant with humanity and the sign of this love—a bow set in the clouds for all to see, a real and certain sign in time of trouble.
These are two different, yet equally valid models for how to approach Lent, this season of self-examination and repentance. We all know about the wilderness—that uncomfortable place without distraction where we can see ourselves clearly and come closer to God. But the wilderness is no place to build a home. Even Jesus only stayed there for a season. So for those of us who have been stuck there for a long time, we need something else. We need the rainbow, the sign of the promise God makes to us that all shall be restored and made right in God’s image. If you find yourself in the wilderness this Lent, look for the rainbow.
Think for a moment about the differences between the wilderness and the rainbow. The wilderness is dry and unforgiving; the rainbow is made of water and light. The wilderness is permanent state; the rainbow comes and goes as God sees fit. Unlike the wilderness, you can’t sit on a rainbow or set a discipline based on it, or own it, or live on it. It is a vision. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. But then he got up and returned to civilization. If you are stuck in the wilderness, you need some clue about how to escape. You need a rainbow. The Gospel says that Jesus is the light of the world. Sometimes we need to see that light broken down into eight glorious colors to remember that we belong to it, and not the wilderness.
It’s not very often that I mention being gay in a sermon. While it’s an important part of who I am, I hope it’s not what defines me as a human being. The Gospel does that, or at least, I’m trying to make it that. But what I do know is that at one point or another in each of our lives, we get stuck in the wilderness—and that’s when we need a rainbow.
You’ve heard my story, but what about yours? Maybe you are wandering in the wilderness of living a life that isn’t really yours. Or stuck in a situation that seems impossible, with no good way out. Or have been unable to overcome an obstacle for years. Let me be clear: God offers no guarantee that you will get YOUR way. Christianity is not magic. But what God offers is far better—an ancient promise to deliver each of us from the wilderness into a promised land that has already been prepared for us. To get there, just follow the rainbow.
For me, the other side of the rainbow is so much different—and better—than I ever imagined. Being openly gay has certainly not solved all my personal problems. But it gives me a foundation of being proud of the man God created me to be. If I hadn’t followed the rainbow, I would have turned my back on so many blessings. The blessing of marriage with a loving husband without whom I couldn’t imagine life. The support of friends who love me for who I am. And so many occasions of grace and healing for others through my ministry that never would have happened had I continued to live in fear.
If you don’t think you need the rainbow today in your life, think about our common life as a people. Just this week we returned to the horror of gun violence in Florida. How can we escape from this wicked and heart-wrenching wilderness? There are voices telling us there is no escape, that the answer to violence is more violence. But these are the voices of temptation—the temptation to believe that there is no exit from sin, that we must live in this captivity to guns forever. As people of the Covenant, we know this is not true. We must keep vigil, looking for a divine sign of God’s promise, keep believing that there is a more peaceful and saner land on the other side.
Friends in Christ, God has made a covenant with you. Even today, there is a visible sign of that covenant. Keep looking, and when you see it, follow where it leads. This is the path out of sin and depravity. The rainbow points the way to freedom, because it is the light of Christ. Amen.