The Rev. Steven Paulikas
March 31, 2019
All Saints’ Church
Today is Laetere Sunday—Laetere from the Latin word “rejoice.” There is an old church tradition about why this Sunday is the one during Lent when we should rejoice, but I’ll tell you the real reason—it’s because Lent is more than half over! So rejoice! Our disciplines and mortifications and fasts are more than fifty percent done. Or your sense of gnawing guilt that you’re not doing anything for Lent is half-over. And if you aren’t feeling any of those things, then maybe you can just rejoice that Easter is on its way—or that the days are getting longer. You get the point. There’s not a whole lot to celebrate this time of year, so we might as well make something up.
So what is there to rejoice about in the story of the prodigal son? That impudent younger brother who runs off with his share of the family money and proceeds to blow it all on stupid stuff. There’s not very much joy for him in this parable. I think I know how he feels: embarrassed, out of control, exposed, ashamed. His poor father—having to deal with this wayward son of his must have brought him to the brink of despair. It’s a horrible tragedy for him.
Then there’s the brother, who has the least to rejoice over of the three. You know, I’ve developed a theory about this parable over the years. We’re tempted to put ourselves in the place of the prodigal, the ones who have strayed from our heavenly Father and need to come home. But I think that casting ourselves as him is actually kind of narcissistic. After all, it’s the leading role. And there’s something sort of rugged and exciting about him. Imagine the things he saw and experienced! There might actually even be a part of us that wants to be him. But in reality, if you’re here in church, you’re probably not very much like the prodigal son at all. You’re probably much more like…the dependable older brother. The reliable but boring one who does his duty and sticks close to home, follows the rules, tends to everyone’s needs…and winds up watching his father slaughter the fatted calf to celebrate his underserving, no good, irresponsible brother. Yes, friends, I think it’s true. There aren’t too many prodigals here this morning—they’re all sleeping off a hard night of partying or on some exotic vacation they can’t really afford. And isn’t there just a little part of us that’s jealous? I think this is one of the reasons there’s so little joy in so many churches—because the small number of people who still bother to come and offer themselves to a community of faith are resentful of our brothers who are off being prodigal. In fact, as the story shows, it’s the older brother who has the hardest role and the most to overcome spiritually. And here we all are.
So what about that rejoicing Sunday, after all? It’s in there, and there’s much to rejoice over. Because no matter how much tragedy occurs, no matter the lengths to which people go to act against their own interests, no matter the pain and heartbreak of separation, in God’s creation, nothing is lost.
Nothing is lost with God. Even the most hopeless case, even those things that seem to be as far from each other as east is from west. People, relationships, hope, justice, community, faith, love—because all of these thing are from God, they will never be lost. Instead, they are all held together in God’s precious embrace, forever.
The Jesus who tells the parable of the prodigal son goes on to tell other stories. The woman who searches for her lost coin. The shepherd who abandons his 99 sheep to find the one lost one. This is the same Jesus who eats with the lost people of his time, the sinners and the tax collectors. This is the Jesus who preaches a Gospel of God’s love for all people in a brutal age. And finally, this Jesus offers himself to be lost to the world and to us…only to rise again and restore all that had been hidden from sight.
This is the reason to rejoice this Sunday. The prodigal son ruined his life. He disgraced himself and his family. And yet—he was not lost. The self-righteous elder brother lost his perspective and his compassion, yet that too was restored. And the father—he had lost a son. Can you imagine the pain? Can you feel the gaping hole in his life, that of a child who was gone from him? There is perhaps no greater sorrow in life. I think of him trying to take joy in his prosperity, taking strength from his first son, yet always carrying with him this grief of the absence of his other child. But all was not lost. His son returns to him, and it is a miracle. Kill the fatted calf! Call a feast! Because that which I have counted as lost is now found.
Truly, one of the great mysteries of the Christian life is the gift of seeing that all things are held together in God’s creation. Doing so is a challenging discipline. It requires us to squint through the distractions of this life while searching for the distant horizon. It means that we must at the same time accept the suffering of loss while trusting that that which we miss is being held in an embrace we cannot see. And yet when we are able to have this faith, there is cause for rejoicing, just as the father does when his son comes home.
The more days one spends on this planet, the more there is to lose. We lose time and opportunities as the months and years slip by, chances to do those things we wish we would have figured out way back when. We lose ways of life, and even the memory of how we once lived. There is always the danger of losing innocence and wonder at the majesty and complexity of life. And most painfully, we lose people. Relationships torn apart by dispute, or circumstance, or even death. We lose friends and relatives, companions and family, spouses, parents and even children. Sometimes the depth of these losses flashes before us through the loss of something seemingly small. I’m always shocked at the total sense of loss I feel when I leave an umbrella on the subway realize I’ve dropped a dollar bill on the ground by accident. But you see, these are just proxies, stand-ins for all the rest of the loss I’ve experienced in my life. Ultimately, I can buy another umbrella, and a dollar won’t set me back. But if I thought about the vast treasure that has slipped through my fingers, I’m not sure I’d ever get over it.
The Gospel teaches us today that the thing that slips through your fingers is caught in the palm of God’s hand. That doesn’t meant that our losses are trivial or that we shouldn’t mourn them. Our suffering is as real as that of the out-of-control prodigal, or the rueful brother, or the heart-broken father. But in those moments of greatest despair, we can still find a glimmer of hope—a hope that joy is not extinguished, but merely hidden, for a time. And that in the end, all that is lost will be restored, that the broken pieces will rise again and form a new joy--changed, yet resurrected.
There’s something about a church that lets us live out this parable. All Saints’ Church is 151 years old. It was founded in 1867, right after the end of the Civil War. As messed up as our own times seem, I can only imagine what the spiritual reality of being American in that year was. The country was only just recovering from catastrophic loss. All the lives of the men and women lost in the war, the loss of a sense of the country together as a whole nation. Even amid the great joy of freedom for former slaves, there was the beginning of a new era of mourning, grieving for the hundreds of years of suffering that could now be looked back upon with a measure of distance. It was in such a time of loss that this church was founded. And over the century and a half since then, the losses have just continued. We console the sick and suffering and bury the dead. The fortunes of our parish have risen and fallen with circumstances beyond our control. And at times we have been brought very low.
And yet, here we are, this morning. An assembly gathered to hear the Word of God—a word that proclaims boldly, without hesitation, that the losses of today belong to today alone, and that all shall be restored in God’s time. It is that God we worship this morning, and the fact of our being together is one small piece of evidence that this promise is true. The prayers we offer today will not be lost, just as the prayers of our ancestors were not lost.
So friends, rejoice! All is not lost. Nothing is lost. All that is good comes of God, and God is eternal. When the lost parts of God’s creation seek return, God will rush to embrace them, just as the father rushed to embrace his prodigal son. And on that day, the fatted calf will be killed, and there will be a great feast, with all the heavenly host gathered around the table, reunited, restored, resurrected.
Rejoice, for what was dead has come to life, and what was lost has been found. Amen.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
March 3, 2019
Feast of the Transfiguration
All Saints’ Church
If I look a little bit bleary-eyed this morning, it’s because I just returned late last night from a board meeting. But don’t feel too bad for me. First of all, it’s the board of Episcopal Relief & Development, and it’s an honor to do anything to support our church’s amazing work throughout the world through this organization. Second, the meeting was in Puerto Rico. So while you all were digging out from the snow, I was at least looking at the sun from the window of our conference room.
Our meeting was in Puerto Rico so that we could learn about Episcopal Relief & Development’s disaster response and preparedness programs there. It was incredible to actually see the impact of the contributions you and I made following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, those terrible storms that many in our own congregation were affected by. On Friday, we went to the lay education center of the Diocese of Puerto Rico, where we heard from church leaders, medical professionals, and others about the devastation of the storms and the suffering they brought to the island. But as Puerto Rico rebuilt, a remarkable thing happened. In the words of Bishop Rafael Morales, the Diocese of Puerto Rico was transformed into la Diócesis de Esperanza, the Diocese of Hope.
I’m going to quote him once again, so don’t think this is my own analysis. Bishop Morales said that as the hurricanes were approaching, most people had the kind of laid back attitude that’s a hallmark of Puerto Rican culture, one of the things that makes the island’s people so charming and kind. But as the magnitude of the storms became apparent, a sense of dread set in. He said he realized that he and his people were not prepared for what was to come.
Later that day, we saw the result of this lack of preparedness when we visited the coastal town of Loíza. During the hurricanes, a storm surge swept up over the beach and flooded practically every building in the town. We had the chance to meet with parishioners at San Filipe y Santiago Apóstoles, the local Episcopal Church, and speak to them about their experience. All three said the same thing: “perdimos todo.” We lost everything. They said they had very modest houses and not many possessions before the storm, but in the aftermath, what little they had was totally gone. To make matters worse, the same was true of everyone they knew in their town.
I simply cannot imagine what it would be like to wake up one morning with all my possessions swept away or soaked beyond usefulness—only to realize that every one of my neighbors had suffered the same loss. One member of our group asked what kept them going. At the same time, they all said: “unidad y fe”. Unity and faith. Abagail, a grandmother who had lived in Loíza her whole life, said that nobody in the town has any enemies, because after the storm, they realized they were all in it together. I couldn’t help but think of last weeks’ Gospel reading, when Jesus tells us to love our enemies. What would it be like to live in a place where no one had any enemies? And faith. They all said they never doubted God’s goodness toward them. It was their faith that saw them through. Again, I couldn’t help but admire them, and to think at the same time how much stronger my own faith would have to be if I had lost everything I had and had to find a way forward.
It was incredibly moving to meet and get to know these unified people of faith—who happen to know one another through their local Episcopal church. And knowing their stories, it was all the more remarkable to see Loíza some 18 months after the hurricanes. Houses have been rebuilt, and a newly resurfaced road connects the area to San Juan. As a result, the town and its beautiful beaches have been connected to the tourist grid. Madre Ana Rosa Méndes is the vicar of San Filipe y Santiago Apóstoles. She told me that for the first time, people want to come to visit Loíza. The church is hoping to rebuild a destroyed community building into a food distribution center for people still living without food security.
And perhaps most importantly, Loíza has been hooked in to the powerful network created by the Diocese of Puerto Rico with the help of Episcopal Relief & Development. This is a network dedicated to planning for the future. Because Irma and Maria caught the island off guard, the Diocese discerned that its most urgent ministry need was to be ready for future natural disasters. The result was a program called REDES, an acronym that means “network” in Spanish. REDES brings together churches, government agencies, law enforcement, businesses, and health care professionals to ensure that when the next storm comes, the people of Puerto Rico will not have to suffer the indignities of 2017—100 days without electricity, large parts of the island without food or water for weeks, a total collapse of communications, the sick stranded without medical care or medicine.
The scars of the past are most definitely still there. But in this Diocese of Hope, there is plenty of hope to go around in places like Loíza. There’s no romanticizing the pain and suffering of the recent past. But according to the very people who lived through this trauma, their home has been transfigured, changed from a site of ruin into a place that shines with the light of the future.
Friends: when we hear the story of Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop, we hear the story of God working in our midst today, changing what is ordinary and predictable into the divine light of hope and love that is God’s very essence. When Jesus brought his disciples up the hill, they had no idea what they would see. Imagine these four men, Jesus, Peter, John, and James. They had been traveling on foot throughout Galilee. This week, I stayed at the Best Western; they relied on the hospitality of strangers. I packed a bag to go with me; they were told to drop everything when they went to follow Jesus. They must have been tired, dirty, smelly, and overwhelmed by all they had seen. Then this: the stink and dust of this ordinary life transfigured into a bright and shining light in the blink of an eye. And along with it, the appearance of the great patriarchs of the faith. And a great voice proclaiming: “This is my Son, my Chosen: listen to him!”
Listen to him. It is no accident that in this mysterious and holy moment, the command from that awesome voice is that we listen to him. What does he tell us? To love God with all we have. To love our neighbor as ourselves. To pattern our lives on his and acknowledge that all we have comes from him. To give ourselves over so fully that we know that our neighbor’s tragedy is our own. Do these things, live this way, and you too will witness this transfiguration. You will see the grime and filth of the world transformed into a bright and holy light. That light will shine through you, and the rays that pass through you will enlighten those living in darkness.
This is what the people of Loíza understood and told us. For them, the Transfiguration is not an abstract thought; it is their reality. Even when the storms swept away all they had, the water could not take away their faith, and that faith became the guiding light that led them into a new and transfigured world.
On the flight home last night, I was thinking about Transfiguration Sunday nine years ago. On the Saturday before the Feast of the Transfiguration in 2010, I was also in a plane, high above the Appalachians, returning from a week’s work trip on the Gulf Coast. I went with a team from my former parish to help rebuild homes in Mississippi towns that were still damaged from Hurricane Katrina, which had swept through the area over four years before. As it happened, we were taking part in a program organized by Episcopal Relief & Development.
As our climate changes, more and more people will have the experience of losing everything they have. The story of Loíza, the story of the Gulf Coast, the story of Superstorm Sandy here in New York—this story is going to be repeated over and over again. And every time it is, we need to be unified. We need to be people of faith. We need to tell a different story, the story of Jesus on the mountaintop, transfigured before the eyes of his disciples. We need to look for his light shining through the darkness of apparent destruction and to heed the voice that calls out, imploring us to listen to him.
The good news is that our Church is doing this very thing, and has for quite a while. The Diocese of Puerto Rico—the Diocese of Hope—isn’t going anywhere. Your prayers for the work of Episcopal Relief & Development and your contributions to this work have helped make this transfiguration a reality. As our Lenten journey begins, you will find Lenten Devotion Booklets from Episcopal Relief and Development at the back of the church. Take one home with you. Read the daily reflections. Learn more about the life-changing work that’s being done around the world on Episcopal Relief & Development’s web site. There’s more information at the back of the booklet—if you’re looking for stories of transfiguration, this is a great place to start.
But most of all, let us, in this place, be a people of unity and faith. Let us pause for a moment on this mountaintop to bask in the glory of our Lord. Soon we will walk back down into the valley. But for now, God’s light shines brightly for us to see. Glory to God in the highest. Amen.