The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
April 21, 2019
Easter, Year C
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Every Sunday in this place, we offer a very special welcome to anyone who is here for the first time. It takes a lot to walk into a church you’ve never been to. Maybe you’re visiting from out of town and thinking about your church back home. Or maybe you’re here just to honor someone else’s wishes. Or maybe you just decided to come to church on Easter for no reason. And that first step through the door—you don’t really know what it’s going to be like. Will the people be cold? Will it feel manipulative? Will their values match mine? What does it feel like if I do wind up encountering God?
But it does not matter why you are here or who you are. Your presence is a blessing to this place—no matter who you are, what you believe or don’t believe, you are welcome in this place. It is my hope that you will experience something holy, something loving while you are here. That’s not a marketing strategy or some kind of hook. It is the way a community of the resurrection is supposed to express its faith on Easter. The same love that rolled the stone away is present here this morning, and it compels us to love one another, without any exceptions.
And speaking of love: to our Jewish friends and guests, Chag Sameach. This is one of those lucky years when Passover coincides with Easter. It is not right that Jesus should be the only Jewish person here today. So thank you for bringing your holiday celebration to this place.
Easter is the most important celebration of the Christian year because it carries the most important message of this faith: that love rolls the stone away not just for Jesus, but for all humanity. The resurrection teaches us something very important about this love, namely, that true love is like an open and outstretched hand. When Jesus was closed tightly in the tomb, love, by its very nature, opened up that which had been shut. The Bible says that God is love. So if anything like the Christian God exists, then that which is sealed in hatred, fear, sickness, and evil is being opened—even in this very moment. And even we are being called by love to open ourselves up, to follow Jesus on this journey from death to abundant life.
We need this Easter. Or am I the only these days one feeling beat down by the world? It seems we as a people are shattering new records for pettiness and distraction. In my conversations with friends, parishioners, and even strangers, I notice that everyone else seems as worn out as I am. There is a constant, low-grade vigilance and a simmering anger that erupts in unexpected places. It seems most of us are hanging on tightly, white-knuckling our way through these confusing and upsetting times.
If you feel this way at all, you are most definitely in the right place. Because the joy of Easter teaches us a different way of being. Instead of clutching on to whatever gives us comfort just to get through adversity, love bids us open our hands, our hearts, our minds, our very being to the tremendous blessing that is this life, this free gift that the open hand of love has bestowed on us. And as we open ourselves, we become open to the people God has given us—friends and family, strangers and even enemies. We see that there is no reason to hide, cowering in the comforting shadows of the tomb. Instead, we can step out into the light of this new day, free, joyful, and as loving as the God who created this day to begin with.
The Christian story is a difficult one to digest. Because all this talk of love and new life could be very hollow. In fact, there is no resurrection without the crucifixion; there is no truly open-handed love without the pain of loss. We hear in Luke’s gospel this morning that the first people to witness the miracle of the resurrection were the women who came to anoint Jesus’ body at the tomb. They did not approach this tremendous miracle with joy. No, they were mourners, grieving the loss of their dear Jesus.
The story of the women at the tomb means this love is powerful enough to be present with us in suffering and draw us into joy, because God has also known suffering. That’s what makes the joy so potent. It is not cheap or saccharine. Rather, this open-handed love is hard-won and born of suffering.
It’s not pleasant to talk about suffering, about brokenness, about loss. That’s why we so often try to change the subject. There are many ways to distract ourselves from the hard parts of following Jesus. Some are tempted to think that maybe, being Christian should be about following a set of rules instead of living out such an all-consuming love. Or looking, talking, or acting a certain way that meets with other people’s expectations. Or maybe it should be about being right all the time. Or having a blind faith in something and trying to force other people to believe it too.
Christians are doing this all the time. So it’s no wonder that so many people are turned off by religion. But you see, rejecting one way of mishandling the truth doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to embrace a better one. Because there are plenty of ways to distract ourselves outside the bounds of religion as well. We are the richest society that has ever existed. But are we the most joyful? Are we the most loving? Has our individual freedom, our advanced technology, our money and our earthly power created a people liberated from the imprisonment of fear and hatred that Jesus spent his life preaching against?
Hardly. We are all holding on tight, holding on for dear life. And when fists are clenched long enough, there is a temptation to use them. But there were no fist fights that first Easter morning. Just amazement. Total and complete wonder at the power of this God to open every gate and portal, even the barrier between death and life.
You see, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection teach us that we need not be enclosed by suffering and adversity. When the God made flesh suffered for no reason, love, which is the essence of that same God, threw open the door to an even greater freedom. And not just for him, but for us all.
I’m not the type of preacher that tells people what to do. But let me offer this suggestion. If you are feeling trapped, if you are suffering from the anxiety of the times, if anger is beginning to close you in, there is something simple but profound you can do. Form a spiritual relationship with someone who is different from you. I really and truly believe this is the only way out of the mess we find ourselves in. The Bible is absolutely full of stories of people who have no business being together finding a common spirit. When this happens, souls are set free and love increases. Because the openness it takes to build a spiritual bond with someone different from you has a mystical quality. And it’s contagious. When unlikely spiritual relationships form, that sense of amazement and wonder that was present at the first Easter is miraculously rekindled.
I’ve learned this lesson here at All Saints’ Church, where people of different generations, races, countries of origin, and even politics come together to practice their love for one another week after week. We do this here because it is the very nature of loving Christ and being loved by him. We love one another because love loved us first. We did not create Easter; Easter rolled the stone away from our souls so that we could love God and one another.
But wherever you are or whatever you believe, it is always possible to open your heart in spiritual charity to those who differ from you. And there is no limit to the scope of this blessing.
Christ is risen. The stone is rolled away. And love of God is moving through this broken and anxious world, even today. Love is opening God’s people, unclenching their fists, softening their hearts, and bursting open the tombs of our sad imprisonment. So let us rise with him, with the openness of a love that knows no bounds.
April 20, 2019
“Because the needy are oppressed, and the poor cry out in misery, I will rise up, says the Lord.”
This line happens to be from Psalm 12, but really, it could be from almost any book of Bible. The sentiment is woven throughout the Old and New Testaments because over and over again we hear God expressing a special love, a protective concern for the poor, the outcast, the refugee, the widow, the orphan -- the people, in other words, who have always been pushed to the edges of society. Now, I have to admit that I particularly love the King James Version of this line which reads, “For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now I will arise, saith the Lord; I will keep him in safety from him who puffeth at him.”
There’s a lot there, obviously, but it’s Easter so let me focus only on where God says “I will rise up.”
"Porque los indefensos están oprimidos, y los pobres claman en miseria, me levantaré, dice el Señor".
Esta línea está en Salmo 12, pero en realidad, podría ser en casi cualquier libro de la Biblia. El sentimiento existe en muchas partes del Antiguo y Nuevo Testamento porque una y otra vez escuchamos a Dios expresando un amor especial, una preocupación protectora por los pobres, los marginados, los refugiados, las viudas, los huérfanos; en otras palabras, la gente que siempre ha sido empujada a las márgenes de la sociedad. Ahora, debo admitir que en particular amo la traducción King James de esta línea que dice: "Por la opresión de los pobres, por los suspiros de los indefensos, ahora me levantaré", dice el Señor; Lo mantendré a salvo de aquel que lo insulta.”
“‘I will rise up’ says the Lord.” But rise up from what?
One of the most moving aspects of the Easter Vigil service is that we begin in the darkness of the crucifixion and only gradually emerge from there. We also begin with stories -- troubling stories, if we’re honest -- stories that should tell us that whatever this salvation is, it’s not mystical and it’s not abstract. Because the stories are about the life and death and survival.
In one passage we hear of desperate people fleeing slavery, saved at the very last moment by a devastating act of God. In another, we hear of a son about to sacrificed by his own father, again saved at the very last moment. We also hear of Jesus - an innocent man - unjustly crucified, dead, and buried. Rising after three days, yes, but note -- Jesus rises with wounds still fresh, with wounds still on.
And through all these troubling stories and complex images, I hear that line again and again “Because the needy are oppressed, and the poor cry out in misery, I will rise up, says the Lord.”
For me, these texts call me back to something I believe with every fiber of my being -- which is, that if you are looking for God and where God is in the world today, then let’s take those stories seriously. We have to look at where people are desperately seeking to escape slavery today, at where people are being sacrificed on the altar of religious hatred today, we have to look at where people are being crushed by poverty and injustice today. Because these ancient stories tell us that that is where God is too, rising up.
“‘Me levantaré, dice el Señor.’" Pero levantarse de qué?
Uno de los aspectos más conmovedores del servicio de la Vigilia Pascual es que comenzamos en la oscuridad de la crucifixión y emergemos gradualmente de allí. También comenzamos con historias, historias inquietantes, si somos honestos, historias que insisten que esta salvación de Dios, no es mística ni abstracta. Tiene que ver con la vida y la muerte y la supervivencia.
En un pasaje escuchamos de personas desesperadas que huyen de la esclavitud, salvadas en el último momento por un acto devastador de Dios. En otro, escuchamos acerca de un hijo a punto de ser sacrificado por su propio padre, nuevamente salvado en el último momento. También escuchamos de Jesús, un hombre inocente, injustamente crucificado, muerto y enterrado. Por supuesto, sabemos que Jesús se levanta después de tres días, pero siempre debemos acordarnos que Jesús resucita con las heridas frescas.
Y a través de todas estas historias inquietantes e imágenes complejas, escucho esa línea otra y otra vez... "Porque los indefensos están oprimidos, y los pobres gritan en la miseria, me levantaré, dice el Señor".
Para mí, estos textos me recuerdan algo que creo con cada fibra de mi ser, que es que si estás buscando a Dios y dónde está Dios en el mundo hoy, debes tomar esas historias en serio. Debemos mirar dónde la gente está buscando desesperadamente escapar de la esclavitud hoy, donde la gente está siendo sacrificada en el altar del odio religioso hoy, tenemos que mirar dónde la gente está siendo oprimidos por la pobreza y la injusticia hoy. Porque estas historias antiguas nos dicen que ahí es donde también está Dios, levantándose.
A short story. Like many people today, I was not raised in a religious household, but God rose up for me at a critical time in my life. I was fourteen, my grandfather, who I adored, was dying of skin cancer, and like many teenagers I was taking it all in, trying to understand why things are the way they are.
My grandfather, Eusebio Castilleja, was from Mexico. He came the United States in 1950s and he and my grandmother and my mother and her siblings were all migrant farmworkers. And it was a hard life. Decades later, when I was a child, I remember going to many, many funerals -- very often of family members who had died of cancer. And I remember my aunts and uncles telling stories of how when they were out in the fields, crop dusters would fly overhead and would drop pesticides directly on their skin. And I remember hearing this and realizing something cold and dark and evil about the world, something that had to do with power, and powerlessness, and poverty, and the way in which our world crucifies whole groups of people.
All of this hit really home for me when my grandfather began dying of skin cancer. I remember the last time I saw him was in a darkened room, with a single candle burning. Now to the world, he was nobody. Just another immigrant Mexican. But to me - and as I would later discover, to the Church - he was a person with dignity.
My conversion happened when I saw a priest show up and treat my grandfather with dignity. My conversion was deepened when I noticed it was my aunts who were grounded in faith who had the backbone to care for him in his last days. My faith was reaffirmed when I realized that even his medical care came from a Catholic hospital. And so when he died, somewhere in the midst of that sadness and grief I heard something like God saying “Because the needy are oppressed, and the poor cry out in misery, I will rise up.”
Una historia corta. Como muchas personas hoy, no me criaron en una casa religiosa, pero Dios se levantó en un momento crítico de mi vida. Cuando tenía catorce años mi abuelo, a quien yo adoraba, estaba muriendo de cáncer de piel. Y como muchos adolescentes, estaba observando todo, tratando de entender por qué las cosas son como son.
Mi abuelo, Eusebio Castilleja, era de México. Vino a los Estados Unidos en la década de 1950 y él, mi abuela, mi madre y sus hermanos eran todos trabajadores agrícolas migrantes. Y fue una vida dura. Décadas más tarde, cuando era niño, recuerdo haber ido a muchos, muchos funerales, muy a menudo de familiares que habían muerto de cáncer. Y recuerdo que mis tías y mis tíos contaban historias de cómo, cuando estaban en el campo, los fumigadores volaban por encima y dejaban caer pesticidas directamente sobre su piel. Y recuerdo cómo esto me hizo ver claramente algo frío, oscuro y maligno sobre el mundo, algo que tenía que ver con el poder y la falta de poder, y la pobreza, y la forma en que nuestro mundo crucifica a grupos enteros de personas.
Todo esto me impactó fuertemente cuando mi abuelo comenzó a morir de cáncer de piel. Recuerdo que la última vez que lo vi fue en una habitación oscura, con una sola vela encendida. Ahora al mundo, él no era nadie. Otro inmigrante mexicano. Pero para mí, y como descubriría, para la Iglesia, él era una persona digna.
Mi conversión ocurrió el día en que vi a un sacerdote presentarse y tratar a mi abuelo con dignidad. Mi conversión se profundizó cuando noté que eran mis tías que tenían fe quienes tuvieron la fortaleza para cuidarlo en sus últimos días. Mi fe se reafirmó cuando me di cuenta de que incluso su cuidado médico provenía de un hospital religioso. Y así, cuando murió, entre la tristeza y pena, comencé escuchar a Dios diciendo: "Porque los indefensos están oprimidos y los pobres gritan en la miseria, me levantaré".
“‘I will rise up’ says the Lord.” This is the promise that our ancient stories and deepest wells of wisdom tell us over and over again. And in Jesus, we celebrate the way that God rose up even after a shameful death and is rising still today.
A final point: There are a lot of different images of Easter Jesus out there. There’s Jesus the Victorious, Jesus the Joyful, there’s even Jesus in Disguise. But oftentimes there’s a detail that gets forgotten in these more triumphant versions of Easter Jesus, which is that Jesus returns with wounds still on. It’s true. Not tomorrow but next Sunday Christians will hear the story of a doubting Thomas - which is nothing less than the story of the risen Jesus showing his disciples his fresh wounds.
When I think about how God is calling us to join in the risen life, to join him in bringing a measure of dignity and care for the oppressed and the poor in our world, I think about how Jesus shows up with his wounds still on. It tells me that this love work, this justice work, this Gospel work has to come from deeper within us; we have to move from abstraction to include the heart, the gut, and all the painful parts we may not even now be able to give voice to, that’s how deep it must go. For it is in times like these, when we are talking about life and death and survival, that God is rising up, is risen, and the question that remains is whether we will bring all of ourselves to that work.
"’Me levantaré’ dice el Señor.” Esta es la promesa que nuestras antiguas historias y más profundas fuentes de sabiduría nos dicen una y otra vez. Y en Jesús, celebramos la forma en que Dios se levantó incluso después de una muerte vergonzosa.
Un punto final: Hay muchas imágenes diferentes de Jesús Resucitado. Está Jesús el Victorioso, Jesús el Alegre, incluso hay Jesús disfrazado. Pero a menudo hay un detalle que se olvida en estas imágenes triunfantes de Jesús resucitado, que es que Jesús regresa con las heridas aún frescas. Es verdad. No mañana, sino el próximo domingo, los cristianos escucharán la historia de Tomás quien duda, que es nada menos que una historia del Jesús resucitado mostrando a sus discípulos sus heridas frescas.
Cuando pienso en cómo Dios nos está llamando a unirnos a la vida resucitada, a unirnos a él para traer una medida de dignidad y cuidado por los oprimidos y los pobres de nuestro mundo, pienso en cómo Jesús aparece con sus heridas ya frescas. Me dice que esta obra de amor, esta obra de justicia, esta obra del Evangelio tiene que venir desde lo más profundo de nosotros; tenemos que pasar de la abstracción al corazón, a incluir todas las partes dolorosas a las que quizás ni siquiera podamos dar voz. Porque es en momentos como estos, cuando estamos hablando de la vida, la muerte y la supervivencia, que Dios se está levantando y la pregunta que queda es cómo nos llevaremos completos a ese trabajo.
"Porque los indefensos están oprimidos, y los pobres claman en miseria, me levantaré, dice el Señor". Amen.
“Because the needy are oppressed, and the poor cry out in misery, I will rise up, says the Lord.” May it be so. Amen.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
April 7, 2019
We are nearing the end of our Lenten journey, just a week away from Jesus’ triumphant entrance to Jerusalem and the mysteries of his betrayal, death, and resurrection. As we approach these solemn observances, one could say: the table is set.
And as we hear in today’s Gospel lesson from John, this is a table set for a truly strange party. Jesus is at table with Martha and Mary in the home of Lazarus, the man he raised from the dead. Just when Martha is serving the food, Mary, out of nowhere, breaks open thousands of dollars’ worth of perfume. Instead of dabbing it on his neck and wrists, however, she pours it on his feet and wipes her hair with it.
When it comes to dinner parties, we’re already way outside of normal territory. But just then, we hear the only halfway normal sounding thing that anyone says or does in this entire story--and the words come from Judas. These are not rich people, and Jesus has been preaching about and among the poor. Judas just points out the obvious: that this is a huge waste of money. But Jesus winds up the dinner conversation with this: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
As is true of so much of scripture, the scene from this dinner is full of meaning that makes the most sense in the context of everything else Jesus says and does. And when you look at it that way, you can see that this is, in fact, a meal that teaches us about love.
Look at the love between these people. Lazarus, the host of this dinner—he was the only person to bring Jesus to tears. Jesus loved him so much that he brought him back from the dead—and now he is back to eat with him and his sisters. After such a miracle, how could Mary contain her love for Jesus? Wouldn’t you do the same for the person who gave your brother back to you?
You see, this is not a normal dinner party because there is no need for the usual things we do to signal our comfort with one another in a social situation. The things moving this dinner forward are not chit chat or etiquette or even good food. This is a dinner driven by love. Deep love. Extravagant love. When that kind of love is present at table, the guests know they are feasting at a heavenly banquet. Jesus taught his friends to love extravagantly, without condition or limit. He taught them to love one another more deeply than they would have imagined—to love one another in spite of their flaws and their disagreements. And having done that, there was no way they could do other but love him in the same way. And that is what it looks like to be a Christian. It is the work and the reward of following Jesus. To sit at table with the people God has given you and to love with all that you are and all that you have. To love and to love…extravagantly.
When you see this scene this way, all of a sudden Judas’ comments look out of place. The Gospel makes it clear he is a thief and would have wanted to steal the money this perfume is worth. But there’s more to it than that. Mary is pouring out more than a bottle of perfume. She is pouring out her heart. She is affirming everything Jesus has taught her and holding back nothing. Judas would have her put the perfume back in the bottle. Or at least just spritz it out a little and keep the best part in. But there’s no halfway in Jesus’ extravagant way of love. There is no excuse for withholding our acts of kindness and acceptance toward one another. Jesus told us to love God and love one another with all we have. No conditions or grudges or dogmas or politics or theories. Just love. Love can’t be kept, sealed tight in the perfume bottle. It wants to be spilled out and used for anointing. That is love.
Many people are disturbed by what Jesus says in this Gospel passage. It sounds like he is saying that he matters more than the poor. I’ve spoken to clergy who say they just ignore what Jesus says here.
But is he wrong? Jesus says, “you will always have the poor with you.” Two thousands years after these words were spoken, there are 900 million people living on less than two dollars a day. That’s what the World Bank uses to define extreme poverty. Do you know how many of those people live in this country? The United States is the wealthiest nation that has ever existed. Still, somehow, there are 1.5 million people who live on less than two dollars per day right here at home.
And I would argue that it is a hollow sort of work to try to serve the poorest among us without love—and not just any love, but the extravagant love of Jesus. I know a couple of people who work in the secular world of global economic development. Agencies like the United Nations Development Program and UNICEF are the most sophisticated tools humanity has ever created to serve the world’s poorest citizens. They are mostly filled with people devoted to the cause of helping humanity. And yet, sometimes sophistication and smarts can do more harm than good if they are deployed without love.
One friend of mine used to work in one of the poorest countries of the world for one of these organizations. Her office commanded multi-million dollar budgets to fund programs in areas ravaged by poverty. Part of her boss’ job was to make field visits to these various programs to observe how well they were working and to meet the program officers on the ground. I’ll never forget the story my friend told me about one of these visits. The program was in a remote village far from the capital where the office was, and the roads there were in bad disrepair. So instead of driving, her boss decided to fly there—by helicopter. Apparently the cost of the trip itself would have funded the program for a year. When the helicopter arrived over the clearing in the village where it was supposed to land, my friend could see that the people living in the village had set up a banquet in order to welcome her boss. They had set out one of the few tables they had and covered it in precious food, and around the meeting area they had put out rows of the flimsy sort of plastic chairs you so often see in the developing world--the only chairs they had. But as soon as they began do descend, it was obvious what the problem was. If you’ve ever been around a helicopter, you know they are incredibly loud, and more than that, the propellors whip up violent air currents around them. So as this team of helpers descended to the ground, they simply watched as their aircraft blew away the chairs, and the table, and the food. When they got out to greet their hosts through the horrible noise, they just looked around at the destruction their arrival had caused.
Friends, we are a helicopter people. In this Lenten season of self-examination and repentance, in these final weeks before we approach the holiest mysteries of God, we must confront the fact that we live in a society whose instinct resemble Judas more than Jesus. When it comes to love, we are a stingy people. It is our collective instinct to encase ourselves in a flying ton of metal and arrive at the dinner party in a tornado of our own making. We do this because we are afraid of love. We do this because we have forgotten how to be vulnerable, how to sit at our Lord’s feet and anoint them with all we have that is precious.
We are a stingy people, a Judas people, a people who live in fear of the extravagant love God shows us at every possibility. We are a wealthy people who act as if we live in a time of scarcity, hoarding an ever-growing pile of treasure. And to what end? If Jesus Christ were to come in our midst, do you think we would have to good sense to open up Fort Knox and pour our gold out at his feet? Do you think the magnates and billionaires would wipe his feet with their hair. I think not.
We are a people with every reason to love one another, but who for some strange reason are choosing to withhold that love. In this time of peace, in this time of prosperity, in this unprecedented time of good and plenty, we have turned on one another. We are in a constant search for the scapegoat. We are quick to blame and slow to listen. And it is tearing our society apart.
And most shockingly of all, American Christians have become a people who are stingy with Jesus. In fact, we are often even worse than Judas. If our churches are not temples of extravagant love for all God’s children, then the people within their walls are doing little more than mumbling about the common purse. If churches are not intentional sites of racial reconciliation, then they are not seeking to heal the centuries of spiritual hatred that fuel our nation’s great sin. If churches do not fall at the feet of queer people who come to them, then they are rejecting the ways of extravagant love that the Holy Spirit is moving through God’s people. If churches place barriers to any person as they approach the table of this feast, if churches are not striving to make everyone feel the love of God in God’s holy house, then they are falling prey to the spirit of stinginess that has infected the world around us.
There is much of which we must repent. But you see, this is the first and necessary step. Because there is a motion from stinginess to extravagant love. It is the motion of Judas to Mary, of the seated one to the one lying prostrate at Jesus’ feet. At this strange dinner party, it is the guest on the floor who occupies the position of honor in God’s eyes.
And look: there is a table, right here, waiting to be set. Because this, too, is a strange and awesome meal. It is one in which Christ is not only the guest, but the sacrifice. For us, extravagant love moves us from the chair to the floor. For him, it moves from the chair to the table itself.
What can we do but pour out our precious perfume? What more can we offer him but our devotion to him and open heart to one another? What response is there to this extravagance of love but to love extravagantly? God has placed this extravagant love in our hearts. It does not belong in a bottle. Let the love in your be poured out, and the sweet fragrance will be smelled up to the highest heaven. Amen.