The Rev. Steven Paulikas
May 20, 2018
All Saints’ Church
Feast of Pentecost
Welcome to the Feast of Pentecost at All Saints’ Church. If you’re not familiar with this particular holiday, it’s a great one. In fact, in the early church it was one of the two most important, right next to Easter. And as we celebrate here, we also want to wish a very blessed Shavuot to our Jewish brothers and sisters.
It was the celebration of Shavuot that brought faithful Jews from every corner of the world to Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. In the Book of Acts, we hear what happened that day, how the Holy Spirit was given to each of them and brought about a miracle: the miracle of mutual understanding. As each person began to speak in his own native language about God’s great deeds, they found that they understood one another. Of all the gifts God could have bestowed on them that day, the one they apparently needed the most was the gift of understanding one another.
We believe in the Holy Spirit. We believe in Her power to let us hear, each in our own native language, to understand one another. Like the faithful gathered from every nation under heaven in Jerusalem on that Day of Pentecost, She will place us face to face, and then open our ears to hear—really and truly to hear—what Good News is being proclaimed in our midst.
Pentecost is the festival of understanding, when we proclaim boldly that the same God who created us all also gives us the power to see, hear and love one another. Without reservation. Without condition. On the Day of Pentecost, the crowd was filled with the Spirit of holiness, and there was no hatred, no bitterness, no discord between them. They were set free to be God’s people, for and with one another. They were set free to love.
And, friends, that same Spirit is here with us this morning.
Now it may not always seem that way. And that’s why we have to keep the faith, believing in the power of the Holy Spirit even when her power seems far away.
This was a big week in religious news, and it offered us two very different spiritual visions.
First, the bleak vision. On Monday, the U.S. officially opened its embassy in Jerusalem. If you haven’t been following the news, it was one of the president’s big campaign promises to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. We are now one of a handful of countries to have done so.
What was so depressing for me wasn’t so much the fact of the embassy moving, although that is very controversial. It was the unholy spirit that was revealed to be the driving force behind this decision, and that spirit was on full display Monday. The opening ceremony was basically a religious service, but a profoundly disturbing one. Two American pastors offered prayers. One pastor recently said the Bible gives the president the authority to wage a preemptive nuclear war on North Korea. The other has said that Hitler was sent by God to move forward the course of human history. Every politician and official on hand quoted the Bible in ways that confounded me—as much for their strange interpretation of scripture as to see a warped and confused theology dictating American foreign policy. While this was happening, 60 protestors were killed and almost 2,000 more injured in Gaza. It was one of the most violent days in the Holy Land in recent memory.
I can’t imagine a sadder example of mutual mis-understanding. This was not the Spirit Jesus promised to send to us. That day, there was a spirit present. But it wasn’t the Holy Spirit.
So it’s a good thing I got up at 5am yesterday morning to watch the royal wedding. Did you see it too? Jesse and I watched with Julia Offinger, our deacon and program minister, who served her guests tea and scones at an hour I’ll admit I haven’t been awake for in a long time.
Of course it was a relief to have something nice to concentrate on. But you may know that the preacher yesterday was someone very special to us—Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. If you’ve ever wondered who that Michael is we pray for every Sunday, well, that was him.
Now I’m obviously biased, but let me just say it: Bishop Curry stole the show. And he did it by standing up at St. George’s Chapel in that poignant moment, with the eyes of the world fixed on him, and giving us all the gift of the Holy Spirit we needed most: love. There was a Spirit in that church yesterday, that’s for sure. And that Spirit cut like a knife right through the pomp and circumstance, through the media hype and inflated expectations. The power of that Spirit blew right over the tiaras and the fascinators and the 15-foot train of Meghan’s gown. The Spirit in God’s house yesterday morning was a call to sanity and holiness, and as She was beamed up into space and through cables deep under the ocean, that Spirit was delivered right to you. She will rest on you as long as you let Her.
In case you missed it, Bishop Curry reminded us that God is love, as it says in First John, and since God is love, there is no end to the power of that love. He said,
Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.
If you don't believe me, just stop and imagine. Think and imagine a world where love is the way.
Imagine our homes and families where love is the way.
Imagine our neighborhoods and communities where love is the way.
Imagine our governments and nations where love is the way.
Imagine business and commerce where this love is the way.
Imagine this tired old world where love is the way.
When love is the way - unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.
When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again.
When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.
When love is the way, poverty will become history.
When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.
When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.
When love is the way, there's plenty good room - plenty good room - for all of God's children. Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well... like we are actually family.
When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.
My brothers and sisters, that's a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.
We know what Bishop Curry is talking about, don’t we? We believe in a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, and a new human family. We have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit to shape and form us, individually and as a community. And She’s not done yet.
You know, in addition to loving Pentecost as a feast, it has special meaning to me personally. My first Sunday here at All Saints’ Church was on Pentecost—in fact, this is our eighth Pentecost together. I remember that Sunday as if it were yesterday. I remember the sense that something was about to happen to us all. I remember being nervous…until I remembered that the Holy Spirit, whom we celebrate today, is more powerful than any human failure. I remembered that God wants us to know each other, to understand each other, and to love each other just as God loves us. And that when we even just try to do the same, we have the great wind of the Holy Spirit at our backs.
Seven years later, I think it’s fair to say: that Holy Spirit hangs as thickly in this place as ever. We have all come to understand and love God and one another more deeply. We do the same whether you have been coming to this church your whole life or if this is your first time here. The love that the Spirit has placed within these walls spills down the stairs and out into the city, and the sweet fragrance of the love here perfumes our community and beckons in those who want to be a part of it. That Spirit has brought to us this morning three beautiful children who will be baptized with water and sealed as Christ’s own. We confess our faith that the Holy Spirit will be their comfort and strength for their entire lives.
So, friends, let us rejoice! By the Spirit’s power, we have heard one another, and we have understood one another. We have seen one another and we have loved one another. This love is eternal, because it is of God, and may the Spirit rest on you now and always. Amen.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
April 29, 2018
1 John 4
God is love. God is love! Honestly, I’m not making this up. It says it right here in the Bible, 1 John Chapter Four: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” I think this is the most amazing thing ever—to know that God is love. To know that when we love, we are in God and God is in us. How could these words not move you? Could there be any simpler but more profound message? God is love. A life dedicated to God is a life dedicated to love, and a life dedicated to love is a life dedicated to God. How could we do otherwise.
God is love. So let’s say it together:
GOD IS LOVE
If there’s one thing I wish any visitor or newcomer to this place could take away from this place, it’s the knowledge that God is love. Any temple dedicated to Jesus Christ should proclaim it in word and deed. In fact, when I was a kid, I saw just that. I used to go to church exactly once a year, on Easter, with my cousins at their church in St. Louis. It was a plain structure with pews and a stage backed by a wooden panel. The only decorations in the whole place were nine capital letters hung on the back panel: GOD IS LOVE.
Friends, if we are not living in love, we are not living in God, and what kind of a church doesn’t want to live in God? We are living in a time when popular Christian theology is weak and corrupted. The experience people have walking into most churches does not correspond with this message given to us in Holy Scripture. Perhaps you, too, have visited a house of worship or been spoken to by a person claiming to be a follower of Jesus and not felt loved. Maybe you felt ignored. Or like the object of potential exploitation. Or, sadly, even hated and rejected. This is sin. The only appropriate response to the good news of Jesus Christ is to love, because Jesus is himself love. And even when Jesus’ own followers fail to live in this love, he still finds a way to reach us and work through us. God is love, and nothing is more powerful than God.
If we walk away from this morning knowing and believing that God is love, this hour of worship will have been well-spent. That love will be written on our hearts. We will be drawn ever closer to God and God to us—to the point that we will abide in one another. And when that happens, there’s no telling what miracles will occur.
In case you couldn’t tell, 1 John Chapter Four is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. I know I’ve been pretty subtle about it up until now… So you can imagine what a great joy it is to preach about such profound wisdom given to us in the Bible. But this Sunday is an embarrassment of riches, because we are given a strange and beautiful story to demonstrate what it looks like when people believe that God is love. And this story also happens to be one of my favorites.
Today we read Chapter Eight in the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is the story of what happened to the first followers of Jesus after he left them. And we are only eight chapters into this story when we meet Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. As our Tuesday morning Bible study group knows, Philip was one of seven deacons chosen by the early church to help distribute food and money to the poor among Jesus’ followers, and especially to the widows.
Shortly after he begins these duties, Philip is told by an angel of the Lord to take the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza, where he encounters the chariot of the Ethiopian, who is in charge of the entire treasury of queen of Ethiopia. We need to pause for a moment here to speak about this person. First off, he is African, and what’s more he is a rich and powerful African. He is the treasurer of a mighty African kingdom—the Steven Mnuchin of Ethiopia, minus the wife with the gloves holding sheets of dollar bills. In fact, he most certainly does not have a wife, or a husband, or a partner of any kind, because he is married to his work. Eunuchs in the ancient world were a class of people in their own right. They were part of the elite of society who were consecrated to service. The Ethiopian eunuch—and everyone around him—would have considered him a man, but a different category of man, a alternative category of gender that has been lost to us in the modern world. What’s more, he is Jewish, which we know because he is returning from worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. But in spite of is devotion, he would not have been accepted by his Jewish brothers and sisters, because the physical nature of being a eunuch is considered unclean in Jewish law.
So hear again the setting for this story: a deacon walking on the wilderness road to Gaza meets a rich, powerful, genderqueer African Jew on his way home. How’s that for a Bible story? The eunuch is, of course, reading Scripture, and he invites Philip into his chariot to help him interpret. Philip tells him this story is about Jesus, and the eunuch immediately asks to be baptized, which he does.
If God isn’t love, this story would not be in our Bible. Love brought caused these two people to meet, because they had no business meeting otherwise, this poor deacon and this rich servant of the queen. The earthly signs of the love placed between them were the Word of God and the Sacrament of God. And their parting left them both joyful.
This is what a life lived abiding in the love of God looks like. When abide in love, God acts through us. God shows us that we all belong to one another, because we all have the capacity to love, and love binds us all together as a human family. When we abide in God, love flows through us. Love encircles us and everyone else we meet, drawing us so close to God that the veil between heaven and earth becomes thin as gossamer.
The world needs more God. The world needs more love. Luckily God and love are one and the same. And we—frail and foolish beings that we are—we are invited to abide in both. God is love. Abide in God, and you will abide in love. Abide in love, and God will abide in you.
So proclaim this sacred truth with your whole being. Live, walk, and speak in love. Let yourself be taken on a journey of love, and like Philip, God will introduce you to the most unexpected people. Dedicate yourself to God, and like the Ethiopian eunuch, you will experience the joy of love revealed in unexpected ways.
God is love! So way it with me once more:
GOD IS LOVE! Amen!
Easter 3 Year B
April 15, 2018
Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48; Psalm 4
Last year I went to the eye doctor, for the first time in longer than I can remember. I know I often act like I’m 13 but in fact I’m 45 years old, and I was starting to feel like things that used to not look blurry were starting to look a little blurry. So it was time to see an expert. Turns out, I still have perfect, 20/20 vision, something my wife Julie envies. She’s had to wear contacts and glasses for most of her life, and one of her frequent prayers for the boys when they were younger is that they would both inherit my perfect vision.
A couple of years ago the four of us were riding on the subway. And sitting across from us was a woman and her little boy, looked about 5 or 6. And this poor guy was seriously upset about something, and being very very aggressive towards his mother. She was alternating between pleading with him, barking at him, and basically using every ounce of her strength to restrain him.
And every passenger on that train, including me—with my perfect, 20/20 vision—could see this unfolding, they could see this mother and child locked in painful public combat. And as only straphangers can, all of us essentially made the choice to “mind our own business.”
Every passenger, that is, except my wife. Julie, who envies my perfect vision, didn’t see what we saw at all. She looked at that mother and child and her imperfect eyes saw something entirely different. And before I knew what was going on, she crossed the subway car, held out the water bottle she was carrying, and asked the little boy: “Do you want this?” The look on his face was one of total astonishment. A wave of calm and quiet suddenly washed over him, even as his cheeks were still streaked with tears. He stuck the bottle in his mouth and kept it there, like it was the only thing that could hold back the tidal wave within him.
Meanwhile, Julie sat down next to the mother, who was just as surprised as her son. Julie embraced her, and said, over and over again. “I know it’s hard, I know it’s hard, but you’re strong, you’re going to be OK.” The woman nodded a few times, and then she broke down and began to weep into Julie’s shoulder.
I’ve spent over 20 years in awe of my wife’s compassion, but I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of her than I was at that moment. Hell I was even proud of myself for just being associated with her. After we got off the train and we were walking home, my elder son Thaddeus looked up at me and said “Dad can I ask you something?” And me, still feeling proud and exalted said “Sure son.” And he said “Dad, if you’re the one who’s going to be a priest, how come Mom was the one who helped that woman?”
“Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him.” This phrase from our Collect this week leaps out at me. It’s certainly a nice metaphor. But what does that really mean, “the eyes of our faith?” What’s the connection between vision and faith?
I think we start to make one in the resurrection story from Luke’s Gospel that we heard this morning. This passage to me is all about seeing, and not seeing, and about the receiving of a new kind of vision.
In the story Jesus visits the eleven remaining disciples at the end of what must have been a very long and strange Sunday. Emotions are running high; rumors are swirling—some women had visited their Master’s tomb and found it empty, guarded by angels; others claimed they had encountered him, risen from the dead. And then suddenly, he appears before them. Jesus himself, this man for whom they had sacrificed everything to follow, this man in whom they had placed not just their own hopes but the hopes of their entire nation, and who had then seen those hopes destroyed in the most disheartening and humiliating possible way, this man himself now stands before them, and greets them.
But the disciples cannot believe their eyes. They are afraid, they think he is a ghost. Even after Jesus shows them his hands and his feet, even after he asks for a piece of fish and eats it right there, in front of them, their joy is tainted with unbelief. They see him with their eyes, yet it seems they cannot quite behold him.
In fact, the disciples’ inability to recognize Jesus is a recurring theme in Luke as well as in John’s Gospel. Think about the appearance on the road to Emmaus, which immediately precedes today’s passage. A disciple named Cleopas and his companion spend the better part of an afternoon in the presence of Jesus without recognizing him. It’s not until they sit down to a meal, and Jesus breaks bread, that they finally see him for who he is.
So we have to ask why? Why is it so hard for the disciples to see Jesus, when he’s standing, speaking, eating in their presence? I think part of the answer lies in the way Jesus associates the disciples’ disbelief with a certain unsteadiness of heart. When Cleopas and his friend can’t seem to make sense of the events of that day, Jesus calls them “slow of heart;” and they themselves exclaim how their hearts burned as they walked and talked with Jesus, as if their hearts were bursting with a truth which their eyes were blind to.
Jesus then addresses the eleven disciples’ confusion and fear by asking “why do doubts arise in your hearts?” I think Jesus affirms for us here that there is an intimate connection between the heart and the eyes. He seems to be saying that the quality of our vision depends on the condition of our hearts.
So what do we call this deeper kind of seeing, this vision of the heart? And more importantly, how in the world can we have it?
A little over a year ago, I took MetroNorth up the Hudson River to a former Franciscan monastery, where I attended a weeklong Centering Prayer retreat led by an Episcopal priest named Cynthia Bourgeault. Cynthia’s teaching draws equally on classic spiritual writings and on cutting edge neurobiology, and she believes that through contemplative practices like Centering Prayer, we can transform our hearts into organs of perception. And lest you think she’s speaking metaphorically, I can assure you, after spending a week with her, meditating in total silence, she is not.
We modern Westerners have trained ourselves to associate thinking and perception exclusively with our brains, and to see the heart as solely the source of our emotions. Cynthia teaches that, especially in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, there has been a consistent practice of “putting the mind in the heart.” Through devotions like the Jesus Prayer, or Prayer of the Heart, Eastern Christians have been refining this technique for centuries.
And it’s absolutely crucial to see that this is not some obscure, mystical teaching—it forms the core of Jesus’ message. For proof of this we can simply look to the Beatitudes: it’s right there in Matthew Chapter 5, verse 8:
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
It turns out that having perfect, 20/20 vision does not guarantee that you will behold him. It turns out that the eyes of faith are in our hearts. And I think Scripture gives us a name for this practice of seeing with our hearts. When Jesus explains to the disciples once again the meaning of his passion, crucifixion and resurrection, he tells them “You are witnesses to these things.” And here he means something much stronger than merely seeing with the eyes. So witness is the name we can give this kind of vision.
And to be this kind of witness is to be not a passive bystander, but to testify, as an active, dynamic source of compassion in the world. I think we can make this distinction even stronger when we remember that the Greek word for witness is “marterus”—from which we get a word we’re very familiar with today: “martyr.” Martyrdom is nothing more or less than Christian witness.
Now I’ve put a lot of different ideas in play here, so in closing let me summarize a bit.
Our Collect tells us that to behold the risen Lord, we have to open the eyes of our faith. The disciples throughout the Gospels have a difficult time recognizing the risen Lord because of their troubled, doubting hearts. And they can’t recognize and understand him until he sits down to share a meal and reminds them of their calling as witnesses, as martyrs, as those who see with more than their eyes.
And this kind of witness, this kind of martyrdom, is available to all of us. It certainly doesn’t require a dramatic and violent death. It can be as simple as looking across a subway car and seeing a woman in deep distress, and testifying to the love of Christ by reaching out to her in pure compassion. This sense of martyrdom is not the unique gift of the saints. It’s the inheritance, and the calling, of every Christian.
My friends we find ourselves here, in the midst of this Easter season, rejoicing together in the resurrected life of our Saviour. Let’s commit ourselves to exploring this vision of the heart, this life-giving, light-shedding, truth-dwelling witness, this martyrdom which gives us the strength, and the courage, to open the eyes of our faith, and behold him.