The Rev. Steven Paulikas
November 25, 2018
All Saints’ Church
Last Pentecost, Year B
Every once in a while the preacher has no choice but to force the congregation to indulge him in a bit of self-reflection. For my sins and yours, I’m afraid this is one of those Sundays, so please bear with me.
If you know me at all, it won’t be hard to imagine that as teenager, I was, well, unique. My friends and I were incredibly studious and over-achieving…but at the same time we thought that school—and along with it the underpinnings of the society in general--was absurd. I was as straight edged as a razor, and yet somehow I still managed to get into trouble. But no bother; I had it all under control. One day in my senior year of high school, I got a pass to go see the assistant principal. I thought maybe I was going to receive an award or some other sort of honor. So I was shocked to learn that, apparently, all the unexcused absences from my first hour class led the administration to think they could suspend me from school. I don’t know what came over me, but without flinching, I just looked the assistant principal in the eye and said, talk to any teacher here and they’ll tell you I don’t have time to be suspended, so thanks, but I’ll take a pass. And I walked right out of the office!
In short, I was a jerk. But as I’ve learned to appreciate since then, my adolescent struggle with power was rooted in a deep anxiety about what it means to live a dignified and meaningful life in our moment in human history. My school friends and I were a little bit too bright for our own good. We looked around at what was on offer and thought, there has to be more to life than this. The political leaders seemed small and ridiculous. The rewards of material wealth looked ultimately cheap and gaudy. Social status was given out arbitrarily to people who didn’t deserve it. Earthly power wasn’t really something to aspire to, because it was obvious it was built on the weak foundation of insecurity and pettiness. Where was beauty? Where was love? Where was TRUTH??
Ultimately, it was these questions that led me to be a Christian. When I first encountered the Gospel, I thought, wow, here are the answers to the questions I care about most. Jesus lived a life worth living and then gives us all that same life. It turns out that beauty IS love IS truth, and all these things rest in God.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus stands before the judgment seat of Pontius Pilate. What is Jesus’ crime? Healing the sick. Proclaiming freedom to the captives. Loving everyone he meets. Giving God to everyone. This was entirely too much for the rulers of his day. Because someone who is truly free will never allow themselves to submit to an unjust power. A person who has been set free by the Gospel can never become captive to the powers and principalities of this earth, never get trapped in the false temptations of wealth and status. Jesus said, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. The truth is that you and I—we have all been created in the image of God, and once you have discovered this fact, your dignity can never be stolen from any earthly power, no matter how powerful it pretends to be.
This is why Pilate feels threatened by Jesus. He knows that he has no power at all compared to Jesus. “So you are a king?” he asks Jesus. Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Every one of us belongs to the truth. We are citizens of heaven, and in that place, Christ is Lord and ruler of all. The pettiness of power in these times has no sway over us. There are so many voices talking about power right now. They pontificate and babble on and on and on, 24 hours a day. But they are restless and easily distracted. Do not let them distract you. There is a higher voice, and that voice speaks the truth. Listen to that voice, and you will remember what power really is—that power is gentleness, that power is mercy, that power is rarely understood in this world. Jesus tells us what power really is: listen to his voice.
Back in my teenage days when I was wrestling with these questions, I read George Orwell’s book,1984. It’s a bleak vision of what society becomes when earthly power controls truth. The main character is a man named Winston Smith, and he has a job at a government agency called the Ministry of Truth. Like every organ of power in this dystopian society, the name of the agency is the opposite of what it really does. The job of the Ministry of Truth is to control the truth, because the people in power know that if you can control the truth, you can get people to do pretty much anything. They create a new language called Doublespeak with slogans like “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength.” As an ultimate sign of control, the Ministry of Truth tells everyone that 2+2=5. When Winston begins to question these so-called truths, the powers that be force him back into submission. There’s a terrible scene in the book where Winston finally becomes fully brainwashed and accepts that 2+2=5 when power tells him it is so. In that moment, Orwell writes, Winston “accepted everything. The past was alterable. The past had never been altered. Anything could be true.” And then he writes: “God is Power.”
But God is not power. God is truth. We must never forget the difference.
1984 had a profound impact on me, as it has on so many people. But reading it all those years ago, I never imagined I’d be living in a time when the truth would be up for grabs the way it is today. I never imagined that this country would be vulnerable to revisions of the truth spread by the Russian government. I never imagined that the truth of the crimes of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation would be up for debate. I never imagined that a government by the people would try to “erase” its own citizens. I never imagined that people would start to believe whatever power tells them just because power says it.
Earthly power will always in some way want to control the truth—but in Jesus we have a heavenly ruler who is himself the truth. 2+2 does not equal 5, and God is not Power. 2+2=4, and God is love. Why? Because Jesus is pure love. The powers and principalities may win the day. They may do it with lies and falsehoods and half-truths. They may convince us from time to time that we are not the children of God. But a victory won without the truth is a flimsy one. The truth will always prevail, because God is truth, and that truth is eternal. Truth came down to heaven to dwell among us, and that truth will set us free. Thanks be to God.
These are such strange times, and these days, it seems as if there is a prophet of some kind everywhere you look. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the messages. So if you ever question whether something is true or not, Jesus gives us a simple way to test it. He says, “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” We must listen to that voice. We must heed its call to love God and to love our neighbor with everything that we have. When we do these things, we belong to the truth, and there is no power that can ever separate us from the love of God. Listen to his voice. It is the voice of reason. It is the voice of compassion. It is the voice of God. And God is truth. Amen.
The Rev. Steven Paulikas
November 18, 2018
In the last few days, I have been so moved by the words from today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
This so perfectly describes what it is that people who strive to know Jesus do in their lives. They capture what it means to be a church, the living, moving, shining Body of that same Jesus in the world. This is the picture of a faithful people, a hopeful people, a community of people who encourage one another and lift each other up. It’s the description of a group that I want to be a part of. And luckily, I am—and so are you.
Today is Harvest Sunday at All Saints’ Church, when we give thanks for the blessings in our lives and offer the first fruits of what we have to God—the same God who has given us all that we have. It’s a time to step back, look at the amazing things that happen in our lives, and give thanks. I firmly believe that the foundation of the Christian life is gratitude. Jesus lived a life of thanks, and even on his last day, he gave thanks to God the Father before breaking bread at his last supper. Today is a time to follow his lead and offer up a great thanksgiving for the bounty in our lives—and to make our thanks complete with an offering back to God.
The fact is that there’s always something to be thankful for. Always. When times are good, it’s not hard at all to find that thing that makes you thankful. But it’s in the more difficult times that an attitude of gratitude can be the real life saver. That’s when you have to take some time, dig deep, and maybe even find that one thing that makes you thankful. The blue of the sky. A single kind word from a friend. Maybe even a word in a prayer or a note in a hymn. The fact is that we are constantly floating in blessings, and they’re always tapping on our shoulders, begging to show us the beauty of this life we have been given. To be a grateful person is simply to let those blessings do their work, to acknowledge them, and then, if you are able, to add to them with your own gifts. That’s a life spent in gratitude. That’s the kind of life Jesus spent. That’s the attitude of an open and joyful person.
On this Harvest Sunday, it’s important to note that some of us grew up in a time and place when the literal first fruits of the land were offered to God in the sanctuary. Those lucky people among us saw the whole cycle of the farming year, from the sowing to the reaping. They have seen the earth yield her increase, as the psalmist writes. I’m sad to say that here in Brooklyn, our farms are less fertile. Jesse keeps a container garden in front of the rectory, and every year he plants one decorative sweet potato. I’m always excited to see what it looks like at the end of the growing season. He sent me a picture of it yesterday when he pulled it up: one knobby purple tuber, about the size of a child’s fist. So that’s our harvest this year. But hey, that thing I said about gratitude? I’m actually really excited about it. You could even say I’m grateful.
You see, even here in Brooklyn we have a harvest. All your hard work in the past year has yielded you a bounty. The work of prayer. The work of faith. The work of healing and teaching and peacemaking and justice demanding. The work of mourning and mercy and yes, even suffering. In these holy acts of sowing, you have cast the seeds of the Spirit into the fertile earth. With your patience and humility, you have nurtured the tender stalks as they rose from the soil. And now it is time to gather the scythe and reap the harvest.
And just what are the fruits of this harvest? We heard about them all just now in that passage from Hebrews. Hope without wavering. Love. Good deeds. Encouragement. And clarity of vision as we see the Day approaching. This is a rich harvest indeed! It is a bounty that can hardly be counted. Thanks be to God!
There is something amazing that happens when people come together around Jesus. All the divisions and the prejudices from the outside world melt away. Spiritual isolation—that great affliction of the modern world—is no more. Our hearts open up to God and to one another. We realize that so many of the things we thought were important actually aren’t at all. This is when the field is tilled and ready for the planting.
As we grow in love with Jesus in our midst, the crop grows too, and the harvest becomes ever richer with time. Just as the author of Hebrews says, the community of the faithful holds fast to the confession of hope. Friends, in a time such as this, how many places really and truly are holding fast to a confession of hope? I don’t mean a cheap kind of hope. I mean the real, living, abiding, life-changing kind of hope. The hope that there really is a power greater than us, a God whose nature is to love, a hope so great that even the grave has no power over it. That’s the hope of Jesus, and it’s his hope we confess in our words and actions.
The crop ripens, and according to Hebrews, the gathering of the faithful is moved to provocation. The letter says that we come here to provoke one another to love and good deeds. This is the sign of a true Christian church. I would be willing to bet that there isn’t a single person here—even if this is your first time at All Saints’ Church—who hasn’t been provoked in some way or another to love. To love more deeply. To love differently. To love more fully. To love God. To love your neighbor. To love yourself. I bet there isn’t a single person here who hasn’t been provoked to do something good. To move the needle of goodness in the world even just a little bit forward. That’s what a church is supposed to do. That’s the harvest we’re talking about.
When we meet together, we encourage one another in these things. Because God knows it’s not easy. It’s not easy to love in a world full of so much hate. So much darkness. So much…coarseness. There’s just so much out there that is trying to reduce us to our meanest selves. We need the encouragement of one another to keep moving forward, to keep walking toward Jesus.
These are the fruits of the harvest. In a few minutes, we will offer our pledges of financial support for this ministry in the coming year. As you place your pledge card in the offering plate, I encourage you to say a prayer of thanksgiving. The Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver, and it’s true. It is a blessing to be able to give. This year, I pledged 10% of my pre-tax salary to support All Saints’ in 2019. This is the eleventh year I have tithed my income to my church, and with each passing year, I feel myself formed more fully into the person God created me to be. I become more open, more generous, and yes, more grateful. I am more able to allow God’s blessings to flow through me, because I know through my actions that the holy abundance that feeds me is infinite and never-ending. There’s nothing like the act of putting your money where your mouth is to make your values clear to yourself and everyone else. What a blessing!
Yesterday, Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, preached at the 150th anniversary celebration of the Diocese of Long Island. He did it in a tent. That’s right, a tent. And as if that weren’t enough, that tent was set up in a parking lot next to the Nassau Coliseum. That’s where he wanted to speak to us. Not some grand and fancy church building, but a place where we could hear the Holy Spirit speaking to us. He gave us a word about witnessing. He reminded us to be witnesses to Jesus, to His mighty power of love that can heal all wounds and divisions. If you couldn’t be there in that windy suburban parking lot yesterday, we’ll share the sermon online when it gets posted. And it’s worth watching. Because if you’re looking for direction, if you’re looking for an answer, if you’re looking for some higher meaning in your life, there’s no one better than our Presiding Bishop to remind you: we were put here by a loving God to love God and one another, and even ourselves.
That love is both the seed and the harvest. That love will feed you when you are hungry and it will never stop. It’s worth the effort. It’s worth the sacrifice. Because that love…is nothing less than God. Amen.
All Saints’ Church
November 11, 2018
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
In the name of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.
As the All Saints’ family knows, I just started seminary this fall. So before we ask together what God is saying to us in today’s readings, I want to begin by sharing the best thing I’ve learned so far in my 10 weeks of theological education. Like everyone else in the first year, I’m taking OT 101: Intro to the Old Testament. And one central concept we’ve discussed is tsedeqah. It’s Hebrew. Just say that with me: tsedeqah. One more time: tsedeqah.
This word is all over the Hebrew Bible. What does it mean?
In our English Bibles tsedeqah is usually translated as “righteousness” or “uprightness.” But in the original Hebrew, as one scholar put it, tsedeqah “refers more specifically to the virtue of fulfilling one’s social obligations to others, particularly defending those most vulnerable in ancient society; the orphan, the widow, and foreign immigrant” (Carr, 67).
To live with tsedeqah means to be proximate to people who are up against it, who live close to the bone. Tsedeqah means to stand in solidarity with those who are hurting, and to stand up for them when they call. Tsedeqah is an ethical and political vision that remains foundational for many of our Jewish siblings in this very city—and we stand with them in solidarity in a time of anti-Semitic intimidation and violence.
Tsedeqah was also the standard for political leadership in ancient Israel, in the time of King David. Psalm 72 says:
Give the king your justice, O God,
…May he judge your people in tsedeqah.
May he judge your people in solidarity
and your poor with justice!
6: May [the king] be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
12-14: For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life
[they are precious in his sight].
In these days I am moved to see a full-throated declaration that the powerful are judged by how they stand with the least powerful. Yes, King David was expected to be a brave military leader, and the chief executive of the royal court. But the king was also explicitly tasked to defend the most vulnerable, to hear their appeals for help, and to answer. In our own time, we are talking about the person struggling with addiction without health care, the asylum seeker, the trans woman, the person of color harassed by the police with impunity, the child prosecuted as an adult.
Ancient Israel expected its king to defend the most marginalized and at risk because their image of human justice was based on their idea of God’s justice. Another Psalm says:
[The Lord] judges the world with righteousness [with tsedeqah]…
The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble. (Psalm 9:7
Friends, it is as true today as it ever was, regardless of who was elected this week, or who will be elected in 2020. The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.
I’m going to turn to today’s readings in just a second, but there’s one more thing I want to say about tsedeqah. It isn’t just a social responsibility, a duty. It is the way of life. The way to life. Rich, deep, joyful, vibrant life. Let me give you one more psalm, one I bet you know by heart:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures: he leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul: he leads me in the paths of righteousness…nah.
The Lord restores my soul: the Lord leads me in the paths of tsedeqah.
The Lord restores my soul: the Lord leads me to embrace those who grieve, into solidarity with the oppressed, into joy with those who are being liberated and empowered—why? Because God wants to restore my soul. Because God wants me and you to really live. And the way to life is love, love that goes down to the bottom. Because our own joy cannot be complete unless there is justice for all; because our own liberation bound up with the liberation of “the least of these.”
Ruth knew it. And Naomi knew it. The poor widow who put two copper coins in the collection plate knew it. Throughout scripture, we see women who act in solidarity with one another and with the most vulnerable in their communities; women who thus show us what God is like.
The part of the Ruth story we read today presents Ruth as an important figure because of her ties to men: her new husband Boaz, and her great grandson, David. There’s no getting around the fact that this book was written in a time and a place where the value of women was defined by their relationship to men. But when I read this story, I like to think that it’s David who is important because he is the great-grandson of Ruth! Whose example inspired him? Who taught him about solidarity, who taught him that fidelity to the least in our communities, is the path of life? I think it was Ruth.
You may remember the story. Ruth and Naomi have met in tough times. A famine in the land of Israel has forced Naomi and her husband and their two sons to flee to the land of Moab. In other words, Naomi and her family are migrants. They are refugees. Naomi’s sons marry Moabite women, one of whom was Ruth. But then, without much explanation, the story says that Naomi’s husband dies, and then her two sons die. And suddenly she is alone, a woman in a time and place where widows beyond the age of childbearing are among some of the most vulnerable members of society.
Now Ruth still has a good chance of remarrying, and thus recovering what security and status was available to women in her society. But Ruth will not seek her own security and happiness if it means that Naomi will be left alone and put at risk: “Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay: your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” Ruth says. Your future is bound up with my future, Ruth says. Your safety is tied up with mine. So Ruth walks beside Naomi as she journeys back to Bethlehem: because of her commitment to Naomi, Ruth becomes the foreigner, the immigrant.
Our reading today begins here, with Ruth and Naomi’s roles reversed. It’s now Naomi who tells Ruth, “I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.” My need, Naomi says, my heart’s desire—is to ensure your well-being. So, doing what she could do in that situation, she sets Ruth up with Boaz. When Ruth indeed marries Boaz and bears a child, Naomi shares in that blessing. They have borne grief and struggle together; now their joy is shared. This child, this new life, is a symbol of the bond that has led both Ruth and Naomi in the path of life. The path of tsedeqah of solidarity is not an easy road; it’s not without risk. But its blessings multiply.
That is why, friends, the two copper coins the poor widow gives in Mark’s gospel are worth so much. Here we have another woman who shows us what God’s generosity is like. Another poor widow, another vulnerable person, who with two pennies declares that her own flourishing cannot be separated from the flourishing of the whole community. That is tsedeqah. That is the standard my wife Meg and I are thinking about as we discern how we are going to give to All Saints’ in the coming year. How can we participate in the flourishing of the whole community. I think that question is at the root of what Jesus invites us into, the Jesus who comes among us to restore our souls. The core of Jesus’ message was tsedeqah. He just didn’t use that word: he said Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and love your neighbors as yourselves.
Give others what you would want to be given.
Don’t withhold from others what you would not want withheld from yourself.
In Mark, Jesus has harsh words for the scribes: they have power and status, but Jesus insinuates that they have stolen from the estates of widows. Whether or not that was literally true, Jesus condemns them for flaunting their wealth while the poor around them are exploited. And he lifts up the abundant generosity of the widow. Though she has little, she knows that to really live—she must share what she has with others. She must link her own life to those around her.
So may the Lord lead us to embrace those who grieve, into solidarity with the oppressed, into joy with those who are being liberated. May we be servants of God’s peace, God’s justice, God’s joy. So may the Lord restore our souls, restore us to life. Amen.