The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
December 24, 2018
All Saints’ Church
Welcome to All Saints’ Church on Christmas Eve. It does not matter who you are, where you’re from, what you believe or don’t believe—you are most welcome here. It is hardly a chore for a group of Christians to welcome strangers on Christmas. Actually, making space for everyone is one of the biggest joys of this holiday. Jesus was born in a manger because there was no room at the inn. There is plenty of room for you here.
And for anyone who has ever felt unwelcome somewhere on Christmas, well, that’s what we call a sin. This can be a tough time for a lot of people for reasons totally beyond your own control. Maybe something happened in your family that makes you feel uncomfortable being with relatives or unwelcome at the Christmas table. Or you’re missing a loved one who has departed this life. Or you just don’t like all the stuff that goes along with Christmas. This feast is here to gladden your heart and to bring joy into your life. Because when Jesus was born, he came into the darkest parts of the world—a world filled with violence, poverty, sadness, and inequity. That’s where God took on flesh—and that’s where God is most present, even today.
So whatever brings you here tonight is a good reason. Maybe you never miss a Christmas Eucharist. Or your family dragged you here. Or you just wanted to check it out. They’re all good reasons, and each of those reasons will add beauty to your life today. Because tonight we are bathed in beauty. The beauty of a dark midwinter night. The beauty of this historic building. The beauty of this ancient liturgy. And of course, the incredible beauty of music brought to us by Arturo and his orchestra. Thank you to all of you remarkable musicians for offering your talents to us on this special evening.
This Christmas, I’ve been thinking a lot about beauty. One of the reasons for this is that 2018 was one of those rare years when I actually kept my new year’s resolution from January. I decided to visit museums as often as I could. It was a simple thing, but it meant that all year long I was exposed to beauty—often just when I needed it.
And let’s face it: there are a lot of those times nowadays. Let me ask a pretty simple question: where we stand today, do you all think there’s too much beauty in the world, or not enough? I’m not talking about fake beauty, the kind of fantasy pictures you see on Instagram and glossy magazine covers, the kind of staged beauty that doesn’t reflect what life is really about. I’m talking about the kind of beauty that’s here in this house tonight—the kind of beauty that points toward holiness.
Of course there’s not enough of it. The simple fact is that we’re living in an ugly time. It seems that crudeness is all around us. Words aren’t being used to convey beauty, but to hurt people and make them feel small. Images are cheap and disposable, not lasting and inspiring. And the way we act toward one another…It’s not stunning. Of course, it would be easy to pick on our political system. Oh, and just in case you’re visiting from out of town, the current president lost the voting precinct of this church by about 103%--it’s a fact; you can check it. But it’s way too easy to point the finger at one person or people you’ve authorized to represent you. I’m talking about the kind of ugliness that pervades our common life. The kind that wants to punish the vulnerable and the sick. The ugly pictures of racism and xenophobia that confront us all the time. The harshness with which children were treated this year in this country. And the image of a society that seems to have chosen cruelty over decency and respect for every one of its members.
Jesus was born into all this same ugliness. In the world of his birth, raw power and status were the only things that mattered. Whole groups of people—including the Jewish family of which he was a part—were oppressed just because of who they were. Grinding poverty was the reality for most people. And in the middle of all this ugliness, the Son of God was born to a family that suffered along with the rest of us. As if to prove the point, he came into the world in the muck and filth of a barn. He was laid in the animals’ slop trough for his first sleep.
This was the beginning…of a beautiful life. Looking back, it was beautiful from that very first night—a bright shining light in the midst of ordinary darkness. From the humblest of beginnings, the Christ child grew into the person who brought untold beauty into humanity. He showed us what it looks like to live a beautiful life: to heal the sick, offer hope to the downtrodden, render no one evil for evil, proclaim release to the captive and justice to the oppressed. He was truth in a world of lies and life and a world obsessed with death. And above all, he was perfect love. This is true beauty, and this life, lived beautifully, became our salvation.
**Christmas reminds us that that same beautiful life can constantly be born within us. It’s why we celebrate it every year—to be reminded that no matter how ugly things get, the beautiful life of Jesus is always waiting, patiently, ready to appear. His love can become our love, because he offers it to us as freely as a babe offering a smile. That’s true beauty—and those who accept it become beautiful themselves.
One of the most beautiful things I saw this year was when our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, preached at the royal wedding this spring. To be honest with you, I had no plans of watching it at first. Call me a bad Episcopal priest, but I don’t really care that much about the royal family. But once I heard Bishop Curry was preaching, I was up at 5am that morning and ready to go. Because that man has beautiful things to say.
That morning Bishop Curry said: “There’s power in love”. Do you remember that moment? Those princesses in the big pink hats looking like they were going to laugh as this loud American bishop started his sermon. But he didn’t care. He kept going.
“There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even over-sentimentalize it. There’s power, power in love.”
I think at this point in the sermon it was just starting to hit the 1 billion people watching that morning what was happening. Michael Curry, descendant of American slaves, was standing in the royal chapel in Windsor. And he was preaching about…the power of love. To me, it felt like centuries of history were crumbling. And I started to forget about all the ugliness, because this man of God was taking his 15 minutes of the world’s attention to remind us all that Jesus came into the world for love’s sake.
He went on. “Ultimately, the source of love is God himself: the source of all our lives.
There’s power in love. There’s power to help and heal when nothing else can.
There’s power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will.
There’s power in love to show us the way to live.”
Love shows us the way to live—and not just to live any life, but the way to live a beautiful life. For Christians, that love is Jesus. That’s why God comes to us as a little child. Because you know you love that child, and that child loves you too. That love draws on our deepest instincts.
There’s power in love to show us the way to live. That’s the power of love—and it’s so powerful that we call that love God. That’s what this night is about. That’s what makes this night so beautiful. That’s what this whole religion is about. And if anyone has ever told you that being Christian is about anything other than love, they’re wrong. Listen, I’m a priest! If there’s one thing I’m good for, it’s to tell you that. This faith—it’s not about rules or showing face or some institution that you may or may not care about. It’s not just about your personal relationship with Jesus or how often you go to church or how you vote. And it’s CERTAINLY not about hating immigrants, women, and gay people. Those things are ugly.
But Jesus is beautiful. So faith in him is about love—a love so beautiful that even the child in a manger can still touch our hearts. It’s about love that is self-giving, sacrificial, and embraces every human being. It’s about love because Jesus is nothing less than the love of God in human flesh.
And, friends, that flesh of yours, that meat on your bones, it’s full of love too. Because Christ is born not just in Bethlehem, but in Park Slope too. He is born now and for all time, and the love that was born with him shines forth every time we let it be born in us and through us, in our choices and our actions, in our beliefs and our relationships. Like Mary, we carry within us the capacity for Christ’s beauty to be born through us.
This is a strange and ugly time. But if you’re looking for beauty, it’s right in front of you. Look no further than yourself. Look no further than that manger, the place where the power and beauty of love comes to reign forever. Amen.
The God of Real Things
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
December 9, 2018
All Saints’ Church
Advent is a season of repentance, so today I would like to concentrate on the most boring part of the Gospel lesson. You just heard it, so you know what I’m talking about. Luke, Chapter 3: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…blah blah blah. All those names of middling Roman governors of weird-sounding places. And poor Deacon Jennifer having to pronounce those names! Ituraea. Lysanias. At least Abilene sounds familiar, although I doubt many people here have actually been to Abliene, Texas.
Can you imagine if someone wrote a similar story today and it was read two thousand years from now? “In the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency, when Andrew, son of Mario, was governor of New York and Phil Murphy was governor of New Jersey…” Who cares?! Any one of our acolytes could write a better beginning to a story.
The thing is, Luke is a great writer. So why bother with this level of detail? This specificity of time and place that seems so irrelevant to us today?
Here’s why: because salvation doesn’t just happen in the abstract. Redemption isn’t just a concept. Grace is more than an idea. God works through real things, events, and people—times and spaces that we know and can feel and touch. There is no such thing as an ordinary day in God’s time. There is no such thing as a godforsaken place. Every moment, every spot on this globe and beyond—all of it holds within it the Word of God, because all of it was created by God.
We see this in the story of John the Baptist. John is not a supernatural being. He is John, son of Zechariah, a priest of the temple. The angel announced John’s conception to his mother, Elizabeth, but even this miracle happened to specific people in a specific time and place. John begins his ministry or prophecy in the Judean wilderness. His was not a general word offered to all people at all times. Instead, he went out on the fringes of his own society to those people—real people—who never really had anyone come out to their little corner of the world. They lived in the time of Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was their governor, somewhere between 26 and 29 AD. You can still visit the towns and farms of the area. Real people. Real places. The real and living Word of God.
That real and living Word of God—that’s Jesus. John the Baptist makes the way ready for this Word that will come into the world to meet and transform the lives of people where and when they are. In this season of Advent, we are not awaiting the coming of an idea or a philosophy of life. We are keeping vigil because we know that that child who was born in the backwater provincial town of Bethlehem to simple people will ALSO be born into our own lives. We know that he is at work even in this bizarre time, to this people alive now, whether we deserve him or not.
You see, this is the power of prophecy, the power that John and Isaiah before him exercised. The power of the prophet is to remind the world that God is holding us all accountable. There is no way for any person to hide from God, no corner of history that is free of God’s justice, no secret cave for a person to hide in. Greed and cruelty, injustice and terror, all the evils of this world—God sees them all and is responding, even now, with justice for the wronged, kindness for the abused, and the Spirit of love to cover this planet that we are trying so hard to destroy.
You know, it’s taken me a long time to come to believe this stuff. I used to think that great people, great thinkers, great events in history, and the rest of us are just kind of floating along under their influence. I didn’t really believe that the specifics of everyone’s lives and times mattered—and I mean “Matter” with a capital M, matter in the big picture, cosmic sense of mattering.
God made all people and places and times and God is working through all of them, so that, in the words of Paul, all things could work together for salvation. All things work together for salvation! That includes the most mundane, ordinary things we encounter. So think about it for a second. God made that day, and God made you and me. God made the people you love and the people you can’t stand. God made the best days of your life and the worst ones. John the Baptist might not have mattered to the Roman history books. He may have been born in a backwater and preached to powerless people in a forsaken place. But he mattered. His words mattered in the time and place he spoke them. They matter even now, because even now they are preparing the way for Jesus to enter this confused and broken world that so desperately needs him.
Who are you? What is your life story? How on earth did you find yourself here, on this December morning, in this building, listening to a litany of names of people you never would have heard of otherwise? I’m asking you these questions because the answers matter. They matter because God is working out a plan of salvation through the very facts of your life and mine. They matter to God, because God made this day and every other day you have been alive—and all the other days too. God made Brooklyn and New York; God made Mario and Andrew Cuomo and even Donald Trump. Talk about radical theology! We happen to live in these times, but even these times are pregnant with holiness just waiting to emerge.
That’s what we do in Advent. We wait for the way that God is working in our own time and place to be revealed for all to see. We wait, patiently, expectantly. We wait even when it makes no sense at all still to have hope in anything. We wait because we know there is a mighty word stirring, and when that word is made flesh, all of our longings will come to fruition and the righteousness of God will be the glory of all people. That’s something worth waiting for—and there’s something about this time and this place that is pushing forward divine history to get us to that point.
December 9, 2018 is a holy day. December 10 will be too, along with December 11. Park Slope is the site of salvation. So is all of Brooklyn, and New York, and…New Jersey. You get the point. God is here, even now. So let us prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight. Because every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. And the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth. And ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God. Amen.