The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
December 24, 2019
All Saints’ Church
Christmas, When Heaven Comes Down to Earth
Merry Christmas! And welcome to All Saints’ Church. We say this here every Sunday, but for those of you who haven’t heard it before: all are welcome in this place. All Saints’ is God’s house and no one else’s. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe or don’t believe, what you’ve done or haven’t done—you are most welcome here. On Christmas, we remember that there was no place for Mary and Joseph the night Jesus was born. So it is a sin for a church not to offer a place to any person on this holy night. And if you have been hurt by religion, I’m so sorry. We happen to live in a time of spiritual impoverishment, a time when religion is too often used to make people feel excluded and bad about themselves. This is also a sin, especially for followers of Jesus Christ, who proclaimed that the greatest commandment was love. Offering welcome to all people is a powerful form of love, and we hope you feel welcome and loved here.
And a very special welcome to our Jewish friends and neighbors, especially on this third night of Hanukkah. You may notice that we have eight candles at the high altar. Of course, all of them are already lit. So as you can tell, just because we worship a Jewish child this evening doesn’t mean we know how to do Hanukkah. Maybe we’ll get it right in 5781.
If you’re anything like me, you enter this holy space tonight with a mix of emotions. For some, Christmas is a time to rejoice in the presence of family and friends. For others, the holiday is a reminder of absence, of those we love but see no longer or won’t get to see this year. For some, Christmas is a chance to sing familiar hymns or to hear the amazing music of Arturo and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. For others, the pomp and traditions may ring hollow. For some, Christmas is an affirmation of faith in the birth of the Messiah. For others of you, it may have been a long time since you’ve been in a house of worship, or you may be looking around thinking, how the heck did I get here?
To all this, let me say: there is no right way to feel on Christmas. Religion is engagement with mystery. Religion is engagement with mystery. So it doesn’t really matter what’s going on for you tonight. Good or bad, joyful or anxious, faithful, curious, or doubting—it’s all authentic and true. And even if your authentic and true self today isn’t as sparkly as the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza, it makes no difference. In fact, you might know something everyone else doesn’t. Because on Christmas, we proclaim that when heaven descends to earth, it doesn’t arrive in the highest and brightest spots, but the lowest and darkest. God comes to us through our frailty, our humility, our humanity. Heaven touches earth at its darkest spot.
Everything about the birth of Jesus Christ tells us that God enters our lives in the most vulnerable, improbable places. The Christmas story is the story of God’s interest in--and love--for our flaws and faults. At Christmas, we acknowledge God’s power to transform that darkness into light.
Joseph and Mary are in an impossible situation. They are two anonymous young people thrust into the current of history. Can you imagine how powerless they must have felt when they couldn’t even find a place for Mary to have her baby properly? Think about the shame of that first Christmas, two hapless parents who couldn’t even manage to have Mary’s baby delivered in a proper place. Of course it’s not all their fault. The emperor decided to flex his muscle at the expense of his poor Jewish subjects. The innkeepers had a business to run. And the pregnant, unmarried teenage Mary could hardly count on support from her community. It is into this unjust, flawed, twisted world that Jesus is born.
But God wouldn’t have it any other way. Jesus comes into the world because of its flaws, not in spite of them. A perfect world wouldn’t need him. That manger where Mary laid him may have been made to hold slop for the livestock. But it was the perfect spot for God. It’s where God most wanted to enter the world.
There are a lot of crazy messages out there about this particular holiday. But Christmas is not about creating the perfect world, the Christmas card picture of the way we want things to be. Instead, it is about God touching this world in the places that most need it. In this over-stimulated, over-consumerized, over-capitalized society in which we live, it can be impossible to believe that something of ultimate value is offered to us absolutely free of charge. But that’s how God comes to us. Christmas is an opportunity to train your spiritual eye to ignore the distractions of life and see God truly at work. So if you’re looking for Christmas, look in the cracks and shadows of this world. It is in those places that heaven emerges.
At the first Christmas, Jesus was born into poverty. He is born this night among the poor.
At the first Christmas, Jesus’ birth was unplanned. He is born this night where there is chaos and confusion.
At the first Christmas, Jesus was born to migrant parents. He is born this night in the migrant and detention centers of this country and the world.
At the first Christmas, Jesus arrived unbidden into the most humble of circumstances. If you seek him, look to your own humility, your own frailty, your own imperfection. Because that is where you will most see and understand God’s presence.
I do not believe that Christmas is a metaphor. I believe in the incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus Christ to the Virgin Mary. But I also know that this belief has no meaning at all to me or to anyone else unless I live like I believe it to be true. So on Christmas, we decorate this church, say these beautiful prayers, listen to this amazing music, and I put on this crazy silk outfit. But it’s all to celebrate the grace of humility and God’s love for our weakness. It is a paradox. But again, religion is engagement with mystery. And one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith is how the God of all power and might could come among us as a poor little child.
And is it just me, or does something feel different about this Christmas? It seems like everyone is rushing to celebrate, like it’s one last party. Maybe that’s because in the backs of our minds, we all know the world will be very different next Christmas, no matter what the results of a year of campaigning.
Now, if you’re visiting from out of town, you may not be aware of the political reality of Park Slope. Senator Schumer lives up the street and Mayor DeBlasio’s house is literally just a few blocks away. You may not know that a recent poll of Park Slope residents found support for impeachment at 107%.
But as the year before us unfolds, remember the lesson from this Christmas night. Because no matter the occupant, will NOT come from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Salvation comes from God alone, and when heaven touches earth, it will land in the most neglected places, not the most exalted ones. Love cannot be elected or bought. So support your chosen candidate, and work for what you know is right. But if you want a slice of heaven, go out into the darkest places and do what Jesus did once he grew up: offer love. Offer light. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, befriend the lonely and the stranger. Do these things, and those darker corners of your own soul will be illumined with the same light that shone from the manger on Christmas.
It may not always be obvious, but heaven is around us all the time. Sometimes you just have to look where God is working. This Christmas, may God work within and through you, and may the light of Christ shine in your hearts, now and always. Amen.
The Shoot Shall Come out of the Stump
The Rev. Steven Paulikas
December 8, 2019
All Saints’ Church
After living in this city for 15 years, I’ve learned that one essential thing every New Yorker needs is to have their own spot. There are eight million people piled on top of one another here. So you’ve got to have a place you claim as your own. This is New York, so you’re going to share that spot with other people, but darn it, you know it’s yours. Maybe it’s a particular table in a particular café. Or the one pillar where you wait every day at your home subway station. It might even be the foot and a half of pew where you are sitting right now. You know what your spot is in this city. And you know it’s sacred.
For years, my spot was a stump in Prospect Park. I’d tell you exactly where, except then, well, it wouldn’t be my own spot anymore, would it? You see, I guarded my spot jealously. I would walk to my stump in the mornings and sit down to pray or to read or to just be. I would look at the rest of the people in the park from my little secluded perch, see them walking their dogs or talking on the phone, and just observe life. When I hit a difficult time in my life a few years ago, sometimes I would sit on my stump and just cry. When I was out of town visiting my father in hospice care, I would think of my stump when I needed a spot to process my feelings.
This next part of the story sounds like I’m making it up, but I swear it’s true. After my father died, I spent two weeks with my mom. In that time, I officiated his funeral, acted as spokesman for our family, and spent days on the phone taking care of the awful logistics of death. All this on top of the deep feelings of grief, loss, anger, anxiety and sadness that come with losing a parent. When I came back to New York, you know the first place I went to. So you can imagine the shock I felt when I got to my spot—and the stump was gone. Disappeared. Nothing there at all.
I still have no idea what happened. Of course in my mind, the Parks Department should have sent me a letter or something to warn me. All I know is that when I thought I needed it most, my stump, my sacred spot in this brutal city, my two square feet of spiritual real estate, my tiny refuge, had vanished. Goodbye, stump.
Today’s reading from Isaiah brought me back to thinking about my stump. “Stump” isn’t a word you hear very often in the Bible, but it’s one of the images we ponder during this holy season of Advent. The prophet proclaims that a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Poor Jesse. He’s not a burning bush or cedar of Lebanon or even that cool vine that grows up overnight to protect Jonah. Nope, the house of Jesse is a tree that once was. And all that’s left of it is this stump.
Isaiah is referring to Jesse, the father of King David. Isaiah had little confidence in the rulers of Judah of his time, and he believed God would raise up a new and righteous king from the line of Jesse and David that had been cut off. Centuries later, Christians would look to Isaiah’s prophecy as the foretelling of the coming of a messiah. Jesus himself is the shoot growing out of the stump, the branch emerging from the root.
I invite you to ponder, for a moment, this stump. As the trees of the forest tower above and create a great canopy, the stump clings to the forest floor. It reminds us of a past that was happier than the present. It is significant not because of what it is, but because of what it no longer is—no longer a tree standing tall, but the remnant of a life that once was.
Now think about all the other plant images we have created to evoke Christmas. Sprigs of holly with its cheery berries. Mistletoe hanging from a doorway to invite merriment. And, of course, the Christmas tree. Don’t get me wrong—I love a good Christmas tree. But as Isaiah tells us, it is not the tree that gives rise to the shoot. It is the stump.
I wonder where that stump might be in your life. Because we all have stumps. Maybe no one else can see them, but we know exactly where they are. We remember the proud tree that used to stand over that spot. We remember the dreadful feeling of when the tree was brought down. We still feel the pain of its absence. Yet that stump still sits there, a reminder of something beautiful that used to be but is no more.
There’s this thing about Christian faith, this stubbornness. It brings us back to the stump, over and over again. It’s difficult to be brought back there, year after year, reminded of loss and absence. But we don’t return to the stump to wallow in sadness. We return to the site of loss in the joyful expectation of hope. Because in the eyes of faith, a stump is not just a stump. Rather, a stump is the place where the new shoot will rise from. It is the place the branch will grow out of. It is the place where new life will emerge.
A faith that doesn’t acknowledge the stump is a shallow faith. And for Christians, there is no faith at all without the stump. Not only does the stump of Jesse give rise to Jesus. Jesus himself guides us on this journey from absence to new life. He came into the world in the humblest of circumstances and was laid in a manger, a hollowed out log. In his life and ministry, he met people at their stumps, at their lowest and most vulnerable points. And then he had his own terrible day, that day when he himself was nailed to a tree. But his birth was our salvation. His life gives us life. And his death granted us citizenship in his realm.
This time of year can be an especially difficult one for many of us. The celebrations taking place around us can often just highlight the sense of loss we feel inside. The holidays remind us of the people we love but cannot celebrate with. They dredge up feelings from the past that are somehow easier to deal with the rest of the year. They bring us back to our stumps. But when you find yourself standing in front of that stump, remember: that’s where Jesus meets you. A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
My stump has been gone for years now. I will always remember it fondly. But you know what? Now when I go to the park, I don’t need my spot anymore. Now, I walk the paths and wander the forest. I admire the waterfall and the sky. In the fall, I look at the geese in the lake, and in the springtime I take myself on a tour of the flowering trees. The whole world is my spot, because God created it, and God created me to be a part of it.
If you’re looking for a spot in this life that can sometimes be so hard, just look around you. Because the whole world is your spot too.
Advent: The Season of Wakefulness
The Rev. Steven Paulikas
December 1, 2019
Thursday morning, I was walking to my gate at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Okay I’ll stop there: yes, I was in Vegas on Thanksgiving. I’m a priest, but that doesn’t me without sin. If you’re judging me, I get it—but maybe wait until you hear more of this sermon. I could only make last-minute plans, and it turned out, strangely, to be a convenient place for my family to meet.
Anyway, as I was walking to my gate to fly home to New York on Thanksgiving morning, three very nice seeming airport employees walked out in front of me and blocked my way. They kind of held up their hands to stop us, and they seemed tentative and they did it with a smile. Then I saw why: right behind them was another employee pushing a huge container of…yes, Christmas decorations. Soon, there was a small crowd of passengers gathered who, like me, stood to wait as this Christmas convoy crossed our path.
I cannot think of a more evocative metaphor for the experience of the holidays in contemporary American culture. Christmas stops you in your path. There is no way to avoid it, and it will determine the rhythm of your life. But by “Christmas,” I really mean the period of time that begins on Thanksgiving and ends the afternoon of December 25. “Christmas” is a public liturgical season. Liturgy is the type of rite and ritual that we do in church, but when you think about it, we have lots of rites and rituals in the secular year as well. “Christmas” is one of those. It is announced through decorations and advertisements. It is experienced by some as a time of shopping and annual gatherings. This all happens in plain view.
Behind closed doors, however, this version of “Christmas” is a difficult one for many people. It is a time of grief and sadness at the loss of loved ones or relationships. It is a time when the image of a perfect holiday reflects back to us the disappointments in our own lives. It is a time when sensitive people can suffer the negative effects of the mania going on around us and will last for almost an entire month.
It may seem strange to hear this in a church, but I hardly know anyone for whom “Christmas” is pure joy. Well, maybe if you’re under the age of 6—but even that should tell you something. This version of “Christmas” is for kids, a child-like fantasy, one in which we all participate, children and adults alike. It has the depth of a schoolyard game. No wonder so many people are disappointed by it.
But actually, all this shouldn’t be a strange thing to hear in a church. Because let me be very clear: this version of “Christmas” I have just described has absolutely nothing at all to do with Christianity, the Bible, or the same Jesus Christ whose birth the holiday is meant to celebrate. Christmas doesn’t stop you in your path. Rather, Christmas opens the way for you to encounter God in Jesus Christ. Let me explain.
In today’s Gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus tells us that we will not know when he will come again. Noah couldn’t predict the flood. Two are in the field and one is taken away. Two women are working and one disappears. The difference between the two is that one is awake, but the other is asleep, figuratively. The sleeping house owner is unaware of the thief, but the one who stays awake can catch him. That’s why we all have to be alert and stay ready, according to Jesus.
Why is it so important to be awake? Why must we be ready at all times? Because God is everywhere. God created us. God gives and takes as God sees fit. God does not work on human timetables. Just when you think you have everything figured out, God has a way of breaking through your plans and presenting a different reality. Part of Christian faith is believing that whatever God has to offer us is better than what we ourselves can conceive. God does not put stumbling blocks in our way. Instead, God never gives up on us and constantly draws us nearer. If anything, God removes the comforts and conceits we place between us and God. And all this is to our own benefit, because that which keeps us asleep makes us unaware of God’s presence right here and right now in our lives.
We may think we are being powerful as we build our own lives—and of course we have little choice but to live under the assumption that tomorrow is going to happen, that tomorrow matters. So much of life is spent planning for the future. We study in order to get a degree. We commit to a partner and have children with an eye to the future. If we are lucky, we get to plan for a retirement. But no matter how much effort you put into these things, no matter how carefully you plan, there is no way around the fact that the only day you can be sure of is this one. And even that’s a stretch. When our plans for tomorrow become our lives, we idolatrize the future and discard the present, and that is not working on God’s time.
So sure, store up your grain for tomorrow. But remember: Jesus teaches us to pray for our daily bread each day. The lesson is simple: if you plan only for the future, then you become ignorant of the reality of the present, which is the gift from God.
True Christmas—Christian Christmas—is the celebration of God breaking through into our lives. Bidden or unbidden, God will come. The Christ child does not arrive on schedule or according to anyone’s plan. And his appearance among us certainly throws a lot of people off course. The birth of Jesus is the incarnation of God in the world. God comes directly into our lives. But only those who have been awake can witness it. Those who are asleep will miss it.
Do you see how different this true Christmas is from the so-called “Christmas” of our society? Do you see how God making a path directly into your life today is so different from a train of ornaments blocking your way to your destination? They couldn’t be more different. One beckons to a life of awareness, to be alive and awake to reality. The other stops you in your progress and puts you to sleep to dream of childish fantasies.
So how do we stay awake? How do we forsake the culture of “Christmas” and turn to God anew? The task seems urgent, and maybe you need some time to get ready. Well, then you’re in the right place. Because this is not a Christmas sermon. It is an Advent sermon. And in Advent, we have a whole season to prepare. It may be Christmas in the outside world. But in here, today begins the season of Advent—24 whole days to get ready, to practice being awake, and to resist the temptation to slumber. It’s an entire month dedicated to practicing being awake.
In so many ways, Advent is the total opposite of cultural “Christmas.”
“Christmas” is loud and boisterous. Advent bids silent contemplation.
“Christmas” is busy and distracted. Advent bids focus.
“Christmas” is a time to buy. Advent bids restraint.
“Christmas” is for kids. Advent is for the spiritually mature.
Most of all, “Christmas” is just an image—a picture of something perfect that never really exists to begin with. People bend over backwards to try to make their holiday look like something that someone else dreamed up for them. But Advent is about reality—the reality of God in your life today. All you have to do to see this miracle is to stay awake.
May God bless you in this holy season of preparation. May you take time each and every day between now and December 25 to take note of how God is in your life. And may each of these encounters quicken your pulse with expectation for the coming of Christ, which is the true Christmas.