The Rev. Steven Paulikas
April 26, 2020
Facebook Live Recording
We needed to hear the story of Jesus and the disciples on the Road to Emmaus this morning. It’s one of the classic stories for Eastertide, and it contains so much that shapes our Christian faith and hope. Among many other things, it is the story of God being with us when our eyes are shut and when our eyes are wide open; it is a story told for a time such as the one in which we find ourselves today.
Jesus appears to two of his disciples after his crucifixion as they are walking along the road. It’s not like one of those big, flashy entrances the angels make. It’s low-key and informal, more of like a “hey, guys.” It’s at this point that the Gospel says something subtle, but important: “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” There’s something poetic in that, right? “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” not “they didn’t recognize him” or “they didn’t see him.” In this case, the organ of recognition is the eyes, and those eyes aren’t working well enough to recognize Jesus. Which is weird. At this point in the story, Jesus is present everywhere in his absence. His death and resurrection are all that anyone is talking about—it’s certainly all that these particular two guys are talking about. They are living and breathing the events that occurred concerning Jesus. And yet—when he actually appears to them, their eyes don’t even recognize him!
This is the eyes wide shut point of the story. It’s here where the preacher is supposed to point out how foolish these disciples are. Jesus is right in front of their eyes, but those same eyes can’t see him. How embarrassing! Lucky for them, Jesus stays with them. He goes to their house for dinner. They sit down to eat; he takes bread, breaks it, and gives it to them—and it’s in that moment that their eyes are opened and they recognize him. The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Now this is the part of the story where the preacher is supposed to point out that it was in this feast that their eyes truly were opened, finally. Jesus is present with us at our Eucharistic feast, present in his body as well as his spirit. And at this point, the preacher would gesture to the altar and invite the faithful to have their eyes opened to Christ as we gather at the holy table with him.
This is the way the preacher might have preached on this Sunday in a different time and a different place. But Eastertide 2020 in New York City is teaching us something very different from the conventional wisdom. I think I understand something new about this story now. You see, I don’t think it’s embarrassing at all that the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus with their eyes. Jesus is there with us whether we see him or not; he has perfect vision, and if God had wanted us to have the same, God would have given us his eyes. It’s okay not to see God in the time of trial. Sometimes your eyes are wide shut. But if you want to see him, you can. Again, it’s the eyes that are the organs of recognition. You can still see Jesus in the breaking of the bread—even if you can’t taste that bread with your own mouth. Sometimes the eyes can see, and sometimes they cannot. It’s fine either way. God is with us.
Let me go back to the disciples on the road again, the eyes wide shut moment of the story. We know exactly what it’s like to be like them. We are surrounded by news and chatter about the most important thing that’s happening at all times. I can’t turn on the radio or read the news without hearing something about the virus. You can’t start a conversation with someone without asking how they are doing. The news is everywhere; we are living inside of it. And yet, there’s a way in which all this information, all this attention, this obsession—it can sometimes crowd out the strange holiness of this moment. Of course, there’s no denying the suffering we are enduring. Members of this parish have lost family members or are sick themselves. This church exists under the shadow of the hundreds of patients at New York Presbyterian-Brooklyn Methodist Hospital across the street. So many have lost their jobs or are dealing with the stress of isolation.
And yet…and yet Jesus is with us. He is our companion in the loneliness. He is our comfort in sorrow. He is our hope in despair and confusion. Jesus did not come into the world to be a playmate in the good times. He is the light that came to lighten the darkness. He is the improbably savior, the one foretold that no one could predict.
We are living inside the reality of this virus. It is for a time like this that Jesus came into the world. We may not recognize him with our eyes at this very moment, but that doesn’t mean he’s not here. We may not see him all the time, but that’s okay. It’s just a part of his grace to be present even when we aren’t aware of his presence. If nothing else, not seeing him now will make us appreciate him all the more once our eyes are finally opened.
So what do we do if we truly do want to have our eyes opened? Scripture says the eyes of the disciples were opened in the breaking of the bread. Again, in a different time, the preacher would simply gesture to the holy altar and remind the congregation that their eyes are being opened in the celebration of the Eucharist, the feast in which we all partake. I am so sorry that we cannot all share this feast together. It is heartbreaking. There is a wide and vigorous discussion in the church as to what form of liturgy is best suited to this time when we are separated by everything except the Internet. Many churches have switched to online liturgies that don’t involve the Eucharist. After all, what’s the point of celebrating if no one but the two or so people can partake?
But there is a way for you to partake, and it’s spelled out right here in today’s Gospel story. The site of recognition is the eyes, not the mouth. Of course watching the Eucharist is not the same as consuming the bread and the wine. But we continue to celebrate this sacrament in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit is constantly finding ways to open our eyes to God’s presence in our midst, wherever that may be. In our long discussions about how best to serve our parish at this time, Fr. Spencer and I acknowledge that there is no perfect solution to this problem. But we also decided to continue to break the bread in order to keep a holy vigil, as an acknowledgement that the day will come soon and very soon when we will all be reunited.
In the meantime, feast on Christ with your eyes. Put yourself in the place of the disciples, who first recognized him when they saw him breaking the bread. We cannot control God’s grace, and just because you may once have experienced that grace in eating the bread doesn’t mean God isn’t speaking to you right now, right where you are. Perhaps God is opening your eyes, feeding you not by taste, but by sight. Stranger things have happened. The disciples recognized Jesus simply by seeing the breaking of the bread—and you can too.
We are odd creatures who often miss the thing that is in plain view. Let God open your eyes, even in this time—especially in this time. God is at work around us. God is at work through us. God is walking with you just as Jesus walked with the disciples. God is at table with you in your breaking of the bread. God is everywhere. Let your eyes be opened to God’s presence.
One of my favorite poets, Theodore Roetheke, wrote a poem that begins like this:
In a dark time, the eye begins to see.
This is a dark time. When your eye cannot see, know that Christ is still by your side. The eye will begin to see, eventually—in the breaking of the bread, in the grace that surrounds us, in all that is holy and good and of God, who is our sight. Amen.
April 19, 2020
The Rev. Spencer D. Cantrell
You know I have to say, I liked a lot of things about Fr.
Steve’s sermon for Easter Sunday. But what has stayed with
me the most is how he did not spare us from the strangeness,
the uncanniness, the ‘wild’-ness of the reality of the
resurrection of Jesus.
We get a little more of that weirdness this week, when we
are told in the Gospel that the disciples were huddled in a
house together with the doors locked, and suddenly Jesus is
standing among them — having, of course, to say “Peace be
with you,” not so much the way that we use it in liturgy, but
more so to say, “Whoa whoa whoa, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s
just me. Sorry, that probably was terrifying, wasn’t it? Sorry
I snuck up on you guys like that.”
Yikes, right? Your dead friend isn’t dead anymore. The
impossible has been rendered, evidently, possible. We’re so
used to this as a concept as Christians that it’s tough to tap
into that weirdness, that wildness; an event which, if you
were to witness it firsthand, really would turn your world
upside down. The difference is that we have the benefit of a
two-thousand year buffer between us and those who first
bore witness to that strange event, whose lives were turned
upside down by it.
We find Thomas, though, skeptical of what he sees. For good
reason, right? Again, he was dead. I saw him die. I wept for
him as I wondered what I am supposed to do now. I’ve given
up my entire life to follow this man, wherever he has gone I
have gone, and I just suddenly lost him. I’m sill reeling from
that, and then here he is, in the room with us? I just don’t
even know what to think.
The writer of the Gospel records Jesus telling Thomas that it
would have been better to have not seen and believed, than
to have tested things. For us, what Jesus means and what the
Gospel writer knows, is that we have come into a time in
which we can’t do what Thomas did. We can’t have our
doubt assuaged by placing our hands in the wounds.
For us, the spiritual physics of faith are that when we doubt,
and then find faith, that faith has been strengthened by
doubt. Not just because we’ve simply overcome it and we
can move on as if it never happened. No. When we find
ourselves in doubt, wrestling with what our faith teaches, it’s
probably because we are having an authentic experience of,
encounter with, just how strange and wild it actually is.
We are people who believe in a world turned upside down.
We pray for our enemies. We believe hearts of stone can
melt, that people actually can change in response to grace.
That by the grace of God, our brokenness and self-
destructiveness can be and has been redeemed. That the poor
and the peacemakers, and the meek in heart are blessed.
If we doubt the Good News, it’s probably because it sounds
too good to be true.
Yet, here he stands in our midst. Telling us, “Peace be with
In Easter season, we aren’t really ‘preparing’ for something
in the same way that we are during Advent or Lent. In Easter
season, we are more so taking time to process an event — a
bomb that has gone off, really — we’re in the aftermath, the
wake of it. And we take this season indeed to celebrate that
mystery, as much as we take the time to figure out what
we’re supposed to do now; who we are to be in light of it.
In a world that has been turned upside down lately, we know
something about that as Christians, don’t we. We have a way
to read it — both the catastrophe of it, and the possibility of
it. And in all of it, the grace that it is possible to find. The
call to action that it necessitates on behalf of those suffering
unjustly. And the call to prayer to steady and steep ourselves
in what we know by faith, and who by faith we mean to be.
And even if we are like the disciples, huddled in our rooms
scattered, isolated, afraid, and in doubt; turns out, we know
that the light of the world does not need our permission to
burst in on us, and say to us “Peace be with you”, peace that
passes all understanding.
So may we continue into this Eastertide as a people in the
aftermath of something great. Something that is ground
breaking and life changing, for us even this very day.
Something that makes us, even in a world turned upside
down today, people who know who we are. People who
doubt but hope anyway. People of faith. People of love.
People of resurrection.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By
his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and
into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
April 12, 2020
Easter Year A
All Saints’ Church
Jesus said, “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Well, let’s start with the truth. This doesn’t feel like Easter. At least not in the way we’ve known it in any of our lifetimes. There’s no use trying to imprison ourselves by trying to pretend this is normal.
Which is what makes this Easter so special. Here’s a crazy thought: friends, trapped as we are in lockdown, this may be the Easter that sets you free. Amid all the suffering and the sickness of this time, you might actually discover a new depth and richness to your spiritual life. It is possible that this year you may feel the presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus in ways you never imagined. Jesus came to set us free. We didn’t know what that meant until we were locked in the tomb with him, all together. He has burst forth from that same tomb, and where he goes, we will follow. This is the promise of this day. Let his truth be yours this Easter.
Usually on this day, this church is filled with a spirit of excitement and joy—not to mention people! This liturgy begins with a triumphal organ prelude and hymn. Then the building rings as hundreds of people offer up the great Easter proclamation: Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia! We bring our forty day fast of Lent to an end. He is risen; it is the Day of Resurrection, and the strife is o’er.
But this year, the strife ain’t o’er. No way, no how. Everything is mixed up. Not only are we in the midst of strife during the greatest feast of the Christian year, but I don’t even know where or when you are! Usually on this day, we offer a warm welcome to all of our visitors and guests—to those who are long-time churchgoers, those who are skeptical of church, and those of another faith or no faith. I extend this same welcome right now: no matter who you are or where you are or when you’re watching, welcome. Normally we welcome everyone to this, God’s house. But God’s house is empty this morning except for the few of us. That means that wherever you are right now is God’s house. And maybe that’s a good thing. It means we can no longer pretend that God’s great saving act for all humanity takes place just in this place. Instead, you have to look for it where you are right now.
This is what I mean when I say this Easter might be the realest and most important one you’ve ever experienced. You see, the Bible wasn’t written about things that took place a long time ago, in a different world. Christians believe the Word of God is alive and moving. It is renewed in each moment by the power of the Holy Spirit, who breathes new life into it. Jesus wasn’t just a wise teacher from another time, although he was wise and he was a teacher. He died and was resurrected so that he might show us what eternal life looks like and bid us to join him. God is alive and with us, at all times and in all places.
That’s part of what we celebrate at Easter. The resurrection is not just a historical event. It is taking place now. The story is repeated over and over, in every place and time and circumstance. Jesus comes into the world. He teaches us to love, then shows us what love is by offering himself fully for us. He suffers and dies for no good reason. But that’s not the end of the story, because he rises from the dead on the great day of resurrection. You cannot get to the empty tomb without the cross. But the story always ends with the joy of new life.
That great day of resurrection is today. It was 2,000 years ago, but it is also this morning, or whenever you are viewing this Easter celebration. The day of crucifixion is also today. As is the day of keeping Vigil for the joy that is to come. This scrambled up sequence doesn’t fit the calendar. The church has a rhythm of life, and things are done in order. First the repentance of Ash Wednesday and Lent. Then the mystery of Holy Week and the pain of Good Friday. There is the expectation of the Great Vigil that ends in the triumph of Easter. It is a beautiful, life-giving drama that is so dear to so many of us. For many, it shapes our very lives.
But don’t forget that the sequence of our observances was created by the Church to make order out of the chaos of this life. That’s its power—it helps us to stay focused on God’s eternal faithfulness to us through the challenges of this life. It splits the swirling kaleidoscope of this life out into its constituent colors and shapes and puts them in order, one by one, for us to experience and contemplate. The liturgical calendar does this for our benefit, but it doesn’t pretend that that’s the way life actually goes. In reality, we may experience the crucifixion and the resurrection many times, forward and backward and sideways, and sometimes at the same time.
That’s what this year is. Today is the Day of Resurrection around the world and here at All Saints’ Church. But if you stand on the steps of this church today, you would face the triage tent at the hospital across the street. Scores of people at this very moment are struggling for their lives just a stone’s throw from where I am standing. I live next to the church, and I can tell you—all we hear are ambulance sirens, day and night. It hardly seems to end. Struggle and triumph, pain and joy, death and resurrection—they are all happening at the same time, even in the same place, even in the same person.
The mixed experiences of life are all jumbled up right now. But on this day, there is no confusion. Because we know how even the strangest of times will end. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia! The apostle Paul writes that all things work together for good. That means that even these horrible things we are experiencing bear within them some measure of redemption. For the sick, the dying, and the dead, these may sound like empty words, and the mystery of their suffering may remain just that to human eyes. For those who have lost their jobs or those who must work and expose themselves to danger, we offer prayers and comfort. God bless you. And for those who are relatively healthy and have enough for the time being, this is a difficult but momentary affliction. But you see, though the joy of this time may be hidden and though it may seem very far away, it is still present, right here and right now, even at a time like this. This is a season of trial. But even now, the seeds of God’s victory are beginning to sprout. It is not ours to know what this triumph will look like. We only have to have faith and keep this Easter hope that mixed in with the sorrow of this time is the joy of the time to come, which will live and reign forever.
It is this truth that sets us free. I will say that I am discovering this truth anew this year. Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection are not metaphors or a nice tale. His triumph over death is not an academic topic to discuss from a distance. It is not a pleasant cultural tradition that can be domesticated by bunnies and chocolate. Jesus’ resurrection is wild and unrelenting. His living disturbs the order of life the way we are used to it. The people who first saw the empty tomb were terrified; we, too, are terrified to discover what the resurrection really looks like. And yet, it is only by witnessing the awe of God’s miracles that we can, with confidence, be set free to leave the tomb and discover the resurrected Jesus, alive and eager to greet us as he did Mary and Mary.
So what can we do this Easter to witness, with them, the resurrection of Jesus? We can adjust our focus and train ourselves to see the world with Easter eyes. Look for life in the midst of death. Look for hope in the midst of sorrow. Offer love and compassion where there is none. Keep vigil as long as necessary, even longer than you ever expected. And never, never lose faith in the promise of new life offered to us by the God of life. That God has never failed us; we will not be abandoned in our time of need.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia! Let this cry ring out in God’s house, which is your house. Let this truth set you free, even as you are locked down. Let the tomb burst open, against all odds. Let this be your first Easter, your last Easter, your only Easter. Then wake up again tomorrow morning, and let Jesus be resurrected within you all over again. For he is alive! And by him, we all live and are free to be his. Amen
The Rev. Spencer Cantrell
Friday, April 10, 2020
So wherever you are right now, as you are listening to this livestream, I invite you to become still. Close your eyes. And become aware of your breathing.
As you inhale deeply, and then exhale deeply, recall that the breath that is within you, that animates you now, comes to you from the same spirit that animates the entire cosmos. That the spirit of God, the breath of God, which hovered over the primordial waters before the creation and evolution of our world, is as present and nearby to you as your very next breath.
And as you inhale and exhale deeply for a final few moments, I invite you to hold these words close in your mind:
“Then he bowed his head, and gave up his spirit.”
— These words from the Passion Gospel according to John conjure up an uncomfortably close set of images, at least for this preacher today.
Whether we have seen it in person with sick family members or friends, or as essential workers providing care to those infected, or simply as people who read the news every day, we know that the experience of the mass death engulfing our world and global consciousness right now is one which
involves people ‘giving up their spirit’, that is, their breath. People are dying from this virus primarily because it renders them no longer able to breathe.
We all know that at the end of our lives, we will take a breath that will ultimately be our last. Some will breathe their last breath softly, gently, with the presence and prayers of loved ones surrounding them, in a familiar place, and in a state of peace and comfort. Others, and many today, will experience that final breath as a gasp for air — exposed, afraid, in an unfamiliar and scary place, and alone.
We remember on this day, in all of its darkness and in all its heartbreaking detail, that the savior of the world knows this very suffering. He has walked this very same way of pain and injustice, of political betrayal and personal abandonment.
Christ, too, has died in a hospital bed, awaiting lifesaving treatment that through absolutely no fault of his own, will not come quickly enough.
This is the mystery of our faith. That our God has known in his very body even the suffering of this day, the injustice behind it, and the fear which it brings.
And on this or any Good Friday, perhaps we are not able see or imagine it — and that is okay. But we believe and we trust that because he has done this, because he has known our
suffering, that all of it has been overcome; all of it is being redeemed; all of it is being made new.
— I want to share with you some words from a colleague of mine, who continues to provide pastoral care in a very hard- hit hospital here in Brooklyn.
On her experience, she reflects:
“At about 4:30 am, I was called to a unit to do something that shook me to my core.
A daughter was called to the hospital to her actively dying father, and she requested prayer for him at his door. He was a devout Catholic.
I grabbed a rosary and some Holy Water, and armed myself with previous prayers that I have recited with other Catholic families, and came to his doorstep.
Our hospital limits who goes in the COVID patient rooms, so outside the door was my only option. I prayed and as I made the sign of the cross with my gloved fingers and the Holy Water, my spirit became heavy.
When I left the unit, I wailed silently on the elevator.
As I searched for meaning and understanding, the word ‘dignity’ kept coming up.
The thing that makes this so devastating to me is the lack of dignity.
We are browbeat with numbers, and a lack of supplies, and the global growth of the disease. While these are all helpful and important, there is a disconnect to the everyday folk that it is affecting the most.
Where is the dignity for those who are most vulnerable? What steps are being taken to tell the stories of the people in communities with no celebrity who have recovered, or who have experienced the death of a loved one?
What steps are being taken to ensure the dignity of those who die alone, secluded behind the doors of their roughly 320 square foot rooms? How are we honoring the lives that were too quickly ripped away?
What kind of dignity would you want for yourself in death? Or even in surviving?
I am going to call and offer my condolences to that daughter when I go back to work. I am also going to thank her for the opportunity to connect to her father. Even if it was through a door.”
— My colleague, here, has given me the gift of an image of Joseph of Arimethea, the one who comes to Pilate and requests to give Jesus’ body the dignity of a proper burial, a kind of dignity which he was denied in dying. Joseph takes it upon himself, at some risk to himself, to make that sign of the cross with gloves on over the crucified Lord’s hospital door. To lay him to rest in a new tomb in a garden which he could never have afforded. To bless even this ugly and inhumane end of a human life with all the beauty and love which it deserved.
— As we return again to our breath, as I hope we will intentionally many more times throughout this crisis — both in grief and in gratitude — I pray that God’s spirit will continue to animate us, as a people set free by the crucified and risen One; to learn to love in ways that don’t seem possible; to hope for a world that is healed; and to bless our Jesus, when we see his broken and suffering body all around us in the least of these, with beauty, with dignity, and with peace at the last.
The Rev. Steven Paulikas
April 5, 2020
We have now entered the mysteries of Holy Week. Palm Sunday begins a week-long journey with Christ. We start by joining in his triumphal entry to Jerusalem. It is a wonderful feeling to raise our voices together in a loud shout of praise. Hosanna in the highest! We have a great God, a compassionate God, one who knows and loves us and does wonders for us. He will save us from our greatest enemy. He will even save us from ourselves. Let us rejoice as we welcome this Jesus into our midst.
But the journey quickly takes a dark turn. Very quickly, we turn on this savior. Pontius Pilate asks us which prisoner we would rather have released, a notorious criminal or Jesus. “Let him be crucified!” we shout. Pilate is stunned and asks what he has done. But we don’t need to explain, nor can we. “Let him be crucified!” Pilate obeys our will and washes his hands of the matter.
Having sentenced him to death, we walk with Jesus on the way of the cross. He is humiliated, tortured, and crucified with two bandits. This is our lord, the one we just greeted with a parade. Now he hangs from the cross, offering his last grace to these criminals. When he gives up the ghost, we watch as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go with Joseph of Arimathea to lay Jesus’ body in the tomb. And then the tomb is sealed shut. Jesus is gone, and we are left alone—but with the knowledge that we are the ones who put him there.
We make this journey every year so that we may be united with our Lord. In his truth and his light. In his pain and his suffering. And ultimately, in his resurrection. This is a difficult journey, filled with pitfalls. It is a walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet we go because it is the path to God. With God. In God. There is no other reality. This is real. Jesus is real. He was flesh and blood, just like you and me. He knew the joys of this life—and its challenges. He understood the rational and the irrational. And he showed us by his suffering that other side of the cross is the empty tomb. That’s the only way. There is no way to the resurrection except through the cross. This is reality.
If you come to All Saints’, you are used to having companions on this journey. On this morning every year, we gather on the steps of our beautiful church. We bless palms right there on 7th Avenue, then we enter the church singing, All Glory Laud and Honor. You know what’s coming next, but it’s okay, because we’re all in this together. This week, daily worship leads to our service of foot washing and special meal on Maundy Thursday. We watch the altar be stripped then return for the solemnity of Good Friday. The next evening we celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter with our friends at Iglesia San Andres. And there are few feelings like the joy of Easter morning, when the church is packed and the spirit soaring. Christ is risen and we have completed our journey. Until next year.
But this year will be different. Fr. Spencer and I would make a pretty sad procession, and we can’t even give you these palms. This year, we just assume that everything and everybody is infected. We cannot assemble. We cannot touch. We cannot see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears, at least in person.
But let me tell you this: it’s okay. Don’t worry that you can’t be in the church for Holy Week. And if you are joining us online and this is your first Holy Week, welcome. This very well may be a spiritually transformative time for us all in ways none of us ever could have expected.
And why? Because this journey of Holy Week is a journey within yourself. It is a time when we turn in on ourselves and acknowledge those things that separate us from God. It is a time when we get brutally honest with ourselves and admit that a lot of the things we do and care about really don’t matter. It is a time when we stand before God’s awe and majesty and simply fall down in worship. These things are too hard for a person do to by themselves. That’s why we come together in this building. But you’re not by yourself this morning. You won’t be by yourself at all this week. You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses—witnesses in the cloud. Feel them. Believe they are there. Because they are. Just one click away. We are here, together.
I believe that this Holy Week could be one of the most spiritually fulfilling for you and for us as a community. The circumstances have jolted us out of our familiar patterns, so we must think through what all these grand old traditions of ours really mean and why they matter. With people stuck in their homes and suffering all around us, we are looking for meaning. Well, the Gospel of Jesus Christ provides that meaning, and our traditions are the conduit through which we understand that Gospel truth. Now is not the time to be downtrodden about church. Now is the time to put your faith into action. Now is the time to invite a friend to online worship, to live out your values, to have important and deep conversations. Now is the time to invite the Holy Spirit into your homes, your lives, and to let everything around you become sacred.
Yes, Holy Week is different this year. But it could be transformative for you. Let me suggest some practical things you can do to make it that way.
First, pray. Prayer is not presenting your Christmas list to God. Prayer is allowing the Spirit to speak through you, so that God’s desire becomes your own. Prayer focuses your energy and attention on what is real and true and good. Pray. There are opportunity to pray with All Saints’ every day this week. Why not try it out this week? Pray on your own. And if you don’t know how, ask us. Don’t be shy. That’s what we are here for.
Meditate. Remember those times Jesus went off by himself and sat in silent prayer? If even he needed it, so do you. Especially now. Sit and be still. If you’ve never done it before, set a timer for 3 minutes. Close your eyes. Pick a verse of scripture and concentrate on it. How about Psalm 46, verse 10: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Journal. Write down your thoughts. Just for yourself. What are you seeing and understanding, maybe for the firs time? What are your frustrations? Keep a covid journal. It shouldn’t be fancy or for anyone else. Just the thoughts you’d only share with God.
Repent. As you go deeper into this journey, you become aware of the things you do or have done to hurt yourself and others. Contact someone you have hurt and tell them you’re sorry. That you don’t even need to hear back from them—just, you’re sorry. Oh, and those people you’re living on top of right now? They’re driving you crazy. But you’re probably driving them crazy too. Do something to acknowledge what they mean to you right now. Something humble and loving. Repent and return to God.
Be generous. On this journey, we discover that your resources are far less limited than you thought. There’s plenty to go around. Be generous with your kindness, your patience, your concern, your material wealth. Share with those who need it. Maybe that means reaching out to someone who is wavering. Or giving some extra space to the people in your life. Or sharing your money with those in need. God is far more generous than any of us will ever be. We can only try to emulate this generosity.
Those are just some suggestions to make this week truly holy for you. But just remember: this week, you are walking with Jesus. He’s there with you every week. Maybe this week you just need him a little more. That’s fine. He’s not going anywhere. Wherever you go, he’ll be walking by your side. Amen.
The Rev. Steven Paulikas
March 29, 2020
All Saints’ Church
At this point, most of us have been stuck in our homes for almost two weeks. We are watching and waiting with caution and fear as this disease continues to sweep across the country and the world. Our city has been transformed into a ghost town as hospitals are crowded with the sick. If you’re like me, you wake up every morning and have a moment before you realize with a sinking feeling what is going on.
There is a particular cruelty to the way in which we are isolated at a time when we most need one another. In an unsettling time like this, I would look to the love and support of our church community in person for spiritual sustenance. Instead, Fr. Spencer and I are looking out over an empty church this morning, and it’s hard not to become dispirited. It feels like we are all trapped in our individual cells, deprived of the comforts we would usually turn to in a time of trouble.
For me, among the challenges and tragedies of this time, there is also a spiritual clarity emerging. I’m hearing prayers and reading Scripture and seeing new things. Hearing todays’ passage from the Gospel of John is just one of those moments. We traditionally hear the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead late in the Lenten season as we approach Easter. I had always heard the raising of Lazarus as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection. This text was meant to prepare us for our feast in two weeks.
But this year, there truly is no need for the timetable of the calendar. We are living in the reality of this story right now. Each and every one of us is a figure in this Gospel passage today. Maybe you feel like the disciples as they watched Jesus wander about. It seems like they were always a few steps behind the game, as if life were happening faster than they could comprehend it. Or maybe you are like friends of Mary and Martha, who came and consoled them at the death of their brother. Rarely in recent memory have I received so many calls, texts, and emails from friends and family checking up on me. Or maybe you feel like Mary. Once Jesus arrived at her home, she was simply too exhausted even to go out and meet him. But she didn’t need to, because her sister Martha had plenty of energy, which she used to confront Jesus. Maybe you feel like her right now—energized with anger at the absurdity of this situation. When Jesus comes to her, Martha doesn’t mince words, stating the obvious: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” There is plenty of need right now for some holy indignation at those who should have been there for us when they had the chance.
But in reality, the one the world as a whole most resembles right now is Lazarus. His sickness came out of nowhere and was unexpected. There was a very small window of time in which he could have been healed, but that window closed shut. By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus was lying alone in a makeshift tomb, wrapped in bands of cloth.
Right now, the world has been placed in a state of suspended animation. We have all been sent to our individual cells and told not to come out. It feels confining, disturbing. It can feel a little bit like we are trapped. And for those who are sick and suffering, the confinement is, of course, even greater. This virus is such that those afflicted with it must contend with their sickness alone, in quarantine, for fear of infecting others. I think that we all have a taste for what it must feel like to be Lazarus right now.
This is what I mean when I say it feels like we are living inside the Gospel right now. Or maybe it feels like the Gospel is living inside us. The story of Lazarus expresses the grief, the uncertainty, the fear, the frustrated expectation of our current situation.
The Gospel is alive at all times. But at times like this, we can see it living and moving in new and different ways. The Good News for us this morning is that Lazarus’ story does not end in the tomb. Against all expectations and to the astonishment of all, Jesus raises his friend from the dead and releases him from his confinement. At Jesus’ command, fear and sorrow and even death are banished, and Lazarus steps out into a new world, filled with the life that God has given him.
Friends, this day will come for us too. I believe Jesus truly did raise Lazarus from the tomb. If I believe that, then I must also believe that he will throw open the doors of our current confinement. This is a time for faith—not blind or misguided faith placed in the powers and principalities of this world, but faith in the God of life, who comforts us in time of need and holds before us the promise of a liberated world.
There have been times in the past few weeks when I’ve felt like each and every one of the people in the Lazarus story. I have been confused like the disciples. I’ve been pastoral like the villagers. I’ve been exhausted like Mary and I’ve been angry like Martha. But like all things in the upside down world of the Gospel, it has been when I’ve felt like Lazarus that I have felt God’s presence most with me.
Christians believe we must die to ourselves in order to be resurrected in God’s likeness. This is not a one-time deal, but rather a continuous event that stretches a lifetime. In order to show us the way, Jesus himself died on a cross. But on the third day, his own tomb was discovered empty. For us, the sorrow of today never has the last word. Even out of the depths, we cry with the Psalmist out to God, who hears our prayer and promises the life of the resurrection.
God never promises that we will be spared the depths. God never promises we will be spared the confinement of the current day. What God promises is far greater than this—a new life on the other side of this one.
In the moments when it is possible to contemplate the future, it is become more obvious with each passing day that the world will not be the same after this crisis is over. Once we finally do emerge from our confinement, we will be stepping out into a brave new time. History is accelerating right now so that what would normally take years to unfold is happening in the matter of weeks. Right now, we will support the sick and the healers and lift up those who are losing their jobs. We will comfort one another in our isolation and keep vigil for the future. But we will never lose sight of the future God has prepared for us. And when it comes, we will be ready—ready to step out into the resurrection light, to the honor and glory of God.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
March 22, 2020
All Saints’ Church
Watch the Sermon here
In this strange, new time, the Holy Spirit is directing us through the lectionary to perhaps the most comforting text from the Bible: Psalm 23. I invite you to listen to these familiar words with fresh ears, to hear them while mindful of the world around us. For maximum comfort, I’ll read from the old King James Version:
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul;
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Names’ sake.
Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;
For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
If you are anything like me, your mind and your soul have been filled with new and unwanted things this week. It’s possible your body has been filled with unwanted things too. That’s especially true if, like me, you’ve been stuck at home with all that food you stocked up on. Stress eating is a physical response that mirrors what can happen to our souls at a time like this. We seek comfort through a diet of news and social media. Pretty soon, those things give rise to frightening thoughts, and things can start to seem out of control.
So look at the gift we have been given this morning: the 23rd Psalm. Simple, classic, and holy. God will cleanse and guide us this morning through these words. So take a deep breath. Take another. As you do, breathe in the Spirit of God, and exhale everything that’s out of your control. Now let us hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church in these beautiful words.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Jesus is our Lord. Sometimes the word “lord” can sound unpleasant. It reminds us of power and control. Yet at a time like this, when there is so much confusion and misinformation, isn’t it comforting to know that we have a gracious and loving Lord? The Lord is our shepherd. He is our ultimate authority. Yet he exercises his authority with grace and love. He knows us and looks over us. Unlike any earthly ruler, he leaves us without want or need.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.
Because we are all confined to our homes for the moment, we are not able to lay eyes on the green pastures or the still waters outside. But they are still there. I imagine that wherever you are right now, you’ve been looking at the same four walls for a week or so now. So try something with me. Close your eyes. Settle your mind. Clear your head, and invite the Holy Spirit into your midst. Look for the green pasture and the still water in your midst, wherever you are. Do you think the psalmist was looking at an actual green pasture or still body of water when he wrote these words? No. It was a spiritual vision. So you, too, can look at the same valley and lake the psalmist saw, by the Spirit.
Now is the time to draw on our inner spiritual resources. Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is within you.” You can trust him and take him at his word. You don’t need to go outside to find the peace of God’s kingdom. Wherever you are, there it is too.
He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Names’ sake.
God is a constant source of restoration. Whatever your trouble or fear, God will restore your soul. We need that refreshment right now. The paths of righteousness are wide and crowded—but they are also exhausting. I’ve had the privilege of being in contact with so many of our parishioners this week. I know that you are all fighting the righteous fight. You are health care providers on the front lines. You are compassionate souls checking on one another and giving comfort to the downtrodden. You are volunteers responding to the needs of the vulnerable. You are the patient who are enduring isolation for the sake of all God’s people. These are the paths of the righteous; we walk them, but God is the one who is leading us. We walk these paths for the sake of God, and when we are dismayed, God will restore our souls.
Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;
For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Friends, we do not know what the future holds. We are under what truly does feel to be a shadow—a shadow of something large looming over us all. It’s such a scary feeling. This is not a valley any of us enjoy walking through.
And yet, the psalmist reminds us: there is nothing to fear. Nothing! No evil, no uncertainty, no shadow is greater than God’s goodness toward us. Jesus said, “let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God.” Now is a good time to do as he says. A troubled heart is calmed by faith. For comfort under this shadow, we can feel our Lord’s rod and staff, gently nudging us forward. They hold us together as one flock under his loving care. There is nothing to fear.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
One of the cruelest parts of this time for me is being unable to break bread with others. You can’t have a friend over for dinner, or eat in a restaurant, or, most painfully, share together in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. Your table is no larger than your household right now.
But God is present, even at this table. These days I am so grateful for every bite of food before me, even as I dine in spiritual solidarity with those I cannot be present with. It is God who has prepared this table, even in the presence of this silent enemy around us. So let your head be anointed and your cup run over with the simple goodness of this life. Let the restrictions placed on us make us awake and alive to the blessings we have.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Even in the worst of times, goodness and mercy are following us. Even if you are confined to your own home, you are dwelling in the Lord’s house. As much as we desperately need science and facts right now, there is no way to prove these spiritual truths. We simply believe them. The Christian faith is a hopeful faith. We believe that the same lord who leads us and comforts us endured the pain of the cross. He knows suffering because he has suffered. And yet, he still leads and guides us. That is hope. That is love.
Friends in Christ, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. We may be separated at the moment, and the future may look uncertain. But our God, who is gracious and loving, has built a house large enough for us all to dwell in. So, on this strange morning, I greet you, from one room of God’s house into another—wherever you may be.
Be strong. Be patient. Keep your faith. Let your heart, mind, and soul be filled with the love of God. God is our shepherd—therefore we shall never want. Amen.
All Saints' Church
The Rev. Spencer D. Cantrell
Third Sunday in Lent
Facebook Live archived video
In the name + of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
— So this is, admittedly, a strange day and circumstance in which to find oneself the preacher.
An earlier version of this homily had a line or two along the lines of, “even now as I write this I’m not sure if we’ll be having church on Sunday” — indicating just how quickly things have been changing day to day, and how much of a moving target the right response to the outbreak of this virus has seemed to be.
A lot of things are uncertain today. We don’t know how long this period of social distancing and quarantining will need to last; we don’t know if we’re talking weeks, or months. We don’t know how much the virus has spread yet—due in part to a patchy and questionably adequate response from officials at various levels of government. People are worried for themselves, for their loved ones —especially those who are elderly or immune-compromised—and for what the days ahead will bring, not just in terms of personal health, but for the whole healthcare system in general, not to mention the global economy.
Unfortunately, uncertainty breeds fear more than just about anything. We don’t tend to become significantly afraid of, or panicked by, things that we know or have a good sense of—even if they are dangerous. The real fear comes from the not knowing, the not having a good sense of where things stand, and what one is supposed to do in the meantime.
And admittedly, in times like this—times of uncertainty and fear—I can find myself, at least at first, without a whole lot of bandwidth for doing things like turning to the lectionary texts, and for trying to see what they might have to say to the present moment.
Now I know, I know. He’s a priest! How could he not be itching to open up the Bible, especially in such troubling times — isn’t that precisely, in some sense, what it’s there for?
Well, sure. Certainly it is.
What I want to affirm this morning, though, is that if you find yourself feeling this way, too, remember that faith is no easy thing, even in the best of times. It takes significant leap of faith anytime we make space to remind ourselves who we are, whose we are, and in whom ultimately we put our trust.
Our ancestors in faith the Israelites had a hard time making that leap of faith, when, in the wilderness, on pilgrimage into a new land in which God had promised to bless them, to make them great and prosperous, they found themselves scarcely able to cobble together provisions for daily life—here, even water. Indeed, they thirsted in the desert, and their uncertainty about where their next source of sustenance would come from gave way to profound fear, anxiety, and real a sense of hopelessness.
Of course, their story of faith, just like ours, leads to an opposing conclusion; that, ultimately, they would be provided for; that there would be enough to sustain their journey—treacherous as it may have been, and if only for a day at a time.
God’s promise for us is the same promise they received—God desires not that we perish in our fear, distrust, and paranoia in isolation from one another, but rather that we would flourish, that we would find true community and deep solidarity with one another, and that together we would have life abundant.
The abundant life we are promised is not the abundant life contemporary culture promises us. It is not the promise of unfettered growth and expansion of capital; it is not the promise of some atomized version of the American dream; and it isn’t the promise that if we can just hoard enough canned food, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer, we will be able to get through this on our own.
Abundant life, the kind that the life of faith promises, is a life in which we put others above ourselves; in which we care for the least and most vulnerable among us first, and ultimately build and judge our societies around how they care for these very persons.
For us, the will to do this is inspired of the same kind of faith which the Samaritan woman experienced at Jacob’s well, when Jesus came to her—transgressing a deeply-ingrained socio-racial boundary of the day as he did—to tell her that there was, indeed, a well unlike the one she had sought that day, but an inexhaustible spiritual well, freely poured out and springing up into eternal life. The faith that she came to find that day was in the truth of that living water, and of a God who pours Godself out for us, the beginning and end of all desire, all hope, all joy; a God who showed the world the way to freedom and peace, in a way which was too subversive for him to not be killed for it.
A leap of faith, indeed, even on the best of days.
But if faith like that sounds too abstract, to bizarre, or too remote to imagine — I find some of the spirituality of the Twelve Steps to be particularly helpful. Because as you might know, if someone in the program cannot assent to ‘faith in God’ as such, then faith in a ’higher power’ that comes from faith in one another in community —community that, indeed, is, becomes that ‘higher power’—is very much a legitimate kind of faith.
And even for those of us who call ourselves Christian, this kind of faith in each other, which we might call “loving one another as Christ has loved us”, is perhaps something like our only true privileged access to what God is actually like—for our tradition tells us that God is love, that to love one another is to know God.
One of the ways that we are loving one another right now is to keep the doors of the church closed. There are many, many people who are particularly vulnerable to this virus who would normally be in church, and the best we can do for them is to say, please stay home for a while.
But let us, in these coming days, not let our love for one another be limited to just this. We must pray for one another; be available to one another as best we are able; find ways to care for those who are in need; open ourselves up to the fear and uncertainty of the time, and rise to the occasion with transformative faith in each other and in God’s provision; hope for better days to come; and above all else, love for one another as we have been loved.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
March 8, 2020
All Saints’ Church
Friends, the season of Lent is one of sacrifice and of doing things we don’t want to do. So let me confess to you that I truly do not enjoy having to preach about today’s Gospel passage. Please consider this sermon part of my Lenten mortification.
I dislike this passage because it has been so overburdened with cultural spiritual baggage that it hardly makes any sense anymore. In particular, there’s that famous—if not infamous—verse in John, Chapter 3, Verse 16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
If you haven’t heard these words before, then you have never done any of the following things:
1. Looked at the bottom of a soda cup at an In-and-Out Burger or a shopping bag from Forever 21, each of which bears the inscription, “John 3:16,”
2. Watched Tim Tebow play for the Florida Gators in 2009, when he wrote “John 3:16” on his eye black, or
3. Received an autograph from Duck Dynasty’s Si Robertson, who adds the verse to his personal John Hancock. Or basically watched any college or professional football game, where people have been holding up John 3:16 signs for cameras for decades.
What do these things have to do with Christianity? Let me just say: I have no idea. But they have all made people think that there is something somehow magical about this one single verse, as if all of our religion could be boiled down one sentence.
And, in fact, that is what the people who have used pop culture as a vehicle to popularize this one verse from the Bible believe. They call it the “Golden Verse,” the key to understanding all of scripture and faith. But that’s even too narrow of a characterization for this campaign. Because this is really an effort to promote a particular interpretation of this one verse as the key to understanding all of Christianity. This interpretation hinges on one word: believe. “...Everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” In this understanding, the key to eternal life is your personal belief that Jesus is the Son of God. If you don’t have that belief, then the verse has another word for you: “perish.” As one respected evangelical theologian puts it, “The point is that Christ is salvation, and those who believe in Christ are saved. That is the central message of Christians.”
So there it is: a simple, clear theology that explains everything. If you believe in Christ, you are saved. And because of that, it is the mission of Christians to try to bring as many people to salvation as possible—and to save them from perishing. To do that, they need to get the message out. So why not print the message as a code on paper cups and signs that get seen on TV? It’s all very logical when viewed from this perspective.
For better or worse, this is the theology of hundreds of millions of Americans, and an even larger of factor of people around the world. It gives people the comfort of a clean and tidy way of thinking about God and the world. It’s an easily transmittable message and creates a convenient way of forming community: those who believe are in the community, and those who don’t are on the outside.
Let me say: there is a deep and earnest piety behind the motivations of most people who share this John 3:16 theology. You may be one of them, and if so, I honor your faith and your conviction. Many people in my own life—family, acquaintances, other Episcopalians—have been deeply influenced by this one verse from Scripture, and I would never want to diminish the authenticity and passion of their faith.
I would only ask for a bit of open-mindedness around a question that I makes me skeptical of elevating this interpretation of John 3:16 above all else:
If salvation is dependent upon my personal belief in Jesus, then is being a Christian more about Jesus, or about me and my belief? Follow me a little ways on this one. The big John 3:16 push is to get as many people as possible to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, which is supposedly the key to salvation. That means that my salvation depends on an affirmative action by me in something that is sometimes described as accepting Jesus as your personal lord and savior. To me, that seems to give me a whole lot of power. More power even than God. Does it mean that God was not acting in my life before I believed? Does it mean that God will stop acting if I stop believing? And what is the threshold for belief? Is there a test? And most importantly: is God’s action in the world really constrained by our capacity for belief? The fact is that the In-and-out-Burger answer to all these questions puts me in the driver’s seat with God as the car. And for me, well, that’s just not the Jesus I know from the rest of the Bible.
I believe the obsession with John 3:16 in contemporary American Christianity has turned our religion into an ego trip. In the name of submitting ourselves to Christ, we are urged to make our own convictions the arbiter of our salvation. I could just as easily point to so many other verses from Scripture that would call this practice sinful.
Matthew 23: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
Or this one from Romans 8, when Paul proclaims, “for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Or how about this one: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” That one is…John 3:17.
John 3:16 theology that places salvation in our capacity for belief has given rise to so many of the things that people outside the Church find disturbing about Christianity. Hostility toward people of other faiths and arrogance toward those outside the clearly-defined lines of their spiritual community. A strident and inflexible political agenda based on a narrow reading of Scripture. Hurtful behavior and comments toward members of their own families based on received doctrine. Earlier I mentioned my own family members and acquaintances who subscribe to a John 3:16 faith; those same people largely refused to attend my wedding, because in their view, being gay means I don’t really believe in Jesus, and I guess they didn’t want to support my path to damnation. That hurt.
The huge shame in all of this is that Jesus didn’t come to spread hurt, arrogance, and hostility. In the words of John 3:16, that very verse itself, he came to give us eternal life. By his crucifixion and resurrection, he offered himself as a living sacrifice to all humanity. That is the theology of an Easter people, of Christians who are reborn through the waters of baptism and nourished with his body and blood.
I do not believe that faith is not about slogans or clever marketing. I do not believe the Bible is an instrument for making us feel bad. And I definitely do not believe that Jesus came into this world to spread fear and distrust, division and false righteousness.
I believe that faith is lived out, day by day. I believe that God’s word is the instrument of salvation for all people, and that its depths can never fully be plumbed by the human mind and spirit. And I believe that Jesus belongs to all of us—because that’s what he said.
If you Lenten discipline is designed to make you trust in your own righteousness and not God’s, then I’m sorry to say you’re on the wrong track. We’re not getting to heaven by the strength and virtue of our own faith. God’s faith is faith greater than our own. This is one of the great lessons of Lent, and whatever observance you may be following should point to God’s graciousness, not your own.
God truly does love the world. So much so that we have been given a Son. This is gift enough. Let your faith in this love grow and flourish, for eternal life is ours from God. Amen.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
March 1, 2020
All Saints’ Church
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
We all have our days of reckoning. You know yours. It’s that time when all the short cuts you’ve taken, all the excuses you’ve made, all the things done and left undone come tumbling out of the sky like a bag of bricks and bonk you square on the head. You know you’ve been doing all these things, and you’ve probably had some pretty clever explanations for why you’ve been doing them. Now isn’t the right time. Something else came up. I just can’t. Meanwhile, the things you’ve made your excuses to avoid aren’t just sitting there, patiently waiting for you to come around to them. They are hungry. Voracious, even. They feed off all the things you are ignoring, and they get bigger, fatter, until finally, one day, their combined weight plops right down on your head in that one, great, day of reckoning.
Have I gotten you anxious yet? Well, friends, there’s safety in numbers. Because if any of what I’ve said sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an experience common to all humanity. And, actually, one of the greatest sins is to think that your sins are somehow unique. But more about that later.
For the past several years, I have been living my life with a huge day of reckoning hanging over my head. I’m in a PhD program, which means there’s a literal date by which I have to have produced a book-length thesis that supposedly advances human knowledge about a particular topic. No pressure. Now, no one forced me to do this; it was my own choice. But it was a weird choice. Do you know those dreams when you’re back in school, and there’s a math test, but you forgot about it or you studied the wrong thing, or you lost your notes? They are one of the iconic feelings of the day of reckoning. Well, for me right now that’s not a dream—it’s basically my life.
In January, I had a mini-moment of reckoning when I went in for what’s called an “assessment,” the second of only two in my entire program before the big day of reckoning when I finally turn in my thesis. At this assessment, you walk into a room with two noted professors who have read your materials, and for an hour, they proceed to tell you…all the things you should have been doing for the past few years but didn’t do. Imagine going to Confession, except instead of you doing the confessing, the priest already knows all your sins and just reads them out to you. What do you do? Lie and say you didn’t know? Make more excuses? None of that will work. Because the day of reckoning has already come.
Whew. If your palms are sweaty now, just wait—there’s more! In my assessment, one of the professors challenged me on my use of one word: fault. If somehow I haven’t told you already, I’m writing my thesis about the work of a philosopher named Paul Ricoeur. Specifically, I’m interested in what he has to say—and not say—about evil and what we are supposed to do about it. To that end, Ricoeur focuses on today’s reading from Genesis to explain our experience of evil. Like the serpent, evil enters the world with no warning, unexpectedly. Think about it: what is this serpent doing in this story? He is out of place. Evil is fantastical, like this talking snake. And it is evil that causes us to fault, just like the first two people in the garden.
There’s a lot to this word: fault. It can mean guilt, as in, it’s your fault, not mine. It can also mean that things are more generally wrong: there’s fault in the world. It can also mean there’s something inherently wrong with you, like, one of my faults is not studying enough. In Ricoeur’s French, la faute can mean something like an error.
But I also like the geological definition. A fault is a crack or a seam in the crust of the earth. You know about the San Andreas Fault in California, where the North American Plate meets the Pacific Plate. Seen from the air, it looks like a scar in the land. As these two massive chunks of crust grind up against one another, pressure builds up in the fault, until it snaps, causing a massive earthquake.
Isn’t that what the experience of the fault is like for us, too? The great day of reckoning is like an earthquake. The evil in our lives enters through the fault, the crack in the way our lives are supposed to be, the scar in the fabric of our personalities, our very selves. We try to avoid it as much as we can, to ignore it. But over time the pressure builds and builds, until one day, BAM! The whole world is shaken. You face the exam you didn’t study for. You face your family or your spouse in light of the behavior you know has hurt them. You face the things you have said and done to others that continue to haunt you. You face your neglect in your finances, or your work, or your domestic affairs. You face your complicity in systems and exploit others and are killing our planet. The earth begins to tremble beneath your feet; the walls shake and the ground buckles underneath you. It is the day of reckoning—but it is not the San Andreas fault that causes this earthquake; it is your fault.
As an aside, you’ll never catch me living in California! The weather may be nice, but I’m not interested in being there when the Big One hits!
Your fault exists. That’s just a fact of living that can’t be avoided. And it’s an incredibly hard thing to live with. But I take comfort in something else Paul Ricoeur says about the fault: that in spite of the tremendous pain our faults cause ourselves and others, in spite of the suffering they cause in the world, the fault is nonetheless a site of potential. When we face our faults, God’s grace is given a place to work. When we face our faults, we release the pressure our sins force on them. The result is that the day of reckoning isn’t as bad as it would have been otherwise. But there’s more than that. When we face our faults, we learn in new ways how we live by God’s grace alone. This knowledge transforms our lives and the lives of those around us. This is what we do in Lent: open up the possibilities for God by having the courage to own up to the fault.
Friends, what matters is not the fact of the fault; what matters is how we deal with it. When you ignore the fault and let it fester, the pressure on it continues to build and build until it is released in a powerful and destructive earthquake. But when you face your fault, it eases the pressure on you and those around you. It takes courage and effort, but it is the very work to which God calls us, especially in this season of Lent.
Let’s go back to Genesis. The serpent appears out of nowhere. He is a fault in the fabric of Eden, a thing that shouldn’t exist. But he is not the cause of the tragedy that ensues. Rather, it is the man and the woman’s response to him that causes their pain. They are at fault. And when given the chance to repent and own up to their fault, they lie to God. It is in that moment that the innocence of trust between them and God is broken forever. The serpent really has very little to do with it.
This lesson is repeated in today’s Gospel message. Even Jesus is not immune from the fault. The devil places three great temptations before him. Here again is the fault appearing, like the serpent, out of nowhere to cause chaos in the world. People say the devil doesn’t exist. But what other explanation is there for the state of our world? He appears even to Our Lord. But unlike the man and the woman in the garden of Eden, who succumb to the fault, Jesus resists it. He rejects the offer of food when he is hungry. He says no to a magic that is meaningless. He even turns down the devil’s offer of all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus faces the fault and rejects it. And what is the result? He unleashes potential that would have remained dormant had he never been tempted at all.
He rejects the devil’s bread, and offers his body as bread for us all.
He rejects the devil’s magic, and shows us that God’s love is no magic at all.
He rejects the devil’s authority over the nations, and humbles himself to become our eternal King.
We are not perfect like Jesus is. But that doesn’t mean we can’t reject the fault when given the chance. You know what your faults are. And if you don’t, then as your pastor, I suggest you take a long, hard look at yourself this season and become acquainted with them. I am continually amazed by the strength and persistence of my own faults and the power I give them to sabotage my life. When I refuse to face them, then the pressure on them grows and grows until the earth quakes beneath my feet and life begins to look like a pile of rubble—the great day of reckoning. But when I have the courage to face my faults, I unlock the potential of grace hidden within them, and I allow the good that God has placed within me to ripple out.
I believe that is God’s desire for me. I believe that is God’s desire for you. As we embark on this Lenten journey, may you have the strength to face your faults, to acknowledge them and not to allow them to define who you are and how you act. God will give you all you need in this holy struggle. Be firm in your faith, for the sake of righteousness. Amen.