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.
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.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
November 24, 2019
Year C Last Pentecost
Harvest Sunday/Christ the King
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
Words of tremendous faith, words to live by.
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
The last words of a criminal, the final words before an execution at the hands of a ruthless and violent state. Remember me. Do not forget that I exist. Do not forget my life and what it has meant. Remember me when you come into your kingdom. Not this imperfect kingdom, this dark cloud of power and injustice. Enough of this kingdom. Jesus, remember me—when you come into yours.
And Jesus’ reply: Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise. A promise. A vow, from the dying Messiah to a common criminal. A promise, from Jesus to you and to me. Today, we will be with him in paradise. Not tomorrow or in another age, but today. And not by living a perfect life and doing everything right. Certainly not by gaining the approval of this kingdom. No, you will not find the door to the kingdom in the throne room or the bank vault or in the special meeting for perfect people. The kingdom is reached through the cross. When you’re up there, with Jesus, with the criminal. When you have run out of options and there is nothing left. When your heart is broken from the trails of this life. When you have finally come to accept that there is no salvation for the righteous in this profoundly confused and unjust world. When there is nothing left at all but to say: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. That is when you will know the kingdom is nigh. That is when you hear the voice respond, truly this very day you will be with me in paradise.
The word “kingdom” is a strange one to have to deal with in such a deep and meaningful spiritual context. Kingdom—it’s old-fashioned. It manages—in one word—to bring together gender and power that make many of us uncomfortable. Sometimes people use the word “kindom,” without the “g.” But there’s no mistaking it—the word in the Bible can’t really be translated as anything other than “kingdom,” so we’re stuck with it.
And maybe it’s for the best. Because Jesus isn’t a king like the rulers of his time—or any other. Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught that true power is humility, that to rule is to serve. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Jesus does not inherit his kingdom though a coronation, but by the crucifixion. So when he promises that we will enter his kingdom, he is not proposing a one-for-one swap, a king for a king. He’s not telling us that we will stop kneeling at the feet of the earthly king and bow down to him. Actually, it’s the opposite. Entering Jesus’ kingdom means that he will serve you, because that is where his power comes from. His courtesans and advisers will be the humble and meek, the people of the Beatitudes. In fact, these are the saints. And you can be with them in paradise today, too.
So when we say “remember me,” when we ask to come into Jesus’ kingdom, it’s not the request of a supplicant begging to be let into a rich land. It’s the acknowledgement to Jesus that he has shown us the truth about power, and that we want to live our lives the way he has taught us, under his gracious care, the care of the one who came to serve. And most shockingly of all, that kingdom is right here, right now. It is in our hearts in in our midst. It is right here in this assembly. It can be found in the darkest corners as much as it bursts through high above the altar. “Very truly, THIS day you will be with me in paradise.”
If you believe that this is the day the Lord has made,
If your prayer is true when you ask for our daily bread,
If you believe the words of Jesus to the criminal on the day of crucifixion,
Then you will see that the kingdom of God is right here, and that paradise is the dwelling place of those who love God. Not sometime in the future, but right here and right now. Very truly. This day.
Today is Harvest Sunday at All Saints’ Church. Like kingdoms, harvests are more of an abstract concept to New Yorkers. You may have grown up in an agricultural place, and maybe the rhythms of growing year are in your blood. If that’s the case, then you know that the time for reaping is cause for celebration. It happens only after months of work and care: sowing, tilling, weeding, protecting. When the blade of the scythe meets the stalk, it is a holy and awesome moment. One can’t help but give thanks.
But realities like these are receding into the distance. Kingdoms, harvests…they have become metaphors. But never forget that metaphors and images point to reality in powerful ways. We come together this morning to catch a glimpse of the heavenly paradise Jesus promises the thief. What more could someone ask for in life but to see heaven open up in front of our eyes? It is a spiritual harvest. But as such, it comes only as the result of hard work and dedication, perseverance and prayer.
The Kingdom reveals itself of its own accord, without any help from us. But just because the Kingdom doesn’t need any help doesn’t mean that we don’t need help to see it. That is the work of the Church. And if you’re here today, then you’re doing that work alongside everyone else.
As an act of thanksgiving for this heavenly harvest, this morning we proclaim our faith in the kingdom that is already here and yet still to come. And we have to have a concrete way to do it. A farmer doesn’t just talk about planting seeds; a farmer goes out into the field and plants the seed with their own hand. Today we, too, commit ourselves to the work of this holy community. There is no one but us to do the work that needs to be done to help the world see the Kingdom of which Jesus speaks. That’s what makes us stewards.
In a few moments, we will make our offering to God as we bring our pledge cards to the altar. As you place your card in the offering plate this morning, think about how it is an act of thanksgiving for the promise of paradise that has been given to you. The gift you leave at the altar comes out of the harvest of your labors. But it is also a seed that will be planted for the future.
Let me tell you: I have tithed 10% of my pre-tax salary to the Church for the past 14 years. Every year I give thanks that I am able to do this. I’m generally amazed that I can do it, and it always feels like an accomplishment—and the only feeling I can have about it is gratitude. But now that several years have passed in this practice, I have an even grater gift, because I can see some of the fruits of my offerings. All Saints’ Church is flourishing in ways we never would have imagined. It is a life-giving and holy place where truly the Kingdom of God can be felt. And I know that I have been a part of it. Few things fill me with more joy and happiness. Because you see, when I place my offering in the plate it is not just an offering to God—it is an offering to my future self and your future selves. What a blessing.
Friends, Jesus will remember you when he comes into his kingdom. You will see paradise, perhaps even this day. Let us give thanks! For the harvest is rich. And it is a blessing to be a steward in the Kingdom of God.
Christopher Alan Lee
November 5, 2019
Chapel of the Shepherd at General Theological Seminary
If you’ve spent any time in Austin, TX, you probably know that the city has a semi-official slogan—Keep Austin Weird. The slogan serves both as a celebration of a uniquely eccentric and creative city, and as a call to arms against the deadening forces of unchecked gentrification, big-box consumerism, and general conformity that increasingly plague the main streets of America.
It’s a slogan I believe Paul would have admired, and I think it captures some of the spirit of the opening to the 12th Chapter of his letter to the Romans. Scholars have wrestled with one another for centuries over just who Paul was, and what made him tick, but there seems to be consensus on at least one thing—Paul of Tarsus was a very weird dude.
So what made Paul that way? He himself makes a pretty convincing case that it was his encounter with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, and subsequently committing the rest of his life to living out the implications of Jesus’ Gospel. Paul clearly lived what he preached—and I think it’s safe to say that he was not conformed to this world.
But then Jesus in the Gospels seems pretty bizarre himself. His closest friends can barely make sense of the things he says. His own family wonders if he’s gone insane. Poor Pontius Pilate has never seen anyone like him. I think Jesus’ weirdness springs from his being utterly free—free from the toxic effects of selfishness, fear, pride, even from death itself. And because we’re unfamiliar with the sheer freedom that Jesus embodied, that he inspired in disciples like Paul, and that he invites us to share—we find it strange, and even scary. Yet on some basic level, to be Christ-like is to embrace a freedom, that, to the world, looks profoundly weird.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed
The word Paul uses for “transformed” is metamorphao—and it’s the same word Mark and Matthew use to describe what happened to Jesus on Mount Tabor, when his physical human body became permeated by the uncreated light of God. Paul is exhorting us to share in that same transformation, a transformation that is impossible for those who are conformed to this world.
But that’s why we have the church, right? Doesn’t the church sufficiently form us all for transformation, for nonconformity to the world? I think we know all too well that that’s not the case. That sadly, in our day, the church is often quite closely conformed to this world. And so if we conform ourselves to the church, we are always at risk of being conformed to the world.
This might be easier to understand if we remember that Paul wasn’t writing for the church. He started churches, but I doubt he had any conception of the institutional church as we know it today. Jesus, of course, neither started a church, nor left any specific plans to do so after he was gone. This was surely deliberate—who can read the Gospels and think that Jesus envisioned an organization that would, over 20 centuries, so thoroughly contradict the example of his life and ministry? That someone who was crucified for resisting imperial power would inspire an institution that would become synonymous with a succession of Empires?
We can all feel that tension, can’t we, how closely the church has conformed to the world? Many of us have been working on parallel tracks for several years now, balancing the mundane political demands of formal discernment within the church, alongside that small, still voice inside us that persistently reminds us of our divine vocation. Those two tracks may be running side by side, but they are not equal. Because our call is from God, not the church.
The institutional church is the mechanism through which we will live out what God has called us to do; as a means to that end, it has a place and a purpose and should be preserved. So by all means, read the literature on management theory and family systems and institutional giving. And glean whatever wisdom you can from them. But remember you are not leading a corporation, a psychotherapy practice, or a foundation. You are a disciple of Christ, a priest in his church—you are wild with the transformative freedom of Jesus.
There will be church leaders who will tell us we’re naive, reckless, full of ourselves. They’ll tell us not to change anything in our parishes for the first three years, that we need to adjust to the ”reality” of part-time and bivocational ministry, that we’re lucky to have such a healthy pension fund. And we will listen to them, patiently and respectfully, remembering that these are the same leaders under whom the church has suffered a catastrophic decline in membership, and become increasingly irrelevant in the public square. So we will weigh their wisdom appropriately.
We are the ones being sent out onto the front lines, so we will have to listen first and foremost to God, then to each other, and finally to our own hearts. We will need to feel free to find and experiment with everything that is weird and wild in the church. Transforming the church out of conformity to the world and ever further into the image of Christ.
It won’t be easy. It will require bravery, and we will all experience doubt and discouragement. Luke’s Jesus recounts the parable of a great banquet, which, one by one, the invitees find excuses not to attend. What will our excuses be? How will we find ways to stay conformed to this world, to remain untransformed?
My wife, who does as good a job as anyone of keeping me on my toes theologically, has asked me more than once how I might explain the eucharist to someone who feels drawn to the church, but who is uncomfortable with, even scandalized by, all our talk of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus.
It’s a good question, and I don’t know if I’ve given her a satisfactory answer; what I do know is that an honest answer would still be discomforting. Because whatever else it is, the great eucharistic banquet we have all been invited to is shocking, astonishing, and deeply weird. And that is precisely its power, that is its grace.
The sacraments are what we have to offer the world that it simply can’t get anywhere else. In Baptism and the Eucharist the church is most out of conformity with the world—and most capable of transforming it. Because if we mean what we say about baptism and eucharist, there IS no more effective social justice work. Do we mean what we say? Do we believe that to be baptised into Christ’s death is to receive eternal life through his resurrection, to be indissolubly bonded with God? Do we believe that at the Eucharistic table our sins are forgiven, and that we’re made one with Christ and one another?
Because if we don’t believe that, if we think that baptism is just a symbolic cleansing and the eucharist merely a memorial meal, I’m not sure what other purpose the church serves. The secular world does things like social services and real estate development at least as good as, and usually much better than we do—not to even mention better music and better food. The sacraments work for everyone, always and forever. If we believe what we say about Baptism and Eucharist, nothing the world has to offer us is as definitive, as permanent, and as liberating as the grace we receive in them.
And that is the church’s single, strange, wild and beautiful gift, an alternative to a world which consistently chooses greed over generosity, war over peace, death over life.
If we’re doing Christianity right, it should never ever sit easily alongside the respectable people and institutions of society. To follow Christ was not, is not and never should be comfortable, because nothing is weirder or more shocking than to worship a crucified saviour. Nothing is weirder than the idea that love conquers death, that all our sins are freely forgiven, always and forever, by the very source of Creation. Being the church should always look weird to the world. And thanks be to God for that.
My friends tonight I appeal to you to keep the church weird. Do not be conformed to this world, or to the church insofar as it conforms to the world. Embrace the wildness and the freedom that Jesus embodied, offer yourselves as a living sacrifice at the Lord’s table, and be transformed.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
November 17, 2019
All Saints’ Church
One night this week, I found myself at a fancy cocktail party. I was invited by one of my dearest friends. We’ve known one another since we were two years old, and maybe because we grew up together, we’ve always shared pretty much the same values and beliefs about what’s important in life.
The party was in an elegant room in on the Upper East Side. The guests were mostly wealthy and powerful people our age. We talked to many people who work on Capitol Hill and in high positions in the government. We met businesspeople who probably make more money in one year than I will in a lifetime. On our way out the door we asked a man to take a picture of us with my phone. I googled him later, and it turns out he was a famous hedge fund manager and billionaire.
How I wound up in these rooms I have no idea. I’m generally skeptical of what these folks are up to. But I will say it’s fascinating to walk through such a crowd as a priest. I’ve gotten used to the look I often see on the faces of people used to aggressive networking when they see me in a collar. It means I have little to no earthly power—and that I certainly have no money. And yet for many people, my mere presence in the room is a provocation, a reminder that no matter how much power and wealth you accumulate in this life, there is, after all, something higher and more powerful than you. Among the people who do take the time to talk to me, I’ll often get awkward comments about how someone no longer goes to the church of their childhood, or sometimes even a deep spiritual insight. But I’m sad to say that more often than not, rich though these rooms may be, they contain a spiritually impoverished people.
And that, I suppose, is why I go. I took a vow to serve the rich and poor alike, and I’ve come to understand why. Because I have relationships with both, I know how similar they are. They’re both struggling to survive. They both want to know they are loved. They both desperately want to know that they have a place in this life, that they are not just floating in space on a spinning planet hurling itself on an inexorable orbit around a distant star.
But back to this cocktail evening. I may have been dressed as a priest, but it was my friend who brought the Gospel to the party. I should mention she is an accomplished academic and not religious. But more importantly, being in her presence is like standing in front of a fire hose of charm, intellect, and warmth. So imagine what it was like for these rich and powerful party guests when she approached them all, one by one, with a smile from ear to ear and bright eyes, and asked them her standard cocktail party question, the only question she was interested in this evening:
What are your plans for the apocalypse?
Yes, that’s her question. And you’d be surprised at people’s answers. Understandably, some looked at this charismatic woman and her priest friend and just fingered their wine glasses and looked for an excuse to escape. But it turns out others have elaborate plans that reflect who they really are deep down. Powerful people confessed their doubt in their own skills. Others instantly opened up about their families and desire to leave New York or Washington to return to a simpler place of their childhood. Others were taken aback and visibly disturbed.
“What are your plans for the apocalypse?” Why is my friend’s question so brilliant? Because it asks you to give an account of who you really are, who you are when stripped down to your bare essentials. The question really asks, what matters to you? Who matters to you? What would you do if you had absolutely nothing to hide behind? And in a few short words, it forces you to acknowledge that none of us is ultimately master of ourselves, but rather that we all belong to a God beyond our own comprehension.
Jesus said, “as for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” He tells us that there will be wars and insurrections, that we will be persecuted, that the very foundations of the earth will shake and cause order to crumble. But he also tells us that not a hair on our heads will perish. Because by our endurance, we will gain our souls.
Consider this Jesus’ question at this, our very own cocktail party. What are your plans for the apocalypse? Who are you when everything is stripped away and you stand bare before your God? Where is your heart—entangled with the things of this earth, or united in heaven with all that is holy? When the stones begin to fall, the wars and rumors of wars spread, the world is turned upside down, who will you be? Whose will you be? What will you have faith in?
One day, the rug will be pulled out from each and every one of us. We cannot tell the moment it will happen or what it will look like. But part of the nature of this life is that it is ultimately not under our control. It is constantly changing. The only constant is God. And if we endure in our faith, no matter what the circumstances, we will gain our souls.
Our readings in church are on a three-year cycle. So it happens that the last time we heard this Gospel passage was November 15, 2016. It was the first Sunday after the election. I will never again be able to read these words without hearing the audible gasps from this assembly as Deacon Jennifer proclaimed Jesus’ solemn teaching. For many in our congregation, the world had been turned upside down. Never before had Jesus’ prophesy had so much immediate meaning.
But never forget the comfort he leaves us with. Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Three years later, we have endured. It’s been a long three years. But as we endure, our souls grow stronger. With each crisis, we learn where our hearts truly are. And the longer we keep faith in what is constant, what is true, what is holy—the more deeply we know our God.
Friends, we have had a plan for the apocalypse all along. If you are here, then All Saints’ Church is a part of your plan. As time rolls like a river, this place is where we gather to gain sustenance for the long race each of us must endure in life. This is the blessed community, where heaven descends from above down onto this earth and we gain a glimpse of the world the way God sees it. This is the place where we comfort one another in sorrow and lift one another up in grace. This is the place where we encounter God. This is the body of Christ, which endured the humiliation of the cross and rises in glory anew.
I have the privilege as your pastor of knowing what the people of All Saints’ Church have been up to in the past three years, since the last time we heard these words. You have been beacons of hope and light in the world. We come here for solace, renewal, and inspiration. But then we go out bearing those same things to those who need it. You carry the light of the Gospel into hospitals and clinics, offices and classrooms. You are witnesses to your friends and family, to strangers and acquaintances. You may not have known it, but this was your plan for the apocalypse all along. And every time you are a channel of God’s love, you confront someone else with the same question of what their plan is in the face of the Almighty.
We are in our 2020 stewardship campaign at All Saints’. As you reflect on what you will offer this place next year, I hope you will give thanks and celebrate what it has been to you while keeping faith for what it will be in the future. Rich and poor and everything in between—we all want the same thing. We want to be loved and know we are loved. We want to have meaning in our lives and sense of connection. Our souls long for God. We will not gain our souls by hoarding treasure or influence. We will not gain our souls through clever plans or dodging the truth. You won’t even gain your soul by being right and proving that you are right. No. There is only one plan for the apocalypse: endure. And by your endurance you will gain your souls.
November 10, 2019
The Rt. Rev. Mark Edington
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 20: 27-38
All Souls Requiem
November 2, 2019
Spencer D. Cantrell
November 3, 2019
Feast of All Saints
All Saints’ Church
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
Blessed are you who have found your way to church on the Sunday of the New York City Marathon.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.
Do people actually believe this? Are there people in the world who think that the poverty of this life is richness in God’s eyes? Does anyone really believe that true greatness is meekness? That sorrow is transformed into joy? That exclusion in society is inclusion in the heavenly fellowship?
Does anyone actually believe the beatitudes? Yes—and they are called saints. And guess what? This is All Saints’ Church. The Feast of All Saints we celebrate today is special for us at this church. It is a reminder of our true calling, of the path God has prepared for each and every one of us, paths specific to who each of us is, but each of which leads to the same destination: sainthood. If you are here, then you are called to sainthood.
And if you’re confused about what it means to be a saint, just listen to Jesus, who tells us what it means to be blessed and beautiful. To be blessed means making room for God’s richness and not your own. It means filling up on all that is good and holy. It means having faith that sadness and pain will be transformed to joy. It means turning your back on the affirmation of the world and all its temptations and turning toward the great mystery of God in Christ.
That’s what it means to be a saint, according to Jesus. Obviously, sainthood isn’t easy. And part of the problem is that the way you are a saint is unique to you—to the gifts God has given you, to the time and place in which you find yourself, to the struggles you face. If these Beatitudes give us the principle of sainthood, the details are only filled in through excruciating trial and error. But let me tell you something I know as surely as I stand before you this morning: I have never met a person who wasn’t called to sainthood. It may confuse you. It may confound you. You may run from it and try to hide from the sheer weight of this calling. But you are called to be a saint of God.
Luckily, we who have been called to sainthood have a powerful tool on our side: this very church. All Saints’ Church is, among other things, a fellowship for those who are called to sainthood. You see, you don’t become a saint overnight. It takes practice. We come here, week after week, year after year—or even for the first time today—to practice being saints. You also don’t become a saint on your own. Many people think that saints live by themselves in caves until they are given a revelation by God, or that they are singularly talented and charismatic. But when you read the lives of the saints, you learn that every saint was born in community. All Saints’ Church is your sainthood community. Here, you are welcomed, you are nurtured, you are challenged, you are encouraged, you are held accountable, and you are sent out into the world to be a saint. There is no other place than a loving Christian community that will equip you for sainthood. There is nothing to replace a church in the formation of saints. This is the place where you encounter yourself anew each week, where you encounter yourself as a saint.
One of the reasons it’s so difficult for us to wrap our heads around sainthood as Jesus describes it is because it calls for an inversion of the way we see the world. In Jesus’ time, the great and the mighty were what he describes in the second half of today’s Gospel passage—the part with the woes. Woe to the rich. Woe to those who feast at sumptuous banquets. Woe to those who laugh, and woe to those who receive high praise. These were the things people sought after in their lives.
And as you can tell, things haven’t changed very much, even after 2000 years. We lift up the rich and the well-fed, the happy and the well-praised. There are no reality shows about those who weep. Just try starting an Instagram account about poverty and see how many followers you get. Accolades and praise are given out so readily and for so little that they hardly have any value. Did you see the news this week about Adam Neumann, the former CEO of WeWork, the company that owns coworking spaces? At the age of 40, he resigned after leading the company to utter ruin. You might think that after arranging shady financial deals and misrepresenting the company’s true value, after laying off almost a quarter of its employees, Mr. Neumann would face some harsh consequences. Instead, he received a payout of one billion dollars. One billion dollars.
That’s a lot of money, and Mr. Neumann is now a rich man for his failures. But in the inverted world of beatitudes, he is not rich at all, because his ill-begotten fortune separates him from the place of true riches: the Kingdom of God.
It is appropriate that this Feast of All Saints is also the beginning of our annual stewardship campaign at All Saints’ Church. Every year, we are called to reflect anew on what it truly means to be blessed. We recommit ourselves to the words of the beatitudes and take seriously our call to sainthood. Following this morning’s Eucharist is our annual Stewardship Café, where you can see the many ministries you can be involved in. And in three weeks’ time, on Harvest Sunday, we will offer our pledges to equip the work of the saints in this place, remembering what it means truly to be wealthy.
Today we also welcome a new saint into our midst as we baptize Lucy Rose Fontana. God willing, she will have the words of the beatitudes written on her heart. She will never forget that even in the trials of life, she is blessed. Lucy is just now beginning her path toward sainthood, and she’s going to need all of our help. Are you willing to show Lucy by example what it means to be a saint? Do you want the world she grows up in to look up to billionaire failures or to confess the richness of God’s Kingdom? When we are all gone and Lucy is still here, do you want her to remember us as a generation of the confused or as the saints who blazed the trail for her?
God has called you to be a saint. It is the highest calling one can have. You are a part of the great cloud of witnesses that envelops us even here this morning. May God be your strength and your guide. And may the saints of God shine forever by the light of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
October 27, 2019
All Saints’ Church
Today’s Gospel message is about the relationship between righteousness and contempt. Jesus tells the story about two men. One does everything that is correct. He’s the upstanding citizen, the kind of person who keeps the world running, the guy who follows all the rules and sets an example. And he is VERY happy with himself. The other man is none of these things. He has sold himself out, betraying his own people by taking a job that is anathema to his community. He is very UNHAPPY with himself, and he begs God for forgiveness.
This is a clear yet odd story, and it tells one of the important lessons the Christian faith has to teach: that unbridled righteousness leads to the sin of contempt.
Jesus tells this story because he knows it will need to be told and retold to generations upon generations for thousands of years to come, and it’s one we need to hear today. We want to do the right thing. We want to strive after righteousness. We want to do what is good and true and faithful in the sight of God. And yet, the more righteous you become, the greater is the temptation to one of the unintended consequences of righteousness, the great sin of the do-gooder, the abomination named in this story: contempt.
Why does the righteous man leave the temple unjustified while the tax collector goes home with God’s blessing? Because the righteous man has succumbed to contempt. He has convinced himself that he is good and that others are bad. He has confused following the rules with his own goodness. And then he has allowed himself to look down his nose at those who are in even greater need of God’s love and grace. He has made his pride his faith.
Righteousness breeds contempt for others. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, especially for those of us who just want to do the right thing. You know, I spend a lot of time in church and doing churchy things, and I’ve been living this way for most of my life. And let me say that from my experience, I have rarely met someone who comes to church who isn’t interested in doing the right thing. For the most part, we are a self-selecting group of people. We are drawn to God and God’s grace. We want a better world, and we want to be part of the solution to the world’s problems. We are willing to sacrifice our own immediate best interest in order to seek first Kingdom of God and its righteousness. These are all positive motivations, and we express them in so many ways. They drive us here on Sunday mornings even when it’s raining. They motivate us to serve in ministries, to tell others about the good news, and even to take on menial and thankless tasks that only God can see. Without these intentions, the Church would be nothing more than a vanity project or just another consumer experience.
But there’s a fine line between dedicating yourself to good and looking down on others who aren’t doing what you’re doing. That’s when righteousness becomes contempt. And it’s an easy and slippery slope from the one to the other.
Christianity is a funny thing. It’s a religion that proclaims God’s triumph over the sin and evil—but only by sacrificing himself on a cross. It’s a faith that believes the church is the very Body of Christ—yet it tells the story of how religious leaders were the ones who handed Jesus over to death. And then we hear this parable today—those of us who are dedicated to striving for righteousness are told that the fruit of this very righteousness can be our spiritual undoing.
Embedded within our faith is the paradoxical knowledge that the more this faith flourishes, the stronger the temptations for it to stray and the graver the consequences for when it does. Think about that for a second. The deeper you go into this mystical journey with Christ and the more you see of his grace and mercy, the more you will be tempted to betray him and your fellow human beings. No wonder so few of us choose this path! It’s not the kind of thing that gets easier as you practice it. Actually, it gets harder. The more righteous you become, the more likely you will feel contempt.
But there’s a simple solution to this problem. Jesus tells us exactly what to do when we start to feel contemptuous. He says, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” If you feel yourself becoming contemptuous, the best medicine is a little dash of humility. That was the righteous man’s problem. He kept puffing himself up. But no one is as perfect as he thought he was. He may have looked at the tax collector with contempt, but what about his own issues? That’s great he fasts twice a week—but what about people who don’t have enough money to feed themselves or their families? That’s fine he gives 10 percent of his income. But where does he think that other 90 percent comes from? As one member of our congregation reminds us every year, it’s good she’s not God because she wouldn’t let us get away with just 10 percent.
Without humility, we begin to think that every good thing we have in our lives comes from us and not from God. Without humility, we start to blame others for their own problems and lose our empathy for their struggles. Without humility, we are tempted to put ourselves in the place of God, and there is no greater sin than that.
Self-righteousness breeds contempt. And the cure for contempt is humility. That’s what Jesus says.
Unfortunately, this has been a lesson that the Church has often forgotten. Among all the crazy news items from the past week, you may have noticed a study that came out from the Pew Research Center. They’re the definitive record keeper about religion and demographics in the United States. According to their study, only 65 percent of Americans identify as Christian. Just ten years ago, that number was 77 percent. That means that in just one decade, 12 percent of the entire population of this country of over 300 million people has left Christianity.
And do you know what the largest growing religious group is in America? It’s the so-called “nones.” These are people who aren’t necessarily atheists or agnostics. They just have no religious identity at all. This group has grown from 12 percent to 17 percent of the population since 2009. It is growing across all demographics—college educated and non-college educated, urban and rural, black, white, and Hispanic, Republicans and Democrats. The energy and momentum in the faith life of this country in this time is with a category called “none.”
And to be honest, in many ways, I can’t blame these millions of people. Because I think I know why they’ve left this faith. They are people who have come to the temple in search of meaning and truth, in search of grace and hope. But instead they have heard the voice of the righteous man, the song of self-satisfaction and contempt. And why would anyone want to be part of a church like that? Especially a church that has this gospel story in its holiest scriptures?
It’s easy to point out self-righteousness in others. We can talk about the churches that have allowed abuse of children and then ignored the pleas of the victims. We can talk about the churches that package the Gospel up in a slick package of friendliness but then exclude some of God’s most vulnerable people. We can talk about pastors who make millions of dollars while conveniently skipping over the fact that our Lord lived a life of poverty. All these things have firmly put themselves in the imagination of the public, which now sees them as what American Christianity is all about.
But to point out all this hypocrisy without a look at ourselves would be to fall into the very trap of contempt that Jesus describes today. The only way to cure contempt is with humility. No church will ever be perfect, because every church is made up of imperfect people. The only way for an imperfect body of people to proclaim the salvation of God is with humility. Humility must be at the core of everything we do. We must welcome guests and strangers with a humble heart. We must worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness acknowledging that beauty comes from God alone. We must offer our gifts at the altar freely and without self-satisfaction. When we succeed, we must stand in awe at the great things God does in our midst. When we fail, we must thank God for the grace to give us another chance. And like the tax collector, we must continually ask for God’s mercy—for the sins we commit and the sins committed on our behalf.
This is what a Christian community looks like: not righteous and contemptuous, but humble and open. All that we have comes from God, and it is of God’s own that we offer ourselves back. The closer we get to God, the greater the temptation is to fall prey to pride. So arm yourselves with humility, the softener of hearts and fuel of true faith. Humble yourselves, and you will find exultation in God. Amen.
The Rev. Spencer D. Cantrell
Oct 20th, 2019
All Saints' Church
Luke 18: 1-8