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.