Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday 2021

April 4, 2021

St. Alban’s Church

Pastor Jim Stickney

 

Christ did not die and rise from the dead only to make bad people into good people.   Christ died and rose to make dying people truly alive!

 

Today we celebrate the heart of Christian faith, that death is not the end of the story.

Today we rejoice that we share in the new life of Christ Jesus beyond death.

Today we proclaim our freedom from any fear of being imprisoned in this world

of such swift economic changes — we know where true joys are to be found.

 

Last Sunday we waved joyful palms to celebrate the easy way of being believers —

following Jesus in fair weather, when there’s a crowd cheering all of us on.

Then we shifted and became a mob crying for this one man to die for the people.

On Good Friday, in our own quiet way, we kept vigil for divinity seeming to die,

trying to be faithful, when bring a believer is the hardest thing to do.

And today we celebrate new life, risen life in which we all can share.

 

Christ did not die and rise from the dead only to make bad people into good people.

Christ died and rose to make dying people truly alive!

 

It’s a joy to be asked to return to St. Alban’s, where I spent most of my active ministry.

I must have preached close to 20 Easter sermons, and I must have used

a personal Easter story back then. I’m going to repeat it for you now — and for those

who were not members back then, it will be something new for you.

 

When I was about ten, I caught a bad cold just before Easter.  Mom and Dad debated,                             then decided I was old enough that they could just  leave me home alone

while they and the younger children went to church that Easter morning without me.

As an incentive, they gave me my Easter basket early before they left.

 

I remember feeling, not sick and abandoned, but happy that they trusted me.

I had a fine time alone on Easter, eating some candy, and finding a license plate

in my basket with “Jim” on it which I taped to my bicycle before they returned.

 

Most of all, I remember feeling that God was with me in my heart,

even though I wasn’t in church.  Not going to church that day helped me find God.

God took what could have been sadness for me, and transformed it.

 

That story takes on new meaning during this time of pandemic, when our leaders,

both in church and in society, are pleading with us to keep social distance.

And compared to last year, our churches have proved to be resilient and innovative —

just consider the new skills we’ve developed in order to sustain community.

We’ve accomplished a kind of resurrection right in the middle of a crisis.

 

Christ did not die and rise from the dead only to make bad people into good people.

Christ died and rose to make dying people truly alive!

 

I’d like to speak to our skeptical side for a moment, to the doubts within us.

Does the Bible try to trick us with clever rhetoric and exaggerated Easter claims?

It’s quite the opposite! The record of the Gospel writers is brutally honest.

No one claimed to see the moment of Resurrection. They weren’t even expecting it.

What they were expecting was to prepare a corpse for burial. That’s it!

 

Imagine a creepy scene in a horror movie. The music gets quiet for that tense moment

when someone turns a corner, opens a door, sees some dead body, and screams.

This morning’s Gospel story of Easter gives us the exact opposite of a horror movie.

The trauma, the horror and tragedy, was three days past, at the crucifixion.

 

Instead, a few women with ointments and perfumes are prepared to find that dead body.

What they weren’t ready for was the appearance of radiant angelic beings

posing a lovely rhetorical question to them: Why do you seek the living among the dead?

In his Easter message, Bishop Marc referred to this little group as a “pod.”

I rather like the idea of a small bubble of disciples now infected by faith in Jesus!

 

Yes, death will come for each of us, but death is no longer the final chapter of life.

And not only does that mean a new start in the life to come, but it also

breaks the cycle of despair and hopelessness in which so too people live lives

of quiet desperation — hungry for a fresh start, but unsure how to make it.

By our sharing in Christ’s risen life, we can always make a new start — right now!

 

Christ did not die and rise from the dead only to make bad people into good people.

Christ died and rose to make dying people truly alive!

 

It was difficult for the women who went to the tomb to open their hearts again

to the love they felt for Jesus. It’s difficult for us to break out of the tombs and traps

of our fond past memories, look around at the changed circumstances

of our life today, and find Jesus there. And yet, we’ve managed to stay faithful!

 

And in tough times, we know that we are invited to celebrate the true riches,

and hold fast to the realities that will not fluctuate like infection rates from Covid 19.

 

Some may try to paste last years leaves on the tree and then call that Spring.

Instead, look at your life this day! This moment Christ Jesus wants to live in you!

The new life just won’t be the same as the old — God intends to do a new thing.

 

Christ did not die and rise from the dead only to make bad people into good people.

Christ died and rose to make dying people truly alive!

LENT 5

LENT 5

Mary Doleman

3/21/21 Gospel John 12:20-33

This account follows the brief story (in this gospel) of Jesus entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. A crowd who had been with Jesus when he raised Lazarus from the dead, and those who had heard of the miracle, came to meet Jesus. There were Greeks in the crowd, as well as Jews. So, the message of salvation and new life is to be spread beyond the Jewish community. Now they have all come out to meet Jesus, and have asked Phillip to take them to him.

When Phillip and Andrew tell Jesus about the crowd, Jesus replies that now is the time for him to be glorified. Earlier in this chapter of the gospel, Jesus has had his feet anointed with nard by Mary, as a foretelling of his end. Then Jesus speaks of a grain of wheat that must die in order to give new life – a further clarification of what is to come.
For me this is a very powerful parable. My parents had a farm in the Sacramento Valley, and one of the crops that they grew was winter wheat. It seemed like forever between the planting of the single seeds, the emergence of the first green shoots, and finally the arrival of the “head” or stalk of wheat. (I can still remember my mother coming into the house after looking at the field and joyfully saying “it’s heading out”!). What was one, was resurrected as many and gives new life.
I can imagine the crowd listening to Jesus, nodding, as this cycle was so familiar to them, and brought forth the key ingredient for their daily life-giving sustenance. They understood that there had to be the death of the one grain to bring forth the new crop. And this foretells Jesus own death and resurrection – he dies so that we may have new life in Christ. And we can then spread the good news to many, having been given sustenance by the “bread of life” – Jesus.

We are made stronger together, as are the grains in the stalk of wheat. Together we can do so much more than we can do on our own. And we are bound together in our love of Christ. This is what enables us to go out into the world with confidence to live a life of service to others – a “resurrection life”.

Jesus then confounds the crowd with the exhortation that we must “hate our life in this world to keep it for eternal life”. What a tough concept! What does it really mean? And how can we do this? I think that the point is that we must set aside our personal agendas, our self-centeredness, and turn outward. It is in this turning to others that we find our true lives and participate in the work of God in the world. At the crucifixion Jesus tells Mary his mother to “behold your son”, and tells John “behold your mother”. This points us to an outward, inclusive view of the world, rather than a self-centered exclusive world view. And I believe it is a call to action – to actively participate in the life of the world, and to work for healing of ourselves, our community and our planet. This is hard work, but in this work, we will meet Jesus in unexpected people and places, and our lives will be richer for it.

Now, Jesus states that his hour has come, and calls on God to glorify the father’s name. He also does not ask to be saved from his final hour, as this is the path to “draw all men to himself”. The voice from heaven that says that God will glorify his name is perceived by the crowd as thunder or the voice of an angel. Jesus says that the voice is for the sake of the crowd, not for himself. He states that by his death he will draw all men to himself. That is his ultimate gift to us – to share in the eternal life. And in order to share in his gift, we must share with one another. We need to always keep this in mind, and be aware of the great gift we have been given. And to help this gift to grow, we need to share it with others. In that way, we will be as the seed that is planted and brings forth abundant life.

Amen

LENT 4

Reflection for March 14, 2021, Fourth Sunday of Lent

Lawrence DiCostanzo

 

Numbers 21:4-9

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Ephesians 2:1-10c

John 3:14-21

I think that today should be called Snake Sunday.  We have snakes in the reading from the Book of Numbers.  And, in the Gospel reading, we have Jesus referring to the same story about snakes.

I am not sure what the compilers of the lectionary had in mind.  But when I started looking at these passages, turning them upside-down and sideways, I found that I was thinking about how I fit in and how conversion is wordless, how it’s a surprise, how it’s a daily experience.

So, here’s a story about a wordless conversion.  When I was an undergraduate walking across a beautiful campus, someone came up to me and offered to pay me two dollars if I participated in a psychology experiment.  Two dollars was big money in 1964.

So, I showed up at the right place and time. I think it was in the basement of the Episcopal chapel. There were a number of questions about what ideas and so forth I associated with — snakes.  There were also questions like: Would I let a snake curl around my neck, would I pick one up, and so forth.

Well, not to be a sissy, I said I’d pick one up if I had to.  And after a little while, I was told that I would be meeting a real snake and I’d be asked to do what I said I would do.  So, in a windowless room, I was introduced to a caged brown snake who was constantly trying to slip out through the cage’s grid.  The guy said, “Pick him up.”  I said, “Is it poisonous?”  Ridiculous question.  So, I grabbed the snake around the middle.  The guy said, “Not so tight. Support him near its head so he doesn’t get hurt.”  He was trying to get away.  He did not want to be there.  He was probably sore all over his body.   All of a sudden, I felt pity and love.  I went through a transformation.  I cannot explain this in words.

So, now, I am a bike-riding snake saver.  I got off my bike once to pick up a bright green grass snake so that he wouldn’t be squashed by a car.  I felt the delicate soft velvet of his skin and the road heat on his body.  Another time, while biking on Bear Valley Road near Briones Park, I saw a California king snake stretching full length in the sun on the road’s yellow dividing lines.  Surely, he was happy.  He was surely California’s most handsome snake.  I shooed all five feet of him off the road to get him out of a perilous situation.

So now let’s look at conversion or salvation in today’s readings.  In short, let’s look for changes of heart.  Let’s look for what it means to see the bronze serpent.

I’m going to start with a little self-diagnosis.  In the Book of Numbers, the Israelites were attacked by poisonous snakes because they had sinned by speaking against God.  By this time, the Israelites had been in the desert for already almost 40 years.  They had been locked into the wilderness.  They were sick of their hardship. They were sick of their lives.  There seemed nothing to look forward to.  A whole generation was to die before the sons of Israel would be allowed to enter the Promised Land.  Really, they were in despair.  The poisonous snakes were a consequence of their despair, almost a personification of it.  At God’s instruction, Moses puts the bronze serpent on a kind of standard pole.  The Bible doesn’t say this bronze serpent chased the snakes away.  What it did is heal and redeem the people who’d been bitten.

I am not about to say what stupid and nasty people the ancient Israelites must have been.  The reason is that I think I live inside this part of the Book of Numbers.  Like the Israelites, I fall into a kind of despair once in a while.  Sometimes, I get a feeling that expresses itself in the question “What’s the point?”  I get tired.  The bills will have to be sorted and paid till I die. The house will always have to be cleaned.  I will never figure out what the Cross means.  I will always be a sometimes anxious father. I have to keep enduring the everlasting hardship of the humdrum.  Sometimes, like the Israelites, I want to be somewhere else.

Jesus picks up on the story bronze serpent in today’s Gospel.  By using the story of the bronze serpent, he tells us that he knows that we have problems like the Israelites or, simply put, experiences that dampen and suppress hope.  That sometimes we are all stranded in our own desert.

So, let’s look at the whole of John Chapter 3 which is the chapter in which Jesus talks about the bronze serpent.  In this chapter, Jesus is actually talking to an individual who has come to visit him at night, perhaps because he wants to keep the visit secret.  The individual is a man named Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a leader.

Nicodemus cannot make heads or tails out of anything Jesus says.  Like the Israelites in the Book of Numbers, like me sometimes, too, Nicodemus is locked up in a desert.  His desert is his unimaginative ways of thinking, the rituals and traditions he observes.  For example:  In this nighttime conversation, Jesus makes the famous remark that, unless you are born again, you can’t see the Kingdom of God.  John 3:3-4.  To which Nicodemus says: “Come on!  How can a man climb back inside his mother’s womb?”

Nicodemus is tossed this way and that by the power of Jesus’ urgency to communicate.     Now, Jesus has a high IQ.  I know this because he uses the power of stories and metaphors to get his point across about things that cannot be explained in words.  Just look the parables.  And we sit with these stories, often from childhood on, and we try to live in them for the rest of our lives.  I think this is why we read the Bible over and over and never get tired.

But Nicodemus is a student of the Law.  It is likely that things are black and white for him.  When Jesus says that he is the bronze serpent who brings eternal life and then hammers it in by saying God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, Nicodemus’ head is spinning.  John 3:16.

Nicodemus is my brother.  He may be buried in the Law.  But I’m buried in trying to endure, and the Israelites are dealing with their own poisonous snakes.  Plus, I can’t really put into words what Jesus means.  But I do know that, in the same way I live with Bible stories, Nicodemus lives with and in this nighttime conversation.  Nicodemus is converted without the words and without the thinking.  How do I know this?  Because, later on, Nicodemus is the guy who stands up for Jesus in John 7 when the Temple authorities want to arrest him.  And also, along with Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus is the guy who gave Jesus’ body the honors of burial in John 19.  Nicodemus may not have been able to define what was going on, but he acted as if he did.  He was living the story.  All I can say is that he saw the bronze serpent.

I feel I should follow in Nicodemus’ footsteps.  He is one of God’s great models of conversion.  Remember: he didn’t even have the advantage of the fact of the Resurrection.  What he did was to love in a very broad way without relying on promises that he could understand.

If Nicodemus’ story teaches me anything, it is about how to avoid the poisonous snakes of the Book of Numbers, and how right and solid is the old, old, rote prescription that permeates our faith like a like a broken record: “Love God and love your neighbor.”  This is Nicodemus.  I cannot explain why he took on the messy job of taking down Jesus’ corpse from the cross.  All I can say is that he grabbed the grace of directly loving Jesus through service to his body.  I can’t explain why I honor the dignity of snakes.  All I can say is that, no matter the desert, this is how the world should be.

Vitamin Em

CALLIOPE: EAST BAY MUSIC AND ARTS

MARCH CONCERT:
Vitamin Em
Sunday, March 21, 2021
4:00 PM – 5:30 PM PDT

Calliope’s next concert will be Vitamin Em, an eclectic powerhouse of five musicians who play funk, rock and roll, jazz, and rhythm and blues – on classical instruments, with all the skills which come from classical training and years as professional orchestral musicians. Their fifth instrumentalist will be playing the accordion, because what isn’t more fun with some accordion thrown in? With Emily Onderdonk on viola (San Francisco Ballet), Matthew Szemela on violin (Berkeley Symphony), Michael Graham on cello (Oakland Symphony), Evan Price on violin (Turtle Island Quartet) and Dan Cantrell on accordion. (Dan played with Cookie Segelstein in our Violins of Hope concert last year.)

Tickets are $15-$25 on Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/vitamin-em-music-infused-with-fun-tickets-141888888485 We are guaranteeing a fair wage to the performers, with a little help from Jazz in the Neighborhood – and donors like you – and 15% of every ticket purchase goes back to St. Alban’s!

The concert will be broadcast via YouTube Premiere, which feels just like a live concert, with all the features of a live broadcast you’ve come to expect from Calliope — high-quality audio and video, synchronous viewing, live chat with the artists and other music lovers — but allows us to capture Vitamin Em’s performance a few days in advance when they had an opening in their calendar, then “air” it for all of you with a watch party on concert day.

THIS CONCERT WILL ALSO BE AVAILABLE “ON-DEMAND” for the week following the premiere. After the initial broadcast, you may watch it as often as you like, whenever you like.
Stay tuned for information on our April and May shows!

LENT 3

LENT 3

Margaret Doleman

March 7, 2021

In the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, which appears in all 4 gospels, Jesus is angry. I saw a video about 15 or 16 years ago, based on the gospel of Matthew. In it, Jesus was a pleasant, friendly, laid back sort of teacher. So, this scene, which is near the end of Matthew, really stood out. He’s turning over tables, and yelling. The sight of those merchants and money changers on the temple grounds made him lose his cool. In John’s version, although it’s a little different from the others, he seems just as angry.

What I’ve been thinking about is, what does Jesus want us to do about money? Spoiler alert: no answers here. But I think the questions are important. And as Barbara said last week, it would be nice if this could be a discussion.

As we are often reminded (usually around November), Jesus talked about money a lot. The sayings that jump out at me, besides this one, where Jesus condemns the use of temple property for conducting business, are:
You cannot serve God and wealth

Store up your treasure in Heaven
It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of Heaven

It’s easy to see where Christians got the idea that they shouldn’t really have anything to do with money, especially if you add in that saying of Paul, money is the root of all evil. But wait, he actually said, the LOVE of money is the root of all evil. Why do people so often leave out those two words? It seems like a pretty important distinction.

Money is necessary in any culture that’s too big, and too complicated to function on bartering. So, isn’t Jesus really saying that the problem is when money becomes an end in itself? Or is he?

It’s complicated, money. And I’m pretty sure it’s a lot more complicated now than it was two thousand years ago. As I understand it, in Jesus’s time, there were people with more money than they needed, and people with less than they needed. There still are. But, if I’m not mistaken, nowadays there are a lot more of us in the middle. Most of us have credit cards, which can fool us into thinking we can afford more than we should spend. Many of us have investments of some sort, either personal or through some sort of retirement plan. Do we know what the people who are managing our money are doing with it?

If we’re lucky enough to have enough to give some away, there are a thousand charities and nonprofit organizations fighting for whatever we can give them. They’re all very good at convincing us that their cause is worthy, urgent, and likely to fail without our contributions. It’s pretty clear that none of us can give to all of them, and there are ways, like Charity Navigator, to check if these organizations are legitimate and financially responsible, but each of us still has to decide which ones are most important to us, and how much we can give. That’s the hardest question for me.

Because, if I have enough to give away, it also means I have enough to buy things that I don’t really need. And boy, does our world offer us things! And experiences! All shown to us in beautiful photographs, described by reassuring voices, telling us that if we buy this stuff, we’ll be healthier – happier – better looking; our lives will be easier! I know it’s pretty much all a lie, but, like a vaccination, that knowledge is not 100% effective against the constant exposure to advertising. I know I don’t need any more stuff, but there are always things out there that it seems like it would be nice to have. So, where’s the line between charity and self-indulgence? I tell myself that I’m not extravagant, and I try to be generous with gifts and donations, so I’m OK, right? Or am I?

Even decisions about what we buy to meet our basic needs can be fraught with ethical considerations. How are the companies who make this product treating their workers? What about the environment? What are they doing with their profits? And on and on….

I think about all these things, and try to make the best decisions. But I know I don’t always get it right, and I wonder if anyone does. There are so many reasons for not making the “perfect choice.” Maybe it’s beyond your budget. Or it doesn’t meet your needs. Or maybe there is no perfect choice, because the company that’s doing excellent work in the humanitarian area is shipping their products in a ton of plastic. A scene in a recent TV series has a character saying that no one has been admitted to Heaven in the last 500 years, because the world has become so complex that everyone is complicit in evil.

I could almost believe that. But I don’t, not the part about no one getting into Heaven. I’m not sure exactly what Heaven means, except being with God. I believe that God loves us, and if God loves us, why would God punish us, or cast us away, for not doing things perfectly? Surely God knows, after all these millennia, that humans aren’t very good at perfection. But surely, God must want us to keep trying. Isn’t that the pattern of human progress? Try. Fail. Learn. Try again and do a little better this time. And it never hurts to ask God for some guidance.

 

LENT 2

LENT 2
2/28/21 Barbara Metcalf

As Paul tells us, Abraham is our model for the “steadfast faith” our collect prays for. But the three other people we encounter in today’s readings model faith for us as well. All four become new people in faith and it’s not subtle. Each one has gotten a new name to make the point.

First Abraham. Deb Jesch and others will remember Carole Richardson acting out Abraham and Sarah’s journey to the Land of Canaan on a big sand board for Godly Play. Captivating us and the children about what it meant to traverse a desert, and to leave a world where people believed in many gods, entering into the promise of God, the one God, God who will be with you wherever you go — and for Abram and Sarai, the promise that God will grant offspring. It’s a wonderful story.

Thanks to hearing Larry DiCostanzo read all of Genesis out loud to several of us recently, I can tell you that there’s a lot to Abram/Abraham’s story that we don’t tell the children, and much of it is tough. In part it’s tough because Abram encounters grim challenges.
In part it is tough because there is a cultural gap that makes his decisions hard to understand. By the time we get to our text today there has been famine. Abram has retreated to Egypt and has given Sarai, his own wife, to Pharoah out of fear that Pharaoh will otherwise kill him in order to take her. Then there are all the complexities of having brought along his nephew Lot and his family. They compete over land. Abram has to rescue him militarily. Lot’s disobedient wife turns into a pillar of salt. Lot’s daughters make Lot drunk so he will sleep with them to sire children. And then there is Hagar, the slave woman whose body is used for procreation when the wife is barren.

Sarai, to focus for a minute on our second renamed model, endures it all. She is the one given to Pharoah. She is the one who is long childless in a society where to be barren is to risk everything — respect, support in old age, a husband’s favor. She is the one who resorts to having her husband father a child on her slave. She is the one who comes to resent the slave and the slave’s child. A tough story.

I think it’s the toughness of their story, the crooked path, the uncertainties that make Abraham and Sarah so foundational to our story. Their covenant — God’s promise of protection through material and moral crises on every side that they face, must face faithfully — that covenant persists.

As our epistle reminds us, God’s faithfulness is not earned by righteous deeds by Abraham or by anyone else but faith alone. Think of the promise of offspring as the symbol of that grace. That the aged Abram and Sarai of themselves could conceive a child is so implausible as to be laughable. They laugh. It is to them to be faithful, and that faith will to be tested again and again in the chapters that follow today’s reading. Abandoning Hagar and Ismael is a test of faith. The near sacrifice of Isaac speaks for itself.

Abraham and Sarah face these tests as new people. In this second covenant Abraham and Sarah are reborn, renewed. We know that because they have new names, names that evoke God’s promise of offspring. Names matter. We see this often so movingly in name choices that define or elide gender. Imagine one young person I know (who uses the pronouns

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they, their). They are of Nepali birth, adopted into a New England Anglo family. (Their sister is my godchild.) For them, neither gender or community has felt fixed and they have moved among a Hindi girl’s name; an American female name; and the Buddha’s name – this last a claim on ethnicity, values, and gender at once. Chosen, or given, a new name can help us become who we are. It is with his new name that Abraham faces his hardest tests.

Paul teaches us in words; but his life itself is a model. I think his messages to us are so moving precisely because of his own rebirth and renaming, Saul turned Paul, his own experience of grace, his new life of faithfulness to death. He knows whereof he speaks:

not just Abraham but Paul is our model of someone who doesn’t earn, cannot earn, but faithfully receives God’s gracious gifts and promises. You are protected, you are God’s beloved child, and it is not of your doing.

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Here is a final thought about Abraham’s tumultuous life. How does he know what a faithful life requires? Abraham knows because he and God are best friends. They talk all the time. Abraham’s story is filled with dreams, visions, strangers who turn out to be angels, covenants, conversations that are detailed negotiations. Muslims, in fact, call Ibrahīm Khalīlu’llāh, God’s friend (a minor epithet in the Bible too).

How do you talk to God, hear God? There is an anthropologist at Stanford called Tanya Luhrmann who participated in an evangelical church over a two-year period. The members learn to hear God’s voice. They don’t hear it at the beginning, Luhrmann explains, but over time they learn to recognize some of the voices in their head – as we all have in our head – as God speaking. They hear him, they tell her, as clearly as you are hearing me.

There are many ways to hear God’s voice, to read signs, to recognize his voice. The lessons we hear week after week, the liturgies of our worship, they all teach us. Our hymns teach us. I remember Beth Beller saying something like she learned her faith in hymns. I thought of that comment this week because words of hymns kept jumping into my mind as I pondered our lesson for today. From “God is working his purpose out” to “Lord speak to me that I may speak” to the childhood hymn of “What a friend we have in Jesus.” Friendship is a reminder of Abraham and of the way Lurhmann’s evangelicals speak of their conversations with God, sometimes staged by pouring a second cup of coffee or meeting in the park. It may seem alien to imagine hearing God as a human voice, but not, I think, to imagine God always primed for conversation. The conversation of prayer, explicit speech or not, are nurtured by scripture, the liturgy, the hymns – and “the clouds of witnesses” who have gone before, and the saints and angels with us now.

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But how do we know that a voice is God’s and not Satan’s? Some of the insurgents at the capitol on January 6 said they were there “because the President told me to be.” Some, chillingly, said they were there because God had told them to be.

It is far easier to see Satan, as he surely is, destroying the lives, and all they touch, of the Proud Boys and their ilk than to recognize our own misguided voice within.

We make mistakes, and perhaps Peter, our fourth reborn and renamed person, is a model for not giving up when we do. The message of Lent: misdirection and return. Turning to our Gospel lesson, Jesus knows his Father’s will; he has recognized the right path, the hard

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path. But Peter, Peter, who is the rock, is once again off track. The stories of his failures are one of his great gifts to the rest of us in our failures, another sign of God’s grace.

The mid-Victorian woman who wrote the hymn “Lord speak to me that I may speak in living echoes of your tone” spoke of her conversion to a life of faith in memorable words. “Earth and heaven seemed brighter from that moment.” May we find, as the collect prays, that “steadfast faith” and know that joy. Amen.

First Lent

First Sunday in Lent

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church ● Albany, California

Stephen Hitchcock ● February 21, 2021

Genesis 9:8-17

Psalm 25:1-9

1 Peter 3:18-22

MARK 1:9-15

It’s been almost exactly one year since I preached my last sermon in the sanctuary of St. Alban’s Church.  You may recall that our deacon, Dani, and I agreed that we’d each preach once a month until we had a new priest. Well, the pandemic certainly changed those plans.

Now we’re saying farewell to Dani, wishing them blessings and best wishes as they begin a new ministry.  Our sadness at Dani’s departure – we will miss Dani’s spirited leadership and those surprising sermons – is offset by gratitude and memories of all their ministry has accomplished: creating Messy Vespers, pitching in to provide pastoral care, organizing Operation Sandwich, leading anti-racism training, and much more.  Thank you, Dani.

Unfortunately, we’re not yet saying farewell to the pandemic and all the isolation and disruption caused by this deadly disease.  So, it is perhaps appropriate that today is the first Sunday in Lent.  The Gospel for this Sunday is an especially useful resource for these difficult days.

The Gospels were written – and we read them today – not just because they are interesting stories about Jesus and his disciples.  They are indeed interesting, and I’m grateful for your patience with my enthusiasm for the literary and historical treasures in these Gospels.

No, the Gospels are meant to be stories about us – stories about our following Jesus today and our life together as present-day disciples.

Thrown Out into the Wilderness

Thus, it makes sense that today we find ourselves with Jesus in the wilderness, a place of desolation and danger.  For those who first heard Jesus, the wilderness was where Moses and the Israelites wandered – and withered – for 40 years after their exodus from Egypt.  Moses himself fasted 40 days at Mount Sinai, and later Elijah fasted 40 days in the wilderness near Mount Horeb.

Today, as then, the wilderness was a place of testing.  “Tempted” is a misleading translation here.  We’re not being tempted to give in to some minor sins.  As with the Israelites in the wilderness, we’re being tested on the Big Sin: will we trust that God hasn’t abandoned us and that God cares deeply for us?

On that front, we certainly have been tried and tested.  Not just by this deadly virus that has kept us isolated and separated from friends and loved one.  But, also by the divisions and disparities that wrack our nation.  And by climate change that threatens the survival of the planet.  And some of us wander in the wilderness of aging brains and bodies, illness and infirmity.

Even though we – like Adam and Eve – have been thrown out of Eden into the dessert, Mark’s Gospel doesn’t leave us there.  Today’s reading invites us – no, insists that we confront three challenges.

The Cosmic Battle with Satan

First is a recuring theme in Mark’s Gospel.  Our wilderness experience isn’t a temporary inconvenience or a chronic problem we can overcome with positive thinking and willpower.  What tested Jesus – and tests us – is Satan, the one who embodies and wields all the forces of evil, including sickness and death.

Mark’s Gospel is the story of the cosmic battle between Jesus and Satan, between life and death.  In the chapters to come, we will see Satan’s demons at work, as Christine reminded us in her reflection.  In Mark 6, Satan’s power makes the seas rage and threatens to drown the disciples.

This demonic force is its most threatening – and personal – right at the center or pivot point in chapter 8.  Jesus has told the disciples for first time that he is going to Jerusalem to be put to death.  When Peter objects, Jesus responds with “Get behind me, Satan.”

Conquering Death by Dying

That brings up the second challenge in today’s reading.  Already in these very early verses, Jesus’ fate is made clear.  In verse 14, John the Baptist is arrested, which should be read “handed over” – the same verb is used to describe what happens to Jesus.  Earlier in our reading, after Jesus is baptized, the heavens are torn open – just as the temple curtain is torn at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.

And we are privy – we’re the audience here because, at this point in Mark’s Gospel, there are no crowds around– to the voice that proclaims, “This my beloved son.”

Remember when we heard that voice and those words?  A week ago Sunday, we celebrated the transfiguration.  In Mark’s Gospel, that mountain top experience, follows right after Jesus’ first predictions about his death.  There, with Moses and Elijah present, the voice from heaven announces, “This my Son, the Beloved.”

In Mark’s Gospel, that confession of Jesus as God’s son is made by a human voice – a Centurion and a Gentile – only after Jesus has died on the cross.

So, mystery of mystery – what the Apostle Paul calls a scandal — Satan is overcome and death is conquered when Jesus loses that cosmic battle, when Jesus is pulled under the waves, when he suffers death.  Jesus gives his life as a ransom so that Satan no longer owns us, evil does not enthrall us.

Raised to New Life

The third challenge we’re given today is trust that our story doesn’t end with the story of Jesus’ death.  That Jesus’ shares our humanity and suffers our fate may be comforting, but it is not GOOD NEWS.

And that is what Jesus proclaims – good news – after he returns from the wilderness and begins his ministry. announcement in the very first sentence of the Gospel, “This is the Good News of the Son of God.”

For Jesus to announce “This is the Good News of the Son of God” was both audacious dangerous. This good news was in sharp contrast and clear conflict with other news. In Jesus’ day and when Mark’s Gospel was written, official heralds were proclaiming the “real” good news that the Roman Emperor – whose kingdom was the entire world he had conquered – was the Son of God.

Today, we are invited to trust that Jesus – who was executed by representatives of that emperor – promises us life in a new kingdom.  One in which demons are cast out, the sick are healed, people are fed in the wilderness, and all people of all persuasions and backgrounds are welcomed.

Living in Resurrection Time – Now

And that kingdom – that way of living – is now.  Jesus says, “The time fulfilled.”  The word for “time” is Kairos, not chronological time, but resurrection time.

It’s resurrection time because Jesus was raised from the dead.  The account of Jesus’ baptism says that Jesus “comes up” out the water.  Throughout Mark’s Gospel, as Jesus reaches out and heals, this rising and lifting up is a repeated refrain.

We, too, rise up – are raised up – out the water of our baptism to new life.  At morning prayers on Thursday, we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther.  For Luther, at the beginning of each day was resurrection – as we rise up out of sleep, make the baptismal sign of the cross, and begin another day of new life.

That new life is the Spirit that appears at Jesus’ baptism.  The Spirit of the Risen Christ is here today as we gather for worship, as we listen to scriptures, and as we pray together.  And when we are able to gather in person, the Risen Christ will be present as we partake that wilderness mana in the Eucharist.

Surrounded and sustained by this Spirit of new life, we can’t help but care for each other, for God’s creation and creatures, and for all those in need.  Jesus’ story is truly our story, and that’s the good news we are announcing to each other and to the world.  Amen.

Last Epiphany

Last Epiphany

Deacon Dani Gabriel

Sermon

February 14th, 2020

St. Alban’s Albany

Readings: https://lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Epiphany/BEpiLast_RCL.html

Sometimes something has to be transfigured before we can see it as it truly is. Sometimes, we need an announcement and a heavenly voice. Sometimes this happens, unexpectedly, when you’re not prepared. Peter and James and John were clearly not prepared, as Peter bumbles with his suggestions. I was not prepared, either, as I approached St. Alban’s.

I approached St. Alban’s in the middle of the pandemic and the building was the same. Same church it has always been, with beautiful windows and the labyrinth I’ve traced many times. But I saw it clearly in the sunshine for what it really is: a building. Not the church at all. I’ve always said, I’m going up to THE church, or I was at THE church, as though the church could be held in the building.

But the pandemic has made this as dazzlingly obvious as Jesus’ garments: the church has nothing to do with the building. Our buildings offer solace and a place to worship, mourn, and celebrate. They are sanctuaries where we find rest and renewal. Yet they are not the church.

In this past 11 months I have seen church overflowing the buildings. I have seen church on Zoom and on Facebook and in the streets. Church cannot be contained. It’s alive. It’s where we are. It’s where Jesus is: everywhere.

And I was more than startled. I had not actually experienced the truth of this, at least not so deeply, so viscerally, until now. Like the disciples, maybe, up the mountain. The St. Alban’s buildings are not THE church as I called them, anymore than any other buildings. You are the church, every day, reaching out to one another, praying for one another, loving your neighbors, serving those who are struggling. And that is cause, even in this challenging time, for great joy.

Now we have to decide what that means in the future. How will we use our buildings? How will we remember what we have learned on this mountain? I’ve been writing about these ideas for a while, and this poem, which I shared with you in my first sermon as deacon at St. Alban’s has new meaning now as I share it now in my last sermon at St. Alban’s:

church

jesus christ
is depending on two dollars
and a bummed cigarette.
he’s sunburnt, skin cracked open,
oily hair and a bleached t shirt.
he’s not bothering to smile anymore,
he’s ditched his sign by the lamp post.
the lord has nothing to say.
there is a direct line to heaven today
for the first person
who pulls over, opens the window,
and passes him a twenty.
or a bottle, or a joint, or hell
just a hand.
in the coal red afternoon
cars streak hot breath on my cheek
as i say
hey, how’s it going?
and he nods.
the world reorients itself
that
quick.
i hadn’t noticed it but
god is all over the city today,
she’s tracking up and down the BART train
asking for change,
she’s crying in the bathroom, waiting
for someone to notice she’s not ok,
he’s up against the side of the building
in pajamas and handcuffs.
the kingdom of god
is a dirty sidewalk full of needles
and the drug sick angels
lurching at the entrance of the bar
are his messengers.
my god was sleeping in front of the spired church
on that manicured corner
and now he’s smoking weed in the courtyard
while the faithful prepare bulletins
and light candles.
careful friends
he’s coming in.

Friends, it’s easy to mistake the buildings for the church. There will be a lot of choices to make as the buildings reopen and church begins to look more like what it used to be. Don’t forget who you truly are.

Epiphany 5

Epiphany 5

Christine Staples

Feb. 8, 2020

 

Mark 1:29-39

After Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

I’d like to offer thanks to Steve Hitchcock for inviting me to offer a reflection on scripture to share with all of you, my beloved faith community, and for his suggestions for judicious prunings. I have so enjoyed hearing the reflections from each of you who have shared so far; one of the things I’ve appreciated is the little description of the journey each of you took as you reflected on the scripture. Therefore, I’d like to lead with a brief overview of the different pathways I could have taken today: this piece of scripture is brief, but it contains multitudes!

Firstly: I’m picturing Jesus and James and John, after a long day at the synagogue, going to Simon and Andrew’s house. They are probably expecting a nice meal and a comfortable rest – but Simon’s mother-in-law is sick in bed – Jesus has to heal her. And she gets right up out of bed to make them some supper. Well, there’s an interesting pathway….

Then, there’s the matter of miracles. I’m willing to venture a guess that each of us has experienced many miracles, small and large in our lifetimes. I can immediately think of a few in my life: a large one – giving birth to our amazing daughter at the age of 39 and 11/12ths. And small: our dear, late kitty, Bean; a tiny cream tabby kitten, walking out of an empty welding shop parking lot in the dark and cold of a January night, coming right up to us and introducing herself, just at the exact moment I was expressing my profound need of a cat of our own.

There’s also Jesus’ relationship to performing miracles: he’s performing them all day, every day. He’s so exhausted from performing miracles that he leaves Simon and Andrew’s home in the middle of the night, and heads out alone into a deserted place to pray, and still his followers track him down and say “hey, man, everyone has been looking for you!” How exhausting this must be.

Any of these aspects of the reading could absolutely yield an interesting reflection. But the thing which really stood out for me, which really caught my attention was this: Demons. All day, every day, mixed in with the healings, Jesus is casting out demons. And most strikingly for me: when he casts them out, he silences them, because they know him.

The first question I have to ask is: what, or who, is a demon? The classic depiction we have of demons is of a fanged, clawed, snarling, monster. But I don’t think this is the type of demon we’re talking about here. And of course, there’s the vision we have of “possession” from films like “The Exorcist.” That doesn’t seem to fit, either. For one thing, Mark tells this story with such a simple narrative style; it’s like reading an ancestor’s diary you find in the attic: “Cold today. I made bread. John went into town to sell some hay.” Only in this case, it’s “Jesus spent the day healing people and casting out demons. Then we walked to the next town, and he did it again.” I think even Mark would have mentioned it if the demon was really interesting looking or behaving. There are also what we call “personal” demons; which include anything from being endlessly haunted by something unkind or unwise we did fifty years ago, to trauma from our past, to addiction. And there’s psychosis. But again, none of these things really fit.

…“he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” – What type of demon is so common that Jesus is casting them out day and night, and that KNOW THE LORD? And why does Jesus seek to silence them?

Last week in church we received a clue in another reading from Mark; the reading immediately precedes this week’s verses: Jesus and his disciples are in Capernaum; they go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, where Jesus proceeds to teach. And there is a man in the temple who is said to have an “unclean spirit”. The man cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” And Jesus rebukes him, and says “Be silent and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.”

How interesting! Once again, the “unclean spirit” knows Jesus – it REALLY knows Jesus –  it calls him the “Holy One of God”. Even the disciples don’t “know” him in this way until after his death! This demon knows for sure who Jesus is – and it is afraid that in his role as the Holy One of God that He has come to destroy them.

Truth to tell, it didn’t take long for the demons to reveal themselves to me; I just started thinking about current events: people attempting to violently overthrow our government, murder our leaders, and assault police officers using flags emblazoned with Jesus’ name as weapons. Church leaders vilifying anyone who upheld the election results. Fundraisers for Kyle Rittenhouse on a so-called “Christian” online fundraising platform. Politicians deliberately separating immigrant families at the border and imprisoning them.

My fellow travelers, this is what I think: if a demon is someone who knows who Christ is, knows what Christ’s message is, and must be silenced from speaking His name, I think that it’s because the demon is using Jesus’ name for profane reasons,  to pervert others. The demon is afraid that its old ways, its old powers are about to be destroyed: white supremacy, homophobia and misogyny are “old powers” which spring to mind right away.

How do we know a demon when we see one?

Those of you who have been worshipping with me for the last couple of years will probably not be too surprised to hear that I often think in musical terms. I’d like to sing you a verse from a hymn I learned in my youth at my home church; it was written in the 60’s by a Catholic priest, and it’s based on the Book of John – I imagine many of you know it, even though it is, sadly, not in our hymnal:

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord

And we pray that all unity will one day be restored

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love

If someone is talking about having a mandate from God or Jesus, or carrying a flag or sporting a t-shirt, hat, or bumper sticker with God or Jesus on it, but the content of their speech, or their behavior is not loving – if it’s not inclusive, if it’s hateful, if it promotes racism, homophobia, misogyny or prejudice – there’s a demon talking.

Of course, if we call out a demon, the demon isn’t going to go “ha, ha! You got me!” and slink away. No, the demon will likely turn straight around and try to gaslight you – these demons are wily! A common tactic would be a raging accusation that YOU are actually the demon! When the Christian activist network Faithful America called out Franklin Graham recently for his un-Christian behavior, their inboxes were flooded with messages like “your whole organization, every person involved is an evil anti-Christ deceiving lying forked tongue devilish mockery to God.”

Another response might seem calm and almost reasonable, but not feel quite right: demands that people who were almost murdered should just “get over it” and move on. Or victim-blaming: that people who peacefully call out wrong-doing are actually to blame for inciting violence against themselves. The insistence that victims should forgive unrepentant evil-doers. Or people telling us that it’s just not Christian to seek accountability. Here’s an example; my cousin’s husband Rick is a retired UCC minister. A couple of weeks ago, he posted on Facebook that Donald Trump should be impeached, that there would be no unity without accountability. One of Rick’s former congregants responded “let us keep in mind, pastor, God is love. It’s upon religious leaders to bring us together, worship one god, believe in salvation, forgive and, above all, pray. Just saying.”

Does “loving our neighbor” mean we shouldn’t call out evil?

Okay, here’s my next hymn, based on the Book of Deuteronomy – this one is sung as a round; maybe we can sing this one together in person someday:

What does the Lord require of you, what does the Lord require of you?

To seek justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God

Justice, Kindness, walk humbly with your God.

As we travel through our days, let us seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Amen.

Epiphany 4

Reflection for January 31, 2021, Epiphany 4

Lawrence DiCostanzo

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 1:21-28

Psalm 111

By the time I was in fourth grade, I wanted to be an archaeologist.  I was in love with the ancient Egyptians.  But my favorites were the early Mesopotamians, the people of Sumer, which is the country that the Book of Genesis calls Shinar, Abraham’s family home.  All these people were really alive to me.  Well, I did not become an archaeologist, although I did get an undergraduate degree in Latin and Greek literature.  I have a great regret to this day.  And that is I never learned to read cuneiform, the writing pressed into clay tablets in Sumer or Shinar, Babylonia and Assyria.  Oh, well.

I’ve made this little introduction to explain to you why, out of all the Scripture readings for today, I picked the one most likely to appeal to a nerd.  That is, the passage about food sacrificed to idols.  But while I was geeking out over this cool passage, it started opening up to monumental issues of unity and of differences, love and consideration, that are certainly with us today.

Here is a short summary of a sacrifice from the Iliad (1:446-468) which was a canonical text of the Greco-Roman world.  After everyone had prayed, they killed the animal victims, burned some of the flesh on the altar, and cooked and served the remainder to the people who were present, and no one went hungry.  The sacrifice ends with a communal meal.

This was still going on in Corinth in Paul’s day.  Food was a major byproduct of sacrifice.  And there were many opportunities to serve or be served with this food whether you were Christian or not.  You might be invited to the temple for the wedding of your cousin’s daughter.  A friend might invite you and another Christian to dinner, and he’d serve you sacrificial meat that he’d bought.

In fact, you might buy the food in the marketplace where sacrificial food sometimes ended up.  And you might take it as a contribution, your covered dish, as it were, to the common church meals given in someone’s house.  These are the kind of meals that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 11 when he mentions unkindness and bad manners when the church gathers.  When I was adjudicating the asylum claims of Christians who were members of illegal house churches in China, the evidence always showed that their meetings and their Lord’s Supper included a potluck dinner.

Eating meat sacrificed to idols was not a big thing for many gentile Christians in Corinth.  People were so used to it.  But it was a big thing for other gentile Christians because of its connection with false gods.  And people were arguing about it.  So they asked Paul about it.  Paul worked out a solution.  In the end, Paul does not care about what you actually eat.  But when he talks about abstaining from this or that food and so forth, he is really talking about how to deal with your fellow Christians.  He is not talking about impurity or the worship of pagan gods or demons.  He is talking about the arguments and differences that spring up between people – in this case, people who eat the food and those whose consciences shrink from it.  Paul is really talking about the tolerance, forbearance, forgiveness, kindness, and love that should be expressed among them.

In modern life, in these days, we have huge differences within the universal church – that is, all people who confess Jesus as savior.  We have huge differences between church members and persons who do not confess Jesus or any god.  We can see the stinging abrasions and dark bruises that members of society give each other today.  We can see how these differences have led to anger and grief at the level of the nation.

Here are some of the differences.  Is abortion right or is it a right?  Is your biological gender your true gender or can you grow into your own gender?  Were Adam and Eve commissioned to tend Creation or have we inherited a right to dominate it?  Is it right to honor the institutions of Caesar or is it right to attack them when we feel they oppress?  Should we offer education that leads to jobs or should we concentrate on the old saw that the rising tide of prosperity for some will lift everyone’s boat.  Should we offer justice and mercy to undocumented immigrants or should we first offer justice and mercy to Americans?

As the passages in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 about sacrificial food show, people were taking sides in Corinth.  And people take sides today.  And it is not easy to relate to those who are on the other side.  How can we manage this?  How do we accept Paul’s plea for tolerance, forbearance, and love?  How do we seek not our own advantage, our own view of what is right, but the advantage of the many, as he says in 1 Corinthians 10:31?  It really seems impossible, especially so if we are moved by attachment to our views and not by love.  I think we come down to today’s big question:  How do we love our enemies?

I have no answers for this era of disunity and hurt.  But I have tried to lay out some of my own working points.

The first is what God says to Abraham when he first calls him in Genesis 12:1-3.  God says that Abraham is being chosen to be a blessing to ALL the families of the earth.  So, at least I know that my Christianity relates to everyone because everyone, Christian or not, is included in God’s promise.  There are no outsiders in this world, no matter what people may think or propose.

Second, no matter what we think about other people, God shows no partiality.  Peter says this shortly before the Jewish Christians with him are astounded that the Holy Spirit comes to Cornelius, the Gentile and Roman military officer.  Acts 10.  God is not on anybody’s side though he is on the side of justice and mercy.

Third, I try to pay attention to the voices of others.  For example, on January 15, the Episcopal Public Policy Network published the most beautiful and wise message.  It quotes the Blessed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who says “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”   And it makes another beautiful statement: Above all, we must rediscover our common allegiance, recognizing that we are all Americans, regardless of which party we support or who we vote for.  The fate of a farmer in rural Nebraska is just as much your concern as the prospects of a first-grade child growing up in the Bronx. We rise or fall together as one nation.”  I think this is actually one Mr. Biden’s points in his inaugural address. We do not live together in unity, every attempt to unify is a gain.

Fourth, I think we have to pray.  I was so impressed when Dani in her reflection last Sunday and then Beth said how many of the homeless ask only for prayer.  Prayer is not nothing.  While I sit in the shade of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, prayer  does things.  It spreads the love.  It helps me look at people as people, not ideas.   It lets me live in hope which I feel is God’s love coming into our hearts.

So, maybe someday, maybe not soon, the way all those white people in the YouTube clip in last week’s Morning Prayer sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” will be the way we really live.  Maybe we’ll all sit to a communal meal just like the men in the Iliad.