Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church ● Albany, California ● October 17, 2021

Job 38:1-7

Psalm 104:1-9

Hebrews 5:1-10

MARK 10:35-45

Steve Hitchcock

Today is the 21st Sunday – out of 26 Sundays – after Pentecost.  Today, we’re also observing Jubilee Sunday. When I went to save the text of today’s reflection on my computer, I noticed that had I offered a reflection almost exactly one year ago, for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 18, 2020.

This group has been incredibly persistent in gathering over Zoom for nearly two years now.  Clearly, we are dedicated to each other, and we find solace in seeing each other’s faces and hearing voices – if only remotely.

My sense is that our weekly ritual of prayer, scripture readings, and singing – sort of anyway – has comforted, sustained, and encouraged each of us. There’s been an intensity and deepening in our attention to the words we hear and say.

Despite these positive effects of virtual worship, I worry we may be missing both the hard news, the challenges if you will, and the really good news presented by our Gospel readings from Mark. That may be especially true for the words Laurie just read.

We can’t help but react to today’s reading without thinking, “Boy, those Zebedee brothers are clueless.  What arrogance and stupidity!  Putting yourself forward is guaranteed to put others off.  And, of course, you and I know the purpose of life is to serve others.  Looking out only for ourselves is a dead-end street, where loneliness and insecurity are our only neighbors.

We hear the Gospel this way for some very good reasons.

First, we live here in the Albany-Berkeley-El Cerrito-Kensington-Richmond corridor of enlightenment.  Ours is a wonderful community of educated and caring humans.  A place thick with of Democrats and Sierra Club members.  We can’t help but be liberal do-gooders.

Second, most of us spend our lives in the helping professions: nurses, teachers, librarians, parents, and grandparents.  We are all busy serving others.  Our hobbies, too, of singing or playing music are collaborative efforts.  Even those who served as department chairs, know that position is master-of-none, slave to all.

And, of course, we are Episcopalians – good people doing good things.  Or least, we have good manners.  No boorish behavior here.  We have wardens, vicars, and curates – and bishops with very little power.  Our capital campaign was “St. Alban’s Serves.”  Today, we reflect our spirit of service by observing Jubilee Sunday.

But all these factors may keep us from hearing what today’s Gospel is really asking of us.

And hearing that message is critical because pursuing a life dedicated to humility and service is a futile effort, a no-win proposition.  We all know that often humility is a way we manipulate others or for us to avoid uncomfortable confrontations.

By serving others, we sometimes disempower them from serving themselves. We can end up perpetuating systems and structures that keep people in inequality and inequity.  That’s why Jubilee USA focuses on changing governments and international institutions to create economic systems and structures that allow people and communities to thrive.

            Today’s Gospel is offering us a different path, a new identity – not just better, kinder people, but new people.

As always, in this short Gospel of Mark, context is all important.  John and James’ request of Jesus becomes even more outrageous when we hear, in the verses just before today’s reading, Jesus predict – for the third time – that he was going to Jerusalem to behanded over to the Gentiles and put to death.

And, in the passage that follows today’s reading, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, is a vivid contrast to James and John.  Bartimaeus, unlike the disciples, confesses Jesus as the Messiah who can save him.  Bartimaeus, unlike the blind disciples, sees because of his faith in Jesus.  And Bartimaeus immediately understands that discipleship is following Jesus to Jerusalem.

In today’s reading itself we hear that Jesus is calling us to more than a life of humility and service.  Jesus asks James and John whether they’re willing to accept his cup of suffering. This is the cup of suffering that Jesus prays over in the garden of Gethsemane, and it recalls Isaiah 53, the prism through which the first Christians saw Jesus’ death as God’s Suffering Servant.

And when Jesus talks about “baptism,” he’s not inviting the disciples to take a relaxing soak in the tub.  He’s using the word to indicate an overwhelming disaster, being pulled under and drowned.

For Mark’s first readers – and us today – both the cup and baptism were reminders of the sacraments that incorporate us into the body of Christ.  By baptism and by the Eucharist, we are marked and shaped into a new identify.

The ultimate challenge to James and John – and to us as well – is when Jesus says that some will sit at his left and right hand. That’s exactly what happens on the cross: two thieves do “sit” at Jesus’ left and right hand.  The baptism we share and the cup we drink together reminds us that we, too, are thieves.  As we “sit” at the cross, our past is put to death, where the forces of evil do their worse.

But our identity is not just as convicted thieves.  Our destiny is more than a painful death.  The final words of today’s Gospel proclaim the good news that Jesus died as a ransom for many.  In the context of Jesus’ day, that term was used to describe the liberation of a slave from bondage.  The death we share with Christ liberates us, delivers us, and free us from all that holds down and holds us back.

And we are not only liberated but also given a new identity.  The English translation underlines this shift in identities, just as does the Greek: We were slaves, but now we’re servants – servants connected to the Servant. In Greek, the same play on words exists: doulos, slave, becomes diakonos, servant.  In Mark’s community, as in ours, deacons embody what following Jesus is all about.  And now we are all deacons.

We have this new identity as Servant Deacons because the Jesus we follow has been raised to new life.  Mark reminded his readers that this was their true goal.  In Mark 10:32, before Jesus makes his final passion prediction, it says that Jesus “was walking ahead” of the disciples on the road to Jerusalem.  Those were the same words the young man in white said to the women at the empty tomb: Jesus had “gone ahead” to meet the disciples in Galilee, where they too could experience the power of the resurrection.

And this resurrection is happening right now.  Again, the story of Bartimaeus isn’t just about his getting his sight back. When he confesses Jesus as the Messiah, Bartimaeus is able to “rise up” – the word in the first verses of Mark’s Gospel that is repeated at regular intervals to inspire us to see all of our lives as participation in Jesus’ own rising up.

Our singing, praying, and confessing – even over Zoom – sustains and inspire us so that we, like Bartimaeus, can keep rising up and following Jesus to Jerusalem and to our Galilees.

            In the days ahead – especially those times when we aren’t humble, we aren’t nice, and we don’t serve others – we live with joy and hope. And the power – and mystery – of our new life together is that, in spite of ourselves, we do serve others and help create God’s jubilee of justice.  Amen.

 

Who Can Be Saved?

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church

October 10, 2021

Margaret D.

Who can be saved?

 

Who can be saved? After hearing Jesus’s comment about the camel and the needle’s eye, we, like the disciples, might well be asking. I, for one, do not feel rich in the context of the Bay Area, but I know that in the context of the world, I am rich.  I have choices that not everyone has.

But Jesus’s answer, that for God, all things are possible – especially, taken with Paul’s assurance that we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, gives me hope. God loves us, and God knows us, and God doesn’t give up on us.

So, I imagined a conversation, in which I asked God, earnestly, to help me become a better person – less self-absorbed, more giving and forgiving. Somehow, it led to God suggesting that I give up some of my electronic devices.

Suddenly, I was more sympathetic to that rich young man.  It’s hard to give up the things we enjoy.  Do we really need to?  I don’t know.

I knew, when I was working on this, that my grandchild would almost certainly be born before I gave this reflection.  I wondered whether that would affect what I wanted to say.

Long story short, it did. A few hours after being introduced to Isaac via FaceTime, I found that my thoughts had taken a different direction.  I still think it’s important to examine my attachment to things, and if not to give them up, at least to keep them in their place.

But, I have also been thinking about how my family has changed over the generations.  Specifically, about how each generation reacts to the previous one.

My parents wanted to be better parents than theirs had been.  And, as their only child, I know that they succeeded, and I am profoundly grateful for that. I know that I had a more secure and less stressful childhood than either of them.   I give them full credit for good decisions, and for giving me the freedom to make my own decisions, as appropriate. But there are lots of things that even the most thoughtful and loving people can’t entirely control.  Illness, accidents, natural disasters, death.  God’s protection from such things must certainly have been part of the equation.

What my parents didn’t give me was a feeling of fitting in in the world outside our front door.

I wanted my children to be more comfortable socially than I was, all the while fearing that I was just too weird to produce gregarious children.  I made plans that I hoped would help, but again, God gave me a big boost.  7 or 8 months before our son was born, we happened onto a small, affordable fixer-upper in Albany.  We jumped in because of the school district, and soon found ourselves in a community where we felt as if we belonged.  I’m sure that my children sensed the comfort we felt here, and that that had far more to do with their social ease than any play group we put them in.

Focusing on one thing, of course, always leads to overlooking, taking for granted, and neglecting other things.  Obviously, if we were all just getting better with every generation, we’d have been perfect a long time ago. It’s a big, complicated, messy world. Progress is never unchecked. I see this – reimagining? – across generations as one of the mysterious ways in which God works. God lets people learn from bad examples as well as from good ones.  I don’t know what all my children would like to have been different (although I do see some things they do differently, and better than we do). It will be interesting to see what kind of parent my son will become.  It makes me happy to think that I made a positive difference without having to do everything right.  And I wonder if this isn’t one form of salvation: we love, we do our best, trusting that God is with us. And we all learn from each other, by our strengths and by our weaknesses.

St. Francis Sermon

St. Alban’s Church                                                                     Jeremiah 22: 13 – 16

October 3, 2021                                                                            Psalm 148: 7 – 14

St. Francis Sunday                                                                      Galatians 6: 14 – 18

Pastor Jim Stickney                                                                    Matthew 11: 25 – 30

 

 

My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

 

These words of Jesus are at the end of the passage from Matthew we just heard,

and to my mind they embody a spiritual puzzle, or perhaps even a riddle.

We find many spiritual puzzles embedded in the text of the Old and New Testaments.

 

There’s a beautiful phrase from Psalm 85 which combines polar opposites:

Mercy and truth have met together — justice and peace have kissed each other.

How can we show mercy if we’re intent on telling the truth of the human condition?

When we execute justice, it more often leads to punishment than to peace.

But no: Mercy and truth have met together — justice and peace have kissed each other.

 

For two thousand years, Christian have been working out these tensions

found in Jesus’s teachings, which are both puzzling and at the same time comforting.

When a rural farmer wants to control several animals to plow a field

or to pull a wagon, a yoke is used, to keep divergent energies focused on the task.

 

There is a yoke, and yet it’s easy. We carry a burden, and yet it is light.

One pious story I’ve always liked comes from Joseph’s carpenter shop,  that his                            apprentice Jesus made the best yokes: they would not chafe the animals,

because each yoke was crafted to fit. These “easy” yokes made the burdens light.

 

My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

 

All of us are members of several family systems, not the least of which is this church.

We are living in the midst of tensions that sometimes threaten to tear us up.

How do we say “no” to the earnest demands of people who have a claim on us,

on our time, on our money, on our attention? because saying a “Yes”

to someone means saying many “No”s to a lot of other people and possibilities.

 

Here’s how I work out this Christian meditation puzzle: say Yes to God first.

Everything else — families of origin, families of choice, work obligations, and the rest:

all these are secondary to our relationship with God, above all and within all.

All persons have burdens and yokes, duties and sometimes competing responsibilities.

But the burdens of a Christian becomes easier the longer you carry them.

 

My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

 

If every time we turned a page of the Bible we only found exalted success stories

of insightful and perfect people who never strayed from the path,

we’d soon put the Good Book aside with a sigh, and say to two things to ourselves:

I’ll never measure up to that lofty standard. And frankly, I’m a little bored.

 

In contrast, when humanity encounters divine truth, we so often get it wrong.

Jesus Christ is the only perfect person in the Bible. The rest are like us,

holding on to high ideals even when we trip over our egos and fall again.

 

Tomorrow is the Feast of St. Francis, and we’re celebrating it on this day.

In past years, we’ve had the Blessing of the Animals, and at suburban churches,

people would bring the usual cats and dogs, hamsters and the occasional snake.

But for several years I served in California’s Central Valley, and more than once

someone would arrive on horseback. Thankfully, no dairy cows.

 

And yet St. Francis can symbolize more for us. We know that Francis made a claim

that he loved Lady Poverty, and his followers tried their best to live simple lives.

And Christians who are committed to environmental causes point to Francis as a person

whose love for Mother Earth is celebrated in his compelling nature poem

“The Canticle of the Sun”, which we will sing at the end of today’s service.

 

Of course we can see a clear link between voluntary poverty and concern for the earth.

A consumer society like ours need the prophetic witness of people like Francis

to live more simply, that others may simply live.

 

As all of us can easily discover, concerns about many possessions can be hard on us,

an increasing burden on our time and certainly on our finances.

As we strive to live more simply, we can take heart in Jesus’ direct invitation:

 

My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

 

 

Pentecost 18

Reflection

Pentecost 18

September 26, 2021

I went on a bit of a journey with the readings this week.  Unlike previous times I didn’t actually do the readings till earlier this week.  So, I read them all at once and it was a journey that was a bit familiar, a bit tumultuous, a bit skeptical, and in the end a momentary pause of what happens next.

The story of Queen Ester was familiar, one I know I’ve heard multiple times.  It was familiar and did not evoke much of a response, although the Psalm was comforting.  The initial salvation and celebration in the first reading followed by the psalm and the Lord being on our side felt like a familiar childhood story that exists in the subconscious.  The last portion of the psalm – Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth – provides that common relief that the Lord will provide help from the enemy.  Kind of a nice place to be.

And then the reading from James comes along and I had a number of reactions that I am sure stem from a number of places.  That was the tumultuous part of my journey.

The questions of “Are any among you suffering?” Yes, lots of people are suffering, it feels like there are always people suffering.  We seem to be in a collective struggle suffering against a virus that has changed the way we live and function as a society.  Needless to say, my response to “Are any among you sick?” was also a very exasperated yes.  I had to reread that passage and I was surprised at my initial reaction against the response of “They should pray.”  Maybe because I am a little tired of hearing news stories of people believing that their prayers are sufficient to protect them against COVID.

Maybe it was just fatigue from having to constantly pray that the suffering would decrease and communities already struggling would not have more against them.  Maybe it is also constantly having to think and plan around how to keep our schools open, ensure the staff and students are safe, and carry on the regular tasks as well.  It reminded me of a feeling I had last month during our first school wide meeting.  I started my current job as the Chief Business Officer with Leadership Public Schools, a network of three charter high schools, back in December when we were in distance learning.  The schools had been in distance learning at that point for nearly 9 months.  And although we reopened to our most vulnerable students back in April, it wasn’t till August that we were able to gather all approximately 180 of our staff in one large space – with plenty of air flow, hand sanitizers and masks.

It was nice to see so many people in the same space and not on a screen.  It finally felt like I was connecting with the organization and putting faces to the people’s names I regularly saw while processing payroll.  Yet there was a moment that was to be expected.  One of our teachers rightfully asked what we, the leadership team, was doing to ensure that they were safe.  Were we doing everything we could and did we really need to open schools for in person instruction.

All of these were very valid questions that highlighted the fear that still permeates throughout.  Yet, because the Governor established that public schools were expected to open for in person instruction, we were and are constrained.  We had to open and face the challenges.  In no way could we guarantee our staff that they would be one hundred percent safe, however we could do all that we knew to provide the materials to keep classrooms clean, provide air filters and testing for all.

Looking back, I am pretty sure one of my internal responses to the questions was simply – Dear Lord – with exasperation and a sigh and possibly an eye roll too.   Because even in what could be thought of as regular circumstances, if it weren’t COVID, it could be an earthquake that could potentially cause harm at any one of our schools.  Much like suffering, sadly there are just bad things that happen sometimes.  And as the school leaders, we take the information that we have at hand and make the best choices to create a safe a caring place for our students.

And maybe that in and of itself is prayer.  Being able to share our collective concerns and fears.  Confessing that we may not have all the answers yet we would continue to seek them and do everything we could.  And for now, it means that we open our doors so that our young people are able to engage again, be in the same room as their peers, hopefully listen to their teachers and expand their minds.

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  I like to think of that as active prayer.  Bringing to life our prayer for safety.  Doing what we can to keep our staff safe.  It can be powerful and effective.

Prayer comes in many forms and this week it made me think of my actions as my prayers. The actions portion came from the Gospel.  The last piece of the journey.  Jesus tells John “for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”  Deed of power – doing something good in faith.  If we live our faith actively and do for others what is righteous and caring, are we not then evoking the power of the lord? I would like to think that is what we are asked to do.

Prayers come in many shapes and forms. We are given the opportunity through our prayers and actions to welcome back to the fold those that might be lost.  To create environments to help those who are suffering or sick.  To create a space to house our children and teach them.  It is important that my team and I do all that we can to create that space, so they too have the opportunity to learn and formulate their own thoughts, opinions, and questions.

It is because of them that we are willing to risk the suffering, so that hopefully the children of today and our future will not suffer and will not be afflicted by illness.  It is my prayer indeed that we do right for them. So I call on all of us to actively live and be our prayers, to do good deeds in the power of the Lord.  Amen.

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Reflection for September 19, 2021

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Lawrence DiCostanzo

Proverbs 31:10-31

Psalm 1

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

When I read the poem in praise of the ideal woman in Proverbs. Chapter 31, I felt good.  Here is a passage about good daily life on a human scale.  There’s nothing bad in it.  It praises what is good.  It’s filled with activities of hand and mind that are productive and positive and are for the simple purpose of just living.

When I decided to give a reflection on the passage, I found that I had to pay attention to my daily life and see how it intersects with the passage.  In other words, I had to progress by stages to what the passage means for me and for our times.

So at stage one, I thought I should go down to the intersection of Marin and San Pablo Avenues, stand on the road divider, and wave a sign that says “Honk if you like the Patriarchy!”

Stage two happened about two weeks ago.  I had to make one of my very infrequent trips to the bank to transfer money from our checking account to our son’s.  When the greeter asked me what I wanted to do, I said I was looking for a transfer slip.  She said, “We don’t have those.  What exactly do you want to do?”  I said, “Well, my wife always does the banking.”   The result was good-natured laughter at this guy totally out of his element and advice about what to do.  At the teller’s window, another woman handled the whole thing in what seemed like one minute.  When I left the bank, everybody said good-bye, and, getting into the car, I murmured, “Long live the Matriarchy.”

In stage three I realized that have actually lived with the ideal woman for more than 51 years.  She does do all the banking.  She also does the shopping and menu planning and most of the cooking, which, in fact, she loves.  She is a big garden planner, and starts the tomatoes from seed.  She takes people to the doctor for Ashby Village.  In October, she’s traveling east to care for a brother who will undergo a stem cell transplant.  Like the husband in today’s passage, I have spent plenty of time sitting at the city gates and judging and gleaning respect and honor.  But this would not have happened if she had not worked and paid for law school.  I could go on like the writer of today’s passage.  Oh, did mention we have children and grandchildren?

Stage four was putting the text together with my experiences.  I realized that the writer, undoubtedly a man, esteemed the kind of woman he was describing.  But that was not quite enough.  Since she had a role and the husband had a role determined by gender, the big question was how to read this passage here in the 21st century?  I had to cast a wider net.

Into that net there jumped the readings for the last Sunday of August and for the first three Sundays of September.  These readings dip into the Book of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon.  They cover interesting ground — gender, sex, and human life.  They also, in my view, model the End of Days, what I like to call the Great Sabbath.

So, I noticed that the motivating force of the Book of Proverbs is female.  Proverbs is actually a down-to-earth book inspired by Wisdom (with a capital W).  We met her in last week’s reading from Proverbs, Chapter 1.  “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. . . those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”  (Proverbs 1:20-33) The ideal woman of today’s reading is the personification on earth of this Wisdom.  The song of praise for her and the earlier passage about Wisdom are the bookends of the Book of Proverbs.  What unites them is their down-to-earth quality.  The ideal woman is productive and supportive.  She is part of the economy of her household and of the wider world.  She puts her hands to things and she creates.  She works hard and late.  Accordingly, in my view, divine Wisdom is not abstract and unearthly.  She is down-to-earth, too.

Given the equation of divine Wisdom and the ideal woman, there is a deep down-to-earth layer below the esteem that the writer of today’s passage feels.  This layer or foundation is quite a simple statement:  All women must be honored.  Because in Proverbs, Wisdom is a woman, this is the Biblical view.

I feel that this is exceptionally important to bear in mind.  The reason is that, in the past and in this era of #MeToo and other women’s movements, many men — and women as well — do not honor women.  It is not that women are simply not appreciated.  It goes much further than that.  We have all read the newspapers and heard the news.  And, sitting as a judge, at the city gates, I can tell you personally that there are many sad stories of the actual abuse of women.  And many stories of women who are not heard which ends with unfair disempowerment, resentment, anger, resignation, and so forth – none of which are good results.  There is nothing quite as hard as the suffering of not being listened to.

So, the principle that women must be honored has been violated throughout history.  This is not Biblical, in my view.  When I think about this, I do not want to be confused by the language of Proverbs, That ideal woman sews and cooks and is an economic power on a household scale.  But this does not mean that Proverbs excludes women who are factory seamstresses, nursing home attendants, physicians, unmarried, or unpartnered.   I have to put Proverbs into the 21stcentury.  This is the way I put myself to work so that I can change in my future.

Now, I’d like to mention the long-term future of the world.  I think this point of view anchors the principle that women should be honored in the wider ocean of God’s crazy loving kindness.

I looked at The Song of Songs from which the reading of August 31 came.  First, I had to reach a preliminary decision about The Song of Songs.  It is highly erotic, and the passage from August 31 is not the most erotic by far.  Theologians, who were maybe embarrassed by this, have said that the Song of Songs is about God’s love for the soul or Jesus’ love for the church.  I don’t think so.  It is just too pale and abstract for a book that is so lively.

When I read the Song of Songs, I realize the same thing as when I read Proverbs, Chapter 31.  That is, I am gratified at how the Bible is so beautifully stuck in the world in which we live.  It includes the important facets of our real lives – the gardener or farmer in each of us, the spinner of linen or wool in each of us, the erotic in each of us, the mother or father in each of us, the loving person in each of us.  And all of this, as we know, vibrates with intense life.

Along with intense life, the Bible provides other down-to-earth statements.  For example, care for the widow and orphan, visit the sick, clothe the naked, and the rest of Jesus’ statement of the corporal works of mercy.  (Matthew 25:31-46) But Proverbs, Chapter 31, and the Song of Songs also provide instruction for what we are as humans and what we love to do.  These instructions are not like “good works.”  They are an affirmation of what we are.  They tell us: “Accept each other.  Accept the joy that creativity and beauty spread.”  If we live in the Bible’s full down-to-earth way, the Kingdom which Jesus says is already here within us will become more manifest, more ripe, the bread will be leavened, the mustard tree will get bigger and house more birds.

I believe the joy is even more than an enhancement of our lives.  I believe that the joy that underlies the simple things of Proverbs 31 and the Song of Songs, the joy that makes us human, that marks us as God’s images, is the joy of the Great Sabbath of rest that finally arrives on the Last Day.  Then we can go back to Eden.  I think, I hope, we will find it to be as down-to-earth and glorious as Proverbs Chapter 31 and the Song of Songs.  It will be nice to see you there.

Thank you.

Pentecost 16 

St. Alban’s Church                                                                           Proverbs 1: 20 – 33

Pentecost 16                                                                                      Psalm 19: 7 – 14

September 12, 2021                                                                          James 3: 5 – 12

Pastor Jim Stickney                                                                          Mark 8: 27 – 38

 

Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” [Mark 8: 29]

 

Yesterday we observed the 20th anniversary of the attack on our country.

At that time, two decades ago, we wondered how we would change in response.

I’m going to resist the temptation to join the chorus of pundits and politicians

giving their own spin on how this terrorist attack affected our national discourse.

 

I will remind you of how churches filled up the Sunday after 9/11. Some people

who came to this church that day stayed and became active church members.

A week later, at our regularly scheduled Clergy Conference, my colleagues

and I wondered how lasting this surge in attendance would prove to be.

 

A month later, a neighbor who sometimes came to Sunday worship here

met with me to explain his withdrawal from regular attendance. He was a member

of the Baha’i faith, an outgrowth of Islam which believes in the essential worth

of all religions and the unity of all people. It began in Iran, where it was persecuted.

This man realized that after 9/11, members of the Baha’i faith might again

face hostility. He resolved to stand up and be counted — to defend his faith after 9/11.

 

For all of us, the months and years after the attacks of 9/11 have tested our faith.

I heard of the last words of people trapped in burning towers. What did they say?

Were their last works “go and find those terrorists and make sure you kill them?”

Not at all. Their last words, as they faced their deaths, were words of endearment

to those they loved. “I love you. And tell our children how much I love them.”

 

This realignment and reassessment of what really counts is mirrored in today’s Gospel.

Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” [Mark 8: 29]

Jesus has been asking his followers about what outsiders are making of him.

It’s like an informal poll of public opinion. But his question is a kind of set-up

for what Jesus really wants to know: do his own disciples understand who he is?

 

And at first, impulsive Peter aces this test with the perfect answer: You’re the Messiah!

You’re the one that all us Jews have been waiting for! You’re going to liberate us!

We can detect a further set-up when Jesus immediately starts talking about suffering,

rejection, humiliation, and even death — before rising again on the third day.

 

Dear impulsive Peter falls right into the trap Jesus sets when he becomes so bold

as to rebuke Jesus — that’s not how the Messiah is supposed to talk.

It becomes a mutual rebuke, this time Jesus calling Peter a little devil, a Satan.

 

In fact, this dialogue represents a hinge, a turning point in the Gospel story.

Up to this point, Jesus is preaching to crowds, healing the sick, teaching his disciples.

After this heated exchange of views about the real role of the Messiah,

the Gospel story has one destination — an ultimate showdown in Jerusalem.

And it all comes about with this deceptively simple question:

Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” [Mark 8: 29]

 

When I was a child, being taught about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit,

I had a child’s understanding of Jesus. In adolescence, that understanding

was challenged, and in a painful process, it deepened. As a young adult, of course,

my younger understandings were too confining, and then replaced in turn

by a more mature vision. In middle age, and now at the old age of 75, I’ve come

almost to welcome the challenges to my previous ways of thinking.

 

Now — as I briefly outlined this personal progression — you also may have recalled

some of your personal spiritual progress over the years and decades.

The spiritual life will not be stuck in a formulation of words or old concepts.

These challenges — about who Jesus is for us — are actually vibrant messages

from a God who is not content with letting us paste last year’s leaves on a branch

and then calling that “spring.” The new growth follows the death of the old.

 

Jesus illustrates this process towards the end of the passage we heard today:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves

and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their live will lose it,

and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

 

To sum it up: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed us personally and as a country.

But more importantly, Jesus gives a continuous challenge to us —

to hold out spiritual concepts lightly — to be open to new growth and fresh change

as we consider, often from day to day, the reply we would make to his challenge:

But you — who do you say that I am?” [Mark 8: 29]

 

 

Reflection, September 5, 2021

Reflection – September 5, 2021

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church

By Robin D’oyen

When I relocated to the Bay Area in the latter half of 2018 I came here almost literally with the clothes on my back. It was like something out of a movie or a novel. The protagonist setting off on an adventure into the unknown, restarting life not knowing where they were going or how they were going to live, but following one concrete desire, one dream, one guiding light. So, it was with myself, and to cut a long story short reality set in very quickly. Within a year I was in desperate straits indeed. I had no job except for a few odd hours of landscaping work and dog walks here and there. Money was running out. I had very little for food, zero for rent, almost none for transport to school in San Francisco. Things were at a very low ebb indeed at that point. Then, at one of the darkest moments of my life, in the pit of despair, my friends came to my rescue. For four months angels in the form of various friends assisted me financially, helping to carry me over the hump until I could secure a proper well-paying job. This was but one example where I have seen God’s hand at work and felt God’s presence. I have been through many crises in my life besides this one, and each time, when I feared I would not make it, when surely, I would break, He has proven my doubts wrong.

The past month has been one long litany of woe in the human family, near and far. Tragic, despairing, apocalyptic scenes that look like something out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch the Renaissance painter. The cataclysmic earthquake in Haiti. The all too familiar hellish wildfires in the North. The devastation and flooding wrought by the storms in the Southeast and Northeast. The exodus from Afghanistan and the heartbreaking scenes of chaos we watched night after night, yet one more installment of misery in the story of that poor land. In the background to all this, the specter of pestilence stalks us all as the Covid pandemic continues to take its grisly toll. War. Disease. Disaster. All within one month, part of a constant drumbeat of human misery that we have all grown far too accustomed to.

The human psyche is a powerful thing. It can make us be our very best, or our very worst. We react strongly to terrible things that shock our system; yet when these disasters become frequent occurrences they become part of the background noise of our everyday lives. The sight of the homeless on our streets, of unending wildfires caused by climate change, of the sight of migrants fleeing for their lives at the Southern border; all of these things do not shock us as they once did. Like the frog in the slowly boiling pot of water we have become inured and indifferent to the sight and sound of these terrible things…not because we are naturally hard hearted, but because it is in our nature to do so.

A small word needs to be said about the Church in general and you, my fellow parishioners here at St. Albans in particular: all this is not to accuse you of indifference. St. Albans has done, and continues to do yeoman’s work in the cause of social justice and helping our unhoused brethren and sistren. This parish punches far above its weight, and I have been heartened by the work done by you here, and at other parishes here in the Bay Area that I have worshipped with. But a word of warning, however: the Lord’s work is unending. With every action there is a reaction. Disasters, be they man-made or natural, cause disruptions in lives. People who have lost their homes, their jobs, their families, their very countries are on the move all over the world. Some are close at hand; people who have lost their homes due to wildfire or eviction due to the pandemic are ending up on the streets to join the many who are already there. Others come from far away lands; refugees from Afghanistan are being resettled in California, to be joined in the future by others from war-torn areas who are in the refugee resettlement system, as well as the migrants from the South who make it here.

Now, more than ever, we all need to keep the words and teachings of the Master close to our hearts. In the reading today from Proverbs Solomon exhorts us to look after the poor because God has created us all, whether rich and poor: “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.” Likewise:

“Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.”

We are all creations of the Lord. Whatever our station in life, the Lord regards us equally. Indeed, Jesus himself was to echo this message centuries later in the Gospel of Matthew (25:35-40), when he said:

 “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,…

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

The letter of James dived into this theme in greater depth. James’ question of “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” is a direct counterpart to Jesus’ statement in Luke 6:20 –

Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.”

James echoes the words of Jesus and reminds us that faith in the Kingdom does not depend on earthly riches or station, that God loves us all regardless. Which brings us to one of the most famous parts of James’ epistle:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

The fruits of a faithful life, a life that loves and honors God and God’s creation, a life of faith, IS one of WORKS and ACTS of faith. James is not saying that works alone will be your salvation; rather, your works are proof of your salvation. We do not all have the luxury to live as hermits; rather, we live in a society with others. Evidence of our faith comes from our acts, not just on behalf of ourselves but to aid and succor those who need our help the most, whoever or whatever they may be.

Acts or works of faith come in many forms, of course. As I said at the beginning of this reflection, the Lord’s work is unending. The needs are so many. In a sense I know that I am preaching to the choir, but as shocking and depressing things have been, we need to also accept that in a sense that this is the New Normal, and that God needs our caring hearts, our healing hands, to act as His angels on Earth more than ever. Remember where I started at the beginning, with my telling of my extremis two years ago? Those friends who saved me? It was hard for me to ask for help under those circumstances, but when I did all of those people helped me unstintingly, without reservation, refusing any form of repayment. One special friend instead encouraged me to repay God by passing on the blessing. We are all God’s agents, God’s angels on Earth. We may be able to help in only a small way. But what we may think is insignificant or of no account means the world in the aggregate if we all continue to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and stewards of Creation as the Lord requires us to be.

Amen.

Reflection: August 29, 2021

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church

August 29, 2021

Reflection

By Barbara M.

For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

Deuteronomy 4

This passage is from the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy. It is from the Old Testament lesson appointed for today in the 1979 lectionary and is meant to be read in dialogue with the passage from Mark’s gospel that we just heard where Jesus deals with the ever-complaining Pharisees. This time it’s that Jesus and his disciples don’t follow the law of hand washing. It’s always something. We had healing on the sabbath not too long ago. But Jesus, again, focuses on intention and motivation, on inward and not outward purity. This answer reminds us of Jesus’ unfailing surprises, of his charisma. And we are reminded of why Peter’s answer to Jesus, as Larry so movingly set out for us last week, is so important. However challenged by the impossibility of words that explain what Jesus is, Peter can only say “Lord, to whom — [to whom else] — can we go?”

Poets and everyone else writes about relationships, about intimacy, but in the end of course the most important relationships exceed words. Peter simply knows that he is in the right place, the place of being bound to Jesus. And Jesus’ answer today doesn’t mean the end of the Law. The Torah matters. It too is the object of devotion and wonder that does nothing less than bring God into human life. It’s because of the law that the Deuteronomy passage can ask – “what other great nation has a god so near to it.” Our passages today are about intimacy, closeness, with God.

And what about the Song of Solomon? We are continuing the story of David and Solomon, our Old Testament story of several weeks – but what a continuation! We catch our breath as we move from chronicle, history, biography to a love song. The book isn’t long, and we get just a snippet of it here, but the whole is a song of mutual and passionate love, a song of longing, fervent admiration and praise, between a man, a shepherd no less, and a woman, the Shulamite woman. It is a poem filled with verdant, sometimes erotic, imagery. It follows poetic conventions of secular drinking songs.

Our psalm is in the same spirit, now cherishing, relishing,  the beauty of a righteous king, blessed by God as “the fairest of men,” his words eloquent and gracious as “grace flows from [his] lips;” he is adorned with garments made fragrant with the choicest herbs, he is surrounded by music in the most elegant of palaces, he is accompanied by the noblest of women led by a queen adorned with gold. The psalm echoes the emotion of the Song in its virtually magnetic pull of the heart to a king whose beauty and qualities reach perfection. It is a wedding song, and may have been written for a specific royal occasion.

Why are these passages even in the Bible? To return to the Song, it has no mention at all of God, or prayer, or any customs or stories of the people of Israel. Why is it in the Bible and why did the lectionary genies appoint it for us to read today? There’s vast erudition about this that I don’t know, and, absorbed as I am by these wonderful readings, what I do know is that all I can do is nibble around the edges.

I looked for help, and via Google, I renewed acquaintance with Ellen Davis, whom I remember (Ellen Lewin then), as others may, from St Mark’s when she was a student at CDSP. (She went on to be a distinguished theologian at Duke.) In 2000 she published an essay, a book chapter, on the Song.[i]  Over the centuries there has been debate about it. Is it completely out of place in the Bible? Or is it in fact the most “biblical” part of the scripture of all? Medieval commentators, it turns out, rejoiced in the book, seeing it as profoundly “biblical,” a text that they took as nothing less than a route to intimacy with God.

The Song, Ellen Davis suggests, can be read as a reversal of the ruptures of Eden. The man is not dominant; the earth is not cursed; the lovers live in a relationship of mutuality, fidelity, passion, and delight in each other. The Song places them back in the blooming, fragrant, fruitful world of the first garden in the first days. In our passage, the woman rejoices in the approach over the hills of her beloved, celebrating his graceful, powerful movements – he is a gazelle, a stag – and then his arrival at her window when the verse shifts to his words as he calls her to come to him in the re-born, springtime, flowering, fruit-filled, fragrant world, a world filled with the sound of birdsong.

This is love with no narrative, no story of obstacles overcome, no worldly concern with wealth or lineage. This is a timeless love to be savored; a beloved to be praised, adored.

With that, the poem became over the centuries a metaphor for the relation of God to God’s people. The Old Testament is filled with images of God as lover, as filled with grief at distance and disobedience of his chosen people, as rejoicing at reunion. The metaphor of the marriage carries over to the mutual love and longing of Christ and the Church, which, in turn, becomes a metaphor for marriage. In Ellen Davis’ words, this love becomes “the least inadequate metaphor [and model for] the love that we may hope to feel for God, the love that the saints and martyrs do feel.”[ii]

The rabbis imagined the Beloved of the song as the very Torah that brought God’s name to earth. Ellen Davis finds linguistic resonance throughout the descriptions of the lovers for each other, however, not with the Torah but with Solomon’s great temple in Jerusalem (that of course contains the Torah), for example, the fragrances of myrrh and frankincense that surround the lovers and also permeate the temple. The very Hebrew name “Song of Songs,” apparently an unusual locution for a superlative in Hebrew, evokes “The Holy of Holies.” And the attribution of the Song to Solomon is a clue to the metaphor of the temple, a fanciful attribution centuries after his time when his temple was no more and many of the people of Israel were scattered. The Song, like the temple, builds us a route to the divine, as the temple was.

Remember King Solomon’s prayer [1 Kings 8, 42-43] (that Deb read so evocatively last week) that the Temple would bring God near. It is a prayer for intimacy: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?… O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today…” The house will not contain God, but God will be as close as the whisper of a prayer.

Can God dwell on earth? That question was the recurrent theme of our reflections and “participatory reflections” these last weeks. Jesus is “I Am” and Christ is the Beloved, the Bridegroom to the Church. We pray to be transformed by the body and blood, that Jesus lives in us and we in him.

The Song as not only a “metaphor,” a model “of” something else, but it is also a model “for.” How else does a person learn the love of God except through the human experience of loving and being loved in all the limited and fragmented and sometimes perfect ways that humans have. [The Muslim scholar/holy men I’ve long studied know that, and they set out a path of discipleship that takes a person from such intense love of a worthy guide, one who embodies God’s teachings, that that seeker becomes one with that guide; and from that foundation aspires to union with the Prophet; and thence for God’s most beloved friends for union with the Divine itself. But it all begins with human love.]

There is an irony to talk about intimacy – let alone hand washing – in these pandemic days. This is a hard time of seeming progress and then reversal that for many has been almost unbearable. There is a lot in these texts that would repay a lifetime of immersion, but they offer us Edenic visions, to contemplate, to sink into, and to live with.

 

[i] Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000). Most of this readable, brilliant chapter on the Song of Songs can be read at https://books.google.com/books?id=r6F1BwAAQBAJ

[ii] Ibid., p. 248

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Reflection for August 22, 2021

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Lawrence DiCostanzo

1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43

Psalm 84

Ephesians 6:10-20

John 6:56-69

When I was a freshman in college, I ended up in a year-long advanced seminar in English literature.  It traveled the road from Chaucer on into the twentieth century.  The teacher led us through very close reading.  He tried to make us read line-by-line and word-by-word.  He wanted us to sit next to the author as he took his pen and thought.  Really, he wanted us to climb inside the author’s head.

This was breath-taking.  The teacher demanded and demanded our attention and our labor.  We had to write a seven-page paper every week.  The teacher knew each one of us and where we were sitting at the table.  No matter how well I performed, he always wanted more.  He terrified me.

And to this day I am grateful.  In my reading, I at least attempt the attention and questioning he demanded.  I try to reach truthfulness by writing carefully and precisely.    This teacher changed my life.

I am mentioning him today because I really need what he taught in order merely to scratch the surface of John’s Gospel.  There are questions.  Why does John show us a Jesus who is sometimes so cryptic, sometimes so scary, so “in-your-face?”  Why do I see only Jesus’ riddles?  Did John intend to veil his meaning?  Or do I see a veil because I have preconceptions?

In the past weeks, the readings in John’s Gospel have taken us through Chapter 6 which focuses on bread.  Sunday by Sunday, we have read it in pieces.  But when I read the chapter as a whole, I ask: “Why does Jesus push the envelope and push the envelope and push the envelope?”  Where is he going?

Look at how John paces Chapter 6.  First, we have the satisfying mouthfuls of real bread when Jesus feeds the five thousand. Jesus then withdraws because the people want to make him king.  Next, John relates the terror of the disciples when they see Jesus walking on water past their boat.  This is a good introduction to the unease that pervades the rest of Chapter 6, the conversation that occurs in the synagogue at Capernaum.  The people there demand a sign, something like the manna that came down and fed the Israelites on their forty years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus. In response, Jesus tells them there is bread from heaven that gives life to the world.  The people ask him to give them this bread.  Jesus says that he is this bread.  He makes an important remark: “. . . [Y]ou have seen me and yet do not believe.” (John 6:36).  The people say, “Come on. We know his whole family.  How can Joseph’s son be this bread?

Jesus’ statements become more intense.  He says that he is the bread of heaven, that people must eat this bread, that this bread is his flesh to be given for the life of the world.

And the people say, “How can we eat his flesh?”  (John 6:52) I think that John likes to show people with literal minds.  For example, in Chapter 3, Nicodemus responded to the statement by Jesus about being born again by saying, “Come on!  How can I grown person go back into his mother’s womb?”

Nonetheless, Jesus does not explain and say to them, “Oh, no.  I meant that the bread and flesh idea is a symbolic stand-in for my crucifixion or for the Eucharist.”  Rather, Jesus goes on and pushes the envelope in another direction that seems to reinforce the protests of the literal-minded.  Finally and forcefully we come to the moment of scandal shared between this week’s and last week’s Gospel reading.  Jesus leaves the word “bread” behind and unbelievably he says, “. . . I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you. . . [M]y flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”  (John 6:52 and 55)

At this point, Jesus has pushed the envelope until it is torn.  So, in today’s Gospel passage, we see that unsurprisingly many of the disciples respond that Jesus’ statement is too hard to accept.  It is no wonder that they complained and were offended.  It is no wonder that many people turned back and left him.

Jesus turns to the twelve and asks almost sadly and plaintively, “Do you also wish to go away?”  To which Peter says, just as plaintively, “Lord, to whom can we go?”

In my view, this short interchange between Jesus and Peter is the culmination of Chapter 6.  For me, it is one of the most profound passages in all of the Gospels.  Let me explain why I feel that way.

Chapter 6 does remind me of the Eucharist.  But I also notice that the Eucharist or the institution of the Eucharist is never mentioned there.  And I notice that John’s Gospel is the only one of the four Gospels that does not have any narration of the institution of the Eucharist.  In my view, John is being more direct and less liturgical.  He wants us to intuit how we and Jesus relate to each other in all our lives.  Even in lives we’ve lived for the past year and a half without the Eucharist.

Searching for Jesus is a really long journey for me.  He lived in a distant past.  He often does not “speak my language.”  He can be scary, and cryptic.  Sometimes in my life I have turned away, like many of the disciples in Chapter 6. Sometimes, I’ve thrown up my hands.  Sometimes, in the past, I’ve mocked as well as any Roman soldier.  And sometimes, hopefully most of the time, I simply face Jesus wordlessly as Jesus the person, indescribable and uncompromising, steady and reliable.  These are the times when I am Peter and say, “Lord, to whom can I go?”

That is the only response we really have.  It is a great joy to study scripture and to puzzle over it and to geek out.  But I never wrap it up by saying, “Oh, I get it about eating your flesh and drinking your blood.”  But I can wrap it up by coming up against the person of Jesus, and this I do get, not in the sense that I understand with my mind, but that I know without words.  As Margaret D.  said last week in her reflection on the Eucharist, “There is something real here.”

This response or attitude is, I think, the virtue of Faith.  Coming up against Jesus, Peter says, simply, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”  Peter is making a confession of faith from his heart, not his brain.

I would like to close with another personal story that I hope is another way of telling about faith.

When I was a boy, our parish was Saint Joseph’s in South Norwalk, Connecticut.  I was deeply impressed by a gorgeous stained glass window above the main altar.  On it, a handsome Jesus, dressed in a bright, white robe, hovered against a background of incredibly beautiful dark blue glass.  You know the blue I’m talking about.   Beneath his feet, on a scroll, was written the passage “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

I was probably less than twelve years old because we moved out of the parish when I was twelve.  But I was already a geek.  I asked myself then and into my adulthood what that passage on the scroll might mean.  Where was the key?  What club did I have to join?  What was the secret handshake?

At some point, after 43 years of avoiding the church, after 43 years of hearing Jesus knock on my head from time to time – because he knows I pretty much live in my head — I realized that the Way, the Truth and the Life is quite simply a person.  The “I” of that statement is the important word.  There is no secret handshake.  There is only encounter.  “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

Thank you.

Bread of Life-John 6: 51-58

Bread of Life

by Margaret D.

St Alban’s Episcopal Church

August 15, 2021

John 6: 51-58

“I am the bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

We’ve heard this phrase a lot in the last few weeks.  And it certainly points to a central element of our liturgy.  But it seems we don’t talk very often about what it means to us.

I didn’t join the church until I was 50.  I attended Sunday School as a child, and I knew some of the stories, but I was never baptized, so I had never participated in communion. I don’t remember anyone talking to me about what it meant. In the 20 years I’ve been at St. Albans, I have read, listened, and discussed.  I’ve heard many people’s stories of their faith histories and talked over many passages from scripture.  But I haven’t heard much about what communion means to individual people.  So, for today, I’ve asked several people to share their thoughts on the subject, and I will share mine.

(Shares)

My thoughts about communion are still evolving.  Early on, I had a very powerful experience.  I had come to church feeling stressed and resentful about something that was happening that week.  I think I must have known, at some level, that it wasn’t really a case of the universe attacking me so much as my inner child having a temper tantrum. So, I prayed, during the service, to let go of these negative feelings.  They were stubborn, but just as I knelt at the communion rail, I felt some inner equivalent of a balloon popping, and the resentment evaporated, replaced by feelings of peace and joy.  I’ve never again had anything quite as dramatic as that happen, but it was enough. On a more intellectual level, I understand communion to be a symbolic expression of our unity as the Body of Christ.  For me, that was never quite enough.  I guess I was still asking, but what does that mean? Then, a year or two ago, I heard Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, speaking about his book, The Universal Christ, in a podcast.  He was asked if he believed that the bread and wine were the literal body and blood of Christ.  He said (more or less) yes, but in the sense that he believes that Christ is the divine in everything. In us, in trees, flowers, and rocks.  So, of course Christ is in the bread and wine, or the wafers and grape juice.  Communion, then, is a way of acknowledging that. That spoke to me.  And, if I had finished this earlier in the week, as I intended to, I would probably have stopped with that.  But, Thursday evening, in the Ben group, we were discussing this Sunday’s gospel, as we always do, and talking about what communion means.  There were only three of us present this week – me, another Episcopalian who was raised in a more conservative Protestant church, and a lifelong Catholic.  Out of our discussion, we reached a sort of consensus about communion, which I shall attempt to paraphrase: the bread and the wine are parts of Christ’s world.  When the priest consecrates them s/he is singling out this particular bread and wine to represent Christ among us.  Our part is to consent or agree to this.  And then we all come forward, in silence, to partake of it.