CHRISTMAS 2 REFLECTION

CHRISTMAS 2 REFLECTION

January 3, 2021

Katherine Kasameyer

 

Merry Christmas.

It’s been a long time since I was in a Christmas pageant. But growing up, at Trinity Episcopal, I was in many Christmas pageants. First as a sheep, as an angel, as the Angel Gabriel, as a reader of Luke’s Gospel, and, once, in high school, as the Virgin Mary.  In the story we told on Christmas Eve, everything was great-

the holy family found a place at the Inn,

the baby Jesus was born in the manager,

there was this big star,

the shepherds came,

the wise men came,

the baby was quiet,

it was all other-worldly and shiny bright.

I never thought much about the flight to Egypt. The flight to Egypt was always that weird post script, that lurking darkness.

But a few years have passed since then.  I’ve gone from playing a mother in the Christmas pageant to being a parent, first of an infant of course, and now of a nine year old.  When my son was a baby, I used to have to keep track of everything he ate and wore. Now, he can make his own lunch and put on his own clothes. If I prod him enough, that is.

The flight to Egypt looks different to me now.  It strikes me that Jesus is a baby, or a toddler, in this story, and is totally helpless.  He can’t feed himself, let alone save himself from a governor intent on killing him.  Of course, God gives his parents enough information to keep Him safe, but they have to act.

When I look at this story now, I think, “what is the function of God revealing Jesus to us as the Messiah when Jesus is still an infant?” What are we supposed to learn from the holy infant?

One of the names we use to describe Jesus is king of kings.  Why didn’t God wait until Jesus was a young boy to reveal him as a future king, like David, or wait until he was a man, like Saul?  I imagine that books have been written on this, but to me it seems like one reason is that Jesus isn’t a normal sort of king.  As an adult Jesus tells us that his kingdom is ‘not of this world.’

And yet as an infant, Jesus is very much of this world.  As we all know, little children live in the eternal present. Their first language is touch. They don’t understand logic or abstract thought.  It seems that there must be something about the divine that we are supposed to see in this infant stage of Jesus.

So, what do I know about young children?  Young children don’t respond to logic, but they do respond to gentleness and cuddles and consistency and attention.  They will return our affection snuggles, but only if we have been gentle and consistent with them.

But that is the thing — we have to be gentle and consistent and present with little children to build that relationship. As anyone who has tried to visit with a little niece or nephew knows, you can’t just show up in the house of a little child and expect her to come over and be all huggy and affectionate at first. Little children are slow to warm up.

Little children don’t really care that you visited last year. They only remember last week.

So, for me, what I take from the flight to Egypt is that I should tend to my faith like I would tend to a young child. To be more consistent about my prayers, to try to “visit” more often, to listen more closely for that small voice.  And overall, to be more gentle with myself and others.

Merry Christmas.

Reflection for Christmas 1

Reflection for Christmas 1, December 27, 2020

Lawrence DiCostanzo

Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3

Galatians 3:23-25 and 4:5-7

John 1:1-18

 

Before we consider today’s readings, I would like to mention that tomorrow, December 28, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  You will recall these young victims of King Herod’s fear.  There were probably not many of them.  But lately the news has reminded me that Holy Innocents are still with us.  I am speaking in particular of sex trafficking in children and their slavery.  There are apparently many of them.  We don’t hear about them much because I think that a lot of films that support the trafficking appear on the so-called dark web.  I am not quite sure what that is, but the papers have also been talking about the posting of pornographic videos of minors on at least one site that is on the open web. I’m not sure if that’s true or is media hype.  As far as I know, the facts are not all in.  Nonetheless, please keep these kids in your prayers tomorrow and beyond.

And now for today’s Gospel passage.

Well, I have been on a really complicated journey to find a way to describe how uncomplicated the introduction to John’s Gospel is.  And I find that I keep circling back to my father.

My father’s name was John.  He was born in the United States in 1911.  But he was raised in Italy from infancy.  At age 14, he was sent back to the United States alone.  I really don’t know why.  What I do know is that despite the lack of education, despite the Great Depression, despite living between two cultures, my father modeled for me every virtue that God gave to Adam.  If God created us in his image, to live in peace and to tend the Garden of Eden, my father was the exemplar.

He worked hard and he loved my mother.  He was a great cook who loved to make large meals for large groups.  He made wine.  He painted the house every five years in the summer while drinking watered down Budweiser.  He created and cared for an enormous garden with lawns, an English border, trees, and, of course, a large vegetable garden filled with tomato plants, basil and parsley.

He could look at a pile of junk or an old oil barrel and conjure up something like a sturdy  three-legged table which we used for  years.  Or a huge barbeque which my mother demanded he hide behind the hickory saplings in the corner of the yard.

From his youthful forays into an amateur Italian theater society, he possessed a large store of Italian songs and stage routines.  And when he recited to the family, he’d make people choke with laughter or wipe some tears.  So, he had respect for the power of language.

I am “flesh of his flesh.”  Flesh of his flesh.  This is a figure of speech that signifies the unspeakable closeness between persons who are parents and children and grandchildren.  It is one of those combinations of thinking and language that I classify under the heading “metaphor.”  In today’s Gospel, John does not use that expression.  He uses the term Word to explain or describe what is almost the same thing.  He creates in our minds an image that describes an intimate connection or an identity between God and the earthly Jesus who walked among us – something that John desperately wanted to do.

In John’s mind, “Word” is the correct, respectful and powerful image.  He uses it to describe in a more exalted way what we feel when we say “flesh of my flesh.”

Why did John use Word as his figure of speech?  A word, like our thoughts, belongs to us like nothing else.  Our words come out of our mouths through the combination of thought and breath and tongue and lips.  In John’s age, when even philosophers didn’t know the particulars of sound waves, a word would have been a thing in itself that was totally connected to me and then was launched into the world where it would take effect when it struck another person’s ears.  It also has a kind of identity of its own.

In today’s Gospel, John harks back to the Creation story in the book of Genesis where God spoke a Word or a few words and light came to be.  “And God said, Let there be light.”  John is saying that God’s speech describes how he creates.  But what he is really saying is that the person who became Jesus is part of God like the breath is part of me.

So, why does John write this passage with a figure of speech or a metaphor or the inexact exactitude of poetry?  Why can’t he be direct?  I think John is trying out four things.

First, it’s the only way he has to describe his intuitive sense of who or what Jesus is.  Saying that Jesus is the Word not only puts Jesus at the moment of Creation when God spoke words Let there be Light.  It puts Jesus in God’s own mouth, makes him part of God’s own breath.  This is a really excellent description of the Trinity.

Second, John really wants to exalt the man Jesus.  He wants to make a connection between  a man who was crucified and the very God whom Isaiah saw in his vision of the Holy of Holies from which, by the way, we derive the Sanctus acclamation “Holy, Holy, Holy” which we sing at the Communion service.

Third, he really, really wants to show the magnitude of God’s love.  If John the Evangelist is also the author of the first letter of John in the NT, he is the man who wrote “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.”  That is a remarkable and wonderful statement.  And the proof of God’s love is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  In today’s second reading, Paul picks up on this and makes its consequences more explicit.  “God sent his Son, born of a woman, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba! Father!”  It seems we come back to the idea of Flesh of my flesh.

Fourth. John wants us to get down to the “doing” part.  John writes about love all the time.  He encourages us to love each other.  And, today, as never before, we can actually see so many of these “others” — on the internet, on TV, in newspapers, on Zoom, FaceTime, and WhatsApp, through email, chat, and all those modern things that keep us together in these times of separation.

And Loving is EASY.  We love ourselves and want to improve, including our facing the complicated feelings that we are not loved or are not worthy of love.  We love our families.  We love our family members who have died.  We love creation.  We give to environmental groups.  We can even join Gleaners who pick up backyard fruit and unharvested food and so forth to give away directly or to food banks.  You can check this  out on Google.  We study and discuss our faith in Sacred Ground to see how we can be better children of God along with others.  We make sandwiches.  We volunteer for Ashby Village.  We do the shopping for the house bound. There are a million different ways.

And we are not being asked to change the world.  As Bishop Marc said to us at Saint Alban’s two weeks ago when he visited: changing the world is God’s work.  We are only being asked to love.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Reflection – 12/20/20[i]

Barbara Metcalf

 

We come to the last Sunday of Advent and we welcome the Annunciation as our gospel lesson, the precious words that Mary hears from the angel, and to which, perplexed as she is, she assents. We cherish Mary’s words at the Annunciation. She is our model in obedient behavior,

“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

By that assent, she will become our model in being, not just in obedient behavior, because she will physically embody the Christ, the Incarnation, the radiant symbol of who we are, who all humanity is.

Part of the pleasure of this season is the familiarity of words like these – of all our holiday traditions, and, for many of us, the very words of our lessons in this season, heard over and over.

In just a few days, it should be close to midnight and we are all assembled, the tree put up by Chuck and lights arranged by Susan, the glowing candles clamped in place after Sean’s repairs, the creche before the altar filled with mis-sized animals by the children at 4, and Richard playing the organ as we reach the last verse of Phillips Brooks’s beloved carol:

“O Holy Child of Bethlehem….be born in us today.”

This is a special time. But this year is a time when even time, as so many people have commented, seems suspended — or maybe moves too quickly — unmarked by familiar routines. This is Covid-Time. And the seasons are off.  Camellia bushes are already blooming in our neighborhood. Covid-Time and Global-Warming Time. But disjointed as time is, limited above all in the gatherings of friends and church and family — since we of course won’t be singing together close to midnight on Thursday — we gratefully embrace the prayers and readings of the Advent cycle. Their very repetition is an anchor in reality.

So, what to my wandering eyes should appear but today’s Old Testament lesson, which I have no memory of ever seeing before. Where did that come from? Why not more verses from Isaiah, so familiar that we hear Handel’s music playing in our head?? Why are we reading about the Ark? But reading to the end of the passage, we find our anchor:  God’s promise to David that he will preserve his lineage forever. That certainly puts us back on familiar Christmas ground: the resonant phrase, “of the house and lineage of David.” And that is familiar ground because it means that the Israelites will have, as the passage says, “their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more.” This is the promise we have circled back to again and again in Advent.

We have that promise in the Magnificat that we have repeated every week and again just now:

the promise of God’s faithfulness, that however dark the challenges of the moment, the

humble will be lifted up, the lowly exalted — and all will be restored. As Bishop Marc told us last week: We trust a God who loves us and will do the work of restoration, as of a garden that will grow and flower and yield fruit.

But what about all the rest of the Old Testament passage, all that about the Ark and the tent?

I’ve never thought much about the Ark of the Covenant except in a general way. That it contained the stone tablets of the ten commandments and was a potent presence, carried as the Israelites journeyed and as they went into battle.

But though I was initially puzzled by it, I actually think the discussion of the Ark is perfectly on target for today.

Last year when I went to Ethiopia, I was fascinated by the extent to which Orthodox traditions make the symbols of the Hebrew scriptures central in a way that I had never encountered them before. And of those symbols, none matters more than the Ark. Ethiopians believe themselves to be the possessors of the actual Ark, brought back to Ethiopia by the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, preserved at the high altar of the Church of St Mary of Zion in the ancient city of Axum. And it’s not just that Ark. In Ethiopia, a church cannot be a church unless it contains a replica of the Ark, there too kept in the seclusion of the high altar. Every church, large or small. The Eucharist and the Ark together at the high altar.

But there’s more. In Ethiopia, Epiphany is celebrated as Christ’s baptism. We of course also link the baptism to the Christmas cycle, for us on the first Sunday after Epiphany. But in Ethiopia the conjuncture brings an extraordinary two-day celebration. The celebration entails not only exuberant immersions but processions of all those precious rarely-seen Arks from each parish’s church.

The Ark, which seems to hold God’s power, and the Epiphany Baptism, the public revelation of Jesus’ divinity, are each a powerful sign of the intersection of a transcendent God with the mundane – with us. Once we have encountered the combination, it makes sense. Each enriches the other.

As for the tent, the passage in Isaiah tells us something very important, which could not be more timely. David is troubled that “the ark of God stays in [something as flimsy as] a tent.” He says this is not right; the Ark needs a permanent place.  The prophet Nathan seems to concur. But God tells Nathan that he must stop David. God says in so many words, “I have been moving all over the place, in a tent.  I never asked David, or any of the other leaders of Israel, to build me a house of cedar. Forget it.” And this is another way of telling us that God is not limited to one place. God does not want David to build a house; God instead will give David peace where his lineage will last forever. It is that promise that is sung out in the glorious, exuberant words of today’s Psalm in praise of God’s faithfulness, God’s righteousness and justice, God’s steadfast love, and the promise of David’s eternal lineage.

To be sure, in due course, Solomon, David’s son, will build a temple. To be sure, we have our church buildings. But, as we know this year, as we have perhaps never known before, we don’t need them to know God to be present. It is uncanny to be reminded of this on what is usually a day when the building matters, when in a normal year in a few minutes we would be joyously “greening” (to use the old-fashioned word) the church for Christmas, planning for the luminarias to light the path in.

The novelist Marilynne Robinson apparently likes to quote her brother that “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere but whose circumference is nowhere.” Maybe God put off David’s wish to build a temple because of his shady past. But maybe God put him off to make clear that God had no circumference, that God was not tied down to one place more than any other.

The Bridegroom is not tied down. We need to stay awake, we were reminded a few weeks back, to be ready when the Bridegroom comes. But we also need to be awake because the Bridegroom appears in unexpected places. That too we’ve been reminded of this season – the Bridegroom is the one who is hungry and needs to be fed, or sick and needs to be tended, or unhoused and needs sandwiches and kindness – and shelter – or cruelly imprisoned and needs to be visited, even freed. And the Bridegroom is far too easy to miss.

We, like Mary, need to hear the angels who are all around us, not least when we meet like this and read scripture and sing with YouTube and pray for each other and the needs of the world. We need to aspire to Mary’s answer to the angel that all be “according to your word.”  The Bridegroom is always there, and we know his presence when we give and when we receive love and generosity, the human communion that is Divine.

Whether in our familiar, beloved, “greened” Christmas Eve setting or not: That is what we pray for in this season:

“Oh Holy Child of Bethlehem…be born in us today.”

Amen.

[i] Thank you to Stephen Hitchcock for his good thoughts as I drafted these comments.

Second Advent

Reflection for December 6, 2020 (Second Advent) – Chanthip Phongkhamsavath

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 2 Peter 3:8-15, Mark 1:1-8

Happy Second Sunday of Advent!

I am reminded every year during Advent about the symbolism of each of the candles on the wreath, because truthfully, I forget. I may forget what each candle represents, yet they are all mixed together for me during this season – hope, love, joy, and peace.

This is also that point in the year when the church calendar is beginning again and there is a renewed sense of hope and anticipation.  Yet at the same time it is the end of the calendar year and for us the shortening of daylight hours until the Winter Solstice and Christmas shortly after.  It can seem like a bleak time with the longer nights, yet those longer nights do allow for one of my favorite things, which is lighting the Christmas tree and watching the reflections and bouncing light.  When I was younger it felt like Christmas couldn’t come soon enough and now it feels like Christmas comes too quickly.  Regardless, the anticipation is still there, knowing that Christmas morning is coming and with that the celebration of our Lord’s birth.  And the hope that we will be in the Lord’s presence again.

Peter tells us, “that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Time is a tricky thing. It is constant, yet our experiences of it differs.  There are the same number of days in December when I was ten as there are now, yet somehow the days, minutes, and seconds feel different.  And I don’t know if you have had those moments where it really felt like time was standing still – when everything seems to move in slow motion like in a movie – yet it is not a movie but rather a rare moment that makes an imprint into our memories.  For me it can be that split second before a fall or that moment of pure joy.  It is believable based on those memories that time could be different in the presence of the Lord. That time though has not yet come.

In the meantime, it feels like the perpetual wait. In any given year there is always room for good news during Advent, this year in particular – when the days and months seem to bleed together into one long moment of waiting to exhale – I think we all need good news just a little bit more.  As we brace ourselves for a winter that may seem particularly lonesome – with our public health officials tightening their restrictions and fatigue mounting – we are asked to be even more patient, to wait and anticipate good news.

Although not in the same way, I do this every year.  One of the reasons I love Advent and this season is that anticipation, those moments to stop and hope that the good news of the season will last a little longer.  It is the time of the year when the emphasis on kindness and giving is a little more present.  It is a little reprieve from seeking bad news and there is a renewed focus on good news.  The things from helping to feed our neighbors to ensuring children everywhere have a gift on Christmas morning takes more of a forefront.  And for this season, I am encouraged by the goodwill and I look forward to it every year. And each year I hope the good news of Christ’s birth is felt more, even as its message seems to diminish in the broader social context.

Despite the longer nights and what seems like darker times, we know the good news of the season is coming.  The reading from Mark leads off right away with, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And John the Baptist was an active messenger, not only proclaiming the good news however leading the way with “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.”  John knew that Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit and laid a foundation with the baptism of repentance for something more.  For until we are able to repent, are we able to be forgiven? John knew the good news was coming and actively waited and acted all at the same time.  I wonder if he knew that it would happen in his lifetime or if it even mattered, because it did not stop him.

And although we wait to be in the presence of the Lord again, the reading from Peter asks, “what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…”

For the past nine months we have waited for a solution for COVID-19 and we hope we are close to the good news that we have been waiting for.  In the meantime, I have tried, although I have also failed, to do everything I can to help slow the spread – I have tried to limit my interactions yet I know my bubble is bigger than it should be.  That does not mean that I give up, it just means it takes that extra reminder of why I should slow down, why it is important to keep trying.  For COVID we have the public health departments all over trying to be messengers of goodwill, telling us the things we ought to do even though they know that not everyone will listen – yet they continue with their messages knowing that eventually they will be able to give us good news, even though they may not know when. So in the meantime, I try my best to heed the reminders and try to do my part as we wait for that good news.

The messengers of God’s good news have done the same, they have stories and teachings to remind us, despite knowing not everyone will listen all the time, that there is good news and it begins with Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  We have calendars and cycles that remind us each advent that good news is coming.  Advent is one point in the liturgical calendar however it definitely does not mean it is the only time that we look for hope, love, joy and peace. It is not the only time we are waiting – we have always been waiting – yet that waiting does not mean we are inactive – it is anything but that.

So, this Advent season, as I look at my tree and realize it will be the second year that I will miss Christmas Eve service in St. Alban’s sanctuary, I continue to hope that the good news of Christ’s birth will be heard.  And I will continue to strive to be a messenger of that good news as well.  To live a life of compassion and be an example of goodwill, to take advantage of the time, however slow or quickly it moves that I have.  And I know that despite not seeing everyone in person you are active as well, in your prayers for our friends, in collecting socks and other items for the shower program, in all the sandwiches that were made as we adapted to our current situation.

During Advent, this season of anticipation, we continue to live our lives in active goodwill.  And although we do not know when we will be in the Lord’s presence again, we will continue to strive to do the best we can as we repent and are forgiven, because that is the good news we already know.  So let us be reminded again as often as we need to be, whether during Advent, or throughout the year, that the beginning of the good news starts with God and Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Let us also share that good news, because although Christ was born and died for us, there is still more to come.

Amen.

First Advent

Reflection for November 29, 2020 (First Advent) – Lawrence DiCostanzo

Isaiah 64:1-9, First Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

Happy Advent!

I’d like to start with a couple of bicycling stories.

If you’ve ever driven up Mount Diablo, you know that the last eighth mile to the small parking lot at the very top is a 16 per cent grade.  Ascending this hill on a bicycle is painful.  The legs are hurting from standing on the pedals.  Breathing is a burning gasp after gasp.  Let us not even think about my heart rate.  But then I burst onto the top in triumph.  I have got the Gold.

This climb is my dream of how I enter into heaven.  I am climbing and panting, and everyone who has ever loved me is at the top and shouting, “Come on, Larry!  Come on!”  Of course, my mother is shouting, “Come on, Lawrence!  Come on!”  The climb and not the arrival is the dream.

This week I took another ride,– from Orinda to Danville and back by way of  Alamo, Walnut Creek, Lafayette, and Moraga.  As you know, these are the deep suburbs.  Actually, I love the suburbs.  The sky was dark blue, and the trees were an incredible range of red and orange.  The suburbs were wrapped in glory, burning with a smokeless fire.  And the air was fresh and cool.

And, as I frequently do, I said out loud to myself and to my ever tolerant riding companions,  “How can I leave all this behind?”  But, as often has happened in the past few years, in the twinkling of an eye, I thought to myself,  “You will never leave this behind.  God knows you well, and the new creation will be like this.  There will be bike riding there.”  Beautiful.

Perhaps you can tell by now that I am a romantic.  And so I came to Advent thinking it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  And I’m singing, “Look at the five-and-ten/glistening once again/with silver lanes and candy canes aglow.”   And, then, Jesus comes up on my blind side and punches me in the face.  He says, “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”  That demolishes my Christmas dreams and hits at my cycling romance.

Jesus’ prophecy is about something that we do not think about very much.  Perhaps, we do not like to think about it very much as it seems so distant and fantastical compared to our daily lives.  But it is something that was very much on the mind of the early church.  The prophecy is about the end of time, and maybe we should think about this more.  For one thing, Mark records this prophecy as Jesus’ own words.  For another, he puts this passage in as part of Jesus’ last teaching before his passion and death.  And last, we are involved.

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year.  It is about the Incarnation, the coming of God to us and of his presence with us in Jesus.  But we actually live in the middle of the year.  Our dwelling place is really in the green season of Pentecost.  Living in this middle ground, we memorialize the Incarnation, we meditate on it and we reenact it.  But we are actually in history looking back on it.  Of course, it is really important as the gateway to the good news.  But, in history, it has already happened.

But Advent includes a deep reminder of something that is still to happen in our future.  This is the end of time, the second coming of Jesus, the new creation.   What Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel is that we had better consider the Omega moment which has not happened yet in history.

Jesus says this very carefully.  He says you don’t know when this moment will come.  He says:  Pay attention, keep it in mind.  The leafing of the fig tree signals that summer is near.  Keep watch over your master’s house while he’s away.  Be a good doorkeeper.  You don’t know exactly when the master is coming back.  And on November 8, in the Gospel from Matthew, we were told to be good bridesmaids with plenty of lamp oil.

But we don’t know exactly what we are waiting for.  As to what will actually happen, Jesus says that the sun and the moon will be darkened, the stars will fall from heaven, the Son of Man will be manifest in power and glory, and the elect will be gathered up.

This seems very scary.  And the fear is enhanced by the many images of the Last Judgment in our complex and marvelous western culture.  But I think I can say that, if Jesus is telling us this will happen, it has to be good.  Because God is love, and we at Saint Alban’s know this because we know love.  1 John 4-8.  And God’s love for his people is so consistent that it appears in the Bible when, for the first time, God actually explains what he is like. “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”  Exodus 34:6 and 7.

Jesus is using metaphorical language, the standard language of the prophets.  What does it mean?  I think that, if the sun is darkened and the stars are falling, God must be taking raw materials and remaking creation.  This is good,  And I say “Awesome.”  Or it’s like in Psalm 29 when there’s a terrific storm and all the people in the temple say “Glory!”

The real issue for us people in the green season is what do we do in the meantime?  I think that Jesus’ advice about keeping your eyes open, keeping watch, is actually the most important thing for us in this passage.  God has got the rest planned without consultation.  Here are three ways to keep watch.

First, live in hope.  Sometimes I think that Paul was wrong and that he should have said, “These three abide, faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is hope.”  Hope gives a kind of steadfastness and expectation and joy.  It is the friend of imagination.  It’s as if hope is a fresh breeze during a hot night.  Or it’s the endurance of a cyclist.  Or it’s the endurance of a cancer patient.  Hope gives us the intimations of a good future.  I think that hope is God’s own love for us that he sends into our hearts.

Second, I think that sometimes we are given the blessing of living in the Omega moment in our hearts and our imaginations.  I don’t really think that all the strong and consistent feelings I have when cycling are false.  When we sing a good hymn together, or when we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” at communion, the Spirit is with us to comfort and give us happiness.  We are singing in the New Jerusalem.

Third, don’t get carried away.  I repeat that, although we celebrate Advent, we actually live in the season of Pentecost. And we have a lot to do.  Maybe we are watching for the last day simply by doing things.  Maybe this is how we keep the door of our master’s house.  In Jesus’ talk about the last days in Matthew chapters 24 and 25, he really makes us reflect on the doing.  He says:  “. . . take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  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.

I needed clothes and you clothed me.

I was sick and you looked after me.

I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

AMEN

Matthew 25

The Rev. Dani Gabriel

November 22, 2020

Readings:

https://lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Pentecost/AProp29_RCL.html

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” —Matthew 25

Pretty simple, right?

The first time you visit someone in prison is something you never forget. When I was 19 I was a student teacher poet in the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley. We were all set to teach sections at Cal, classes at Berkeley High School, and classes at the Federal Women’s Prison in Dublin. I didn’t think anything of it. Of course, people need poetry in prison. Of course, I’ll go.

One evening a group of us headed to the prison for the final poetry reading from the last semester’s session. We took BART out to Dublin and then hitchhiked through the military base surrounding the prison til we met its razor wired entrance. I’ll never not know what it feels like to have the prison door click and lock shut behind me. Every time I went the doom of that moment rattled me. And that first time it was enough to rattle me the entire evening.

And there they were, these women I would get to know, with their words and their stories. They were powerful. They were survivors. And they taught me more than I taught them. They taught me what dignity is. They held such palpable dignity as they walked into the small room in ugly, dingy uniforms. They spoke of hardships I often related to, and had to ask myself, how is it that I am free to go, and they are locked down here?

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

When Jesus tells us in this passage—and he’s not asking, let’s be clear—-how the righteous will be separated from the unrighteous and what we are expected to do for our siblings, he’s not just telling us to do it for the benefit of those who are hungry or in prison. He’s giving us the opportunity to encounter Him. He’s inviting us to meet him where he lives, which is with the poor, and the outcast, and those in prison. Make no mistake about it. When you commit yourself to acting in service you have just accepted an invitation from Jesus Christ himself to know and be known.

Over the months I visited the prison I got to know people’s stories. Stories of addiction, violence, and political protest. But I also got to know what they found funny, what they saw as beautiful. I learned a little about what it’s like to live in a prison surrounded by razor wire for decades or maybe the rest of your life. And it changed the course of my life, and my commitment to justice, and my commitment to serving my siblings.

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

So reach for that invitation from Jesus in whatever way you can. There are ways to “visit” even without leaving your home. There are ways to connect and to affirm the dignity and divinity present in all of us. You can donate, correspond, and meet online through Episcopal organizations and others. The punishment in this passage is not the point. It’s the call to relationship, and ultimately to wholeness.

Reflection on Matthew

November 8, 2020

By Katherine Kasameyer

This week’s Gospel is the parable about the bridesmaids and the lamps.  Five are foolish, and five are wise, and they are all waiting for the bridegroom. The wise bring extra oil for the lamps, but the foolish do not. All fall asleep waiting for the bridegroom, and all are wakened with a shout at midnight. The bridegroom has arrived!  They all get up and trim their lamps. The five bridesmaids who are foolish apparently don’t have enough oil, and ask the ones with oil to share. But the wise bridesmaids refuse, and send the five foolish bridesmaids into the night to find the oil dealers.  The Gospel tells us that while the five foolish bridesmaids are gone, the bridegroom came and “those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.”  Later the foolish bridesmaids came and asked for the door to be open, but he said “I do not know you.” And the door remained shut.

I find this week’s Gospel rather frightening.  It seems to say that if I am not ready when some unexpected event comes, I won’t get the good stuff.  I will find myself in the middle of the night looking at a closed door. I will know that a bunch of my former companions are eating and drinking and having a good time in the light and the warmth on the other side of that door, but it will be shut to me.  I will ask to come in but Jesus will say he does not know me.

The prospect of being shut out in the dark was scary in Jesus’ time and it is scary in ours.  Steve Hitchcock reminded me this week that Matthew’s readers would have been living in a very unsettled time, when there was probably a lot of bickering, and waiting.

We are told at the end of the parable avoid disaster by keeping “awake,” or perhaps keeping “ready.”  If we do, we will be prepared for the coming of the bridegroom, which we understand to be Jesus.  What would being awake, or ready, mean?

It might mean being prepared.  We know from our recent experiences with a pandemic and wildfires that being prepared can be exhausting.  I’m not sure whether you get the Chronicle, but I do.  Here’s the supplement that arrives every few weeks: preparing for disaster. It has tips about how to stock up on food and water, how to inventory everything in every drawer in case you lose it all, and how to pack a go bag and a stay bin …. And I know I should do all of it, but I don’t. I think I have time for other things.  So I do a little. I make some preparations but not all of them.

So listening to this parable, I suppose I know what I should do. More prayer. More study. More helping others. More giving to worthy causes. More patience with my family.  More holding my tongue and opening my heart.  More things that are easier said than done. Some of it just seems like too much to take on. I feel spread too thin. But then again, that’s probably how Matthew’s readers felt.

But then the little rational part of me can’t give up wondering about the rest of the parable. What is going on with these “wise” bridesmaids?  They have enough oil, and they refuse to share with the “foolish” bridesmaids. They don’t even let the foolish following the light from their lamps. We are told in Leviticus not to place a stumbling block before the blind.  But the wise bridesmaids send the foolish bridesmaids off to buy oil at midnight. We know that in the ancient world that would have an almost impossible errand.  Why would Jesus tell us that the “wise” behave this way?

The only way I can come up with is that the oil here cannot be transferred from one person to another. But what would that mean? In the course of reading picture books to my son I had occasion to read a lovely picture book about how to make olive oil. It has photos of the farmers whacking the olive trees with sticks and gathering and sorting the olives. Then waiting and then bringing them to a machine, where they all get squished together until the oil comes out. The fruit that goes in gets transformed into oil.

But the fresh oil isn’t like what you buy in the store. It is cloudy and gets clearer in time.  Making oil isn’t necessarily a quick process.

I was looking around this week for writings about the meaning of oil. One of the interpretations I came across is that it is like wisdom.  Wisdom can come from difficult parts in our lives, where we are squeezed.  And certainly the last few months has included a lot of squeezing, a lot of pressure.

My life looks different post-pandemic than it did before it. Much less movement, much more time with my family.  There is wisdom to be gained here, and maybe even faith.  So I hope that I am able to collect the drops that may be coming out of this squeezing, and collect them into fuel to keep me going.

Or maybe I will just keep humming the Taize chant we used to do at communion: ‘wait for the Lord, whose day is near, wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart.’

 

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

October 18, 2020

Exodus 33:12-23

Psalm 99

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

MATTHEW 22:15-22

Here we are today, just over two weeks away from what may be the most momentous election in our nation’s history, and – of course – the Gospel is about money and politics.

This is also Jubilee Sunday, when we lift up the biblical tradition of the seventh year when fields are left fallow and all debts forgiven.  This year, we are observing Jubilee when the election may literally decide whether the world’s poorest countries and our own poorest citizens are granted a Jubilee of debt forgiveness – or pushed into an even deeper pit of debt.

Today’s short reading from Matthew 22 is the first of four tests or controversies faced by Jesus.  The reading follows last week’s parable of the wedding feast where all are invited.  On previous Sundays, we heard stories and parables about driving out vendors in the temple, good intentions versus good behavior, labor practices, and property rights.  All a prelude to today’s story about money and politics.

What makes today’s trick question so malicious or evil is that the Herodians (the Republicans) and the Pharisees (the liberal Democrats) were so desperate to get rid of Jesus that they collaborated to put Jesus in a no-win situation.

Jesus could say, “Pay the poll tax” – pay the required tax that conferred both the benefits and obligations of the Roman empire.  But, in the process, Jesus would betray those devout people like the Essenes and the Zealots who pledged loyalty to the God of Israel alone.

Or Jesus could refuse to pay the poll tax – and solidify his status as a dangerous radical, a revolutionary who would invite Rome to crush what little life and freedom was left in Judea and Galilee.

But like the parables we’ve experienced in the past weeks, today’s puzzle cracks open a new reality.  Jesus asks his interrogators to provide the coin, demonstrating that he doesn’t carry Roman coins.  Significantly, this coin was a denarius, a day’s wages – which for most people is what they earned and then spent to be able eat that day.

Even more significantly, the Roman coin bore the image of the Emperor and the inscription, “Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.”

Jesus acknowledges Roman authority, and he accepts that this is indeed Caesar’s coin, which the Judeans and Galileans were giving back to Caesar.  But Jesus says that this coin is all Caesar gets.  We are to give to God what is God’s.

And what is it that we give back to God?  The implication is that we give to God what bears God’s image– namely ourselves because we are created in God’s image.  Thus, Jesus challenges his interrogators – and us today – to give ourselves, our entire created being, back to God.

Of course, these words of Jesus are a judgment on the Pharisees and Herodians – and a judgment on us as well.  They – and we – want to be safe and secure in life.  We pay what is necessary to get along.  We make a deal in the hopes that political power will protect us – and maybe even provide some sense of worth and happiness.

But Matthew’s first readers knew that divided loyalties is a deal with the devil.  They would remember the story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness.  Even more telling, they were well aware that political accommodation in Jesus’ time led to corruption and oppression, which resulted in the utter destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans some 30 years after Jesus’ death.

For us today, it is equally deadly to live with divided loyalties, to try to buy our happiness.

Jubilee points out how the even well-intentioned use of time and money can lead to greed and corruption that enslaves others in our own country.  Predatory lending, fines that mount up, and housing costs beyond the means of most people – all cry out for Jubilee.  In developing countries, debts held by banks and other countries deprive the world’s poorest people of health care, basic education, and agricultural development.

In a real sense, the trap that the Pharisees and Herodians set for Jesus feels like a trap that God seems to have set for us.

We’re put in a situation where accommodation and divided loyalties seem the only option.  Even though we are created in God’s image, how can we possibly give ourselves completely to God?  There are so many competing demands for our time, attention, and resources.  And, to top it off, our seemingly innocent lifestyle decisions implicate us in creating a life-crushing debt burden for so many.

The good news – the source of hope and cause for joy – turns again on that word image.

In our first reading today from Exodus 33, we hear that God won’t let Moses see the face of the divine, a vision Moses hoped would confer God’s favor on him.  But God does allow Moses – while also protecting Moses – to catch a glimpse of God’s back, an image if you will of God’s goodwill.

You’ll recall that Matthew’s Gospel sifts through the expectations about the Messiah who was to come and restore Israel to greatness.  Matthew keeps linking Jesus and Moses, the great liberator and prophet.  But, for Matthew, Jesus is always more than just another Moses, and he is greater than King David.  The One who John the Baptist runs before and announces is the true Son of God – not some imposter like Caesar.

Jesus is the image of God who does give himself completely to God.  Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, we see what it means for Jesus to give himself to God– to heal the sick, welcome the outcast, and feed the hungry.  We also see that, as in today’s Gospel, this giving of oneself brings Jesus into conflict with religious and political authorities.

And this conflict ends in Jesus’ execution on the cross.  For Matthew, Jesus’ death is the way Jesus gives himself – as God’s Son – back to God.  All to redeem convicts, sinners, and hypocrites.  Including us.

For Matthew’s first readers and for us today, they knew and trusted that the crucified Jesus was also the Risen Christ.  Risen, but very much present and active among us as they gathered for the Eucharist, as they baptized others, and as they fed the hungry.

In our baptism, we are buried with Christ and raised with him, and our image gets conflated with the image of the Risen Christ.  In our baptism, we are given the wedding garment for this banquet of joy that we experience even as we gather remotely.  And, what makes this banquet so joyous, is that all are invited – including those who are burdened with debts.

This banquet – our worship together even over Zoom – is truly Jubilee, forgiveness rooted in the Sabbath, the seventh day when the God of creation rested.  God’s rest from creation is the source of our freedom from striving, our freedom from greed, our freedom from piling up goods we hope will make us happy.  An outpouring of sheer grace, this rest and freedom are available to all.

And, as we saw just a few decades ago when the nations of the world agreed to debt forgiveness, Jubilee restores society and rebuilds the community that makes all life possible.

Yes, Jubilee – in all its forms, both personal and communal – is our comfort now and our hope for the future.  Amen.

 

Oct. 10, 2020 Sermon

Sermon 10/11/2020

The Rev. Dani Gabriel, Deacon

St. Alban’s, Albany

Readings: http://lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Pentecost/AProp23_RCL.html

Have you ever been invited somewhere you weren’t sure you’d fit in? Have you ever been asked to attend a party for someone you barely knew, or maybe a work function with your boss hosting? Have you worried what to wear, if you had appropriate shoes, which tie was right?

I was invited to an extremely fancy party, pre Covid. It was the first actual black tie affair I’d ever been asked to attend. I was initially horrified, because I didn’t want to wear a gown. Tulle and taffeta are not for me. I went thrift store shopping and bought a tuxedo jacket instead.

The party was every bit as over the top as I had anticipated. I was extremely uncomfortable, walking between the open bar and the trays of hors d’oevers. I kept thinking about how much everything had cost: that ice sculpture must have been a month’s worth of groceries, that dessert was more than a tank of gas. But everyone was welcoming, and I found myself having a good time in spite of myself.

We are all invited to the party. God invites us to meet his Son, invites us from the streets or even whatever jails we occupy, he’s demanding our presence even. It’s an over the top affair.

How nervous you are to meet fancy people or be at a King’s banquet doesn’t matter. You are worthy. Show up. All your mistakes, all your failures, all the things that trouble you in the two a.m. darkness don’t matter. You are worthy. Show up. The identities that push you to the edges of conversations and keep you out of community, they are valued. You are worthy. Show up.

That is a message for this week. As we see division all over our tv screens and many of us are left wondering: is there a place for us in America anymore? This is an alternative vision. A lavish banquet that God is basically begging us to attend. One that has room for the ordinary, and the outcast, and the other.

We need to think about who we invite into our spaces, too. Is our worship welcoming to all? Who do we not invite to come to events or participate in conversations? How can we lengthen the guest list to include everyone who might be interested?

When I was first invited to attend an Episcopal church I said “no.” Emphatically. I definitely did not want anything to do with the Episcopal Church, thank you very much. I didn’t feel particularly welcomed and I didn’t think I’d fit in. It took the person who invited me six months of pestering to get me to go, and then look what happened. Ten years later I’m ordained in the church.

What happened was that when I got to that party I met God. I met God in the liturgy and I met her in the people. That was a lavish party to be sure, full of grace. I never ever wanted to leave. The more we can share the unique things about the Episcopal Church, the more we can share that we really do mean ALL are welcome, the more that we can invite people directly to join us, the bigger and louder and more celebratory this party will get. And that will have a positive impact on the world.

And what about these original guests who refused the invitation? I am often like one of them. Too busy to hear God’s call. I’ve got things I want to do, I’m not interested in God’s agenda even when I’m given a clear invite. I have to practice prayer so I can hear God’s call, so that there will be space for me to respond.

And what about this guest that is cast into the outer darkness for having the wrong clothes? That doesn’t seem to fit with the message.

One suggestion I have read is that this guest has refused to be “clothed in Christ.”[1] He has shown up to the banquet, but wants to retain his earthly clothing and his earthly ways.

How would we be clothed in Christ? What would we wear to this heavenly banquet?

Maybe a scarf woven from our gifts to the poor.

Maybe a hat sewn from our service to the sick.

How about a dress cut from our care for our families?

A shirt tailored with our love for people who are difficult.

Shoes cobbled from patience, and kindness, and mercy.

You don’t need a tux from the thrift store for this party. You don’t need to look this way or that way, you don’t need anything expensive.

If “many are called, but few are chosen” maybe it’s because we got the invitation but not the deeper message.

You just need to show up with your best try, with your efforts at putting on the ways of Jesus, and dance.

[1]Bartlett and Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 4, pages 164-169.

Reflection for Pentecost 18, & St. Francis Day 2020

Reflection for Pentecost 18, & St. Francis Day 2020

by Pastor Jim Stickney

I’d like to start this reflection with a word of gratitude for being invited back

to lead this service — a good adaptation of our normal ways of worshipping God.

I last led the worship at St. Alban’s in 2006, but over the years I’ve been following you,

and I rejoice to see so many new names — which means parish growth.

 

And I’m really glad to be asked on this St. Francis Day, because on October 4th, 1997,

23 years ago, Joni and celebrated our marriage at St. Alban’s Church.

We’ll share some pictures of that event with you later, at the virtual coffee hour.

 

St. Francis was a nature mystic, finding God not only in people, but in Brother Sun

& Sister Moon, in cosmic forces, in Sister Mother Earth, and even in Bodily Death.

Francis praised God for all these good things in a poem called “the Canticle to the Sun.”

 

When the Celebrant uses Eucharistic Prayer “C”, we hear the phrase,

“this fragile earth, our island home.” When we are in danger of changing the climate,

a person like Francis reminds us of the care we ought to have for all creatures.

 

We’re especially reminded of our earth’s fragility during this terrible fire season,

when heroic firefighters are risking so much to keep us safe.

The divisions facing our country include serious debates about climate change,

its reality and the economic challenges that confront our decision makers.

 

We may be uplifted by looking up into the heavens, but we do not live there.

We may try our best on earth, but we still encounter setbacks and selfishness.

Jesus expresses this tension in the parable story I just read, about a vineyard.

Last Sunday we heard about the workers in a vineyard. That’s also the scene

for today’s episode, just after the harvest — a vineyard that is a fertile success.

 

St. Francis’ poem praises God for Sister Mother Earth, Brother Sun,

Sister Water, Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms,

and all the weather, through which God gives all creatures sustenance.

All these creatures have now produced a rich harvest for the owner’s vineyard.

 

But some short-sighted persons put immediate profit over good stewardship.

These greedy folks see money where they should see God’s rich abundance.

They are tenants, rebelling against the rightful owners of the rich land.

They rebel, and one by one they reject the authentic messengers, even killing them.

Their avarice expresses itself insanely: “This is the heir — come, let us kill him,

and get his inheritance.”  What has driven these men crazy?  Love of wealth.

 

At the end of this parable Jesus asks his listeners to tell him what happens next.

Jesus’ listeners prescribe the death penalty, with cruel and unusual pain.

(I find it very telling that Jesus himself does not utter a condemnation of death —

and yet he does not contradict the harsh verdict of his followers on that day.)

 

The wicked will be replaced by other tenants who will give a share of the harvest.

In other words, the replacement tenants will be better stewards of abundance —

these new people will realize who really owns the vineyard, and act accordingly.

 

Jesus agrees with his followers’ vision of transformation. In fact,

Jesus proclaims that such a transformation is about to happen after his death.

Those who believe in his resurrection will be the ones to share in his new life.

 

Recall the first part of this sermon, with Francis’ celebration of God the Creator,

almost hidden in the wondrous beauty of created things. This is the experience of God

beyond personality — our wonder at the marvels of an expanding universe.

 

Since this day is also the Feast of St. Francis, I’ll conclude with that cosmic poem

known as the Canticle of the Sun. This poem is the basis of the Rose Window

found in Grace Cathedral. And many years ago some of our parish members shared

their talent of needlework in the cushions for the choir stalls in Grace Cathedral,

which was a Diocesan-wide art project celebrating Francis’ Canticle of the Sun.

 

Most high, omnipotent good Lord, all praise is yours, all glory, honor and blessing.

 

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through Brother Sun,

who brings the day, and you give light through him. And he is beautiful

and radiant in all his splendor.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and all the stars;

in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms,

and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;

she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night;

he is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds and rules us,

and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you;

through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who endure in peace.

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace

no living person can escape. Happy those she finds doing your most holy will.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve God with great humility.

 

Amen. Alleluia!