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.

AUGUST 8 REFLECTION

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church

August 8, 2021 Reflection

Sandy Burnett

In 1987, Pope John Paul II visited the Bay Area. As usual, my editor at the San Mateo Times was looking for a local angle on the story and he found one. I was sent to the Mercy Center, a convent and meeting center in Burlingame, to interview a nun who had written some new music that would be used during the Pope’s Mass in San Francisco.

That was how I met Sister Suzanne Toolan. When I mentioned that I’d recently returned to the Episcopal Church, she said she had a hymn in our Hymnal, so from then on I started checking the names of hymn composers. Turns out Sister Suzanne wrote “I Am the Bread of Life,” which also appears in Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist hymnals. The song, which Sister Suzanne wrote between classes she was teaching in 1964, has been translated into 20 languages. She’s also written lots of other music, including some Taize chants like “Jesus Christ, Yesterday, Today and Forever” and “Now in Peace, O God.”

Sister Suzanne has said that I Am the Bread of Life shouldn’t really work for congregational singing. “It’s too low. It’s too high,” she says. She believes the big draw is the Scripture from which the lyrics are drawn, some of which were read to us today.

What is it that’s so compelling about Jesus as the bread of life? Over the past few weeks, it seems that bread and feeding have been talked about over and over in the Gospel. Spoiler alert, we’re not done with the topic yet.

For me, I think it comes down to both the simplicity and the complexity of the message. Jesus tells us that belief in God  and the Savior are all that we need. We need faith to survive in a way that transcends our need for physical nourishment. This was a hard message for the people in his hometown congregation to hear. They had been taught that obeying the laws and customs of their people were the only way to a peaceful Paradise. Now one of their own was telling them they had to believe in him and he would raise them up on the last day. In the early Christian church — the people for whom John’s Gospel was written — the sacrament of the bread and wine became a way of being church, after many had been ousted from their synagogues for their beliefs.

This message of God’s continuous care for us sounds too good to be true and so we struggle with it. It’s not as easy as it sounds because believing in Jesus isn’t really the end of it. If you believe in Jesus and his message, then you also believe that doing your best to imitate God, as Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, follows that belief, Can you really believe in God’s mercy and the sacrifice of Jesus without believing that you are destined for good? As the Psalm says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they that trust in him.”

But we are often at a complete loss to discern what is good. Our trust wanes when things happen that don’t seem right and God doesn’t seem to do anything about it. That brings us to the first reading. Absalom has committed two very serious sins. First, this son of David takes it upon himself to murder his half-brother, who raped and abandoned their sister, Tamar. David had refused to avenge his daughter.

Second, Absalom leads a rebellion against David, God’s chosen King of Israel, in which thousands die. Absalom dies grotesquely, but David mourns this rebellious but beloved son. David knows very well that his own sins have had a big role in the sorrow of both his family and his country, and he wishes that he had died instead.  As so often happens, a sin leads to a cascade of unforeseen events. David’s successor, his son Solomon, asked God for the gift of wisdom, of discernment to know the difference between right and wrong. Absalom surely thought he was doing the right thing.

But we don’t have Solomon’s gift. We continue to sin, sometimes unknowingly, doing things we don’t really want to do. Even when we’re really trying to do good, we can sin. Which brings us back to Jesus as the Bread of Life, who is with us every single day and hour to comfort us in our guilt and frustration, and to forgive us. This nourishment, this love, is what keeps us going through our earthbound lives and into the afterlife. As living beings, we need real food and water to live, but as living spirits, we need our faith, and we need it 24/7 and forever, not just at mealtimes. Our Holy Communion is a way of reminding us of this need and of our relationship with both the Trinity and other believers throughout the ages.

Last week, we were fortunate to once again be able to have an in-person Communion which many of us have really missed this past year. Yet this longing, for me, has also made me think more about what I really need from church. From the first Christians, Communion has not only offered us a living reminder of the Bread of Life, but has been part of the identity of Christians and the church. But as always, what Communion stands for is the real Sacrament. And we’ve had to look at new ways of addressing the future, which I find both scary and exhilarating.

Of course, the whole world has gone through this experience. The Mercy Center, where Sister Suzanne, now in her 90s, still lives, hosted a Taize prayer service on the first Friday of the month from 1982 until April, 2020 — 38 years. I used to go occasionally when I lived on the Peninsula and there were many people for whom this was their home congregation. When the sisters realized that Covid wasn’t going to end anytime soon, they began an online Taize service. If you would like to participate, go to the Mercy Center Website for details. I’m not sure if Sister Suzanne is still able to be there, but I know that her music is still part of the service.

And today, we’re going to sing “I am the Bread of Life,” difficult as it is, but knowing that our basic needs can only be met through our faith.

Pentecost 10 

St. Alban’s Church                                                                           II Samuel 11: 26 – 12: 14

Pentecost 10                                                                                      Psalm 51: 1-13

August 1, 2021                                                                                  Ephesians 4: 1 – 16

Pastor Jim Stickney                                                                          John 6: 24 – 35

 

Christ wants to equip the saints for the work of ministry. [Ephesians 4: 12]]

 

When I was a young man newly arrived at seminary, I was with a group of novices

who were assigned to be guided by a wise older priest who was our mentor.

Almost every day we gathered in a large room called “the exhortation hall,”

and there this experienced priest would deliver a formal “exhortation.”

 

Some of you may not be familiar with this word or concept, even though I’m sure

you have both exhorted others and have been exhorted yourselves.

An exhortation is a kind of spiritual pep-talk, an energetic encouragement

for people to excel in the practice of virtues, often Christian virtues.

 

Many of us are following the amazing athletes taking part in the Olympics in Tokyo.

Each one of these athletes has worked under the guidance of many coaches.

A good coach will challenge you to work harder, to summon forth your best effort.

and in performance or competition your coach will both affirm your success

and call you out with strong criticism when he or she sees that you’re slacking off.

 

This is the way the prophet Nathan criticizes King David for his abusive behavior.

Nathan calls out and condemns the king’s compounded sins —

the sin of adultery with another man’s wife, and the sin of having that man killed

in an attempt to cover up his transgression. Nathan “catches the conscience

of the king” with the little story of the poor man’s lamb served up to dinner guests.

David needed direct “negative exhortation,” and sometimes we do too.

 

Contrast that with what St. Paul tries to do when he writes to the Christians

in the early church: it’s positive exhortation, with words of encouragement.

He doesn’t write to make this community feel guilty about being wicked or foolish;

no: he pays them the compliment that they’re mature enough, savvy enough,

and experienced enough, to build upon their solid foundation in Christ Jesus.

See for yourselves if these words don’t give you a spiritual boost:

 

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind

            of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head,                           into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together

by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly,

            promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

 

Christ wants to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

 

In our Gospel for today, Jesus exhorts his followers to a higher form of discipleship.

Just after he feeds 5,000 people, some are tagging along for more free food.

I wonder if Jesus had a smile on his face when he looked them in the eye and said,

Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs,

but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes,

            but for the food that endures for eternal life. Jesus wants to equip these people,

and us, to dig deeper and find more substantial motivation for discipleship.

 

That brings us to ourselves, aspiring to be saints, or at least good Christians,

in the same way that the Christians living in first-century Ephesus were exhorted unto.

How do we equip ourselves to do the various ministries we live out? Paul says: the gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists,                                some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

 

You know that St. Alban’s has a lot of work to do as we emerge from the pandemic.

I’m happy to be a small part of that rebuilding as we gather in public

for common worship after more than a year of Zooming and distant worship.

My last celebration of the Eucharist here was fifteen years ago,

and I’m delighted to be invited for monthly worship with you here for a while.

.

In the years since I last led worship here, St. Alban’s has continued

and increased its ministry to the neighbors who are in need of care.

The spiritual food and wine from the altar is given to equip the saints —

the ordinary Christians — to sustain us as we exercise the gifts God has given us.

 

This includes the healers, the administrators, all kinds of volunteers —

some feeding the hungry, some caring for the elderly. Can you clarify your ministry —

what it looks like? and who it is you’re called to serve?

Then ask: how can this church help you live out this ministry you have?

 

Because — Christ wants to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church ● Albany, California ● July 25, 2021

Steve Hitchcock

2 Kings 4:42-44

Psalm 145:10-10

Ephesians 3:14-21

JOHN 6:1-21

When I first read today’s Gospel from John 6, I said, “Good.  This is John’s account of the Last Supper.  This Gospel is perfect for helping us prepare to gather next Sunday, after such a long absence, for in-person worship and the reception of Christ’s body and blood.  This reading from John reminds us that as we celebrate the Eucharist, we experience the abundance – with leftovers – of God’s grace.

Unlike the other three Gospels, John does not include an account of the meal Jesus partakes before his crucifixion, when he tells his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me. Instead, John shapes his account of the feeding of the 5,000 – a story told in all of the Gospels – to highlight links to the Eucharistic celebrations practiced by the first Christians.  Jesus starts by giving thanks (Eucharist in Greek), and Jesus – not the disciples – distributes the food.

But whenever I start to study a particular Gospel for a particular Sunday – that is re-read the text and the rest of Gospel, examine specific words and phrases, and sample what scholars have to say – I end up at a different place from where I started.

Yes, today’s reading is about the Eucharist, but the second part of our Gospel makes the even more astounding claim: Jesus gets into the boat of our lives, and we are glad that he does.  We willingly receive him.

In the other three Gospels, the point is that Peter needs to get in the boat with the other disciples – to be part of the community that trusts Jesus’ power to save.

What is so startling about John’s account is that it is Jesus who gets in the boat.  He doesn’t take us out of the boat and whisk us away to some fantasy land.  No, Jesus is here in the midst of our uncertainty and our fears as we struggle with the storms of our lives.

How Jesus gets here and why we willingly welcome him is set forth in the very first verses of today’s Gospel.

Last Sunday, while I was on vacation, you reflected on those memorable words of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not be in want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside the still waters.”

Today’s Gospel reading shows us these verses are more than just beautiful words to comfort us.   We hear today that Jesus is our shepherd, that we want for nothing, and that we are surrounded by green grass and calm waters.

The Season of Bread

First, though, let’s step back and sort out where we are this Sunday.  We’re at the Ninth Sunday in the long season of Pentecost, so-called ordinary time.  This is the liturgical year B, so the Gospel lessons are generally from Mark.  But Mark is about half the length of Matthew and Luke, so we interrupt our regular program to fill in with readings from John’s Gospel.  During the next four weeks, which I’ll call the Season of Bread, we will read the very long chapter six – with 71 verses – of John’s Gospel.

Today, in this first Sunday in the Season of Bread, we hear the story of the actual feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes.  This miraculous feeding is a story told in all four Gospels, followed by the account of Jesus walking on the water to the disciples in the storm-tossed boat.  The rest of John 6 is Jesus’ long conversation about what this feeding meant, including the famous Bread of Life discourse.

John is reminding us that we are part of this abundant feeding today.  He is saying that the “fragments” – a word used for the bread in the Eucharistic liturgy – were so abundant that they were left over.  Indeed, enough leftovers, if you will, to keep feeding all those who gather into the future to feast on Christ’s body and blood.

But the real miracle of this feeding is not that five barley loaves and a couple of fishes – provided by a small child – went so far.  No, the real miracle is that we experience this abundance in the midst of suffering, persecution, and loss.

Who is this Jesus in the boat with us?

That’s the point that John makes in the story that follows the feeding of the 5,000.  Jesus, like Moses, goes back to the mountain to communicate with God.  The disciples end up on a boat without Jesus in the middle of the lake, full of fear as they are tossed about by the stormy seas.  Then Jesus, as in the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus story, comes walking on the water.  The disciples “wanted to take him into the boat.”  Or more accurately translated, “they willingly took him into the boat.”

They – and we today – are willing to receive Jesus because he tells them – and us – who is.  And that makes all the difference.

First, John notes that this feeding takes place at Passover, the feast that remembered when, during the final deadly plague in Egypt, God passed over those houses where a lamb had been sacrificed.  This is John’s way of telling us that Jesus is the new Moses, the one who is leading a new exodus, a new liberation from captivity.  And this new Moses is creating a new people of God.  This was especially good news for John’s first readers who were being kicked out of synagogues, excluded because their faith in Jesus labeled them as apostates.

Second, the Jesus in the boat with us is the Good Shepherd.  That’s why today’s reading notes that “there is much grass.”  As in Psalm 23, Jesus leads the people to green pastures where they will experience no want.

This reference to the Good Shepherd was also a signal to John’s readers that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who gathers us together and who lays down his life for our sake, the paschal lamb who saves us from death.

            Third, the Jesus in the boat with us is I am.  Those two words are way the NRSV has translated as “It is I,” but the actual phrase is “I am.”  Those words were the answer to Moses when, at burning bush, he asked Yahweh who he was.  This “I am” pronouncement by Jesus sets the stage for “I am’s” we’ll hear later in chapter 6 and in other chapters: I am the Bread of Life, I am the Way and the Truth, I am the Vine, and I am the resurrection and life.

So, the Jesus is the boat with us is God, the power and being that creates and loves everything that is.  The Word that became flesh and dwelt among us.  The Word that was with God and without whom nothing is created.  The good news isn’t that Jesus is like God, but rather that God is like Jesus.  God gets into our storm-tossed boat of life.  God listens to our fears and anxieties.  And God suffers with us, laying down his life that we might be raised to new life.

Keeping Jesus in the boat with us

What freedom from fear and joy for living becomes possible when this Jesus is the boat with us!  But John knew that his community found it hard – generations after Jesus had lived, died, and rose – to trust that Jesus was with them.  They, like us, wondered if they were better off without Jesus, whether it really made any difference to trust his presence among them.

For those first readers of John’s Gospel there was lots of evidence that God had abandoned them, that they had no status or place, that suffering and persecution were their fate.  And we today often struggle to believe that all this enthusiastic Jesus talk amounts to anything.  The world around us, the people close to us, and our own minds and bodies seem to betray us again that again.

That’s why John links the feeding of the 5,000 – Jesus the Good Shepherd feeding us all that we need, making sure that no one is lost – to what happens when we gather for the Eucharist next Sunday.  John knew that to sustain their faith and hope his community needed to hear those words about Jesus – and feast on the Bread of Life – Sunday after Sunday.

John’s Gospel is organized around a series of misunderstandings about who Jesus is.  Mary his mother doesn’t understand why her son doesn’t solve the wine problem right away.  Nicodemus can’t understand this business about being born again in the Spirit.  The Samaritan woman at the well misunderstands the type of water Jesus is talking about.  Later in chapter 6, the disciples fail to make the connection between the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus as the Bread of Life.  And, in the pivotal chapter 11, Mary and Martha don’t understand what Jesus is saying about the death of their brother Lazarus.

This pattern of misunderstandings is completed – and resolved – in chapter 20 when Thomas’s so-called doubt is actually his understanding of who Jesus really is – and why he’s in the boat with us.  The Risen Christ – our Lord and God – is the One whose hands have been nailed and whose side has been pierced.  Our Lord is wounded for us, and our God has suffered death that we too might live in resurrection time.

The Eucharist and our gathering together again and again to hear Jesus’ words enables us to join Thomas – seeing Jesus’ wounds – to say, “My Lord and my God.”  In the Eucharist, we put our hands on Jesus’ broken body, we partake of his life poured out for us.

And because of this meal we partake – Sunday after Sunday, hearing the Good Shepherd call us by name – we are happy to sing while the boat rocks, we pray while the storm rages, and we are glad to be in this boat together.  Amen.

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

St. Alban’s Church                                                   II Samuel 5: 105, 9-10

July 4, 2021                                                                Psalm 123

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost                                  II Corinthians 12: 2 – 10

Pastor Jim Stickney                                                  Mark 6: 1 – 13

 

I will not boast — except of my weaknesses.

 

When the flamboyant English author Oscar Wilde began his very successful visit

to America in 1882, he went through the New York Customs House. He was asked

if he had anything to declare. He said, “I have nothing to declare, except my genius!”

 

Some of us might recall the portrayal of Mozart in the play (and movie) Amadeus,

when Mozart speaks about how he sees himself in relation to other composers.

At one point he comes right out with it and says that he’s simply the best.

He’s reprimanded that others could take offense at his lacking the customary humility,

but by hindsight we don’t mind words about Mozart claiming to the the best.

 

This morning I’m considering this tension between showing humility & taking pride.

Some of us may be following the riders in the world’s most famous cycling event,

the Tour de France. More of us will be watching parts of the summer Olympics,

postponed from last year and held in Japan — a celebration of the world’s best.

We expect these winners to take their places on the podium and accept their medals,

(or yellow jerseys). Yet we also expect them not to trash talk about those who lost.

 

There are a few human beings who obviously excel at their chosen fields of endeavor,

and we cut a lot of slack to someone who’s obviously brilliant, especially

if such a person can display a little of the common touch and stay grounded.

 

But for ordinary people, what we want to hear is that they’re not the best.

In fact, something in us wants to cut huge egos down to size — especially enemies.

Just as we admire true excellence, so we can’t abide phonies, frauds, or pretenders.

This is why St. Paul declares, I will not boast — except of my weaknesses.

 

When it comes to spiritual things, we want our religious leaders to display humility.

We assume that someone who is given the privilege of preaching in a church

also shares in human weakness, and does not remain silent during the Confession!

 

         I will not boast — except of my weaknesses. St. Paul utters this gem of a guideline

only after he speaks of some extraordinary spiritual experiences (perhaps “mystical”).

He refers in the third person to someone caught up into the third heaven.

That person — most likely the writer Paul himself — was in Paradise, and heard things

that can’t be told, of experiences that can’t be trapped in mere human words.

 

It might seem quite a stretch for us to see Jesus described as weak or powerless.

And yet, in the Gospel story chosen for today, we hear Mark tell us,

                   “He could do no deed of power [in his hometown], except that he laid his hands

                   on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.”

 

Jesus could not do much for people who had seen him grow up, for they knew him —

both too well and not well enough. His Good News couldn’t get past their history.

It didn’t matter that he preached well in their synagogue — that only made them feel

somehow inferior to this person to whom they had once been superior.

 

Did Jesus go back and make a special campaign to get them to change their minds?

Perhaps to our surprise, we hear: Then he went about among the villages, teaching.

He gave witness to who he was and what he could do, and then he left his home town.

 

I will not boast — except of my weaknesses.

 

Some parishioners were born in other countries, and chose to come here.

But most were born in this country, and like you, I said the pledge of allegiance

and was taught that ours was the best country in the world — that other countries

looked up to us as the best example of human freedom. Sure, we had some problems,

but thanks to active citizens, we could vote to change policies and solve problems.

 

But on this Independence Day, we have to admit that our pride has been challenged.

Despite advanced technology, we had more Covid deaths than any other country.

The murder of George Floyd revealed even more the realities of racism among us.

And on January 6th, our own fellow countrymen staged an insurrection.

We have to admit that our nation has been humbled.

 

Recall that St. Paul is careful to mention “a thorn in his side.” This character defect,

this constant irritant, kept him from being too proud about his lofty visions.

We all carry around with us our own personal “thorn in our side,” some reminder

of our frailty — despite our other gifts. As our country strives to better itself,

we know that simply chanting “USA! USA!” won’t get us very far. What will help

is our telling the truth about the thorns in the side of our country.

Honest examination of our shortcomings is the first step in correcting them.

 

One advantage of this Zoom format is that I can show you small photos

that would not be visible from a pulpit. Here’s one I took from our deck on Flag Day:

Our church’s flag and our country’s flag flying side by side.

 

Now, our church’s Hymnal places the National Songs on the very last pages.

In fact, the last song in the Hymnal is “O say can you see.”

A more singable national song is there, known as “America the Beautiful,”

Each of its three verses asks that God shed grace upon our country.

 

In particular, the second verse implores God to assist us overcome our weaknesses:

America, America, God mend thine every flaw —

confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.

 

I will not boast — except of my weaknesses.