Here I am – send me By The Rev. Jim Stickney

St. Alban’s Church
February 6, 2022
Pastor Jim Stickney
Isaiah 6: 1 – 8
Psalm 138
I Corinthians 15: 1 – 11
Luke 5: 1 – 11

Here I am — send me.

Last Thanksgiving we went to dinner at the home of Joni’s nephew Michael
and his family. Michael is a prison guard at a Corrections Facility
in Jamestown in the Sierra Foothills. The prison includes a fire-fighting
center where some inmates receive training to deploy to fight wildfires.
At some point I noticed Michael wore a wristband with a Scripture verse:
Isaiah 6: 8. He told me it was a verse used by first responders.
I quickly brought out my phone and opened up one of my Bible apps.
“I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send,
and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here I am; send me!”
Just envision a forest fire approaching. While everyone else flees the
flames, some first responders have this little verse at the back of their
minds: “Whom shall I send?” And I said, “Here I am — send me!”
Isaiah’s courageous response to God’s challenge comes after a powerful
vision — a spiritual experience of God’s presence filling up the temple in
Jerusalem.The angels — the seraphim — are singing one to another:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord! Holy, holy, holy. Holy, holy, holy. Holy, holy,
holy
Let’s think about that for a moment. Those three words have been chanted,
recited, and carved into the stone and wood of thousands of altars.
That one spiritual experience of one person, the prophet Isaiah, has been
sung
by millions of voices in music both classical and popular.
We pray those words every time we celebrate the Eucharist: Holy, holy,
holy.

That one vision, repeated over the centuries, gives the motivation to say:

Here I am — send me.

For the last few Sundays, we’ve been hearing about Jesus’ early ministry
according to Luke. We might recall that last Sunday Jesus returned to his
home town. The citizens of Nazareth welcomed him at first, but then turned
against him. The Gospels don’t mention that Jesus ever returned to the
place where he grew up.
Instead, he’s now on the road, an itinerant preacher — as he lives out
the challenge from Isaiah: “Whom shall I send?” Jesus says, “Here I am —
send me!” Today’s reading finds him preaching to a crowd, then getting into
a boat. You know how sound travels better over water than land. Jesus did
too.
As a kind of “thank you” to Peter for the use of his boat, he makes a gift:
a huge haul of fish. Peter, of course, makes his usual gaffes in Jesus’
presence — followed by his accustomed apologies for being so lacking in
faith. It’s all well and good — Jesus would be getting used to Peter’s ups and
downs.
Then, in effect, Jesus issues the same challenge we heard in the prophet
Isaiah: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Peter, along with his
fishing buddies, leave the nets, and begin the lofty vocation of fishing for
people. In their decision to follow this wandering preacher, they say: “Here
we are; send us!”

Here I am — send me.

At the Offertory this morning, we will sing a bittersweet hymn:
“They cast their nets in Galilee.” I have a distinct memory of discovering
this hymn just a few months after I joined the Episcopal Church, in my
thirties. The poetry of this deceptively simple text actually showed me how
hymns could challenge and advance one’s understanding of Scripture.
The fourth verse sings about how ironic the peace of God can prove to be:
“The peace of God — it is no peace, but strife turned in the sod.
Yet let us pray for that one thing — the marvelous peace of God.”

We may be looking for an easy way of being a Christian, following Jesus’
saying that his voke is easy and his burden is light. That can certainly be
true. But we also find that following the path of Christ can lead to
challenges and difficult choices that shatter our ideas of some superficial
peace — such as when we define peace only as the absence of conflict.
But at the end, we can discover that the deeper peace that God gives us
provides us with a refuge, a resting place from which we can contemplate
how, for those who love God, all things work together for good.
And so we can still say, at every stage Christian life:
Here I am — send me.

Reflection for February 20, 2022 By Larry DiCostanzo

Reflection for February 20, 2022

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

 

Lawrence DiCostanzo

 

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50

Luke 6:27-38

Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42

 

In today’s Gospel passage from Luke, Jesus says:  “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you . . . [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Luke’s passage harks back to Matthew’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. . . . Be perfect . . . as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matt. 6: 43-48)

Personally, these passages are very important to me.  They played a big role in my conversion.  I was impressed particularly by the words that say God is perfect and merciful both to the evil and to the good, both to the righteous and the unrighteous.  These words spoke to a struggle I had and still have to answer a question: What should be a real Christian relationship to people whom the world or some parts of it declare to be bad and beyond the pale and unredeemable.  These condemnations are made all the time.  They are famous on Twitter, not that I know much about it.  But they’re made daily by politicians, right wing people and left wing people, activists, and pundits on all sides.

The problem was acute for me because of my work.  I frequently came across the very bad.  Persons who had done unspeakable, terrible things.  Persons whose acts had resulted in pain, terror, and death to others.  I tell you, it is a humbling thing to look at someone’s revealed soul.  For some of them, I could say: if I had been in that man’s position, I could have done the same thing.  For others, one could see the deep, deep light of sorrow and remorse.  I would say:  We always see the person’s sin, and we shouldn’t ignore it; but we never see the repentance unless we look for it.

We live in a world where we are angry at each other, where friends break off relationships because of differing political opinions, where divisions are everywhere, where hatred and self-righteousness trumpet their claims.

But the passages from Luke and Matthew tell us to do the opposite.  Both tell us to be like God – to be merciful as he is, to be perfect as he is.  But even more they tell us that, no matter what we think and hope, God loves everyone, the wicked and the good.  As Jesus says so nicely in the passage from the Sermon on the Mount, God makes the sun shine and the rain fall on everyone.  That is, everyone lives in God’s creation.  And we should always be wary of judging others.  (Matt. 7:1-5)  Hold back: Could  you have done what this person did?  Have you seen the sorrow and remorse?  Have you seen the struggles of others?  Do you really understand what this person is talking about?

I am not saying that evil should be ignored.  I am saying that we have to look at the people we condemn as evil-doers with Kingdom eyes and not the eyes of the newspapers or commentators.  Why?  Jesus tells us to love our enemies.

Let’s focus on some really bad people, Biblically bad.  These are the Assyrians. They were a byword for viciousness and cruelty.  They are the people who conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and killed and deported the tribes that we know as the Ten Lost Tribes.  They are the people whose army came up to Jerusalem to lay siege and who mocked and terrorized the Hebrews.

I am grateful because I recently stumbled on an article about a Book of the Bible in which these horrific Assyrians feature.*  This is the Book of Jonah.  We all know that great book – how Jonah ran away in protest because God told  him to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrians, and preach repentance.  We know how God wrapped him up in the belly of a fish for three days, how even the fish puked him up, how he did what God told him to do in the first place: travel to Nineveh and preach.  Then, when the Assyrians of Nineveh repented, Jonah is angry because God didn’t do what Jonah thought he should have done.  God didn’t blast the people of Nineveh to ashes while they screamed and writhed.  Jonah says to God:  “See, I knew you would be nice and that’s why I ran away in the first place!”

Jonah then went outside Nineveh and sat down, maybe to observe, maybe to sulk.   A vine grew over his shelter and warded off the sun.  In the morning when the sun was heating up, the vine withered.  The cranky Jonah is even more angry, probably cursing and stomping.  And God says: “You feel this angry about a vine that you didn’t even create.  And you think I’m not supposed to have feelings for Nineveh and its 120,000 people who do not  know their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals there?”

Jonah is us.  Nineveh is the people we scorn and condemn.  God doesn’t care so long as repentance occurs.  We Jonahs understand God’s mercy towards us, but not his mercy to the other guy.  Jesus wants us, I believe, to leave this state of mind behind.  God’s last words to Jonah are pulling him towards vocation just as Jesus’ words in the Gospel today pull us towards the same vocation.  We cannot, of course, ignore evil.  But we can be discerning about what often we call evil and about the people who commit real evil.  And certainly according to Jesus’ words we have to realize our equality with the sinner.  And we have to love them and pray for them.  Not dismiss their persons or their appearance.  They are different persons and have a different appearance  in God’s eyes.

Amen.

*Claire Mathews McGinnis, “A Vocation for Whom? Jonah, God, and Nineveh,” The Bible Today, January/February 2022

ADVENT 1

First Sunday of Advent

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church ● Albany, California ● November 28, 2021

By Steve Hitchcock

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:1-6

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

LUKE 21:25-36

 

Today is the first Sunday of Advent and the start of a new church year.  In the three-year cycle of Scripture readings created in the 1970s, this is now Year C.  In the weeks and months ahead, most of the Gospel readings will be from Luke’s Gospel.

As we continue to live with this devastating pandemic and all its economic and social repercussions, Luke’s Gospel can be a source of healing and hope.

Luke is the longest book in the New Testament – with 800 Greek words not found elsewhere in the New Testament.  Luke is the first volume in a two-part chronicle.  The first part, Luke, is the story of Jesus’ life. The second part, Acts, is about the life of the early church, especially Paul’s missionary work that creates the church.  Together, Luke and Acts make up more than quarter of the entire New Testament.  So much of what we know and think about Jesus and the early church is down to these two books.

Half of what is in Luke’s Gospel isn’t found in the other three Gospels.  In Luke alone do we find the annunciation and birth of Jesus as well as the stories of his infancy, up to his appearance in the Jerusalem temple at age 12.  In Luke alone do we hear the pivotal stories of the widow of Nain, Mary and Martha, Zacchaeus, and the disciples who encounter the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus.

Notably, the last supper – Jesus’ Passover meal before his death with his disciples – is twice as long as in the other two Gospels.

Luke’s many unique parables – what I’ve called pearls on the silver chain of the Jesus story – include the Good Samaritan, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son (aka, the Prodigal Son), the Rich Man and Lazarus, the man who dreams of building bigger barns, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector praying in the Temple, and the parable of the unjust judge – or persistent widow.

Luke’s Gospel also presents a favorable impression of the disciples, who later becomes the Apostles in Acts.  They don’t run away when Jesus is arrested in the garden, and Jesus looks with compassion and understanding on Peter in the patio when Peter denies Jesus.

Stuck in the End Times

Given all this, it seems strange that, on this the First Sunday of Advent, we don’t read some of the inspiring stories from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel.  Rather here we are in chapter 21, just a few chapters from the Gospel’s wrap up.  And we’re back where we’ve been the past few weeks.  Today’s Chapter 21 follows Mark 13, which we read two weeks ago.  Like Mark 13, we also have the Son of Man from Daniel’s vision of God’s rescue of the Israelites in exile, which was the first lesson for Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in Pentecost.  We seem stuck in the “end times” – with alarming predictions of collapse and cataclysm.

We have enough of all that in today’s news, if not in our own personal lives.  Catastrophe and confusion are all around us.  What’s the point of rubbing it in?

Of course, we could glibly reply that Advent is about Jesus’ three-fold Advent: his coming in his birth as the Christ Child, his coming in our lives today as we trust his promise of mercy and forgiveness, and his coming again at the end of all times.

Your Redemption Draws Near

But that’s too easy and Advent isn’t that simple.  The point of Advent – what we are waiting for – is what we hear in verse 26: “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Of course, Luke has set the stage for this announcement by Jesus.  In chapter 13, a woman who has been crippled for 18 years, hears Jesus say, “Woman you are free from your ailment.”  She stood up straight and began praising God.

So today, we are invited to stand up, raise our heads, and receive God’s redemption for us at this very moment in our lives.

Only Luke uses the word “redemption.”  Mark, you’ll recall, talks about Jesus’ death as a ransom for many.  In Matthew, Jesus’ death is our forgiveness for sins.  In John, Jesus is the Passover lamb sacrificed for us.

This redemption is a loosening, a release of constraints.  In the weeks and months ahead as we read Luke’s Gospel, we will hear how Jesus releases people from sickness and suffering, how he loosens the constraints of poverty.

Redemption for Luke is also about being liberated from the bondage of wealth and greed.  So many of Luke’s stories and parables are about wealthy people who either end up literally in hell – or who achieve liberation by using their wealth and possessions to help those in need.

Praying, Healing, and Eating

And what do we do with this redemption, this blessed release?  In Luke’s Gospel, when people follow Jesus and listen to his teaching, they seem to naturally engage in lots of praying, healing, and – for St. Albanites, this will be good news – eating.

Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus prays at the drop of hat – as does the persistent widow and the tax collector.  More than the other Gospels, the miracles of Jesus are less provocative and symbolic; their purpose is to actually bring relief and respite.  All this healing has led to the legend that Luke was a physician.  And there are so many meals and banquets in Luke’s Gospel that you wonder whether Jesus had to go on a diet.

But today’s Gospel reading makes it difficult to put our minds and our hands to enjoying this feast of food and healing, much less to concentrate on praying.

Instead, we hear about distress among nations, roaring seas and waves, and even the shaking of the heavens.  As for us, those events were very real for Luke’s first readers at the close of the first century.  In 70 CE, Titus not only destroyed the Temple, but also killed thousands of people in Jerusalem.  The streets were literally running with blood.  Earlier there had a been a 10-year famine in Palestine, and a devastating earthquake in Philippi.  No wonder some of Luke’s first readers thought the world was coming to an end.

“My Words Will Not Pass Away”

Luke, though, was encouraging his readers – and us – not to jump to conclusions.  We’re not to be distractedby all these events, both the disturbing news and internal anxiety.  Nor are we to despair.  We might not use drunkenness or dissipation to dull our hearts and minds, but even our more enlightened addictions and obsessions avoid reality and dull our anxieties.

Yes, the world as we know it may come to an end, and, yes, Jesus will return as the Son of Man in judgment, but that is not now.  Now is the time of our redemption, now is the time to hold fast to Jesus’ words. Now is the time to trust that, when we gather to pray and to celebrate the Eucharist, Jesus, the great physician, is praying for us and feeding us in his holy meal.

Jesus makes this promise to us today by pointing to fig trees.  In chapter 13, a single unfruitful fig tree is cut down.  Here, in contrast, a whole lot of trees are leafing, announcing the advent of Spring – and our redemption. These trees represent our new life and hope in the midst of all that troubles and cripples us.

This becomes even clearer in last two verses of this section of Luke’s Gospel, which we didn’t read.  Here, after telling this tale of woe, Jesus spends his evenings praying in the Garden of Olives and his days teaching in the Temple, just as he did as a 12-year-old.

This attention to day-to-day life – this focus on trusting in God and serving others – reminds me of our parish administrator Karen Sjoholm.  An abrupt departure of our rector, the emergence of a deadly pandemic, and the commotion of a new preschool.  In the midst of all this, Karen kept her head up, did what needed to be done and managed it all with immense grace and great kindness.  She has enabled and inspired all of us to stand up and raise our heads.

So, with thanks to Karen, with the expectation our redemption, and with our continuing to meet together to pray and hear Jesus’ words, “which will not pass away,” we begin Advent with joy and hope.  Amen.

 

The last Sunday after Pentecost and the Feast of Christ the King

Reflection for November 21, 2021

The last Sunday after Pentecost and the Feast of Christ the King.

By Larry DiCostanzo

 

Daniel 7:9 – 10, 13 -14

Psalm 93

Revelation 1:4b – 8

John 18:33 – 37

 

Today is the last Sunday of the season of Pentecost.  I think of Pentecost as a time to think about how we live our lives in this everyday world between the Resurrection and Jesus’ Return.  It seems appropriate that this Sunday is also designated as the Feast of Christ the King.  Let me talk about that.

In Psalm 104, which parallels today’s psalm in its praise of God’s creative lordship, the poet describes Leviathan charmingly and respectfully as the creature who sports in the ocean that God made.  (Psalm 104:26)  “Sporting” — what a beautiful description of an animal in a state of natural rejoicing.  It is not hard to guess who Leviathan is in Psalm 104.  Leviathan is a whale.

Recently, I was reading a book about whales, about Leviathan.  The title of the book is “Fathom,” and the author is Rebecca Giggs.

I actually stopped reading this book.  Although Ms. Giggs had the amazingly reflective eloquence of a good science writer, she also pointed out that humans have not been good stewards of creation.  Whales had come back from the slaughters that ended more or less in the 1970s.  But climate change had affected the Antarctic ice sheets, and the krill that humpback whales feed on has lost the nooks in the underside of the ice where they love to winter.  Hence, their population was going down.  So, what were whales to eat now?  And so forth.  And so forth.  Unpretty pictures.

And so I come to the Feast of Christ the King.  Many denominations celebrate this day, but it was actually established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.  (Encyclical Quas Primas) He was Pope from 1922 to 1939.  I wanted to know what motivated Pius to establish the feast.

Pius wrote about his motivations actually in 1922, three years before the Feast was established in 1925 (Encyclical Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio). They are numerous.  We might not agree with all of them, but the following will sound familiar.  The belligerents of World War I had laid down their arms, but hostilities were threatening in the Middle East.  There were famine and epidemics.  The numberless victims included the aged, women, and children.  Old national rivalries continued along with political and financial manipulation.  I’m going to quote a just a little from what Pius wrote.  “Public life is so enveloped . . . by the dense fog of mutual hatreds and grievances that it is almost impossible for . . . people to breathe therein.”  Paragraph 11.  Moreover, evil results arise because of “the utter impossibility of finding anything like a safe remedy to cure the ills of society.”  Id.  There are “the contests between political parties, many of which do not originate in a real difference of opinion concerning the public good or in a . . . disinterested search for what would promote the common welfare.”  Paragraph 12.  The law of violence has become second nature despite the treaties that ended the war.  Paragraph 20.  And so forth and on and on.

In a sense, the Pope was saying what Rebecca Giggs was saying in her book about whales.  We have been and continue to be poor stewards of creation.  And there seems to be no end to our behavior.  Just say the words Ethiopia, Belarus, Afghanistan, Kenosha.

Pius wanted a world in which Christ was the ruler.  The image he picked from his historical context is “king” although I personally find it hard to think of Jesus as a king.  Pius wanted us to be transformed by God’s way and God’s goodness.

But if I look at the history, the Feast of Christ the King, was really born out of a mixture of despair and hope.

I’ve listed some of what Pius felt and saw as the despair, what he worried about and grieved over.  I’ve hinted at the world’s desperation today.  Remember the words, Ethiopia, Belarus, Afghanistan, Kenosha.

But what about the hope?  The hope is certainly not as concrete on earth as are the causes of despair.  Hope is a more free-ranging attitude.  Maybe it is as simple as an expectation.  For sure, it does not dwell in institutions though institutions can possibly strengthen it.  It does not have a parliament or Congress or Supreme Court or administrative agencies.  It is something that makes me keep in mind that, in fact, Jesus was crucified.  What a paradox.  But Jesus’ crucifixion was a great act of God’s love.  And I believe that hope is our awareness that God’s love is in our hearts.  Or perhaps it is in fact God’s love in our hearts.

In my view, the Feast of Christ the King exists for no other reason than to keep hope alive.  And that’s why I find it so special that it falls on the last Sunday of Pentecost, the long season of the everyday-ness of life.

So, how do we keep hope alive.  How do we live in the virtue of hope?  Is there something concrete that we can do?  In a conclusory way, Pius wrote that when men recognize Christ’s kingship, “society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.”  But, you know, Pius does not provide a policy paper on how to make this so.  There is no army or bureaucrats to enforce or establish this Kingdom. (Encyclical Quas primas, paragraph 19). What Pius says is that this kingdom is spiritual.  (Id., paragraph 15). This is like our Gospel passage of today.   Jesus is facing execution.  He seems to admit to Pontius Pilate, for whom I have the greatest sympathy, that he is a king.  But he also says that his kingdom is not of this world.

I am sensing here that Christianity is not like a social movement.  Don’t unsheathe your swords to establish the Kingdom.  And Christianity does not really have a down-to-earth solution for the world’s problems.  It is a “different” kind of kingdom.  Pius seemed to have this in mind, too.  It may be part of the despair or anxiety about the world today.  But ultimately Pius did have some conclusive and hard words for us.  He said that Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom that we enter through internal regeneration.  It demands “a spirit of detachment from riches and earthy things, and a spirit of gentleness.  [Its subjects] must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this they . . . must carry the cross.”  (Encyclical Quas primas, paragraph 15)

This is the kingdom in which, as Saint Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans, all Creation is groaning in labor.  Romans 8:23. And what we are required to do is what the King in the parable in Matthew 25 tells us to do:  feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner.  Of course, there are permutations here as in shelter the homeless.  Remember that in Matthew it is a King who says this.

Pius XI was a mountain climber as a younger man.  And, indeed, there is a climbing club in England named after him.  (achille-ratti-climbing-club.co.uk.)  So, I like to think that he loved Creation and nature, and that he and Rebecca Giggs would have a lot in common.  They would mourn and love together.

And I think they would both love today’s Psalm and Psalm 104 in which the Leviathan sports.  Let us hope that Leviathan will continue to dive, to jump high out of the water, to blow out fountains, to roll, to have babies, to sport.  For this is a powerful image of goodness and of hope.

Thank you.

Pentecost 25

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church

Reflection November 14, 2021

By Sandy Burnett

My ears always perk up a little when I hear the readings include a story about a woman in the Bible. Some of the stories, like Esther’s and Judith’s are pretty exciting. The story of Hannah seems somewhat mundane. Actually, before we get to the section that was read today, we learn that there are two women in the story, childless Hannah — her husband’s favorite, and the fruitful Penninah. As one commentator pointed out, both women had to be jealous of each other: Hannah because of Penninah’s fertility; Penninah because her husband loved Hannah more. The Bible, proving that the character of the clueless husband is way older than TV sitcoms, wonders what the problem is. “Aren’t I more to you than 10 sons?” he asks Hannah.

Well no, he’s not. Hannah is so desperate for a child that she promises God that if he gives her a son, she will sacrifice that child to God’s service in the temple. God grants her prayer and Hannah gives up her son when he is still a very young child. From then on, she gets to see the boy only when the family makes their annual pilgrimage to worship, and she makes increasingly bigger tunics for him as he grows. God gives Hannah more children, both sons and daughters. And this is the last we hear of Hannah, Peninah and their husband.

But the son, named Samuel, goes on to be a prophet and leader of Israel. Samuel had a formidable career as a priest of God and ends up following God’s order to choose Israel’s first king. In the Old Testament, the priests and prophets are just as important, sometimes even more important, than kings.

Of course, priests also play a big part in the New Testament, but they have gone from being heroes to much more modest roles. Some are even villains. In the letter to the Hebrews, priests are depicted as useless when it comes to having God’s ear through presentation of sacrifices. God’s son, who we will soon hear about in Luke’s Gospel in our Advent and Christmas readings — is given like Hannah’s son to the service of God. He is the one perfect sacrifice that never needs to be repeated; the once and for all sacrifice that is meant to be everything that we need to follow and believe.

Then, in the Gospel, we’re back among the priests at the Jerusalem Temple, which Jesus says will be completely destroyed. The disciples, as usual hoping to get in on the ground floor of whatever is coming, ask Jesus when that will happen. And Jesus, replies not with a straight answer but with the order to beware of people claiming to be the Messiah and to not be too alarmed about wars and “rumors of wars,” earthquakes and other catastrophes because they are just the “birthing pangs” of the world that is to come.

That phrase, “rumors of wars,” has always interested me. Today, we don’t have rumors of wars, we have televised images of wars in countries and continents that the people of Jesus’ time had no idea even existed. We see the earthquakes, the battles, the tsunamis and the mudslides, often as they happen, up close and in color.

Mark’s audience may not have had TV, but they were well acquainted with unthinkable tragedy. They had seen their temple destroyed and their country ravaged. Still, the Gospel tells them — and us — that Jesus is with them, and that something much, much better, awaits.

Birth, sacrifice, priests and temples, and God’s ability to do anything, seemed to come up from reading to reading. I tried to figure out what this all meant to me. I have never longed for a child, as Hannah did, but I think we’ve all longed and prayed for something important — for love, for life for ourselves or others, for an end to loneliness, for peace. And I relate to Peninah, lashing out in her jealousy and powerlessness, at her rival.

But I wrestle with the concept of sacrifice. I struggle with the idea of wars and earthquakes. Jesus calls them “birthing pangs” in the Gospel. Women who feel birthing pangs may be relieved that labor has begun, but they still hurt and worry that this time, things may turn out badly.

I don’t believe that only pain and sacrifice produce good. Hannah’s song says that God can do anything. I don’t know why God doesn’t use that power to make a better world, but I believe there is a reason because God offers all of us a way of salvation even in the midst of all this evil. We have the example of how even the least of us can be raised up, and of how we can be loved even when we don’t love ourselves. We have a God who loves and cares for us even when we aren’t aware of it. Our world is a mundane place, filled with petty desires and jealousies, as well as the love people share with each other.

The disciples, who I’ve always thought were chosen for their ordinariness, all rose to the task of spreading the Gospel, and were martyred for it. Through the love of Jesus and God, we all have the opportunity to rise above our mundane selves: to love and be loved in the most extraordinary way.

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church

Reflection

November 7, 2021

Rev. Jim Stickney

 

God loves a cheerful giver.

 

Those of you who have known me for a long time may recall this verse from St. Paul

about cheerful giving. When I was the rector here, I’d often use this verse

as a refrain during the annual sermon encouraging financial support of the parish.

 

Many years ago, when I was visiting various churches, I was quite surprised

by the number of times I would show up right on the Sunday when the pastor

chose to preach about money, and of the need to support the church financially.

 

We don’t like to talk very much about money in church, not because we’re stingy,

but because worship gives us at least one sacred space in our lives without advertising pitches!

The deeper truth is that we all have a deep need to be generous with our resources.

 

Jesus taught his followers a great deal about having a right relationship with money.

To a few of his followers, he gave the ultimate challenge of giving all their money away.

But with most of his followers he urged them not to put their trust in mere wealth, but in God.

 

Jesus enjoyed using paradox. He looked past the externals, and went to the heart.

And so we have today’s Gospel: a pageant of public support of the temple in Jerusalem.

Viewed from outside, the rich are doing what it takes to keep the temple in good repair.

And Jesus does not pass judgment on the wealthy who make their large public contributions,

 

Instead, he has his followers look at the poor widow — living on God knows what.

“She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Viewed from the outside, she seems imprudent. But Jesus has us imagine her heart —

which includes her need to give something away, to show her faith in God.

 

Our first reading also tells us of the faith of two widows, one old and one young.

The old widow Naomi is giving counsel to her daughter-in-law Ruth.

The book of Ruth can be viewed as a love story, of two women looking out for each other —

and the attached story of the stirring of love between Ruth and her kinsman Boaz.

 

But it’s also a financial story — as Naomi states in the first verses we heard this morning:

“My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, that it may be well for you.”

This is quite different from the Gospel story of the widow giving away her small copper coins.

Ruth and Naomi have no resources, but they work out a plan for financial security.

Whether it’s acquiring wealth (like Ruth and Naomi) or giving it away (as the Gospel widow)

the point is to work for a healthy relationship with what money we do have —

we need to give some wealth away to show ourselves that our money does not control us.

 

God does love a cheerful giver.

 

An old New Yorker cartoon shows two robed disciples of Jesus walking along a path.

One says to the other: “OK, so the meek shall inherit the earth, and the rich will have

a hard time getting into heaven. But really, what about the middle class?”

 

That’s the suburban dilemma we face. How do the middle class support their church?

We’re not like the super-wealthy of the Gospel story, dropping off bags of shekels.

And we’re clearly better off than any of the widows we heard about this morning.

If only the Scriptures provided us with some practical guidelines for us.

 

Perhaps you have already can guess where this line of thought is headed.

When we do hear of the Biblical standard of giving — the tithe, or ten percent —

we often react, or make excuses, or think that’s only for those other people.

 

I have come to think about it this way: “I firmly resolve to keep, for my own use, no more

than 90% of all the financial resources I have each year.” That’s the tithe! So —

no panic, please! You are already giving some portion, some percentage, to this church,

and to other agencies doing God’s work in the world. You’re already generous!

 

And please, do not “give until it hurts.” That approach is flawed from the start.

Pain is a sign that something is wrong with the body, crying out for healing.

If a person has been away from physical exercise for a while, it hurts only at first.

When the body gets accustomed to healthy exercise, it makes us feel good.

Mere guilt is a poor motivator for authentic Christian giving.  It might work short term,

but in the long run we need to give from a cheerful and peaceful and steady heart.

 

God loves a cheerful giver.

 

When St. Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that “God loves a cheerful giver”

he’s speaking from the experience of being transparent about how a person grows

in generosity of spirit. When we see our babies learning to talk, we rediscover

that the little word “mine” is much easier for them to learn than the word “share.”

We might say that the child who learns about sharing is growing in maturity.

And as adults of whatever age, we find that we need to exercise generosity to others.

 

When I started to worship at an Episcopal Church, I went through some stages.

At first I would contribute like a visitor paying “admission” to a sacred prayerful play.

Then I made my first pledge, becoming a sort of patron of the church’s work.

 

The next stage was as a member, with the insight that the church I loved was supported,

not from outside, but from within. Our church in turn supports the larger church.

 

And yet the final stage of giving to the church is as a member of the spiritual family,

where we want to do all we can to help the other members keep the church vibrant.

Of these four stages (visitor, patron, member and member of a spiritual family).

the last stage is where we’ll find people who are on a path that will lead to tithing.

 

God loves a cheerful giver.

 

All Saints Day Reflection

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church

Reflection All Saints Day

October 31, 2021

Kathryne Ann

 

Remember to remember

Good morning!!

A few years back, I had two significant experiences that literally changed the way I think about All Souls Day.  The first was when I was invited to spend a week with a friend of mine who was visiting her sister who lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.  Our visit would take place during their world famous festival of the Day of the Dead ceremony which lasts for several days, beginning on November 1st.  I consider myself so lucky to have been in Mexico to celebrate that holiday.   I’m sure there are some of you who have been there for that festival.

There were so many things that simply amazed me —- the sand decorations all around the central square in front of the Cathedral, and the elaborate pictures artists designed right on the sidewalk. And they stayed there for days for people to enjoy.  The parades of thousands of revelers who came to town just to participate in the festivities.  And their costumes — wow!!!  The next day, when we traveled out to the huge cemetery we saw graves decorated with red and yellow marigolds and then all kinds of items surrounding the graves, these were put there to remind loved ones of what the deceased loved while alive.  It was so wonderful to see how they remembered and celebrated the members of their family who had passed on, no matter how long ago it had been since their loved one had died.

When I returned home to the United States, my family and I went to see the Walt Disney movie, “Coco”. I’m sure it was the movie makers intention to put out this movie close to the time of the Day of the Dead, because there so much pageantry and then all the skeletons telling their stories.  I thought I was going to see just one more fanciful movie, entertaining of course but not of any substance.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The story of “Coco” goes:

Despite his family’s generations-old ban on music, young Miguel dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz. Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead. After meeting a charming trickster named Héctor, the two new friends embark on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history.  There are many twists and turns but eventually Miguel brings back to his family the essential piece of the puzzle that his family has missed, and that is, they, and of course we, because this is where the movie gets so personal for me, for we must continue to remember those who are no longer with us.  In the movie, someone said, “There is no one left in the world who remembers me” and that was when I was truly shaken.  Those who are not remembered any longer are forever lost.  That is why the Day of the Dead, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, or any other commemoration of remembering those who have passed on

                                  IS SO IMPORTANT

So, I decided to do something about that, and I searched through my family history, the family Bible, and other sources of information to find as many of my relatives’ birth and death records as I could, and I put them into my daily calendar, and  I circle their names. Now, for at least those few days, I am able to remember them. I want to remember them.  And then whenever I get a new calendar, I put all this information into it, year after year.

The most personal and poignant remembrance must be that of my granddaughter, Kami.  I shall never forget my own daughter, Kathryne’s pleading request after Kami died, and it was 16 years ago now when she was only seven years old, that we all remember her and speak about Kami often.   I try very hard to remember that request.  I speak to my daughter almost every week, and it’s a pleasure now to talk about Kami.  Our tears of long-ago have changed to ones of laughter and happiness that we can share and both feel good about those conversations.

I am sure many of you have the same stories to tell about your loved ones.  Are there any who would like to share and tell us their names and how you go about remembering them?

I will end by reciting the song that came from the movie, “Coco”

Remember me
Though I have to say goodbye
Remember me
Don’t let it make you cry
For even if I’m far away I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart

Remember me
Though I have to travel far
Remember me
Each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be
Until you’re in my arms again
Remember me

 

Mark 10:46-52

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church

Reflection

October 24, 2021

Christine Staples

 

Mark 10:46-52

Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Last week, the gospel reading was the passage from Mark immediately preceding this one; in it, James and John baldly laid out their demands for Jesus: if you do what we want you to do, then we’ll follow you.  And what they wanted Jesus to do for them turned out to be promising them the prime seats of power on each side of Jesus on the throne of glory. Wow. Talk about being unclear on the concept! And the similarities to lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry and some politicians we won’t name are so striking that you really don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

In his reflection on the passage, Steve contrasted James and John’s blatant demands with what happens right after: this passage, in which the blind man Bartimaeus asks Jesus to make him see again. Jesus not so much heals Bartimaeus as declares that his faith itself has made him well. As soon as he is healed, Bartimaeus follows his faith, and follows Jesus on the rest of his journey.

When I read this week’s text from Mark, two things stood out for me: the first was this: what does having a faith which heals you look like – how does that work? I spent quite a while exploring this, and wrote an entire reflection about vaccinations, NOT having faith in my own immune system, taking all the help I could get for it, people looking for “faith loopholes” to get out of being vaccinated, and my belief that the Creator guides us in developing vaccines, medicines, and treatments. I talked about the strange, and even deadly, gatekeeping actions we are seeing from some ministers; there’s a Baptist minister in Tennessee who told his congregation that they’d better not wear a mask to church, or he’d kick them out. As near as I can tell, a lot of folks in faith leadership positions are giving us a faith ultimatum, telling us that we’d better have “faith” that we won’t get sick – or else.

But then, after I’d already sent it all to Steve for his input on Wednesday, and he’d already put together all sorts of helpful scriptural interpretations to help me on my path, on Thursday morning I jettisoned the entire reflection, (sorry, Steve!) when I realized that really, the path I wanted to follow was actually the other, related thing which had stood out to me: why on earth do “many” of the folks in the crowd on the road out of Jericho “sternly” order Bartimaeus to be quiet when he asks Jesus to have mercy on him?

When all those people shush Bartimaeus and try to stop him from talking to Jesus, what are they up to; why do they take it upon themselves to be Jesus’ gatekeepers? What makes them think they have that authority?

I note that we are seeing a lot of this behavior lately; ministers and priests who are acting like the soup Nazi in Seinfeld: “no communion for YOU!” They are self-proclaiming themselves as the bouncers at the Lord’s table: “no communion for YOU – you’re married to someone of the same gender. No, not YOU – you’re pro-choice.”  This is so contrary to my understanding of Christ’s teachings that I am just stunned all the time.

I often say to my friends and family that I’m not actually an Episcopalian – I’m a St. Albanite. And really, the biggest reason I am a St. Albanite was because every week when we came to church, when it was time for communion, we were ALL invited to the table – I can hear Julie plain as day: “all are welcome at God’s table.” And I could tell that ALL of you wanted – and want – EVERYONE at that table.

It’s God’s table, which Jesus has laid for us; Jesus has invited all of us to join him at the table. Nobody should be telling Bartimaeus to shush when he wants to talk to Jesus. Nobody should be telling folks they aren’t welcome at the table. In fact, I’ll go one step further – it’s not just that no one should try to block celebrants from the table, no one CAN block celebrants from the table. He’s gone to prepare a place for us where nobody will even have the chance to pull those kinds of shenanigans. Alleluia!

 

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

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

Job 38:1-7

Psalm 104:1-9

Hebrews 5:1-10

MARK 10:35-45

Steve Hitchcock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who Can Be Saved?

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church

October 10, 2021

Margaret D.

Who can be saved?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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