Christmas Day Sermon by The Rev. Jon Owens

Dec. 25th, 2022

The Rev. Jon Owens, St. Alban’s Church

The manager of a Minnesota liquor store was surprised to come back from lunch yesterday to find his counter help walking around in her socks.

That is because security camera footage revealed she had just given her favorite shoes—a pair of purple retro Jordans, to a homeless man she saw strapping boxes to his feet.

Brooklyn Center Liquor employee Ta Leia Thomas, known locally as “Ace” said the split-second act of kindness “was an easy decision.” This was from the Good News network.

In another story, In the latest CRISPR success story, a 13-year-old girl whose leukemia had not responded to other treatments now has no detectable cancer cells.

She received a dose of immune cells that were genetically edited to attack leukemia, a method that has been used with other cancers.

A form of cancer in the bone marrow tissue, leukemia is caused by mutated immune cells and is normally treated by killing all bone marrow cells in the patient’s body before receiving a transplant from a donor. If this falls, the Nobel Prize-winning CAR-T cell therapy can be used instead.

Christmas is not so much liberation yet, but it is the start of hope. It is where we come to focus on joy. Good news. Good news for the lost and forgotten. It is so easy in a world to get caught up in the negative. Ina world where new is filled with over captured billionaires with egos the size of Texas and wants the focus on to be them and their companies rather than a balance of life and family. No reason we have finally seen a rebellion of younger generations who do not want to beholden to careless corporate types that forget about the very people who make them successful.

Before Jesus was born there was a decree by who? Ah the government. Looking for the census. The government sometimes excludes people. Arguments about how you make sure people like the homeless are accounted for, the undocumented folks. And yet in the Roman Empire anyone who was perceived with status IE the taxpayers were accounted and registered, middle-class people like a carpenter. Without that being on the register it would be hard. Big government was at work.

And then the night Jesus was born, and a host of Angels appeared before who? Shepherds. Shepherds were the least of these. They were not registered by the empire because they were considered too poor. They were of no consequence. And yet they were the first to appear for the angels who said fear not, unto you birth this day in the City of David, is born a savior.

God could have chosen anyone, he could have appeared before kings, but he chose the shepherds, he chose the lost and forgotten. To God he wanted to his people to know he loved them, he remembers them, and they are his.

Who do you know this Christmas who needs to hear the good news! Who may be forgotten? Who needs to know they are loved? It is so easy to talk about those people as a category. “Those people,” but what does its men to help someone feel and know they are a human being fully loved and cared for?

Today is the time when we want to think of a silent night, where all is calm, all is bright, but I do not think it was as tranquil as we imagine. It was quite an exciting time, a joyous time, a celebratory time, where hearts and souls were filled with good things. Something that was not merely to be kept to themselves, but to be shared. There was nothing that said please keep this a secret in scripture.

The shepherds themselves had a job and that was to share what they had seen. It was me less of a silent night and more of a Go Tell it on the mountain. The rush to experience something so wonderful, something so in awe and yet something that was probably hard for others to believe because they would want to see it for themselves. And the people doing the story telling were not the big shots with power who controlled the narrative.

God has come to in the form of a Baby to announce Good News to the poor, the good news that they matter; he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the imprisoned people who are in need of forgiveness and renewed sight for the blind who often lose their way in life, to release those who have been crushed and give them hope and encouragement, to proclaim it to the glory of God.  Not imply to do just do good, but to do it in the name of God, who becomes the source of wisdom and inspiration which surpasses our understanding.

My friends I ask you to Go tell it to the world, the good news we experience today.

 

Christmas Eve Sermon by the Rev. Jim Stickney

“‘Twas much, that man was made like God before —
But, that God should be made like man, much more!
Our time of preparation for Christmas is now finished — Christmas is here.
And we are in church, singing the carols, in an ancient tradition that’s also personal.
Are less prepared than you’d like to be?  Does your life’s unfinished business
nag at you this day?  Or worse, do you feel unworthy, or unready to celebrate?
Then, my brothers and sisters, rejoice!  No one was ready for the first Nativity,
except for Mary and Joseph — and even they weren’t as prepared as they wanted.
Preparing for Christmas has been a mix of joy and stress, mirth and madness.
Even if you have a Home and Gardens living room, some things were left undone.
“‘Twas much, that man was made like God before —
But, that God should be made like man, much more!
This little rhyme I’m using as a refrain is quite old — almost four centuries old.
It’s from the end of a poem written by John Donne, when he was the Dean
of the most famous church in London, St. Paul’s Cathedral.
John Donne wrote in what might be called the poetry of ideas. He and his friends
like the clash and harmony of different ideas. In this poem about Christ’s birth,
he’s trying to share his sense of wonder at how God has reversed what is expected.
“‘Twas much, that man was made like God before —
that’s a reference to the very first chapter of the Bible, the Book of Genesis,
when the sacred author shows God creating the universe in stages —
and the sixth stage is the creation of human beings, made in the image of God.
But, that God should be made like man, much more!
shows the wonder of the Christmas event, God taking on human flesh and blood.
Among all the other preparations you have made this year to celebrate Christmas,
your plans included coming to this particular church at this specific time.
Most of you probably have a pretty solid idea of what Christmas means to you,
and those ideas include coming to a decorated church that sings classic carols,
a church where you hope the sermon uplifts you and gives you encouragement,
You who know how to give good gifts to delight the hearts of those whom you love —
— in the hollow spaces of your heart, what is the gift only God can give to you?
What if God were to surprise you with a sense of divine love stronger than ever?
You who enjoy surprising others — are you open to God’s surprise for you?
If we learn nothing else from looking at the tradition of Scripture for Christmas,
at least we can see that the story is full of surprises — starting with Mary,
and her utter astonishment at God’s invitation to great glory, anguish and triumph.
And Joseph, that trusting good-hearted man, would raise another’s child.
We could go on and include the shepherds and the travelers from oriental lands
who found a future Messiah-King lying helpless in a peasant’s feeding trough.
Not one of these people was prepared for the way Christmas actually turned out —
but because they were good-hearted, the surprises were better than their plans.
“‘Twas much, that man was made like God before —
But, that God should be made like man, much more!
I want to end this Christmas sermon with a literally Orthodox reflection
from a Bishop of Constantinople, Gregory of Nanzianzus (who died in the 4th century).
St. Gregory, like John Donne, celebrates the surprising contrasts of Christmas:
Marvelous union and paradoxical exchange!  He who ISbecomes!
The uncreated lets himself BE created.
God whom nothing can contain is contained in the womb of a thinking soul
who stands midway between divinity and the heavy and brittle flesh.
God who is the giver of riches becomes a beggar.
God who is fullness empties himself.
God empties himself at the moment of his glory to enable me to share his fullness.
God begs for my flesh to enrich me with his divinity.
God begs for my flesh to enrich me with his divinity.
“‘Twas much, that man was made like God before —
But, that God should be made like man, much more!

Holy Sonnet XV

Wilt thou love God as he thee? then digest,
My soul, this wholesome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by angels waited on
In heaven, doth make His temple in thy breast.
The Father having begot a Son most blest,
And still begetting—for he ne’er begun—
Hath deign’d to choose thee by adoption,
Co-heir to His glory, and Sabbath’s endless rest.
And as a robb’d man, which by search doth find
His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again,
The Son of glory came down, and was slain,
Us whom He had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.
‘Twas much, that man was made like God before.

Fourth Sunday of Advent By Steve Hitchcock

Fourth Sunday of Advent

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church ● Albany, California ● December 18, 2022

By Steve Hitchcock

Isaiah 7:10-16

Psalm 80:1-7

Romans 1:1-7

MATTHEW 1:19-25

 

In these four Sundays of Advent, we have been preparing for Christmas.  But this year, Advent is also the season when we prepare to read and follow Matthew’s Gospel in the months ahead.

 

Today, on this last Sunday of Advent, our Gospel reading was from the first chapter on Matthew.  These eight verses introduce us to themes that will be repeated as we make our way through the 28 chapters of this Gospel.

 

In the Sundays to come, it will be easy to get lost or maybe even discouraged.  As our sainted sister Patricia Elmore exclaimed to me one Sunday, “What’s going on in Matthew?”

 

Today’s Gospel reading includes three themes that will us help us hear –and act on – the good news that isn’t always obvious in Matthew.

 

Fifty to 60 years after Jesus’ death, the writer of the Gospel was trying to help his own community make sense of the life and ministry of what John Meier famously termed “a marginal Jew” who executed by the Romans.

 

Matthew’s Gospel made the case that the story of Jesus’ life and ministry was their story, too.  Now, centuries later, we’re still reading this Gospel because that story is ours as well.

 

And it is a story that enables us to live with joy and hope even as our world seem to be falling apart.

 

Matthew’s community was going through a very difficult time of transition.  The Jerusalem temple – the focus and center of Israel’s worship and identity – had been destroyed.  Many had fled Judea and Jerusalem to Syria, some to Antioch where the Gospel may have been written.  They must have had a sense of great loss, grieving for all they left behind.  To help fill this void, Jewish synagogues arose and flourished in places like Antioch.

 

In many of these synagogues, Jews who confessed Jesus as the Messiah were being forced out.  Equally unsettling, those Jews who believed Jesus to be the Messiah were being joined by Gentiles who had never read or observed the Torah.

 

Our own St. Alban’s has been going through a difficult transition, and we have lost so much – including family members and friends who have passed away.  Many of us as individuals are grappling with changes: new jobs for some, retirement for others, and for some of us the distressing accommodations of old age.  We’re all navigating new patterns and new skills to live through this unending pandemic.

 

As we struggle with our loss and disruption, the message for Matthew’s first readers and for us today is that we are still connected to our history and tradition as God’s chosen people.

 

To help his reader see this connection, Matthew makes Joseph the focus of this account of Jesus’ birth.  Joseph’s forebears included the great king David.  In Jesus’s time, the expectation was that a new king David, the anointed one or Messiah, would liberate them from Roman oppression.  The Joseph in today’s reading was also   connected to the Coat-of-Many-Colors Joseph, the son of Jacob or Israel who was taken to Egypt and eventually helped save the people of Israel from famine.

 

Today’s reading shows how Jesus was connected to Joseph and thus to David.  In culture of first century Palestine, Joseph and Mary already married.  Engagement and marriage were all rolled into one.  After the engagement was announced, Mary, probably 12 to 14 years old and likely a distant cousin of Joseph, would remain for a year in her father’s house and then move in with Joseph, probably at his father’s house.

 

Despite Mary’s unexpected pregnancy – thanks to the intervention of a dream and a visiting Angel – Joseph does take Mary as his wife.  Following the angel’s directions, Joseph names the child Jesus – or, in Hebrew, Joshua, the great judge who led the Israelites into the promised land.  Joshua was seen as the new Moses, and throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will be cast as the new Moses, the liberator of his people.

 

In the weeks and months ahead, we too will have opportunities to see how our lives today are connected to God’s people throughout history.  The promise is that immersing ourselves in that history will give us a foundation and a foothold as we navigate the transitions we face both as a congregation and as individuals.

 

Joseph is also the pivot point for the second theme we will see throughout Matthew’s Gospel.  We hear that Joseph was a “righteous man.” In post-Temple Judaism, adhering to the Torah became the mark of faith, and righteousness was a key concern. Throughout Matthew, we will hear Jesus call for righteous living, for fulfilling all of the Torah or God’s law.

 

But then our reading goes on to tell us what it really means to be “righteous.”  Joseph was unwilling to expose Mary to shame.  He was willing to do the decent thing and divorce her, so that she could eventually remarry.  Joseph, following the Spirit, goes even further and takes Mary as his wife and accepts her into his household.  Even more so, by naming Jesus, Joseph declares that Mary’s child was his son.

 

The point of all this is that Matthew wants his readers – and us – to know that being righteous is being compassionate, that mercy is the way to manage all relationships.  And this mercy and compassion are to be directed at those, like Mary, who are at the bottom of the social and economic ladder.

 

Midway through Matthew, in chapter 15, the story of Jesus and Canaanite woman is a pivotal expression of this compassion.  In that story, Jesus – like Joseph – changes his mind and agrees that, even though she is not of the house of Israel, healing and restoration to community can be hers.

 

For Matthew’s readers, this emphasis on compassion had two implications.  First, they were being encouraged to forgive and welcome those in their community who had fallen away and wanted to return.  Second, the leaders in the community were being urged to pay special attention to those who were new to their gatherings – those who will be called the “little ones” or “the least of these” throughout the Gospel.

 

For us today, that spirit of compassion and mercy can be the guiding principle for all we do as a congregation – including our service in the community.  We rejoice that those who haven’t been able to be part of our Zoom worship are now with us on Sunday.  And we look forward to welcoming those who will visit St. Alban’s in the weeks ahead.

 

The third notable passage in our reading – one that sets a theme for Matthew’s Gospel – is “they shall name him Emmanuel, which means God with us.”

 

For Matthew’s community, this phrase reminded them of what they heard and experienced when they gathered for the Eucharist – when the Risen Christ was present among them.  This was the promise made in Jesus’ final words to the disciple in the last verse of Mathew: “I will be with you always.”

 

For them and us, Jesus is “God on the ground.”  In our birthing and in our dying, in our loving and fighting, in the pews and on the job, God is in the midst of us.  All that is possible because the God who is with us – this Immanuel – is the one suffers death on the cross and empties the tomb.

 

This theme of God with us is reinforced by passage quoted from Isaiah, which was our First Lesson today.  In the months ahead we will hear many other passages from Isaiah quoted by Matthew.  For the message of Isaiah was that the time of conniving kings like Ahaz and elaborate Temple worship is over.  Political power and cultic practice aren’t enough any longer.

 

In Isaiah, the One who is to come – the one for whom the way is prepared – is God, or as Isaiah has it: “The Lord [Yahweh] himself will give you a sign.”

 

And this God who is with us in death and resurrection remains – despite all the loss, change, and transition we experience –our sure foundation.  In Chapter 1, verse 1 of Matthew’s Gospel, the word for “beginning” is the same word as “Genesis.”  That same word was used again today in verse 18 as the word for “birth.”  Matthew is giving us the good news that the birth of Jesus is nothing less than the creation of the world, the promise that life will be preserved and renewed.

 

And won’t that be something to celebrate next week!

Sermon by The Rev. Jim Stickney, Dec. 4, 2022

Isaiah 11: 1-10
Psalm 72
Romans 15: 4-13
Matthew 3: 1-12
Prepare the way of the Lord.   [Matthew 3: 3]
By this time all of us have given a great deal of thought to preparing —
where we’re going to be on Christmas, or what we’re going to give.
The central message of John the Baptizer, the Forerunner of the ministry of Christ Jesus, was simply this: Prepare yourself. Get ready! Changes are coming soon.
When I was a boy, I spent some years in the Boy Scouts — and they had a motto,
which was drilled into us as often as humanly possible: Be prepared!
I think that was good advice for a group of high-energy boys moving through
our teenage years — not to get lost in the moment, but to be thinking ahead.
Back then I thought that Scouts were especially responsible for being prepared.
When I entered a building, I looked for the fire exit signs, or made plans
on what to do in case of an earthquake, or making sure to have road flares in the car.
But after a while I realized how simply “being prepared” was solid advice
for anyone who was serious about getting worthwhile goals accomplished.
By itself, there’s nothing especially spiritual to the advice “Be Prepared.”
Our insurance agent has several policies for our household — is that spiritual?
It’s true that the Prayer Book admonishes the pastor to advise people,
“while they are in health,” to make provisions for their heirs and parish family.
Making a will is prudent, but not every will is a spiritual preparation.
Prepare the way of the Lord. 
Our religious tradition does recall the words of John, the Forerunner of Jesus,
as very spiritual — his challenge for a specific certain kind of preparation.
John’s words carry a negative tone, since he’s confronted by people who think
that they’ve got it made (spiritually speaking). They are already righteous —
they’re already officially chosen by God. Abraham is their ancestor: end of story.
In order to break through such self-absorption, John uses some very harsh words —
brood of vipers!    the wrath to come!    the ax is lying at the root of the tree!
Should we take those words to heart? Only if we are “officially righteous” people.
But when admit significant doubts about the state of our spiritual self —
if we are (even painfully) aware of our spiritual shortcomings, then we should take
the consolation offered in the verses of our first reading, from Isaiah,
whereby the Peaceable Kingdom is established by a God who “judges the poor 
with righteousness, and will decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
Prepare the way of the Lord. 
Many years ago Joni and I attended a prayer day based on icons at a local church.
We spent silent time gazing at many sacred images from the Orthodox tradition.
During the last part of the day, the leader shared with us the work of preparation
for making an icon, which includes some prayer and even fasting ahead of time.
The iconographer prepares the wooden surface in a painstaking process, and goes on
to prepare the paints one by one, grinding pigment and mixing it with a medium
made from eggs. The icon is to stay in the church for 40 days before its dedication.
I thought of house painting — the really difficult part is not slapping on some paint,
but the tedium of preparation — cleaning, sanding taping, and arranging the tools.
But if the preparation for painting an icon is itself a genuine spiritual work,
then why can’t preparation for house painting also be done in a spiritual way?
So much of our lives involves preparing for one thing or another.
Perhaps we could shift our way of thinking about such preparation and make it a prayer!
I recall a short phrase from a workshop I attended years ago:
Attend to the process. Detach from the outcome. Attend to the process. Detach from the outcome.
So to Prepare the way of the Lord  can include all the work we’re doing
to make sure we are ready to celebrate Christ’s birth. When we feel frantic,
that we are running out of shopping days and shopping funds, just ask:
“Right now, is this thing I’m worried about really preparing the way of the Lord?
Or am I preparing my own perfect holiday picture?”
Prepare the way of the Lord. 

Readings Reflection for Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022

The 25th Sunday After Pentecost

October 23rd, 2022

Chanthip Phongkhamsavath

Good morning.  It has been a few weeks since I’ve seen you all either virtually or in person. It seems like a long time. I was happy to read in this week’s bulletin that we are going to go back to full time church in person starting in Advent.  Always one of my favorite times of anticipation and hope.

Oddly one of the things that stuck out to me this week as I was thinking about my reflection and not surprisingly was working on it yesterday afternoon was the fact that we are currently in the 25th Sunday After Pentecost.  And I had to think a minute about Pentecost and Ordinary time and since it felt like it’s been awhile actually decided to look them both up in the online version of An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church.  And in the end it was the definition of “Ordinary Time” that really tied together my musings about the readings this week as well as the things that happened around me.

From part of the definition about Ordinary Time –  “Ordinary time can be understood in terms of the living out of Christian faith and the meaning of Christ’s resurrection in ordinary life.”

A lot happens in ordinary life.

From the first reading there’s abundant rain and there were swarming locusts.  There is even mention of the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood – which reminded of that one day two years ago when the sky was filled with ash and the day was red – when the sun really did seem to be dark.

In the Psalm there is happiness in the rejoicing in the living God as well as a trip through the desolate valley to find it a place of springs.

From the second reading there is righteousness and yet at first no defense with no one coming to his support.  And lastly in the Gospel there is the tax collector, standing far off, who would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

There is happiness, rejoicing, dark times and humbleness – all in ordinary life – or just life in general.  This week though I wondered about the hard time, those times when the locusts were about and the initial journey into the desolate valley. The times when ordinary life is challenging and there is so much injustice in the world it seems.  I went and watched last week’s morning prayer because I was struck by what was in this week’s bulletin and Margaret’s statement that “We have absolutely nothing to lose by praying for the kind of world we want.”  I wonder though about the times when ordinary life can seem so dark and so hard how to get back to even being in a place where prayer is a relief rather than a pain.

This stemmed from wondering about my childhood friend who lost her only child to cancer this week.  Whether the prayers of strength and love are able to make their way to her.  Whether the words meant to comfort her in knowing that her child is now with the Lord are more burdensome than not.

It’s what probably drew my attention to the hard times in the reading because in ordinary life there is the hard time.  And it is just that.  We will never have answers in our living days why there is injustice, why there are those moments that might push us away from God.  Yet that is a part of the Christian Life.  Knowing that there is God and making our way through everyday life as a Christian.

In happy times it may be easier, only I think in part because of the hard times.  This made me think about the Pixar movie from a few years ago – Inside Out with the five core emotions Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger and Disgust trying to control the reactions of the young girl  – and not to go into too much detail and apologies if I spoil the movie for anyone – however the core part of the movie in my opinion was one could not be happy without also knowing sadness – and the other emotions too.

It is a part of life, sadness and hard times, although for some it is more abundant than others.  And although I generally try to highlight and live in the happy times, I think more and more we also have to recognize the hard times too – together.  That in everyday ordinary life there are sometimes things that make us hurt, make us sad, angry, and happy too.   That it is ok to be in all of those spaces, to be able to live in them.

As much as one young life came to an end this week, I also had the joy last night of celebrating a new life at a full moon ceremony.  All of this is a part of our ordinary days, living out our lives as Christians – hopefully in being humble as the tax collector – that despite knowing we are sinners – we are doing our best or the best we can in the moment at hand.  And hopefully with a community around us we can all support each other through the desolate valleys into the eternal springs.

Amen.

The Feast of St. Francis Sermon by the Rev. Jon Owens, Deacon 10-2-22

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that it was good.

Good is an interesting word here. The Hebrew here can mean other things. Another word could be “beauty” or beautiful. And God saw that it was beautiful. I remember in seminary I had a professor that says beauty can change the world. We like beautiful things, beautiful places. Creation is beautiful. God who created the heavens and the earth the “cosmos” which again at root means beauty. Just think of the word cosmetics.

St. Francis had an interesting life. He loved creation and we say that in the canticle we will say together today before we bless the animals. We see that when we sing the hymn with the words of his famous prayer. Francis struggled with the notion was he to be a contemplative or a preacher, but his friends helped convince him we needed to hear his message. But today as we look at our furry friends and walk out looking at the creation, we love whether the high tree canopy of the neighborhood to the hills above us to the bay below us we are reminded.

Today, I thought I would paint a picture of what Franciscan spirituality looks like. For many we think of creation again, but another hallmark was poverty and simplicity. Among the saints St. Francis was constantly reminded to lighten up because he was very hard on the vow of poverty amongst his friars. What is it in your life do you do that might seem to be a luxury. What do you waste your money on. I am not suggesting we need to claim lady poverty, but it is a good reminder that there are better uses of our resources.

So I am going to give you four hallmark points for you to think about in your spiritual life.  These four hallmarks we are invited to contemplate and what you contemplate can change frequently depending on how you feel.

  1. Gratitude and beauty. What is it you are thankful? What is giving you life? Where do you see beauty? What brings you joy? How do you express that joy?
  2. For some we are in pain. We are walking around wounded. I don’t mean physically; I mean spiritually and emotionally. During the pandemic, for some they felt more isolated than ever. They joined the great resignation, feeling burned out from their jobs, they experienced grief and loss. Some lost people were not able to have the closure they were looking for. On top of that there became divisive political issues that fragmented relationships with friends and families, and it still continues.  If you are one of these people today, I want you to look around the room. And realize you are not alone. There is still a community, a community that communes together and, in that communion, we believe we have the communion of saints of those who have gone before us, those mothers, fathers, grandparents and many generations. We have a God who loves us and a Christ who promises to give us rest.
  3. In Franciscan spirituality rest is not merely sabbath. When you are tired it is about reengaging and looking new. Point number three to look at the water from new lenses. When we look at something with new eyes, we become renewed refreshes and we reengage in different ways. What is it do you reexamine? What is it the waters of baptism call you to in renewal?
  4. To go forth. We are a people challenged to spread the gospel. Francis believed in preaching the Gospel. Contemplation leaves to action? What is God calling you to do? What are the actions you are being sent out of these walls to do or even within the walls? How is what you are going to do make a difference and feed your soul? What do you need to feel empowered to move forward. What is that hunger or that thirst that you are ready simply to be released on?

Moving in action can be scary.  I am going to leave you with a story about St. Francis. St. Francis did many things and met many people, but his fear was people of leprosy. He would do everything he could to avoid being near them. One day he met a person with leprosy, and he stopped dead in his tracks. Rather than walk away, he engaged. He realized he needed to face his fear so he not only walked up to the leopard, but he hugged and kissed them on the cheek. That action allowed him to see another person who was a child of God. It allowed him to finally realize with God he had nothing to fear.

Let us pray with a prayer from St. Francis and a moment of praise:

 

You are holy, Lord, the only God, and your deeds are wonderful.

You are strong.

You are great.

You are the Most High, You are almighty.

You, holy Father, are King of heaven and earth.

You are Three and One, Lord God, all good.

You are Good, all Good, supreme Good, Lord God, living and true.

You are love, You are wisdom.

You are humility, You are endurance.

You are rest, You are peace.

You are joy and gladness.

You are justice and moderation.

You are all our riches, And you suffice for us.

You are beauty.

You are gentleness.

You are our protector,

You are our guardian and defender.

You are courage.

You are our haven and our hope.

You are our faith, Our great consolation.

You are our eternal life, Great and wonderful Lord, God almighty, Merciful Savior.

9-11-22 Reflection by Steve Hitchcock

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 11, 2022 ● St. Alban’s Episcopal Church ● Albany, California
Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
1 Timothy 1:12-17
LUKE 15:1-10

I imagine we were all disappointed last Sunday when Father Jim, in his
sermon, talked about stained glass rather than about the penultimate line of the
Gospel appointed for last Sunday, Luke 14: 33: “So therefore none of you can become
my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.
Okay, probably not. Even though some of us keep telling ourselves, “Today,
I’m going to get started on decluttering.”
But that verse from last Sunday’s Gospel sets the context for today’s Gospel:
chapter 15 of Luke for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The audience for
today’s reading is, on the one hand tax collectors and sinners and, on the other hand,
the Pharisees and scribes. In the next chapter, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees because
they love money. They’re not giving up their possessions to follow Jesus.
In fact, Luke’s Gospel is filthy with rich people and those focused on money and
possessions. In 12, we have the “build lots of barns” guy. In chapter 16, we’ll hear
about the dishonest manager who steals from his master. Of course, there follows the
story of the rich man and Lazarus.

Back to our Gospel reading in chapter 15, we hear three parables
about rich individuals: a sheep owner, a woman with coins, and –
following the two parables we hear today – a wealthy landowner
with two sons.

The first parable is about a sheep owner. He is not a shepherd, one lowest
occupations in ancient Palestine. And he owns a hundred sheep. The woman has ten
silver coins; she’s clearly not a peasant.

What is notable is that these wealthy people are careless. Each of them has lost
something of value. Thus, in one sense, they are sinners. The sheep isn’t a sinner; he
was doing what sheep do, which is wander. And a coin certainly isn’t intrinsically
bad.

Today, we are invited to confess that we too have lost something, that
we’ve let our own worries and cares distract us. We’ve let some
important people and events in our lives fade into the background.
We may not consider ourselves wealthy, but we have immense social capital.
We are well educated, and we work hard to have some level of financial security.
Perhaps you exercise so you don’t lose the ability to get around and function. Many
of us make lists and do other things to stay organized and remember as much as
possible.

Yet, all our efforts – financial, physical, and mental – come up short. No
matter how hard we try, things don’t work out. Even in the best of circumstances, we
lose our friends, we lose our health, and we lose our connection to God. The New
Testament calls this sin: sin is not what we do or don’t do, but rather who we are,
despite our best efforts.

The introduction to our reading pulls us back from dwelling on our lost-ness,
our carelessness, and our foolishness. The good news for us today is, “This fellow
welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Throughout Luke’s Gospel, that is exactly what Jesus does:
welcomes sinners. He doesn’t berate them or criticize them. He
doesn’t even ask them to shape up and turn from their ways.
What Jesus does do is eat with sinners, including us today. And this is not
some mid-morning snack, but almost always a feast or banquet. A big celebration
just like the ones in today’s Gospel reading.

Significantly, during and after those celebrations, those who are welcomed by
Jesus do some extraordinary things. Levi – or Matthew, the tax collector – follows
Jesus. Zacchaeus, another tax collector, decides to give away half of all his
belongings, and Jesus announces that “Today, salvation has come to this house.”
For Luke, repentance is what follows being welcomed by Jesus.
It’s what happens after we have tasted the feast of God’s mercy
and forgiveness.

So, as we return to today’s two parables, we see that the rejoicing is not because
sheep have stopped wandering or because a coin suddenly shows itself. The rejoicing
– the celebration – is because the person who lost something has found it.
Today, the promise is that if you follow Jesus – join him in eating and
celebrating with others and listening to his words – then you will be able to turn away
from your own troubles and concerns. In fact, you will repent – you will turn around
and then you will notice all the other sheep that have been gathered together, all the
others who have been invited to this banquet.
A recent New York Times story reported that seemingly small acts of kindness
had a surprisingly large impact. Offering someone a compliment or a cupcake, for
example. Consistently, those who made those acts of kindness under-estimated how
much a difference their gesture would make.

Even more surprising, the act of kindness gave both the giver and the recipient
a change in perspective. Some of the concerns and problems they were facing
suddenly seemed less daunting.

That’s the kindness we are being offered in today’s Gospel and in our praying
and singing together. We may not always be able to feast on bread and wine.

And,these days, that bread is a brittle wafer. But whenever we gather, Jesus is in the
midst of us, and we can taste that life-saving bread and wine.
And so this little moment in time we share today becomes a feast
of joy in our lives. We are welcomed into a new reality with new
possibilities.

Our experience today is so transformative – so eternal, if you will – because it
is the welcome that Jesus on the cross speaks to the thief. Jesus doesn’t condemn the
thief for his life. He doesn’t say, “Well, guy, you’re getting what you deserve.” No,
Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Those are the green pastures
where sheep can graze.

In a real sense, Jesus is the one who finds us, goes after us, searches for us,
and meets us on the road. In fact, Jesus goes to the Cross to find us. Jesus goes with
us into our death – first of all in our baptism as we are buried with Christ and raised
with Christ, then every day as we re-live our baptism, and finally in our own ultimate
death. We follow Jesus, but Jesus also follows us.

Yes, we have lost so much in so many ways. But today, we are invited to
celebrate that we have been found. We have been welcomed. Let us feast together on
the Scriptures, find each other in prayer, and sing songs of rejoicing. Amen.

Sermon 08-07-2022 Rev. J. Stickney

August 7, 2022
St. Alban’s Church
Pastor Jim Stickney
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 15: 1 – 6
Psalm 33: 12 – 22
Hebrews 11: 1 – 3; 8 – 16
Luke 12: 32 – 40

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I’d like to start this sermon with a story about a thief who came in the night.
This story comes from a period in the early church when monks lived in rustic caves.
One night a monk came back from a Tenebrae service to find a thief rushing out
with his arms filled with food. As the robber stumbled in the darkness, the monk noticed
the thief had dropped some loaves of bread. So the monk picked them up
and rushed out after the thief, crying, “My brother, make room for these as well!”

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Our reading from Hebrews tells us that it is by faith we come to understand that this world
is created by the word of God, so that things we see come from what is unseen.
What we see came from what we do not see. When we look around at the world’s beauty,
we can trace its origins back to what we do not see, an even more beautiful Word —
God’s Logos, existing from before time and forever. But we only know this by faith.

I don’t think faith is simple. Living a life based on faith in the unseen — it can be tough.
A colleague of mine once preached a sermon in which he let the people know
that he never had any had doubts about faith in his entire life (he was in his mid-30’s).
I’ve never forgotten it — nor the reaction of some parishioners who became upset.

Here’s a brief summary: “Well, I have plenty of doubts! I look around at this world’s suffering
and I think, that makes no sense if God is all-loving.” “Maybe there is no God —
maybe life is just a random arrangement of elements from some primordial soup.”
“This is grim — now my preacher is telling me he never has any doubts at all —
maybe I don’t belong here in church — maybe I’m really a hypocrite and should just leave.”

Well — I ‘m not taking that approach. In fact, I respect the power of doubting.
Faith is good, but it’s doubt that gets you an education! Think about parents teasing children
by presenting nonsense explanations, just so their kids can say “you’re being silly.”
Faith and doubt are like partners in authentic search for the truth — each needs the other.

If you believe everything you hear, you’re naive. (So don’t believe everything you think.)
If you doubt everything you hear, you’re a cynic, not trusting any wisdom tradition.
The opposite of faith is not doubt — the opposite of faith is knowing for sure — certitude!
Especially as authentic Anglicans, we respect ambiguity. Faith in dancing with doubt!
After a memorial service several years ago, one of the family told me
that when she was a teenager, living in rural Clayton, she’d ride her horse to church!
She’d sit toward the back and keep an eye on it, tied to a fence outside the window.
She didn’t have to believe in her horse — she could just look at it outside the window.
You don’t need to believe in the vehicle that brought you to church this morning —
it’s a certainty that it brought you here. You have a reasonable faith that vehicle
will take you back after church. Certitude is about the past, but faith is for the future.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Does our Gospel passage today help us find the kind of faith we need to follow God?
What kind of an example does Jesus give us? Well, at first, it seems our faith
is supposed to resemble the faith of servants in a lord and master who is absent —
he’s at a elaborate wedding feast, and we’re supposed to wait up for him
so that when he finally gets home, we can open the door to him, ready and alert.
If we’re faithful, he’ll reverse roles and wait on us — no matter how late it is.

But then we have one of those twists we’ve learned to expect from Jesus’s teaching.
God’s arrival is now compared to a thief in the night. The householder doesn’t know
just when the thief might strike. If we follow this image out, then a break-in is inevitable.
No householder can stay up all the time. God is going to break through the barriers.

So I’m going to take this parable in a rather different direction today. We can admit
that all of us have some protection around our vulnerable selves. We realize this
when our phone rings and it’s someone on the other end who wants to sell us something.
It’s quite an effort to be civil and polite. We all have barriers about our money.
Even for something we choose to support, like the church we love, we have barriers —
if there were no barriers about money, we wouldn’t need an annual pledge campaign.

So how are we to keep our faith, if God sometimes act like a thief in the night? Just this —
God only steals from us the things we really don’t need — God leaves us the
essentials.

God asks us to have faith, despite all the temporary setbacks in our best-laid plans.
God takes away the scaffolding, to reveal that our souls can stand upright on our own.

I’d like to end this sermon with another story about a thief in the night.
This story comes from the Japanese tradition of Zen Buddhism. There’s a full moon out,
and a Zen monk leaves his hut to walk outside and contemplate the night sky.
When he gets back to his hut, he finds that everything in it has been stolen. So he sits down,
thinks about the thief, and says, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Sunday Homily by Chanthip Phongkhamsavath 7-31-22

The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost

July 31, 2022

 

Good morning.

 

I looked at the readings earlier this week and the reflection was at the back of my mind for most of the week.  Getting caught in the midst of a laundry list of work and home tasks that seemed to take up the majority of my brain space.  I took a little time Friday to read the lessons again realizing that Sunday was quickly creeping up on me.  And then I went about my day and got caught up in the news and the billion dollar mega million jackpot drawing that was approaching that evening.  I had told a number of people the evening before that if they were going to buy a ticket to just buy one cause statistically it was all the same and it didn’t matter the number of tickets that were bought – the one lesson from my Statistics class years ago that really stuck with me – well it gets more complicated if you keep the same numbers over the course of different drawings – but I digress…

 

Anyways, as I

was driving to dinner I took a detour and decided to try my luck and buy just one ticket.  As I continued on my way I began to think about what I would do if I won – pay off the mortgage on my condo on my sister’s house…go on vacation…set up a foundation…there were a lot of different things. And at dinner my cousin and I – cause she had also bought a few mega million lotto tickets talked about what we would do if we won. If you’ve kept tabs on the news, needless to say neither one of us won – there is an individual or maybe group of people in Illinois who may be rejoicing in their luck and the wealth coming to them.

 

And since you’ve just heard the readings, maybe you can also sense where my reflection ended up taking me on Saturday.  Despite having sat on the readings and thinking about the message of not seeking wealth and that material things were not true treasures – I still fell into the lure of wealth and admit that yes it was greed as well that existed there.  I had my seemingly good intentions of setting up ways to give some of the winnings away, however gaining wealth and treasures for myself was still at the forefront.  It is an easy trap to fall into, one that advertising and consumerism plays into so much.

 

It felt a bit like I was living out the reading in real time this week – maybe not literally – however almost in spirit – “The more I called them, the more they went from me”

 

Despite having God’s words and teachings in the background and in theory being more focused on them than usual – since I knew I had to reflect on them – I still managed to not hear them.  A healthy reminder that although the words and lessons from the Bible may be outdated in the literal translation, they are still accurate in the spirit of what still drives us humans to this day. We have the benefit of coming together to reflect though, to be able whether daily, weekly, monthly or when our need is greatest to call to God and have faith that we will be delivered from our distress.

 

Although we may not literally be delivered from our immediate distress at least we have the opportunities to constantly reflect on how our daily lives live out the Lord’s teachings.  And how we have the daily opportunities then, to try and listen a little harder each day even if we falter, because we will.  At least we know that in the larger scheme of things we can begin to recognize in our own behaviors the lessons we continue to try and learn.

 

So although I will not say that I will never buy another lotto ticket, I can say that I will continue to try and listen to the Lord’s call and strive for a life that seeks to put at its center the values of what’s above – in God’s love and mercy – and not on the earthly material things that will not follow.  Amen.

Sunday Homily by Steve Hitchcock 7-24-22

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church ● Albany, California ● July 24, 2022

Genesis 18:20-31

Psalm 138:5-9

Colossians 2:6-15

LUKE 1:1-13

 

Forgive me if I repeat what some of you may have heard before.  About ten years ago, I found myself walking from our long-time home on the corner of Dartmouth and Stannage to St. Alban’s.  My father had died a few weeks earlier in August, and I couldn’t face another fall at University Lutheran Chapel.  I didn’t have the emotional fortitude for all the excitement and creativity of campus ministry.  I just wanted to sing some hymns and recite the creed.

 

So, I came to St. Alban’s for the hymns, but I’ve stayed because of the prayers.  

 

In my early Sundays here, I was startled when during the Prayers of the People, the people actually offered intercessions – lots of them about lots of family members, friends, and events.  Each intercession was followed by “Amen.”

 

And then, after I thought the service was over, there took place one of the wackiest activities I’ve ever seen in a church.  People actually came forward and asked for personal blessings for themselves and their loved ones.  Then, we enthusiastically prayed the prayers from the Prayer Book.

 

It’s also unbelievable to me that a half dozen of us – and there’s room for more! – have faithfully met for 20 to 30 minutes every Thursday morning for the last five years.  We follow the Morning Prayer service in the Book of Common Prayer, and we pray the collect for the saint or person who is commemorated that day or week.  

 

The disciples in today’s Gospel reading were a lot like us St. Albanites.  As good Jewish men, they knew many prayers and had plenty of practice praying.  Apparently, some of them had been taught to pray by John the Baptist.  Over the years, they would have heard prayers in their homes, synagogues, and the Temple.  Those would be prayers to God the father, and they would certainly hollow or revere the divine name: YHWH, the four letters that stood for the unspoken name of God who told Abraham, “I am who I am.”  And, of course, they had the Psalms, a collection of 150 prayers.

 

Yet in today’s Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

 

Today, we are invited to listen in on this conversation between Jesus and his disciples.  The promise is that we, too, might learn how our prayers can transform our lives today.

 

In response to the disciples’ request, Jesus offers a few sentences we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer.  In Matthew’s Gospel, this prayer has a few extra words and concludes with an additional petition to “rescue us from the evil one.”  The Didache, a very early Christian handbook, has a version of the prayer even closer to the one we pray today, and it includes the doxology.

 

Unique to Luke, though, is that this prayer is followed by the parable of the friend who knocks persistently on the door of his friend to ask for bread to feed another friend who has come in the middle of the night.

 

To make sense of all this, we should stop and ask why, at this point in Luke’s Gospel, the disciples are asking that question.  

 

Luke’s account of Jesus’ life was written at the end of the first century, at least 50 years after Jesus’ death.  You’ll recall it is the first part of a two-part narrative, with the Acts of the Apostles being the second part.

 

When we read much of Acts in our Easter season, I was struck that there’s a whole lot of baptizing going on.  The Ethiopian eunuch and the jailer and his family are just two of many examples.  Then, as I was reading today’s verses, it occurred to me that Luke’s Gospel was written to help early Christians – who, like those in Acts, were being baptized into the faith – to live into their baptism.

 

In our second reading for today, from Colossians, we hear what’s at stake in our baptism: “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God…God made you alive together with him.”

 

Luke’s Gospel suggests that disciples – including us today – live out our baptism when we follow Jesus on his journey.  More so than in the other Gospels, Jesus is on the road traveling all over the place.  He stops along the way to heal and preach, often telling parables.  As we’ve noted in the past, he does a lot of eating.  Often, he’s associating with women, tax collectors, and others who were on the margins of society.

 

The other notable activity in Luke’s Gospel is Jesus at prayer.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus prays at his baptism.  Often, he goes off to pray by himself.  In chapter 6, he spends the entire night in prayer.  And, of course, he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion.

 

It’s striking, too, that Luke’s Gospel ends with the disciples in the Temple praying after Jesus’ resurrection.

 

Today’s Gospel reading takes on even greater significance because, just a few verses ago, at the end of chapter nine, Jesus’ journey takes an important turn.  It says that “Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.”  And, just to make sure the disciples understand what’s up, Jesus predicts that he will be rejected and put to death.

 

No wonder, then, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray.

 

So, what is that we learn about prayer that is powerful enough to overcome rejection and death?

First, today’s reading encourages us to pray repeatedly: “When you pray – whenever you pray” this is the prayer that is the framework and model for all our prayers.  

 

Second, this prayer is about our very existence: the bread that sustains us, the food – and everything else – that nourishes us.  You’ll recall that, just before Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem, he fed the multitudes with the five loaves and two fishes.  As down-to-earth as this petition is, it would have also been as reminder to Luke’s readers that their prayers are part of the messianic banquet, the Eucharist they celebrated each Sunday.

 

Third, we are encouraged to pray together.  The “you” here is plural.  Our prayers are always communal, and the most effective prayers are those offered for us by others.  And that’s why we have the parable of the persistent friend.

 

In this little puzzle of a parable, there are so many friends; everyone is a friend of everyone else.  That’s the point of friendship, isn’t it?  You can’t say no.

 

To be sure, we often fail as friends.  At times, even our friends’ persistence fails to persuade us.  We can’t escape the judgment implicit in today’s reading: as parents – and as friends – we are evil.  And for some of us our prayers – our knocking persistently on God’s door – takes place in the dark night of our souls.  In the confusion of our daily lives or sometimes in our despair, we are tempted to give up, just as we are tempted not to respond when our friends appeal to us.

 

But Luke’s parable suggests that – despite these temptations, despite those dark nights, despite our fear that God is not listening – we are praying as part of an amazing friendship circle.

 

Finally, what makes this prayer circle so powerful is that we are praying with Jesus.  Our prayers get special hearing because they are the prayers of Jesus on our behalf.  

 

Once again, our reading from Colossians may say this best: “As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him and established in faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

 

Throughout his Gospel, Luke invites us to go back in time and follow Jesus during his life all those years ago.  At the same time, though, Luke proclaims the good news that the Jesus who is doing all this healing, teaching, and feeding is the Risen Christ present among us right now.  As was the case for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, this Risen Christ is here among us as we pray over the bread that sustains our bodies and our spirit.

 

Let us continue to pray with this Risen Christ and with each other.  Amen.