Sunday, June 11, 2017

Experiencing the Trinity

Trinity Sunday (Year A)
2 Corinthians 13.11-13; Matthew 28.16-20
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Today is unlike any other Sunday in the Church calendar. Every Sunday focuses primarily on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Today is the only Sunday of the year that is not specifically dedicated to Christ per se, but rather is dedicated to a doctrine of the Church – the Trinity. The Trinity, that mysterious concept that boggles the minds of any who try to spend more than a few seconds thinking about it. The Trinity – the understanding that we worship one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God, three-in-one, three persons comprising one God. God, one-in-three, God manifest in three “persons” – really an unfortunate misnomer, but that is the term theologians use.

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Sunday, June 04, 2017

Pentecost - Celebration of New Life

Day of Pentecost (Year A)
Acts 2.1-21; 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13; John 20.19-23
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Imagine the awesome experience of that first Pentecost as described in Acts. Well, strictly speaking, it wasn’t the first Pentecost. In the Hebrew calendar, Pentecost was an ancient celebration. It was originally an agricultural festival. Also known as the Feast of Weeks, it marked the end of the annual grain harvest, which began seven weeks before, during Passover. Pentecost, from the Greek, meaning fifty. Fifty days after Passover. In time, Pentecost also become a commemoration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, which occurred 50 days after the beginning of the Exodus. Fifty days after Passover.

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Sunday, May 28, 2017

“Wait! Where are you going? You just got back.”

Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year A) – Ascension Sunday
Acts 1.6-14; John 17.1-11
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Whenever I go away for a while – be it a few days or a few weeks – I can count on the same series of reactions from my cats upon my return. When I first get home, they will look at me like, “oh, it’s you.” Then they will proceed to ignore me. Anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Their way of punishing me for abandoning them. Then they will not leave me alone. They will keep me in sight at all times. This will go on for anywhere from a day to nearly a week, depending on how long I was gone. But the best reaction, the one that breaks my heart every time, is that first time after I’ve returned home when I have to leave again. To run an errand, go to work, whatever the purpose. Be it later the same day or several days later. The reaction is always the same. As I go to close the front door, the Boys will be sitting there, looking at me with the most pathetic expressions, with eyes purposefully made to melt my soul. In that look that says, “Wait! Where are you going? You just got back.”

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

God's Witness Protection Program

Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year A)
Acts 7.55-60; 1 Peter 2.2-10; John 14.1-14
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

In the last half of Eastertide, we focus on identity. Christ’s identity and ours, as revealed through the mystery of the Resurrection. Last week’s Gospel focused primarily on Jesus’ identity and our response to that identity. How Christ is at once the Lamb, the Good Shepherd, and the gate to the sheepfold, whereby we enter into the fellowship of God. Today’s Gospel shifts the emphasis to focus more on our identity in light of the Resurrection. And what that identity means in a deeper sense.

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Sunday, May 07, 2017

I AM, the Gate

Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year A)
John 10.1-10
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

We’re only halfway through the season of Easter, but with last week’s journey to Emmaus, we have finished the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Throughout the rest of Eastertide, we turn our attention to what it means to be the followers of the Risen Christ. It is quite appropriate that the imagery that is used as we shift our focus involves sheep. Not so much about what the image of sheep says about us, but what it says about Jesus.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Way to Go, Thomas!

Second Sunday of Easter
John 20.19-31
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

I often start off sermons for the Sunday after Easter – for which the Gospel reading is always the story of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas – with some statement like “poor Thomas. He always gets a bad rap.” But not this year. Instead, I say, “Way to go, Thomas!”

Now sure, when, on the evening of Easter, of Jesus’ resurrection, he appears to all the disciples except for Thomas, and when the disciples later tell Thomas of their encounter, Thomas famously responds, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20.25b). A comment that has forever labeled him as “Doubting Thomas.” But casting this in a less than positive light is neither fair to Thomas nor particularly helpful for us. If anything, Thomas is to be applauded. After all, he is merely being honest.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

It Has Just Begun . . .

Easter Day
Acts 10.34-43; Colossians 3.1-4; John 20.1-18
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Spoiler alert! Christ is risen!

Although the details of the Easter narratives as contained in each of the four Gospels vary in specific details, in all of the accounts women are the first to arrive at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning. In John’s version, Mary Magdalene, common to all the accounts, is the only woman to come to the tomb that morning. Having a women be the first witnesses to such a monumental event is a remarkable thing in and of itself. In that day and age, women were not considered credible enough to give testimony in Jewish courts. Yet, women were the first to offer witness to the fact that Jesus had risen from the dead, just as he promised. And Mary Magdalene is the first to have a face-to-face encounter the Risen Christ.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Earthshaking News

Great Vigil of Easter
Genesis 22.1-18; Exodus 14.10-31, 15.20-21; Ezekiel 36.24-28; Romans 6.3-11; Matthew 28.1-10
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

“Suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it” (Mt 28.2).

In Matthew’s account, the resurrection is heralded by an earthquake. And if you remember back to our Passion narrative on Palm Sunday, at the moment of Jesus’ death, “the earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Mt 27.51b). Coincidence? Of course not. In the Hebrew scriptures earthquakes are often interpreted as a signs or manifestations of God’s power and authority. We see this reflected by the response of witnesses at the crucifixion – “when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” (Mt 27.54).

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Friday, April 14, 2017

What God's Love Looks Like

Good Friday
Isaiah 52.13—53.12; Hebrews 4.14-16, 5.7-9; John 18.1—19.42
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

We once again enter into God’s time. We now find ourselves standing at the foot of the cross, looking up at our Lord, nailed there, dying a horrible death. How did we get here? Our minds reel with the memory of the events of the past few hours. How a meal of unity quickly gave way to an act of betrayal. How a celebration of God’s justice gave way to an act of injustice. How an impassioned message of “love one another” gave way to hate-filled cries of “Crucify him!” How a celebration of life gave way to a sentence of death. It’s hard not see evil and hate in this gruesome scene.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Model of Loving Service

Maundy Thursday
John 13.1-17, 31b-35
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

As we again enter into God’s time, we are gathered in the Upper Room with Jesus and the disciples. We are here to celebrate a special meal. This is the Passover feast, instituted some 1,200 years before as the children of Israel are preparing to flee Egypt – the meal described in our Old Testament reading. A meal that is established as a “perpetual ordinance” for the Jewish people. But tonight, that meal takes on a new meaning for those of us who follow Jesus. In God’s time, this meal commemorating the liberation of our people takes on a greater significance. Jesus takes the bread and wine, common elements of the meal, and gives them new meaning only possible in God’s time. The elements of a past meal are signified with meaning of a future event – Jesus’ death and resurrection. Elements of bread and wine becoming Christ’s body and blood, given as a symbol of Christ’s redeeming life and work. Given as a new covenant for the salvation of us all. Given as a sign and a promise of a deeper form of liberation – liberation from sin and death. In God’s time, in this one meal, we are experiencing the beginning of the Exodus toward new life in the Promised Land, and a New Exodus toward eternal life in the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.

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Sunday, April 09, 2017

In God's Time

Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday
Matthew 21.1-11; Matthew 26.14—27.66
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

How do we make sense out of what we have just witnessed this morning? Throughout Lent we have talked about being on a journey. The journey we make with Jesus to Jerusalem. Today, we have arrived at the gates of Jerusalem. And suddenly, we find ourselves in the midst of a disorienting time warp. We find that time is suddenly compressed. We have traveled the span of five days, from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, in the space of a half hour. In this brief time, we have gone from shouting “Hosanna!” to shouting “Crucify him!” We have gone from raising palm branches to raising Jesus on the cross.

The events of these five days are clearly defined. Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He celebrates his last meal with his disciples on Maundy Thursday. After supper, Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying. He is then betrayed by Judas, one of the Twelve, whereupon he is immediately arrested by the temple soldiers. He is taken to the house of the high priest, where he is put on trial. As the trial is ending Friday morning, Peter denies Jesus three times. Jesus is then taken to Pontus Pilate, the Roman governor, for a second trial. Being found guilty, Jesus is tortured, and then led away to be crucified at Golgotha.

These are the chronological events. A matter of record. These are the events, horrendous though they may be, that we commemorate on this day. The events we will repeat in more detail, in the coming week. Such is the flow of events in our reckoning of time. What the Greeks termed chronos – the linear movement of time from past to present to future. The way we all experience time, chronologically. From where we sit today, on April 9, 2017, this is all in the past. But is it really in the past?

As Christians, we are also subject to a different flow of time – an alternative experience of time. In the events we have witnessed in the last half hour, we have moved out of chronos into the mystery of what is known as kairos. Another concept borrowed from the Greeks and imbued with Christian significance, kairos means “the appointed time in the purpose of God.” Kairos is God’s time. Eternal time. What Peter, in his second letter, describes when he says “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3.8). That God experiences all moments at the same time. Past, present, and future occur simultaneously in God’s perception of time.

Theologically speaking, whenever we worship, we enter into that sense of kairos. When we worship, we, in our present, enter into the events of salvation history and participate in how those events are played out in the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God – played out in what we perceive to be some future time. In our worship, all time comes together – past, present, and future – into one moment.

Nowhere – or maybe no-when – is this more evident than in Holy Week. Particularly so in our commemoration of Palm Sunday [slash] Passion Sunday. While we are not readily able to experience kairos other than as a momentary gift from God, we can at least get an idea of it through the compressed sense of time we experience on this particular day. Approximating that all the events of this coming week are happening at once in God’s time.

In our participation in kairos, we have a different experience of the events we heard recounted today. Again, the Greeks have a concept for this – anamnesis, which literally means “remembering.” This is a key concept in our theology of worship. In worship we recall God's saving deeds. This is not simply a passive process of recalling the events we commemorate, but rather is one in which we actually enter into the Paschal mystery – specifically, the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In short, we don’t just recall the events of Holy Week. We are participating in them. We are re-membering them. Made a member of, a part of, what is going on. In God’s time, we are actually there, witnessing the events of Holy Week, alongside Jesus.

In God’s time, we are actually there, at the gates of Jerusalem, as Jesus makes his triumphal entry. We are there in the crowd, waving palm branches as we follow him through the city streets – just as we did during our procession from the garden into the church. We are there with the crowd shouting “Hosanna!”

In God’s time, we are actually there in the Upper Room, as Jesus celebrates the Passover meal with his disciples – and with us. The Last Supper. Just as we are there every time we celebrate the Eucharist. We are there at the table as he takes the loaf of bread, blesses is, breaks it, and gives it to us, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Mt 26.26). We are there as he takes a cup of wine, gives thanks, and gives it to us saying “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26.27-28).

In God’s time, we are actually there in the Garden of Gethsemane, after supper, as Jesus goes off to pray. We are there with Peter, James, and John – like them, unable to stay awake for just one hour as our Lord asks.

In God’s time, we are awakened as Judas, accompanied by temple soldiers, comes into the Garden. We look on as Judas goes to Jesus, greets him, kisses him, and in so doing betrays him. We stand by helplessly as Jesus is arrested and taken away.

In God’s time, we are there outside the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, where Jesus is on trial before the scribes and elders of the Temple. All the rest of the disciples, except for Peter, have fled into the night. Maybe we wanted to go with them. But we are here, waiting. And then we hear Peter, confronted by onlookers, deny three times that he knows Jesus. We look on shocked that Peter, the de facto leader of the disciples, would do that. Particulalry after saying he would go to his death for Jesus. But would we have done any differently?

In God’s time, we stand helpless as Jesus is taken to Pontus Pilate. Standing in the courtyard we are dismayed, even offended, by the shouts from the crowd – “Crucify him!” In the aftermath of those frenzied cries, we watch in disbelief as our teacher, our friend, is sentenced to death. We look on helplessly, as he is beaten, mocked, humiliated, unable to do anything.

In God’s time, we follow Jesus as he carries a cross to Golgotha, the garbage dump outside the city. We watch in horror as Jesus is stripped naked and nailed to the cross, then lifted up for all who pass by to see.

In God’s time, we stand at a distance, with Mary Magdalene and the other women, watching Jesus die a slow, agonizing death.

(pause)

This is what it means to be Christian. Particularly as we begin Holy Week. To be willing to enter into kairos – God’s time. To experience the joys that come with shouts of “Hosanna!!” And to experience the pain and sorrow that come with shouts of “Crucify him!” For it is only by entering into the fullness of this Holy Week experience that, one week from now, we may similarly enter into the fullness of the Easter experience.

May this Holy Week be for you a rich and blessed experience of life lived in God’s time, as you re-member first-hand what this journey is all about, and where it will ultimately lead you. In God’s time.

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Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Promise of Resurrection

Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 11.1-45
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Today we begin the final leg of our Lenten journey – the journey to Jerusalem. For next week, on Palm Sunday, we enter with Jesus into Jerusalem, where over the course of what we know as Holy Week, we will witness betrayal, injustice, death. And after that, Easter. And the Resurrection.

Today’s readings give a glimpse of what is to come at the end of this long journey. A flavor of the final victory that is to come. The victory achieved by Jesus. The victory achieved for us.

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Life-Giving Water

Third Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Exodus 17.1-7; John 4.5-42
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Humans can survive three weeks without food, but only three days without water. Even fewer in less hospitable environments like deserts. Water is absolutely critical to maintaining life. As we’ve seen in our own state, now in the sixth year of drought, with California being the driest it’s been in 500 years, access to water is an increasingly major concern. So critical is this precious resource that many experts are now saying that the major regional, even global, wars of the future will not be over access to oil or food or land, but over access to water. 

In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly officially designated March 22 as World Water Day. World Water Day is about taking action to tackle the water crisis. Today, there are over 663 million people living without a safe water supply close to home, spending countless hours queuing or trekking to distant sources, and coping with the health impacts of using contaminated water. The Sustainable Development Goals, launched in 2015, include a target to ensure everyone has access to safe water by 2030, making water a key issue in the fight to eradicate extreme poverty (source).

Against this backdrop, our lectionary readings for this Sunday – a mere three days before Word Water Day – just happen to be about water. About access to water. Our lectionary readings were set long before the designation of World Water Day. While pure happenstance, one might question if there was a little divine inspiration at work.

In our first reading from Exodus, Israel is wandering in the desert. They are thirsty for water, so they cry out to God, “Give us water to drink” (Ex 17.2). Their thirst for water, while very real, is symbolic of a deeper thirst. A thirst for God, for assurance of God’s presence among the people. At God’s command, Moses strikes a rock, bringing forth a stream of water. In this act, God, through Moses, demonstrates his presence among his people. This is God’s gracious provision to his people. They receive water that sustains them physically in their desert journey. And they receive the assurance of spiritual sustenance through the presence of God, symbolized by that water. They see God once again bring life from a totally unexpected place.

And water plays a key role in our Gospel reading, as well. The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well is the longest pericope in the Gospels. The longest recorded conversation between Jesus and another person. And it’s about water. Stopping by Jacob’s well, deep in Samaritan territory, Jesus asks a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. The woman is puzzled that Jesus, obviously a Jew, would even speak to her, let alone ask for something from her.

First off, there was a great, centuries-old animosity between Jews and Samaritans. Contact between the two peoples was prohibited. Second, she is a woman. A Jewish rabbi would never publically speak to a woman. And to top it all off, this particular woman was clearly a sinner of note. She has had five husbands and is now living with a man who is not her husband. Why, because of this alone, she is even shunned by her own people. Hence her coming to the well alone in the hottest part of the day, instead of coming with the other women of the village in the cooler, morning hours. Such is her shame.

In response to the woman’s expression of puzzlement of these clear breaches of social norms, Jesus says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (Jn 4.10). This leads to an almost theological discussion about water – physical water as a symbol for something deeper, which Jesus refers to as “living water.” After lengthy discussion, it is apparent that Jesus is this “living water.” The Samaritan woman comes to realize that Jesus is the Messiah who, just as water gives life, is the one who gives eternal life.

The woman is so moved by this encounter that she returns to her village, where she puts aside her shame and the ridicule of her neighbors to tell them what she has experienced. She demands to be heard. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (Jn 4.29). And she is heard. Through her personal testimony, even though she was initially disrespected by them, the people of her village come to believe who Jesus is. In John’s telling of the Gospel story, this woman proclaims the first public profession of faith.

Jesus reaches across barriers that separate him from the woman – barriers of nationality, religion, gender, her implied promiscuity, whatever sins she has committed. These meant nothing to him. He is willing to reveal his identity, not to his disciples, not to other Jews, not to religious leaders, but to this woman who was marginalized in so many ways. All he saw was a child of God in need of his love, his grace, his mercy. He treats her with dignity and respect. The woman is surprised that Jesus knows so much about her. That he knows the truth about her. She is even more surprised that, knowing what he does about her, Jesus accepts her anyway. For her, this is truly an encounter with the holy. And this encounter enables her to be profoundly transformed and to find a new identity as a beloved child of God.

In her new identity, made possible by the gift of living water that Jesus provides her, through the gift of his love and mercy, she finds the courage she needs to forgive herself and to look beyond what others may think of her. She demands the respect of having her voice heard – a voice that opens the way for others to receive what she has received. By proclaiming to others what she has experienced, the Samaritan woman demonstrates one of the prime characteristics of discipleship repeated throughout John’s Gospel – that of becoming a faithful witness.

So important is the example and the testimony of the Samaritan woman that the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity has honored her with a name – Photina, which means “Enlightened One.” In the Russian Orthodox Church, she is named Svetlana, and is celebrated annually as “equal to the apostles,” acknowledging the significant effect of the word she proclaimed. I don’t know why we, in the Western branch of the Church, have not embraced her with equal honor. For us, she is just the Samaritan woman at the well. But she is, nonetheless, one of the best examples of how Jesus approaches all those whom he encounters. That he sees beyond those barriers that we or others create to separate us one from another; those barriers that often also seek to separate us from God. He reaches beyond those barriers and offers himself to us out of love. And the Samaritan woman is a wonderful example of the transformation that can occur, if we just let it. An example of the perfect response to be made in that transformation – to share Christ with others. To invite others to “come and see.”

Since the fourth century, this story of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman has been used to explain Christian baptism. That baptism is the living water that cleanses us, transforms us, makes us new. But there is another aspect of this living water that we need to always keep in mind, particularly during this season of Lent, as we move ever closer to Easter and the time when we renew our baptismal vows.

The story of the waters at Meribah and Massah in Exodus and the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well illustrate the importance of water. Both stories start with the need for water to sustain physical life. But as we see in both the people of Israel crying out to God and in Jesus’ offer to the woman at the well, we also have need of that which sustains our spiritual lives. To accomplish this, God provides water flowing from the rock, symbolizing his presence with them. Jesus offers the woman living water, transforming and nourishing her own spirit. Not only do these waters lead to renewed spiritual life. Living water symbolizes the health and vitality of our spiritual lives. For living water is always moving, always flowing. Like a stream or river. So, too, our spiritual lives must always be moving, on a journey, always progressing, lest they become stagnant. Ever carrying us forward into deeper relationship with our Lord who loves us so much that he gives us the living water that sustains us on our journey, that leads to new life.

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Admirers or Followers?

Second Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Genesis 12.1-4a; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17; John 3.1-17
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

It’s pretty obvious that our friend Nicodemus is a great admirer of Jesus. Nicodemus is a pious and holy man. He is a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin – the assembly that was at once the supreme council exercising authority over religious matters and the high court of Israel. As such, he represented the epitome of Jewish orthodoxy and would have been above reproach in theological perspective and in his behavior and actions.

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Sunday, March 05, 2017

Temptations – Set Up for Success

First Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew 4.1-11
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Every year, on the First Sunday in Lent, we hear the account of the temptation of Jesus. Immediately following Jesus’ Baptism, the Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. This forty-day experience is itself reminiscent of the children of Israel wandering in the desert for forty years as they journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. And both Moses and Elijah endured forty-day periods of fasting during their ministries. A forty-day period that is the basis for our own forty-day Lenten journey.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Preparing for Our Lenten Journey

Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58.1-12; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Today we begin our Lenten journey, where we travel with Jesus to Jerusalem and what awaits him there in what we call Holy Week. Historically, the Lenten journey is a period of intentional preparation for baptism at Easter. Of preparation for our incorporation into the Body of Christ. Even though we ourselves are not going to be baptized, we do renew our baptismal vows at Easter. A reminder of who we are and whose we are. Lent is a time for us to intentionally focus on what it means to be a child of God, to prepare for the renewal of our commitment to God and Christ at Easter.

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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Being Transfigured By the Presence of the Holy

Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A) – Transfiguration
Matthew 17.1-9
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

For the last two months, we have made our journey through the season of Epiphany. Today we come to the end of that journey. This is the last Sunday before beginning a new journey – our Lenten journey. The journey in which we walk with Jesus as he turns his face toward Jerusalem and what awaits him there.

Throughout the season after Epiphany we have explored various ways Jesus is revealed as the Son of God. Today, we witness the Transfiguration – what is probably the most dramatic way, short of the Resurrection, that Jesus is revealed as Son of God, as God incarnate. As such, this is a proper ending to the season of Epiphany – the grand finale, if you will.

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Be Perfect, Be Holy

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
Leviticus 19.1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3.10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5.38-48
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect? Really?

You thought last week’s Gospel lesson was difficult to hear. Where Jesus reinterpreted “you shall not murder” to make anger equal to murder and “you shall not commit adultery” to make even impure thoughts equal to adultery. Things that are pretty near impossible for us mere mortals to live up to. And now he tells us that we are to be perfect like God. What is he thinking?

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Chose Life

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
Deuteronomy 30.15-20; Matthew 5.21-37
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Is it me, or is it getting a little warm in here? If you really listened to the Gospel reading – really listened to it – most of you, maybe all of you, are feeling a little heat.

In our Gospel for today, Jesus talks about not committing murder, not committing adultery, not getting divorced, and not swearing falsely. Most of these are pretty big offense in the eyes of Jewish Law. And some of them continue to be pretty big offenses in our own legal, as well as ethical and moral system. We still condemn murder. We still take a pretty hard stand against adultery. We still look disapprovingly at false oaths, broke promises, and outright lies. And divorce? Well, today we generally recognize that there are legitimate situations when divorce may be preferable to staying married. But divorce is still far from ideal.

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Sunday, February 05, 2017

"You ARE the Salt of the Earth"

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
Isaiah 58.1-9; Matthew 5.13-20
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

“You are the salt of the earth”

This has always been a little puzzling to me. For as long as I can remember, this phrase has conjured up images of deserts – areas that tend to be higher in salinity, due to higher rates of evaporation which leaves behind salt residues in the soil. Areas that are more inhospitable to life, particularly having detrimental effects on plant growth and crop yield, which itself can lead to soil erosion. Or the image of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt as punishment for looking back as Sodom and Gomorrah are being destroyed because of the wicked people who live there. What came to my mind was an image that I knew was the complete opposite of the point Jesus is trying to make about God’s people as being nurturing and life-giving.

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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Finding Blessing in the Beatitudes

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
Micah 6.1-8; Matthew 5.1-12
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

When we hear the nine statements we just heard in the Gospel reading, collectively known as the Beatitudes, do we somehow feel a little inadequate? Do we feel that we might not be as blessed as we would like to think? After all, who of us are, or consider ourselves poor in spirit? Certainly we all mourn at one time or another, but who wants to mourn all the time? Why would any of us want to be considered meek? Who of us truly hungers or thirsts, particularly in the wealthiest nation in the world? Can any of us claim to be merciful all the time? If we are brutally honest with ourselves, who of us can claim to be pure in heart? While we may be peace-lovers, how many times are we called upon to be peacemakers? And in these modern times in this land founded on religious freedom, who of us are truly persecuted for our faith? How often are we reviled and unjustly condemned because we follow Christ? When you really take a critical look at these qualities, how can they even be considered blessings? Who would want to be blessed at such costs?

Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount, a lengthy discourse incorporating numerous teachings, with these Beatitudes. This section gets its name from the constant refrain of “blessed are,” which in the original Greek is makarios. In Latin, this term is beātitūdō, from which we get the name Beatitudes. But this term, both in the original Greek and in the Latin translation, while meaning “blessed,” actually is more accurately translated as “happiness.” Therefore, the really correct translation would be “Happy are the poor in spirit . . .” “Happy are those who mourn . . .” And so on. This is perhaps even more puzzling, more enigmatic, than “blessed are.”

In opening the Sermon on the Mount in this way, Jesus attempts to name those who are blessed in the reign of God. Those who receive happiness in the reign of God. They do not derive happiness from being poor in spirit, or mourning, or hungering for righteousness. But by exhibiting these qualities, they are open to the joy that comes from being beloved of God. By being in touch with the realities of the human condition. And how that brings us closer to the God who created us, who loves us, and who sustains us, no matter what we may face. That is where the blessing lies.

Jesus, in his teaching, preaching, life, death, and resurrection, reveals to us the way God’s kingdom works so differently from the way this world works. It is not about deriving happiness from one’s condition, but rather about deriving happiness from being beloved children of God. From being able to see beyond immediate circumstances, about being able to see that there is more to our existence and our character than that which troubles us or results in our brokenness. That even in our brokenness, we are beloved of God. In this we have cause for joy. In this we are blessed. So let’s take a look at these Beatitudes and see just how they apply to us. How we are blessed in them.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is slightly different from Luke’s version in the comparable Sermon on the Plain. There, Luke reports Jesus saying “Blessed are the poor,” referring more to economic deprivation. Matthew’s version, on the other hand, focuses on the spiritual. It teaches a deeper acknowledgment of spiritual dependency before God and recognition of the gifts of God’s kingdom that are available to us. Gifts that only God can provide in order to bless us in our quest for spiritual development. In our quest for deeper relationship with God.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We all know what it feels like to mourn. We have all mourned the loss of a loved one. Or some other significant loss in terms of relationship, well-being, possessions. Or a significant change in life circumstances, such as loss or change of job, leaving a beloved place. But mourning goes beyond lamentation due to loss. Those who know God and the ways of God’s kingdom also mourn, experience a wider grief, over the wrongs and sufferings of the world. Our recognition that this is not what God desires for us.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” We really get hung up on this one. We often associate meekness with weakness. But in reality, meekness implies a state of humility, not mere passivity. It is the humble recognition that it is not all about us. That we are not the savior of the world, or at least our little piece of it. The humble recognition that there is someone else who is in charge, who take on the burdens that we just are not able to. The humble recognition that God, through Christ, willingly takes on our burdens for us, if we but turn them over to him. If we allow him to bless us with the freedom that that action provides.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This is one of the most straightforward, easy to understand of the Beatitudes. Luke renders this merely as “Blessed are those who hunger.” But Matthew takes it out of the merely physical into the existential. In his reporting, Jesus is referring to the fervent desire to see God’s will and justice on earth. A condition that, once realized, will be a blessing to all humanity.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Ours is an all-merciful God. Mercy is a gift from God that is freely given to all, even though unmerited. We see this particularly in the actions on the cross, whereby God’s son died for us so that sin and death no longer have hold on us. This is the ultimate mercy. What God asks is that just as we have been blessed by receiving mercy and forgiveness, we seek to do likewise.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” This concept of pure in heart reflects the Jewish ethical tradition characterized by integrity, moral uprightness, and wholehearted devotion to God. It is the recognition that through these attributes, we are recognizing the primacy of God in our lives and seek to live as he commands. Even when we fail, we are at least making the attempt. Again, a recognition that we are so blessed by God that out of gratitude we strive to live as he desires us to.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” A specific application of striving to be pure in heart is the work of being a peacemaker. This is not just about opposing or protesting wars and armed conflicts. Peacemakers are those who seek to bring about reconciliation in all relationships, especially with respect to the commandment to love one’s neighbor.

The final two are really part of a whole. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account." We are blessed to live in a time and a society where we are not readily subject to persecution for our religious beliefs. But that does not mean that we may not, at times be criticized, even persecuted, for doing what we know to be the right thing. Particularly when it may be against prevailing secular ideas of rightness. This Beatitude means truly and faithfully living the Gospel, even when others may not agree with or understand why we do what we do. It is the ultimate expression of our devotion to God.

When taken all together, the Beatitudes point to a way of living that is about being able to feel blessed even in our humanness, even in our troubles, even in our brokenness. Even when things might feel like they are turned upside down or not going our way, we express our faithfulness to God because we know that God is always faithful to us.

The Beatitudes are often viewed as the “entrance requirements” for getting into good graces with God, for getting into the kingdom of heaven. The Christian scriptures consistently declare God’s preferential care for the poor and marginalized. Luke’s version of the beatitudes bear this out. Blessed are the poor, blessed are you who hunger, etc. Some argue that Matthew’s version waters down the message. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness. That the concerns of the world get spiritualized, even trivialized. But we need Matthew’s interpretation. Those who are poor in spirit, those who hunger for righteousness, and so on, are hallmarks of blessed citizens of God’s kingdom. They are affirmations of who we are, of who we are trying to be as followers of Jesus. Not demands of what we must do. The Beatitudes recognize that it is those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who desire peace, who ultimately are moved to do something about it.

Beatitude values for right living reflect the very heart of God and are grounded in the Old Testament tradition, as expressed in today’s words of the Prophet Micah. The values of the Beatitudes are put into action through what is expressed by Micah. “O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6.8)

Micah provides marching orders for those of us who are blessed by God, so that these blessings might be extended to and realized by all. The familiar words in Micah 6.8 call for a reordering of life: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. To do justice means to work to correct the inequalities and oppression that exist in the world. To love kindness means to strive for the ways of goodness that are expressed by God’s very being, in the sense of steadfast loyalty to God and his commandments, particularly to love God and to love others. And to walk humbly with God is to acknowledge that all life is dependent on the grace of the Lord.

Micah tells us that God does not want or expect lavish sacrifices to attempt to earn divine favor. Rather God empowers the people to do justice, to love loyalty to God, and to live devoted to God’s service. Or put in New Testament terms, what does the Lord require? As disciples we are called to put aside human assumptions and trust in Jesus Christ as the source of our life and blessings.

Epiphany is in part about seeing the world as it is, including the brokenness we all know and yet seek to avoid. Epiphany is about having our ways of seeing ourselves and the world changed.

These readings are appropriate for today, as we prepare to have our annual parish meeting. A time when we take a critical look at who we are as the people of God in this place. As we take a look at how we seek to live out the Gospel not only within these walls, but out in the world. As we seek to foster the attributes of the Beatitudes. As we seek to live the injunction in Micah: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

I close with the words of William Sloane Coffin, who so eloquently expresses how we are called to accomplish this in our lives as individuals and in our common life as the Body of Christ: “O God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire.” Only then can we truly live into the life of blessing that God desires for us and calls us into.

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Sunday, January 22, 2017

“The People Who Walked in Darkness Have Seen a Great Light”

Third Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
Isaiah 9.1-4; 1 Corinthians 1.10-18; Matthew 4.12-23
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

We’ve heard this particular passage a disproportionate amount in the last month. First hearing it as the Old Testament reading for Christmas Eve. And today, we hear it twice. First in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, and then again in Matthew’s own rendition of this same prophecy from Isaiah.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Think about the imagery presented in this short verse. How many of us, at one time or another, has found ourselves in complete darkness. I’m not talking metaphorically. I’m not talking psychologically or emotionally or spiritually. For now, I’m talking about actual physical darkness. An experience of being in a place with absolutely no visible light. When the power has gone out. Or in the middle of the night. A situation where you have had to move through the darkness in search of a light switch or a door or some other avenue of escape.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Come and See"

Second Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
Isaiah 49.1-7; 1 Corinthians 1.1-9; John 1.29-42
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

The Season of Epiphany is about the continual revelation of who Jesus is for us and for the world. An unfolding in ever increasing ways. As we saw last week, this begins with the baptism of Jesus. We saw how we are invited into the mystery. This week, we are invited to go even deeper into that mystery of Epiphany.

Unlike the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – John’s Gospel contains no direct account of Jesus’ baptism. Instead, the Gospel according to John provides the testimony of John the Baptist about his encounter with Jesus, including a detailed statement of what he witnessed at the baptism. This is the reporting of the Baptist’s first-hand account of what happened in that river.

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Sunday, January 08, 2017

What Jesus' Baptism Means for Us in the Here and Now

First Sunday after the Epiphany – Baptism of Our Lord (Year A)
Matthew 3.13-17
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

I’ve always liked science fiction. In recent years, I have tended to be enthralled by stories that are of “alternative histories” or even “alternative futures” – not that we know what the real future even will be – stories of how things might have been or how they might go if something different might have happened in the past. For example, I am currently hooked on a new TV series this season entitled “Timeless,” which explores the subtle ways the present might be different if seemingly minor changes occurred in historical events. The main characters are a team of time travelers who chase a bad guy back through time. The bad guy is bent on changing history for his own selfish purposes. Of course, the protagonists always manage to foil the bad guy. Sort of. But in every episode, their actions or inactions always result in some minor thing that happens differently from the way we know history. Changing history in ways that have ramifications in their own reshaped present.

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Sunday, January 01, 2017

"What's in a Name?"

Holy Name of Jesus
Numbers 6.22-27; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

In Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II, Juliet says “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The reference is often used to imply that the name of something, or in this case, someone, does not affect what a thing or who a person really is. Logically speaking, maybe so. A name is merely an arbitrary designation to facilitate communication. But with all due respect to the Bard, names do indeed say something about who a person is. Sometimes significantly so. And therefore makes a difference.

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