God Sows Abundant Love On YOU, Fr. John Bedingfield, July 16th

July 17, 2017
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Today’s Gospel is one of Jesus’ most famous stories. It is the parable of the Sower. Many of us have heard this passage so many times. The sower sows seeds all over the place and we get to figure out what happened to each bunch of seeds and why. In order to get much out of this parable, we probably ought to take a look at it — even though Jesus ostensibly explained it to the Disciples on the day that He told it.

When you think of someone sowing seeds, what picture do you get in your mind? In today’s America, it would be a huge machine that precisely places in seeds, equidistance apart, each in its separate hole. Or, if you go back a hundred and fifty years or so, you might see someone poking holes in the ground with a tool and placing seeds that way, or dropping seeds carefully into mule-plowed furrows. But what Jesus was talking about was none of that. He was talking about the kind where a guy with a bag full of seeds walks around taking great handfuls of seeds and throwing them everywhere, willy nilly — as if he just didn’t care where they landed. Like the legend of Johnny Appleseed, who supposedly sowed apple seeds everywhere, just hoping that apple trees would grow all over the American countryside. [That’s not how John Chapman really did it, but for us, the legend works.]

So Jesus tells us that the seed is the Word of God. That would lead us to think that Jesus was the sower. Not so fast! Jesus IS the Word of God — as we know Him to be from John’s Gospel (you know, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.) So, if Jesus is the seed in this parable — who is the sower? Who are we in this parable? Or is it an allegory? Either way, we are the soil — or are we the sowers, who sow the seed (the Word of God) around to others? You can see the problem when we begin to dig deeply into Jesus’ parabolic or allegorical telling of this story.

But for today, please set all of that aside for a few minutes. Here is what I would like for you to take from this parable today. God is the sower and God sows abundantly! Forget everything else. God sows abundantly. And not just abundantly, but extravagantly, recklessly, and even improvidently. You see, this parable is not just about the Word of God being given out to everyone, it is about how God loves us in the same way.

Let’s face it, we are all of the different kinds of soil — as Jesus explained the parable. And we are all of them interchangeably. But we are not just those types of soil when it comes to hearing the Word. We are also those different types of soil when God casts the great, overflowing handfuls of love onto us.

Sometimes, when God throws a heaping handful of love on us, we are like the path. Our hearts have been so trampled down and hardened by everything else life has thrown at us, that we forget how to accept love — human or God-given — so the love just runs off of us, like so much excess rain water. If life has been hard enough, if we have suffered enough at the hands of humans, we can not allow the love to enter in. We cannot allow ourselves to be that vulnerable. And we miss the restorative blessing of God’s abundant love.

In other situations, God’s love just pours over us and we are like the rocky ground. The love hits, but it has no way to sink in deeply. We instantly feel the love, but because we are “rocky,” we cannot really trust that it is love that is meant for us. Instead, we believe that we are not “worthy” of the love. We cannot really believe that God could ever love us, in our broken and sinful state. So we figure that there must be a “catch,” that when we reach for the love, God will just snatch it away and laugh at us for thinking it was ours. And we turn away from the love, leaving it behind.

Many times in our lives, we are like the soil with the thorns. God gives us so much more than simply abundant love. Instead, God showers us with torrential love, and it really sinks in. We stop slumping over, head bowed, fear in our hearts when we are present to God. We truly let God’s love into our hearts and we begin to transform into something more closely resembling what God wants us to be. But the world creeps back in. We get busy with work, or kids, or we become disillusioned with our particular house of worship, and we turn our backs on God — no longer accepting the ever-flowing Godly love. Instead, we spend our days worrying about things we cannot change, and being miserable, because nothing in our lives works the way think it should. And we slowly forget the love that started to change our lives.

But, if we will just be open to it ….

We have the capacity to become fertile soil for God’s profligate sowing of love in the world. If we are the fertile soil, we will receive God’s love and dedicate our lives to reflecting — and returning — that love into the world, by following Jesus Christ into the places where there are thorns and rocky ground and hardened paths. When we truly open ourselves to the abundant gift of God’s love, our lives actually change. The good things get better, because we appreciate where they came from and we give hearty thanks. The bad times even get better, because we are secure in our knowledge of God’s love. So we never doubt for minute that, no matter how things turn out, everything will be good, because the one who loves us perfectly will always be right beside us, showing us that love in myriad ways. And when we can accept God’s love deeply — all the way into the marrow of our bones — the that love will multiply 100 fold, so that WE never run out, no matter how much we give out to those with whom we interact. If we allow it, we can actually become almost as prodigal with our sowing of love as is the God who literally IS love.

I recently read a poem that was attributed to someone about whom I could find no information. So if you know anything about the origins of this poem, please share them with me. The poem is by Kashi Rahman, and it goes like this:

Scatter love as you scatter seeds––
Your store stays undiminished.
For love makes love as seeds makes seeds
In a harvest never finished;
Nor look to see how your gift fares––
It is enough to plant it;
Just sow love with a lavish hand
And take (the) harvest for granted.

Today I would like for you to take this thought with you when you leave. No matter who you are, or where you came from; no matter what you have done, or left undone in your life; whether you have always seen yourself as a good person, or your life has been so far off the straight and narrow that you cannot stand to look in the mirror; no matter how much love you have refused to give or receive up to now; God loves YOU — abundantly, extravagantly, recklessly, and even improvidently. God loves you as if you were the only person in the world. God knows everything you have ever done — and loves you, not in spite of those things, but because those things make you, you. God loves you the most, when you are completely unloveable.

So try to start living like that is true. Grow in God’s love. Drink it in. Luxuriate in it. And then get up and go out into the world — trying your absolute best to sow that same love wherever you look — on the path, on the rocks, in the thorns, or in the lush meadow.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

It’s Empathy! Fr. John Bedingfield, June 18th

June 18, 2017
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         Those of you who are FaceBook friends with me, know that I shared something on Friday, from the group who call themselves “Episcopal Memes.[1]”  This one meme just seemed to really say something about the way I have been feeling, especially this week.  The picture is one of John Coffey (the giant of a man who is a central figure in the Stephen King book and the Frank Darabont film that share the title of: The Green Mile.)  John, who is clearly a Jesus figure in the story, looks out and says, “I’m tired boss.  Mostly I’m tired of people being ugly to each other.” 

         I know that I am not telling you anything that you don’t know, when I say that the this week, congressman from New Orleans, Steve Scalise, Matt Mika, Zach Barth, Crystal Griner, and David Bailey, were all shot at a Republican legislators’ baseball practice.  And on that same day, just a little while later, there was workplace shooting in San Francisco, in which, Wayne Chan, Benson Louie, and Michael Lefiti were all killed, and two others wounded.  On the day, I sighed, and I knew that I should preach another sermon on gun violence in America today.  But frankly, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I was pretty sure that I didn’t have another such sermon in me.  We have had so very many multiple shooting incidents in this country now, that it’s hard to feel outrage anymore.  It’s even beginning to be difficult to churn up anger about absolutely senseless killing of human beings.  And my inability to become outraged, made me sadder.

         You can count back as far as you want – so that you can blame the people who disagree with you – and you can perhaps identify that time period in which our politicians and public personalities began to say truly vile things to each other.  Like I said, we will all determine what that time was, based upon whom we want to blame.  But be all of that as it may (I am not at all interested in assigning blame), last week just seemed a lot like a watershed moment to me, and by the time I started writing this sermon, it was weighing pretty heavy on me.

         One of the truly thoughtful modern Christian writers, Diana Butler Bass, posted on FaceBook this week that we should resist blaming what happened in Alexandria, VA, on the words which created the “toxic environment,” around modern politics today.  She said that blaming the words themselves was too easy.  She went on,

"[W]ords themselves -- even passionate, angry ones -- are not the problem.  Even angry words can give life.  The Anti-Word is the problem.  When words are used not to express, not to create, not to make space for justice.  Like Anti-Christ, they pretend to be anointed, but they are a pale imitation of the true thing.  The Anti-Word twists reality, undermines love and peace, destroys hope and possibility, colonizes and oppresses.[2]"

So, Diana Bass got me past blaming the ofttimes horrible words that almost all of us are guilty of using (at least sometimes) and which our political leaders are way too often guilty of using in public discourse.  So I started thinking about what else it was that was weighing down my soul.  If it wasn’t just the words – and if I actually could no longer feel the pain of the actions of people – what was it.  And then I found it.

         Matthew tells us,

“Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.  When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, . . .”

         And it hit me!  Compassion – or at least some level of empathy – is what is missing.  In the world today – and because it is what I experience every day – I will say that especially in America, there is a distinct lack of empathy for other people.  We no longer seem to be bound by even the simple, old-fashioned Southern courtesy of my childhood.  And courtesy, or manners, is what used to cover up for those places where empathy was missing.  Now it is just a stark and constant barrage of people being mean to each other in order to diminish the other.  And it can wear you down.

In The Green Mile, the scene from which the quote I read, came near the end.  John Coffey had his date of execution set, for a double murder that he did not commit.  And over his time on the Green Mile, his jailers had come to know that John was a gift to the world, directly from God.  He was pure goodness, surrounded by a broken world that couldn’t accept him.  In the scene, John is in his cell, talking with Boss Edgecomb, the head jailer.  What John Coffey says is this:

"I'm tired, boss.  Tired of bein' on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain.  I'm tired of never having me a buddy to be with, to tell me where we's going to or coming from, or why.  Mostly, I'm tired of people being ugly to each other. I'm tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world every day.  There's too much of it - it's like pieces of glass in my head, all the time.  Can you understand?"

Yes, John Coffey, I thought to myself, I can understand.  Sometimes those of us in the helping professions can take in a little too much of the misery and it can be like carrying a weight of your own, some little tiny piece of what Jesus must have carried when He stopped ministering to people and took that lonely walk to the cross.  And I have to tell you, it can be exceptionally draining on one’s reserves of Holy Spirit. 

         There is so much ugliness in the world today.  We can no longer go a single day where the news – whether local, national, or international – is not filled with back-to-back stories of people killing, maiming, or simply saying horrible “anti-words,” to each other, incessantly – and then crowing about how they got the advantage over someone else.  And it can drag down the human spirit if we let it.

         But you know a wonderful thing about the Spirit, is that it has infinite reserves – because the Holy Spirit is always creating; always adding more to the world’s ability to reach out to each other.  And so it was that I was asked to go the hospital room of a man who is in the final stages of a particularly painful type of cancer.  Wanting to maintain privacy, I will not mention his name.  But suffice to say that our conversations over the last week have been amazing.

         I met a man who knows much more about how and when his life will end, than any of us would like to.  But he told me a long story about how incredibly lucky he was.  He told me about being lucky to have a hospital full of doctors and nurses who cared for him and tried their best to keep him comfortable.  He wanted to talk about what happened after we die – not because he was afraid, but because he was interested in how our conversation might go.  I got to know him pretty darn well in the time that we have been visiting … and even though he was in the hospital bed, he ministered to me.  He showed me the goodness and the hope that come from the power of the Holy Spirit in the world.  He reminded why I am ordained.  And I give thanks for that.

         So what do we do with all the ugliness in the world today?  We can get involved with it.  We can post and repost ugliness on FaceBook and Twitter and Instagram.  We can let it wash over us until we and those around us begin to drown in it – exactly as the “Anti” part of the world would like.  Or, we can go out in the world and find people to help.  We can share the Good News of God in Christ.  We can revel in the creative and supportive power of the Holy Spirit.  And we can experience the goodness and love of God in the world.  I choose the latter.

         This week, try to show others the love of Christ that lives in you – in every way you can.  Make this corner of the world, the Kingdom of Heaven, regardless of what others say. 

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

[1]  https://www.facebook.com/E.C.M.churchhumor/

[2]  https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass, posted June 15, 2017

You Can’t “Learn” the Blues, Fr. John Bedingfield, June 11th

June 11, 2017
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         I have been playing guitar for over 50 years.  For a few of those years, in my teens and early twenties, I played pretty seriously.  By that, I mean that I practiced every day and got paid (sometimes) when I played.  Throughout those years, I was primarily a rock/folk/country rhythm guitarist.  That means that I played chords behind myself or someone else who was singing, or someone who was playing the lead part on guitar or keyboard.  But in recent years, I decided to teach myself to play blues on guitar.  And that is when I discovered something.  Human beings cannot be taught to play the blues.  For sure, you can learn to play the notes and patterns of notes that make up what are known as blues “licks.”  But you cannot be taught to play the blues.  You cannot think your way into it.  In order to truly play blues guitar, you have to experience the blues through the notes – the same way lovers of the blues (like me) experience the blues through hearing it played and sung.  How many, if any, of you love listening to Son House, or Muddy Waters, or Robert Johnson?  Well I cannot teach you to love their music.  I can, perhaps, teach you to appreciate the art form, but you cannot be taught to love the music.  You simply have to experience what they are playing in order to love it.  It is the same way with humans and God – what we celebrate today as the Holy Trinity.  You cannot be taught to understand the Trinity.  You have to experience it.

         For about two thousand years now, people of great faith and learning have tried, universally without success, to explain what we mean when we say that we believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three in one and one in three.  Jeremy Taylor, the 17th Century Anglican priest and gifted writer, said it well:

He who goes about to speak of the mystery of the Trinity, and does it by words, and names of man’s invention, talking of essence and existence, hypostases and personalities, priority in co-equality, and unity in pluralities, may amuse himself and build a tabernacle in his head, and talk something—he knows not what; but the renewed man, that feels the power of the Father, to whom the Son is become wisdom, sanctification, and redemption, in whose heart the love of the Spirit of God is shed abroad—this man, tho he understand nothing of what is unintelligible, yet he alone truly understands the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

         Episcopalians believe that the way we come to know God is through experience.  First we experience who God is, and then we come to believe and understand.  As we heard to the creation story from Genesis, God created the world, and with each new creation, God said, “It is good.”  When we experience the goodness of God’s creation, whether it be: a walk in the woods; a wonderful meal with friends; holding someone we love close to your heart; or even listening to B.B. King play Lucille; we begin to understand that God is good.  Esther de Waal wrote in Every Earthly Blessing[1]: “Creation reveals God. It is as though the world is the teacher who sets forth and preaches God.”

         When we begin to experience the love of God, as exhibited in the Incarnation of God in Christ, then we begin to understand the second person of the Trinity.  The Bishop of Nevada, +Dan Edwards, wrote, “God the Son is the compassion of God who understands our experience and loves us enough to share our affliction.  Thus, our suffering is not diminished, but is transformed.”[2]  When we are in deep misery and someone reaches out to us, not offering us easy answers or platitudes, but rather offers us unconditional love and understanding through listening and empathizing, then we begin to experience the Son of God.

         When we feel the unmistakable and palpable “hand of God,” in our lives – as in those times where we pray for wisdom and suddenly have a certainty about what we should do; or when we are in the midst of turmoil and say a quick prayer, followed by a deep sense of peace; or when we are deeply in need and without warning someone calls or comes by and raises our spirits; then we have begun to experience the third member of the Trinity.  Again, Bishop Dan says, “As the Divine force that gives and restores life, God the Holy Spirit—acting with “gracious serendipity”—is present in every situation to revitalize and empower our hope and courage.”

Thus it is that we first experience the Holy Trinity, and then we begin to seek out ways to express that experience in words.  John Wesley was quoted as saying, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and the I will show you a man that can comprehend the Trinity.”  Of course he was talking about trying to teach the Trinity, not experiencing it.  To put it another way, one of my favorite modern Christian writers, Anne Lamott, said, “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.”[3]

         When we have experienced and begun to see those experiences as being the power of the Holy Trinity, one God, in our lives, then we can start to search out ways in which God is calling (or pushing) us into action.  Perhaps the best way to look at this is through the life and ministry of Jesus.  As I read recently, “Jesus did not spend a great deal of time discoursing about the Trinity, or original sin or the incarnation which have preoccupied later Christians.  He went around doing good and being compassionate.[4]

         As a congregation, we at St. Barnabas are about to enter a time of intentional and hopefully deep discernment about who we are and what God is calling us to do.  In September, we will begin a program called RenewalWorks©.  You will soon begin hearing much more about this program, from the lay leaders of the congregation.  But for now, suffice to say that is will be a couple of months of intense self-study and on-going discussions about how God acts in our lives and how we thereafter, act in the world. 

         In the context of today’s celebration of our experience of the Holy Trinity, our coming time of renewal will be focused on making us a truly experiential Trinitarian congregation.  That means that we will hopefully live into God’s call that we begin to see ourselves as, “called and sent by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed for the sake of the world God created and loves so much.[5]

            Let me end today with a benediction.  May we learn to love the blues through listening to the recently deceased Gregg Allman, and  “May God the Father bless us; may Christ take care of us; may the Holy Spirit enlighten us all the days of our lives.”  Amen.

 

[1]  Harrisburg, Penn.: Morehouse, 1991, p. 57

[2]  God of Our Silent Tears, Los Angeles: Cathedral Center Press, 2013.

[3]  Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, N.Y.: Riverhead Books, 2005.

[4]  Armstrong, Karen, Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science, Steve Paulson; N. Y.: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[5]  Synthesis, June 11, 2017

Love Jesus But Hate The Church? Fr. John Bedingfield May 28th

May 28, 2017
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A brand-new priest arrived at his first church.  As usually seems to be the case, several of the original members of the parish had waited for their new priest to arrive before they would die. Consequently, in four weeks he did eight funerals. He was so busy with the funerals that he did not have time to write his regular Sunday Sermons. So, he used the sermon from the Sunday he arrived … 3 more times. The Vestry went to the Bishop complaining that this new priest had used the same sermon 4 times in a row. The Bishop asked what the sermon was about. The Vestry members couldn't remember, they scratched their heads and hemmed and hawed - but they really couldn't remember. So the Bishop said, “Let’s let him use it one more time.”

I read a blog thread online this week. It had a provocative title: “I love Jesus, but hate His church.” I LOVE Jesus, but I HATE His church. The question being pursued in the blog was, in essence, is that possible? Unfortunately, the blog I was reading, didn’t lend itself to a very high level of discussion on either missiology (the study of religious missions and their methods) or Christology (the study of the person, nature, and role of Christ). And the question lingered on in my mind.

This question, or one like it, has existed probably since the Church began. It has been expressed in many ways, like the benign, “I am spiritual, not religious,” and confrontationally, like the famous statement from Mahatma Gandhi, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” No matter how it is phrased though, the sentiment that Jesus and the Church are separate from one another, and that someone could choose between them, is a popular one among some post-modern thinkers.

To talk about these things, we must first agree upon what we are talking about when we use the word, “Church.” When we say “the Church,” we can mean “our parish,” or the Episcopal Church, or what I believe that most people who are discussing big Christian issues mean – all of Christianity. So, for my purposes, “the Church,” with a big C, means the universal Christian church, while “the church” with a small c would mean St. Barnabas, “our church.”

So, I think that when people say that they love Jesus and hate the (big C) Church, what they are saying is: “I love the idealized Jesus that I’ve created in my mind and I really hate organized religion.” And there seems to be a lot of this kind of thought these days, among many Americans, especially millennials. Here is what I would like to say to all of those people who express sentiments similar to this.

First: Who exactly do you believe that Jesus is, and where did you get that idea? Most of the “spiritual but not religious” people say something along the lines of, “Jesus is love.” That is absolutely correct in one sense, but it does not even begin to scratch the surface of who Jesus is.
Jesus is 100% human, which means that He came to earth and lived for somewhere around 33 years as one of us. He got cold and hot, tired and sweaty, joyful and depressed. He joked with people and chewed some of them out. He ate and drank and burped when He had indigestion. All just like us. BUT … He was also 100% God. That means that He was around from the time before the world began. He was there as the creation came into being. He knew Adam and Eve, and Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He knew King David and all of the prophets. And He understood the mind of God in all things. He understood the creation of life and how humans interacted with God. He could call down miraculous power at will. And He was faithful to God as He lived a completely sinless life.

To say that this Jesus is only love is to sell Him short, and to misunderstand much of His mission on earth. The Creator God – God the Father – sent His only begotten son so that all who believe in Him might have everlasting life. Jesus came into the world so that we might be freed from bondage to sin and death, and so that through His sacrifice on the cross, we could be in a position to accept His gracious, redemptive love and have a personal relationship with the Triune God. And Jesus came into the world to begin the work of repairing and restoring the world, bringing the Kingdom of God into fruition. And through our baptisms, He commissioned us to carry on the work.

Saint Paul told the Church in Rome, “4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another,” (Rom 12) something that he had previously told the Corinthians. We … The Church (big C) ARE the Body of Christ. To explain this to the Corinthians, Paul said,
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12)
St. Paul explained well just how the Church functions as the Body of Christ, the hands, feet, eyes and ears of Jesus in the world.

So if someone says that he or she loves Jesus but hates the Church, what they are saying, is: “I love whoever it is that I’ve decided Jesus is, but I hate Jesus’ body in the world.” Which at least matches Gandhi’s sentiments, but still doesn’t deal with the fact that you logically cannot hate Jesus’ body but love Jesus.

No, the people who say things like this are really trying to express another sentiment altogether. What they mean to say is, “I love the ideals of Christianity but I hate the institutions that do not adhere to those ideals.” At this point in the sermon, many people will sit back and sigh and say to themselves, “At least he’s not talking to us, the members of St. Barnabas, because we are good members of the Body of Christ.” To which I would respond, “Not so fast.”

St. Barnabas is a wonderful parish. I am into my seventh year among you and I feel like I have a pretty good handle on who and what this parish is. You are good people and for the most part you work hard at being good Christians. Please do not take offense that I said, “for the most part.” That was not a dig at anyone. It is a recognition that NO ONE, including me, works hard a being a good Christian all of the time. But this parish has a heart for reaching out to others, and that is a building block in bringing the Kingdom of God to perfection. However … that heart for reaching out is not enough. We can and must do more.

As I am often reminded, one of my predecessors, Fr. Ken Cooper used to end services by saying something like: “Feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and love those who have no one but you to love them.” That pithy and well phrased statement is a good call to action. It reminds us that Jesus told us to: feed the hungry, bring drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, tend to the sick, visit those who are imprisoned. And that list is a good roadmap for all that we, as the Body of Christ, should be doing to usher in the Kingdom.

In the world around us – actually in the neighborhood around us – there are many strangers whom we need to meet. There are many hungry, thirsty, naked (or nearly naked) people. There are sick and imprisoned people. And all of them could use relationships with authentic Christians. Not people who want to “fix” them. Not people who want to preach to them, or worse yet, condescend to them. They don’t need people who will throw money at them and leave. They need relationships with the Body of Christ, people who will care about them, listen to them, enter into the problems they have and help find solutions. St. Augustine said it well when he said,

"What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like."

The children of God who are not members of St. Barnabas need THAT kind of love. And we have it to give. We, the Body of Christ in the world, can begin today to try to find new ways to reach out to this broken and hurting world, starting right here. And who knows, maybe some of those who “hate the church,” might just take notice that we are the Body of the Jesus they “love,” and come and join us in this work.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

We Are All Blind Sometimes Fr. John Bedingfield Mar 26

March 26, 2017
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One sunny May day in Central Park, a blind man was seen tapping for attention with his cane and carrying on his chest a sign: “Help the Blind.” No one paid much attention to him. A little farther on another blind beggar was doing better. Nearly every passerby put a coin in his cup, some even turning back to make their contribution. His sign read: “It is May—and I am blind.” Blindness vs. sight – those who can see versus those who believe they can see – that is the message of today’s readings.

In 1st Samuel, Jesse brings his sons to the prophet, so that the next king of Israel and Judah can be chosen. But God does not see the young men the same way that the prophet Samuel does. The prophet was blind to what God sees in a king. Fortunately, he was not deaf as well as blind. Ultimately he listened as God selected David to be king.

In the Epistle, St. Paul tells the church in Ephesus,
Once you were darkness, (in other words, blind) but now in the Lord you are light (you can see). Live as children (who have sight) -- for the fruit of (having a vision of Christ) is found in all that is good and right and true.

Paul wanted the Ephesians to know that Jesus had delivered them from their spiritual blindness and that slipping back into it was not an option. And then there is the Gospel.

Jesus heals a man born blind. The first thing that we must understand is that this man was – in the minds of the people in 1st Century Palestine – not just born blind, but he was born without eyes. That is why Jesus spat on the ground and made mud that he put on the man’ eyelids. It is a reminder of God creating humans out of the earth, in Genesis. Jesus did not heal the man – he created something out of nothing, just as God did with human beings. But this is not just a Genesis-like creation story, there is a second (unspoken) miracle that takes place here. In this case, Jesus also had to instantly rewire the man’s brain. People who are born blind have no connections that would allow their brains to interpret what their new eyes can see.

So Jesus performs a double miracle of creation and then sends the man to the pool of Siloam to complete the process by washing. In this nod toward the rebirth of baptism, the man does as Jesus instructs and immediately is able to see. “Siloam” means “sent” or “sent one.” In the context of the story, the man is healed not by the waters of Siloam, but by the “Sent One”—Jesus. And the rest of the story deals with who can see and who cannot.
I read something this week that encapsulates this story in a wonderful way.

The author, Dr. Peter Gomes, says:
This passage is full of delicious irony:
• The blind man sees, but those who have eyes choose to close them to the truth.
• The authorities call the man to give glory to God by denouncing Jesus as a sinner, but the man gives glory to God by witnessing to Christ.
• The authorities continue questioning, trying to find a hole in the man's testimony. He responds by asking if they want to become Jesus' disciples.
• The authorities say that Moses' authority comes from God, but they do not know where Jesus comes from––implying that he must not come from God. The man responds by pointing out the obvious truth, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing!”
• The authorities imply that one cannot be a follower of Moses and Jesus, but must choose one or the other. The message of the Fourth Gospel is that one can be faithful to Moses only through faithfulness to Jesus.
• The authorities repeatedly use the phrase, “we know,” but repeatedly reveal their ignorance (and their blindness).
• The authorities accuse the man of trying to teach them. The reader is aware that he is capable of doing just that, but they refuse to learn (or to see).

This whole story is a wonderful example of St. John’s use of irony. The healing of the blind man is a signpost that points directly to Jesus as the Christ. But the Pharisees, the supposedly all-knowing and visionary leaders of Israel, cannot – or will not – see the truth. And I would submit to you that we – modern Christians – can be every bit as blind as the Pharisees, about whom we love to feel very superior.

Christian Wiman is an American poet and former editor of Poetry magazine. He was raised in a Texas Southern Baptist home and was steeped in faith during his childhood. But during and after college, he says that he would not call himself an atheist, but rather that his faith went “underground,” much the way a hibernating animal might. And it was years before his faith stirred from its slumber.

He says that sometime in 2002, he fell into a deep and unexplainable despair. He could no longer write. He says that he does not know if that was the cause or an effect of his despair. But as it hit its low point, he unexpectedly met and fell in love with the woman whom he would marry. Christian says that he still could not write, but at least the despair was lifted. He says that he and his new wife would occasionally say some small prayer before they ate. That grew into some intentional, if brief prayer time. And then, when they had been married for about eight months, he was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer. It was then that Christian says the light of Christ – the truth of Jesus – began to shine in a way that was undeniable. In other words, the erudite, well-educated man who wrote poetry that saw the world in ways others could not, had been blind for decades, but now had been given new eyes by Jesus.

In a series of essays, entitled My Bright Abyss, Christian wrote,
Just as some of Jesus’ first-century followers could not credit the presence of the risen Christ, so our own blindness, habit, and fear form a kind of constant fog that keeps us from seeing, and thereby believing in, the forms that grace takes in our everyday lives. We may think that it would be a great deal easier to believe if the world erupted around us, if some savior came down and offered as evidence the bloody scars in his side, but what the Gospels suggest is that this is not only wishful thinking but willful blindness, for in fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.

Whether or not we want to admit that our blindness is caused by “dullness” of our spirits – in other words, spiritual laziness, we are all plagued with that blindness from time to time. And when our blindness really comes out is when we believe that we, like the Pharisees, are the only ones who can see.
Look around St. Barnabas. Do you believe that you can see what is wrong with the other people around you? Do you believe (at least occasionally) that you know what would be best for some of the other people here? That is spiritual blindness. To look at it slightly differently, do you believe that you are the one who can see the faults of St. Barnabas and know exactly what it takes to fix them? That too is spiritual blindness.

What we see when we look at people or institutions is a thin slice of the whole. It is like when you look at a sheet of paper from its back or front. It appears to be 8 ½ x 11 inches. But if you look at it from the sides or ends, it is incredibly thin. People are complicated, and so are parishes. We only know what we see. And the rest is hidden from our natural blindness.

As you judge other people or things, remember the limitations of your vision. What you may believe to be 20/20 sight, may turn out to be perfect blindness. Jesus is at work in ways you may know nothing about. So just look to Him and His gracious love for your sight. Then you cannot go wrong.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Woman at the Well, Mthr. Mitzi George, March 19th

March 20, 2017
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Two things are important to remember when we are looking at John's gospel. The first is that Word is synonymous with God. And because of that, conversation is vital to John's gospel, like the conversations we have heard both last week with Nicodemus and this week with the Samaritan woman's the well.

The second important thing to remember is revelation, or the revealing of who Jesus is and what God's kingdom looks like, and how it functions. Of course these revelations happen in conversation, like the one we read this morning.

I love the Woman at the Well in John’s gospel. I think it is because she reminds me of me. The woman Jesus meets at the well is a little feisty, a little cynical, and quite capable of holding her own. She certainly does not seem to get intimidated, especially when she encounters this strange Jew, at the well.

In this story, we have a contrast to last week’s gospel reading. In the story of Nicodemus last week, we had a wealthy, Jewish leader whose name we know well, a leader, an upstanding Jewish leader. The Samaritan woman is an outcast with no name. She is an outcast in the Jewish tradition because she is a Samaritan, but perhaps an outcast in her own community too, for moral reasons.

 Nicodemus wanted to meet Jesus, while the Samaritan woman had an unexpected encounter with Jesus. She probably had never heard of him.

 Jesus never tells Nicodemus who he is, he leaves the conversation with Nicodemus still wondering, but he tells the Samaritan woman exactly who he is.

 Nicodemus met Jesus in secret, in the dark, while the Samaritan woman meets Jesus in broad daylight at a public place. Even though the meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus would not have broken any taboos, the meeting between Jesus and the woman at the well, however, was taboo on many levels, for both the woman and Jesus.

 It is obvious that John has an important agenda to address in his gospel. From the beginning of this gospel, John wants us to know and understand that God’s kingdom is inclusive and non-judgmental.

 John announces early in his gospel that God’s kingdom is broader, bigger, more far-reaching than anyone had ever imagined. John wants us to know that God loves the world far more than we can ever comprehended.

 The writer wants us to know that Jesus did in fact come to his own people, but the mercy and benevolence of God was always going to spread beyond the Jewish community. From the beginning, God’s kingdom was intended for the whole world according to John; and with the advent of Jesus Christ, God’s grace was breaking into the world.

That point is poignantly illustrated in this dialogue between the Samaritan woman who had experienced shame and ridicule and the Son of God who was tired and thirsty. In this story at the well, a thirsty Messiah and a quick-witted woman find out that they need each other. This is a wonderful metaphor for how God and humanity are intimately connected.

Ironic that the Messiah who feeds five thousand in the wilderness, requests the help of a Samaritan woman, because he is thirsty. The same Messiah who turned water into wine at the wedding at Canna, needed this woman to draw water from the well, so he could drink.

Throughout John’s Gospel conversation seems to be key in discovering who Jesus is and what he has to offer. Conversation is essential for building faith. In John’s Gospel relationship and faith go hand in hand. It matters that the revelation of who Jesus is and the woman’s awareness of who he can be for her happens in conversation. Their conversation is symbolic of what true relationship looks like -- supportive, reciprocal, respectful, and honest.

Without real conversation, we lack intimacy and understanding, connection and empathy. Without real conversation, we risk detachment and distance from one another and from God, or in other words, we risk sin.

The church can be and should be the place that shows society what authentic conversation sounds like. The church is supposed to be the place that demonstrates how dialogue about faith might result in mutual respect and tolerance. Lord knows, we need that today more than ever. But what does real conversation look like? The dialogue between the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus provides an outline that not only offers a model for real conversation but also points to the very nature of God.

First, the conversation begins with mutual vulnerability. Jesus is thirsty and she needs that living water that only Jesus can provide. That is where truthful conversations must start -- from a place of mutual vulnerability, from a space that recognizes that each party risks being known and being seen. I suspect that very few conversations begin with the expectation of vulnerability, yet theological conversations have to start there because this is a fundamental characteristic of God.

Second, questions are critical to conversation. Not questions in which one party or the other has already determined the right answers, not questions asked only to pretend polite or interest. Questions that communicate curiosity, a genuine interest in the other, a longing for knowing and understanding, those are the kinds of questions I am talking about. The woman at the well is full of questions, thoughtful questions, questions that matter and lead Jesus to reveal to her who he really is.

Jesus affirms questions, even invites them. God wants us to ask questions because it is in the questioning that our relationship with God is strengthened. I have met so many people who have lamented about questioning faith issues. My response is always the same; “Don’t apologize for questioning the faith, or God; that is how we grow closer to God and stronger in faith.”

When it comes to having a conversation with Jesus or about Jesus, expect to be surprised. Expect God to reveal something about God’s self that you have never seen before. In John’s gospel, the woman, at the well, is the first one to whom the true-identity of Jesus is revealed. The first absolute I AM in the Gospel of John was not to the Jewish leader or to the disciples, but to her, a religious, social, political outsider. This is who God is, it is how God works. John reveals early in the gospel that this God loves the whole world.

When we risk those honest conversations about faith and God we have to anticipate being changed in the process. The woman at the well goes from being shunned to being a witness, from dismissed to disciple, from alone to being one of the flock.

When we have honest and open dialogue with others, Jesus is there with us and God’s grace breaks in all around us. That is what the Samaritan woman experienced; she recognized grace breaking in on her life and recognized it in Jesus. It did not matter that she was a Samaritan. It does not matter where we are coming from either. What matters is that we recognize Christ in our conversations with others, with one another and even with strangers.

Jesus says, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth.”

That is what the woman at the well did.  She met Jesus by chance in the mundane routine of her daily life.  She was not afraid to be honest or truthful. She was vulnerable and allowed the truth to set her free.  She then took that freedom and shared it with the others in her community. That is what we are supposed to do, share our story, share our experience of God’s grace and our encounters with Christ.

What redeeming or transforming experience have you had because you have met and conversed with Jesus Christ?  Those are the stories that draw others to Christ, our story, our personal encounters, our personal story of faith and vulnerability. No one needs to know how well versed you are in scripture or liturgy. What we need to know is how Christ has touched you or been present in your life.

Yesterday I had an hour-long phone conversation with a senior seminarian at Virginia Theological, who had contacted me because she had heard of our mission work in Navajoland. She was writing her thesis on mission and how mission impacted relationship. I told her relationship was key to all we do when we do mission, here at St. Barnabas. Relationship is what results from honest conversation, mutual respect, and genuine care. Relationship is where we encounter the living Christ. Relationship is the key to what happened between Jesus and the woman at the well.

So anytime you want to share your story with me, or you want to hear mine, please feel free to engage me in conversation, and please know questions are always encouraged. But remember, I am a little feisty, a little cynical, and quite capable of holding my own.

Amen

“Finding our swing,” through the Holy Spirit, Fr. John Bedingfield, March 12th

March 12, 2017
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         New Testament scholars are all over the place in their theories of why Nicodemus came to see Jesus in the night.  Some believe that Nicodemus wanted to make certain that his fellow Temple leaders did not see him meeting with this renegade rabbi, Jesus.  After all, the rest of the Temple authorities were actively trying to get Jesus arrested and crucified.  And that certainly seems like a valid reason that this man would have snuck out at night and come to inquire of Jesus, while no prying eyes could see.  But here is what I think.  I think that Nicodemus came in the night because Jesus was always surrounded by crowds during the day.  I believe that Nicodemus said to himself, “If I am going to talk with Jesus for any length of time, it will have to be at night, when the crowds are sleeping.”

         Of course there is also the symbolism that is always present in John.  Nicodemus comes in the night because darkness represents those who cannot see Jesus for who He really is, and light represents those who can.  But none of those things speaks to why Nicodemus came.

         Nicodemus was a learned man.  A man of great and abiding knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament), and from the perspective of a Scribe, Pharisee or Sadducee (in other words, his peers), he did not need to learn anything from a transient rabbi.  But again, I don’t believe that that is how Nicodemus saw things.  I truly think that Nicodemus came to see Jesus that night, simply because he was a seeker.  He had questions.  He was a seeker of knowledge.  A seeker of wisdom.  A seeker of answers about the Kingdom of God.

         There is a lot of talk in church growth circles these days about “seekers,” those people who visit our church because they are looking for something that they haven’t yet found anywhere else.  Maybe they come here because they have had a bad experience in their previous forays into organized religion.  Perhaps the church of their parents no long comports with their political, social or world view.  Perhaps they feel burned by the religion of their childhood.  Maybe they had no religious upbringing at all and are now curious.  Or maybe they have recently married or otherwise gotten into a serious relationship, and the significant other has a strong religious background.  But no matter where they come from or what their agenda might be when they come through the doors … they are coming through the doors.  And we need to meet them where they are.

         Last September, the Washington Post ran an article entitled: To Attract Young People to Your Church, You’ve Got to be Warm.  Not Cool.  The article talked about research in 250 congregations that concentrated on ages 15-29.  Since the majority of today’s “seekers” seem to be of this millennial age cohort, perhaps the article has something to say to us.  The Post article said that today’s millennial seekers are looking for congregations that are: welcoming, accepting, authentic, hospitable, and caring.  The researchers referred to this as the “warmth cluster.”  They discovered that trying to attract these people with things like “Top 40” Christian music and “cool” ministry programs is not the answer; nor is busyness.  They went further and said that a congregation that is nice to each other also doesn’t work with the young people of the survey.  What the survey showed that young people want, is to belong – a sense of intergenerational family.

         It seems to me that the essence of what these young seekers are after is something that Jesus hinted at, when He was talking to Nicodemus, and that is … the Holy Spirit.  Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”  Here’s a little “inside baseball,” information for you.  When John wrote this Gospel, the word that he used for “wind,” the Hebrew word, “ruach, could mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit.”  So, when Jesus said that the wind blows, He could have been referring to the literal wind, or to the movement of the Holy Spirit – which He references in the next sentence.  I believe that Jesus was trying to lead Nicodemus to an important truth; that we can never get far in our quest for the Kingdom of God, without the power of the Holy Spirit.  And conversely, if we tap into the power of the Spirit, we will always find what we are seeking.

         The generation of millennial seekers – who are the next generation of Church leaders – want an authentic, familial place of worship; a place where people are real people and get along with each other in spite of their warts, their bad breath and their general eccentricities.  And that can only come through the power of the Spirit.

         Do you remember the movie, The Legend of Bagger Vance?  If you don’t, don’t feel bad, thousands of people walked past it in the theaters to see something else.  It was a pretty star-studded film though, with Will Smith, Matt Damon and Charlize Theron leading the cast.  Anyway, Matt Damon is Rannulph Junuh, who had been an almost mythically talented golfer before World War I, but who suffers from what the modern world knows as PTSD, and therefore could, or would no longer play the game.  But in the midst of the Depression, when an exhibition match between the two greatest golfers in the world comes to his former girlfriend’s golf resort.  He reluctantly agrees to be the third player, in part to try to save his Charlize Theron’s character from losing her resort to creditors. 

And into the story comes Will Smith as Bagger – a man with no past, and a penchant for speaking in riddles.  Bagger helps Junuh get ready for the match – and for facing the rest of his life – by helping him to “find his swing,” and “see the field.”  At one point, Bagger says that it doesn’t matter where you want the ball to go, it doesn’t even matter if you are hitting the ball at all.  It only matters that you find the swing you were born with – the one that has gotten away from you because of all of the events of your life.  Bagger says that if Junuh finds his authentic swing, everything will be right, and winning or losing the match won’t really matter.  [Spoiler alert, Matt Damon finds his swing, succeeds in the match and reunites with the love of his life.  Then Bagger disappears.]

         What Bagger Vance (clearly a Jesus character in the film) ultimately taught Junuh was that the Spirit was always there, inside him, and all he had to do was tap into that Spirit, trust it, and be who God intended him to be.  That is the lesson that Jesus was teaching Nicodemus.  And it is a lesson for us.

         St. Barnabas is a place where the Holy Spirit blows through like the wind blows during big scenes in Bagger Vance.  The Spirit is here – alive and active.  And each of you received that same Spirit at your baptisms. 

As this year continues to unfold, we are going to be evaluating how we do what we do here – what we do well and what needs work.  We are going to be finding our swing and seeing again who God intends for us to be.  We are going to try to get as many of you as possible involved in discerning where that powerful Spirit is leading us.  And then we’re going to go out into the world, continuing to serve others as we always have, while we also blaze new paths of caring for the least of God’s children.  And while all of that is going on, we will also appeal to that Spirit to bring us closer to each other – and to seekers who walk through the doors – as we make St. Barnabas the warmth cluster that radiates the Spirit to all who come near.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Love Your Enemies, Mthr. Mitzi George, February 19th

February 20, 2017
00:0000:00

The problem with this section of the Sermon on the Mount, as in the rest of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is that it is easy to dismiss it as something that only applies to Jesus’ time and not ours. After all, Jesus’ world was simpler than ours. Jesus’ world view did not have the complexities of our own global realities.

That is, until we remember that Jesus lived and did ministry in a place and time that was occupied by the Roman Empire. On top of that, we have to recall that the Gospels were written well after the crucifixion in a post-temple, post-Jerusalem, post-destruction reality, the world was chaotic and uncertain. It's when we remember these details that suddenly, Jesus’ world, the author's world does not seem that different from our own. And we realize that at the heart of Jesus’ message in Matthew is a message essential for all time. But  the words we read today, these are not easy words to hear or accept as a way of life.

Loving your enemy? Really, Jesus? Do you mean that or is that some sort of euphemistic expression meant to remind us to be nice to people?

Does Jesus really expect us to turn the other cheek, to give up our cloak, to walk an extra mile, or are those just hypothetical illustrations to stir our emotions? How does it further the kingdom if we allow ourselves to be abused or used like a doormat?

Karl Marx, father of communism, said, “The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submissiveness and humbleness.”

Before dismissing Marx's critique, we should point out that, indeed, turning the other cheek and returning hatred with love is no way to get ahead in this world. It is a dog-eat-dog world where only the strong survive. But that’s just the point. Jesus isn’t trying to modify the rules of this world. He’s not inviting us to figure out how to make the most of this world or have our best life now, contrary to our contemporary prosperity preachers. And he’s not inviting us to find a safe port in the storms of life either. Rather, he’s starting a revolution by calling the rules of this world into question and turning them upside down and inside out, and he invites each of us to follow him into this revolution.

Yes, love your enemies means just that, and it is an important message even today, Maybe even more important today!

Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Now we need a little exegesis here: the word we translate “perfect” is actually the Greek word telos and implies less of a moral perfection as opposed to reaching one’s intended outcome or purpose. The telos of an arrow shot from a bow is to reach its intended target. The telos of a pecan tree is to yield pecans. Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, “Be the person and community God created and intends you to be, just as God is as God is supposed to be.”

You see, God sees more in us than we do. God has plans and a purpose for each of us, all of us. God intends to use us to achieve something spectacular and marvelous. And that something is precisely to be who we were created to be and, in doing so, to help create a different kind of world. Jesus calls this new world the kingdom of God – where violence doesn’t always breed more violence and hate doesn’t always kindle more hate. Martin Luther King, Jr. captured the logic of Jesus’ kingdom well in his "I Have a Dream" speech when he stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Several hundreds of years before Martin Luther King, Jr, Martin Luther said that the "Christian life is not about arriving but always about becoming." And even earlier, St. Augustine, when celebrating the Lord’s Supper, would invite people to “receive who you are” and then dismiss them with “go become what you have received.”  How great is that? That is all great theology and great liturgy!

Jesus calls the powers of the day into question by describing an entirely different way to relate to each other, inviting us into relationships governed not by power but by vulnerability grounded in love. “’An eye for an eye’ makes all people blind,” Gandhi said, almost two thousand years later. Here Jesus invites us to overcome the urge to retaliate and instead respond with loving submission and forbearance.

Jesus isn’t satisfied with merely overturning this world. For the very essence of his critique about the human condition was -- that we were created not merely for justice but also for love and life -- that truth is the only possible hope for those enmeshed in the conditions of this world. Strength eventually fails. Power corrupts. Survival of the fittest leaves so many bodies maimed and lying on the ground. Love alone transforms, redeems, and creates new life. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Yes, in the words found in today's gospel passage, Jesus lays before us at the end of his Sermon on the Mount, the plans for the kingdom he proclaims and the revolution he starts. And so before we bring others to Church, before we baptize little Clark this morning, or before bringing any one for baptism, we should probably let them know just what it is we’re inviting them into! Because, we invite the to a counter cultural revolution.

The last line of this passage -- “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Rather than commanding something of us, Jesus is really  commending something in us. Maybe, Jesus simply knows that we have more to give, that we can be and do more than we have settled for, and that we can absolutely make a difference in the world if we simply believe in ourselves. And so, I hear in these words the invitation to be the people God has created us to be, so that we might not just persevere through these challenging times and our own personal lives, but actually flourish, making a difference to those around us by sharing the abundant life Jesus has given us. Jesus is not just serious about what he promises, he actually dies -- and rises again! -- to show us that it’s true.

As disciples of Christ, we are to persist toward the goal to which the Beatitudes give witness, to persist in bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven for all people in the face of continued resistance. To persist in a vision that others might not be able to see, but that we see and that we help other people to see, that is our goal. Not through fighting or condemnation, but by an intentional, loving willingness that realizes the full blessings of what God has in mind for all people.

Being a disciple does not require perfection but persistence, a persistence toward bringing the Kingdom of Heaven into view. Jesus suggests that an essential characteristic of what it means to be a disciple is to persist in working toward the goal that Matthew’s Beatitudes proclaim. Anything less, it seems, could very well jeopardize the Great Commission itself. Because God persists in loving us, we too must persist in the revelation of God's love toward the whole world, loving even our enemies as ourselves.

Amen

The Kingdom of God is Not Twitter, Fr. John Bedingfield, February 12th

February 12, 2017
00:0000:00

In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

All I can say, after reading today’s Gospel, is: It’s a good thing that Jesus never had to deal with Facebook and Twitter. I say that because the longer I am on social media platforms, the more I believe that the polarization in this country may be about to become as solid as a giant California redwood tree and as destructive as a category five hurricane.

Let’s do a little experiment right now. Take out your phone. Go ahead. I know that you have them — and occasionally use them during the sermon. I am giving you blanket dispensation — today only. Pull them out and open Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat, or Instagram, or whatever your favorite platform is. Now look at the things that are trending, or at your own feed, and raise your hand as soon as you have found someone saying something bad or snarky about someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum. You know, a Democrat calling a Republican a racist or a misogynist or xenophobe. Or a Republican telling a Democrat that he or she is a snowflake or a socialist, or my least favorite, a “libtard.” Raise your hand when you find a political insult of any kind. See, it doesn’t take long, does it? Now … no fair spending the rest of the sermon liking and reposting things.

Social media platforms have become for Americans, the place where we can — for the most part — exercise the worst of our urges … without much in the way of repercussion. Generally speaking, people in this country do not stand up in public gatherings and call each other vile names. But that happens all day and all night, every day and night, on social media. On social media platforms, people seem to feel totally released from what used to be known as good manners.

When I was a child, my paternal grandmother was the keeper of good manners. While there are not many people who loved to gossip as much as my grandmother Aggie did, she still insisted that her grandchildren know how to behave and how to treat other people. If Aggie had ever read or heard the way that people speak to each other (or about each other) on Facebook or Twitter, her ginger temper would have flared like nothing you have ever seen. For Aggie the issue was simply that you did not say anything to someone that might hurt their feelings — even if you vehemently disagreed with that person. It was just a matter of having good manners and refusing to treat someone else in a way that we would not want to be treated.

Good manners used to dictate that people did not speak hatefully or disrespectfully with one another. But the age of the internet has completely changed how we interact with each other. Now it is perfectly acceptable to label someone else just because he or she took a political position that you don’t agree with. We no longer have to discuss positions on their merits. Instead, if someone disagrees with you today, he or she will simply call you a horrible name, reduce the entirety of your life to a single label, and then move on; looking back from time-to-time to find out how many others “like” or “retweet” their insult.

Let’s look again for a minute at what we read just now from Matthew’s Gospel. Today’s reading is a part of the Sermon on the Mount. In this section, Jesus was laying out a plan for living life in a way that would reach toward the Kingdom of God. He told His hearers:

"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire."

It seems to me that Jesus was talking about something here that may have been very important to His first listeners, but is absolutely vital for us. As the modern Christian writer, Brian McLaren said,

"Ancient wisdom forbade murder, but Jesus’ message, the message of the kingdom of God, calls people deeper and higher: to transcend the hidden emotion of anger that motivates murder and to stop insulting people. After all, insult is a kind of character assassination, a kind of socially acceptable violence with words. The kingdom of God calls us beyond simply “doing no physical harm” (as big an improvement as that is over doing physical harm!), it calls us to do no harm with words. And even more radical—it calls us to actively seek reconciliation, giving interpersonal reconciliation an even higher priority than religious devotion …."

My grandmother called it good manners. Jesus talked about it as Kingdom of God treatment of others. But what it is really about is making space for someone who thinks or believes or speaks differently than we do. And I firmly believe that it is time that we take up the challenge of living as Jesus commanded, and start changing the world by how we deal with our neighbors — whether it be in the pew, on social media, or (heaven forbid!) behind the wheel.

We at St. Barnabas like to think of ourselves as tolerant and accepting. After all, our motto is “A Place at the Table.” And I think that we really mean that. I believe that it is in our DNA at this church to welcome any and everyone who comes in the doors to gather with us at Christ’s holy table and to share in the mystical meal that is our Eucharist. But if we really follow what Jesus said, it cannot end there.

Jesus said, “if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire….” That is a tough standard, but I believe that Jesus really meant what He said. Scholars still argue about what the “hell of fire” really referred to, but that is not the point. What He is telling us, is that it is not acceptable for us to put down our brothers and sisters, no matter what they say to us. He is calling us to a higher sense of how we treat each other.

If your brother or sister did not vote for the same presidential candidate that you did, find common ground elsewhere and be reconciled to that person. If someone you know believes in political doctrines that you find wholly repugnant, look for other places where you have commonality and meet there. But this idea of Kingdom ideals does not call us to ignore the places where we disagree with others, it calls us to transcend them — to see them as places of disagreement, but to look deeper into our brother or sister and find something in his or her very humanity that makes us care less about where we disagree and more about the simple fact that we are all bound together as the Body of Christ.

My brothers and sisters, we have a wonderful community at St. Barnabas. And we have a wonderful broader community in Lafayette. And we are all surrounded by on-line communities of God’s children, which is a wonderful thing. So what are we going to do with all of that wonder-fullness? We can choose to focus on our disagreements and spend our time searching for the exact words that will put a dagger into another person’s heart, thereby “winning” the argument and making ourselves the ones who are “on top.” And at the same time, further erode the beauty of our lives. OR we can find new ways of transcending our disagreements and concentrate on the spark of Christ that is present in every one of us. Thereby building up the Kingdom of God on earth.

Please believe me when I say that I know how hard this change in attitude will be. You and I live in a society that seems to thrive on conflict. But if we are to give any weight at all to Jesus’ very plain words, we are called (loud and clear), and we must try to make a place for every one and every opinion. And we must always try to love (that is: respect and care for) those with whom we disagree, even when that seems impossible to do.

May the Spirit of God be with each of us as we seek to live out the command to love one another just as Christ loves us. Amen.

The Virus of Violence and Dr. King, Fr. John Bedingfield, January 15th

January 15, 2017
00:0000:00

In the name of the God of Justice and Peace, Amen.

         This week, as I read through the Scripture passages assigned for today, I kept coming back, over and over again, to thoughts of the violence that seems completely ubiquitous in today’s world, and the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. day that will take place tomorrow.  I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast of the Gospel story of Jesus – the Prince of Peace – set over against the seemingly endless stream of stories about people killing other people; set against the backdrop of a national holiday that commemorates the life of a man whose ministry was dedicated to social change through non-violence. 

         In my struggle to bring coherence – or at least to make some sort of sense – to these disparate images, I read an article by the Rev. Timothy Merrill, a minister from the United Church of Christ tradition.  I was quite taken by some of what Merrill had to say.  He began by talking about the comparison between mass shootings and the assassination of Dr. King.  He talked about the fact that it has now been almost 50 years since Dr. King’s assassination and that there have been thousands upon thousands of innocent children, women and men killed during that time.  He noted that, even though Dr. King’s assassination deeply affected this country, his was certainly not the first or last assassination we had felt personally.  For example, there was JFK in 1963 and then RFK shortly after Dr. King. 

Merrill said:

America is many things, and much of it good.  No argument there.  But we're not here to discuss America's goodness, but America's illness.  Even to the casual observer, America is a victim of the virus of violence, and America is a patient who can't seem to recover from this dangerous disease.  We are a country that seems to reflect the vision of the ancient prophet Habakukk: (who said) ‘So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth.  For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted’ (1:4).

 

It doesn't help to say that the illness is self-inflicted.  What matters is to decide how we're going treat the disease or learn to live with the virus of violence.

 

 

(The events in every mass shooting remind us that our nation is ill with a sometimes dormant virus).  Granted, we're not always FEELING sick and while violence is going on SOMEWHERE, in the communities where we live, we might be untouched by violence-for now.  …  We're saddened because we can empathize with those who are grieving, and of course (when it hit Lafayette) we [took] up the national debate as to how we [could] treat this virus of violence.

 

(Merrill goes on) But this virus is never really dormant.  While (our) community is at rest, somewhere in our country - in many place(s), in fact - communities are mourning an outbreak of violence.  A child has been hit by a stray bullet, a 7-Eleven clerk has been robbed and murdered for $24 and change …, a teenager has been the bully's victim for too long, an ex-husband murders the ex-wife, the child kills the parent, and so on.  Every week, children are dying in cities across America to accidental shootings, gang-related (violence), or in school yards and classrooms.  …  Don't think we're infected with the virus of violence?  The situation has become so bad, that many schools require students, teachers, … staff and visitors to pass through metal detectors.  Some authorities advocate arming teachers so they can fight violence with violence.  These same folks suggest creating textbooks with Kevlar covers so that students can use (them) as shields when the bullets start flying. ….

 

Can we with integrity say that this will change?  Can we preach that the Peaceful Kingdom is coming if we will but treat the mentally ill better, tighten up (reasonable) gun control measures …, try to do a better job in getting young people into a religious culture that effectively teaches the values of love and respect?  Can we really preach the vision of Isaiah that someday the wolf and the lamb will lie down together?

 

Rev. Merrill suggests that the answer to that question is “no.”  Only God can usher in the time of the Peaceable Kingdom that the prophet Isaiah talks about.

Perhaps (he says) that's why MLK said that we must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.

 

         Rev. Merrill wrote that article back in 2011, when the country was mourning the shooting in Tucson, Arizona, in which Representative Gabby Giffords was dealt a wound from which she still not recovered completely.  Since then we have seen so much wanton violence in the name of nothing.  Even we in the loving community of Lafayette, have seen such senseless violence up close.  The number of incidents and the number of deceased just keeps rising to the point where we can no longer keep accurate count.  And still the virus of violence goes on, unchecked.  How then, do we deal with this problem?

Christians are people who are called to advocate for change.  So (Rev. Merrill suggests) if you can help educational and government(al) and institutional agencies do a better job treating the mentally ill, do it.  If you can lobby for gun control measures that (make sense), do it.  If you can use your voice to help soften the rhetoric and encourage civil discourse, do it.  

 

[We are to do the best we can do to make the world a more peaceable place.]  The (prophet Isaiah) says: ‘Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause’ (Isaiah 1:17).  (Dr. King) said: ‘If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music.  (You) should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street-sweeper who did his job well.’  …  (The German writer and martyr, Deitrich) Bonhoeffer is often quoted (in saying that) we must bind the wounds of those the wheel has crushed, but we must also stop the wheel.  If you can in any way be a wheel-stopper, be a wheel-stopper.

 

That (means), ….  Embrace peace as a life-style choice.  Never lift your voice or your hand against another living creature.  The apostle Paul, writing to the Romans, urges, ‘If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all.’ (12:18)  ‘A soft answer turns away wrath,’ so goes an ancient Hebrew proverb, ‘but a harsh word stirs up anger’ (Proverbs 15:1).  As MLK once said, ‘Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon.  It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.  It is a sword that heals.’

 

         In this day and age of the virus of violence, we Christians are called, more than ever, to live a Christ-like life.  In other words, to live our lives as Jesus lived, truly and completely loving our neighbor in the exact same way that we love ourselves and our families.  Dr. King famously said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars...  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”  It seems to me that Dr. King was calling for something that was even more radical than loving our neighbors as ourselves.  He seems instead to have been calling for the completely radical idea of loving our enemies.  Dr. King wanted us to follow Jesus’ call for agape love.  Agape is pure love.  Love without a motive.  Loving someone simply because God loves them.

Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess.  It (is selfless love that) begins by loving others for their sakes.  Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both.

 

         So if we love others with true agape … if we can really put aside our dislike (if not hatred) for those whom we hold as enemies, and truly show them the love of Christ – the love that says, “I only want the best for you,” will we solve the problem of violence?

[Merrill says] Sadly no.  But these actions will make a difference where we live.  They will bring healing where it’s possible to bring healing.  [And] It’s our only option.  

 

Again, listen to Dr. King’s words, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars...  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

         We have a new year here.  Let’s try radical, agape in 2017.  Let’s see if we can begin to bring healing to our corner of the world.  As Dr. King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”  God bless the soul of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Amen.