What Does It Mean To Be Raised From The Dead - Fr. John Bedingfield April 6th

April 6, 2014

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

Jesus “cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’  The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.”  This was the final miracle (or as the author refers to them, the final “sign” performed by Jesus) in John’s Gospel.  Among the most revealing of His signs in John: 

He encounters the woman at the well, and reveals himself to her as living water (4:10);  He feeds the five thousand, and reveals himself to the disciples as the bread of life (6:35);  He heals a man born blind, and reveals himself as the light of the world (9:5).  And now he raises Lazarus from the dead, and reveals himself as the resurrection and the life (11:25). [1]

This was definitely the ultimate sign of God’s power at work in Jesus, and the text says that many people believed because of this event.  That is the point of the “signs” in this Gospel – to make those who have not been able to recognize the truth about Jesus see Him for who and what He really is: the Son of God; redeemer of the world; the bread of life and living water; the light of the world and the resurrection and life.

But what did those who were there that day understand about the raising of Lazarus?  “They believed,” but was that their initial reaction?  And what about Lazarus?  What did HE think?  What did HE understand about the significance of his walking out of his tomb after his body had begun to decay?

Because the raising of Lazarus comes, as it does, in very close proximity to the Last Supper and the beginning of the Passion of Jesus, the author of John’s Gospel does not give us much information about the aftermath of Lazarus’ rising from the tomb.  We are left to speculate about it and try out scenarios that make sense to us.

Try for a minute to put yourself into this story.  Who would you be?  Are you a disciple; a person from town; Martha or Mary; or maybe Lazarus himself?  It was an interesting scene.  Jesus came into Bethany, a day late and a dollar short, as far as Mary and Martha were concerned.  They had sent word to Him before Lazarus died, asking for His help.  Jesus had seemingly ignored their request, even though He was incredibly close to the family, and not far away. 

So, after Lazarus was four days dead, Jesus showed up at the edge of town and was met, not by the sisters of Lazarus, but only by Martha.  Mary stayed back at the house – a passive-aggressive way of letting Jesus know that she was angry with Him for His failure to save her brother.  But while Martha was more straightforward, she was just as mad.  When she saw Jesus, she let him have it.  “If you had been here – LIKE WE ASKED – Lazarus would still be alive.”  What a greeting for the Son of God.  Her ability to talk to Jesus in that manner is clearly intended to let us know just how close they really were.  After all, you can say some really hurtful things to family that you would never say to an acquaintance, because you know that they will always love you.

The town folk gathered around Mary, followed her as she went out to meet Jesus.  They saw her anger melt away as she got close to Him.  She knelt down and complained plaintively to Him that He should have been there to help His friend.  So, needless to say, there was a lot of drama around the scene, even before Jesus approached the tomb.  But what happened then was something no one was prepared for.

Jesus walked up to the tomb, ignoring the fact that Lazarus had been dead so long that his body was seriously in decay, and He called Lazarus to come out of the tomb – out of the finality of death – into the light, into the company of the living.  And OUT HE CAME

The crowd must have been absolutely blown away by what they saw.  Imagine that you had gone to the funeral of your friend.  You had repeatedly gone to the tomb for the mandated three days of mourning.  Each day (in spite of the rock covering the tomb) the smell had gotten worse, to the point that you were glad it was the fourth day and that you didn’t have to go back again.  And then, out of the stench, out of death, walked Lazarus. 

I think that the initial reaction would have been fear, if not downright terror.  There is a reason that so many movies have been made about zombies – it’s not just the relentless, slow-motion chase, or the feeding on our brains that scares us, it is primarily that death is and has always been the end for our bodies.  People who die are not supposed to get up and walk around anymore.  And if this was scary and confusing to the bystanders, how must it have felt for Lazarus?

One minute he was in whatever place, on whatever plane of existence that his soul occupied postmortem.  And the next thing, his heart began to beat and he began to breathe.  Then he heard Jesus’ voice and began to walk out of the tomb into the blindingly bright sun – weak-kneed, frightened and confused.  What was Lazarus’ first conscious thought after he “woke up?”  I imagine it as something like you would have seen the actor, Christopher Lloyd do on the old show, Taxi.  It would have been an exaggerated double take, sort of a "whaaat is going on?  That was really weird!"  And then Lazarus and the family would have had to process it all.  They had to figure out what it meant to be raised from the dead by the God of all creation.

We too need to figure out what the raising of Lazarus means.  From this morning's Old Testament reading, we heard that God said to Ezekiel, "And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord."  (Ezekiel 3:12-14).  "You will know that I am The Lord and will act."  In this modern age - an age of scientific proof - it is extremely important for us to keep in mind that God is God and acts in this world.  That, I think, was exactly what Jesus was reflecting on when he raised Lazarus.  God has the power to bring life out of death and will lift us out of death into everlasting life if only we will recognize that God is God and we are not and act accordingly.

From this morning's epistle reading, we hear this: "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.  (Romans 8:11).  St. Paul understood that true life, both now (on earth) and everlasting life, can come only through the power of the Holy Spirit of God.  And that this all-powerful God is ready, willing and definitely able to act in your life.

So, what does Lazarus rising to life mean for us?  It means that we too have been raised from the dead.  Whether the Holy Spirit that our Creator blew into our nostrils at birth has been buried under our jobs or our family demands or under food or alcohol or meaningless sex: no matter what has buried your Spirit, Jesus God is ready, willing and able to raise you from that death, into eternal life with the God who made everything that is.

Amen

Listen Now:


Too Blind To See God’s Love? - Fr. John Bedingfield, March 30th

March 30, 2014

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

          The last week and half have been pretty interesting for me.  As most of you are aware, I went back to Austin to be with my dad as he had heart surgery, and to care for my mom while he was in the hospital.  Thank you all for the prayers and well wishes.  Dad is back home, convalescing and getting stronger after a successful heart valve replacement. 

Spending the majority of every day in the hospital while I was there, meant that I had time in a quiet, almost cave-like alcove in the corner of his room (when I wasnt moving tubes, straightening blankets or answering email) for reading and thinking.  Apart from caring for my mom and dad, worrying about St. Barnabas and missing Donna and Taylor, there were three things that really had my attention over the week: 1) the book I was reading; 2) a recent news story; and 3) todays readings.

          I read a book entitled Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Saint & Sinner.  It was written as a sort of spiritual autobiography by a Lutheran Pastor named Nadia Bolz-Webber.  The Pastrix (her self-chosen title) is an interesting person.  She doesnt often wear vestments and only occasionally a clergy collar.  Instead, she likes tank tops, jeans and tall boots.  The tank tops show off her impressive array of tattoos, which go well with her spiked hair and piercings.  She is a former stand-up comic and recovering alcoholic who can curse as well as anyone Ive ever known.  And she is a child of God who heard a call to minister to Gods people and to spread the Good News.  These days she is doing so at a church she planted known as the House For All Sinners & Saints.  Nadia Bolz-Webber is deeply dedicated to the proposition that ALL of Gods children are equally beloved and should be treated that way.  She is also an admittedly flawed human being who openly confesses that she sometimes has trouble walking the walk that goes with talking her talk.  But as she often points out: its all grace and when she is at her worst, God is typically at Gods best – and she gets led and supported in ways that still amaze her.

          Nadias church had a small crisis a few years ago, when she burst onto the scene as a religious media darling.  Her writings and public appearances began to bring new people into church.  The 40 or so people in her congregation saw themselves as the religious equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys,from the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer TV show.  These were people who had been cast out or left out by “traditional” congregations; people who self-identified with the outsiders or strangers from the Bible.  Suddenly they started to see people in their midst who were: little old church ladies; soccer moms; lawyers and accountants.  In other words, the strangers among them suddenly looked like their brothers and sisters, moms and dads, or grandmas and grandpas.  These new folks made them question how much they really believed in radical welcome of strangers in their midst because the newcomers reminded them of people who had hurt them in the past.  And they were worried about how these “regular” folks would change their odd, close-knit community.

          And speaking of close-knit communities, the world recently received the news that Fred Phelps died on the 19th.  Phelps was the founding preacher and longtime spiritual head of the now infamous Westboro Baptist Church.  It was Phelps and Steve Drain (the man who appears in line to take over the church), who began picketing high visibility events with those horrible, garish signs that said things like: God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for 9/11,and Pray for More Dead Soldiers.

Fred Phelpstheology and therefore the theology of Westboro Baptist Church can best be summed up in this recent quote from Steve Drain: If your pastor preaches that God loves everyone, you should run as fast as you can from that vile place.  This is the granddaddy of all lies belched forth from the bowels of hell.[1]”  The small congregation of mostly Phelps family members who are Westboro Baptist, do not believe in doing mission work.  They do not feed the hungry or take healthcare services and medicine to Honduras or dig water wells in Africa.  Instead, they live by the belief that there are very few electpeople in the world, and ONLY those elect will go to heaven, so it makes no sense to work for the betterment of others.  Westboro Baptist members see themselves as the elect and they see their mission as one of informing everyone else how bad hell is going to be for them.

          St. Paul wrote his letter to the church in Ephesus from a Roman prison.  Even though he was in a horrible place, he did not want these fledgling Christians to lose hope.  In this letter he repeatedly tells them that they are precious to God and redeemed from sin by Jesus.  In the passage we get this morning, he says, Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.”  I am pretty sure that I understand what St. Paul was talking about in this passage, but in the context of this sermon, I have to believe that both Nadia Bolz-Webber and Fred Phelps felt that they were following Pauls admonitions.

          Now dont get me wrong.  There is no question which one of these pastors I identify with.  I wholeheartedly get on the bandwagon with the Pastrix, especially when she stands up for the marginalized in society.  She says that she started House For All Sinners and Saints with eight people: four straight singles and four gay singles.  Her church now averages 180 on a Sunday, and they seem to look like what I believe the Kingdom of God looks like: all ages; all races; all sexual orientations and gender identifications; all abilities and lack thereof.  And I identify with that church because, like St. Barnabas, they are people who believe in reaching out to the world around them.  But what if Fred Phelps is right?

          Think for a minute about what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like if Fred Phelps and his ilk are correct.  Instead of a party that bursts at the seams with life and energy, with joy and laughter, and people just enjoying being with each other, basking in the love of the Creator of the Universe; if Phelps is right there will be a very small gathering of people who silently sit ramrod straight around a formal table, worrying about whether the napkins in their laps are straight or not, and who occasionally break the awkward silence with a condemnation of someone who has failed to live up to their expectations.  Now come on!  Which of those depictions sounds like heaven?  And for that matter, which of those sound like St. Barnabas? 

          I read a good bit about both Westboro Baptist and House For All Sinners and Saints last week.  And Ive read a lot of JesusGospels and the New Testament epistles in my life.  Im going to go out on a limb here and tell you that I truly believe that Nadia Bolz-Webber is preaching the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Although Westboro Baptist says on their website that people like me have John 3:16 all wrong, I dont think so.  Jesus said, For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  God so LOVED the WORLD.  Dont let anyone tell you that the God who created the world is a horrifying, vindictive disciplinarian, who has already predestined who will be in the Kingdom.  To quote from Westboro themselves: that is the granddaddy of all lies belched forth from the bowels of hell.

          God LOVES you!  God LOVES me!  God LOVES St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Lafayette, Louisiana.  God LOVES Nadia Bolz-Webber and House for All Sinners and Saints.  Now heres the kicker.  God LOVES Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church.  God has redeemed all of us.

          If that is not true, then Jesusdeath and resurrection would not have been the perfect sin offering that I believe it to have been.  It may be hard for us to really understand, but Jesusatoning sacrifice on the cross was so huge so perfect that it took in all human sin, past, present and future.  And the God who would sacrifice an only child to accomplish this unbelievable saving action, is a God who loves all of humanity so relentlessly that God will never give up on having a relationship with us.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  [Some people say to Him] “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  Jesus [says] to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

          So … the question becomes, is Fred Phelps now in heaven?  I cannot possibly answer that with certainty – its way above my pay grade to know that sort of information.  But here is what I bet Fred Phelps got to heaven and then looked around and saw all of the Nadia Bolz-Webber sorts of beloved children of God the “sinners” who were damned to hell by Westboro Baptist, and did a double take.  Then the decision was his to make, open his eyes and see what Gods love looks like, or walk away blind

Amen.

Listen Now:


Rumors About The Woman At The Well - Mthr Mitzi George, March 23rd

March 30, 2014

Most of us have heard the story of the Woman at the Well, in todays gospel.  We have read it, we have heard it preached and taught, and we have probably come away with some misconceptions about the woman and about the purpose of this gospel narrative.

 

The reason for those probable misconceptions, we, like most human beings, have a terrible habit of assuming things and then basing our opinions on those assumptions. In other words, it is the stuff upon which rumor is born.  Now, I am sure that most of us have had a little experience with rumors. Rumors, in my opinion have destroyed many a good reputation, destroyed relationships, and have destroyed many lives in the process. Perhaps rumors are problem for the Samaritan woman at the well.

 

Let us clarify some of the misconceptions commonly held about this poor woman. Here are the assumptions made about this poor woman:

     she is a harlot or prostitute

     she is living in a sinful adulterous relationship

     she is at the well in the middle of the day because she is a notorious sinner and unclean

     the other town folk will not associate with her, she is an outcast

     she is an example of Gods mercy and forgiveness toward sinners

     Jesus was there just to pronounce forgiveness upon her

     It is that forgiveness which transforms her life and causes her to witness to her town folk

     She is supposed to remind us of our own sinfulness and redemption

 

Does that pretty much sum up what you have thought of this woman in our story?

 

Now let us look at what we really know given the actual information we have:

1. Jesus and the disciples are traveling throughout Judea; they are not in Israel, they are in Judea in an area occupied by the Samaritan culture.  A culture very different from the Jewish culture.

2. The Samaritans and Jews do not have a good relationship, they tolerate one another, but there is no real interaction if it can be avoided. 

3. The disciples and Jesus have been traveling for a while they are all tired, hungry, and thirsty.  The disciples go into the village to seek a place where they can buy some food. Jesus takes a little time for himself and stays behind at the well.

4. The woman in our story comes to the well in the middle of the day. This little bit of information tells us that either she is running behind on her schedule, she ran out of water and needed more, or for some reason she doesnt want to run into anyone from the village.  We dont know why, again this is a point on which we speculate but that doesnt make it true. All we know is that she came to the well in the middle of the day and the customary time would have been early evening. That is where our knowing stops.

5. The woman has been married five times.  This could be because she has been widowed five times, maybe she was divorced by her previous husbands or, it could be a combination of those two things either way its tragic for her. That doesnt make her a bad person.

6. She was a woman living in a first century, male dominated culture where women had no way of supporting themselves, we do not know her story, but it was a tragic story in any regard if she was divorced or widowed because she was a woman.

7. Jesus surprised her by speaking to her and requesting she give him some water, the Jews and Samaritans do not get a long, we are told this emphatically in Johns gospel.

8. She has a little spunk, we can tell by the way she answers Jesus.

9. She is a woman of faith. She knew enough about her faith and Jesus Judaic faith to point out the differences to him and challenge him with it.

10.               We are never given a name.

These are the things we know for sure, about this woman.  Nothing in the story indicates she was a sinner, a prostitute, an unworthy soul or anything else. However, we have assumed a great deal and for many hundreds of years other well-intentioned Christians have told this story asserting the same misconceptions and perpetuating the rumors about this poor woman at the well. Imagine having a rumor circulate about you for two thousand years!

 

Now here are the big questions: What is the real purpose of this story?  Why is it even in the Gospel of John? What do we learn from it?

 

You see, we cannot really get to the correct answers when we separate this story from chapter 3 of Johns gospel, or chapter 5 for that matter.  Because the authors style is to use carefully crafted techniques that reveal great truths about Jesus Christ.  The juxtaposition of todays story with that of the Nicodemus story is very important to the central message of the Gospel.

 

Let me try to explain it:

 

In chapter 3 we have Nicodemus who wants to meet Jesus, but Nicodemus is a well-established leader of the Jewish Pharisees.  He doesnt want to risk his position and good standing by being seen in public with Jesus, so he plans a meeting in the dark of night.   He wants to know if Jesus is the Messiah, but he doesnt want anyone to know his intentions.

 

     So, we have a wealthy, upstanding Jewish leader whose name we know put adjacent to a Samaritan woman who is never named.

 

     Nicodemus wanted to meet Jesus, even sought him out, the Samaritan woman had a fortuitous encounter with Jesus of whom she had never heard.

 

     Nicodemus is a leader in the Jewish community but seemed to have a very shallow understanding of his own religious traditions while the Samaritan woman knew enough about both religious views that she could engage Jesus and even challenge him.

 

     Nicodemus met Jesus in a secret place in the dark, the Samaritan woman meets Jesus in broad daylight at a public gathering place.

 

     After the discourse with Jesus, Nicodemus returns to his old way of life, we arent told he had any great awakening, at least not in this particular story; but the woman at the well was so touched by Jesus and his willingness to converse with her and take her seriously that she was transformed by her encounter.

 

     Nicodemus never told anyone about his meeting with Jesus, that we know of anyway; but the woman at the well went back to her village and told everyone she could find.  She was so excited about the way he spoke to her and treated her that she was sure he might be the Messiah.

 

     Nicodemus never publicly influenced anyones faith in Jesus; the woman at the well influenced her whole communities faith.

 

So we have a very skillful contrast between two very important and yet strikingly different characters.  The two placed in the proper position and setting dramatically change the message of this gospel. The writer of Johns gospel goes on to include the healing of a Roman officials son, a blind paralyzed man outside of the city-gate, which occurs on the Sabbath all to emphasize the truth about Gods power and grace.

 

The Gospel writer is certainly pointing us to some very clear and undeniable realities about Jesus Christ, the Messiah.  The writer wants us to know that Jesus did in fact come to his own people, but the grace of God was always going to spread beyond the Jewish community, it was intended for the whole world.  Gods grace was to be revealed to the world, and is eloquently stated in John 3: 17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

 

So, Gods providential goodness was sent first to the Jews but then was offered to the Samaritan, and the Roman, to an unclean bigger, and then to the entire Gentile world so that the whole world might know and come to believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.

 

The legacy of the Samaritan woman is this. When anyone has a really dramatic and engaging encounter with Jesus. When Jesus meets us where we are in our own lives. When in that encounter an honest and open dialogue occurs, even if that dialogue is a little cynical or sarcastic on our part (because life has given us some hard blows and created a crusty outer shell) Jesus meets us right there. Jesus meets us right where our lives are at the most authentic and most vulnerable point. At those flashes in time; we can become transformed by a genuine engagement with Jesus Christ. At those moments God"s grace breaks in all around us and we have no choice but to acknowledge that presence. That's what the Samaritan did; she recognized this grace breaking in on her life and recognized it in Jesus. It didn't matter that she was a Samaritan. It doesn't matter where we are coming from either. What matters is that we recognize Christ.

  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 just by chance in the ordinary routine of her daily life.  She was not afraid to be honest or truthful, she did not shirk back, she was vulnerable and she allowed the truth to set her free.  She then took that freedom; that newly found spirit, and shared it with the others in her community. That is what we are supposed to do, share our story of Jesus Christ.

 

What is your story of Jesus?  How and where did you meet?  What redeeming or transforming experience have you had because of that meeting?  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 sacred history, we need to know how Christ touched you, how he will touch us, and all who confess His name. Wont you share your story with someone, with anyone who needs to know the living Christ, the one we worship here today, in spirit and in truth.

 

Amen

 

Listen Now:


When in Doubt, Love as God Loves Us - March 16 - Fr. John Bedingfield

March 16, 2014

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

I was going through the readings this week and I was intrigued by something.  I have said quite often that you should look at all of the readings for a given week and see if you can find any common theme in them.  It is just a good exercise to engage in.  It makes you look at the readings closer and it makes you work to really understand what they might be saying to you. 

So anyway … As I was reading through today’s lectionary selections, something started to emerge.  Beginning with the collect of the day (that prayer that we pray before the readings start) and going all the way through the Gospel, here is a list of snippets that jumped out at me:

the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ

in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

The LORD himself watches over you; *

the LORD is your shade at your right hand,

The LORD shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *

from this time forth for evermore.

Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness

it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham … -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?

            I have told you numerous times, that I do not believe in cherry-picking Scripture to make a point.  At first glance, that might seem to be what I am doing here … picking choice words or phrases to match the point I am trying to make.  But this is actually very different from that.  This is about a group of phrases and sentences all coming together to make a broad, overall point.  And I do not think that I really “picked” them anyway … they seemed to pick themselves.  The point that I believe these passages are making is simply and powerfully that God loves us!  Pulling all of those verses together in service of that point might look something like this.

            The unchangeable truth of Jesus Christ is that all of the children of Abraham (meaning all of us) will be blessed.  God watches over us, shades us from the burning sun, and cares for us always.  Abraham (the father of humanity) is our example of faith because he believed in God, which is what made him a righteous man.  It is the God whom Abraham believed in who creates all life and in whom we are promised eternal life.  God did not send Jesus among us to condemn us, but to show us God’s grace and forgiveness.  God loves us so much that God sent God’s ONLY Son so that all who have faith, as Abraham had, will live forever.  But if you cannot have faith in the things Jesus did on earth, how can you have faith when He tells you about this eternal life?

            The love of God for all of creation, but particularly for God’s most precious creation, human beings, is so incredibly strong that it can overcome absolutely anything – even death.

            In recent weeks I have had several conversations with people who asked me varying questions, all of which had at their essence a pivotal inquiry for people of faith:  “what happens if we go through life, doing our thing, living to the best of our ability, and then when we reach the judgment day, we find out that we were wrong?”  The answer that sprang instantly to my mind in all of these cases was one that was too flip to give.  That answer would have been, “Don’t worry about it.  Just keep trying to be faithful.” 

            When people of faith engage in such conversations, they do not want to be told, “Don’t worry about it.”  That answer sounds dismissive – even if it is not intended to be.  Instead, they want their spiritual leader – in this case, me – to assure them that their struggles have yielded a positive outcome, that they have made the “right” choice from a difficult dilemma.  Unfortunately, it is not always possible for a human being to answer such questions with that degree of certitude.

            I could stand up here – or sit across from you somewhere else – and have a conversation like that, in which I told you with absolute authority that you had made your difficult decision exactly the right way.  But that would not be honest.  Nor would it be answering you in a way that was authentic to who I am and what I believe.  You see, while I have more education and experience in matters of biblical interpretation and spiritual discernment than some of you, I am still a human creation of God’s, living in the same plane of existence as are you.  I have spent years reading, learning and discussing many things of a godly nature, but I cannot tell you exactly what the mind of God might be in a given situation.  Nor can anyone else.  And if someone tells you that they know the mind of God, hold onto your wallet and run away!

            All of that being said, here is something in which I have the greatest of confidence: God loves you – more deeply and in more ways than I could ever hope to explain.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Martin Luther once said that that particular passage is the “Gospel in brief.”  I agree wholeheartedly with Luther on this.  If you take the entirety of the Gospels and boil them down to their essence, John 3:16 is probably that most fragrant and flavorful part at the bottom of the pot.  Another way of saying this is – to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr. – The arc of the Gospels bends toward love.

            The Bible is not a single book – it is a library under one cover.  You cannot read the Bible straight through from Genesis through Revelation and have a single, cohesive story emerge.  Some books of the Bible are very clear and coherent.  Others, not so much.  But while there is no single story that stands out across the whole Bible, there is an essence, a theme that runs throughout – sometimes prominently and sometimes in a more veiled way.  That theme is that God loves us enough to have a covenantal relationship with us and (this is really important) whenever we break our covenant agreements with God, we will always be taken back and forgiven.  Even in the toughest times of the Old Testament – Israel’s 40 years in the desert, or the Babylonian exile – even in those times, God’s love was so strong and faithful that when the people repented and returned, God took them back.  And then, centuries later, God loved the world so much that he gave his only son so that all who believe in him might have everlasting life.

            No matter what your biblical or spiritual quandaries might be, if you have as your fallback position that God loves you completely and will forgive anything for which you sincerely ask forgiveness; in my humble opinion, you will never go wrong.  Scripture undoubtedly tells us that we will all go before the seat of judgment when our time comes.  But what a comfort it is that the One who sits on that throne of absolute authority is the same one who said, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  We have all been saved by Jesus already!  God knows that none of us will live this life without making mistakes – both great and small – but in the end, Jesus has already paid the price for those mistakes.  All we need do is hold our heads high, look into the loving face of our Savior and say, “I am so sorry that I got that wrong.  I did my best and I always tried to treat all of your people as beloved people of God.”  At which point, my money is on Jesus to smile at you and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your master.”  So when you err, err on the said of love.  That way, I don’t think you can go wrong.

Amen.

Listen Now:


The Power of the 51st Psalm - Ash Wednesday - Fr. John Bedingfield

March 16, 2014

In the name of the God loves us enough to forgive us, Amen.

In just a few minutes, we are going to kneel together and recite Psalm number 51 in unison.  The 51st Psalm is one of my favorites … not in a “warm and fuzzy” sort of way that the 23rd Psalm might be, but in the incredible power and clarity of its words.

When we recite this psalm as a part of our liturgy we leave out the superscription – the part at the beginning of the psalm that gives some sense of context.  The 51st Psalm’s superscription reads: “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” 

King David wrote this psalm as a confession to God – a plea that God might take pity on him in spite of the horrible things that he had done.  David’s plaintive cry came after he had been attracted to the beautiful Bathsheba – who happened to be married to one of the king’s army commanders, a man named Uriah.  After David seduced Bathsheba, she got pregnant with his child.  Instead of admitting the affair, David had Uriah lead a charge in battle, against horrible odds.  Uriah was killed and the secret was safe … or so King David thought.  Then Nathan, who was God’s prophet, went to the king and told him that God knew what he had done, and would punish him appropriately.  The words of this psalm are David’s response to Nathan’s pronouncement.

David cried out, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.  Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin..”  That is some serious confession and repentance. 

I am about to step forward and invite you all to the observance of a holy Lent, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  What we are called to do during this season of Lent is: examine our lives, the things that we have done right as well as the large and the small sinful things that have possibly gone unnoticed by everyone other than you and God.  Then we are called to study, pray and fast.

In modern American society, unfortunately many people skip over everything else and go right to fasting.  So many people today will gladly tell you that they are not eating chocolate, or drinking beer, or eating meat during Lent.  But rarely do you hear anyone talking about the praying they are doing, their biblical study or what they might be repenting.

Lent is much more about repentance than it is about fasting.  Fasting is merely a reminder for us, to make sure that our hearts and minds are in the right place.  It is the repentance that is the central thing in the deepening of our relationship with God.  Now I do not believe for a moment that anyone sitting in this church today has anything to repent that comes close to what David confessed to God in the 51st Psalm.  But make no mistake, every human being – those in times past and those who live today – have reason to repent.  As we hear in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, we all fall short of the glory of God. 

But if even King David, adulterer and murderer that he was, could ask forgiveness from God – and have faith that it would be granted – we should not hesitate to repent and ask forgiveness ourselves.  In Psalm 51, David pleaded with God to:

Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me.

Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.

 

One of the reasons that the 51st Psalm is so special to me is that every time I have my hands washed before beginning the Eucharistic prayer, I recite those verses as a prayer of preparation.  I take great comfort in the fact that, no matter what is going on in my life, no matter how bad things may get, I can ask God to create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.  I can ask to stay in God’s presence with the Holy Spirit.  And the wonderful part is … thanks to the saving grace of Jesus Christ, I can have absolute faith that I will be forgiven.

Thankfully, God does not ask of us any great sacrifice, beyond our prayers, our love and our repentance.  We do not have to sacrifice animals, or make some form of restitution in order to be worthy of God’s grace.  King David told us: “Had (God) desired it, I would have offered sacrifice; but (God) take(s) no delight in burnt-offerings.  [Because] The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

I truly believe that God wants nothing more from us than our contrite hearts, and our love.  Everything else should just be centered around living our lives in ways that glorify the God who loves us enough to forgive us.  And God even gave us some instructions about how that part goes.

The prophet Isaiah said this about God:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.  If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Amen

Listen Now:


Coming Down From the Mountain - Fr. John Bedingfield - March 2nd

March 2, 2014

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

            Peter, James and John went to the mountaintop – just as Moses and Elijah had visited the mountaintop before them – and they experienced the presence of God in a brand new way.  Then what?

            Thomas Kuhn, in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (and please believe me when I tell you that I read the quote, not the book – science in general is not really my forté.  Anyway, Kuhn said) that “scientific revolutions occur when someone creates a new perspective; a new model; a new approach to reality.  After such a breakthrough, a new way of thinking, previously thought to be impossible, comes to life.”  I understand Kuhn to be saying that such revolutions are about a new insight that causes a paradigm shift.  That is what happened to Peter, James and John on the mountaintop that day, a paradigm shift, or a revolution in the way they saw God and God’s relationship with humanity.  And when it was over, they had to deal with the consequences of their newfound knowledge.

            It is no coincidence that this story appears near the middle of Matthew’s Gospel, right before Jesus begins his inescapable journey to Jerusalem.  In this Gospel, the Transfiguration event takes place after Jesus and the Disciples got back from a preaching, teaching and healing trip around Galilee.  Peter had just confessed to Jesus that he knew Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God.  The Disciples had heard Jesus preach and teach about the Kingdom of God with authority (in a brand new way) but the basic message probably hit their ears much like the message the rabbis had been teaching for years – at least at first. 

At the end of this trip, after Peter had confessed what he knew about the Messiah, Jesus told them that He would have to go to Jerusalem and suffer terribly, and be put to death in order to rise again.  That must have been truly shocking for them, so much so that it sort of flew right over their heads.  But this Transfiguration thing was something brand new and amazing.  A paradigm shift.  Something that changed their way of thinking.

            Throughout time, in the Jewish world one had personal encounters with God on mountaintops.  That’s the way it worked with Moses on Mount Sinai and that’s the way it worked with Elijah on Mount Horeb.  As we heard in today’s Old Testament reading, God called Moses to that specific mountaintop in order to have time together in order for God to give him God’s rules for life.

            The Disciples knew the story of Moses going up the mountain and experiencing the power of God.  Moses stayed on the mountain for forty days and came down a changed person.  So imagine what the three disciples must have thought when, on the mountaintop, they not only saw Elijah – the foremost of the prophets – but Moses – the lawgiver himself – talking with Jesus.  Then, to suddenly see Jesus’ entire being change and become suffused with this blinding light, must have been perception changing and life changing, especially when it was accompanied by the voice of God, telling them to listen to Jesus because he was, as Peter had asserted, God’s Son. 

            Jesus took these three up the mountain with Him because He knew that after He had ascended, they would be the ones to be the first elders of His new church and He wanted to let them in on the absolute truth of what he had been teaching and preaching.  He also wanted to prepare them for what would happen to Him in Jerusalem, by giving them the confidence that came with knowledge of His power.  He let them peek behind the curtain, as it were, to see with their own eyes what he had been proclaiming and showing in human ways all along.

            The Greek word that Matthew uses for transfigured, is metamorphothe which is where we get our word, metamorphosis.  Years ago, when I was in Houston, I served as Dean of Diocese’s intermediate school spring camp.  Over that weekend, our gifted children and family minister and her staff of equally gifted teenagers taught 10-12 year olds about bullfrogs and butterflies and new creations in God’s world. 

The “new creation” theme played out in stories of caterpillars –worm-like creatures that – only God really knows how – become beautiful butterflies, with amazing color on wings that carry them far from the leaves where they used to live.  These young people learned about this metamorphosis as analogous to their growing up and changing as children of God.  The metamorphosis of a caterpillar though is entirely different from what Jesus did on the mountaintop.

            Metamorphosis is the word we have for complete change – that of tadpole to frog or caterpillar to butterfly, but it does not really describe what happened to Jesus in Peter, James and John’s sight.  Jesus didn’t change into a new creature or a new being.  Instead, he just showed them what he had always been.  He gave them a glimpse of the power and glory of God shining in Him.  If you’ll pardon the silliness of this analogy, what Jesus did for the Disciples that day was sort of what Clark Kent did for Lois Lane in the movie Superman II when Lois was allowed to go to the Fortress of Solitude.  She saw a glimpse of who and what Clark really was and had always been, Superman.  But when Lois Lane learned the truth, Superman had to spin the world backward and go back to a time before she knew his secret so that she couldn’t share her knowledge with anyone else.  She then went back to life as normal, just as she had been before she was let in on Clark’s secret.  Not so with the Disciples.  They came down the mountain with a new way of seeing and experiencing God and had to learn to live in the ordinary world with that knowledge.

            Peter wanted what any of us would have wanted if we had been there that day, to stay on the mountaintop.  He wanted to build dwellings so that Jesus, Moses and Elijah would have places to stay and so that they wouldn’t go away; so that he and James and John could sort of bottle the experience and keep it – exactly as it was – forever. 

Have you ever gone to Cursillo or Happening; or Yes or Vocare, or Kairos?  These spiritual renewal programs offer people a sort of mountaintop experience, as close as most of us ever get to what the Disciples experienced that day with Jesus.  These programs let many people experience God in a brand new and very palpable way.  People who attend are emotionally and spiritually super-charged during the programs.  But just like the Disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, people then have to face going down the mountain and back into the real world, trying to hold onto their new understanding of God.

            When Jesus and the Disciples came down from the mountain, they were met by a huge crowd and the remaining nine disciples who were dealing with a young man who was possessed by a demon that physically threw him around and hurt him.  His father told Jesus that the nine disciples had tried to cast the demon out but couldn’t.  In other words, when Peter, James and John came down from the mountain with their new knowledge of God and the power of the Spirit burning in their hearts, they were met – just as Moses had been, by a faithless group of people who spent their time arguing rather than worshiping God and faithfully doing His work.

            We find ourselves in a place very similar to the Disciples’ place this morning.  We come to church and experience Jesus through sharing His story and sharing in His body and blood – what should be for us the very real experience of Jesus’ love – and then we have to go out and face Lafayette traffic.  From the sublime to the ridiculous.  But that is our lives on Earth. 

Christians are called to experience God in every way that we can – both old and new – and then to take that experience and translate it into something that strengthens and empowers us to do the work God has given us to do in this world.  It is a tall order, but we can get it done.  We have our experience of God in the reading, studying and sharing of Holy Scripture.  And we have the experience of God in Christ in the Holy Eucharist.  And we have our experience of God in each other – seeing Christ in our neighbor and experiencing the power of God’s love for us through loving someone else in God’s name.  Our experiences of God are brief glimpses, but powerful ones, just like the powerful glimpse of God that the Disciples got.

            The Transfiguration was meant to show the Disciples the glory of Jesus Christ in the world, by showing them the power of God in a new way, in a way that our limited human understanding could grasp, but one that was awesome enough to stick with them forever.  We have all experienced the power of God in our lives – whether we are like Lois Lane and have had our memories erased, or like the Disciples who had their understanding changed forever – and we are called to take those experiences of God and share them with other people, so that others can see a metamorphothe in us and can, themselves experience God in a brand new way, through the power of Jesus Christ in our lives.  That’s what Peter, James and John did when they came down from the mountain, and likewise, it is what we are supposed to do today, when we leave this place and go down the mountain to our homes and workplaces. 

            Let us go forth in the power of the Spirit – showing the radiant light of Christ to all who see us.

            Amen.

Listen Now:


Love Your Enemies? Fr. John Bedingfield, Feb 23rd

February 23, 2014

In the name of the God who taught us how to love, Amen.

            We are going to baptize two beautiful babies this morning – to initiate them and bring them into the household of God as full members.  And on such a wonderful, joyous and powerful day in the Church, what a gift it is to have the readings that we have today.  When we view the Old Testament reading in conjunction with the Gospel passage, we get a virtual history lesson on God’s view of what love among church people should look like.  And talking about Godly love – that love which gives without expecting anything in return, yet simultaneously makes great demands on us – is a wonderful way to begin these little ones’ lives as Christians.

            The Old Testament reading this morning is from the 19th Chapter of Leviticus.  It is not often that we read a passage from Leviticus and talk about lessons of love and compassion.  This is the book that comes to mind when we think of strict and generally impossible-to-follow rules, the book of unyielding demands.  Leviticus, after all, is the book that contains the purity code.  In fact, the passages we just heard, are a part of the holiness code – the set of laws laid down by God (through Moses) that told the people how to behave in order to be “holy” or “set apart” by God.

            What we read this morning included this language:

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; ….  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

            That was pretty incredible language to use in the time of Moses (somewhere around 14½ centuries before Jesus’ birth).  Because you see, at that time, the predominant law followed in the known world was some form of lex talionis as made famous in the Code of Hammurabi some 500 years before Moses.  The Hammurabi Code is the one we still hear quoted all too frequently: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 

[L]ex talionis [is] the law of retaliation or the law of revenge.  …, Lex talionis, atleast in theory, … limits the revenge to the extent of the injury –– i.e., a person who has suffered the injury of an eye is not allowed to kill the person who caused the injury, but can only injure that person's eye in return.[1]

So, under the Hammurabi code, the amount of retribution was limited.  But retribution was still the primary legal operation.

            When God told Moses, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: ...,” God was changing the playing field, at least as it related to the way in which Israelites were to deal with each other – it was still acceptable to exact vengeance against Gentiles and in some specific cases, against other children of Israel.  But the idea of not exacting revenge was a departure from the norm in Moses’ time.

            Now fast-forward almost 1500 years and we get Jesus’ completely radical take in this continuation of the Sermon on the Mount (which we have been hearing in bits and pieces for the last several weeks). 

Jesus said, You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; ….

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; …. 

            This was truly a different way for the people to understand what it meant to exercise Godly love.  And just as these words were difficult for Jesus’ audience to understand, so are they difficult for us. 

            In modern America, we have a very hard time with loving our neighbors, much less our enemies.  We tend to get upset when anyone “disrespects” us.  It is an ironic throwback to Hammurabi that in the youth culture of today, failing to show someone the amount of respect he “deserves” is a great way to wind up dead, or at least grievously injured.  Sometimes we cannot control our anger when we get cut off in traffic, even though that was just our “neighbor” and not a real enemy.  We have a very hard time understanding what Jesus meant when He told His hearers to “turn the other cheek” and to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them.  It’s just plain difficult for us to wrap our heads around. 

            What would we do if faced with a real enemy?  Would we really pray for them?  Do we truly “turn the other cheek” and offer the second cheek to be slapped?  We may THINK that, because we don’t actually plot harm against our enemies, that counts as loving them.  But that doesn’t seem to hold true.  Jesus seems to mean something markedly different from that.

            When Jesus talked about loving our enemies and loving our neighbors, he used a word which, in what most scholars agree is the original Greek, was agape.  In Greek there are three major different words for love.  The first (and the one most of us instantly jump to) is eros.  Eros is the love between lovers – romantic or sensuous love.  It is eros that makes a couple attracted to each other before they know each other very well.  Some might even go so far as to say that eros is equal to lust.

            The second kind of love is philios.  Philios is known as “family love,” the love of parent for child or between siblings.  As an aside, the city of Philadelphia is known as the city of brotherly love because its name is Philios (brotherly love) + delphia (city). 

            Agape is the most difficult of the three models of love.  Agape is that love which seeks nothing in return for its love.  It is the pure love that wants nothing other than that the object of the love receives good things.  Agape is the love that is so perfect, so pure that as we exercise this love, we don’t object when our enemies prosper.  We don’t keep score.  We don’t care who is on top and we don’t need to win every argument when we are involved in agape.

            Jesus also tells us why it is important for us to love our enemies:

for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

Love your neighbors.  Pray for your enemies.  Jesus says that we are to do these things in order to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.  The term “perfect” here should probably be “perfected,” or completed.  That is Jesus' prayer for us.  That we become completely loving creatures as He and the Father are loving - without ulterior motive and without coercion.

            Our two baptismal candidates are about to become members of this congregation as well as members of the household of God.  They deserve a congregation that shines forth that agape love that was so evident in our Lord.  They deserve to be part of a group of people who want to reach out beyond themselves to be Christ’s healing and loving hands in a wounded and hurting world. 

            Be an example of Christ’s agape at St. Barnabas.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Pray for the people who get on your nerves the most.  Not a prayer that they become more like you - but a prayer that good things come their way.  Never seek to do harm to another person … even if they cut you off in traffic or get that promotion that you deserved.  The overriding message of Christ is love!  Love in every circumstance.  It is incredibly demanding work.  But our baptismal candidates deserve nothing less.  Jesus expects nothing less.  Amen.



[1]  www.sermonwriter.com, Richard Donovan 20 February 2011

Listen Now:


Love God. Love People. That’s enough. Fr. John Bedingfield, Feb. 16th

February 16, 2014

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

In Lasse Hallström’s wonderful film, The Cider House Rules, there is a scene in which the main character, Homer is in the cider house with all of the migrant apple pickers.  Homer is reading the rules that have been pinned to the wall by the orchard owner.  One of the workers asks Homer to read the rules aloud because, even though this crew has worked there for years, none of them can read, so they have never had any idea what the rules were.  Homer reads them the rules, things like: no smoking in bed; no operating the cider press if you’re drunk; and no eating your lunch on the roof.  As he reads each new rule, someone says something like, “that’s an ignorant rule,” or “we don’t pay no attention to that,” or something of the kind.  Finally, Arthur Rose, the boss of the crew, says to Homer “Who made those rules?  Someone who don’t live here made those rules.  Those rules ain’t for us.  We the ones supposed to make our own rules.  And we do.  Every single day.”

That is a brilliant metaphor for the way it must have been in Jesus’ time for the Jewish people.  What God had sent down from Mt. Sinai as 10 commandments, had been turned into 613 mitzvot (the Torah).  And while it was incumbent upon faithful Jews to adhere to the Torah above all else, NO ONE could.  There were just too many of them and they were too strict on too many issues.  And one of the mitzvot said that if you failed in even the smallest of details, you failed in the whole law.  So, you have to believe that after generations of people who couldn’t follow all of the rules, there must have been a great number of everyday, ordinary people who just, “made up their own rules … every single day.”  Then along came this itinerate preacher from Nazareth – Jesus – who, when asked about a hierarchy for the 613 mitzvot said,

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  38This is the greatest and first commandment.  39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Jesus’ statement of the Great Commandments seemed to say, “All of the rest of that stuff is ancient history.  Now you only have two rules to live by.”  Which, in one sense, was exactly what He meant.  But in another way, it was not what He meant at all.  Remember earlier in Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel, (for us it was two weeks ago, when we read) Jesus’ words:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”  (Matthew 5:17-18) 

By that it seems pretty clear that nothing about the mitzvot changed as a result of Jesus’ preaching.

Now, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus seems to further confuse the issue by laying out what is known by Biblical scholars as the list of antitheses.  In this section of the Gospel, Jesus reminds His listeners of various mitzvot within Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  And then, rather than saying, “This has now been fulfilled, so you don’t have to worry about it anymore,” He seems to say, “This tough rule has just gotten considerably more difficult.”

You’ve heard it said that you shall not murder, but I say that even if you are just really angry with your brother and you call him names, you’ll suffer punishment for that.  Wow.  And you have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery, but I say that if you look at a woman lustfully, you’re liable and you should pluck your eye out.  That’s pretty harsh, don’t you think?  What about, you’ve heard it said that a man may divorce his wife, but I tell you that, unless she was cheating on you, you are causing her to commit adultery by divorcing her.  So … all of the divorced women in this church should leave now? 

It would definitely seem that Jesus has just muddied the waters of our already cloudy lives, rather than giving clear guidance.  I don’t think that that is completely correct, but remember that Jesus rarely gave direct, clear guidance.  Instead, He taught by example – both good and bad – and He ALWAYS wanted people to look at the things they thought they understood in brand new, different ways.

It seems to me that what Jesus was really getting at in His list of antitheses, was that we need not spend our time trying to mindlessly live by the letter of the law and then congratulating ourselves when we occasionally get it right.  Instead, Jesus wants us to follow the spirit of the law.  He wants for us to write the law on our hearts instead of writing on stone – or in our case, on paper.  What Jesus was talking about here was the prophet Jeremiah’s vision coming to pass.  In the 31st chapter, Jeremiah says:

33 [T]his is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.  (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

Jesus talked to His disciples about exactly what Jeremiah had prophesied about.

He challenged the Disciples’ understanding of the Law.  He gave them the part of the Law that they believed they understood and then told them, “But that’s not all.”  If they believed that not committing murder was enough to be faithful to God, Jesus told them they were wrong.  He said that even if they didn’t commit murder, if they failed to control their tempers, failed to control their mouths, and failed to care sufficiently about the feelings of others, then they had missed the mark exactly as if they had murdered someone.

He told the Disciples that if they allowed there to be enmity between themselves and any of the brothers and sisters who followed Him, then it didn’t matter that they had not broken one of the Ten Commandments, they were still just as liable for the judgment of God.  In essence, He told them that there was nothing of sufficient importance to allow it to come between believers.  A lesson we could certainly stand to learn today.

Now there is no doubt that Jesus’ list of antitheses is filled with overstatements.  As we have heard many times in the past, Jesus was the master of hyperbole.  He rarely hesitated to use overstatements to make his point more forcefully.  And that is part of what He was doing here.  He did not mean for people to pluck out their eyes or cut off their limbs.  He simply wanted them to understand how important it was for them to internalize the Commandments – how crucial it was for them to write the Great Commandments on their hearts and to always want to be led by them.

Think about it for a minute: if someone curses his brother, lusts after a woman to whom he’s not married; unjustly divorces his wife (leaving her penniless, as was the case in ancient Israel); or if someone swears falsely (which is commonly known as lying) about another person, how could that possibly accord with loving one’s neighbor as oneself?  You see, Jesus was not being the least bit inconsistent here.  He was still saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  And love your neighbor as yourself.”  He was just putting it into a new context – one of opposition with those people who believed that they were already following the letter of the Law.

All of this leads me to wonder: did Jesus’ Jewish audience hear what He said and think, “Maybe these rules weren’t written by someone who doesn’t live here.  Maybe they are rules for me – so that I don’t have to make up my own anymore.”?  Or, as is so true of us so much of the time, did His audience hear him and look to their left and right and say, “Hey.  He’s talking to you!”?

We’ve all broken the Great Commandments many times.  But if they are written on our hearts, we will always WANT to come back to them; not because of guilt, but because of love for the one who wrote them.  One of the early church fathers, Saint Basil put it this way:

It is important to cherish a pure thought of God, consciously imprinting it upon our memory as if it were an indelible seal.  In this way we grow in love for God: it stirs us to fulfill God’s commandments and in so doing, the love of God in us is nurtured in perpetuity.

So when we strip away all of the hyperbole and the attempt to make everyone see the message in a new light, we are left simply with writing the rules on our hearts: Love God; Love People.  In the words of that great philosopher, Shrek, “That’ll do, Donkey.  That’ll do.”  That indeed, is enough to keep us busy.  Amen

Listen Now:


Be Salt! Be Light! Have a righteous day! Mthr Mitzi George, Feb 9th

February 9, 2014

I have a friend who lives in Hargrove Settlement just outside of DeQuincy, LA whose name is Harry Methvin.  Harry is one of the smartest people I have ever met, really!  He was a high school English teacher and we taught next door to each other for about 7 years.  Harry and I shared a love for literature, a love for strong coffee and practical jokes, and we shared a birthday anniversary, as Harry liked to remind everyone.  “It isn’t your birthday”, he would say, “it’s the anniversary of your birth… you only get to be born once, unless you get reborn and that isn’t usually on the same date”, he would say in his straight guy tone.

Harry, I thought was the king of one liners and could find a one liner on any topic, literally.  Having grown up as a flower child, one of my favorite things to say to Harry at the end of the school day was “Have a nice day, Harry.” Or “Have a good night, Harry.” To which he always replied (and still does) “Don’t tell me what kind of a day to have. I’ll have any kind of day I want.”  And I would reply “okay, well, have a day.” And he would return with “I don’t have a choice in that, now do I?” We would always laugh and still do, when we see one another, even though this interchange has gone on for over 32 years.

But there is one kind of exhortation that seems to be used frequently these days that really bugs me.  Now, I don’t want you to think I’m a grouchy unlikable person, but I really hate it when I’m talking to someone and they tell me “have a blessed day!”  It makes me cringe when I hear that on someone’s answering machine as well.  Have a blessed day!!!!! Do I really get a say in that? I realize that I tend to over think things, but when I hear that, I think, “Do I really have any control over that? Are you going to judge me if you find out that things didn't go well for me today?" And then I also wonder what exactly they are going to consider blessed, are there certain things that have to happen in my day in order for it to qualify as a blessed day.

Now, I know they’re trying to be nice, maybe even trying to be Christian, but what are they really saying?  I have to wonder sometimes if we’ve emptied all meaning from the English language.  Do we really understand what blessed means?  You see I think a lot of people think the word means have a day filled with everything you want, have a day where you get all the deals you want, no flat tires, no rocks in your windshield, and you get money in the mail.  I think that’s what people think of as blessed.  So, what happens when I’m driving down the interstate and a rock hits my windshield?  What happens when I get stuck in hours of traffic or a get a flat tire, or when I’m not feeling well…am I not blessed then?  What exactly does it mean to be blessed?

I would have no problem with that exhortation if what they meant was more in line with the beatitudes found in the earlier verses of today’s Gospel passage. If the speaker meant "Have a blessed day" in terms of Jesus' Beatitudes in Matthew, then they would be encouraging me to live in keeping with the instructions of Matthew 5:1-12. They would be reminding me that I am blessed when I am mourning, blessed when I am persecuted, blessed when I am reviled, blessed when I am hungry and thirsty for righteousness, when I’m being meek, when I’m making peace: I can handle an exhortation that would be preparing me for the fact that not everything is going to go my way and there will be times when it’s going to be difficult, acknowledging I should be prepared for that and know that God still loves me even when I’m not having a good day.

You see, I think that is one of the main points in Matthew’s 5th chapter.  Life is hard, it doesn’t get easier because we have chosen to follow Jesus, in many ways it gets harder because we are asked to give more of ourselves, we’re asked to practice meekness, humility, kindness and gentleness and that is hard to do.  It’s especially hard in a world that seems to breed cynicism and arrogance. Jesus also tells us, while you’re practicing all of those great virtues we are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. So this is complicated, but if those answering machine messages were reminding me that I am salt and light, and encourage me to be prepared for the joy that comes from serving others I could handle that, it’s a more realistic perspective of what a life following Christ is like and a better refrain.  I guess you have noticed, Jesus never told people to have a nice day, or a blessed day!  He said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

This word you is emphatic in the verses we read this morning. There is an implied imperative in both statements in other words; "Be salt. Be light. Be who you already have been called to be and are capable of being in and for the world, because you have been empowered by God to do it." Jesus didn’t use a future tense when he proclaimed those around him as salt or light.  He didn’t say do this or that and eventually you will become salt or light; he said you are salt, you are light.  Then he goes on to explain that salt is useless if it loses its saltiness and that putting a light under a bushel is useless as well. Useless.  In other words if we aren’t using our saltiness or our light in the manner for which it was intended we lose it.

Now, salt and light were very important metaphors in the scriptures.  Israel had long regarded God as the source of light for daily life. Israel had long believed in and hoped for the Servant of Yahweh, who was to be a light to the nations through a liberating servant hood directed at the poor and downtrodden.

During Jesus’ lifetime, the rabbis had spoken of the Torah as a mediator of the light of God. While the rabbis saw Torah as mediator of God's light, just 90 yrs. after the crucifixion Christian writers ascribed this role to Jesus in the Gospel of John "I am the light of the world" and Paul affirmed that he glimpsed the "light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" in his second letter to the Corinthians.

Salt was a very important commodity in the first century.  It was used to cure, preserve, and season foods, used in liturgical rites in the temple according to Leviticus, and was used medicinally as an antiseptic, it had lots of uses just as it does today.  It was a substance with which everyone could identify and with which everyone had experience.  In the first century salt was a necessity, so everyone who could hear what Jesus was saying could identify with the proclamation; “You are the salt of the earth!”

 The unique quality of salt is that it should never draw attention to itself, it works in the background if you will.  It only takes a little bit of salt to season a whole pot, if you’re cooking you use it only to flavor the food, salt isn’t the one seasoning you want to stand out over the rest of the meal, ever!  Salt is supposed to bring out the best of all the other flavors in the pot.  Was Jesus telling his disciples be a part of the gumbo, be that little bit of flavoring in the world that brings out the best in the pot of life?  As disciples are we to be that little zest in the world that makes life better?

And what about being light in the world?  Light again, is one of those things that we don’t want to notice, we don’t want the light in our rooms to be so bright that we can’t see the other objects in the room, you all know that a really bright light will hurt your eyes and sometimes knock off your equilibrium.  But light is necessary for life, light gives us all the beautiful colors we enjoy in the world, it enables us to see other objects and take notice of the beauty around us.  Not having enough light is depressing and makes us feel uncomfortable in a room. The perfect amount of light illumines the world around us without bringing attention to the light itself.  A perfect balance of light is not even noticeable, but if it’s missing we know it immediately.  So as the light of the world, are we to be that perfect balance that illuminates all that is good with the world?

These two metaphors are perfect for depicting a life in Christ, a life that points beyond itself to God.  That is the point of discipleship.  We are to be the one’s illuminating the path for others so that they might find God in their lives.  As disciples we are those whose lives should be an enhancing flavor in the gumbo of life. The goal of being salt and light is to give glory to "our Father in heaven" These two metaphors are perfect for depicting a ministry that points beyond itself to God.

But there is more, much more in this 5th chapter of Matthew, because Jesus goes on to exclaim to those listening; “unless your righteousness exceeds the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Now l don’t want you to think of scribes and Pharisees in the negative connotation, because that isn’t the intent, the scribes were the keepers of the Law and in many cases throughout Judaic history scribes were known to give their lives defending the sacred scrolls they kept; and Pharisees were considered the holiest of men.  Pharisees were those who were known for their faith, their good works and observance of the Law.  While Christian scripture depicts them as scoundrels, they were actually good people who lived out their faith as close to perfect as they could.  But Jesus warns unless His disciples exceed these standards in living out their call they would not see the kingdom.  In other words, unless our lives reflect the beatitudes we will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  We are called to reflect those beatitudes in the world, we are called to be humble of heart, compassionate, merciful, pure of heart, peacemakers… we are called to be the righteous in the world, not the religious but the righteous… those who do right according to the commandments of Christ.

So maybe we should all run home and change the message on our answering machines and voicemails to "Have a righteous day." If we feel compelled to tell other people what kind of day to have, that's the best choice I've encountered so far!  Maybe we should admonish others to have a day filled with humility, service, mercy and the like; or maybe we should say nothing at all and just trust that everyone we meet is trying to make the best of whatever day they are having.  And maybe we should just concentrate on being the salt and light others need.

 

Amen.

 

 

Listen Now:


The Lamb of God Has Cleansed The World - Fr. John Bedingfield, Feb 2nd

February 4, 2014

In the name of Jesus, who took away the sin of the world, Amen.

          We do not often get the lectionary readings that we have this morning.  The last time was in 2003.  You see, this is the 4th Sunday of Epiphany, but it is also February 2nd.  The second day of February is 40 days after the birth of Jesus, which – under ancient Jewish law – called for a very specific ritual, the presentation in the Temple of the newborn baby, and the purification of the mother.  It is that presentation event that Luke’s Gospel speaks to this morning.  The rest of this morning’s readings were also selected to illuminate the topics of presentation and purification.

          At the beginning of the service, we prayed a Collect of the day that contained this:

[A]s your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; ….

“So that we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts.”  That is what we prayed for – pure and clean hearts. 

          The Old Testament reading this morning comes from Malachi.  In it, the prophet says that the Lord, “is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi ….”  Throughout the Old Testament there is significant talk of purification.  Whole portions of the levitical purity code deal with when and how people should be ritually purified in order to make themselves ready for whatever was coming next.  But what Malachi talks about is deeper than that.  The prophet says that the Lord will act as a refiner’s fire or a fuller’s soap.  That’s some deep cleansing, some serious purification.

          Fire is used to heat metal to sufficient temperature to allow impurities to be separated from the metal.  And in ancient Israel, fullers were the people who cleansed all of the impurities from raw cotton material through the use of what later became known as lye soap.  So if Malachi was right, in order to get the children of Israel to turn their lives around – to make them stop seeking after other gods – the Lord would put them through a fiery ordeal and wash them with harsh, corrosive soap in order to make them “righteous.”  Perhaps Malachi’s prescription for the ancient Israelites appears on this 4th Sunday of Epiphany to show us how all that changed after the Incarnation.

          In the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, blood and sacrifice were a part of the rites of purification.  The Holman Bible Dictionary describes it this way:

The final element of the ritual of purification is sacrifice.  Purification from discharges required two pigeons or turtledoves, one for a sin offering and one for a burnt offering (Leviticus 15:14-15, Leviticus 15:14-15,15:29-30 ). A lamb and pigeon or turtledove were offered after childbirth (Leviticus 12:6 ).  

In Jesus’ time, the understanding was that God demanded sacrifice and cleansing to atone for people’s sins.  But all of that changed as people began to have an Epiphany, a revelation of who Jesus really was and what His mission was.

          Jesus carries many names: Christ; Redeemer; King of Kings; Good Shepherd; and Emmanuel among them.  But in this particular case, the one that is the most fitting is one given to him by the John the Baptist: Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  The priests in the Temple used to slaughter all sorts of animals, from bulls to doves, depending upon the size, degree and number of sins.  And those sacrifices were performed every year, or sometimes every week, because the people continued to sin and new sacrifices were called for all the time.  But the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus changed that.

          Jesus gave himself as a perfect sacrifice, one time for all.  He was the true Lamb of God – the unblemished sacrifice who went through torture and death without ever speaking out against those who perpetrated the horror; the one whose blood was of such unparalleled purity that when it was shed, it created an existence in which no other sacrifice was ever required. 

But what does it mean that Jesus purified all humanity?  What does it mean that Jesus’ sacrifice cleansed sin in his time, in our time and forever?

          Simply put, it means that we never again have to pretend that we can earn our way out of sinfulness and into God’s good graces.  It means that we can live our lives in the blessed assurance that Jesus has pre-paid our debts and cleaned the slate between God and all humanity.

          Since the sacrifice of Jesus was enough to atone for all sin – for all time – that means we can do whatever we like without consequences.  Because, after all, there is nothing to worry about now.  We can sin with impunity and never worry about tomorrow.  Right?  That’s where things get a little tricky.

          While we ponder the wonder of God’s grace and the expansiveness of God’s love for us, we should also keep in mind that sinfulness has natural consequences.  When we live in ways that are considered “sinful,” consequences naturally follow.  If we drink too much, we have a hangover and generally feel horrible.  If we cheat on a spouse we often ruin multiple lives.  If we steal from or cheat other people, our conscience is usually active and we feel guilty.  But if we live lives in which we try to concentrate on loving the Lord our God and loving our neighbors then we generally live lives at peace – even if we don’t live peaceful lives.  But there is something else about Jesus’ sacrifice for us … and that is the other great epiphany about the Incarnation.

          You see, when we could finally see the face of God, it changed our outlook on God.  No longer was God this distant, disengaged – or even angry – being, of whom we should always be afraid.  Instead, God in Christ, gave us a positive example on which to pattern our lives.  And Jesus gave us a God whom we would rather please than fear.  Now, when we live lives as disciples of Jesus, we do so in order to be the kind of people He called us to be, rather than trying to earn our way into God’s glorious afterlife.

          Jesus said that the Kingdom of God had come near.  That means that he was very interested in the here and now – not just the hereafter.  He gave Himself up for us so that we would be able to stand before the throne of judgment with our heads held high, but He also did it to show us the grace of God right here and right now. 

The call is out for us to live by the example of Jesus and every day to say thanks for the gracious gift of the Lamb of God that has purified and cleansed the world.

Amen.

Listen Now: