St. Paul and the Jesus Movement, Fr. John Bedingfield March 13th

March 13, 2016
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In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

            We started the service by praying this:  Almighty God … Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; ….  That says a lot.  Let’s look at what we are asking for today.

            We want God’s grace – to love what God commands.  According to Jesus, what God commands is simply this: that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and that we love our neighbors as ourselves.  Jesus said that all the law and the prophets – in other words, everything else in the Bible – hangs on those two commandments.  Jesus also said that we are supposed to love one another the same way the Jesus loves us.  So today we asked for God’s grace that we be able to do those things.  When we just read the words in Scripture, it seems pretty simple – and pretty easy.  However, we know from experience that loving God and loving each other the way Jesus loves us, is much more complicated than it seems.  So let’s see what else we prayed for.

            We asked for God’s grace to desire what God promises.  What promise might that be?  In Jesus we learn that the promise He brought us was nothing short of everlasting life.  In the single most famous line in Scripture, St. John tells us that Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in Him should not perish but might have everlasting life.”  God’s promise to us is: that we are beloved children of God the Father and that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been given entry into heaven as a result of God’s grace alone.

            Finally, we prayed that, “among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found …”  This is the one that is purely up to us.  Sure, we asked for God’s grace that it might be accomplished, but make no mistake, this one is 100% on us.  We have asked simply that God support us in all of the weirdness and uncertainty of our lives, and that we may open our hearts to the truth of Jesus Christ – where true joys are to be found.

            Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry uses the term, the Jesus Movement to describe what it means to fix our hearts where true joys are to be found.  He calls all Episcopalians to be not only followers of Jesus, but lovers of Jesus as well.  He talks often about how we are to come together as we are today, in order to be fed and nourished in order to carry out the work of the Jesus Movement in the world.  He believes that we will indeed find true joy by going out beyond our church walls and engaging the community.

            Now it is crucial to remember that what Bishop Curry is talking about is not the same thing as going on a traditional mission trip.  Now please don’t get me wrong, there is NOTHING wrong with a traditional mission trip, in which people go and help another community by providing what that community needs, and perhaps giving a helping hand in deploying their newly received assistance.  That is good and godly work.  But Bishop Curry is talking about something else – something in addition to that other work.

            He is talking about our going out and creating relationships with the people who are in need in our local communities.  That means that we go out and meet them on the same plane they occupy, not as the people who have come to write checks and save them; but as the people who care about their day-to-day lives and want to partner with them in improving those lives.  That is the work that Jim Lambert and his faithful group of men are doing with AMI Kids, and that is the work that St. Paul did when he traveled around.

            In today’s reading from Philippians, Paul was writing from a prison cell, to the first Christian community he founded, in what is modern-day Greece.  This church had been in his heart since the time that he gathered them together and became one of them.  At the time of this writing, Paul had been gone from them for a while and there were other teachers who had come in and begun to tell them that the Law of Moses was as important (or more important) than the grace and love of Jesus Christ.  So he wrote to assure them of his love for them, and to straighten out those things that might have begun to be confusing.

            So, in inimitable Paul style, he told them why he was an authority on the things these new teachers were saying.  He told them that he, Saul of Tarsus (before his name change) was a much better Jew than the ones who were bringing their message to the Church in Philippi.  He said,

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, (meaning the Law of Moses, or what we call the Old Testament) I have more: circumcised on the eighth day (in other words, Jewish from birth), a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin (inferring that he was from the same blood line as King Saul), a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee (Paul had studied under the leading Pharisaic scholar of the day, Gamaliel); as to zeal, a persecutor of the church (referring to what he did before Jesus came to him in a vision and converted him); as to righteousness under the law, blameless (clearly not true, but definitely an effective argument).

Paul wanted the people to know that there was no argument that their new Jewish teachers could make to him, that he had not already considered.  His Jewish pedigree was better than any of theirs and whatever they could teach, he had already taught.

            Then Paul went on to tell his loved ones in Philippi that, since his conversion, he had reevaluated everything in his old life and found no value in it whatsoever.  He said,

I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

         To my way of thinking, St. Paul is the perfect example of what a person who is a part of the Jesus Movement does.  He went to cities and became a partner with the people in creating community – a community that cared for one another and wanted only the best for each other.  And by the way, loving one another as Jesus loved us means just that – that we genuinely care for and want the best for our neighbors.

         So, we prayed today that God would grant us the grace to begin to love one another as Jesus loves us, and then to extend that grace so that we might become more like Jesus – to the end that we could find joy in being Christ-like.  That, it seems to me, may be the best collect we have ever prayed.

         Now, please look in your bulletin and let’s pray it one more time.  Hopefully it will stick with us all this week and we will begin the process of accepting the grace of God that could make our prayer become reality.

         O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen..

The Prodigal Father, Fr. John Bedingfield March 6th

March 6, 2016
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May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength and redeemer.  Amen.


This story of the prodigal son is probably one of the most famous Gospel parables that there is.  It certainly is “Luke’s Greatest Hit.”  This is one that we’ve heard over and over.  And we have heard it explained in so many ways.  But there is something about this parable that I really want to talk to you about this morning, that hopefully will let you see it in different light.


When the Gospels were being written, the authors did not put in headings, like you see in your Bibles today.  Those were added centuries later.  In the original writing, this parable was not called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”  It did not have a title, it was just a parable.  But over the years, someone looked at it and said, “This is a parable about a child going away from the family, wasting all his money and then coming back.  So this is a story of a prodigal son.”  That says something about the person who gave it that title.  That the most important aspect of the story is that the child lost all of the money.  I would submit to you that a better title would be, “The Prodigal Father.”


Prodigal, as you may or may not know, just means “excessive.”  It just means that child spent all of the money — spent it excessively — and so was guilty of “prodigal spending.”  But I would like for you to look at it from the other perspective, from the father’s point of view.  The father loved, and forgave and showed grace to his sons in a very prodigal manner — excessively.  As a matter of fact, the father’s love for his sons was overly abundant.


Think about the beginning of this story.  The young son comes to his father and he says, “Father, give me everything that is mine.  I want to leave town and go away.”  There was a set formula for the way that this would have been done.  There were not wills in those days.  If you were the first son, you got a double share.  All of the other sons got a single share.  And the daughters … got nothing.  So in this case, there were two sons.  The first would have gotten a 2/3 share while the younger son got a 1/3 share.  It was pretty easy to figure out.  So the father gave him what he asked for.  I can tell you that that is not the way THIS father would have handled it.  If my son came to me and said, “Father give me all that is mine,” I would have given him a hearty handshake — not only because that was pretty much all he was going to inherit from me anyway — but also because what the son did was so incredibly disrespectful.  In essence, he walked up to his father and said, “Hey Dad, drop dead.  I’m leaving town.”  That is the essence of what he told his father.  


But the father in the parable was so gracious and loving to his son that he just whipped out his checkbook and sent him on his way with his 1/3.  And of course we know what happens then.  The son goes away and blows all of his money in what the Bible refers to as “dissolute living.”  Each one of you has the power to determine for yourselves what “dissolute living” is.  It can be anything from ordering extra desserts to the use of drugs, or whatever.  But at the end, he was broke — as people who live “dissolutely” always are.


Then he took a job tending pigs.  Have you ever been near a pig farm?  Then you know that there are few places in the world that smell worse than a pig farm.  We, modern city dwellers, think, “Man, that is a horrible job.  I would not have wanted that job.”  But it was a much bigger deal than that, to this guy.  He was a Jew.  And Jews were prohibited from having anything to do with pigs, because they were unclean animals, according to the law of Leviticus.  So not only did he have a horrible job that didn’t pay very well (because he was still starving), but he was also living in a way that violated the tenets of his religion.  


He comes back home and before he even gets there, his father comes out to meet him.  He has a speech that he has been rehearsing all the way home.  It is truly a speech of repentance and confession.  “Father, I am no longer worthy to be your son.  You should pay no attention to me.  But please let me work for you.”  That is truly repentant.  But his father did not even let him complete his confession before he forgives him.  That is some prodigal forgiveness.  That is amazing, incredible forgiveness.  The father is telling him that he understands that the son wants to be forgiven and come home.  He says, “I can hear in your voice that want forgiveness and I give it to you.”  


That would be a great story.  But Jesus doesn’t leave it there.  But Jesus went further.  He turned the story in a different direction, as he often did.  And in that next section, he was saying, “All of your religious authorities back there in the back, this one is for you.”  And he begins to talk about the 1st son.


The older son returns from the fields and refuses to join in the celebration the father has thrown for the second son.  When he sees the celebration going on, he is livid.  And you can just hear, from the way that this is written, that the father has been hearing these complaints for months.  Every night, when they have dinner, the father has to listen to the litany of complaints again: “I still can’t believe that you gave him his whole share!  You let him go away and have a great old time, while we stayed here and worked every day, working the land!”  The father has had to hear it over and over again.  Maybe it was finally starting to settle down, when the younger son returns home.  


And when the older son sees that the younger one has returned — and that thee is a huge party going on — the older brother loses his stuff!  The father goes out to him to try to calm him down, but he is having none of that.  He doesn’t even address his father as “father.”  He is so angry that he says, “Listen!  You have given him everything!  And you have never given me anything!  Not even enough to have a party with my friends!  But I’m the one who has been here EVERY day!  I’m the one who has done ALL of the work!  I’m the one who has been so faithful all these years!  And THIS IS THE WAY YOU TREAT ME!?!  That is unbelievable!”


The Prodigal Father again does not do what this father would have done, which would have been to bow up to my son and say, “Back it up!  Don’t forget that you are talking to your father!”  Instead, the father in the parable says, “I love you.  All that I have is yours and you are here with me all the time.  But I have to throw a party to celebrate that your brother is home.”  After all that the son has said; after all of his disrespect; the father does not even require that the older son repent and confess — he just forgives him.  That is prodigal forgiveness.


This father is the ultimate example for us of what the Father in heaven is like.  This is a way for us to really wrap our minds around who the Father in heaven really is.  That is the point of this parable.  Jesus was telling all of the religious leaders who were standing in the back, “You — second sons back there — you who stayed at home (in the Temple) while everyone else got to go out and enjoy themselves — you who resent everyone else for not being as faithful as you are — Get over yourselves.  The Father loves all of these sinners who are being rescued.  But that does not mean that the Father does not love you anymore.  The Father has never stopped loving you.  Now you need to forgive and love these others.”  That is the point.


We as modern as modern Christians need to keep in mind that when people are different from us, when people have lived different lives than we have lived, when people have gotten angry and gone away from the Church and hurt our feelings, they are still loved by the God who loves us.  We need to love in the same way.  That is point of the story of the Prodigal Father.  Prodigal love, prodigal forgiveness and prodigal grace is what the Father wants from us.  Amen.

The Faith of Abram, Fr. John Bedingfield, Feb 21

February 21, 2016
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In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

         As I have said from this pulpit before, the story of Abraham (or, as he is in today’s story, Abram) and God is one of my favorites.  Abram and Sarai’s story is just so unlikely, so totally outside of our experience, and yet so completely like our walk with God, that it just pulls me in when I read it.  But much more important than the way Abram’s story captivates me, is the deep lesson in faith that we can learn from this incredible servant of God.

         By the time that we get to this morning’s story in the Book of Genesis, we have learned that Abram was a very wealthy man who loved his wife, Sarai very deeply, though the two of them had never been able to have children.  Abram was a deeply faithful man, who followed God’s instructions to a new land that God gave him.  On that land, he built up his herds, riches and slave holdings even further, until his holdings were so large that he and his nephew, Lot had to split up and move away from each other, so that there would be sufficient pasture for each herd.

         Abram was indeed blessed by God.  And Abram was faithful to God.  In the chapter that precedes what we read this morning, Lot and his family had been kidnapped by an army that attacked their home city of Sodom.  Abram found out about it and took all of the men of fighting age who worked for him (318 of them) and staged a raid.  They conquered the opposing army and rescued his nephew.  But Abram refused to take all of the wealth from the defeated army (as was the custom in those days), because he did not want anyone to think that the spoils of war – rather than God – had made him wealthy.  So at the beginning of this morning’s reading, God offers Abram a reward for doing a good deed and for not wanting anyone to think less of God for it.

         When God appeared to Abram, God told him that his reward would be great.  Now here is one of the things that I really love about Abram.  Instead of saying, “Thank you, God.  I appreciate it.” Abram says, (in essence) “I have all sorts of wealth, God.  How are you going to reward me when the only thing that I do not have, that I want, is an heir?  You have never given me a son!”  That exchange between God and Abram was an example of how the two of them communicated.  It was always a conversation when Abram talked with God – not an edict from God that Abram followed.  When these two spoke with each other, Abram never hesitated to tell God exactly how he felt, or to even bargain with God.  And God responded as would a friend.

         Abram complained about not having a son and God’s response was, “‘[N]o one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’  (Then God took Abram outside) and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’  Then [God] said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’”  That is a bold promise for God to make.  It is a particularly bold promise when you consider that Abram was nearing his 100th birthday when God told him this.  But the truly amazing thing here is Abram’s response.

         This time, instead of arguing or complaining or bargaining, Abram, “believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  When the author of Genesis talks about “reckoned as righteousness,” it means that God saw Abram’s response as faithful, and therefore, called it righteousness.  As one commentator put it, “This is a key moment in the text –  in the Bible – in human history.  Abram decides to trust the promise rather than the evidence.  God has been faithful to him in many ways, so he believes that God will be faithful to him in this way as well.[1]”  But even this faithful and righteous man was not above seeking proof.

         Abram then asks God, “How will I know that this is to be true?”  Another reason that I love Abram as a Biblical character is that, in some instances, he is exactly like us.  Here was this very faithful man, who had just confessed to God that he would trust that God’s outrageous promise would be fulfilled; and the next thing he says to God is, “How will I know that it has happened?”  Just like we can be in our relationship with God; at that moment, Abram wanted to trust but verify.  And that led God to enter into a covenant with Abram that affects us today.  God promised that Abram and his natural descendants would possess the land that God gave them, forever.  And the only thing Abram promised, was his continued faith.

         Another thing that we need to learn from Abram is that questioning God is not the same as not having faith.  Abram questioned many times – and even argued with God on one occasion.  But he never lost his faith that God would do what God promised – and more importantly, that this God was one who was worthy of his faith.  So, over and over again, Abram followed where God led.

         I think that all of us would like to have faith like Abram’s.  I have trusted God for much of my adult life – decidedly more, the older I get.  When it came to my mid-life call to ordained ministry, I really had to trust God completely.  There was no way that I could see the whole thing working out as it did.  It was only through completely trusting that God was in charge that I got through all of the ups and downs of the discernment process.  But that doesn’t mean that my faith is perfect, or even complete.  Just like Abram did, after God made the promise, I am not above trying to verify that what God said was true.

         But, you know, there is only one way for us to increase our faith, and that is through exercising it.  Our faith is no different than the muscles in our bodies.  If we exercise it by testing it under all sorts of conditions, we will see that God is always faithful … and our faith will be stronger the next time it is put to the test.  But if we never step out in faith – if we never take risks that God has asked us to take – we will sit by idly as our faith atrophies and withers away.  Trust in God.  Step out in faith and find out just how faithful God really is.

            Here is a modern story of faith that will hopefully set this in your mind.  Charles Blondin became famous on September 14, 1860, when he became the first person to complete a tightrope walk across Niagara Falls.  People from both Canada and America came from miles away to see this great feat.

He walked the ¼ mile across, 160 feet above the falls, several times, each time making it harder for himself.  Once, he did the walk in a sack; once on stilts; then on a bicycle; in the dark; and blindfolded.  One time he even carried a stove and cooked an omelet in the middle of the rope!

A large crowd gathered and the buzz of excitement ran along both sides of the bank. The crowd really “Oohed and Aahed” as Blondin carefully walked across pushing a wheelbarrow holding a sack of potatoes.

The crowd cheered wildly as Blondin addressed them: "Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?"

The crowd enthusiastically yelled, "Yes!  You are the greatest tightrope walker in the world.  We believe you can do it!"

"Okay," said Blondin, "Who wants to get into the wheelbarrow."  There was complete silence.

The crowd watched his daring feats.  They said they believed in him.  But... putting their faith into action was a real problem.[2]

As a postscript to the story, one day, Blondin's manager, Harry Colcord, did ride on Blondin's back across the Falls.  I Googled Harry Colcord just to make sure and he did NOT die by being dropped into Niagara Falls.  Harry Colcord had true faith in Charles Blondin.  He was pretty close to Abram as far as the Blondin story goes. 

Faith is an easy thing to talk about but a hard thing to perfect.  But like most things in life, practice makes perfect.  This Lent is a great time to exercise your faith muscles as you learn to trust God in all things.  Amen.



[1]  Richard Donovan, www.lectionary.org

[2]  http://www.inspire21.com/stories/faithstories/CharlesBlondin

Temptation of Comfort Food, Fr. John Bedingfield, Feb 14

February 21, 2016
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In the name of God who became human and faced temptations as we do.  Amen.

         From the time I was in preschool, up through about junior high, whenever I was sick and stayed home from school (not those times where I faked it because I hadn’t done my homework, but when I was really sick) my mom would make a pot of potato soup and that is what I would have for lunch.  For as long as I can remember, potato soup has been one of my comfort foods.  “Comfort food,” is defined as, “food that comforts or affords solace; hence any food … that is associated with childhood or with home cooking.”

         Now … think about a time when you fasted intentionally.  I don’t just mean a time in which you were so busy that you skipped a meal, but rather a time when – for whatever reason, you decided not to eat.  Maybe you were having “a procedure” done and you were told, “nothing to eat or drink after midnight;” or maybe it was a Lenten discipline under which you did not eat from sunup to sundown; whatever it was, you were hungry.  When you don’t eat, you get hungry.  But when you choose not to eat for some reason, your hunger seems to double or quadruple in size and intensity.  Now imagine it has been 39 days since you chose to eat.  That’s what Luke’s Gospel tells us happened with Jesus in the wilderness.

         What might have been going through Jesus’ mind as He walked alone that day?  Scripture tell us that Jesus was 100% God, but also 100% human.  That being the case, in the 40th day of a fast, I promise you Jesus was hungry!  And because He was human, I promise you He had His favorite comfort foods as well.  On that day, as He was walking through the wilderness, He may have been thinking about the lentil soup that Mary made when He was a child.  Whatever it was, I’ll bet that Jesus had more than passing thoughts of home cooking as Satan approached Him.

         Satan said to Jesus, If you are God, command that rock to become bread.  This is why I asked you to remember a time when you were really, intentionally hungry.  After you’ve had your “procedure” or after the sun has gone down, or whatever the triggering event may be … wouldn’t you eat just about anything – and love every bite?  I remember lying on a gurney in a recovery area one time … it was almost 4:00pm and I hadn’t eaten since about 7:00pm the previous night.  A nurse walked up and asked if I would like to have a package of peanut butter crackers and a cup of ice water.  At that moment in time, that was the most delicious thing I had ever had – and if she had wanted to make a deal with me for those crackers and water, I’d have considered selling my soul.

         Jesus – six weeks without food – and an equal time without human company – and the great tempter came up to Him and offered what He probably longed for even more than peanut butter crackers … comfort food … homemade bread.  And because Satan followed up the food offer by tempting Jesus with promises of enormous power over the world around Him; the lure of comfort food – that reminder of the simpler time of childhood – must have been incredibly strong.  That is temptation!

         We all face temptations that – in their own ways – are just as hard as what Jesus faced that day.  During this season of Lent we are supposed to have our usual temptations brought into sharper focus for us by adding Lenten disciplines to our lives – disciplines that invite us to be tempted to give them up.  But it is not just in Lent that we face temptations.

         When we think of Satan, we think of the scary creature of movies like The Exorcist, or we think of the guy in the red long johns, with the horns, pitchfork and pointed tail.  But that cannot be the way Satan is – otherwise, why would anyone be tempted by him?  No, if Satan is going to tempt anyone, he has to be very alluring and attractive.

         In the film, The Devil’s Advocate, Al Pacino plays the devil incarnate in the character of John Milton (a name meant to remind of the author of the epic poem about the fall of man, Paradise Lost).  Milton is the senior partner in the law firm of Milton, Chadwick, Waters.  The film deals with the meteoric rise to fame, power and wealth of small-town lawyer, Kevin Lomax, who is recruited by Milton to become an integral part of his prestigious Manhattan firm.  Kevin ignores the warning signs about Milton and his firm until it is too late for him to get away.  And the reason that he gets sucked so deep into the devil’s lair is quite simply that Satan understands humans and tempts them, in very alluring ways, with what they most desire. 

         In the case of Kevin Lomax the temptation was success in his chosen profession.  John Milton was smooth, charismatic and successful himself.  And he promised Kevin everything Milton seemed to have: wealth; possessions; prestige; but most of all … a life in which he never lost a case in court.  The temptation was so great that when Kevin’s wife began to suffer a mental and emotional breakdown, it seemed completely reasonable for him to tell Milton that as soon as he finished trying his case, he would turn all his attention to helping his wife recover.  That’s how Satan works.  We are tempted to follow his ways – to gain what we want – to be who Satan tells us we deserve to be – and then when we take the offer, we find out that the price is very high – like hurting those we love.

         What are your temptations?  What is it that your evil nature will allow you to seek after – even in the face of proof that your temptation is bad for you?  Like Kevin Lomax, are you tempted by money and possessions to abandon, or at least ignore your family?  Are you tempted by your taste buds to eat more than you should?  Do you drink to excess or use other substances because you are tempted by the need to forget about real life for a while?  Or is it something as seemingly innocuous as being tempted to sleep late or play golf on Sunday morning instead of attending worship services?  We are all tempted – and always by those areas of our lives where we have the biggest weaknesses, but in which our egos tell us we are completely in control.  Fortunately for us though, just like Jesus we have the tools at our disposal to be able to resist The Great Tempter when he comes calling in all his alluring attractiveness. 

         Jesus resisted Satan, not by running away, nor by arguing with him.  Instead, Jesus pointed out to Satan what God had previously said on the subjects at issue.  Jesus used Holy Scripture to point out to Satan just how far from God’s choice of paths the devil wanted Him to go.  We have that same tool in our tool kits. 

         So the next time you are tempted by something that seems alluring – but somewhere in the back of your mind (or somewhere in the recesses of your heart or soul) you feel that twinge that is trying to tell you something – take a serious look at your temptation (and your tempter).  Then consult with God, through Scripture and prayer, and see what it is that God wants – rather than what you and Satan know is just a beautiful trap.

         If you don’t feel prepared to respond to your temptations through the use of Scripture, we can fix that.  If you don’t feel prepared to respond through the use of prayer, we can fix that as well.  But if you’re not here – if you’re not in the midst of a loving and supportive community of faith … the tempter has a real edge because you fight alone and with one hand tied behind your back. 

         If you want the skills and abilities to be able to deal with the dangerous temptations in your life, come here to the place where you can gain the skills and support you need … and more importantly where you can come to the altar rail and receive the TRUE comfort food … the bread and wine of communion … the Body and Blood of our Lord.  The only comfort food we ever really need and the source of our ability to resist any and all temptation.  Amen.

Transformation, step by step, Fr. John Bedingfield, Feb 7th

February 7, 2016
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In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, or Transfiguration Sunday; the day when we read two stories, one each about Moses and Jesus, who went up a mountain where each one had a close encounter with the God who created the world.  There are many similarities when we compare these stories.  As Biblical scholar, Paul John Achtemeier put it: Both incidents: (1) occur on a mountain (2) involve Moses (3) have God speaking from a cloud (4) speak of the glory of the Lord and (5) inspire fear (in the witnesses).  But there is a significant difference too.

When Moses went up on the mountain, it was to bring back the second copy of the Ten Commandments (remember that he broke the first tablets when he found the people worshiping their golden calf).  So Moses went back up on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights of being with God.  God gave him the law and even let Moses glimpse God’s back briefly – although God would never let Moses see the face of God, because to do so would mean that Moses would die[1].  And all of that time with God changed him.  When Moses came back down the mountain, he had been transformed.  He was told that he was favored by God and had been allowed to experience God’s magnificence so that his face shown with the glory of God[2].  And the people saw him differently.

Jesus took Peter, James and John and went up the mountain to pray.  But instead of simply praying for a period of time, this time of prayer led to Jesus being transfigured.  Not transformed – meaning changed into something else; but rather, transfigured – meaning to change one’s appearance into something more spiritually exalted[3].  Jesus’ face and clothing noticeably changed.  And then suddenly He was speaking with Moses and Elijah – the giver of The Law, and God’s greatest prophet. 

[Now parenthetically, did you ever wonder how Peter, James and John knew that they were Moses and Elijah?  I mean, it’s not like they had seen them pictures of them; like they had “Famous Figures From Ancient Judaism Trading Cards,” or something.  But that is something to ponder for another day.]

Jesus’ discussions with these great figures were not even the most amazing thing that happened, though.  A cloud came along and enveloped them all.  And out of the cloud came the actual voice of God, saying, “This is my Son; my Chosen, listen to Him[4].”  Now let’s admit it, that is a mountaintop experience like no one else has had … ever!  But at the end of it all, Jesus was standing without Moses and Elijah, and there is nothing in the text to indicate that his appearance was altered at all.

         So what do we make out of these stories?  Here’s the thing, for all of the similarities between Moses’ and Jesus’ mountaintop experiences, there are greater differences.  Moses experienced the glory of God and his appearance – and presumably his life – were transformed forever.  Jesus did not experience the glory of God, instead, He was transfigured and radiated the glory of God.  He did not need to be transformed into something, or someone else.  He was a perfect window through which could be seen of the glory of God already.  It was just that the Disciples finally understood enough to peek through that window and truly experience the radiant glory of God for themselves.  And Luke tells us this story (among other reasons) to show us that Jesus is the new Moses.  The original Moses led God’s people out of bondage to Pharaoh and then brought the law to the people.  Jesus, the new Moses, is the only mediator of God’s law and brings it to the people as completely fulfilled, thereby delivering them out of their bondage to the old law – a new exodus from captivity to freedom.

         Transfiguration and transformation.  It is an interesting comparison.  But since no one has been transfigured by an encounter with God like Jesus, perhaps we should stick with transformation.  In the opening prayer, or Collect, that we prayed at the start of the service, we asked God to, “Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of [Jesus’] countenance, may be … changed into his likeness from glory to glory; ….”  That is some wonderful, Thomas Cranmer-esque language.  But, in essence, what we were praying for, was that our experience of Jesus might transform us so that we might be more like Him – that we might be good and accurate reflections of Jesus in our everyday lives.

         In just a few minutes, I will baptize Olivia Lathrop.  As a part of the sacrament of Baptism, we will pray that Olivia might be transformed into a Christ-like person.  In the prayers, we will ask that God: 1) Open her heart to God’s grace and truth; 2) fill her with the Holy Spirit; 3) keep her in the faith of the Church; and 4) teach her to love others in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Then after all of those things are prayed, we also ask God to: 5) send her into the world in witness to God’s love; and 6) that she be brought into the fullness of God’s peace and glory.  You see, those prayers for the Baptismal Candidate are an expanded version of that opening Collect.  We simply ask God to make Olivia Christ-like.  If only we would all become accurate reflections of the glory of God in Christ, simply by praying for it.  But that’s not the way it works.  Rather than a miraculous and permanent transformation, most of us are called to work out our own transformation, day by day, with the love and support of our faith community.

         I read a story the other day about a young man who was a drug dealer and wannabe gangster.  He had all of the things that he had always been told that he wanted.  He had money and women and cars and drugs.  He had “friends,” who hung out with him all the time and told him how great he was.  But after a while, he began to see how hollow and empty his life was.  And one day, after being arrested, he began to speak to the jailhouse chaplain.  He started to read the Bible and pray.  Then one day he honestly and openly repented and confessed to God all that he had done.  And he received absolution and forgiveness.  The story talked about the miraculous transformation in the young man and how his whole life was turned around.  I am here to tell you that the transformative conversion can happen exactly like that.  But what the story did not talk about was how the rest of the young man’s life will be a series of small transformative steps.  You see, when he got out of jail, he had to go back out in the world and cope with all of the destructive influences that surrounded him.

         We can pray (as we will do for our baptismal candidate) and we can receive that transformational peace which passes all understanding.  But then we will have to go and get into our cars, and when that first guy cuts us off, we’ll get to see how much of the transformation has stuck.  We will have to go back to our jobs tomorrow and will see how Christ-like we really are, when the annoying co-worker or boss gets on our last nerve.  And we may get to test our transformation when we have the opportunity to gossip about someone, or say something completely nasty about him or her; something that will make us appear superior to whomever we are talking with.  Those, and thousands more like them, are the transformational moments in our lives.  They are the moments when we get to choose to be more like Christ, or not.

         Ash Wednesday is this week, and that begins the season of Lent, when we are supposed to work on amending our lives and consciously and actively seek to become closer to God.  Our season of transformation is coming, with all of its myriad transformational moments.  Have a wonderfully exuberant and (safely) excessive Mardi Gras.  And then let’s start actively working on that Christ-like transformation, by being mindful and prayerful throughout every day.  Amen.



[1] Exodus 33:20

[2] Exodus 33:18-19

[4] Luke 9:35 (NRSV)

Love. It’s just that simple. Fr. Bedingfield, Jan 31st

January 31, 2016
00:0000:00

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

         Last week we heard a little bit about what today’s Gospel would be.  Last Sunday we heard about Jesus’ return to Nazareth following the start of His ministry in Capernaum.  So in today’s continuation of that story, the initial love fest that the locals had with the returning preacher ends and conflict begins.  Jesus’ teaching that day turned out to be pretty hard for His listeners to hear.

         Jesus brought healing and love to the world, and yet in this instance nothing but discord and animosity followed his homecoming.  The reason for that is what is known as prophetic preaching.   Jesus preached a nine-word sermon that day: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  That was a prophetic word about what His ministry would mean.  And if He had left it right there, there would not have been any problem that day.  But there also would not have been a very important lesson taught.

         After Jesus’ sermon, He sat down and began to speak again.  In ancient Judaism, that meant that He was taking on the role of rabbi – or teacher.  Rabbis sat to teach their students and that is what Jesus was starting to do.  He told His listeners a couple of stories that were very familiar to them, but which made them angry in this particular context. 

The stories of the Widow of Zarapheth and the healing of Naaman were stories about God’s miraculous love.  At the end of a 3 ½ year drought, God sent the prophet Elijah to a widow and her son, who were about to die after running out of food and water.  Because of the widow’s faithfulness in following Elijah’s words, she and her son were saved.  It is a great story.  The problem is: at the time that that story took place, there were lots of Israelite widows who were starving; and God – through Elijah – saved only a gentile woman and her son.  The Jewish faithful understood this story as one about God’s gracious power and the power of the the prophet Elijah.  But they had never heard it where the emphasis was on God’s favor going to non-Jews.  And the same was true of the story of Naaman.  Through the prophet Elisha, God cured – and thereby saved – Naaman, who was a general in the Syrian army, suffering from leprosy.  Again, faithful Jews were not used to talking about this story with the emphasis on God’s favor toward a general of an army that was occupying Israel at the time. 

         When Jesus finished telling the stories with His particular spin, suddenly his words did not seem so admirable.  The people gathered in the Nazareth synagogue that day could not stand the idea that God might be the God of all people, even if those people were, in no way, Jewish. You see, these were faithful people who had their own ideas about how God was supposed to act.  They had been taught, and believed that the Nation of Israel was God’s chosen people.  Therefore, they believed that they were the only people to whom God showed favor.  And any challenge to those beliefs was intolerable.

         But Jesus used these two stories to make a bigger point that day.  He taught the people that God loved the Jews as God’s chosen people.  However, God did not only love the Jews.  He wanted them to know that God loves all of the children of the world and when Jesus preached about the Jubilee from Isaiah, it would be Jubilee to all of the poor and captive people.  The people in the synagogue were not ready to hear that.  So they attacked the one who brought God’s prophetic message.  And yet, all Jesus was trying to do was to show them the wide and generous love that is the true heart of God.

         The Epistle for today is one of the most famous of Paul’s letters.  The portion that we heard from the 1st Letter to the Corinthians, is the Apostle’s explication of what love is.  In all of the weddings that I’ve done, someone has always read this passage, because it tells about what love is supposed to look like.  St. Paul explains how Godly love looks – the sort of love that Jesus exhibited throughout His time on earth.  He explains about the patience, kindness and generosity that Jesus exhibited as He lived out a life of Godly love.

         Here is a story that I hope encapsulates this concept of love[1]

John Phillip Newell tells this story of a three-day retreat at a new monastic community led by a wise elderly monk who was to guide the participants into the essentials of community life.  On the first day, the old monk shuffled into the room, sat down, and said to them, “Today I have just one thing to say to you.  God loves you.  Now go away and think about that.”  So off they went in their discipline of silence for the day, walking the monastic gardens and reflecting in their individual cells on the great mystery of God’s love.

On the second morning, the old monk again shuffled into the room, sat down, and said, “Today I have just one thing to say to you.  You can love God.  Now go away and think about that.”  So off they wandered for their second day of silence, pondering the great truth that God not only loves us but longs for our love. Not only are we the recipients of love.  We are the beloved partners in an eternal love affair.  On the third morning, the participants wondered: What could possibly be next after the essential teachings of the first two days?  God loves, and we can love God.  Was there anything left to add to this completeness?  

The old monk again shuffled into the room, sat down, and said to them, “Today I have just one thing to say to you.  You are to love one another.  Now go away and live this truth as a community.  This is the pearl of great price, living together in love.” (From A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul,  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2011.)

         What the old monk tried to impart; what Jesus implicitly told the congregation in the Nazareth synagogue; and what all of the Gospels make explicit for us; is that there is nothing on earth nor in the heavens that is more important than love.

         A year after St. Paul wrote his famous ode to love in 1st Corinthians, he wrote this to the Church in Rome.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  …  16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; ….  18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  …  “[I]f your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; ….”  21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.[2]

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.[3]

         People endlessly debate what the Bible says about myriad different things.  Those debates often turn ugly and create enmity between people.  Brothers and sisters in Christ split apart from one another, or refuse to speak to each other over some element of doctrine, theology of ecclesiology … or worse yet, how the church operates.  And yet, if they would simply look at the importance of love in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they would see that all of those disagreements vanish into a puff of smoke when viewed through the lens of Godly love.

         “[Y]ou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  [And] ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.[4]”  It just does not get any simpler than that.

Amen.



[1] Synthesis Volume 29 No. 1, January 2016

[2]  Romans 12 (NRSV)

[3]  Romans 13:8b-10 (NRSV)

[4]  Mark 12:30-31 (NRSV)

Transforming Our Lives, Fr. John Bedingfield Jan 17th (text file only)

January 17, 2016

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

         Today’s reading contains the story of the first miracle in John’s Gospel – Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana.  It seems like such an odd, little, almost insignificant miracle that it can make us wonder why this would be the first of all of the great deeds done in this Gospel.

         Before we can get a real handle on what this story might mean, we first need to understand miracles as they appear in John.  Unlike some of the other Gospels, the author of John is very clear about what miracles are.  They are signs.  Throughout the entirety of John, we are told again and again that Jesus performed “signs,” so that those who witnessed them (and were open to Jesus’ message) would believe in Him.  One commentator has referred to miracles in John as “sign posts,” markers that we are supposed to see, and then use to guide us to where the post points for an increase in our faith in Jesus. 

         In this Gospel, Jesus’ “signs” can be somewhat different from what we think of when we think of miracles.  For one thing, they are often done in private, so that there is no great show of what has been done.  But also, Jesus performs His signs in John to make points in addition to showing His connection to God the Father.  In this Gospel, Jesus heals an official's son[1]; and a sick man[2], feeds the five thousand[3], walks on water[4], creates eyes in a man born blind[5], and raises Lazarus from the dead[6].  All to show different aspects of God’s glory and power – and His connection to that same God.  So given the breadth and depth of those other signs, why start with this tiny little miracle?  Simply put:  It was NOT tiny, and it had a huge message.

         This story takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  From the preceding chapter it appears that He only had five (or perhaps six) Disciples at this point.  So He and these early Disciples went to a wedding with His mother, and the wine ran out.  Now I have been to many weddings in my life.  I have officiated quite a few, been the father of the bride once, and father of the groom twice.  So I’ve seen some weddings.  And in each case, if the alcohol had run out, it would have been a downer.  But it would not have been anything more serious than a social embarrassment.  Running out of alcohol would likely have brought the reception to a premature end, but that would have been the extent of the repercussions.  Not so in Jesus’ day.

         In ancient Judaism, a wedding feast lasted for 5 to 7 days, and the continual serving of food and wine were integral parts of the celebration.  Jews of the day understood hospitality to be one of their highest callings.  They believed that a failure to feed and provide proper libation for your guests was an offense before God.  In addition, the wine served a particular purpose in the celebration – that being the blessing of the newly married couple.  So the pressure to provide enough quantity and quality of food and wine at a wedding was pretty intense.  If a family failed in this undertaking, they could literally become outcasts from the community.  So when the wine ran out in Cana that day, it was a BIG deal.

         Mary discovered the predicament that the wedding family was in and she immediately went to Jesus.  And his response to her is interesting.  She told him that the wine had run out, and He responded, in essence, “So what?  What does that have to do with me?”  In responding, He also says, “my hour has not yet come.”  Those of us who know how the story goes, can hear an echo of that statement in Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection, when the “hour of His glory” comes.  This phrase is meant to tell us that Jesus had not yet begun His earthly ministry.

I believe that the author of this Gospel tells us about Jesus’ response to Mary to let us know that He could not be swayed to perform a “sign,” by any human, including his mother.  He only acted when God told Him to act.  Fortunately for the wedding party, the Father chose this time for Jesus to get involved.  So He told the servants to fill six stone jars with water, some 120 to 150 gallons of it.

Now these were no ordinary jars.  They were very particular vessels used to hold water for Jewish purification rituals.  Thus, the water that these jars ordinarily held was used to cleanse the members of the household, in accordance with the purity code contained in the Book of Leviticus.  When Jesus changed the water in these jars into the finest of wines, He showed His Disciples a sign from God.  In this seemingly small miracle, Jesus showed His Disciples that the water of Judaism – the water that was of such great importance under the Law of Moses – could be transformed by God into something that brought joy, celebration and blessing. 

Judaism gives wine a special place in its traditions and rituals.  Wine is used in many liturgical settings, such as: the Passover meal; the blessing at a Bris; and the ordinary blessings of the Sabbath and holidays; not to mention the importance we have already seen that wine has at a wedding feast.  There is even a line in the Book of Judges that refers to wine bringing “joy to God and man.[7]”  So the Disciples (who knew the Books of Leviticus and Judges) would have seen that Jesus transformed ordinary water into wine that represented joy and blessing.  But as with all of John’s signs, this one can be seen on more than one level.

Not only did Jesus transform the old water of the law into the wine of new life, but this was also to be a sign that Jesus could do the same to our lives.  This was a sign that through Jesus, human nature itself can to be transformed into what wine symbolizes – namely, the Spirit of blessing.  The wine was not something entirely new; it was a transformation of what was there before.  When the water was subjected to the power of the Spirit, through the actions of Jesus, it became what the Father ultimately desired it to be.  The same thing can happen to us.  If we allow ourselves to become close enough to Jesus Christ; if we allow Jesus to really act on our lives; we can receive the transformational power of the Spirit and can truly become that which the Father desires for us.   When we allow Jesus to completely infuse our beings, we can become the newly transformed wine that brings the Spirit of blessing to the world. 

And just think for a minute about the quantity of water that Jesus transformed into wine.  One hundred and twenty (or 150) gallons of wine.  That is more wine than this, or any other wedding celebration that had been going on for a while, would ever need.  So what God provided for these people, through Jesus, was incredible abundance.  Jesus could easily have calculated about how much wine would be needed to finish the celebration, and then transformed that much.  But He didn’t do that.  Instead, he transformed a veritable river of wine – a river that flowed with the gracious generosity of God.  And God’s blessings to us have that same gracious generosity to them.  

So this little, tiny miracle, performed in a tiny, little town in the middle of nowhere, was a sign to the Disciples, and is a sign to us.  It is a sign that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed Son of God, who came into the world to transform us into the gracious, abundantly blessing children of God.  We are the ordinary stuff of this world, the same ordinary stuff that Jesus transforms throughout John’s Gospel.  If we are ready for that transformation, Jesus has always been ready to perform it.



[1]  John 4:46-54

[2]  John 5:1-9

[3]  John 6:1-14

[4]  John 6:15-21

[5]  John 9:1-34

[6]  John 12:1-11, 18

[7]  Judges 9:13

Joseph: Faith in Action, Fr. Bedingfield, Jan 03

January 3, 2016
00:0000:00

In the name of the Incarnate God, Amen.

At the end of every year, television shows reflect on the year gone by. These looks back made me reflect on Jesus’ past and Joseph, on whom today we look back and whose story I consider as a great model of faith in action throughout life’s journey.

We know very little about Joseph, the adoptive (or “foster”) father of Jesus.  Throughout Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we read about Mary, the Mother of God, but after the opening chapters of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, we never again hear anything about Joseph.  He is one of the lesser figures from the New Testament, but one to whom we should pay close attention.

We know from Matthew’s brief description of him that Joseph was a righteous man.  The word the Gospel writer uses here is the Greek, diakolos (diakalos) which means “conforming to the standard, will, or character of God; upright, good; just, right; proper; ….”  That is a pretty good description of what we would consider a person of great faith. 

Joseph was also a religious and pious man.  Luke tells us that Joseph made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year for Passover – quite a trek to take every year.  We also know that he presented Jesus for circumcision at the Temple on his 8th day of life, as required by Mosaic law; and that as soon as Mary was ritually able to accompany him, he had Jesus at the Temple again.

We know that Joseph was a kind man.  When he discovered that Mary was pregnant during their period of engagement, he considered canceling the marriage, but only if he could do it quietly and without causing her to suffer the consequences of her supposed actions in public.

Joseph has most of the attributes of “diakolos.”  However, what sets him apart from many other people with these attributes is that Joseph’s faith is a faith of action.  In all of the vignettes in which we glimpse Joseph from Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, we see a man on the move.  Repeatedly, God calls and Joseph acts.

Here was a man, probably in what we would think of as the middle-class of Nazareth society, a carpenter and faithful member of the Synagogue.  He became engaged to the young woman named Mary and then discovered her secret.  As a man of action, he intended to quietly divorce her and send her away, but when an angel came to him in a dream and said, “Joseph.  It’s OK to marry her.  This is God’s child.”  Joseph went forward and married her. 

Then the baby was born in Bethlehem – after Joseph had to take the trek from Nazareth at the command of the Roman government – he was ready to take the family home when an angel of the Lord came again and told him to take them to Egypt instead.  Joseph must have barely begun to get accustomed to the fact that his son was actually God’s Son, when there was another angel telling him to face more upheaval in his life.  Now it’s one thing to make a trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem and leave the home and business for a few weeks.  But this time he had to go to Egypt for who knew how long.  Most of us would have questioned what would happen to the business.  What would happen to our belongings?  Where would the money come from to make the trip to Egypt?  How would we survive when we got there?  But not Joseph.  Matthew tells us that he simply gathered the family up and headed for Egypt, leaving everything he knew, owned and cared about behind, and became an unemployed refugee – all on the basis of another nocturnal visit from an angel.

Today’s Gospel account goes on to tell us that the family lived in Egypt until Herod died (a period of a few years by historical account) and then another visit from an angel and back to Nazareth they went.  And Joseph had probably just built up a nice carpentry business in Egypt when he got uprooted again.

So what can we take from these brief snapshots of Joseph?  As I said at the outset, he was a man of faith in action.  I would submit to you that Joseph is the preeminent example of how one should take a faith journey.

We are all on faith journeys.  Look around and think about the stories that the people around you have told you about their own journeys of faith.  Some appear to be so much further down the road than we do and some appear to be just finishing the packing before heading out the door.  But we are most assuredly all on the journey. 

Journeys of faith are never predictable – except for one thing; their unpredictability.  We never know when God is going to call, or what we are going to be called to do.  Our calls might be as simple as calling us to help out in the church nursery (something that is desperately needed by the way), or as dramatic as a call to pursue ordained ministry.  Whenever God calls upon us and tells us that we need to make changes in our lives, it can make us afraid.  The future is uncertain enough without making life changes when we don’t know if we’re ready for it.  But God’s call is sufficient if we allow it to be.  And God will be there with us, providing spiritual and temporal support for us if we are faithful.

My own faith journey has been an incredible one thus far!  And through all of my own changes and chances, Joseph has been a great model of faith and quite a hero to me.  During all of Joseph’s encounters with the voice and will of God, he was never told “why.”  Nor was he ever given a timetable for when things would level out and become comfortable again.  Instead, he was told “what,” and that “what” was to get up and get moving.  “Be about the journey that God has set out for you.”  No matter how much Joseph – or we – want to know how and when things will turn out, each and every time, God finds it sufficient to simply issue the call, without more detailed information.

Perhaps one of the great lessons we are to learn on our journeys through life is that everything is temporary – both the good and the bad.  God does not call us to complete a story, but to add a chapter to it.  We are never called to a dead end, only to another fork in the road.

The spiritual life is all about journeying.  It is about keeping our eyes, ears, and most importantly, hearts open to listening for God’s call to us.  Unfortunately for most of us, those calls do not come, as they did for Joseph, in the crystal clear vision of angels in the night.  For us, it involves being quiet enough to hear that still, small voice inside.  But if we listen hard enough, and pay enough attention, we will get the message that we are to pick up our belongings – whether literally or figuratively – and get on the road to the next stop; not the destination, only the next temporary stop.  And when we get there, it is time to set up shop and begin to listen for the next set of instructions and to await the beginning of the next leg of the journey.

I am quite certain that Joseph never imagined what lay in store for him when he was originally approached with the idea of marrying the young virgin girl from Nazareth.  I know that when I was a twenty-one year old Air Force Sergeant, newly wed to the love of my life, in my wildest imagination I could not have conjured up where Donna and I would be today.  But that is the wonder, the mystery and the excitement of the faithful journey through life.

As you enter this new year, pay close attention to your own visiting angels – in whatever form they may take – and keep your senses tuned to the frequency of God, so that you don’t risk missing the next call to get up and head down the faith road, confident that while you don’t know exactly where the next fork leads, you do know that you are always journeying nearer to God – and that is what it is all about.  Amen.

Responding to Good News, Fr. John Bedingfield, Dec. 20th

December 20, 2015
00:0000:00

In the name of the God who came to live among us.

            In last week’s Gospel, we had a sermon to the assembled crowds by John the Baptist.  If you remember, it was some pretty tough stuff that started with a great intro in which John called the people a “brood of vipers.”  Frankly, it can get a little tough when we have John’s sort of prophetic witness to understand why the Gospel of Jesus Christ is known as the Good News.  But such is not the case today.  Today we have amazingly good news – the kind that hopefully makes us as joyous and excited as it does the characters in our story.  So today, I would like to consider contrasts in the way people receive the Good News.

            Today’s Gospel reading is a prequel to last Sunday’s.  In that one, we heard from the grown man, John the Baptist.  Today we hear about John’s mother, Elizabeth, before he was born.  In this passage from Luke, Mary, the mother of Jesus has just learned from the Angel Gabriel that she is pregnant with the Son of God.  And in that conversation, the Angel tells her to go see her relative (probably an aunt), Elizabeth who – although she was too old to have any children – is now six months pregnant.  Gabriel says that Elizabeth has been blessed with the child John, to show that “nothing [is] impossible with God.”

            So as today’s passage begins, Mary has just arrived at Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home.  When she goes in, she calls out to her aunt and then we get this amazing response from Elizabeth: 

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

That is truly an amazing response to Mary’s arrival.  You see, Mary had not told Elizabeth whose baby she was carrying, nor even that she was pregnant.  And there is no indication in the story that Elizabeth was visited by the Angel Gabriel, as were Mary, Joseph and Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah.  Elizabeth’s knowledge comes from a much more elemental level.  Right before the passage I just read, Luke tells us that Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit,” when she joyfully greeted her niece.

            Elizabeth and Mary were both touched by the Spirit of God and both of them immediately recognized the power and the truth of what had been communicated to them.  And both of them celebrated the incredible Good News that they had been given.  But the same was not true of John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, when he received heaven-sent news.

            Zechariah, who was a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem, was indeed an old man, when he was received his angelic visitation.  Luke tells us that Zechariah was on duty at the Temple, and it was his day to go into the Sanctuary of God and replace the incense.  When he went in and stood in that holy place, he was greeted by the Angel Gabriel, who had a message for him.  After Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid,” which is the standard angel greeting for humans, God’s foremost herald told Zechariah, “your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”  Then the angel went on to explain to Zechariah what John’s part in God’s mission would be.  Now here is where there is a great contrast between the priest, his wife and her niece.

            Zechariah responded to Gabriel’s news this way: “How will I know that this is so?  For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”  In other words, the old priest responded to one of God’s highest choir of angels by saying, “Prove it!”  He didn’t say, “Wow, that’s incredible.  I can’t wait to see what happens,” or even, “Wow!  How about that?”  Instead, he straight up challenged Gabriel to show him how that would work.  And the angel’s response is priceless.

            I can just imagine the angel drawing himself up to his full stature and looking at Zechariah with an especially piercing stare, as he said,

I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’

Gabriel’s message to Zechariah was simple … “Who do you think you are, little man, to be challenging the veracity of God’s personal messenger?”  And Zechariah was indeed struck speechless until after John was born.

            So the contrast between the women and the old priest is pretty stark.  Mary and Elizabeth believed as soon as they heard the news … and they were blessed.  Zechariah did not believe the good news and was cursed.  So it would be incredibly easy for us to say that the message is clear:  be faithful like Elizabeth and Mary, not faithless like Zechariah.  But that is way too easy and does not look at the important underlying meaning of these stories.

            I believe that the important thing for us to see in comparing the stories is not the simple contrast, but the underlying and ultimate similarity.  You see, what happened to Zechariah AFTER John was born, was that he got his voice back and was able to carry on his duties as priest, while loving his newborn son.  God withheld the blessing only for a while, but ultimately – because of God’s grace and mercy – the recalcitrant priest received God’s blessing, just was the women had.

            These stories tell us a about the same God whom Jesus told us about in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  In both stories we find people who moved away from God’s wishes for them, and did (or said) exactly what God did not want them to do.  So God waited.  And when the people were ready to return, they did so, and God welcomed them with open arms and overflowing blessings.

            So what we can take from this is that people hear God in their own time and in their own way.  Zechariah listened slowly and responded slowly, while Mary heard immediately and responded the same way.  Sometimes were like the obstinate old priest and other times we are like the Mother of God.  But no matter what happens, God is faithful.  No matter what we do or how faithless we may seem, God remains faithful in all things.  When God responds to us, it is always in love; always with grace; and always with the utmost faithfulness.  And when we respond positively and faithfully to God, the divine response is to abundantly bless us.

            There was never a better example of a faithful God whose blessings are abundant than Jesus Christ, himself.  Jesus who came to earth as a baby born in in the middle of nowhere, and who grew up as a carpenter’s son in an even less important town, and who went on to die on the outside of Jerusalem for the forgiveness of our sins.  No matter how faithful or faithless we may be; no matter how much or little we deserve it, God is always faithful and gracious to us.  So much so that we have been given eternal life.  All we have to do is accept it.

Amen.

Brood of Vipers, Mthr Mitzi George, Dec. 13th

December 15, 2015
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In last Sunday’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist issued a resounding call to prepare the way for the Lord. He proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.

 In today’s Gospel reading, John spells out what repentance looks like. For John, when people repent their actions change. Words and creeds are empty if they don’t result in action, particularly actions that assist the needs of others.

 John’s rhetoric is neither polite, nor gentle. In Luke’s Gospel (as opposed to Matthew’s) John calls the whole crowd that has come out to see him a brood of vipers and warns them: “Do not begin to say to yourselves; ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” His message is clear. Don’t assume that, because you have a certain ancestral lineage or a particular religious connection, that you belong to God’s people. God can raise-up a new people from stones if need be.

 You and I can let ourselves off the hook or easily disconnect from the point of this passage if we make this merely a historical encounter that happened long ago, rather than placing ourselves in the narrative.  John’s message needs to be heard not only by us but by all baptized Christians today. John’s message still speaks today and is saying to us “Don't presume to say, ‘We’re baptized, we go to Church, or I serve on this committee or that!’ John is saying show your faith by your actions toward others, or get ready for the ax.”

 Those in the crowd respond by asking the prophet “What shall we do?” — John basically tells them that they need to be honest (“Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you”), be kind (“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”) and to work hard (“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”).

 Come on, John, I’m tempted to ask, is that really all? This is pretty much what we learned in kindergarten. Is this really all it takes to avoid eschatological judgment?

Apparently, according to John, the answer is, Yes!

 While John’s message seems radical to those hearing it, he is quick to remind them that he is merely a messenger preparing the way for the one who is more powerful than he is. That one will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. But what will the fire burn up? Is John saying that some people will be destroyed, and others will be saved? It would be nice if it were all so simple! If only the evil people committing evil deeds could just be separated from the rest of us and they could be destroyed or locked up forever.  Sometimes we think it is that easy, but the question is who gets to decide? Which of us, or who among us, can determine the purity of another person’s heart? And don’t you think there is a fine line dividing good and evil cutting through every heart and soul. Which one of us dares to claim to be all wheat and no chaff?

 John calls us to let God burn up our selfish desire to hoard our food and clothing even when our neighbor is hungry and shivering from the cold. Anything that gets in the way of love for God or neighbor must go. Then and only then can we live as God’s own people, passionately loving others and committed to justice.

 John’s words reveal to us that he views poverty not as an accident or as a fault of the poor. In his time, as in ours, the earth produced more than enough goods to feed and clothe everyone. The problem then and now is that the resources have been consumed and abused by a small percentage of the population. John called not only the wealthiest people but all people to treat their accumulation of goods as a guideline for determining the sincerity of repentance.

 How we get money and how we use money exposes what we value. Economic issues are spiritual issues. If we ignore God’s commands to practice social and economic justice, how can we claim that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? If we prioritize our pleasures above our neighbors’ basic needs, how can we claim to love our neighbors as ourselves?

 Here is the existential reality this third week of Advent- we see, through the eyes of Luke, the potential and possibility of what the kingdom of God is and can be and yet it seems so far away from where we stand at this moment.

 The theological promise in today’s Gospel is this -- that people are capable of giving witness to God’s truth in the face of a culture that tries to suppress this truth; that those who believe in the world-changing gospel of Jesus Christ are able to testify to this gospel even in the face of resistance; that along with many other exhortations, the good news will be preached; that our human expectations are not God’s. And God’s expectations, unlike ours, are founded on and grounded in God’s promises which are already fulfilled.

 If we ever wondered if we really needed Advent, the answer is yes! Advent names and exists in the tensions of a broken and confused world. Advent claims God’s expectations in the face of the world’s false expectations. Advent says we can have expectations of God and God will meet them, because with God all things are possible.

 More accurately, it’s that everything – from warning and expectation to ethical exhortation – looks different in light of the coming of Christ. Jesus’ coming, John implies, affects every dimension of our lives, including how we regard each other and our ethical obligations to one another and the world. The kingdom doesn’t show up only in grand actions or heroic deeds. Rather, in the simple acts of sharing what we have, being honest with each other, working hard, and resisting the urge to hoard more than we need, we are helping to usher in the kingdom that Jesus will soon announce.

 One of the chief ways we can witness to God’s coming kingdom is to actually live like it’s here, like we believe it’s really coming, like we think it actually matters; which means that we have opportunities all around us to be the ordinary saints John calls us to be.  What would it look like if we went out from church looking for opportunities to be honest, kind, and hardworking? What if we determined to seek out such opportunities because we’ve heard that extraordinary acts of grace are within the reach of ordinary people? What if we believed – and acted on the belief – that being honest, kind, and hardworking in a culture that is impatient, immature, and fearful really makes a difference.

 Keep in mind where we are: less than two weeks from Christmas.

I know all this may sound trite when the whole world feels at times like it’s falling apart. But I think that’s part of John’s message – and the purpose of Jesus’ coming – that precisely because God has promised to redeem all creation in due time, we are free – here and now – to tend the little corner of the world in which we find ourselves. There are, according to John and Jesus, no small gestures, but rather varied and contagious, random and intentional acts of kindness, honesty, and goodness that really do make a difference in the world, particularly when paired with faith that in Jesus, God has drawn near to us – all of us – with the good news of grace, mercy, and redemption.

Amen