Persistently Thankful, Fr. John Bedingfield, October 16th

October 16, 2016

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

This parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge lends itself to being interpreted in many different ways.  But one thing that comes through clearly is that God wants persistence in prayer … always. 

Jesus was telling the Disciples something that was very important for their lives.  Remember throughout the Gospels we see over and over that Jesus goes away to pray.  He prayed always.  This was an instance where he wanted them to understand what he did.  Jesus was very, very persistent in His prayers to God and He wanted them to do likewise.

But one of the things that you get from this parable is that persistence pays off, and if you are persistent in prayer, God will give you what you ask.  That idea is more than a little problematic for some people.  Because they say, “I pray and I don’t get what I pray for.  I’ve prayed hard and God did not give me what I wanted.”  Nothing in this parable says that God will always do what we want – only that God will answer our prayers.  So when we think about the problem we have with the notion that, “We pray and God acts,” it typically comes down to something like this: I know that God is unchangeable … immutable, and therefore is there a point to my praying?  If God is unchangeable and I pray to God, it doesn’t matter, because God won’t change.

I don’t know for sure where we came up with the idea that God is completely unchangeable, but it certainly was not from Scripture.  Remember the story in Genesis about Abraham and his conversation with God about the city of Sodom?  Abraham was talking with God and God told him that God intended to destroy the city and all of its residents because the people of Sodom were so horrible.  They had stopped being hospitable to strangers and had stopped worshipping God.  And Abraham says, “God, if you can find 50 people in the city who are righteous, will you save everyone?”  And God says, “Yes.  If I can find 50 righteous people in the city, I will spare the city.”  So Abraham says, “How about 45 righteous people?”  God says, “OK.  If there are 45, I will spare the city.”  And Abraham works God all the way down to 1.  He says, “If you can find 1 righteous person in the city, will you spare the rest?”  And God agrees to save the whole city for 1 righteous person.  Well … as it turns out, there was not one righteous person in Sodom and God wiped it out.  But I would suggest to you that that was a time when Abraham’s conversation with God resulted in God changing God’s mind.  You can say, “Well, not really.  Because God knew all along that there were no righteous people in Sodom.  So God did not really change His mind so much as God was just having an exercise in communication with Abraham.  I get that.  I understand that argument.  But what about Noah?

Noah loaded up the ark with pairs of animals and the Noah family and they survived the flood.  Then when they got out the ark, Noah had a conversation with God, in which God said, “I will never again destroy the world with a flood, and the rainbow in the sky is the sign of my covenant with you.  That will never happen again.”  I would suggest to you that that is another example of God changing God’s mind.  Because God looked down on the flood and said, in essence, “This was not a good idea.  I should not have done this.  I will never do this again.”  You could say, “Well, not really.  Because God knew all along that this would be a one-time event that would not be repeated.”  Okay.  I get that argument too.  But what about Jonah?

God tells Jonah to go to this great city of Nineveh, this city of 120,000 people, and to walk through the streets to preach repentance to the people … because, like Sodom, the people had proven to be evil in the sight of God.  Jonah’s mission was to preach to them and turn their hearts – to make them repent and return to the Lord, in order to save their city. 

After a 3 day rest in the belly of a fish, Jonah went to Nineveh and walked through the city, doing exactly what God said.  And it worked!  The people repented – from the most powerful to the lowliest person in town – all of them put on sack cloth and ashes, and prayed to God for forgiveness.  And it says in Jonah, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.[1]”  It says it, right there in Jonah.  So we know that people can pray and God will change God’s mind.  We don’t know when or why it happens, but we know that it can happen.

Jesus told the Disciples to be persistent in their prayer.  So that, even if God is stuck in His position, maybe you can wear God down by your prayers.  That is the message that Jesus gave them.  Wear God down by continuing to pray! 

And this idea of persistence is so important in our lives.  We teach our children to be persistent.  When they try something and fail we say, “Hang in there.  Keep trying.  Be persistent and you’ll get better.”  We believe that if we are persistent in things, we will eventually reap rewards from our persistence.

So I told you last week that we are kicking off our annual stewardship campaign.  And I want you to remember this week to have persistence – not only in asking God for what we need, but also in giving thanks to God for everything we have been given.  We need to be persistent in our prayer lives as we say, “Thank you God for granting me another day of life.”  “Thank you God.  I was able to get to church today.”  Or “Thank you God, because I have a church to go to.”  “Thank you God for everything you have given me … even when things aren’t going well … thank you for the many gifts that you have given me.”  Be persistent in that prayer too.

Persistently giving thanks to God may not only change God … It changes us too.  Persistently being thankful changes who WE are.  It changes how we see ourselves and how we see the world.  When we are persistently thankful we start to imagine a world that is very different from the one we see around us.  When we are thankful we start to see to see the good around us and in the people we meet.  We are not weighed down by the horrible things that go on around us.  We can see the good in all of God’s creation.  And then we can start to give back.

Here is another place where the persistence pays off.  I have told you that what we are doing with our stewardship campaign this year is trying to get more people involved in what is called proportional giving – giving a percentage of what you make.  You cannot just jump into proportional giving.  Most people have to work up to it.  And it requires persistence.  If this type of giving has never been a part of your spiritual discipline before, you will need to work at it. 

Becoming a proportional giver is like going to the gym.  When you first start, you may hate it.  You may resent it.  You may say, “I want to keep this money for me.”  But like the gym, if you are persistent at it – if you pledge and give persistently: weekly, monthly, quarterly or annually –  over time you will begin to see results, benefits from your hard work.  Your persistent giving will begin to change who you are and you will start to reap the rewards of your actions.  You will start to see the wonderful bounty that comes from God in all things.  You will begin to see all things differently and it will change who you are.  But that is not the only part of giving.

We also need to be persistent in giving of ourselves in time and the use of our skills and abilities.  There are many people around the congregation who work all week and then give of their time and their talents to accomplish the work of the church.  We need to give back in every way we can.  We need to be persistently generous.

So … As you think about it this week (because I know that you spend all week thinking about my sermons) think about this idea of persistence.  Think about what persistence in prayer and thanksgiving would look like.  Think about what it would mean for your life, and what it would mean for the life of this worship community.  Amen.

[1]  Jonah 3:10 (NRSV)

Living Generously and Fearlessly, Fr. John Bedingfield, October 9th

October 9, 2016

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

         The prophet Jeremiah talked to the people of Israel.  He told them, even though they had been exiled all around the Babylonian empire, they should continue to live the lives that God had granted them.  He told the people:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The underlying message he was sending them was that they should bloom where they were planted.  In other words, even though things were not as the people wanted them to be – even though they had lost their homes and their way of life in Israel – they were still God’s children and they should still do what they were called to do to make their world better.  But Jeremiah also wanted them to understand the importance of their being thankful to the God who created them and allowed them to flourish in this new place.

         The prophet definitely wanted his listeners to understand the importance of giving thanks – in other words, the importance of gratitude – even in difficult situations.  That message ties in nicely with the story of Jesus and the healing of the lepers. 

         Luke tells us that there was a group of lepers who met Jesus.  Now they couldn’t come close because lepers were not allowed to interact with other people in ancient Israel.  They had to stay far away from others – even to the point of ringing a bell and loudly announcing, “Unclean!” when they walked along a road.  But these ten lepers got as close as they dared to Jesus and asked for Him to have mercy on them.  They didn’t even have the courage to ask for a healing, they simply wanted mercy.  He told them to show themselves to the priests – and as they walked along, their skin cleared up and they were healed.

         The cure did not just take away the illness that they had – it did not just alleviate the lepers’ symptoms; it also gave them back their very lives.  After they were healed, they were allowed to go back to their homes and families – back to lives that they had had to completely abandon when they got sick.  These men had all been alone and lonely for a long time.  But Jesus’ gracious mercy changed everything about the way they lived, going forward. 

The healing of the lepers was an act of great generosity on Jesus’ part.  Curing a person was one thing, but giving them freedom and a new life was something else entirely.  And all Jesus expected in return was generous thanksgiving on their part.  But only the foreigner – the Samaritan – responded with the gratitude that was due.  Which begs the question … how good are we at showing gratitude for the gifts that God gives us?

Every day, when the alarm goes off, we get out of bed and are miraculously granted another new day.  We go off to work and use gifts that God gave us – physically and intellectually – to do the work that pays our way in the world.  Even if we get sick or injured, the way our Creator made our bodies gives them the ability to regenerate and renew themselves … miraculous!  We are granted miracles from God in all sorts of ways, all the time.  God shows us grace, mercy, and generosity regularly.

But when we pray for relief from suffering, and the pain lessens, are we thankful to God – or do we just give a nod to the analgesic we took?  Likewise, when things are going well, do we regularly give thanks to God for the abundance in our lives, or do we simply puff out our chests and take credit for being “self-made, successful people?”  It makes a great deal of difference which of those images more accurately reflects who you are.  If you recognize God’s providence in every aspect of your life, you are more likely to be a thankful person – someone who sees the importance of gratitude in your relationship with God, and acts on those thankful feelings to give back.  If you see yourself as “self-made,” then you are much less likely to have that sort of interaction with God, which means that you are also less likely to be generous in giving back to God.

Living life as a thankful and generous person is a choice.  We do not have to do it.  We can choose to ignore the graciousness of God’s gifts to us if we want to.  But when we choose to be grateful to God for what we have; gratitude “opens our soul to a fuller life because it opens our mind to seeing all that we have been given.[1]”  When we accept the notion that everything we have is a gift from God, we become free to live generously.  And we then become able to recognize that generosity is more than just how we share what God has given us; but also to include how we welcome the stranger, and how we forgive each other.

We are now in the season of our annual stewardship campaign.  This year’s campaign focuses on living fearlessly and generously.  I believe that the concepts of living fearlessly and living generously go together like the proverbial hand in glove. 

As I just said, we choose to live generously.  If we choose, we can look at our lives and the gifts we have received and place ourselves and God in proper relationship, one to the other.  If we live generously, we understand that everything flows from God and that we are, in fact, stewards (or caretakers) of what God has given us.  If that is how we see things, we put God and the needs of God’s creation, very high on our priority list.  Once we recognize God as the true source of all goodness, and can start to trust in God’s gracious generosity, we can then begin to live fearlessly.  As Jesus told the people in the 6th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel:

do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.[2]

Living as people who reflect God’s generosity and graciousness into the world, allows us to take Jesus’ words to heart and not worry about tomorrow, instead simply worrying about being faithful and therefore fearlessly generous.

We have many people in this congregation who have lived fearlessly and generously for decades.  They are the people who are the backbone of St. Barnabas; the people whose fearless generosity has allowed the ministries of this place to grow and thrive.  They are the people who understand that giving back to God through pledging and giving regularly to the Church is a wonderful way to show our gratitude and love to the Creator of the world.  What this year’s stewardship campaign is about, is getting more people to live into that same spirit of fearless generosity.

St. Barnabas is in the same position as many other Episcopal Churches.  Eighty percent of our income comes from twenty percent of our people.  It is my hope that this year’s campaign will result in those percentages shifting dramatically.  I hope that over the next few weeks you will learn and begin to live out an understanding of the fact that living generously can transform our lives.  And that those transformed lives can then be lived fearlessly as we reach out and transform our community.  Amen.

[1]  Richard Felton, Living Generously, a stewardship narrative series presented by TENS, 10/9/2016

[2]  Matthew 6:24-31 (NRSV)

The Unworthy Servant, Mother Mitzi George, October 2nd

October 2, 2016

A Bishop, a priest, and a young seminarian were out on a lake fishing one morning. The Bishop decides he need to relieve himself, so he stands up, climbs out of the boat and walks on top of the water to the shore. A few minutes later he walks back across the lake and gets in the boat. After a while the priest decides he too needs to head to the shore, so he climbs out of the boat and walks across the lake toward the shore, returning a few minutes later. The seminarian is so impressed by the faith of the Bishop and the priest. The young seminarian wants to prove he has as much faith as they do, so he decides to demonstrate it and follows suit. He stands up, climbs out of the boat, and makes a huge splash sinking into the water. The priest looks down at the water, then glances back at the Bishop and says, "I guess we should have told him where those rocks were?"


Faith is a little like that, or at least our understanding is like that young seminarian's idea of faith. You'll be happy to know, the disciple's understanding of faith wasn't much different either. So we are in pretty good company.


The disciples have been traveling with Jesus for almost three years. They have seen people healed, they have seen storms calmed, they have witnessed the feeding of thousands, they have even been out on their own doing some of these miraculous acts. Then they go to Jesus and ask him to increase their faith.


Their request doesn't seem to unreasonable to us, does it? I'm sure we all at some point have asked God to increase our faith, to make us stronger or better in our Christian walk. It's a natural human request. For the disciples in Luke's Gospel, this request comes after hearing Jesus tell some others that if they wished to become his disciples they must give up everything, they must deny mother and father, they must sell all that they have, they must pick up their cross, they must not turn back even to say "goodbye." The price of discipleship is high.


Immediately preceding this gospel passage Jesus warns the disciples themselves that they should be careful not to cause another person to stumble. He tells them, "it would be better if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea, rather than to cause another to stumble."


Jesus goes on to say, "Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, rebuke the offender, if they repent, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, "I repent", you must forgive."


No wonder the disciples ask for an increase in their faith. How many times do we pray for God to give us patience with certain people who get on our nerves or those with whom we struggle? Have you ever once considered forgiving the same person for sinning against you seven times a day? Forgiving seven times in a single day, that is really tough. How many of you have actually been that gracious? How many times have we failed to forgive even once, let alone seven times a day per person.


On top of forgiveness, we are told not to be the cause of another's stumbling. As a priest that is one I have tried to keep in the forefront of my thinking. Have you ever considered how often we caused others to stumble because we lack patience, or we loose our temper, or we just act rudely toward another human being and someone sees us? When we claim to be Christian our actions and words always represent what we say we believe and who we say we are. Following Jesus is hard. Being a faithful servant is tough for many reasons which is the difficult reality centered in this parable about the unworthy slave.


Let me be clear here, Jesus was not and did not advocate slavery. We are not the only people who have a long tumultuous history with slavey. Human slavery has ripped through human hearts and human families throughout history as well as around the globe and in every culture. Wherever people have lived throughout the world, there have been those who have seized power and wealth by oppressing and abusing others. It's an awful and terrifying reality of humanity. Those with whom Jesus walked knew the stark reality of slavery in their own day. That is why this story was a powerful example of what Jesus wanted them to consider.


In the 1st century, it wasn't unusual for a slave to work the fields all day, and return in the evening to work in the household of their owners. A slave had no life, no worth, no expectation of anything in life accept to work for and serve their master.


For Jesus to use this as an analogy of discipleship is a stark reminder, one we may not and often do not choose to consider. But perhaps that is exactly why this parable is so important. It is disturbing and unsettling. We detest slavery and any mention of it brings up bad feelings, memories of our history we would rather forget. But Jesus refuses to let us forget. Jesus makes us look closely at the life of a slave. He makes us stop and seriously consider what He is telling us life is like as a disciple. Isn't the whole point of a parable to shock us into a new way of thinking?


I look at this parable and quickly come face to face with my own human frailties. Do I have what it takes to be this kind of servant, even to the God I love? Could I work in the scorching sun, laboring and sweating all day, with little food or water, come back at night, and wash up, only to return to work in the kitchen, or to serve at the table, clean up afterward, standing in wait until the master sees fit to dismiss me? Do I? Do you?


Is this what it takes to be a disciple?


If we ask for an increase in our faith, do we associate that increase with the life of a real slave?


The truth is, we most often associate an increase in faith with the glamorous way of life we imagine we would have of we could zap things into being. Even if we did good works with our faith powers, we would expect a certain prestige and honor. We avoid thinking about this parable or even consider an increase in faith would require us to work harder and longer, with no thanks or appreciation at the end.


We think of faith as magic super powers rather than thinking of it as a tiny, simple, little seed. Jesus refers to faith as an insignificant seed. And, Jesus challenges his disciples thinking by saying to them and us, "if you have this tiny amount of faith, you could uproot trees and plant them in the sea!"


A tiny bit of faith can make even the natural world act in unnatural ways.


Jesus is saying to the disciples, "You don't need more faith. Faith isn't something you increase. Faith, even a tiny bit of faith, can be powerful. What you need is to understand that whatever you do as a result of your faith, whatever you do to prove your faith, you do as a servant. Whatever happens throughout your day, you still have to serve those waiting for you at home. When you do some great work of faith, you don't get to quit or retire, you have to keep working. Your service doesn't end. It is the willingness to serve continuously without thanks or appreciation. That is the hallmark of true faith.


Think about the true servants throughout world history that exemplify what we consider to be great faith leaders: Mother Theresa, St. Paul, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer; just to name a few. All of these, led simple lives serving others and standing up for the downtrodden. All of these worked tirelessly out of their love for God and God's kingdom. They worked and suffered as a result of their faith, and then they worked some more. They gave their all for a single reason: they loved God and loved the children of God wherever and whoever they were.


None of these did huge miraculous acts. They didn't do any magic or unbelievable supernatural acts. No, they didn't. What they did do were ordinary everyday sorts of things. They treated the poor with dignity, they cared for people who were sick, they cared for the oppressed, the imprisoned. These great men and women, all great men and women of faith, do simple ordinary acts, ordinary daily acts sprouting from love and devotion to God. They served others selflessly. They did all they could do, and sometimes it wasn't much, but they did it anyway.


Mother Theresa, gave food and water to the poor that were in the streets outside her door. She cared for those dying, but they still died. She gave them tender loving care as they died. A simple loving act. Dietrich Bonhoeffer imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp because he refused to pledge allegiance to Hitler. It wasn't that Bonhoeffer was brave, he actually left Germany three times before returning to resist the Nazi regime. After his imprisonment, he was devoted to serving the others he was imprisoned with, giving up his own food and water rations to keep others alive. A simple act of valuing others. Martin Luther stood up against a corrupt Church system that benefited the rich. He was locked out of his own Church as a result. He simply kept working without a building. St. Paul travelled around preaching what he believed to be true about Jesus Christ. As a result he was beaten and imprisoned more than once. It was his unwillingness to be quiet about his faith that led to his death. He simply shared his faith.


These are all ordinary acts. They weren't impossible miraculous feats. Standing up for another, feeding another, caring for another who is sick or dying, sharing the truth about Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. All simple acts.


You and I are all capable of these simple acts. We don't have to travel thousands of miles to do them. None of those mentioned above traveled anywhere to do what they did, with the exception of Paul. They all worked right where they lived, with people they saw everyday. What they did was simply what was needed in their community at that time in history. You and I can do that.


We can look around us, look for the others in our community that need to be served, need to be fed, need to be cared for, need someone to stand up for them and we can do those things. In fact, I know many here at St. Barnabas already do. If you aren't sure about whether or not you are doing these things, answer these questions:


Are you caring for any other people? Are you doing it with true love and devotion to God?


Are you giving food, clothing, anything to others who aren't as fortunate as you? Do you give these things with true love and devotion to God?


Do you care for the dying, the sick, the lonely you know, do you protect their dignity? Do you do it for love and devotion to God?


When you go to work do you do your job to the best of your ability as if you were serving God?


When you go to the store, the gas station, any other place in public do you treat others as if they matter and are children of God?


When you come home after working all day and you're tired, do you serve your family with the same love and devotion as to God?


If you answered yes to any of these, you are well on your way to being a disciple of Christ. We are all unworthy servants, but that doesn't change the fact that we are children of God, beloved children of God. All we are required to do as a result of who we are and to whom we belong is to "love the lord our God with all our heart, body, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves." If we do that, if we keep it simple, we have plenty of faith and the world may begin to reflect the Kingdom of God among us.



Bridging the Chasm, Fr. John Bedingfield, Sept 25

September 25, 2016

         Almost 10 years ago, when I was serving a parish in Southeast Texas, the Diocesan Cathedral (Christ Church, Houston) sent out invitations to parishes around the diocese, asking that we come and tour our cathedral and to see their latest outreach project.  I still remember that event well.  The cathedral – which is what we call the church where the Diocesan Bishop’s chair (or “cathedra”) sits, is sort of the “home church” for the Bishop.  Diocesan cathedrals are usually pretty large and grand places, and the one in Houston is no exception to that rule.  It stands on the same spot where it was built in 1848 and has the distinction of being the longest standing, constantly occupied church in the city.  Naturally, Christ Church is a pretty wealthy parish, with an annual budget that is about 1/3 higher than the budget of our entire diocese.  But remember that I said at the beginning, we were invited to the cathedral to, among other things, tour their latest outreach project.  All of that is to say, that today’s Gospel speaks to the work of Christ Church in interesting ways.

         St. Luke tells us about Jesus using parables with the Pharisees again.  This one is about the rich man and Lazarus.  This parable comes on the heels of last week’s lesson (remember) in which Jesus finished with the line, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Given how hard Jesus hit the wealth-conscious Pharisees with last week’s parable of the shrewd manager, one might think that this morning’s story would be overkill.  But maybe not.

         The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is interesting for several things.  First, this is the ONLY parable Jesus tells in which a character has a name.  And note that the character named is NOT the wealthy and powerful one, but rather the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor, Lazarus.  Jesus didn’t just happen on the name, Lazarus either.  That name is a derivative of Eleazar, meaning “God helps, or God heals.”  We know just how poor Lazarus was by the fact that all he could do was lie outside the gates of the rich man’s house.  So weak, forgotten and expendable was Lazarus that he couldn’t even stop the dogs from licking his open sores.

Another interesting thing Jesus tells the Pharisees is that the rich man wore purple linen.  This would have meant to Jesus’ hearers that the rich man was extremely wealthy.  On the 2015 Forbes 400 list, in order to be one of the 400 richest people in America today, you have to be worth at least $1.7 BILLION (that’s billion with a “b”).  The rich man in this parable could have been on that list in his day.  We know that because linen was the most expensive fabric of Jesus’ day.  To wear linen meant that all your other needs were met, and then some.  But to wear purple linen indicated exceptional wealth.  You see, purple dye was very hard to get in nature.  It became the color of wealth and royalty because in order for ancients to dye a single toga for a member of the Roman elite, some 12,000 Murex snails had to be harvested, dried and their color extracted.  Jesus’ statement that this man wore purple linen meant that he was not just wealthy, but the equivalent of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett wealthy.

Notice though, that Jesus does NOT say anything negative – there is no moral condemnation of the wealthy man just for being wealthy.  This is not a story saying anything bad about money itself.  Jesus tells this story for deeper reasons than simply to drive home the point that the Kingdom of God results in reversals of fortune.  This story is about the CHASM between the rich man and Lazarus, and the fact that during the entire time they were both on earth, although he clearly had the means to do so, the rich man never did anything to try to bridge that chasm.

The Beacon is Christ Church Cathedral’s outreach ministry to the homeless in downtown Houston.  Dean Joe Reynolds (then the equivalent of the Rector of the Cathedral) told those of us gathered that day that out the front doors of the Cathedral you can look and see vast and incredible wealth.  Corporate headquarters of major oil companies are within walking distance out those front doors.  Once upon a time you could see Enron’s headquarters from there.  Amazing riches – indeed, billions of dollars – are an easy stone’s throw away, out those doors.  But out the BACK doors of Christ Church there are bail bondsmen and their clients.  There are people sleeping on sidewalks and panhandling for money.  Such is the difference one block can make, that out the back doors of the Cathedral is a virtual sea of people who share two things in common – they are desperately poor and they are absolutely anonymous.  One thing almost all homeless people say when asked is that no one ever looks in their eyes, much less calls them by name – and that is deeply degrading to any a human being.

The Beacon is the Cathedral’s attempt to bridge the chasm between the amazingly wealthy and the brutally poor.  Back then, it was open three days a week, Friday, Saturday and Sunday – the days that other service providers are closed.  At The Beacon, clients can get a free hot meal with two choices of entree, vegetable and a salad.  But more importantly, between the hours of 8:00am and 4:00pm, clients at the Beacon can get a shower and can have their clothes washed, dried, folded and returned.  No other agency in Houston provides these services.  While people are at The Beacon, they are given life’s essentials: food, clothing, shelter and security – but more importantly, they are given the dignity that comes with taking care of all their personal needs WHILE THEY ARE BEING CALLED BY NAME.  Everyone at The Beacon wears a nametag.  And EVERYONE is called by name.

There IS a great chasm between wealth and poverty in this country today.  The Forbes 400 last year, were worth a staggering combined 2.34 TRILLION dollars.  And it is estimated that there are over 550,000 homeless people in this country today.  That is a chasm by any estimation.  And the story of Christ Church is a near perfect metaphor for that chasm.  The very wealthy go in the front doors of the Cathedral.  It is the home church for the Bishop of Texas, a man who wears purple and is in charge of a diocesan operating budget of over $8,000,000.  The income for Christ Church itself was almost $3.5m in 2015.  The Diocese of Texas Cathedral is the epitome of what Jesus wanted us to think of when we think of this rich man.  But that is where the comparison ENDS.  Christ Church Cathedral in its general outreach and The Beacon in particular, exemplifies how Jesus’ parable will end when the Kingdom of God is fully ushered in.

As individual children of God, and as the branch of the Jesus Movement known as St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, we must give back to God’s creation from what we have been given.  It is imperative for this community, to give of itself freely and joyfully to help bridge the chasm in our own place and situation.  Thankfully, we have a wonderful history of outreach at St. Barnabas.  This congregation routinely gives of its resources to the community in many and varied ways.  But we should never rest on our laurels.  We need constantly to look for new ways of giving back.  It may not be a mission to the homeless, because that is not where we are situated.  But there are always new opportunities presenting themselves. 

It is not just our Christian duty, it is also important for our own spiritual health for each of us to give back, in meaningful ways.  As Albert Einstein said, “Only a life lived for others is worth living.”  Our Lord, the greatest of servant leaders lived that kind of life.  He is our example of one who worked every day to help the least in society and to give them hope for a brighter future.  St. Barnabas MUST constantly be involved in the Kingdom of God work in order to remain the vibrant community we are today.

Jesus tells us that we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, tend the sick, clothe the naked and visit those who are in prison.  Because when we do those things for the least of God’s children, we do them for Jesus.  Christ Church’s Beacon is an example – not the ONLY example, but a great example – of how, when the people of God get together, with one voice and one vision, and begin to work together, the chasm between wealth and poverty can begin to be bridged and the least of these can be identified, called by name and cared for with dignity and in love.

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


Lost But Loved, Fr. John Bedingfield Sept. 11

September 11, 2016

         Have you ever been lost?  I do not mean lost like when your GPS leads you in a different direction than you know to be right, but you follow it anyway.  When you end up driving along in the middle of the Achafalaya Basin Bridge, and the GPS calmlysays, “In 500 feet, turn right!”  That is not the kind of “lost” I mean.  I am talking about the kind of “lost” that makes your heart beat fast and causes you to break out in nervous sweat.  Have you ever been that kind of lost?

         When I was about five years old, my parents took my older sister and me to a drive-in theater in Austin.  Now for those of you who have no frame of reference, a drive-in was an outdoor movie theater.  Patrons would drive up to a little post, on which hung speakers on long cords.  You would roll down the driver’s window of the car, take the speaker, hang it on the glass, turn up the volume (and listen to it crackle and hiss), and then (if you were lucky) you would hear the movie dialog while you watched through the windshield, as it was projected on a gigantic screen.  In the late fifties and early sixties, it was not uncommon for drive-ins to have small playgrounds near the screen, so that the kids could burn off a little energy before the sun went down and it got dark enough for the movie to start.

         It was at such a playground that my older sister and I played on this particular night at themovies.  When it started to get fairly dark, my sister told me that it was time to go back to the car.  Unfortunately for me, either I was not paying attention and let the eight-year-old get too far ahead of me, OR, she left me in the dust just to mess with her younger brother.  Either way, I did not know where our car was,or how to find it.  I walked up and down the rows of the theater, calling my sister’s name.  Then I called for my parents.  Then I started to cry.  After what felt like hours, but which was probably no more than five minutes, a man came out of one of the cars and tried to comfort me and tell me that they would find my family.  At almost the same time, my dad appeared out of nowhere and found me.  I felt complete and total relief.  He took me back to the car – back to the family – and all was well. But I NEVER forgot the feeling of being lost.  Nor did I ever forget the feeling of being FOUND.

         The parables in today’s Gospel are told, in part, to let us know just how powerful God’s desire for us to be found really is.  Jesus was eating and talking with tax collectors and other sinners, when the religious leaders objected.  They wanted Him to know that He should not consort with these people who were estranged from the community of the faithful.  But Jesus knew just how important each one of His dining companions was in the Kingdom of God.  He recognized the intrinsic value that every human life has in God’s eyes. Unlike the religious leaders, who believed that they could somehow earn their way into God’s good graces, Jesus understood that ALL people ARE in God’s good graces already.

         So Jesus tells the Pharisees and Scribes about shepherding. He says that every time a sheep goes missing, the shepherd goes after that sheep.  Sometimes that means leaving the whole flock for a little while, until the wayward sheep can be found and returned.  Now that may sound like it might turn out bad for the profitability of the business, but it is what the good Shepherd always does.  Meanwhile, that one lost and frightened sheep desperately needs to be brought back into thefold – and the flock will never be complete and whole unless every sheep isback where it belongs.

         The world is made up of lost sheep.  We are not all lost all of the time.  But make no mistake, each of us is lost at one time or another – some for a short while and some for very long periods.  And through it all – all our times of being close to God (being part of the flock) and all our times of being lost, God constantly cares deeply about us.  God’s wants us back because we are God’s own creations, and therefore eminently valuable. And that fact is true, even when we seem the least loveable and the least valuable.

         There is a wonderful story of John Henry Newton, an Anglican priest in the 1700s.  Newton began his work life (before ordination) as a merchant sailor.  He worked ships that were part of the “triangle trade,” running rum from England (or New Englan) to West Africa, slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, and sugar from the West Indies to New England. During one of his voyages, a huge storm hit his ship, causing it to hit a rock, which knocked a hole in the hull. Newton cried out to God for help and suddenly the cargo shifted around covering the hole.  Shortly after that, Newton’s Christian journey began with a study of the Bible and theology.  Although he became kinder and gentler, he continued his work in the slave trade as he studied.  It is important to remember that at that time, the slave trade was respectable to most white people. Newton was later ordained to the priesthood after finally retiring from the slave trade.  It was years later that his faith finally convinced him that slavery was wrong.  He wrote a pamphlet Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, that was a catalyst for Parliament’s outlawing of slavery.  John Henry Newton’s growing anguish over what had done for a living resulted in his writing of perhaps the best known hymn in the world – and its classic line, “I once was lost, but now I’m found – was blind but now I see.”

         There is not much that could conceivably be worse than being a slave trader.  It is man’s inhumanity to man writ large.  There is no way to be more lost than being a slaver.  But even when a man trafficked in human beings, God did not leave him. God hunted him down and brought him back to the flock.  God found and returned this lost sheep because God LOVED him.  And the great wonder of it all is that God loves every human being just as much as God loved the lost and found John Henry Newton.


Max Lucado, in his book, A Gentle Thunder: Hearing God in the Storm, wrote that there are many reasons that God finds and saves us.

But one of the sweetest reasons God saved you is because he is fond of you.  He likes having you around.  He thinks you are the best thing to come down the pike in quite a while … If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.  If he had a wallet, your photo would be in it.  He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning.  Whenever you want to talk, he'll listen.  He can live anywhere in the universe, and he chose your heart.  …

Face it, friend. He's crazy about you!

         No matter how lost you may ever be, God is always there to find you; to return you to the flock; and to keep you in the love of God, forever.

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

Psalm 139, God Everywhere, Fr. John Bedingfield, Sept. 4

September 4, 2016

The Reverend Eugene Peterson is aPresbyterian minister, author and theologian. He has written over 30 books.  Buthis most famous is, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language.  Pastor Peterson studied biblical languagesextensively.  And one day, while he wasteaching a Sunday class on the Epistle to the Galatians, he looked around theroom and saw several blank stares.  Asanyone who has ever taught a bible study knows, that is not an altogetheruncommon occurrence.  Pastor Peterson believedthat the community in Galatia probably heard the letter in a much different waythan did his 21st Century audience. He decided that the problem was, people could not get the immediacy orthe depth of what the Bible was saying, because they were not reading it in thelanguages in which it was originally written, including all of the slang andidiom that the people would have used in those original languages and dialects.  So he set out to re-translate the entireBible, from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, not only into English –which had already been done, countless times – but to translate it into themodern American idiom.  Meaning that,instead of using formal English, he used Americanized English, including slangterms.  The result is a very accessibleversion of the Bible, which has naturally caused some scholars to scoff, butwhich has sold very well and has been the basis of successful Bible studyseries of its own.

The Psalm appointed for today is Psalm139.  It is my absolute favoritepsalm.  But in places it can seem a bitunapproachable.  So, I thought that todayI would share with you the way Eugene Peterson translated it.  Here is Psalm 139:1-18.

1 God, investigate my life; get all thefacts firsthand. 2 I'm an open book to you; even from adistance, you know what I'm thinking. 3 You know whenI leave and when I get back; I'm never out of your sight. 4You know everything I'm going to say before I start the first sentence. 5I look behind me and you're there, then up ahead and you're there, too - yourreassuring presence, coming and going. 6 This is too much,too wonderful - I can't take it all in! 7 Is there any placeI can go to avoid your Spirit? to be out of your sight? 8 IfI climb to the sky, you're there! If I go underground, you're there! 9If I flew on morning's wings to the far western horizon, 10You'd find me in a minute - you're already there waiting! 11Then I said to myself, "Oh, he even sees me in the dark! At night I'mimmersed in the light!" 12 It's a fact: darkness isn'tdark to you; night and day, darkness and light, they're all the same to you. 13Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother'swomb. 14 I thank you, High God - you're breathtaking! Bodyand soul, I am marvelously made! I worship in adoration - what a creation! 15You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body; You know exactlyhow I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something. 16Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stagesof my life were spread out before you.  The days of my life all prepared before I'deven lived one day. 17 Your thoughts - how rare, howbeautiful! God, I'll never comprehend them! 18 I couldn'teven begin to count them - any more than I could count the sand of the sea.  Oh, let me rise in the morning and live alwayswith you![1]

As I said, I love this Psalm. But Pastor Peterson’s version helps me see it differently, even afterall of the times that I have read through it. 

         This Psalm isabout the magnificent, awe-inspiring greatness of God.  There is no psalm that touches this one, whenit comes to describing the omniscience and omnipresence of God.  “I’m never out of your sight.”  That line begins an on-going description ofomnipresence.  God is everywhere: “I lookbehind me and you're there, then up ahead and you're there, too …  If I flew on morning's wings to the farwestern horizon, you'd find me in a minute - you're already there waiting!”

         I must admit thatthe first time I read this psalm as an adult, I found God’s complete“everywhere-ness” as concerning as it was comforting.  When I considered all of the varied placesthat I have been in my life, it was a little discomforting to think that Godwas standing right next to me.  Icertainly know that I would rather not have exposed the Creator of the Universeto some of the dives I visited when I was in the service.  But there God was.  And if I found that fact uncomfortable, God’somniscience was downright frightening.

         The psalmistsays: “I’m an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I'm thinking.  …  Youknow everything I'm going to say before I start the first sentence.”  The fact that God knows what I am going to say,before I say it, is bad – but God knowing my every thought isabsolutely cringe-worthy!

         Think about allof those times in the car, when someone cuts you off, or sits through a greenlight, while they talk on the phone.  Godis sitting right beside you, and knows what you are thinking right then!  Or how about the times that that one personwho pushes your buttons the most, corners you and forces you to listen to yet anotherinterminable story?  God is with you andknows what your thoughts are, as you bite your tongue to keep from saying whatyou really think.  Yeah, there is nodoubt that God being both omnipresent and omniscient is a disturbingproposition.  But thankfully that is notthe end of Psalm 139.

         The psalmist goeson to say: “I thank you, High God - you're breathtaking!  Body and soul, I am marvelously made!  I worship in adoration - what a creation!”  These verses are a recognition of the factthat God created each one of us – exactly as we are – and that God lovesus, exactly as we are.  We shouldadore God because of the breathtaking glory of God and because of the equallybreathtaking grace and mercy of God.  Weare marvelously made – and marvelously loved. Thanks be to God for that.

         Today’s readingfrom Jeremiah, tells of a vision the prophet had, in which God, the potter, wascreating a pot that got spoiled.  So thepotter made it into something else, saving it from ruin through the grace andskill that only a master potter could bring to bear.  That is exactly how God works with us – God’sown creations.  God forms us and shapesus.  And occasionally we rebel.  When we do, some of God’s work can bespoiled.  But God never allows thespoiling to be the last act – unless that is how WE want it to end.  When we give God a chance, we will bereshaped – remade – into yet another work of God’s.  And again we will be marvelously made. 

         God knowsall.  God sees all.  God understands all.  And thankfully, God loves all.  Do not try to hide your life from God.  Do not try to run from God.  Instead, stand before the Almighty, just asyou are, knowing that the redemptive power of Jesus’ sacrifice on the crossmade you – once and for all time – worthy of the never failing love of God.

            Inthe name of that same God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Peterson, Eugene H., The Message: The Bible inContemporary Language. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002.  (emphasis added)

Kingdom Values, Fr. John Bedingfield Aug 28th

August 28, 2016

Jesus said to the one who had invited Him to dinner:

"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is teaching about the difference between Kingdom of God rules and our earthly rules.  He is talking to a leader of the Pharisees and his other guests.  This was a gathering of the rich and powerful in Jerusalem.  It would be like going to the Governor’s mansion or the White House for a prayer breakfast.  There would have been politically powerful people, wealthy people and people with great religious stature there.  These were people who understood how the world works.  “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”  And, “One hand washes the other.”  They understood that to get ahead in the world – to accumulate wealth and power – you have to make powerful friends, friends for whom you do favors and then expect them to return those favors.  But rather than trying to curry favor with these people, Jesus took the opportunity to teach them how different the Kingdom of God is from the kingdom they had built for themselves. 

         Jesus’ message to his audience at the meal that day was that they should turn away from looking out for their own needs, and the needs of those who could be beneficial to them, and turn their attention toward people who needed help and had no hope of repaying them for that assistance.  He was teaching them an important lesson: in the Kingdom of God we must seek not to advance ourselves, but instead align our wills with the will of God, so that we might do God’s will in helping the helpless, thereby securing God’s blessing.  But He let them know that they should not help people BECAUSE they wanted to secure a blessing.  Instead, they should help people just to help people – because it is God’s will that we help those who are in need.  They should do good because we are supposed to do good, not for a reward.  They should bless other people because they were blessed, not to receive a greater blessing.

         All of those lessons are just as applicable to us as they were to the Pharisee and his guests that day.  Jesus said that we should: feed the poor, clothe the naked, give water to the thirsty, comfort the sick, and visit the shut-in and the prisoners – not because we would gain something economically, increase our power, or be glorified by others – but because it is what Jesus did.  …  It is how the Kingdom of God works.  But here is the amazing part.  When we do these things that Jesus commanded, we DO receive blessings.  When we help people who need help, without any sense of entitlement to repayment, we receive the wonderful blessing of a heart filled with joy and a peaceful sense of having done what the God who created us has asked us to do.  That is a blessing indeed.

         Over the last couple of weeks, in the face of an incredible number of people suddenly and unexpectedly finding themselves in need, people have been reaching out to help – without any thought of receiving repayment.  And through our reaching out to those in need, Lafayette, and St. Barnabas, have become what are known as “thin places,” those places where the Kingdom of God is so close that you can feel its presence.

         Since the waters started to recede, members of our congregation, along with hundreds of others around town, have literally jumped in to the muck and helped people clean out and tear out the flood damage in their homes.  Those who are in great need after the flood, have been receiving the help that they could not do without, from a bunch of people who are expecting absolutely nothing in return.  There is not much in the world that more closely epitomizes what Jesus was talking about, then getting sore and dirty on someone else’s behalf, and expecting no payment for that work.

         And over the last week, we began to distribute needed supplies to people of Lafayette and the surrounding communities.  In four days, we helped over 1,000 people with the: bottled water, diapers, baby formula, cleaning supplies, toiletries, and when FoodNet has sufficient donations, bags of non-perishable groceries, and other items that they desperately needed.  Members of St. Barnabas have given up four or eight hours at a time – some coming back day after day – in order to haul supplies inside the EYC building, sort them, then take them right back outside to peoples’ cars.  And none of these wonderful volunteers expected anything in return for any of the blessings they bestowed on people.  But we have all received blessings in the last couple of weeks.

         Sometimes we are blessed by people’s gratitude.  When you’ve worked all afternoon and into the evening, helping to tear out someone’s floors and sheetrock, and they hug you and tell you how thankful they are for the help, that is a blessing that is beyond belief.  And when we have billed someone’s trunk with the barest of necessities, and they share their story of loss with us – ending that story with a ray of hope, that is better than any payment we could possibly receive.

         I have personally had the opportunity to visit with many of our own parishioners who have suffered losses in the flood.  This congregation has been able to give them some level of financial help – through the generous gifts we have received from our own Outreach Committee (who changed their monthly project and gave our flood relief the money instead), as well as from other congregations (specifically St. George’s in Bossier, and Grace in Monroe), and our Diocese as well as Episcopal Relief and Development.  While we have certainly not been able to erase people’s financial losses, we have certainly been able to be helpful.  And the stories I have been honored to hear, along with people’s open gratitude for your generosity, have been incredibly inspiring to me … and remarkable blessing.

         Jesus’ lesson is clear – God’s Kingdom values should be our values.  And when our values align with Kingdom values, God blesses us.  In other words, when we think about doing God’s will before we think about our own agendas, we find blessings that beyond belief.

         So, if you can squeeze something else into your schedule, contact the church office or email and get involved.  It will do wonders for the people you help.  And amazingly, it will do more good for you.


Reaching Out, Fr. John Bedingfield August 21st

August 22, 2016

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

I read recently that today’s Gospel is about two people who were bent out of shape.  Sometimes I wish that I was clever enough to come up with something like that.  The woman whom Jesus healed was physically “bent out of shape.”  For eighteen long years, she had not been able to straighten up.  As someone with chronic back problems, I promise you that that is a horrible fate for anyone to suffer.  But then there is the Pharisee who is also incredibly “bent out of shape” by Jesus’ performing of a healing on the Sabbath.  The message for us, though, is not in the two people’s interactions with Jesus as much as it is in Jesus’ response to the Temple leader.  You need to care less about your own rules and regulations than you do about the wellbeing of another child of God.

         As a community, Lafayette and St. Barnabas have again been tested over and over again by situations not of our making.  Eleven years ago, hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit this area with a tough one-two-punch.  Those two storms severely stretched the resources of all of Acadiana.  It was not all that long ago that we had the Grand Theatre shooting.  That tested our spiritual strength and our resilience.  Then we had the bottom drop out of oil prices – the same oil that is pretty much the life blood of our community.  That tested our determination and our ability to sustain our way of life during adversity.  But this test – the flood of 2016 – is a monster of a test.  Over the course of the coming days, weeks and months, we will have our resources stretched, our physical stamina tested, our empathy examined, and our faith tried as never before.  But Jesus has something to tell us about times like these.  His message to us is that we have been called by God at this place and in this time, to care for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are in need, and if we are faithful about that work, that same God will see us through.

         I read a post on Facebook the other day, from a local person, who was complaining about seeing all of the “Pray for Louisiana,” messages that had started to appear.  He said in his post that he didn’t understand why people who believed that God was in charge of such things as floods, would also pray to that same God for help.  He saw a real logical inconsistency there.  I have to say that I too see a problem with that logic.  But here’s the thing: God did NOT send a flood to wreak havoc on South Louisiana.  The flood was caused by a tropical low pressure system that stalled over our area and dumped more rain on us in a short period of time than our drainage systems could handle.  THAT was the cause of this disaster.

         The man who posted his opinion on Facebook reminded me of the Temple leader in today’s Gospel.  I’m pretty sure that the Facebook guy had little or no belief in God, while I’m sure that the Temple leader professed an absolute faith.  But neither of them really understood who God is.  They have no more understanding of the Creator God, the Redeemer Jesus and the Sustainer Holy Spirit than does Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council.  You see, Mr. Perkins has professed that, in the past, God brought floods to parts of this country, based upon God’s dislike of LGBT persons.  Now it appears that Mr. Perkins’ house was caught in the 2016 flood – which creates another of those logical fallacies.  No … God does not flood places to show us that God is angry with us.  How, you may ask, can I be so sure of that?  Simple.  Look at the story of Noah.

         After God caused the flood of all floods, the flood that destroyed the world, God told Noah that God would never do that again. 

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:  I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,  I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh….”  (Gen 9:12-15  NRSV)

God does not send disasters to teach us lessons.  Instead, God sent God’s only Son to redeem us from sin and death.  And God sends the Holy Spirit to be with us and give us strength and courage in times of need.  So pray for Louisiana.  Pray for those you know and love who have been effected by this disaster.  Pray for those in our congregation who are struggling with all of the horror that floods bring.  But do not stop at praying.  Reach out to those in need and provide whatever help you can.

         Having had back surgery, my ability to get down and rip or cut sheetrock, take up flooring or rip out cabinets is somewhat limited.  As much as I would love to lead the charge in helping members of our congregation get back on their feet, that part is not my gift.  And it may not be yours either.  If it is, please let us know and we will send you where you are needed.  If not, find some other way to help.

         As of tomorrow morning, we will become a distribution point for United Way services.  That means that at around 8:00am, a truck will come and drop off a bunch of supplies that people are needing.  The United Way will then send people our way when they ask for help.  And we will distribute things such as: diapers; baby food; cleaning supplies; and other necessities.  We will need volunteers to come and man the tables that we will set up to get help to these folks.  Please let Carolyn or me know when you are available and we will set up a roster of volunteers.  Or maybe you are a cook.  All of the people who are beginning rehab on houses need to eat.  Let us know if you are interested and we will give you addresses where you can take meals and drinks to give to volunteers who have the physical skills to be gutting houses.  Or maybe you can give through money or in-kind gifts.  Those too are desparately needed.  In particular, new underwear and socks are still needed, as are duffle bags and/or suitcases – because people in the Red Cross shelters have no place to keep their stuff while living communally.  Finally, the shelters, as well as many of the people who have been displaced to another temporary living space, need people who are willing to do laundry.

         There are ways to help your brothers and sisters in Christ who are currently in need.  Find those ways and reach out.  If you find that you do not have the skill, ability, or resources to do one particular job, find another one to try.  But reach out, just as Jesus reached out to the woman in today’s Gospel reading.  Extend a helping hand and be thankful that our God is a God of mercy and love, rather than a God of vengeance, as some folks misguidedly believe.

            Thanks be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for all that we have – especially each other.  Amen.

Prayer — It’s all about relationship, Fr. John Bedingfield, July 24

July 24, 2016

In the name of the one to whom all our prayers are offered, God the Father, through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus has returned to the Disciples from a time of private prayer.  This habit of going off by himself to pray is something Luke refers to nine times over the course of the Gospel.  Clearly, Luke wanted his readers to understand the importance, the centrality of prayer in Jesus’ life.  

I am sure that if we laid Luke’s Gospel out on a timeline, by the time they got to Chapter 11, the Disciples would have known Jesus pretty well.  They would have seen Him in all kinds of situations by that time.  And they would undoubtedly have seen Him in prayer – and would have known that He went off by himself to be in prayer – many times.  But on this particular time, when He came back, someone asked Him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Now it’s not that the Disciples did not know anything about prayer.  They did not mean that they literally did not know how to pray.  They were, after all, practicing Jews.  They would have had experience praying, reading Scripture and hearing teachings about God in the local synagogues from the time that they were small.  They would almost certainly have been brought up offering some form of Jewish prayer before meals.  Something like:

Blessed are You, Lord, the almighty One, King of the Universe

who brings forth bread from the earth.

Who creates the fruit of the vine

Who made all things exist through His word (Amen)

And they would have known about the sacrifices on the Temple altar, where the life of an animal was offered up to God and the burning flesh and incense smoke would have carried the prayers of the people up to heaven.  They definitely knew something about prayer.  And yet … they asked Jesus to teach them to pray.

Luke tells us that Jesus said to the Disciples: “When you pray, say, Father, hallowed be your name. “

Commentators have said that the Disciples were probably a little taken aback, if not downright shocked when Jesus told them to address God as “Father.”  While they may, by that time, have gotten used to hearing Jesus refer to God as His Father, or Abba (what we would translate as “Daddy”), that did not mean that they were ready to do so.  Again, these were Jews who used terms such as Adonai (Lord) and Elohim (the all powerful One) to express who God is.  For Jesus to tell them to call God “Dad” must have taken their breath away.  But Jesus wanted to make an important point to His Disciples – one that we need to heed today.  That is … God is our Father (our heavenly dad) and wants relationship – through communication with us.

The Merriam Webster Unabridged Dictionary defines prayer as: “a solemn and humble approach to Divinity in word or thought usually involving beseeching, petition, confession, praise, or thanksgiving ….”  There is no doubt that that definition is accurate, but perhaps not quite complete.  

You see, what Jesus was talking about with the Disciples that day – the thing that He wanted to make sure His followers understood – was that prayer was not the rote recitation of a formula.  Prayer is not simply putting a bunch of words in the right order and making certain that they all get said before you are finished.  No … prayer is conversation.

You might think it strange that an Episcopal priest – liturgical leader of a group of people who are known for their reliance on written prayers – would be telling you that prayer is not about recitation of words.  Well, that is one of the biggest misconceptions about liturgical churches in general and the Episcopal Church in particular.  The prayers in our Book of Common Prayer are not meant to be simply read through in a particular order and with a particular rhythm, so that our duty to pray is fulfilled.  No, the prayers in our prayer book are meant to inspire us with the beauty of their imagery and the eloquence with which they express our needs and desires.  And, as the Rev. Dr. Dennis Maynard puts it in his book, Those Episkopols, our prayer book is meant to save us from both excess and omission – trying to put in everything or forgetting to include something important.

But an important thing about the Book of Common Prayer is what it does not say.  It does not say that it is the only form of prayer we should use.  It is a resource that allows us all to pray together – in common – which is good for us as a community.  And as I have told you before, it is also a wonderful resource in that it can pray for us when we are in those desert times and places in our lives in which we are unable to form the prayers on our own.  

But our Book of Common Prayer, through its flexibility, understands that the Merriam Webster definition of prayer is too limited.  “A solemn and humble approach to Divinity in word or thought ….”  There is no need for solemnity in every prayer.  When we, Episcopalians approach the altar of God, by tradition we do so humbly and reverently.  But that is not the only way.  Little children come forward running, or skipping.  And they smile (and sometimes to the consternation of adults around them, talk or laugh) as they receive communion.  Do you honestly believe that the Jesus who told the Disciples to approach God as little children would disapprove of their unbridled joy?  Or how about those times in which something wonderful has happened to you and the only way to respond that feels “right” is to look heavenward and exclaim, “Thank you Jesus!”  That is neither solemn nor humble.

Sufi mystics whirl around as they pray.  Native American religions often involve dance in prayer.  There are Christian groups, including some in our own denomination who worship through liturgical dance.  Some people say they feel closer to God when they sing than they do at any other time.  Oftentimes I feel most in tune with God when I can be still and silent and listen.  But … there is something special in my prayer life when I can stand behind the altar and experience the actions as well as the words, as we remember and relive our Lord’s Last Supper.  It is all prayer.  But I don’t think Jesus even intended to stop His lesson to the Disciples there.

With all due respect to Merriam Webster, I think prayer is conversation, through thought, word or activity.  I think that is what Jesus knew as well.  I believe that Luke’s telling of this story – in which he pairs the Lord’s Prayer with the parable of the neighbor asking for a favor – is meant to tell us that we should approach God the way we do a true friend – or a beloved Dad: with the love and respect of people who are in relationship; with an expectation that the other person cares about us; and most importantly with the understanding that the conversation is always on-going.  Author Anne Lamott is quoted as saying, “When you pray, you are not starting the conversation from scratch, just remembering to plug back into a conversation that's always in progress.”

Jesus told the Disciples to pray persistently.  I believe by that He meant the same thing that the Apostle Paul meant when he said that we were to “pray without ceasing.”  And because prayer is not just about speech, but also includes thought and movement as well as stillness and quiet, it is possible to pray without ceasing.  There is an old saying that goes, “The only way to pray is to pray, and the way to pray well is pray much.”  

The nineteenth century congregational preacher and author, Henry Ward Beecher put the centrality and the importance of prayer very well.  These are his words:

Prayer covers the whole of man's life.  There is no thought, feeling, yearning, or desire, however low, trifling, or vulgar we may deem it, which if it affects our real interest or happiness, we may not lay before God and be sure of sympathy.  His nature is such that our often coming does not tire him.  The whole burden of the whole life of every man may be rolled on to God and not weary him, though it has wearied man.  

Pray always.  Bring every aspect of your life, the good and the bad, the important and the trivial before God in prayer.  It may not result in your receiving everything you desire, but it will result in the only thing you really need – a deeper relationship with God.