Agape - What the World Needs, Fr. John Bedingfield May 6th

May 6, 2018
00:0000:00

Three doctors were waiting in line to get in the pearly gates.  When they got to the front of the line, St. Peter asked the first doctor, “What did you do that would get you into heaven?”  The doctor said, “I was an Obstetrician.  I brought thousands of lives into the world.”  St. Peter said, “Fine.  Welcome.”  He then asked the second doctor, “What did you do that would get you into heaven?”  The doctor said, “I was a medical missionary.  I went to the most impoverished areas of the world and brought comfort and healing to the sick.”  “Great!” said St. Peter.  “Welcome.”  Finally, he turned to the last doctor and said, “What about you?”  The doctor said, “I was the medical director for a major health insurer.”  St. Peter hesitated and then said, “We’re going to have to send this to a committee for approval.  And if they decide that you can come in, there will be a $1000 deductible and your stay is limited to 48 hours.”

Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.  ...  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

The last couple of weeks, we have been hearing from Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse,” in John’s Gospel.  This is the long speech that Jesus gave the Disciples, before he was arrested, on His way to the Crucifixion.  In this 4th Gospel, Jesus spends a great deal of His time toward the end, telling His followers about God and His relationship to the Father.  And about His love for them; the Father’s love for the Son; and the love that they ought to have, in order to spread God’s love throughout the world.  Jesus told them to look at how He had loved them, up to that moment, and to see that love as a reflection of how — and how much — God loves Jesus, and therefore, how much God loved them.  Then He admonished them to go out into the world and love like He and the Father love.  

The Greek word that John uses in this passage for “love,” is, “agape.”  As I have told you before, the ancient Greeks had multiple words for what we simply call, “love.”  One word was filios.  That is the love that we feel for our family members.  Folios is platonic, protective love.  Then there is Eros — or the love of people who have just “fallen in love.”  Eros is passion.  It is that form of love that I read makes people not want to fall asleep, because for once, reality is better than a dream.  Unfortunately, Eros in its pure form, does not last long.  And finally, there is what the author of the 4th Gospel was talking about.  

Agape is that form of love that is absolutely free of ulterior motives.  When we feel agape toward another person, the thing that we want most is for that person to always have what is best for him or her — even when his or her getting what is best comes at great personal cost to us.

I recently read an excerpt from contemporary writer, Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, in which he said:

A beggar had been sitting by the side of a road for over thirty years. One day a stranger walked by. “Spare some change?” mumbled the beggar, mechanically holding out his old baseball cap. “I have nothing to give you,” said the stranger. Then he asked: “What’s that you are sitting on?” “Nothing,” replied the beggar. “Just an old box. I have been sitting on it for as long as I can remember.” “Ever looked inside?” asked the stranger. “No,” said the beggar. “What’s the point? There’s nothing in there.” “Have a look inside,” insisted the stranger. The beggar managed to pry open the lid. With astonishment, disbelief, and elation, he saw that the box was filled with gold.

 

This is what the [agape] is all about. (Tolle says). There’s something within you containing all the love you could ever ask for. You don’t need a (lover), don’t need your family, you don’t need anything .... Imagine this: never feeling lonely again, never feeling empty again, always feeling fulfilled. This is what you’ll gain when you experience Agape.

Jesus taught the Disciples about agape so that they might experience His love for them, even after He was gone from their sight ... and so that they might also grow into God’s mission of spreading that love around the world.

The world that we live in is desperate for an experience of agape in action.  There is so much violence in the world; so much poverty; so much suffering; so many people not only ignoring the suffering of their brothers and sisters, but actively adding to it in order to gain an advantage over someone else.   

Mother Theresa is quoted as having said, 

The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for.  We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love.  There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love.

Sometimes it is almost like love — pure, agape — is all but dead.  At least that is the way it seems.

If that rings true for you ... if you feel like unselfish love is sorely lacking in the world ... go out and change it!  Jesus said, “Love one another just as I have loved you.”  Starting right here and right now, give to your neighbor, no matter who he or she may be: that love that wants nothing in return for loving; the love that wants only the very best for the object of the love; that love which would cause someone to lay down their life for someone else; that Jesus-like agape.

It is not easy to love everyone with pure agape — but what about being a disciple of Jesus Christ is easy?  Try it anyway.  If you truly want to change this cruel and unloving world, this is the only way.  Hate cannot destroy hate.  Cruelty cannot destroy cruelty.  Selfishness cannot destroy selfishness.  Only agape can do that.  And we ... the beloved of God who know the love of Jesus Christ are the right ones to bring agape.  So, let’s get started today.

Amen.

Be the Shepherd, Fr. John Bedingfield, April 22nd

April 22, 2018
00:0000:00

A small town had three churches: Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopal ... All three had a serious problem with bats in their bell towers and each, in its own fashion, dealt with the problem.

The Presbyterians decided that it was predestined that bats be in the tower and that they would just have to live with them.

The Methodists decided they should deal with the bats lovingly in the style of Charles Wesley. They humanely trapped them and released them in a park at the edge of town. Within 3 days, they were all back in the bell tower.

The Episcopalians had the best solution. They baptized and confirmed the bats. After that they only saw them at Christmas and Easter.

This is what is commonly known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” the 4th Sunday in the Easter season. It is easy to see why we have given this Sunday its name. We have the discussion of Jesus as Good Shepherd from John’s Gospel; we have the portion of John’s first letter that uses language reflective of what Jesus told His Disciples were the attributes of the Good Shepherd, Himself; and finally, we have the incredibly pastoral 23rd Psalm, which sets out what it means to have our God as our shepherd.

I’ve preached on these passages every year that I’ve been ordained. This week, I looked back and saw the different ways that I have approached these texts in the past. There was nothing wrong with any of those sermons. None of them preached heresy and they usually had something worthwhile to say. But somehow, this Sunday, it seems to me that the theology of the Shepherd, or a deeper understanding of why Jesus used this metaphor when describing Himself, seems less important than does the question of what it means to be a GOOD shepherd today.

Good shepherds care about the whole flock. That means they want what is best for the whole flock – and for each individual sheep within the flock – at all times. So, love your neighbor, not just the neighbor next to your house, or the one sitting behind you today. Love EVERY member of God’s flock: regardless of skin color; economic status; sexual preference; political party; or any other artificial dividing line you can put in place. Assume that each one of those other sheep is also a beloved member of the flock, and treat them as such.

Good shepherds protect the WHOLE flock. That means standing up for what is right. Even if you are dedicated gun enthusiast, stand up for those who are dying because of unnecessary gun violence. They are not your enemies, they are frightened sheep who need a good shepherd.

If you are a man, stand up for women’s rights. They are beloved members of the flock, who deserve equal pay for equal work. And they deserve to live every day the same way you do – without fear of being harassed, just because God gave them an extra X chromosome, instead of a Y.

If you’re straight, stand up for those in the flock who are LGBTQ. Treating someone differently because of who they love – particularly when that is a part of the way God made us – and when someone else’s love life has no effect on your life, whatsoever, is truly un-shepherd-like, and hurts the entire flock.

If you’re white, stand up for the members of the flock who were born with wool of a different hue, those who have to live with institutional racism, along with the straightforward kind. Don’t laugh at the racist jokes, don’t use that kind of language, ever. And don’t let anyone else do it in your presence. Work with a shepherd’s determination, to dismantle the social constructs that work to hold people of color down and keep them from – for instance, waiting in a Starbucks, or talking on the phone in the backyard.

And even if you are a dedicated political junkie – or if you’re not but spend a lot of time on Twitter or Facebook, stand up for and protect the sheep who are being called horrible names, for whatever reason. ALL of the flock are beloved sheep who belong to the same Father. You can constructively argue with someone and not call him or her a name. You can vehemently disagree with a political or policy stance and never try to publicly destroy your opponent. And you can let it be known that that behavior is not acceptable in the flock of humankind, no matter who it is who is doing the demeaning.
If you’re keeping score on this list, you may have recognized that I just set up heterosexual, white, males to do a lot of work. That is as it should be. Heterosexual, white, males – those like me – are the ones who have reaped more than our share of the benefits of being part of the American flock. And it is time that we gave back in a meaningful way.

If I have said anything here that made any of you – especially my hetero-Caucasian brothers, I sincerely apologize. But every call I have made to you here was said or clearly implied by Jesus, throughout the Gospels. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus said, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

Shepherding is a responsibility. If you want to emulate Jesus, you had better take that responsibility seriously. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not a slogan … it is rule of life.

As you are trying to BE THE CHURCH, remember to BE THE SHEPHERD!

Peace be with you, Fr. John Bedingfield, April 8th

April 8, 2018
00:0000:00

Eve was walking through the Garden of Eden one day, head hanging down, kicking at the grass.  God stopped and said, “Eve, what’s wrong?”  She said, “Good morning, God.  I’m just bored.  Bored and lonely.  This is the most perfect world I could possibly live in, but I’ve eaten of all of the trees and talked to that crazy snake, and hung out with you, and I’m sorry, but I’m bored and tired of not having anyone like me around.”

God said, “I have an idea.  How about if I make you a man to be your companion?”  Eve said, “Great!  But what’s a man?”

God said, “He’ll be like you, but bigger and stronger, and he’ll be able to do things that you have trouble doing.  But there’s a downside too.”  Eve said, “What is that?”  God said, “He’ll be somewhat egotistical and he’ll always be worried about being the best and the most manly.  And sometimes when you want him to help you, he’ll refuse and just sit around.”  

Eve thought about it and said, “I am so lonely and bored.  Okay.  It’s a deal.  I’ll take one.”

God said, “One other thing.  Because the man will insist on being first at everything he does, we’ll have to let him think that I made him first.  So all of this has to be a secret — just between us girls. okay?”

 

This week, as I was preparing, I was going over the readings for today.  I read through this incredibly familiar Gospel reading about Thomas and his interaction with Jesus, but I kept getting stuck on the first part of the reading.  “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, ….”

Jesus had been with the Disciples for about 3 years when He was crucified.  Setting aside the fact that they had seen all of the signs — as John’s Gospel calls the miracles of Jesus — which should have convinced them long before Good Friday that Jesus was indeed, the Messiah, the anointed one, God Incarnate in the world.  Setting that aside, Jesus had been their teacher, their leader, their mentor and confidant.  And suddenly He was gone.

Undoubtedly, they were all grief-stricken as they sat in that room, wondering what was going to become of them — and of the life that they and Jesus had built together.  It must have been very hard indeed for them to process what had happened, or to begin to think about what tomorrow might bring.  

I think that I initially had trouble getting past that opening line, because today is the day that I must make the bittersweet announcement that I am leaving St. Barnabas.  I have accepted an offer from our Bishop, to become his Canon to the Ordinary.  A diocesan bishop is known as “the Ordinary,” because he or she exercises ordinary jurisdiction over a diocese.  So, I will be Canon to Bishop Jake, meaning that I will be someone who does whatever the Ordinary needs me to do.

This call is one of very few in the world that would have ever lured me away from St. Barnabas.  I have loved my time here and have enjoyed being your rector more than I could ever tell you.  But it is not only an honor to be offered a position like my new one, but I also believe that this is the perfect time for me to make this transition.

Over the last year, and particularly since we got involved in the RenewalWorks project, I have seen a vibrancy and an energy level here that is absolutely wonderful.  That energy and vitality come, at least in part, from the fact that your RenewalWorks committee learned and internalized the fact that the clergy are not St. Barnabas.  YOU are St. Barnabas.  They learned, and are now trying to pass along to you, the fact that YOU can — and should — BE THE CHURCH.  Your clergy should empower you for your mission and feed you sacramentally, to prepare you for your work in the world.  Your rector should be here for you when you discover difficulties and should help provide whatever tools you need along the way.  But YOU are the ones who make St. Barnabas the wonderful place that it is.  And YOU are the ones who are charged with taking the initiatives that came from RenewalWorks and carrying them forward into whatever future God has in mind for you.

Although Donna, Taylor and I will miss you all more than we can say, we know that you are in a great place as a congregation and therefore will continue to flourish long into the future.

I know that this comes as quite a shock to most of you.  And I know that in the days to come, some of you will feel some of the grief of loss that Donna and I will feel.  But remember, after John’s Gospel says that the Disciples were sad and afraid of the future, the next line of the passage says, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”

The resurrected Jesus came and stood among them and gave them peace — the peace that passes all understanding — the peace which can only come through the power of the living God in our lives.  And that same peace will be here for the taking, anytime you need it.  All you have to do is come and partake of the Body and Blood of our Lord, and feel the real presence of Christ within you.  Open yourself to the power of the Holy Spirit and receive that peace of Christ, every week.  And then trust in the grace and goodness of God to provide St. Barnabas with everything you will need for the next leg of your journey together.

I really believe that this congregation is in the best possible place to start a new adventure — the next stage of your journey together — along with whomever your next rector may be.  And I couldn’t help but think of you all as I read today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  

"Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need."

Now I don’t mean for one minute to suggest that St. Barnabas is going to get together and everyone is going to sell everything they own and give the proceeds to the church to begin an exercise in socio-religious communism.  I don’t believe that that is what God has called this church to do.  But I DO believe that the image of how tight that early community was, has something to say to this congregation.  That early Church was of “one heart and soul,” and I believe St. Barnabas can be that way too.  I deeply feel that this congregation stands on the cusp of something deep and wonderful and miraculous, something that will grow from your being of one heart and soul in your following of Jesus Christ.  And I look forward to seeing how your next chapter plays out.

My last Sunday here will be May 13th.  We still have a little over a month together, and I hope to be able to speak with each of you during that time.  But no matter what, please know that I love you all and you will always have a special place in my heart.  And please know that Donna, Taylor and I have been honored to be part of this wonderful place.

Looking for Jesus, Fr. John Bedingfield, March 18th

March 18, 2018
00:0000:00

On Thursday nights during Lent, we have been studying our Bishop’s latest book, Your Untold Story: Tales of a Child of God. There is much about the book to be commended. But its first chapter is especially germane today.

A group of Greeks went to Jerusalem, and because they had heard stories about Him, they went to the Disciple Andrew, and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” In Bishop Jake’s book, he tells about one of the more renowned professors at The School of Theology at Sewanee, who used to say, “When you get out there in your churches, people are going to come looking for Jesus. And all they’re going to get is you.” There is a lot to think about in that saying – on many levels.

First: what are you looking FOR, when you wish to see Jesus? Do you think in concrete terms of seeing a 1st Century, transient rabbi, being accompanied by a ragtag group of disciples and hangers-on, as you've seen in movies? In those images, is He blond and blue-eyed, like Jeffery Hunter in King of Kings, or more middle-eastern looking, like Jim Caviziel, in The Passion of the Christ? Beyond His physical appearance, when you “see” Jesus: is He the miracle-worker; the one who can feed thousands with a little bread and some small fish; the one who cures lepers, and gives sight to the blind; the one who walks on water and stills storms; or is He the teacher, who tells people about the Kingdom of God and about how to drink “living water” in order to find eternal life?

Because you see, Jesus is all those things, and so much more. It is the “so much more,” I believe, that the Greeks in the Gospel story were looking for. They wanted to “see” Jesus, but I do not believe that it was His face, or stature, or any other physical trait that they were looking to see. They wanted — as do we, followers of Jesus today — to see the essence of Jesus; that which makes Jesus worthy of our worship and devotion.

And therein lies the issue with Professor Armentrout’s astute observation.

When people come here, looking for Jesus, they are only going to find us. Now notice that I said that in the plural, us — not me. Because, guess what? I am not the Body of Christ. WE are the Body of Christ. That means that in a very real, very tangible, very observable way, WE are supposed to be Jesus Christ in the world, in March of 2018.

Sir, we wish to see Jesus — in whatever physical form He might be available.

When people come to St. Barnabas, looking for Jesus, who do you think they want to see? How about someone who accepts everyone who comes to Him (particularly those whom no one else wants to have around)? Our beautiful new signage and t-shirts say that everyone is welcome in our flock. Being Jesus means that we have to be serious about that statement.

That means that we have to accept people who don’t look like us. And we’re really pretty good at that part. Although I would love to see more racial diversity, we are much better about accepting any and all races and ethnicities than are most Episcopal Churches. And obviously, we are good about accepting everyone, regardless of their sexual identity. Although, again we are nowhere near perfect, in recent years we have reached the stage where we just assume that not all of us are in the same place on the continuum of sexuality, and that’s fine with us. But what about people who disagree with us politically?

In the over-heated, sometimes hysteric, hyper-partisan atmosphere of America today, how are you at being Jesus to someone who deeply disagrees with everything you stand for? If you believe that the “Clinton machine” was incredibly corrupt and that the “deep state,” is something to be eternally vigilant about, how are you at being Jesus to a liberal, socialist, Bernie supporter? And if you desperately believe that Donald Trump should have been impeached months ago, how are you at being Jesus to someone in a Make America Great Again Hat, who is still chanting “lock her up,” 16 months after the election?

You see, being Jesus — being the Body of Christ — means not just tolerating, but loving those who, because of their political leanings, we would sometime like to cheerfully strangle. And it means loving those who do not spend money the way that we think they should; and those who see this congregation going in a direction that is different from what we might choose. Being Jesus to other people, means getting right in the middle of the most difficult of situations, and being the loving, non-anxious presence in the room.

One of the people of the 20th Century who most embodied what it meant to “be Jesus,” was someone who was not even a Christian. Mohandas Gandhi was not a man who was formally trained in religious matters at all. He was trained in the law. When Gandhi took up the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in 1915, he began to be awakened by the power of God to change the lives of struggling people. By the 1940s he had returned to India and was the primary force in working for peace between the warring Hindus and Muslims. In very real and concrete terms, Gandhi “sold all he had and gave the money to the poor,” as he “picked up his cross and followed Christ.”

Gandhi got right in the middle of the most contentious, most volatile, most dangerous disputes of his day. And through them all, he refused to respond to violence with violence. He refused to see people who were acting badly, as all bad. He would not allow those around him to react to hard times in any way other than by loving people and trying to affect positive change. Gandhi stopped an ethnic and religious war, saving the lives of thousands, simply because the people on both sides of the conflict loved him so much that they stopped killing each other rather than see Gandhi die of hunger, after he quit eating in protest of their actions. Those who saw Gandhi saw Jesus in a very real sense. even though Gandhi once said, when asked for his views on Christianity. He said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Indeed. When they come looking for Jesus, all they’re going to get is us.

If we are to be Jesus to other people, then we have to be completely focused on being a consistent force for good in the world — and in being a window through which everyone we meet might have a glimpse of the endless grace, the unfathomably deep love, and the relentlessly reconciling power of the God who calls each of us, “beloved.”

Sir, we wish to see Jesus, in a form that looks very much like you. We wish to see unselfish love. We wish to see care for others that eclipses care for self. We wish to see one who never trivializes another in order to put himself above someone else. We wish to see Jesus, who taught us, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

When they wish to see Jesus, let them see you. Amen.

Cleanse The Temple, Fr. John Bedingfield, March 4th

March 4, 2018
00:0000:00

When I was a kid, I received a Bible that had belonged to my father’s uncle, John Davis Bedingfield, who died 12 days after I was born, and whose name I carry. It was a leather-bound, King James Version, with his — now my — name embossed on the cover. In between the Old Testament and the New Testament, it has a bunch of prints of paintings, the origins of which are unknown to me. Along with such pictures as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and Noah loading animals on the Ark, there was a picture that really stuck out to me.

The picture I remember so vividly was of Christ Cleansing the Temple. In it, there are birds flying around; men who are ducking or recoiling;Temple authorities who are talking about what is going on; men who are chasing their coins across the floor; and in the midst of it all, Jesus, with whip-like cords held above his head, as he prepares to swing them — again — at the merchants in the Court of the Gentiles, in the outer part of the Temple. And what struck about the picture, at least as a child, was Jesus’ face.
Like most children, I was pretty familiar with the story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, you know, carrying a lamb on his shoulders, to make sure that this lost creature got back to its mother. And, at that time, I was marginally familiar with the story in which Jesus called the little children to himself and has smiling children all around him. In the paintings of these events, Jesus is kind, caring, serene, and exuding absolute love. Laying aside the fact that most of the artistic renderings of Jesus are blond haired, blue-eyed, white guys — which is most certainly not how Jesus looked — the pictures that I had seen of Him, up to that time, were always of a smiling man, who cared for everyone around Him. But this Jesus, the one in the cleansing the Temple picture, this was an angry guy, and it made quite an impression on me.

From all that I have learned in the intervening half century, Jesus was indeed very angry when he cleansed the Temple. He made a whip out of cords, and was using that whip. No one fashions a homemade whip in order to have a calm conversation with those who disagree with him. Yeah, Jesus was teed off that day.

When we think about this story, we should keep in mind that Jesus was a faithful, observant Jew. He read, taught and preached in synagogues. He fasted on fast days and feasted on feast days. And He made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, to the Temple, when the Jewish calendar said to. That is important because, although some have taught it this way, this story is not about Christianity being more pleasing to God, than Judaism. In Jesus’ day, there was no such religion as Christianity. No, this story is not about Judaism. It is about Temple worship and the way it had slowly disintegrated over the centuries, into a corrupt and misguided system in need not only of reform, but in need of dissolution.

Jesus came onto the scene, “as one with authority.” He preached and taught with an authenticity and a truth that the religious leaders of His day lacked. The Pharisees, the Scribes, the Sanhedrin, had all come into being to guard the Jewish faith from those who might either try to pervert it, or otherwise change its worship into something God never intended. Unfortunately, over the centuries, these faithful men gave way to those who were more interested in gaining, consolidating and keeping power than they were in insuring that the worship of the One True God was pure.

And so, instead of having a humble place where faithful Jews exchanged Roman currency for Temple coins — which was necessary to pay your Temple tax — what Jesus found in the outer realms of the Temple was a bunch of people who were little more than ancient loan sharks, constantly cheating those who came to them, just to increase their profit margin. And instead of having a convenient place where people who traveled long distances to make an offering at the Temple could buy whatever animal was needed for their sacrificial worship, Jesus found overpriced animals whose owners hid the animals’ blemishes and treated pilgrims as a constituency to be gouged, cheated, and otherwise taken advantage of. In other words, Jesus found that the evils of the commerce-based world outside had infiltrated the Temple in very deep and pervasive ways.

By his actions that day, Jesus held a mirror up to the merchants, the bankers, and the Temple authorities. He showed them how far they had strayed from what Temple worship was supposed to be. And that truthful and critical look at “the Church” of the day, was something that was desperately needed, even if it meant that Jesus was hated by those whom He exposed.

And that is the thing about Jesus. He is always ready, willing, and able to hold a mirror in front of our faces and to show us exactly where we have wandered off the path that God laid out for us. And that is true whether we are talking about us as individuals, or us as the Church. Jesus is the corrective to whatever is harming us.

In the seven years that I have been preaching to you, I have told you countless times that Jesus calls us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That seems so deceptively simple that one wonders, “How can we need a corrective when the rule is so easy to understand?” And yet, somehow we do.

In America today, the economic disparity between the wealthy and the poor is now even greater than it was before the Great Depression. That means that the very wealthy have gotten much richer, much faster than normal, as the number of people who are truly poor has continued to increase at the same, alarming rate. According to a recent survey, conducted by the Federal Reserve, between 42% and 48% of American have no money in savings, and between 50 and 60% of people have only the minimum to keep the savings account open. That means that many of those people — over half of our population — are theoretically one paycheck away from homelessness. One big car repair, hospitalization (with a large deductible to meet), layoff, or other economic change, could push any of those households into a debt spiral that could quickly put their home and transportation in grave jeopardy.

And an amazing thing about how all of the working poor people in this country live, is that while they struggle to just stay alive — hoping someday to reach what they call “even” — their creditors lobby Congress and get bills passed that allow them to charge ever-increasing interest on the debts of people who will be paying that interest until they die, or beyond, without ever touching the principle. And most of the working poor in this country have, from time to time, had one of those unexpected car repairs or other catastrophic expenses, that has caused them to get a “payday loan.”

Did you know that anyone, no matter how bad their credit rating might be, can borrow between $100 and $1,000 from a payday loan store. And the interest that they pay on these short-term loans (usually two weeks is the term of the loan) is 30% or more. So, if I have to take my child to the emergency room and need to borrow $1,000, I would either give the payday lender access to my bank account, or sign a post-dated check for $1,300. I then would have two weeks to come up with the money, at which time, the lender would cash my check or draft my account; or the loan would kick over into a long-term note, with equally high interest, and the $300 that I owed in interest, would now be tacked on to the principle. So I would now owe $1,300 with an annual percentage rate of 400. And if the loan were to kick over that way, my car and household furnishings would become collateral.

The way things are in America today, makes what Jesus discovered in the Temple seem tame by comparison. Perhaps it is time for us to start seriously loving our neighbors, and to stop demonizing the poor in this country. If we stop using rhetoric like “welfare queens” and start thinking of the 50%+ of our brothers and sisters who are struggling, as beloved children of God; then we might become part of a system that works to close the wealth gap. And we might cleanse our own Temple to protect those who literally cannot protect themselves.

The Wilderness, Fr. John Bedingfield, February 18th

February 19, 2018
00:0000:00

Jesus, “was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, ….” That is all the author of Mark’s Gospel tells us about what happened after Jesus’ baptism. And that couple of phrases tells us very little about what went on in the wilderness.

Of course we have all four Gospels at our disposal, so most of us have read elsewhere, that Satan waited until Jesus was very hungry, thirsty, tired, and weak, and then he moved in and began to tempt Him. First he challenged Jesus to make food out of a rock. Then he challenged Jesus to jump from a high place, the implication being that God would, as Matthew and Luke say, “not allow you to dash your toe on a rock.” Finally he offered Jesus the opportunity to be the ruler over all of the kingdoms of the world, if Jesus would simply bow down and worship Satan. And of course, we know that Jesus did not succumb to any of these temptations, whereupon, Satan disappeared. But let’s think for a minute about those forty days in the wilderness.

Mark tells us the Jesus was “driven” into the wilderness, where he spent forty days. The Greek word used for “driven” is the same one the author uses when he tell us about what Jesus did to the evil spirits that inhabited some of the people. So Jesus was “compelled, or driven” out of his world, into a place where He was cut off from everything. And He had to survive without the community.

But why so long? Why forty days without food or water? Commentators say that this is a reminder of the forty years that Moses led the children of Israel around in the desert — a time in which they too had to rely completely on the faithful grace of God in order to live.

So Jesus was in the wilderness, driven away from all of the people and things that he knew, without food or water, surrounded by wild animals, for over a month. Sounds like part of the synopsis for a Stephen King novel, doesn’t it?

It was a dark and stormy night. Jesus had been driven from His home by an unseen force. He found Himself lost in the wilderness; without food or water. And He could hear wild animals circling around Him as He tried to sleep. … Then, He encountered Satan!

I make fun, but seriously, think about the 100% human Jesus, and what a physical, mental, and emotional toll this must have taken on him. He must have been absolutely miserable by the end. Let’s face it, being in the wilderness is no fun!

This week we had yet another mass shooting in a school. And I found myself having to struggle to feel anything: sadness, grief, frustration, rage, … anything at all. And I started to think about how much this is beginning to feel as though our whole nation has been driven into the wilderness, for a time of testing that seems never-ending.

Back in the dark ages of the 1960s, (and no, this is not one of those, “things were better when I was a kid,” rants), I grew up in a middle-class household, with two parents (and for several years, two grandparents) in the home. During my elementary school years, we were not rich, but we also never wanted for anything. That is, if we needed something, we got it. I would not call my older sister or me spoiled. We did not get everything we wanted, but certainly everything we needed. We went to church every Sunday — and I do mean every Sunday. If you weren’t on death’s doorstep, with a banana peel under your foot, you got out of bed and went to church … at 7:30 in the morning no less. And there were always adults around to be role models. Sure, sometimes they drank too much, or swore too much, or got a bit loud. But in the large, extended community in which I grew up, all of those adults were good people. They were not physically, mentally, or emotionally abusive — not to each other, and not to any of us kids. I was absolutely blessed to grow up in a community of people who were trying their hardest to follow Jesus and have a good time doing it.

From Jr. High (what is now Middle school) on, I was never the most popular, the most handsome, the best athlete, or any other “best” or “most.” But I was always a part of the group. I was always someone who found a way to fit in and be accepted. After my father reached a certain level in his corporate career, we began to move every few years, as his promotion progression demanded. So I went to quite a few schools in my career. And during only one year did I feel like an outcast.

When I was in the eighth grade, we were living in Northern Virginia, about 85 miles outside Washington, D.C. It was 1969 and racial tensions were still running high after the riots in D.C. in the aftermath of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And that was the year that our school district finally ran out of appeals and had to comply with the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. So, in September, I got on a bus and went across town to what had been the historically African American Junior High. I went from the 1968 school year in an all white school, to the 1969 year, in which I was one of the 10% white population with a 90% African American majority. Over the course of that year, I began to feel what it means to be driven out of your own community and left to fend for myself, in exile.

The minority were treated by the majority in the school, exactly the way these same students had always been treated by a white majority in Virginia society. We were constantly treated as “less than,” the other students. We were looked down upon and pushed around — both physically and emotionally — by everyone with whom we came into contact. I was threatened with physical violence, strictly because of the color of my skin. And it took a toll on my psyche as the year wore on.

I am grateful that that school year ultimately taught me some positive lessons. Rather than retreating to my own “white side of town” and becoming resentful of those who were currently oppressing me; I was able to talk with a couple of my teachers, one white, one black, who helped me understand that none of this was about me, but that it was built up rage that was finding an unhealthy release. I lived through that time of exile and loneliness, with nothing like long-lasting scars. But the same is not true of everyone.

We have now had so many mass shooting events in this country that we are forming a sort of informal profile of who becomes a mass shooter. The people who do these sorts of things are, generally speaking, white males who have long-standing grievances against society, or some slice of it. At some point in their pasts, they have all learned callousness toward others, as a defense to their own pain, or simply as a coping mechanism. And almost 60 percent of them have been involved in some form of domestic abuse. Please don’t come to me after this sermon with an example of a mass shooter who does not fit this profile. I realize that there are exceptions.

The point that I am making is this: mass shooters are — in general terms — not born, they are made by their circumstances. When children or young people do not have what I had as a child, a loving and supportive home life; a larger community that mentored me and cared for, and about me; good role models; and schools that taught me (among other things) civics and good citizenship; when people are raised without these things, they run the very great risk of acting out against society in horrific ways.

And when you add the ease with which such people can get their hands on weapons that, by their very design, are meant to kill multiple people, in combat situations, you have multiple tragedies, just waiting to happen.

Being driven out into the wilderness can do bad things to some people. Coming out of the wilderness, angry, lonely, and detached from humanity — and being able to get an efficient means of killing, believing one is just “getting even,” is the worst of all possible situations. We, Christians, Episcopalians, need to let our legislators know that helping people who are mentally ill is a moral imperative, as is taking an honest look at how we can handle gun violence in a more proactive manner. We cannot allow God’s children to kill God’s children at this atrocious rate. No more retreating to our corners and saying what we have always said. It is time to stop the killing — and the ignoring of the problem.

Close Encounters with God, Fr. John Bedingfield, Feb 11th

February 11, 2018
00:0000:00

         The story of the Transfiguration that we just heard is an interesting Gospel reading.  It appears in remarkably similar language in all three of the synoptic Gospels, which is – in itself – somewhat unusual.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell this story the same way – and they all say that none of the disciples told what they had seen on the mountain.  And so, even though this event is depicted three times in the Gospels, there is not much explanation of what it meant, or means in the lives of people of faith.

         When Peter, James and John went up the mountain with Jesus, they knew what to expect.  Ancient Jews knew that going up on a mountain meant encountering God.  Jesus often went up on the mountain to pray – the disciples were used to that.  But they also knew the stories of their forebears who had encountered God on mountains.  There was the story of Moses, part of which we just heard Laura read.  Moses went up on Mount Sinai and received the commandments of God.  He wasn’t allowed to see God face-to-face, but he spoke with God as one would with a friend, after which, Moses’ face glowed with a divine sort of light that he had to keep hidden from everyone else.  Moses had experienced God in a very close and personal way and was forever changed. 

         The disciples also knew the story of the greatest of the prophets, Elijah, who went up on Mount Horeb to have a face-to-face meeting with the Lord.  Elijah stood in a cave while a great wind broke the mountains – but God wasn’t in the wind.  Then an earthquake came – but God wasn’t there either.  Then came a great fire, but God was not in the fire.  Finally, in the sheer silence that followed; Elijah heard God speak with him and his life’s work was changed.

         So … up the mountain the disciples went with Jesus – keeping in their memories all of these things.  But imagine their surprise when Jesus didn’t just stop on the mountain to pray.  Instead, he was transfigured – the Greek word for which is metamorfothe (metamorphothe) from which we get our word, metamorphosis – and Jesus suddenly appeared to them as something brand new – the face of God incarnate.  The point of Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus is quite simple; they represented the Law and the Prophets of ancient Judaism.  But they had also both spoken directly to, and had interacted with God – and what the disciples were now experiencing was not that, it was something brand new – something beyond anything they had ever imagined before.

         Peter, James and John saw the human face of the God who created the entire universe!  Moses was threatened by God with certain death if he saw God’s face.  Elijah searched and searched, trying to see a glimpse of God, but had to cover his own face with his mantle and only got the voice in the silence.  No one had ever seen God’s face – but these three disciples did.  Why didn’t they come down the mountain and brag to everyone about what had happened to them?  Why didn’t they hold it over the other disciples’ heads that they had seen something no one else in the history of the world had seen?  Maybe there’s a hint in what happened next.

         Peter wanted to build booths, or tents, for Jesus, Elijah and Moses to live in.  Obviously from what Peter had suggested the implication is that he wanted to stay on the mountain.  Many preachers will tell you that this is about Peter trying to “capture” the moment and keep it forever, sort of a proverbial “mountaintop experience” that would never end.  That’s one valid point of view.  But what about this alternative?  What if Peter was so unnerved by what had just happened to him that he wanted them all to stay on the mountain to keep them from having to face what going down the mountain meant?

         The disciples had just seen the face of God and nothing about their lives would ever be the same again.  This “up close and personal” encounter with the living God was not something that would wear off, it was something that transfigured the disciples as well.  They experienced their own metamorphosis on that mountaintop and when they came down, business as usual would never be business as usual again.

         Peter, James and John had been partners in a fishing business.  “Cephas and the Sons of Zebedee, Inc.” had been what they knew, and they had almost undoubtedly been pretty good at it.  There is an indication in the Gospel of Mark that the business had some hired men working for it, so it is pretty certain that they were more than a little successful as fishermen.  These were men who had been doing the same work for a long time and knew what they were doing.  Now they had left all that and begun following this new Rabbi who was saying and doing some remarkable things.  Their lives had changed greatly over the time since they met Jesus – but this … was something altogether different.

         While I am willing to guarantee that no one here today has experienced the face of God in quite the same way that Peter, James and John did, we all have had close encounters with God, even if we don’t admit them to other people.  I know that some of you out there have been to Cursillo.  The Cursillo program is specifically designed to facilitate people more closely encountering God.  And it works for a lot of people.  But the kind of encounter with God that I’m talking about doesn’t have to take place in the context of something as dramatic as Cursillo.  Indeed, most people encounter God for the first – and often strongest – time during a period of deep despair.  The loss of a loved one; the loss of a job; substance abuse problems; illness or the breakup of a marriage – these are all times when people have the most receptivity to seeing the human face of the Creator God.  And those who have – and acknowledge – such encounters are changed forever.

         We will enter the season of Lent this week; a time when introspection and quiet are what we aspire to.  Remember that Elijah had to wait for the sheer silence in order to encounter God.  If we will take the time and effort to – as the Psalmist says in number 45, “be still and know that I am God,” – we likely will more closely encounter the living God.  But such activities are not without risk.  Just like Peter up on the mount of transfiguration, we should be very aware that close encounters with God have the real possibility of leaving us changed forever … in ways we can never imagine.

         Not everyone who closely encounters the living God will change vocation, like Peter, James, and John did – and like many clergy have, after hearing God’s call to ordination.  But everyone who takes the time and effort to seek out an encounter with God can count on entering into a more personal relationship with the One who created us, a relationship in which we, like Moses, can talk with God as a friend and can then risk being forever changed into a vessel for God’s continued use, or as the collect for today says, “strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into (Jesus’) likeness from glory to glory.”

Amen.

If It’s Not About Love, It’s Not From God, Fr. John Bedingfield February 4th

February 4, 2018
00:0000:00

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

Recently there has been a plethora of TV shows (both documentary and drama) about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.  Believe it or not, it has been twenty-five years since that fateful standoff, outside of Waco, Texas.  Having been a news junkie living ninety-nine miles from Waco when all of that was going on, I have been very interested in all of the retellings of this story, now that we all have 20/20 hindsight.  But that is not why I bring up the Branch Davidians today.  Stay with me for a few minutes and we’ll see if I can tie the phenomenon of David Koresh with today’s Gospel message.

In today’s passage from Mark, we heard that:

Jesus left the synagogue at Capernaum, and entered the house of Simon … (whereupon he healed Simon’s mother of a fever).

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, … (Jesus said) “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

This odd, short passage tells us something very important about Jesus and His earthly ministry. 

  • He had Godly power. After His instantaneous healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, He either healed or cast out demons from nearly everyone in Capernaum.

But this passage tells some other things too:

  • Jesus recognized that the people were coming to Him only for the healings. That is: they were not really hearing His message.  And certainly they were not being transformed by what He was teaching them – with the authority of one who has lived his subject – God.  That is one reason that He silenced the demons.  If the people were not going to get the message from Jesus’ teachings, then He certainly did not want to leave it to evil spirits to explain to them who He was.
  • And He left Capernaum so that, as He said, “I may proclaim the message (in other places) also; for that is what I came out to do.

You see, the healings and the casting out of demons, those were what John’s Gospel refers to as “signs.”  The healings and feedings and other miraculous acts were not the reason that Jesus came to earth.  They were the opening act.  While they brought comfort and betterment to people’s lives, they were, in essence, just a signal for people to look up and pay attention to the real message … the message of gracious love and eternal life that comes from knowing and following Jesus.

This little passage from Mark tells us that Jesus was acutely aware that His miracles were not the story – the glory of God was the story.  And if people did not internalize the real story, they would run the risk of worshiping the “miracle-working-man” rather than God Incarnate in Jesus.

There have always been preachers, prophets, and miracle-men who seemed so out of the ordinary, so charismatic, so outwardly special, that people flock to them.  These leaders take small, insignificant gaggles of people, or moribund congregations and bring amazing growth to them.  Suddenly there is new life and conviction in the place.  There is a sense of mission and a banding together of the community – working with one purpose toward a single goal.  But here is where it gets tricky.

If that unified goal is anything other than the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ; if the message is anything other than, as our Presiding Bishop puts it, bearing witness by our very lives, to the unconquerable love of the God we know in Jesus; if the goal of any preacher, prophet, or miracle-man is anything other than that, problems inevitably ensue.

Vernon Howell, later known as David Koresh, preached Armageddon.  He preached that he – Vernon, or David – was the Messiah, the Christ returned to earth.  And he believed, or at least he convinced his followers, that that title gave him the right or the duty to forego preaching love and redemption, in order to punish those who “deserved” punishment and reward those who “deserved” reward.  Unfortunately, as with all self-proclaimed, latter day messiahs, the power that he took from his followers made him into a despot who punished many and praised few, ultimately leading them to die rather than betray him.  Whether you believe that David Koresh was a deluded “true believer” or an able con man, either way, his story ended just as most such stories end, in tragic loss of life and shattered dreams.

Koresh believed in himself and his avowed “expertise” in a book of the Bible that was never meant to be read literally, by anyone, ever.  He neither espoused, nor lived the love of all human beings that is the hallmark of Jesus Christ.  And that is why he failed in his self-defined mission.  But it does not have to be as dramatic, nor as tragic as the Branch Davidians, or Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana.  There are other, less dangerous, but in some ways equally sad examples around us all the time.

How many of you have seen or heard about a church – maybe even an Episcopal church – that gets a new leader, in our case a rector, who comes in and makes a huge splash, only to have the congregation later disintegrate?  I bet that you all have.

I know a priest whose personality is bigger than life.  When he enters a room, particularly a room with a stage or platform in it, he dominates the whole room.  He is outgoing, gregarious, smart, funny, and always entertaining.  He has natural charisma, but over the years has honed that charisma into a razor sharp tool.  Everywhere this priest goes, the average Sunday attendance, the membership rolls, and the budget all swell.  One of his churches almost doubled all of those numbers in the first two years that he was there.  I hear you out there.  “Where is this guy and how do we get him to come here?”  Exactly.  That is what has happened to him throughout his career.  But there is a distinct downside to bringing him, or one of many like him, into any congregation.

No please do not get me wrong.  This is a man of deep faith and love for our Lord.  But here is the thing.  When he preaches, when he celebrates the Eucharist, when he teaches and when he leads other programs, Jesus may be part of what is going on, but the priest and his aim of making that congregation the biggest and best it can be … that is the real agenda.  And it comes out in his rallying of everyone to “his program,” and to “his way” of doing things.  The central focus of his congregations slowly shifts away from “bearing witness by our very lives, to the unconquerable love of the God we know in Jesus,” to “getting everyone on board.”

When this priest leaves, as all priests inevitably do, his congregations crater, and within a year or two, go back to the size that they were before he arrived, or maybe even a little smaller.  And now, because they had such huge expectations, their old size does not seem good enough anymore.  And even the dedicated, long-term people of the congregation leave because they are disillusioned.

You see, when it is about the miracles, or when it is about the man who shows you the miracles, it is never about God.  When it is about God, it is never about the person who leads you.  When it is about God, it is about transforming your life; it is about, “bearing witness by your very life, to the unconquerable love of the God you know in Jesus;” it is about proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; it is about seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself; and it is about striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

No attendance figures, no budget minimums, no litmus tests or must-achieve goals; being the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement is never about anything other than the love and life of Jesus, and trying to live as He did, all day, every day.  That is work enough for all of us.

Amen.

Held Close to the Heart of God, Fr. John Bedingfield, Christmas Eve

December 24, 2017
00:0000:00

As many of you know, I am a movie buff. I love watching Turner Classic Movie channel and seeing the true classic movies, as well as those that are classically bad. In all of my movie watching, I have become more and more aware of how well great directors tell stories, and how poorly bad directors do. Around Halloween this year, TCM aired a bunch of old horror films, and frankly there were some of the mid 70’s Dracula films that made me say; “I’m sorry. That was just too hard to swallow. Even in the ‘monster movie genre,’ I cannot believe the plot of that story.”

I started thinking about the phenomenon of unbelievable stories, as I was preparing for Christmas services. In the year 2017, when virtually everyone in this church over the age of about 12, has a device in his or her pocket or purse that allows communication of any thought or idea to almost anyone, anywhere, instantly; when the internet allows anyone to do research on any topic, just by typing it into Google™; is the story of the Nativity of our Lord, the story we just read from St. Luke’s Gospel, passé? Have we reached the level of sophistication which makes this story just too hard to swallow?

If we look at the Nativity story from a purely historical perspective, in the “cold, harsh light” as it were, of science and/or history, the story might be more than we can believe. The God who created the entire world, became human, and not just human, but an exceptionally poor human, born in one of the world’s true “nowheres,” in Bethlehem of Judea. And as if that weren’t unbelievable enough, the God of the universe became human, not in a palace, surrounded by servants and caretakers, but in a place where common farm animals live. On its face, when phrased that way, it does seem a bit much.
But God doesn’t ask us to accept this story standing alone, without any context. Instead, God asks us to consider the story as the next chapter of a much older saga, the epic story of God’s loving relationship with all of humanity.

The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber told this story:
Rabbi Aaron once came to the city where little Mordecai, who later became the Rabbi of Lechovitz, was growing up. His father brought the boy to the visiting rabbi and complained that he did not persevere in his studies. ‘Leave the boy with me for a while,’ said Rabbi Aaron.

When he was alone with little Mordecai, Rabbi Aaron lay down and took the child and held him next to his heart. Silently, he held the boy close to his chest until the father returned. The old rabbi told the father, ‘I gave him a good talking-to. From now on, he will not be lacking in perseverance.’

Throughout his life, whenever Rabbi Mordecai of Lechovitz related this incident, he added, ‘That was the day that I learned how to convert others.’

You see, God made human beings with free will. That means that we have the choice of whether we love and worship God or not. God does not force nor coerce humans into loving God. We have always been offered God’s self as a being worthy of our love and worship, and then God has left it up to us to respond as we ought. But … God has tried to “convert” human beings since the beginning of time – to turn us into the creatures God originally intended us to be. As I said, God did not do this through coercion or force, but by revealing God’s very self to us, so that we would see God for who God is, and then naturally be converted into the humans we should be.

First God tried to make humans into God’s own loving creatures through the magnificence of creation itself. But God disclosing to people what God looked like through creation was not enough. After a while, people stopped seeing the world around them as a miraculous reflection of God. They began to take creation for granted.

Humans did not persevere in their worship of the creator God. In response to this lack of perseverance, God gave them “a good talking to” in the form of a flood that wiped away almost all of creation. Then God sent a rainbow to Noah as proof that this particular way of talking to the children wouldn’t happen again. Still the children were not converted and continued to rebel.

Some thousand years later, God tried to disclose who God was by appearing to Abraham and making him the father of a great nation. The children of Abraham became the chosen children of Israel. Those children rebelled against God, so God gave them a good talking to, by making them slaves in Egypt. Then God again revealed His gracious love to the children by sending Moses to be their liberator.

The children of God rebelled again and God gave them the law, the Commandments, a good talking to, meant to show them that God was constant, and that there must be rules to the relationship. But they were still not converted. And so, again they got a good talking to from God when the prophets came to them to try to convince them that there was a different way to live.

Through all those generations of people, the children were never converted. Every time God’s beloved humans failed to persevere and live up to their potential, God metaphorically gave them another good talking to. But nothing seemed to work.
Then, after millennia of people failing to persevere, God gave up on the old ways and something never-before-experienced happened. On this night, over two thousand years ago, in a barn in Bethlehem, God took all of humanity and held it close to God’s heart. In other times, God had been said to have temporarily inhabited a human form. But the birth of Jesus, was a completely new and different event in the history of the world. Mary of Nazareth, fiancé of Joseph the carpenter, gave birth and laid Jesus in a feeding trough and in that simple act, the God who created all that is, held us next to the very heart of God.

Through this most incredible, and yet completely ordinary of events – the birth of a baby boy, God came into the world in a most amazing and miraculous way. Suddenly we had the ability to see God in this poor and innocent child. Suddenly God’s heartbeat was right there, in a place where we could hold God and feel the rhythm of life.
In his 1984 song, Mary Did You Know, songwriter, Mark Lowry put it very well, “Mary did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod? And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.”

That’s the magic of this story. If we were to just look at it as an historic event, standing by itself, virtually all of us would have to say, that this couldn’t have happened. But through the eyes of faith, and with the ability to look back through the entire story of humanity in the Bible, we can see this story for what it really is – the fulfillment of God’s promised love for us. Not only is this story possible, it was an absolute necessity for our conversion.

God has always loved us: enough to give us this rich and self-sustaining world in which to live; enough to endow us with the ability to love and be loved by other people; enough to give us the ability to choose and the desire to excel, so that we never have to be bored by what we do in life. And yet, through it all, humanity has never persevered in its love and worship of God.

A good talking to, over and over. God tried it all, again and again. Then, on this night, a couple thousand years ago, God determined that the only way to reach us, to convert us, was to take us and hold us close to God’s heart. The Incarnation of God brought the Almighty and the ordinary together, forever.

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding is the great I AM.

Merry Christmas. Amen.

The Power of the Ordinary, Fr. John Bedingfield, Advent 4

December 24, 2017
00:0000:00

Have you ever seen a painting of The Annunciation – that moment where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that God was entering her life in a very new and very unusual way? Well, I took to Google this week and started looking at all of the paintings of this event, some by masters and others by folks who painted in relative obscurity. What I found, really did not surprise me much, but it was still interesting. Because what I found was that the vast majority of these artistic representations do not come anywhere near showing how I truly believe the event of Gabriel’s visitation would have looked.

First thing is: most of these paintings show Mary to be a grown woman. We know from our study of ancient Palestine and ancient Jewish custom, that most women – girls really – married at a very young age. The rabbis of the day held the opinion that twelve was an acceptable age for the girl to be engaged – and that thirteen was a good marrying age. Very few of the paintings show Mary to be a pre-teen or even a thirteen-year-old.
Then there is the really odd commonality in many of these paintings, that they show Mary reading – usually something that we can easily imagine to be Scripture. Remember that Mary was in Nazareth – a backwater town in the armpit of the Roman Empire, in the year 30 BC or so. I am willing to bet that only the rabbi in town could read – and perhaps even he couldn’t. And even if several people in town could read, there is very little chance that one of them was a young girl.

Perhaps my biggest issue with Annunciation paintings, is that they generally show Mary with a beatific smile (many looking suspiciously like the Mona Lisa). She is always dressed impeccably, is exceedingly calm, and many times is wearing what looks to be a nun’s wimple (the white head covering that all nuns used to wear and some still do). In still others, Mary has a halo over her head, indicating that she is holy.
My problem with all of these portrayals, is that they lose Mary’s ordinariness – which, I believe, cheapens the story. Fabrizio Boschi almost got it right — at least in my humble opinion. In his painting, Gabriel and the cherubim, are about to bless Mary, and instead of the knowing smile and the total comfort with the situation, Mary is almost recoiling and looking askance at them. This one, as I said, is almost right, but not quite. Again, Mary is too old in the painting, and her expression, although appropriately showing confusion and some level of disbelief, reminds me of Gary Coleman from the early 80’s sitcom, Diff’rent Strokes, just as he would say, “What you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”

For my money, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in his 1850 painting, The Annunciation, other than the halo that Mary wears, came the closest to representing the important things about this story. In his work, Rossetti shows an obviously young girl, cowering as far back into the corner of her bed and the wall, as she can get. She cannot bring herself to look at the angel, and the look on her face says, “I have no idea what all of this means.”
You see … despite the way that painters have painted this scene, and despite the way that some religious writers have written about it, Mary’s visitation from Gabriel was an example of the extraordinary intersecting with the ordinary. It was a completely ordinary girl being confronted with the Archangel who, throughout Scripture, was tasked with taking messages directly from God and transmitting them directly to humans, usually with a corresponding power and understanding – and with a call to perform some function for God. That’s the reason that every time Gabriel appears in Scripture, his entrance is accompanied by the words, “Do not be afraid.” Because, let’s face it, if we saw Gabriel right here, right now, we would be petrified.

Mary being initially frightened and later confused, is important, because it means that Mary was just like us. She was NOT born from a virgin mother herself, as some legend holds. There is nothing in Scripture that indicates even what Mary’s parents’ names were, much less about her conception and childhood. All of that stuff comes from legend and apocryphal accounts. And all of those legends are designed to make us believe that Mary was different from us, even before Gabriel visited. That is nonsense, and I believe that it does damage to her story.

The true power of the story of the Nativity (which was preceded by the story of the Annunciation) is that the God of the entire universe – indeed, the God of all that is – came to be one of us in a completely ordinary place, to a completely ordinary mother; that is, completely ordinary before Gabriel appeared. Because after the Archangel appeared, nothing in Mary’s life was ever ordinary again.

Mary’s story is at its most powerful, not in who she was before that day. It is at its most powerful when this completely ordinary, confused, frightened, and shocked young girl looked at the Archangel of God and said, “Okay. I’ll do what you ask.” That is where heaven and earth intersected for a time, and out of which came the Incarnation of God. Without Mary’s, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” none of the rest would have been possible.

Episcopal priest and extraordinary author, Barbara Brown Taylor, said,

"Mary wins her place in history not for her cleverness, nor for her beauty, nor even for her goodness. She becomes the most important woman in the world simply because she is willing to say yes to an angel’s strange proposal without a clue where it will lead her. Doing so, she becomes the prototype for all of us who are also invited to bear God into the world."

And that is really the point of Mary’s story, isn’t it? She received a call from God that was decidedly more dramatic than most of ours. But make no mistake, we are all called to bear God in the world. And how we answer our own calls dictates whether or not that part of God’s mission in the world will be accomplished.

Leonard Bernstein, the famous orchestra conductor, was once asked what is the most difficult instrument in the orchestra to play. Bernstein replied immediately, “Second fiddle.” He said, “I can always get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm––or second French horn––or second flute––now that's a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”

Sometimes when we get a call from God, it can seem like we are being called to play “second fiddle.” In most cases, we are acutely aware of the ordinariness of what we do, and of the fact that second fiddle is what we do. In many cases, our work for God seems so ordinary – or even pedestrian: handing out bulletins, driving for a youth group event, cooking for a potluck (or even more important, cleaning up afterward). In some cases, our calling seems somewhat higher: teaching a Sunday school class or singing in the choir. But as we all know very well, kids can be unruly and sometimes someone near us sings off key, and in those moments, we wonder why we bother. The point of the story is that everything we are called to do: the high and the low; the ones that bring adulation and the ones no one notices; those that seem irreplaceable and those that feel completely unimportant; all fit into God's scheme of things in ways that we cannot understand, any more than Mary could fully understand what Gabriel told her. And just as it was with the totally ordinary Mary, it matters less whether or not we execute our tasks with skill and gracefulness, than it does that we approach them with devotion. I read recently that, “God desires, not the skill of our hands, but the love of our hearts. The person who has only the ability to love God and neighbor is all important [to] God….”

When God asks, say “yes.” Then dive in and watch what wonders God can work. Amen.