Saying “Yes” to the Topsy-Turvy Mission of God, Fr. John Bedingfield 21st December

December 21, 2014

In the name of the God who calls to humans, Amen.

            In Kevin Smith’s completely irreverent film Dogma, there is a great scene near the opening, in which Bethany (the main character) gets in her bed and falls asleep, only to be awakened by a man at the foot of her bed, engulfed in flames and possessing a very impressive set of wings.  There comes a loud voice, repeating: “Behold the Metatron, herald of the Almighty, and voice of the one true God!”  Now fully awake and scared out of her mind, Bethany does what most of us who are not as well-armed as many Louisianans would do … she takes a fire extinguisher and puts out the Metatron’s flames and then threatens him with a baseball bat.  That silly scene is a perfect explanation of why it is that every time an angel appears in Scripture, one of the opening lines is, “Do not be afraid.”

            I mean, think about it for a minute.  You are just a regular person – perhaps a good and faithful person, but certainly a regular person – and then suddenly your life is interrupted in a most incredible way, when God’s herald comes to give you a personal message.  Let’s face it; that would freak any of us out.

            Throughout Scripture we find stories of God communicating with humans in various ways.  Moses conversed with a burning bush and a cloud.  Abraham had a trio of human-looking, but other-worldly visitors.  The prophets all heard the plainly audible “voice of God.”  But almost without exception, when God sent an angelic messenger – a herald – it was because the message that God wanted received and understood, was way beyond what the human’s previous experiences had prepared him or her to understand.  And certainly, the Annunciation of the coming of the Christ child was such a message.  As one commentator put it,

It is as if the truth that is being told is so strangely wonderful that there is no way to receive this truth except by a kind of enlargement of our imaginations, a mind-blowing sense that reality may be richer and more surprising than we first thought – thus Luke’s beautiful, strange, wonderful story of a young woman who is told by an angel that she shall bear the Son of God into the world[1].

            This week I read a blog post about the Annunciation by a friend of mine, Dr. Greg Garrett.  Greg said that the word that came to mind for him, was “topsy-turvy[2].”  What the angel Gabriel brought that day was a message saying that everything Mary thought she knew about God – and God’s interaction with the world – was about to be turned upside down, or topsy-turvy.

            Try to remember that the Mary of the Annunciation story is not the stylized, idealized Mary whom we see in so many paintings.  She was not the beatific Madonna, the Lady of Fatima, or Our Lady of Guadalupe, all dressed in blue, with a “Mona Lisa smile,” and an understanding and forgiving look on her face.  She was instead, a young – probably 13 or 14 year old – girl, who lived in a hidden corner of the Roman Empire, Nazareth of Galilee.  And that fact is one of the things that makes this story so amazing that it still captivates us almost 2,000 years later.

            Luke tells us this story on the heels of the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Remember that Elizabeth was Mary’s much older cousin.  We are told that Elizabeth and her priest husband were old; so old that they knew they would never have children.  And one day the Angel Gabriel (yes the same one who visited Mary six months later) came to Zechariah and told him that he and Elizabeth would have a son and that they would name him John (later to be “The Baptizer”).  But Zechariah neither understood, nor believed what Gabriel told him.  In essence, he challenged the Herald Angel to prove what he said.  Naturally enough, Gabriel did not take very kindly to that.  He told Zechariah, “It’s true because I’m Gabriel, representing God, and that’s enough.”  But since Zechariah did not believe, Gabriel took away the old priest’s voice until after the baby arrived.

            Luke puts those two stories back-to-back, not only because the lives of Elizabeth and Mary are intertwined, as are the lives of their sons; but also because he wants us to understand the difference in the reactions of Zechariah and Mary to their respective angelic visitations.  Zechariah said, “Prove it,” and God did God’s work anyway – but there was no sense of Zechariah’s participation in the mission of God.  By comparison, Mary said, “How can this be?” in other words, “I don’t understand, please help me get this.”  As Greg Garrett says, “Mary knows where babies come from, and she has not satisfied the requirements for having one.  So how is this going to happen?[3]

            You see, Mary – this young, naïve, country girl – may not have understood what God was doing (How Could She?) but she understood that she was to have a part in this new thing, and she readily accepted the call.  The Greek word that Luke uses for Mary’s reply, genoito (genoito), does indeed mean “let it be with me,” as the NRSV Bible translates it.  But interestingly, that word can also be translated as “let it be born.”  So Luke has used this interesting double entendre to tell us that Mary agreed without hesitation to let this thing happen as God willed it – and to let Jesus be born of her, even though she did not fully understand how it was to be.

            I talk to you with regularity about being called by God.  I truly believe that God is calling all of us, all the time.  We may not get a visit from the Angel Gabriel – or from the fiery Metatron – but the still small voice of God is always at work, calling us to go new places, do new things.  In other words, God is calling us to be a working part of the topsy-turvy Kingdom of God and its mission in the world God created.

            God called a teenage girl from just west of nowhere to become the mother of God Incarnate.  That was not the way God is supposed to act.  God was supposed to be … well … God; bigger and mightier than we can imagine and far removed from us.  God was not supposed to be born, out of wedlock, to a nobody from no place.  That is decidedly upside-down from the expectation of the ancient Jews.  And I would argue that we still do not really get how radical that is two millennia later.

            God is still doing this radical, transformative work here today.  God is still whispering to us, “Let go of your expectations.  Take me as I come.  Don’t try to tame me or make me be what you want me to be.  Let me be the God who loves you so much that I’m willing to enter into your world as one of you, and to show you the way to everlasting life.”

            Gabriel came to Mary on behalf of that God.  And he brought an unbelievable message to her: “You, Mary do not know how the God of all creation works.  But say yes, readily, thankfully and joyfully and I will show you things that you cannot imagine.”  Gabriel brings that same message today.  Just give in to God’s invitation.  Let God know that you too are willing to be God’s vessel in the world.  And then stand back and prepare to be amazed as God’s topsy-turvy mission in the world unfolds before your eyes.


Risk Your Talents! Fr. John Bedingfield, Nov. 16th

November 16, 2014

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

          In the 1994 film, A Simple Twist of Fate, Steve Martin’s character, Michael McCann becomes a complete recluse after his marriage ends badly.  Every cent he earns goes into the purchase of gold coins.  And every so often, he pours himself several stiff drinks, takes his gold coins from their specially engineered hiding place, counts them, and sits in smug satisfaction at his ownership of them.  Then he hides them again and, when he wakes up from his drunken stupor, goes on with his miserable, lonely life.  It is only after McCann’s coins are stolen that he changes, through a simple twist of fate that causes him to open himself up, through taking in an orphan girl to raise.  The rest of the movie deals with his growing in, and learning about love while teaching his daughter those lessons.

          Today’s “Parable of the Talents,” has some parallels with Steve Martin’s film, or more correctly, with the novel Silas Marner, which inspired the film.  Jesus told His listeners that a very wealthy man was going on a trip, and while he was gone he left a huge fortune in the care of three of his servants.  Now before we think about the implications of this parable, we need to put it in perspective.  Jesus says that the master gave these servants 5 talents, 2 talents and 1 talent, respectively.  We know what “talent” means to us, but what did it mean when this parable was first told?

          In Jesus’ time, a talent was a measure of gold or silver, based upon weight.  Centuries earlier, in the days of Moses, a talent was established as the measure that a man could carry by himself.  Scholars today use 75 pounds as the measure of a talent.  So, if we are talking about a talent of gold, we would be talking about 1,200 ounces.  When I was writing this, gold was selling for $1,164/oz.  That would mean that today a talent would be worth approximately $1.4mil. 

          So the master brought his three servants in and gave the first one $7mil.  Then he gave the second one $2.8mil.  And to the last one, he gave $1.4mil.  And we know what happened then.  The 5 talent servant and the 2 talent servant went out and invested the money and doubled what they had.  But the 1 talent servant did as Michael McCann did in the movie.  He created a very secure hiding place and put the money there, so that no one else would get it and he would have it all when he needed it.  But as with Michael McCann, who ultimately lost all of his money, things did not work out exactly as the 1 talent servant thought they would. 

          When the master returned, he called all three servants to account for the money they had been given.  Servants numbered 1 and 2 are roundly praised and commended for risking the master’s money, and doing great things with it.  But what of the Michael McCann servant – the one who hid the money and waited?  Even before he told the master what he had done with the money, he started explaining (or making excuses) for his inaction.  He said that he knew the master to be a harsh man who basically got his money without doing any work.  And he said that he was afraid of the master, so he hid the money rather than taking a chance on the master getting angry.  The master then becane furious with the third servant.  Ironic, no?

          So what does this parable have to teach us, particularly in the midst of the annual stewardship campaign?  It is simply this: The 1 talent servant does not get in trouble because of what he did.  He gets in trouble because of what he did not do.  The master in the parable does not get angry because that servant did not make him richer.  No, the master gets angry because the servant does not know who the master really is – and therefore does not trust the master enough to take a risk.  You see, nothing in the story says that the master really was a harsh or bad man, only that the servant believed him to be so.  Because the servant did not know the master, he was unwilling to trust that it would be ok to take a risk with his money.

          That is what this parable has to tell us: we have been given talents by God – a God whom we can always trust to know and love us – and we are called to risk it all to bring glory to that God.  It does not matter whether your “talents” from God are millions of dollars (as was the case in the story) or if your talents lie in something more modest, like the ability to teach or welcome or sing or read – or simply a smaller amount of money than the master in the story had.  Whatever your talents may be, you need to risk them in service to God.

          In order to risk our talents, we must be willing to put them out there and see what God will do with them.  We must be ready to let go of our control over our talents, to lay them at God’s feet and to say, “Here they are Lord, use them as you will.”  We must look at all our talents, see where we might put them to use, and then – in the words of Nike – “Just do it.”

          Pledge cards have been sent out (and trust me, we have more), and your Vestry and I are asking you to consider risking your financial talents with St. Barnabas this year.  When you prayerfully consider what you will pledge to give to the church this year, remember this parable.  It is a risk to say, in November of 2014, what you will give to the Church for all of 2015.  But trust in the grace and goodness of God, risk your talents, and give back to God as graciously as God has given to you.  Then listen as God, the master of all, says to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

          In A Simple Twist of Fate, Michael McCann loses everything that he tried so hard to keep safe.  All of his carefully hidden gold is suddenly gone.  But then, he risks the greater treasure, his heart and takes in an orphaned girl.  And God finds him to be a good and faithful servant, and Michael enters into the joy of his master.  The same can happen for us when we risk everything that is dear to us and try to do what God wants us to do.  What do you say?  Let’s risk it all and enter into the joy of our Master.


The Bridesmaids - Mtr Mitzi George, November 9th

November 12, 2014

Did you hear about the article that appeared in a local newspaper about a young couple driving down the road behind a pickup truck that was loaded with inflatable dolls? The pickup driver was bringing the dolls as décor for a fraternity party. The couple was driving at a good distance from the truck, so did not realize the inflatables were dolls as these dolls were also dressed in costumes. The young couple were from a certain Biblical persuasion and believed in a literal translation of scripture as well as the literal understanding of the rapture. Suddenly a gust of wind picked up the dolls and they began flying out of the truck.

The woman in the car behind the truck opened the moon roof on her vehicle, climbed out, reached up toward heaven and jumped out of the moving vehicle. Her husband slammed on his brakes and ran to his wife’s side, holding her in his arms he asked, “What in the world were you thinking.” She replied, “I thought it was the rapture and I didn’t want to be left behind!”

I could not preach this gospel without addressing that topic. It captivates most of Christendom and even those outside of Christendom… the second coming, the rapture, or the great Day of Judgment makes most people a little nervous. You certainly do not want to admit you do not believe in it in case it really does happen, but then again, do you want to believe in a God that would do that? Oh, I know; if you get to pick who goes in the rapture and who stays behind, you are likely to hope for that day to come!

Like many of you, I too have grown up with all of the hype of the “Left Behind” movies and novels. These stories (and the movies developed in Hollywood) have all sorts of people interested in the age-old questions of when, where, who, and how? These stories seem to glorify the horrifying reality that some very good and decent folk are going to suffer hideous punishment and torment, all because they were not faithful enough, and all of this seems to bring a rather self-righteous satisfaction to many so called Christians.

Still others are curious because they hope they can fix their own ticket into heaven by repenting and changing their bad habits before it all hits the fan if you will.  Not to mention the preaching and teaching, which has been born out of these tales, have made many wealthy beyond-belief. The rapture theology equals big money.

Ten of the wealthiest men in the world are doomsday preachers all of whom fit nicely into the world’s 1% of wealthiest people.  These ten men, and I’m not being sexist they really are all men, prey on the fearful who just want to make sure that when that trumpet blows and people start to be sucked up into the heavenly realm, they too will be among them. After all, who wants to be among those who will suffer on earth because they were not quite good enough to make the cut?

The parable of the foolish bridesmaids is often one of those scriptures used to point a harsh wagging finger at others as if to say, “If you aren’t among those taken up on that fateful day, then you just weren’t good enough, not faithful enough, you weren’t prepared. After all, if you are faithful you are prepared at all times and at any moment for the coming of the Lord. It does not matter if the Lord comes in a few weeks, or a few months, or a few centuries from now the faithful stand ready, right? Sadly, however, the reality about this sort of theology is that the faithful actually do not care about anyone who is not in top spiritual shape or preparedness, like those five foolish bridesmaids.

I think this is a pretty “crappy” way of looking at the gospel message. I think a religion that is dependent on those people getting what is coming to them, or a God who has a need for fierce revenge when that same God is the God who created the heavens and the earth and all who dwell there in is a pretty crappy God. I think there must be something we are missing!

After all, I realize as the diocesan disaster relief officer, most people really do not like preparing for things that might happen or things that are difficult to predict. Prepare for a disaster that might not ever happen; it is hard to get people to do that, even when they have lived through such a disaster. So getting people to prepare for the second coming, especially one that has been delayed, is even more of a challenge. Does God really think we are going to do that? We are human, our natural propensity is to defer, procrastinate, dillydally. We think idealistically “It’s not going to happen to me!”


That is one reason we get a little uncomfortable with the imagery we are given in today’s gospel. Those bridesmaids; all ten of them were probably beautiful young women, they were excited to be a part of the wedding procession, they were ready for the big event, they all fell asleep when the bridegroom was delayed, all ten of them fell asleep, so why do five get punished? Why?


Those five are a lot like us; they were ready at the beginning, they were excited, they had what they needed, just not enough to make it through an extended delay, so why do they get punished? Because they were not prepared enough? That is a horrible form of judgment. It is like a teacher giving either an A or F on an assignment and nothing in between, no credit for any work. To desire judgment like this is to slip into the smug mindset about which Matthew warns us. The gloating self-righteousness of the saved who have forgotten or repressed their own evil. I cannot buy into this sort of judgment, not even from God. I must seek a different reality, a different truth from the scriptures.


I have to think there is some other way of understanding these scriptures. Could we maybe look at that great day in a more positive light? Perhaps looking at the day of judgment or the second coming of the Lord as rescue from evil, instead of punishment of evil. I think that can transform our perspective dramatically. It rescues us from our predisposition toward revenge and judging. It provides us with the ability to wonder if even someone we think is undeserving might need rescued as opposed to being punished. That way of thinking certainly aligns much better with the way I view Jesus. The work accomplished on the cross, once and for all, does mean something doesn’t it? It certainly makes me feel better about my own chances of redemption, after all, I can procrastinate with the best of intentions as I am sure many of you can.

I hope there will be a day, a time, when all the earth and all of creation is rescued from what we call evil. A time when the entropy, which appears to be a part of our reality, and especially of our species, ceases to drag us down and destroy the good to which we, and most others, really do aspire. I have no idea how that will happen, although I think the body of Christ, the Church, living out the compassion of Jesus certainly must point us in the right direction.


What I do know is that most of the imagery of a judgment day does not, and cannot work for me. I have seen too many people who have been dealt really difficult circumstances and have had to deal with a life that most could not imagine let alone survive in. I cannot imagine a God who favors an elite group who grows wealthy preying on the fear of other people who need security. People who live in fear need compassion and mercy.


My reality is that the opportunities of my life and my personal salvation demands mercy of me. I must be the Christian who hopes and prays that God will delay coming until even the devil has time to repent. So how do we use our time here as we await the Lord’s coming? Are we preparing for the wonderful day when Christ returns to rescue all of us from our own moral corruption? Are we using our resources rightly and beginning to get the picture that what we do here really does matter and how we practice our lives in Christ really is the key to success. Do we realize that by making ourselves ready for a day when God will rescue the whole of creation might make us look with more compassion on “the least of these”, as Jesus says?


For me, and my experience, to ever imagine that the barbarity inherent in the images of judgment can be justified, is to mock the depth of so many suffering around the world. To think more violence, even from God, will stop violence in the world is to have a very small God. I cannot imagine my God wanting anything but the best for us and for all of God’s creation. I am not naïve however, I do realize that in order for that possibility to occur it means my decisions and your decisions must be based on what is good for all of humanity and for all of creation. It may mean that we have to prepare for a transformation in our way of living. It may call us to live more simply that others might simply live.


The gospel of Matthew seems to have a two points as concerns the bridesmaids: one is that we will never know when the Lord will come; the second is that we must be ready at all times. Preparation and awareness are the key strategies according to Matthew and those are themes repeated throughout his gospel.

Increasingly, we can live with our regrets and disappointments or we can prepare now for the life we hope will come. We can make wise decisions about our time, talent, and treasures. We can stretch out a hand to those marginalized and demonized by our culture. We can look with compassion and act with compassion in all areas of our lives and work. There is no time, or the ability to relive or undo and repair what we have done or left undone. Our choices focus on life's direction; it defines us, determines who we are and to whom we belong. We only get one chance to get it right, because none of us knows the hour or the time when we are called to final judgment. What we do know is this is inevitable.


The only question is whether we will find we have oil in our lamps. If we have not lived the way of Christ, we may find our lamp drained by regret and bitterness. Will our own decisions and actions shut the doors we most wish would be open to us? Preparation and awareness…


“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”


Surprised By Who Will Be In Heaven, Fr. John Bedingfield November 2

November 2, 2014

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

In the Church, whether you talk about All Souls or All Saints day, you are talking about the same thing – The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed.  Celebrations of All Souls have traditionally and historically been about remembering the departed – particularly family members.  That is why, in just a little while, we are going to read a list of those who have died, compiled from names submitted to us by members of the congregation.

It is a good thing to remember those who have gone on before.  And at this time of the year, we often get a little misty-eyed when we think back to other times and places when our loved ones were here with us.  But today we do not just think about missing the loved ones who have passed on.  We also pray for these folks because (as our Book of Common Prayer puts it), “(W)e still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.”

There is something very comforting in that statement.  For one thing, it assumes that our loved ones have gone to be with God.  And although there is a huge exegetical and theological discussion we could have about this, in this sermon I will refer to that as heaven.  Now I know that for most of our relatives, their being in heaven is a given.  But face it: you have one or two whose arrival at the pearly gates is not a done deal (at least not in your mind).  But that brings me to a serious question.  Who is going to be in heaven when you get there? 

There is an old joke that goes:

A man arrived at the gates of heaven.  St. Peter asked, “What is your denomination?”  The man said, “Methodist.”  St. Peter looked down his list, and said, “Go to mansion number 24, but be very quiet as you pass mansion 8.”

    Another man arrives at the gates of heaven.  “Denomination?”  


“Go to mansion 18, but be very quiet as you pass mansion 8.”

A third man arrived at the gates. “Denomination?”


“Go to mansion 11, but be very quiet as you pass number 8.”

The man, being an Episcopalian, could help but ask a question.  He said, “I can understand there being different places for different denominations, but why do I have to be quiet when I pass mansion number 8?”

St. Peter said, “Well the Baptists are in mansion number 8, and they think they're the only ones here.”


Obviously, that joke will work for every denomination – just some more accurately than others.  And that is because we do not really know much of anything about heaven, not in a scientific proof sort of knowledge anyway.  Unless you are someone who has had a near-death experience and have come back to write a book you almost certainly have no firsthand experience about what heaven is like, or who its inhabitants are.  But fortunately for us, we have St. John and his famous Revelation to fill in some blanks.

The Revelation of John is apocalyptic literature, meaning that it was written to a group of people who suffered from extreme oppression and was intended to give them hope of the future, even in the midst of that suffering.  And in doing so, John used vivid images to tell his readers what the end of time and what heaven would be like.  In what we just heard, he says that he,

 “[L]ooked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”  

One thing that John’s revelation told him, and something he is trying to tell us, is that we cannot begin to imagine how many people will be in living with God.  And perhaps more importantly, we cannot say who those people will.

Think for just a minute about who you believe might not be in heaven.  Maybe it is old uncle Merle, who is the meanest member of the family – the one no one wants to sit next to at Thanksgiving.  Perhaps you were taught that the majority of people whose skin color differs from your own will never be in heaven.  Or is it those “other people” across the world who do not subscribe to our beliefs?  Maybe it is the people whose sexuality, or political or social doctrines, are opposite from your “correct” views?  No.  Wait.  I know.  It’s those lazy, shiftless, poor people who have such a sense of entitlement.  Those people cannot possibly have earned their way into the same heaven as us, right?  The answer to all of those questions is an emphatic “No!” at least if we believe what the Apostle John tells us.  We are not the judges of anyone else’s fitness for eternal life.  Jesus died and rose again – one time for all.  Jesus’ sacrifice was wholly sufficient to wipe away the sins of the entire world, thereby making eternal life a real hope for us all.  When John said all nations, tribes, people and languages, that was a completely and totally inclusive statement, meant to exclude absolutely no one.

There is a poem that made its way around the Facebook world a while back.  It is called Heaven’s Surprise, and I believe it was written by a man named Rod Hemphill.  It goes like this.

I was shocked, confused, bewildered as I entered Heaven's door,

Not by the beauty of it all, nor the lights or its decor.


But it was the folks in Heaven who made me sputter and gasp--

The thieves, the liars, the sinners, the alcoholics and the trash.


There stood the kid from seventh grade who swiped my lunch money twice.

Next to him was my old neighbor who never said anything nice.


Herb, who I always thought was rotting away in hell,

Was sitting pretty on cloud nine, looking incredibly well.


I nudged Jesus, 'What's the deal? I would love to hear your take.

How'd all these sinners get up here? God must've made a mistake.


'And why's everyone so quiet, so somber - give me a clue.'

'Hush, child,' He said, 'they're all in shock. No one thought they'd be seeing you.'


As we pray for all of our beloved relatives who have gone on to the nearer presence of God, let us take some time to pray for all those whom we have never thought would get to heaven.  And then let us pray that those people are praying for us.


Render To The One To Whom It Belongs, Fr. John Bedingfield, Oct 19

October 20, 2014

Render To The One To Whom It Belongs

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

          Finally, we hear Jesus saying something this morning that we can instantly understand.  For the last several weeks we’ve had a series of cryptic sayings, parables and allegories that might have driven us to distraction; but this morning we get a good old saying that we can sink our teeth into.  “Give … to (Caesar) the things that are (Caesar’s), and to God the things that are God's.” 

          This morning we find Jesus in the Temple teaching.  The Pharisees are still trying to trap him into saying something that will make him appear in a bad light.  So they send some of their disciples to ask him a very carefully crafted question.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  It is not often that someone of my limited Greek scholarship disagrees with translators, but this is one such time.  The original Greek does not use the word, “pay,” here, but rather the word doumai (doumai) meaning, “give.”  The Pharisees used this word to make certain that Jesus could not hide behind legal obligation in His answer.  Now the trap that they set is obvious for modern readers who know the story.  If Jesus says yes, it is lawful under Torah to pay taxes, he incurs the wrath of faithful Jews who resent Roman occupation and dominance.  If he says, “No, it is not lawful under Torah,” then the Romans have grounds to arrest Him for sedition.  But Jesus knows this.  That is why he questions them about trying to tempt, or trap Him.

          Jesus’ response to His questioners though, is truly inspired by the Holy Spirit.  He asks these disciples of the most holy and scrupulous of all Jews, the Pharisees, to give him the coin used for taxes.  Apparently one of them whipped out a denarius.  This is interesting because the denarius was equal to a full day’s wages – some say that it would be roughly equivalent to $100.00 today – and this disciple (a student of the religious leaders) had this much rattling around in his pocket.  More interesting though is the fact that one of these devout Jews had this coin in his pocket, in the Temple.  Jesus asks the pointed question, “whose image is on the coin?”  His questioners respond that it is Caesar’s image.  In actuality, what was on the denarius was the reason that no devout Jew should have been carrying one in the Temple.  The coin had Caesar’s face on it alright, but it also had an inscription that said, “Tiberius Caesar, August son of the divine Augustus, high priest,” which made it both idolatrous (for carrying a graven image) and blasphemous (for holding Augustus out as being divine).  So Jesus has already exposed the questioners as being hypocrites who came to trap him, not to really converse with him.  But then comes the coup de gras.  Jesus tells them to give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.  Here, the Greek uses the word, apodote (apodote), which is related to the word doumai (doumai) but means, “to give back.”  And it is here that our lesson this morning takes its interesting turn.

          Rather than what we have most often been taught in our lives, Jesus was NOT trying to define a distinction between the secular and religious worlds here.  Not at all.  Rather, what Jesus was doing was pointing out the absolute and awesome truth of the world.  That which bears Caesar’s image, belongs to Caesar.  Caesar minted it.  Caesar decided its value.  Caesar circulated it and decided what it could be used for.  Therefore, Jesus says, if you believe it appropriate to give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, then do so.  However – and this is a huge “however” – you must also give back to God that which belongs to God.  The implications there are daunting, if not downright frightening.

          The Psalmist says, “Ascribe to the Lord the honor due His name, bring offerings and come into His courts.”  Jesus is saying much more than that!  He is saying to give to Caesar all that bears his image and was made by him.  Give to God ALL that bears God’s image and was created by God.  Suddenly we’re not talking about giving a part of what we have as our weekly, monthly or quarterly offering.  Suddenly we are talking about (as I said two weeks ago) all that we have – indeed, all that we ARE, belonging to God and our need to give THAT back.

          Every year, in every Episcopal Church in the United States, about this same time, in virtually every church, you’ll hear the same things.  Tithe, “proportional giving,” sacrificial giving.  These are all code words for what so many clergy have trouble talking about, money.  You’ll also hear every year phrases like, “time, talent and treasure,” which are code words for, “I really want to talk about money, but I have such a hard time with it, that instead I’ll talk about the other areas of your life where you can give.” 

          Be it good or bad, I don’t have any trouble talking about money up here, and I will tell you right here, today that part of what Jesus is talking about – just a part, but part nonetheless – is money.  Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we should “lay not up for ourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal, but rather lay up for ourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”  Jesus then goes on to say, “for where your treasure is, there also will be your heart.”  Truly, Jesus knew that if you follow the money you will most often find people’s priorities.  Jesus talked a lot about money, because he knew the incredible power it had in most people’s lives and He worried about how the power of money could badly affect people’s relationships with God.  So here, Jesus is not saying, just give the first 10% to God and all will be well.  This goes much farther than that.  This is about dedicating our lives to God.

          Jesus wants us to understand, in no uncertain terms, that it IS about money, but not JUST money.  It IS about time, but not JUST time.  It IS about our talents, but not JUST about our talents.  Give back to God, that which belongs to God.  The sheep on the hill are God’s because He made them.  The grass they graze upon is God’s for the same reason.  Likewise the dirt and rocks in which the grass grows; the rain that waters the grass and the sun which causes it to flourish.  It is ALL God’s and therefore all should be given back.

          Reality check time.  Am I saying that we should all go home and sell everything we have and give all of the proceeds to the poor?  No.  Not unless money and possessions get in the way as we try to know God.  What about all of our “stuff”?  It is not a big deal unless it becomes an obstacle to our dedicating ourselves to God – to our giving back to God that which God has so graciously given us.

          How that will look when we take the opportunity to give back to God, to answer God’s call, will completely depend upon where each one of us is in life.  Some of us don’t feel like we have much in the way of money to give back.  Some of us have what we believe to be an absolute dearth of time to give back.  Some of us feel as though our talents may be less than useful.

          It is up to each of us to look deep inside – to look critically at our own lives and to actively listen for God’s call as we try to discern what it is that God is calling us to give back.  What, in each of our lives, will be so central to who we are that when we give it, it will feel like we have given it ALL back to God?

          Years ago, I knew a man who was, by most standards, wealthy.  He gave more to the church than any other, single giver in the parish.  But to him that did not feel like he was giving it all back.  That’s why he volunteered to handle all of the building and grounds issues at the church.  He didn’t write checks to repairmen, he learned how to do the repairs himself and spent his precious time and energy getting them done.

          I knew a young woman who really struggled financially, but went out of her way to come a long distance to the church so that she could help with the children’s education program.  It felt like it was what God was calling her to do, so she gave the time – difficult though it might be on any given Sunday.

          And I know many people who have given up lives that were successful and full in many ways, in order to follow God’s individual calls to them and to seek ordination, with all of the secular uncertainty that that decision brings.  They have given back their careers because that is what they believe God called them to do.

          Are these people better, or more holy, or closer to God than all of you?  No, just different.  Everyone is called by God, to, as St. Paul says, to exercise the individual gifts we’ve been given.  So this week, let’s all look critically at where the things are that can separate us from God and begin to rid ourselves of them.  Then let’s start, one day at a time, to try to discern God’s call, heed that call and give back to God ALL that God has given us, by walking in the path God has given us and living into the wonder of a life lived faithfully answering God’s call.  We all have to give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.  Now let’s see if we can treat God better than we treat Caesar and give to God ALL of that which is God’s.  Amen.

The Banquet, Mtr. Mitzi George, Oct 12

October 20, 2014

There was a Baptist minister who noticed this poor ragged family living a couple blocks from his church. He watched the family for a few weeks as he came to work, left on errands, and in the evenings on his way home. After observing them for some time, he realized they often had on the same dirty cloths and usually looked rather un-kept. So, he decided one day to stop and visit with the family to see if he could offer any assistance. After his visit, the preacher thought maybe if they had some nice clean clothes they would come to Church, so he gathered clothing from the congregation in all the appropriate sizes, along with shoes, etc. He went for another visit and gave the clothing to the mother and father who were very appreciative. They did not know how to thank the preacher but kept insisting there must be some way to repay him and his congregation. “Well,” the preacher said, “How about if you all just come to Church Sunday?” “Well, sure, we can do that!” They said. Sunday came and the preacher was so excited that the family was coming to visit, but the family never showed up. Well the preacher was disappointed; and on his way to work on Monday, he stopped by to visit with them again. When the father answered the door, the preacher said, “I thought you all were going to come to Church Sunday, what happened?” The mother and father looked at each other with surprise and then replied, “After we all took a bath and put on those nice clothes you brought us, we looked so good, we thought we should go to the Episcopal Church!”
I know most of us read today’s gospel and think well that is kind of the point Jesus was making. We need to dress appropriately for Church, you now “dress for success, wear your Sunday best, etc.” And, very often when we are approached by those who don’t dress like us, we feel offended, so it’s easy to throw this passage from Matthew up and justify our feelings. After all Jesus told a parable, according to Matthew, about the guest who was thrown out of the wedding feast because he didn’t dress appropriately for the occasion. We certainly don’t want those people who wear overall without a shirt or pants so low they have to spread their legs apart so their pants won’t fall down around their ankles when they walk. I mean we don’t want to see another person’s underwear in our naïve, right? We also do not want to sit next to people who don’t bath regularly, or as often as we think they should, and we can refer right back to this scripture to make our point.
But is that the point of the parable?
This parable is layered and complicated isn’t it? Obviously, a very complex allegory with multiple implications and twists this Gospel is rather unsettling when we dissect it. First we have a king giving a feast or party in honor of his son’s wedding. So naturally he invites all the important business people, the wealthy merchants and land owners from throughout his kingdom. He sends the first invitation and then summons them a second time which is customary in the first century, by the way.
However, the second invitation is met by multiple rejections and then we are shocked by the sudden violence toward the slaves. We weren’t expecting that were we? The king responds to the violence, by engaging in an all out war, he sends in his army and slaughters those responsible for the uprising. All of this sounds more than a little extreme doesn’t it? We have to ask ourselves what is it we need to deduce from this odd story.
Those who were too busy with other things like business, spending time with family, staying home because it was their only day off, or any number of things; they were just too overwhelmed by their lives to make themselves get ready and enjoy the feast. They had excuses not unlike some we have used from time to time.  Things like; “well it’s the only day I have to mow the grass, or I need to take some time for myself today, or take my son fishing, or I haven’t had any time to catch up on my _____________ you fill in the blank. There is always a reason, and excuse not to get up, not get ready, and not come to the feast. We’ve all made excuses like these, even when invited to wedding celebrations haven’t we?  
Now, the violence with which we are faced might make more sense if we look at the violence in the gospel passage from this perspective: the king’s invitation is really a mandating. After all it was the king. One doesn’t really turn down the king. Let’s say that the city that captured and killed the slaves was a city that was already planning a revolt against the king. This city wanted to become its own city-state and decided this was a great time to exert an uprising, or revolt.  The king was preoccupied with making arrangements for his son’s wedding. The people in that city probably didn’t expect such a swift response. They didn’t expect the king to declare war on the city so quickly because of his son’s wedding, but the king did. And once the city was conquered the king returned his attention to the feast. Nothing was going to stop the king from celebrating! Not even a war!
Now that is a bit extreme isn’t it? But that is indeed part of the message. The feast goes on no matter what, the celebration continues and nothing will interfere with it.
You see, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to this parable. A feast that was all ready fully prepared for the invited guests to enjoy, but they didn’t come. They made excuses, all sorts of excuses for not attending the party. There were others who didn’t want to be a part of the king’s kingdom, but even that didn’t stop the celebration. The feast will be filled with anyone from anywhere who is willing to come in and celebrate. The celebration will go on!
But then there is a horrifying twist, isn’t there? That one poor soul who is at the feast who somehow is not appropriately dressed for the feast encounters the king and his wrath. The parable tells us he didn’t have on the right garment.  But let’s remember, this guy comes in from the street, he wouldn’t have had a wedding garment with him if he was getting off work, or if he had been a street beggar. So what’s the deal? What is the point?
Remember this is an allegory. So the garment is a figurative term. Perhaps this guest was not enjoying the feast. Perhaps the inappropriate garment represents his demeanor, his attitude. The king is mingling with the guests and notices this man not being joyful or fully participating in the celebration. Have you ever seen anyone at a party that is looking dismal? There is nothing that will ruin a celebration quicker than a guest who is bringing everyone down. Right?
And of course when we encounter someone like this we think to ourselves; “why don’t they leave, why did they come?” But let’s remember this poor soul was drug in off the street to the king’s feast, he really didn’t have a choice but to be there, and he probably had other things on his mind. The king in our story is enraged at the man’s appearance and has this guest thrown into outer darkness or out of the kingdom completely. A little extreme, yes!
But it’s no more extreme than the rest of the parable. You see I think this parable is an allegory for how God views God’s kingdom. As members of God’s kingdom, God expects us to be joyful, to come willingly to the feast prepared for us, to come to the feast clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and filled with thankful and joyful hearts.
Unfortunately, many come to the feast reluctantly, some stay away from the feast for any number of excuses, some revolt completely and refuse to be a part of the kingdom, and still others come with bad attitudes. But the reality is we are called to be participants at the feast and it’s supposed to be a celebration!
It’s easy to come to a celebration of Holy Baptism, like today’s service, and feel joyful and uplifted because, well, who can look at this sweet child about to be Baptized and not feel warm fussy thoughts? The words of the Baptismal service remind us of God’s love toward us and all of God’s creatures. And we are aware that when we baptize this child we are clothing them in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, placing the light of Christ in his/her head, as my husband’s Sitti (grandmother) used to say.
But what about all the other times we come here to celebrate the sacraments do we come with appropriate attitudes, with appropriate joy? All the times we are invited to this feast we call Holy Communion do we come gladly or begrudgingly? Do we fully participate or are we preoccupied with all the things we should be or wish we were doing?

Christian brothers and sisters, fellow St. Barnabites when you come to the feast of this table not just today but any day, when you come to celebrate this Great Thanksgiving, come with hearts filled with joy, come with gladness, come fully prepared to celebrate. And when you leave this place, carry that joy and gladness into the world. Don’t do as so many Christians do and make it seem as though we live in complete drudgery.  We live in the kingdom of God now, today, not just in the world to come but in the world in which he came and for the world to which he came. So let us with gladness present ourselves in order to celebrate the great feast and be joyful at the reality that we live in God’s kingdom this day and everyday!     Amen.

What If Everything DOES Belong to God? Fr. John Bedingfield Oct 5

October 5, 2014

In the name of the God who created it all.  Amen.

There is a lot to think about in the parable (or more accurately the allegory) of the wicked tenants that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel.  It is a bit longer than many of His parables and it is pretty involved.  But there is a simple point that we need to ensure we never miss in this story.  That is: the world is God’s vineyard, and we are the managing tenants.

You see, the creator God, has given the entirety of the world to us, its current tenants.  What do you think of when I say that God created everything?  Do you think of: the heavens and the earth; the seas; the birds, fish, and creatures of the land; every plant and every tree?  What about the atmosphere that sustains our lives and the gravity that ties us to the earth?  It is God’s great design that allows all of the plants and creatures of the world to continue to exist and thrive.  But what about this?  Every time our hearts beat, every breath we take happens because God created our bodies to be self-sustaining in that way.  God made our bodies the most amazing machines in existence.  Do you consider all of that when you think of God as creator of the universe?

So God created the world and put us in place as the tenants who live in this vineyard.  We have been asked to care for God’s world, and everything that is in it; to nurture it and build it up; to plant and to tend; to support the cycles of life; so that when the harvest comes in, we might give back to the one who gave us all this abundance.  We are asked to give some small token of our thanks for God having placed all of this in our care.

            All of that means that we are the stewards of this world.  Every year at around this time, we hear that same message.  Historically this is the point at which you expect me to tell you about giving your tithe, ten percent of your income, and how that is your duty to God.  Well … that is definitely part of the message, because I do believe in the tithe as a goal and as a measure of our monetary giving to the church.  But, this notion of being stewards over the whole creation is much broader than that.  Being good stewards means much more than simply having faith enough in God’s provision to allow us to write a check.

            In the allegory, God was understandably angry because the tenants, the stewards of God’s property were keeping everything for themselves and refusing to give back to the provider, that which had been provided for them.  Setting aside our theology of giving, our basic American sense of fairness says that we should do it differently.  God put stewards in place to manage God’s resources and therefore, in fairness and out of respect, the stewards should have given back to God, that which belonged to God.  But what this story tells us, is that everything belongs to God.  Rather than just quietly walking past that concept, trying to pretend that it doesn’t say what it says; think about it for a minute.  What if everything we have is not, in fact ours?  What if everything really does belong to God and we really are just stewards over it all?  What does that do to our understanding of this parable and our part in it?

            Stewards are managers.  They have no ownership interest in property.  Their job is to oversee the use of the property.  An apartment manager may make a living by looking after rental property, but if that manager decides to tear down a building, he had better consult the owner of the property first.  And imagine what would happen if the manager of the local Wal-Mart decided one day – “It is my job to manage all of this.  I think it would be a better idea to make this a car dealership, so I’ll give away all of the merchandise and bring in some used cars.”  The corporate office of Wal-Mart (the owners) might not appreciate that.  It’s the same with our relationship to God and the world.

            So you may be thinking, “This is silly.  I know that I own my house and my cars and my retirement account.”  Yes.  We have legal documents that give us the right of possession and disposal over our houses, cars and the like.  But those documents are in place to keep us from fighting with each other, they have no effect whatsoever on our relationship with God.  Remember the old adage – which contains some true wisdom – no matter how much you own in this world, you can’t take it with you when you die.  So that does not change who REALLY owns all that we have.  For that matter, we do not even own the bodies in which we dwell.  If you don’t believe that, ask someone who has had a heart attack how it worked out when they told their body to stop that nonsense and get back to doing what they wanted to do.  The heart attack victim realizes in an instant that his or her body is not their own.

            No … we’re here for a little while (in the great scheme of life) and God’s creation goes on.  The Native Americans understood this concept.  They did not have disputes over who owned land because they understood that no one did – the humans were only given dominion over the land during their short lives.

We have been given everything in our lives – bodies, minds, souls, and all of the “things” around us, for our care and keeping – not for our ownership.  God, as the landowner in this story, is entitled to receive back from us a portion of what God has given over to us for our care.  How do we do that?  Do we write a check every week or every month (or better yet, give on-line) what for most of us is some amount of money that doesn’t significantly impact our home budget, some amount that is certainly not a sacrifice for us.  OR do we start looking at everything in our lives and try to find meaningful and sacrificial ways to give back?  Ways that better reflect the value we place on what God has given us to manage.  I vote for the latter.

We need to begin to look at everything in our lives as stewardship matters.  We need to see climate change as a stewardship issue.  America’s overuse of oil is a stewardship issue.  The lack of recycling that clogs landfills and creates additional pollution is a stewardship issue.  How we care for our bodies, whether we are healthy or not, whether or not our bodies operate as God designed them, is an issue of stewardship.  As is keeping people alive artificially, long after their bodies have ceased to be viable.  Hording food, water and money (because of some perceived danger looming in the dark unknown of the future) while other people have none of those resources, is absolutely the kind of stewardship issue we hear about from Jesus.  Because when Jesus says, “If you do these things for the least of my children, you do them for me,” He means that the stewards of the planet – all of us – are also charged with caring for all the other stewards.

You see, it’s not just about writing a check or making a payment on-line.  That’s clearly part of it, but only a part.  Stewardship is about committing to changing the way we view our place in God’s creation and then acting like we understand it.  It’s about looking at all things differently and asking, “What would God want me to do to make the most of this, right here and right now?”  The answer will always be, dedicate it to God; give it back freely and gladly for God’s use; and watch it flourish. 

Rather than being the wicked tenants of God’s world, let us – the loving and dedicated stewards of God – try things in a new way this year.  Let’s make 2015 the year in which we see it ALL as God’s property.  And let’s give back to God – through our time, our talents AND our treasure – the way that a faithful manager would return what he managed to its rightful owner.  And then, let’s watch what God does with those offerings and see it all grow and flourish as only God can make happen.  Amen.

Getting Into Heaven Is Just Not Fair Mthr Mitzi George Sept 21

September 28, 2014

No text available.

Who Does Jesus Love Most? Fr. John Bedingfield Sept. 28

September 28, 2014

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

Last week, Mother Mitzi told us that for most of her life she has been a “good girl,” saying that she has given up a lot of things in her life to work for the Kingdom of God.  She went on to say that she was a little resentful that some of the ne’er-do-wells that Jesus talked about might get into the heaven ahead of her.  Since I managed to be in the congregation and hear her last week, I was able to internally nod my head and agree with her.  Clergy tend to initially have a visceral response to last week’s Gospel, even more of a visceral response than do the faithful Episcopalians in the pews.  We all have given up a great deal in our lives to follow where we believe God is leading us, and to give everything we have to help bring the Kingdom here.  And it seems unfair that we would not have places of honor after all of our hard work and sacrifice.

If that was a sort of natural response to last week’s Gospel, how in the world will we all feel about todays?  In this portion of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is telling the chief priests and the elders that he believes them to be people who talk the talk without walking the walk.  Today’s reading follows immediately on the heels of last week’s tough words.  Jesus tells them today,

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.  For John (the Baptist) came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

This is truly one of Jesus’ most scathing take-downs of the religious leaders of His day.  To tell a chief priest or an elder (think Vestry person), that for all of their faithfulness in attendance and belief, they were going to be rewarded by getting into heaven after two of the groups on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, was what is known today as a huge smack down.  And many a good sermon has been written about the difference between talking like a faithful believer and walking like one. 

But … not today.

Today I can’t help thinking about the other huge lesson to be learned from this Gospel reading.  Consider for a moment the implications of this statement – the lowest in society and the ones we consider to be the most notorious of sinners are closer to Jesus’ heart than we might be.  Now that is a message that is hard to hear.  But let’s face it, it is absolutely true.

Jesus does not just say that in this reading.  He says it over and over again: “many who are last shall be first and the first shall be last[1]”; “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance[2]”; And, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.[3]”  And that is just a representative sample of the kinds of things Jesus said about the poor, the humble, the social outcast and those who are despised.  There is absolutely no doubt that Jesus has a special place in His heart for the underdogs – but it is not just the underdogs – it is also those people that you and I (the religious faithful of our day) tend to look down our noses at; the people who do things or live in ways that we just do not approve of. 

Jesus ate and drank with prostitutes, tax collectors, and even touched the dreaded lepers.  That means that Jesus wanted all of those people to know that He loved them – that God loved them – and that He understood and felt their pain.  Jesus loves the unlovable.  It is as simple as that.  But He was also saying that one reason He loves these outcasts is because they recognize that they are sinners and they readily repent.

But what about us?  What about we who come to church, who participate in ministries, who give of our time, talent and treasure for the work of the Kingdom?  What about us?  Does Jesus not love us as well?

Here is the deal.  When Jesus made all of these harsh statements; when he seemed to be marking lines of division that appear incredibly unnecessary, if not downright unfair – every time He did these things it was to try to make a strong point.  He wanted the religious faithful to know that they were not allowed to recline and rest on their laurels, nor were they allowed to pass judgment on their fellow human beings.  And finally, He wanted them to know that if they thought they did not need to repent and turn back toward God, they were horribly wrong. 

Jesus wants to make sure that the faithful know that their faith in God does not entitle them to special treatment.  Instead, becoming faithful followers means that we have additional responsibilities.  We who understand the gracious blessings of God are called to pass those blessings along – to pay it forward, if you will.  And we who know the God of all comfort, the God who never leaves us alone in times of trouble are called upon to exhibit that love of God to the rest of the world in our daily lives.  But most importantly, we who know that we have been saved from eternal death by the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are called upon to look at ourselves honestly and respond faithfully to what we see.

When I look in the mirror, I see a faithful priest of God’s church.  I see a man who gives the best he has in almost all situations, in thankful obedience to God’s call to serve.  But I also see a sinner.  I am clearly less sinful now than I have been at other times in my life, but I am a sinner nonetheless.  When I take an honest look at myself, I am mindful of what St. Paul said in this morning’s epistle: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” 

I would love to tell you that I never land on the wrong side of St. Paul’s rules.  But if I told you that, I would add lying to my sins.  You see, we are all sinners, in ways both great and small.  As St. Paul told the church in Rome, “we all fall short of the glory of God.[4]”  In other words, we are all sinners.  And the repentance that John the Baptist called for, is what Jesus says it takes to stay close to God and right in line for your place in the Kingdom.

Repent and return to God.  Participate in the work of the Kingdom and do not judge anyone else.  Love the Lord your God.  Love your neighbor.  And all will be right in this world and the next.


[1] Matt: 19:30 (NRSV)

[2] Luke 5:32 (NRSV)

[3] Luke 14:11 (NRSV)

[4] Rom 3:23 (NRSV)

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, Fr. John Bedingfield, Aug. 24

August 24, 2014

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

            St. Paul tells the Church in Rome this morning, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  There is enough in this one sentence for several sermons.  But this morning, I would like to focus on “present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” and the last phrase of this sentence, “which is your spiritual worship,”  Interestingly, when you go the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, and look up the word, “sacrifice” it tells you to look under “worship.”  That led me to look deeper into the concepts of sacrifice and worship, and what they meant in Jesus’ time, and what they might mean today.

            Remember that St. Paul, the author of this Epistle, was born Saul and was educated and raised as a Pharisee before he was converted by an encounter with the risen Christ.  He understood the background of the Jewish religion, and he was a citizen of Rome who was familiar with pagan ways.  He also understood the theology of Jesus the Messiah.  In the first half of the Epistle, he outlines who Jesus was (and is) in relation to the Christian Church.  When we get to chapter 12, Paul wants to shift gears and talk about what Jesus’ mission of salvation means.  That’s why this chapter begins with the word, “therefore.”  Jesus is the reason we have been forgiven of our sins – He is the author of our salvation.  Then we get the “therefore.”

            So, because of who Jesus was and what He still is to us, St. Paul “appeals” to all Christians, by the mercy of God.  The word that our NRSV Bible translates as “appeal,” is translated elsewhere as “urge” or even “plead.”  The point of the word is exhortation.  Paul is spurring the Roman Christians on – he is like a coach who wants the greatest possible performance out of his team.  He exhorts them, by the mercy of God, to present their bodies as a living sacrifice.

            The idea of sacrifice has been around as long as humanity has.  Sacrifice has always figured into human worship of God – whether that god was the one true God or any deity worshiped by any people.  As early as Chapter 4 of Genesis, we get a story of Cain and Abel making sacrificial offerings of the fat portions of the lamb and the best of the grain grown, to the God who blessed them with abundance.  From that story through the stories of Abraham giving the best he had to God when God came to visit his camp, through the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on the altar of God, if that was what God wanted, we have story after story of sacrifice as a part of worship.

            Once God led the children of Israel out of Egypt, Jewish worship began to take shape – a shape that decidedly included sacrifice.  Through the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, Moses’ brother Aaron and the house of the Levites were trained in the ways of Priestly worship and sacrifice.  Cattle, sheep, goats, doves and pigeons became the sacrificial animals of ancient Judaism.  By the time that King Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem, the Priests had honed the art of sacrifice greatly. 

            In the Temple, there were several different kinds of sacrifices – each involving different animals and offered for different reasons.  The burnt offering was the most common and most general of sacrifices.  Any kind of animal could be used – as long as it was male and free of blemishes – it was ritually killed, skinned and burned on the altar.  The burning sacrifice was believed to take the prayers skyward and brought a “pleasing aroma” to God, (which is why we use incense in church even now).  This sacrifice could be offered as thanksgiving or in atonement and was done twice a day, every day, in the Temple in Jerusalem.  In addition to this twice daily sacrifice, there were peace offerings, thank offerings, free-will offerings, votive offerings, sin offerings and ordination offerings.  Each had its own purpose, its own prescribed animals and traditional actions associated with it.  In other words, each sacrifice had its own liturgy attached to it. 

But most of these sacrifices shared some common elements.  The animal involved would be ritually killed – that is, prayed for as it was killed as quickly as possible.  In some rituals the blood of the animal was splashed on the altar, in others that was not the case.  But the carcass of the animal was always burned on the altar – with some part of the resulting cooked meat being offered to the Priests in payment for their work. 

            One of the sacrifices offered by the Temple Priests did not involve killing the animal or using its blood as a part of the rite – which all of the other sacrifices did, except for sacrifices of grain or wine, obviously.  On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the High Priest would take one of the male goats destined for sacrifice.  Because this was a sacrificial animal, it would be as close to perfect as could be found.  The Priest would take this perfect goat and say prayers in which he would lay all of the sins of the Jewish people on the goat.  Then the goat was run off into the countryside, where it would presumably take the sins of the people with it.  By the way, this sacrifice of the goat on Yom Kippur is where we get the modern term, “scapegoat,” for one who takes the blame for another’s wrongdoing.  Do you see where this is headed? 

            During our service, when we say Eucharistic Prayer A, we say that Jesus “offered himself, in obedience to (God’s) will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  That is the way St. Paul understood Jesus’ crucifixion, as a perfect sacrifice, as the ultimate act of atonement for the sins of the whole world.  To Paul, and to most of the modern Church, Jesus’ hanging on the cross was the perfected version of an animal without blemish being laid on the altar in the Temple.  Just as Jesus said that He came to fulfill the Law of Moses, so also was His sacrifice the fulfillment of sacrificial acts in the worship of God.

            So, when St. Paul tells the Romans that they are to present their bodies to God as a holy and living sacrifice, he didn’t mean that they should be ritually killed in the name of God.  Jesus did that, one time for all of us.  No, Paul meant that they were to offer their soma (soma) – their hearts, souls, minds and bodies; their entirety – to God.  In our Eucharistic prayer B, we offer to God “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”  That’s clearly part of what Paul was talking about, but not all that he was talking about.

            Paul says that this offering of – again as we put it in our Rite I Eucharistic celebration – “ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice to God,” – is the very least we can do, given the immensity of what God has given us.  Most prominent among the gifts of God is the sacrifice of God’s only Son as the “scapegoat for our sins”.

            Today we are still called by God, just as was the Church in Rome almost 2000 years ago.  We are all called to offer to God everything we have in thanksgiving for all the ways in which we have been blessed.  And we are equally called to offer God the “thanksgiving of our prayers and praises,” in atonement for all of the ways in which we have fallen short.  When Jesus’ sacrifice perfected sacrificial death, our sacrifices became those things, short of our lives, that we have to offer God.  For modern Americans that means the “Three Ts” we talk about during the Fall of every year: time, talent and treasure.

            In coming weeks, this theme – the theme of our need to sacrificially give – is going to reemerge several times.  As those weeks and those sermons come around, I want you to keep a couple of things in mind.  First, none of this is about giving because God needs it (or worse yet, because the Church needs it).  Of course God doesn’t need our money and of course the Church does.  Money is what the modern world runs on and the Church is a part of that world.  But this is not about the need to pay the electric bill and to keep the clergy fed.  This is about our need to offer a sacrifice to God.  Remember that in the beginning of this sermon, I told you that sacrifice had been a part of worship as long as there has been worship.  That’s because people need to give sacrificially in order to connect with God on a deeper level and to feel that they are a part of God’s work in the world.  It’s the worshiper’s need, not God’s that is at work.  Keep that in mind in coming weeks. 

            But also, keep in mind that our time and our talent figure in to this sacrificial giving just as does our treasure.  Think about how you give of your time and how you use your God-given talents.  God blesses your work every day, not just on Sundays.  How you use the time God has given you is, in Paul’s words, “a part of your spiritual worship.”

            Paul said, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Amen.