Love Your Enemies, Mthr. Mitzi George, February 19th

February 20, 2017
00:0000:00

The problem with this section of the Sermon on the Mount, as in the rest of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is that it is easy to dismiss it as something that only applies to Jesus’ time and not ours. After all, Jesus’ world was simpler than ours. Jesus’ world view did not have the complexities of our own global realities.

That is, until we remember that Jesus lived and did ministry in a place and time that was occupied by the Roman Empire. On top of that, we have to recall that the Gospels were written well after the crucifixion in a post-temple, post-Jerusalem, post-destruction reality, the world was chaotic and uncertain. It's when we remember these details that suddenly, Jesus’ world, the author's world does not seem that different from our own. And we realize that at the heart of Jesus’ message in Matthew is a message essential for all time. But  the words we read today, these are not easy words to hear or accept as a way of life.

Loving your enemy? Really, Jesus? Do you mean that or is that some sort of euphemistic expression meant to remind us to be nice to people?

Does Jesus really expect us to turn the other cheek, to give up our cloak, to walk an extra mile, or are those just hypothetical illustrations to stir our emotions? How does it further the kingdom if we allow ourselves to be abused or used like a doormat?

Karl Marx, father of communism, said, “The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submissiveness and humbleness.”

Before dismissing Marx's critique, we should point out that, indeed, turning the other cheek and returning hatred with love is no way to get ahead in this world. It is a dog-eat-dog world where only the strong survive. But that’s just the point. Jesus isn’t trying to modify the rules of this world. He’s not inviting us to figure out how to make the most of this world or have our best life now, contrary to our contemporary prosperity preachers. And he’s not inviting us to find a safe port in the storms of life either. Rather, he’s starting a revolution by calling the rules of this world into question and turning them upside down and inside out, and he invites each of us to follow him into this revolution.

Yes, love your enemies means just that, and it is an important message even today, Maybe even more important today!

Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Now we need a little exegesis here: the word we translate “perfect” is actually the Greek word telos and implies less of a moral perfection as opposed to reaching one’s intended outcome or purpose. The telos of an arrow shot from a bow is to reach its intended target. The telos of a pecan tree is to yield pecans. Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, “Be the person and community God created and intends you to be, just as God is as God is supposed to be.”

You see, God sees more in us than we do. God has plans and a purpose for each of us, all of us. God intends to use us to achieve something spectacular and marvelous. And that something is precisely to be who we were created to be and, in doing so, to help create a different kind of world. Jesus calls this new world the kingdom of God – where violence doesn’t always breed more violence and hate doesn’t always kindle more hate. Martin Luther King, Jr. captured the logic of Jesus’ kingdom well in his "I Have a Dream" speech when he stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Several hundreds of years before Martin Luther King, Jr, Martin Luther said that the "Christian life is not about arriving but always about becoming." And even earlier, St. Augustine, when celebrating the Lord’s Supper, would invite people to “receive who you are” and then dismiss them with “go become what you have received.”  How great is that? That is all great theology and great liturgy!

Jesus calls the powers of the day into question by describing an entirely different way to relate to each other, inviting us into relationships governed not by power but by vulnerability grounded in love. “’An eye for an eye’ makes all people blind,” Gandhi said, almost two thousand years later. Here Jesus invites us to overcome the urge to retaliate and instead respond with loving submission and forbearance.

Jesus isn’t satisfied with merely overturning this world. For the very essence of his critique about the human condition was -- that we were created not merely for justice but also for love and life -- that truth is the only possible hope for those enmeshed in the conditions of this world. Strength eventually fails. Power corrupts. Survival of the fittest leaves so many bodies maimed and lying on the ground. Love alone transforms, redeems, and creates new life. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Yes, in the words found in today's gospel passage, Jesus lays before us at the end of his Sermon on the Mount, the plans for the kingdom he proclaims and the revolution he starts. And so before we bring others to Church, before we baptize little Clark this morning, or before bringing any one for baptism, we should probably let them know just what it is we’re inviting them into! Because, we invite the to a counter cultural revolution.

The last line of this passage -- “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Rather than commanding something of us, Jesus is really  commending something in us. Maybe, Jesus simply knows that we have more to give, that we can be and do more than we have settled for, and that we can absolutely make a difference in the world if we simply believe in ourselves. And so, I hear in these words the invitation to be the people God has created us to be, so that we might not just persevere through these challenging times and our own personal lives, but actually flourish, making a difference to those around us by sharing the abundant life Jesus has given us. Jesus is not just serious about what he promises, he actually dies -- and rises again! -- to show us that it’s true.

As disciples of Christ, we are to persist toward the goal to which the Beatitudes give witness, to persist in bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven for all people in the face of continued resistance. To persist in a vision that others might not be able to see, but that we see and that we help other people to see, that is our goal. Not through fighting or condemnation, but by an intentional, loving willingness that realizes the full blessings of what God has in mind for all people.

Being a disciple does not require perfection but persistence, a persistence toward bringing the Kingdom of Heaven into view. Jesus suggests that an essential characteristic of what it means to be a disciple is to persist in working toward the goal that Matthew’s Beatitudes proclaim. Anything less, it seems, could very well jeopardize the Great Commission itself. Because God persists in loving us, we too must persist in the revelation of God's love toward the whole world, loving even our enemies as ourselves.

Amen

The Kingdom of God is Not Twitter, Fr. John Bedingfield, February 12th

February 12, 2017
00:0000:00

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

All I can say, after reading today’s Gospel, is: It’s a good thing that Jesus never had to deal with Facebook and Twitter. I say that because the longer I am on social media platforms, the more I believe that the polarization in this country may be about to become as solid as a giant California redwood tree and as destructive as a category five hurricane.

Let’s do a little experiment right now. Take out your phone. Go ahead. I know that you have them — and occasionally use them during the sermon. I am giving you blanket dispensation — today only. Pull them out and open Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat, or Instagram, or whatever your favorite platform is. Now look at the things that are trending, or at your own feed, and raise your hand as soon as you have found someone saying something bad or snarky about someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum. You know, a Democrat calling a Republican a racist or a misogynist or xenophobe. Or a Republican telling a Democrat that he or she is a snowflake or a socialist, or my least favorite, a “libtard.” Raise your hand when you find a political insult of any kind. See, it doesn’t take long, does it? Now … no fair spending the rest of the sermon liking and reposting things.

Social media platforms have become for Americans, the place where we can — for the most part — exercise the worst of our urges … without much in the way of repercussion. Generally speaking, people in this country do not stand up in public gatherings and call each other vile names. But that happens all day and all night, every day and night, on social media. On social media platforms, people seem to feel totally released from what used to be known as good manners.

When I was a child, my paternal grandmother was the keeper of good manners. While there are not many people who loved to gossip as much as my grandmother Aggie did, she still insisted that her grandchildren know how to behave and how to treat other people. If Aggie had ever read or heard the way that people speak to each other (or about each other) on Facebook or Twitter, her ginger temper would have flared like nothing you have ever seen. For Aggie the issue was simply that you did not say anything to someone that might hurt their feelings — even if you vehemently disagreed with that person. It was just a matter of having good manners and refusing to treat someone else in a way that we would not want to be treated.

Good manners used to dictate that people did not speak hatefully or disrespectfully with one another. But the age of the internet has completely changed how we interact with each other. Now it is perfectly acceptable to label someone else just because he or she took a political position that you don’t agree with. We no longer have to discuss positions on their merits. Instead, if someone disagrees with you today, he or she will simply call you a horrible name, reduce the entirety of your life to a single label, and then move on; looking back from time-to-time to find out how many others “like” or “retweet” their insult.

Let’s look again for a minute at what we read just now from Matthew’s Gospel. Today’s reading is a part of the Sermon on the Mount. In this section, Jesus was laying out a plan for living life in a way that would reach toward the Kingdom of God. He told His hearers:

"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire."

It seems to me that Jesus was talking about something here that may have been very important to His first listeners, but is absolutely vital for us. As the modern Christian writer, Brian McLaren said,

"Ancient wisdom forbade murder, but Jesus’ message, the message of the kingdom of God, calls people deeper and higher: to transcend the hidden emotion of anger that motivates murder and to stop insulting people. After all, insult is a kind of character assassination, a kind of socially acceptable violence with words. The kingdom of God calls us beyond simply “doing no physical harm” (as big an improvement as that is over doing physical harm!), it calls us to do no harm with words. And even more radical—it calls us to actively seek reconciliation, giving interpersonal reconciliation an even higher priority than religious devotion …."

My grandmother called it good manners. Jesus talked about it as Kingdom of God treatment of others. But what it is really about is making space for someone who thinks or believes or speaks differently than we do. And I firmly believe that it is time that we take up the challenge of living as Jesus commanded, and start changing the world by how we deal with our neighbors — whether it be in the pew, on social media, or (heaven forbid!) behind the wheel.

We at St. Barnabas like to think of ourselves as tolerant and accepting. After all, our motto is “A Place at the Table.” And I think that we really mean that. I believe that it is in our DNA at this church to welcome any and everyone who comes in the doors to gather with us at Christ’s holy table and to share in the mystical meal that is our Eucharist. But if we really follow what Jesus said, it cannot end there.

Jesus said, “if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire….” That is a tough standard, but I believe that Jesus really meant what He said. Scholars still argue about what the “hell of fire” really referred to, but that is not the point. What He is telling us, is that it is not acceptable for us to put down our brothers and sisters, no matter what they say to us. He is calling us to a higher sense of how we treat each other.

If your brother or sister did not vote for the same presidential candidate that you did, find common ground elsewhere and be reconciled to that person. If someone you know believes in political doctrines that you find wholly repugnant, look for other places where you have commonality and meet there. But this idea of Kingdom ideals does not call us to ignore the places where we disagree with others, it calls us to transcend them — to see them as places of disagreement, but to look deeper into our brother or sister and find something in his or her very humanity that makes us care less about where we disagree and more about the simple fact that we are all bound together as the Body of Christ.

My brothers and sisters, we have a wonderful community at St. Barnabas. And we have a wonderful broader community in Lafayette. And we are all surrounded by on-line communities of God’s children, which is a wonderful thing. So what are we going to do with all of that wonder-fullness? We can choose to focus on our disagreements and spend our time searching for the exact words that will put a dagger into another person’s heart, thereby “winning” the argument and making ourselves the ones who are “on top.” And at the same time, further erode the beauty of our lives. OR we can find new ways of transcending our disagreements and concentrate on the spark of Christ that is present in every one of us. Thereby building up the Kingdom of God on earth.

Please believe me when I say that I know how hard this change in attitude will be. You and I live in a society that seems to thrive on conflict. But if we are to give any weight at all to Jesus’ very plain words, we are called (loud and clear), and we must try to make a place for every one and every opinion. And we must always try to love (that is: respect and care for) those with whom we disagree, even when that seems impossible to do.

May the Spirit of God be with each of us as we seek to live out the command to love one another just as Christ loves us. Amen.

The Virus of Violence and Dr. King, Fr. John Bedingfield, January 15th

January 15, 2017
00:0000:00

In the name of the God of Justice and Peace, Amen.

         This week, as I read through the Scripture passages assigned for today, I kept coming back, over and over again, to thoughts of the violence that seems completely ubiquitous in today’s world, and the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. day that will take place tomorrow.  I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast of the Gospel story of Jesus – the Prince of Peace – set over against the seemingly endless stream of stories about people killing other people; set against the backdrop of a national holiday that commemorates the life of a man whose ministry was dedicated to social change through non-violence. 

         In my struggle to bring coherence – or at least to make some sort of sense – to these disparate images, I read an article by the Rev. Timothy Merrill, a minister from the United Church of Christ tradition.  I was quite taken by some of what Merrill had to say.  He began by talking about the comparison between mass shootings and the assassination of Dr. King.  He talked about the fact that it has now been almost 50 years since Dr. King’s assassination and that there have been thousands upon thousands of innocent children, women and men killed during that time.  He noted that, even though Dr. King’s assassination deeply affected this country, his was certainly not the first or last assassination we had felt personally.  For example, there was JFK in 1963 and then RFK shortly after Dr. King. 

Merrill said:

America is many things, and much of it good.  No argument there.  But we're not here to discuss America's goodness, but America's illness.  Even to the casual observer, America is a victim of the virus of violence, and America is a patient who can't seem to recover from this dangerous disease.  We are a country that seems to reflect the vision of the ancient prophet Habakukk: (who said) ‘So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth.  For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted’ (1:4).

 

It doesn't help to say that the illness is self-inflicted.  What matters is to decide how we're going treat the disease or learn to live with the virus of violence.

 

 

(The events in every mass shooting remind us that our nation is ill with a sometimes dormant virus).  Granted, we're not always FEELING sick and while violence is going on SOMEWHERE, in the communities where we live, we might be untouched by violence-for now.  …  We're saddened because we can empathize with those who are grieving, and of course (when it hit Lafayette) we [took] up the national debate as to how we [could] treat this virus of violence.

 

(Merrill goes on) But this virus is never really dormant.  While (our) community is at rest, somewhere in our country - in many place(s), in fact - communities are mourning an outbreak of violence.  A child has been hit by a stray bullet, a 7-Eleven clerk has been robbed and murdered for $24 and change …, a teenager has been the bully's victim for too long, an ex-husband murders the ex-wife, the child kills the parent, and so on.  Every week, children are dying in cities across America to accidental shootings, gang-related (violence), or in school yards and classrooms.  …  Don't think we're infected with the virus of violence?  The situation has become so bad, that many schools require students, teachers, … staff and visitors to pass through metal detectors.  Some authorities advocate arming teachers so they can fight violence with violence.  These same folks suggest creating textbooks with Kevlar covers so that students can use (them) as shields when the bullets start flying. ….

 

Can we with integrity say that this will change?  Can we preach that the Peaceful Kingdom is coming if we will but treat the mentally ill better, tighten up (reasonable) gun control measures …, try to do a better job in getting young people into a religious culture that effectively teaches the values of love and respect?  Can we really preach the vision of Isaiah that someday the wolf and the lamb will lie down together?

 

Rev. Merrill suggests that the answer to that question is “no.”  Only God can usher in the time of the Peaceable Kingdom that the prophet Isaiah talks about.

Perhaps (he says) that's why MLK said that we must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.

 

         Rev. Merrill wrote that article back in 2011, when the country was mourning the shooting in Tucson, Arizona, in which Representative Gabby Giffords was dealt a wound from which she still not recovered completely.  Since then we have seen so much wanton violence in the name of nothing.  Even we in the loving community of Lafayette, have seen such senseless violence up close.  The number of incidents and the number of deceased just keeps rising to the point where we can no longer keep accurate count.  And still the virus of violence goes on, unchecked.  How then, do we deal with this problem?

Christians are people who are called to advocate for change.  So (Rev. Merrill suggests) if you can help educational and government(al) and institutional agencies do a better job treating the mentally ill, do it.  If you can lobby for gun control measures that (make sense), do it.  If you can use your voice to help soften the rhetoric and encourage civil discourse, do it.  

 

[We are to do the best we can do to make the world a more peaceable place.]  The (prophet Isaiah) says: ‘Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause’ (Isaiah 1:17).  (Dr. King) said: ‘If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music.  (You) should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street-sweeper who did his job well.’  …  (The German writer and martyr, Deitrich) Bonhoeffer is often quoted (in saying that) we must bind the wounds of those the wheel has crushed, but we must also stop the wheel.  If you can in any way be a wheel-stopper, be a wheel-stopper.

 

That (means), ….  Embrace peace as a life-style choice.  Never lift your voice or your hand against another living creature.  The apostle Paul, writing to the Romans, urges, ‘If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all.’ (12:18)  ‘A soft answer turns away wrath,’ so goes an ancient Hebrew proverb, ‘but a harsh word stirs up anger’ (Proverbs 15:1).  As MLK once said, ‘Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon.  It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.  It is a sword that heals.’

 

         In this day and age of the virus of violence, we Christians are called, more than ever, to live a Christ-like life.  In other words, to live our lives as Jesus lived, truly and completely loving our neighbor in the exact same way that we love ourselves and our families.  Dr. King famously said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars...  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”  It seems to me that Dr. King was calling for something that was even more radical than loving our neighbors as ourselves.  He seems instead to have been calling for the completely radical idea of loving our enemies.  Dr. King wanted us to follow Jesus’ call for agape love.  Agape is pure love.  Love without a motive.  Loving someone simply because God loves them.

Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess.  It (is selfless love that) begins by loving others for their sakes.  Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both.

 

         So if we love others with true agape … if we can really put aside our dislike (if not hatred) for those whom we hold as enemies, and truly show them the love of Christ – the love that says, “I only want the best for you,” will we solve the problem of violence?

[Merrill says] Sadly no.  But these actions will make a difference where we live.  They will bring healing where it’s possible to bring healing.  [And] It’s our only option.  

 

Again, listen to Dr. King’s words, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars...  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

         We have a new year here.  Let’s try radical, agape in 2017.  Let’s see if we can begin to bring healing to our corner of the world.  As Dr. King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”  God bless the soul of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Amen.

Christmas Sermon Late Svc, Fr. John Bedingfield, Dec. 24th

December 26, 2016
00:0000:00

In the name of the Incarnate God, Amen.

Every year is the same. Stores and television start cranking up the Christmas machine right around Halloween. And every year, we complain about the commercialization of our Christmas. But then comes Thanksgiving – and “Black Friday,” “Cyber-Monday,” and all of the other contrived sales days – and we capitulate, to one degree or another, with the commercialization. And quite frankly, the Church does not help us out much either. Because for the month of December, all around us the culture is saying, “It is Christmas time! Immerse yourself in familiar carols and Christmas parties.” Meanwhile the Church is saying, “Not yet. Wait. Christmas starts on the evening of the 24th.” It is no wonder that by the time this night rolls around, we are wearied, stressed out, and perhaps (as is so aptly put in Yiddish) verschimmelt, meaning that our nerves are shot. But … you know what? One of the miracles of Christmas is that we may feel all of those things, but when we come into this beautifully decorated holy space, and surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do, and we start singing those old familiar songs, and participating in that familiar liturgy, then everything melts away and it is Christmas again. The real Christmas, not the one made up by advertising people.

On this night, we celebrate the arrival into the world of God as a human infant. Christmas is our yearly retelling of the story of Joseph, a righteous and courageous carpenter from the village of Nazareth, who brought his pregnant fiancé, Mary with him as he answered the call of the Roman government to be enrolled in a census – so that Rome would not miss an opportunity to tax everyone. This is the story of a young couple who had never been intimate with each other and yet were about to bring a baby into the world – the baby that an angel had explained to each of them would be the Son of God, or Emmanuel (God with us). Every year we get to hear about how there was no room for the Holy Family in regular living quarters, and about how they bedded down with farm animals – so that the future King of Kings and Lord of Lords would have the humblest of all possible beginnings. And we remember the story of our Lord’s first visitors – shepherds, the lowest rung on the social ladder, those who spent their lives surrounded by animals rather than people, but who came and found Jesus in a manger – and they worshipped Him.

This is the story we hear every year at this time. And for most of us it is a story of great comfort, joy and gladness. But this story is not without its demands either. By virtue of the fact that we say we believe that these events happened over two thousand year ago; and because we say that we believe Jesus actually was (and is) God in human form; we therefore must act as if we believe these things to be true. The great German theologian and reformer, Martin Luther, put it this way:

"If it is true that God Almighty, the One who hung the stars and set the planets in their courses, has indeed come among us, Emmanuel, well, then that requires us not only to rethink our situation but also to live in a very different world. When you have previously believed that God is distant, high and lifted up, not close and caring, and then when you get news that suggests otherwise, well, it is difficult to live as you have lived the day before you got the news."

Or stated a slightly different way, Christmas is the day of the Church’s (and our) great joy. Because on this day we celebrate the fact that where once there was a God who was far off and very removed from us – a God who was most renowned for vengeance and invoking fear in people; that God, has now – through unmitigated grace – reached down to us. Through the Incarnation we have (or at least should have) discovered that God is first and foremost a gracious lover of all human beings. God became one of us as the utmost gift of grace – love in the human face of God.

I recently read a story by an young mother that I would like to share with you:

[Each December, I vowed to make Christmas a calm and peaceful experience. I had cut back on nonessential obligations - extensive card writing, endless baking, decorating, and even overspending. Yet I still found myself exhausted, unable to appreciate the precious family moments, and the true meaning of Christmas. 

My son, Nicholas, was in kindergarten that year. It was an exciting season for a six-year-old. For weeks, he’d been memorizing songs for his school’s “Winter Pageant.” I didn't have the heart to tell him I’d be working the night of the production. 

Unwilling to miss his shining moment, I spoke with his teacher. She told me there’d be a dress rehearsal the morning of the presentation. All parents unable to attend that evening were welcome to come then. Fortunately, Nicholas seemed happy with the compromise. 

So, the morning of the dress rehearsal, I filed in early, found a spot on the cafeteria floor and sat down. Around the room, I saw several other parents also quietly finding their seats. 

Then the students were led into the room. Each class, accompanied by their teacher, sat cross-legged on the floor. Then, each group, one by one, rose to perform their song. 

Because this was a public school, I didn't expect anything other than fun, commercial entertainment; songs of reindeer, Santa Claus, snowflakes and good cheer. So, when my son’s class rose to sing, “Christmas Love,” I was a little taken aback by its bold title. 

Nicholas was beaming, as were all of his classmates, adorned in fuzzy mittens, red sweaters, and bright knitted caps upon their heads. Those in the front row- center stage - held up large letters, one by one, to spell out the title of the song. 

As the class sang “C is for Christmas,” a child held up the letter C. Then, “H is for Happy,” and so on, until each child held up his or her letter and they presented the complete message, “Christmas Love.” At least that was the plan.

The performance went smoothly, until we noticed a small, quiet, girl in the front row holding the letter “M” upside down. The audience of 1st through 6th graders snickered at this little girl’s mistake. But she had no idea they were laughing at her, so she stood tall, proudly holding her “W”. 

Although the teachers tried to shush the children, the laughter continued until the last letter was raised, and we all saw it together. A hush came over the audience. In that instant, we understood the reason we were there, why we celebrated the holiday in the first place, why even in the chaos, there was a  purpose for our festivities. For when the last letter was held high, the message read loud and clear: 

CHRIST WAS LOVE.  And He still is, today.

At Christmas, we give gifts to one another because God gave us the gracious gift of love. It is very hard for a person not to be transformed in some way when he or she really listens to the Nativity story. When we finally let it sink in that God became human in order to bring us the up-close-and-personal gift of God’s love for us – when we finally internalize the message of the depth of God’s care for us, we cannot continue to live the life that we lived before we heard the Good News.

Someone whose pseudonym was Wilda English, but whose identity I could not find, wrote what I will leave you with tonight.
God grant you the light in Christmas, which is faith;
the warmth of Christmas, which is love;
the radiance of Christmas, which is purity;
the righteousness of Christmas, which is justice;
the belief in Christmas, which is truth;
the all of Christmas, which is Christ.

God bless you all. And Merry Christmas.

Christmas Eve Early Service, Mthr. Mitzi George, Dec. 24th

December 24, 2016
00:0000:00

This morning as I was having my coffee, I sat down and checked in on one of the two online groups to which I belong. The first post I read this morning was from a young woman who was newly ordained to the priesthood and was obviously nervous about her first Xmas Eve service. She was asking if it was normal to be nervous, and wondering what she might say that would impress her new congregation.

 I shook my head and reminisced about similar feelings long ago; and realized I still get nervous every time I preach. It's a daunting feeling to have this responsibility, not just the first time but every time I preach. Considering the post I also thought to myself, there isn't really anything you can say that hasn't been said hundreds of thousands of times, so keep it simple.

 In reality, the Xmas story itself is the most amazing story ever written, and it's the most incredible message ever given. God loves the human race so much, that God becomes flesh and dwells with us, as one of us!

 But the story itself is a remarkable statement about the God in whom we believe. Most of us would have written the birth of God's only son with great flair, pomp and circumstance. We would have never in a million years placed the birth of the Savior in a tiny obscure town in a poor forgotten province of the Roman Empire. You nor I would have placed this birth, among the cattle stalls in an unnamed inn, in a town of little or no significance.

 In our book, God's son would have been born in a fine marble palace with attendants and great fan fair. This birth would have been surrounded with wealth, power, and all the majesty befitting a king.

 The truth about this amazing story is that as inconspicuous and simple as this birth narrative is, and as simple and insignificant as Jesus was at birth and throughout life, you and I are here this evening celebrating the event of his birth! Over two thousand years have passed since this event took place and you and I are here to celebrate it, just as Xians have celebrated it for thousands of years now. That is the real Xmas miracle.

 Jesus was born to simple Jewish parents, a carpenter father and a young mother. People who lived under the occupation of the Roman Empire, in an enslaved nation that longed for a king to free them from their oppression.

 Jesus was born unexpectedly during a trip to register for a census. And because the town was so full of travelers who came for the same reason, there were no rooms to rent. First time parents finding themselves in a difficult situation, settling on the only space left, a cattle stall. And it was there that Mary gave birth.

 I imagine Mary and Joseph couldn't have been more nervous or shaken. Their baby was coming and there was nothing they could do. There in a make shift bed, made of straw, Mary gave birth, to the King of Kings. But no one noticed, there were no kings present, there weren't any dignitaries, or attendants, just two nervous parents and the cattle that shared the space.

 The first Xmas story was simple, those involved were simple too. But somehow this child born among the cattle becomes the greatest gift ever given to the world!

 That is the miracle of the Xmas story. You and I should not be sitting here in the United States of America re telling this story and celebrating its advent again! You and I are a part of the Xmas miracle that continuously unfolds with each years passing.

 We like the shepherds in Luke, are given a message, a message of love from the God of love. The message is as simple as it can be and yet more important to the human condition than any story ever told.

 The message is this: God chose to become flesh and to dwell with us in the most obscure places, the simplest of circumstances, to show it was possible to live in complete love and devotion to God and to one another. God came among us because more than anything God wants to reveal to us how deeply we are loved. God became one of us to show us the way to peace and salvation. God came to bring perfect love into being.

 The human race has always had a difficult time believing that God could or would love us. We are too familiar with our own short comings and sins to believe it would be possible for God to love us. That is why the story is so profoundly important to all of us.

 Jesus came to a simple place, a place of obscurity, to very humble people. He grew into a man that showed great love and compassion to those others had forgotten and abandoned, to those deemed unclean, unworthy, and unfit. Jesus offered God's grace and love to all who would listen, to all who were in need of salvation. Jesus came from obscurity and walked in relative obscurity all his life. And here we are, celebrating his birth. We don't celebrate Caesars birth, or Herod, or any other noble birth. We celebrate the birth of Jesus.

 The story of Christmas is lived out over and over again. Every time a friend or family member returns home, every time a loved one is reconciled, ever time a baby is born and a family is filled with hope, and every time we offer forgiveness and the gift of love to another. Because the Xmas story is a story of hope, forgiveness, and love.

 So, tonight, or in the morning when you gather around that Christmas tree under which are probably too many glistening presents do this one simple act before ripping into them. Take a moment with your family and look at all the gifts under that tree and remember that each one of those gifts is a symbol of the real gift of Xmas. Each unwrapped gift represents the hope God shares with us, each gift represents the love Christ brings to us, and each gift represents the giving and sharing of ourselves so that the love of Christ might fill our hearts with joy. I hope you have a very grace filled Xmas, and may God be with you always.

 Amen.

Extraordinary Presence, Mthr. Mitzi George, December 18th

December 18, 2016
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Studying today’s Gospel, I found myself pondering the intimate details Matthew feels compelled to share. Matthew seems to bring us face to face with how extraordinary the birth of Jesus was, how extraordinary circumstances bring about human compassion and simple acts of love that result in the messiah being revealed to the world.

The story we hear today, is one we have all heard. We have heard it because we all know someone who has been in the same situation in which Joseph and Mary find themselves. I think of this story as extraordinary not because it is beyond belief, but because it is so very and extremely ordinary in many ways. It is extra ordinary and yet filled with that grace and compassion that flows through the hearts and souls of men and women when faced with extenuating circumstances.

The author of this gospel seems to think it is important for us to know the extremely intimate and ordinary circumstances that surround the birth of the Messiah. Mary is a young woman who was engaged to marry Joseph. She was probably 12 or 13 years of age. This marriage was undoubtedly an arranged marriage. Mary would have been promised to Joseph long before she even understood what was meant by the term marriage, perhaps even as an infant. Joseph may have been a young boy. We really do not know, except that we have some understanding about the cultural practices of the period. We know that most marriage agreements were arranged between parents, more specifically between fathers when their children were either infants or very young. We know that many times those promised in marriage would not even know one another until the marriage transpired. Often the terms of the marriage had more to do with alliances or financial considerations and almost nothing to do with love. Marriage was a contract between families, not a result of two people falling in love.

I have known two women in my lifetime that were married in the same way. One of them was my husband’s grandmother Jamillie Khoury who was from Lebanon. Just at the turn of the twentieth century at the age of twelve, Jamillie was told by Sara her mother that they were going to pack up her things and take a boat to America to meet the man she would wed. Jamillie would tell us later in life that she was playing with her dolls, when her mother took her by the hand and said, “Come Jamillie, we are going to America to meet Charlie, your husband”. Sara brought Jamillie to the US to meet a man she had never seen. The marriage was arranged when Jamillie was an infant, and twelve years later, sight unseen, Jamillie was being uprooted and taken to America to marry. This was certainly the situation between Joseph and Mary. The two of them either didn’t know one another or barely knew one another but were brought together because of an agreement made years earlier by their parents. They were expected to marry, but there circumstances in which either party could back out of the deal.

Matthew tells us that, before the wedding celebration can take place, Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant. Not only is she pregnant, but the baby is not his. At this point Joseph had a moral dilemma. There are three decisions Joseph could make in this situation. Joseph can call off the wedding publically; but he knows if he does Mary might be stoned to death. Another option would be to send her away quietly, probably to a relative who lived far away, so she could have her child and Joseph would be free to take another bride. With this option, Mary would probably never wed; as she would have been a disgraced woman. This brings us to Joseph’s third and final option. His third option is to marry her, allow her to have the child and accept her and the child as his own. Which he does. This short scene in scripture speaks volumes about Joseph, and it is a good thing because we have very few references about Joseph in the gospels. The option he chooses however, gives us some insight into just what kind of person Joseph is.

This passage tells us a lot about Joseph. The author tells us Joseph did not want to bring public disgrace to Mary; so we know Joseph is a kind and compassionate man. The scripture also tells us he had a dream in which an angel appeared to him and spoke to him about Mary and her baby. Obviously, Joseph was a faithful man believing in and practicing his faith, because he interpreted the dream as a genuine message from God and took that message to heart. I would have to say, Joseph is quite a catch! He is kind, compassionate, and faithful, not quick to judge, but discerning and thoughtful. That is an impressive list of qualities for any spouse.

The scripture also tells us he is courageous and self-confident because he agrees to name the baby Jesus. I know that does not seem like a courageous act to you. Unless you are from one of those southern families that has to use the wife’s maiden name as a middle name and you do not follow tradition. However, in the first century Jewish culture a new born baby, especially your first born son, was always named after a significant relative, so to name Jesus a name that was not a part of Joseph’s historical lineage was scandalous and shocking. Yep, Joseph had to be one tough cookie to take that kind of heat.

This kind of man would be father to the messiah. Joseph was the man who guided and taught Jesus what it meant to be a man, to be human. I think that is an important point as we consider just who Jesus was at birth and who he became as the messiah. We too often assume Jesus was born with all the “good stuff” already infused in his DNA, unlike the rest of us who were born, just human. We all know that we have had to learn and struggle to become the people we are today. Somehow, we think of Jesus as having been born fully developed with all knowledge and wisdom. That way of thinking however, devalues the very point of his coming among us as one of us! Jesus has to be fully human in order for our theology to work.

Our entire theology is in error if we do not fully embrace Jesus was born a real human being. If Jesus was fully human then he had to learn, struggle, and grow into his adulthood, he had to learn, struggle, and grow into his faith, he had to learn, struggle, and grow into the man he became; Emmanuel.

You see: if Jesus was not fully human; then you and I can never do or be what Jesus said we could. If Jesus was not fully human then the whole message of the gospels is of no use. God did not need to become one of us, to show us the way, if we (you and I) are not fully capable of becoming the kind of person Jesus was. What good is it for Jesus to show us the way, for us to know the way, if we can never hope to live into the way? Our whole belief system is all a lie if Jesus was not fully human and if he never needed Joseph, or Mary, or any of the other significant adults who guided him and taught him to be a faith filled, compassionate man. Joseph was a significant teacher and parent in Jesus’ life; and that is why when the time came Jesus was ready to become the Messiah, Emmanuel, God with us.

Friday afternoon, I had the daunting pleasure to meet another Emmanuel. Ann Snyder, Jo Doucet, and I travelled with Hospice of Acadiana to Angola. We went to visit with and spend some time with the inmates who work the hospice program at Angola. The program there is second-to-none, world renowned as one of the best prison programs anywhere. The approximately one hundred inmates chosen to work the program are all lifers; men who will never be paroled, and who will probably never leave Angola Penitentiary. Now, I know these are all men who have done bad things. That is why they are there. They were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Emmanuel is one of the patience on the hospice unit, he too is a lifer. He is a large man, a man who has been in Angola more than twenty years. Emmanuel has been in the hospice unit for a year now, and by observation, he will probably not be there a whole lot longer. As I walked in his cell, he was watching TV or at least flipping through the channels. He said he was looking for the show Wild Alaska because he likes to watch all the animals running free. Emmanuel had worked his way up to the Dog camp where they raise and train the dogs used there at the prison. With a twinkle in his eye he talked about the wolves, the dogs they bred with the wolves to create a bigger more aggressive dog, the Blood Hounds, the shepherds; he also spoke of living at the dog camp, “Get to live in a house” he said, “Just like a real person.” The most joy came over his face when he talked about training the puppies, especially the Blood Hounds. He loved running with them out in the fields, just running until he got tired, that is how he would train them to give chase and track prisoners. For Emmanuel all of this play, life at the dog camp was just an opportunity to feel normal, to feel human, to feel free.

I could not help but think about the gospel passage this week when I met him. His name certainly brought it to mind, Emmanuel, but also the deep longing and desire to be free, the joy in his eyes and smile when he spoke of the dogs and animals he saw on the TV. It gave me just a little glimpse of who this Emmanuel was, and is. It helped me to see a small glimpse of who Emmanuel was and I wondered what life events caused this lover of animals to end up in an Angola cell waiting to die.

Then there was Demetrius. I sat next to him on a pew as we participated in a Hospice in-service. We sang together and laughed about how neither of us could carry a tune, but we sang anyway. He shared with me how important his hospice work was and how he had come to really know and believe in Jesus Christ. He is a senior at the Bible College there on the Angola grounds, a college started by Billy Graham. He talked about sitting with inmates as they died, doing vigil by their bed so they would not die alone, and he spoke about wanting them to know there was someone who cared, someone who loved and respected them as children of God, someone who understood redemption and how important it was to be set free. Demetrius said, “I have a ministry of presence here. I can’t really change anything, all I can do is be there and let them know that I care.”

That is the message of Emmanuel. God with us. Jesus came to be present, to show us that we could be set free from all the things that bind us here on this earth, free us from all the things that keep us in turmoil, and fill us with fear. Jesus didn’t come to zap us into something different, he came to be present with us as we grow and struggle to become what God has already created us to be, children of God.

Emmanuel, a ministry of presence for all of humanity, even those we have locked away and forgotten. God is with us and we are here to fulfill a ministry of presence to all of those we meet whether poor or rich, weak or strong, free or enslaved. It is an extraordinary reality that you and I should be called upon to be instruments of God’s grace and presence, but we have. Like Joseph and Mary, we have been drawn into the continued story of God’s revelation, the revelation of God’s self to the world. Now let’s get to work and prepare ourselves to receive Christ in our hearts that we might truly reveal the presence of Christ in this world.

Amen.

Wait For the One, Fr. John Bedingfield, December 11th

December 11, 2016
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In the name of the God whose Incarnation we await, Amen.

         Here we are in this third week of Advent and we have talked quite a bit about waiting – waiting on: the coming of the baby Jesus; the coming of the Incarnation of God; and the coming again of Christ, to raise the dead, to judge the world, and to usher in the new heaven and the new earth.  And all the while, many of us act as if we are simply waiting on Santa Claus.

         I don’t know about you, but in my life there seems to be a great deal of waiting.  And since the advent of the internet – and especially since we all got smart phones – our tolerance for waiting seems to be decreasing rapidly. 

         When I was a kid, my Mom would take me with her when she went down to the local Sears Catalogue Center.  If you are not familiar with it, the Catalogue Center was not a Sears store.  There was no merchandise for sale there.  Instead, it was a place with a long counter, on which sat Sears catalogues and behind which there were a lot of boxes.  Truth be told, it looked a lot like a Post Office.  But we did not have a Sears store in Garland Texas in the mid-sixties, so we had to use the Catalogue Center, where Mom would fill out an order form for whatever it was that she wanted to buy and couldn’t find locally.  This process was to keep her from having to drive all the way into Dallas to shop at Sears.  So … she would fill out all of the paperwork and then the company would put in the order.  Then we would wait for the order to come in.  Sometimes that took two weeks, sometimes longer.  And we waited.  Finally, the product would come in and they would call us.  Then she would drive back to the Catalogue Center and pick up her package. 

         Now we have amazon.com.  What do you want or need?  They probably have it.  Where do you live?  It doesn’t matter.  Do you want your purchase tomorrow?  Pay more money and it will be there.  No waiting.  Whatever you expect to get will be here by the time you blink your eyes.

         And when those of my generation were young, if we needed the answer to a question, we had to wait for someone to take us to the public library – or perhaps to a relative’s house (someone who had a set of encyclopedias) so that we could look up the information we needed.  We had to wait a while to find out our answer.  Now?  Everybody’s phone has access to almost all of the information known to human beings … instantly.  As a short, cautionary aside, remember that just because the internet contains all of human learning, does not mean that everything you read on the internet is true.  But I digress.

         Today, if for some odd reason we do have to wait for any period of time (for example, at the doctor’s office) we take great offense.  We are now so accustomed to having what we want, when we want it, that we can even take offense at having to sit through a stop light.  And on that issue, I speak as one with authority.

         John the Baptist told his disciples to go and ask Jesus,

‘Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?’  Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’

         That is an interesting way for Jesus to end his message to John’s disciples.  “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  You see, Jesus understood that John was asking this question because he, John, was in prison as a result of his preaching repentance and preparation for the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah.  Even as great as John’s faith was, he might have begun to question Jesus as he sat alone in a dungeon, awaiting his own execution. 

         John’s question, “Are you the one, or should I wait for someone else?” is a question for many of us today, at least obliquely.  After all, if that God – as seen in the human face of Jesus – is the One, why are we still waiting for the perfection of the world?  Why does God allow people to suffer?  Why hasn’t God answered my individual prayer for my situation to improve?  If I tithe to the church, why am I not seeing riches pour into my lap?  Why doesn’t God do something about all of the lost jobs in Acadiana, following the oil bust?  Why doesn’t God fill in the hole in next year’s church budget?  Or whatever question burns most in your mind and heart.

         It is important for us to remember, as we ask those questions, that John the Baptist, who was God’s chosen messenger to ready the people for Jesus’ arrival – that John, was in prison when he asked his question.  The subtext of his question to Jesus was, “Why don’t you get me out of here, so that I can go on with my work?”  But John had to sit and wait.

         Jesus’ odd message about people being blessed for not taking offense at him, follows His list of some of His amazing achievements.  He in essence said, “Tell John that I am healing people of horrible illnesses and changing people’s lives in many ways.  And it would be better if he gave thanks for all that I have done, rather than complaining about what I have not done.”  One modern commentator said, “‘It is always the miracles that Jesus does not perform for us that easily form a stumbling block for faith.’  (But) Jesus blesses us when we remain faithful in the face of prayers that seem not to be answered or hopes that go unfulfilled.”

         Just like John the Baptist, we may be called at the moment to wait.  Maybe it is not yet our turn.  Maybe there is still something that we should be learning from our situations.  I do not know why God has not answered each and every prayer for help that has been earnestly offered by each individual in this congregation.  But I do know that God is answering prayers.  God is active in the world.  Jesus Christ is: giving the blind their sight; the lame their mobility; and the deaf their hearing.  In addition, thanks to St. Barnabas and other places like it, those who are spiritually dead are being raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And Jesus says, blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. 

         The Rev. Dr. Will Willimon, wrote this story a few years ago, in explanation of Jesus’ response to John the Baptist.

Our long Advent wait for Jesus was finally over.  We gathered in our church on Christmas Eve to joyously welcome Jesus.  A great crowd gathered, far more people than we normally have.

But we waited and waited and no Jesus showed up.

On Monday, at our church's soup kitchen, all of the homeless people were atwitter.  Everybody was talking about the same thing.

‘What did you think of him?’ one of them asked another.

‘He wasn't as tall as I thought he might be,’ ....  ‘And he had a great sense of humor.  I hadn't expected that in him.’

On and on they talked, sharing impressions, discussing what they had heard from him.

‘Who are you talking about?’ I asked. ‘Who was it who visited with you out under the underpass yesterday?’

‘Why, Jesus,’ they all responded with one voice.  ‘If you hadn't been at church, you would have seen him there with us.  He's got this thing for the maimed, the blind, and the lame.’

And I was … offended.

         So, while we wait for our individual miracles – while we wait for our personal healing, or to receive the relief that we need for our problems – we are being called to tell out everything that Jesus has done … and to not take offense that He has not done everything we think He ought to, when we think we ought to do it.  Wait on Jesus – and since you will have some time, go out and tell the world about the One you are waiting for.  Amen.

Advent Can Be Relevant — Mthr. Mitzi George, December 4th

December 6, 2016
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The Gospel readings for Advent seem rather disjointed in relationship to our present culture. We are sitting here this morning twenty-one days before Christmas. Some of us have not even begun to decorate for the season, or shop for gifts. Others have had the halls decked out for Christmas from the moment the turkey was cleared from the Thanksgiving table. Many are already booked solid for the weeks to come with one Christmas party to the next. The truth is Advent has become insignificant in our lives, unless you are a member of the altar guild or choir. Advent, why bother!

The lectionary observes Advent with the same zeal for the season it has observed since the sixth century. But we do not really want to hear the readings of Advent, they can bring us down and we do not want to be down when Christmas Carols are playing 24/7. For example, it seems a little odd and kind of a “Debbie Downer” thing, that we come together this morning to hear Matthew’s gospel exclaim the arrival of John the Baptist. What does this gospel have to do with Advent? What does it have to do with Christmas in light of where we are in time and space?  Is this gospel even relevant for those of us living in the mainstream of Lafayette, LA in 2016?

John’s story is of course important to Christian tradition. The Jewish scriptures predicted the coming of the next King of Israel and were clear that there would be another coming to prepare the way of this great Messiah. This precursor was to warn the people that the time was coming; so, for traditions sake, we remember the story of John the Baptist. But other than tradition, does the story hold any real significance for us today?

How do we glean anything meaningful from this gospel passage, or from any of the readings we share today? You see; if scriptures have become simply a way to remember the events, and those events have lost their relevance; then you and I do not really need to be here. We do not need to continue to gather here, or spend money to keep this place open, or do any of the things we do here or out in the world, as a result, of being here. We can just stay home, go play a round of golf, take a yoga class, sleep-in, any number of other things that might enrich our lives in a meaningful way. If scriptures are irrelevant to us today, then we need to stop reading them, listening to them, or trying to understand them. After all, Christmas in 2016 does not have anything to do with the scriptures. Christmas is no longer about the coming of Christ as much as it is about the coming of Santa or a time to be jolly and make merry.

But what if the gospel today is still relevant? What if there are lessons in the readings to which we still need to pay attention? Perhaps heeding these stories with new hearing, with a new interpretation, with new attentiveness will bring us to a place of greater understanding. Maybe if we examine these scriptures with a new focus they will become relevant again!

Let us look at John’s story in a few contexts that may add meaning to the story for us this morning. First, consider the context of John’s job description. John is a prophet. Now for those of the first century that did not equate to a fortune-teller. A prophet was someone who interpreted the past in relationship to the present. or in other words, they studied the history of the people to whom they were sent, and given past behaviors and present conditions gave warnings of what might be happening at that moment. John was not like Nostradamus, we like to think of prophets as people who can predict the future or psychics. John was a good old-fashioned prophet who could see the present situation and determine outcome. There were some unique characteristics, about John, that are important for sure.

Let us consider the context of location, next. Location is important in John’s story. John is preaching, teaching, and baptizing out in the wilderness. He is not in town. He is not in the city, or a village, or even in the farming community. John is in the wilderness. That means those going out to hear him are taking time out of their lives to travel some distance just to see and hear what he is saying. They are leaving their homes, jobs, families, and their communities to go into an area described as wilderness. Because John is doing something so significant that the word is spreading throughout the region about him, people are making significant effort to go out to see him.

John does not look like the typical religious teacher either. He is unshaven, ragged, wild looking. He is not the refined rabbi people were used to hearing. However, there is something about him that draws people out of their ordinary routines and persuades them to go out to the wilderness to hear him; and on top of that what he says to them is so compelling that they leave the wilderness soaking wet after being Baptized in the river. Hundreds of people profoundly affected by what they hear and are persuaded to be baptized by John. What he says changes their lives at that very moment, a result of a single encounter. Even the leaders of the Pharisees feel compelled by John’s message of repentance.  They too want to be baptized in the Jordan.

John’s message is another context we need to examine. It was not any easy message to hear. Repentance was not simply an experience of feeling sorry or bad about something you did. Repentance was an actual change in the direction of one’s life and focus. Repenting was not just a matter of feeling bad about some action or behavior. Repenting was making the choice to alter the life style, the whole way of living. Repenting was turning one’s life in the direction God wanted them to go, literally. John reminds us that repentance is involved in preparing ourselves for the Christ.

How does that work for us today? The way we celebrate the holidays now, we may need to repent! Now there is a scary thought! Talk about a party pooper! John is certainly not the life of the party. Most of us would not dare invite him to our home, let alone a Christmas party. John and messengers like him are the type of holiday guests that make us wonder either “what in the world is wrong with him?” or “what in the world is wrong with us?” Most of often we wonder what is wrong with him because we do not care to consider what may be wrong with us.

Seriously though, what if we are the people who have become cold and hardened in our faith because we have allowed the secular concept of the holidays to suffocate genuine piety and deep reflection on the meaning of Christ’s arrival into our world? What if we are the ones who pay more attention to decorating the trees in our living rooms rather than cultivating the living trees of faith that are supposed to produce true fruits of repentance, of which John speaks? During our Advent, do garland and shiny ornaments overshadow the Fruit of the Spirit? Are we more interested in the lovely gilded angel on top of our Christmas tree rather than living angels or prophets who may be calling us to repentance?

The purpose of repentance is to remind  us that change is necessary  not for the sake of change but because we’ve become aware that our actions are out of step with God’s deep desire for harmony, balance, and equity for all of God’s people and for the whole of God’s creation. Repentance, in short, is realizing that God is pointing us one way, but we’ve been traveling another way. Repentance allows us to change the course. Now that is a message that is still relevant, isn’t it?

Repentance can seem daunting. I mean, there are so many things I could repent of, we as a community and nation could repent of many things, even we as a species could and should repent for multiple injustices. Pollution and climate change. Poverty and food scarcity. Racial injustice. The lack of clean water. Overflowing prisons. The number of children living below the poverty level. Crime and violence, and the list goes on. No wonder we would rather give up on the whole repentance thing, hunker down with our current and comfortable friends and biases, and get back to watching our favorite television series on Netflix or HBO.

So do we dare to consider what our lives and community would look like if we truthfully considered repentance this Advent season? How do we do that so that it is meaningful and specific, so that our repentance actually leads us to move in a new direction rather than giving up.?

Let me ask you for just a moment to shut your eyes. Go ahead, just relax. Now with your eyes closed imagine what vision God has for you. Take a little daydream about what and where God wants for you, what God wants for the community of St. Barnabas. What are the things God would have us do and where would God have us go? What would our lives together look like if we were to walk into this new vision? God invites us to dream something beyond what we can presently see. In some ways, that is exactly what the Isaiah passage chosen for this Sunday is – God’s dream about a different world where there are no predators or prey, no fear or hatred. It is not a goal to be achieved, but a dream by which to set our course.

Now, with eyes closed; choose one, just one element in your life that you would like to repent – that is, change the direction – and name this Advent as a time to do that. Is there an unhealthy relationship you want to repair? Can you imagine using your time differently, for a better means? Is there some practice or habit you might take up that would produce a more abundant life for you or those around you?

 

And lastly, can you identify one element of our communal lives that needs repentance? Picture it in your mind. Can you think about how you can contribute to that. Can you spend time volunteering or assisting in a ministry here at St. Barnabas? Can you make an additional donation? Can you get to know someone who is different from you ethnically, politically, or generationally and try to build a more vibrant community this way? Can you identify one communal issue and begin praying for it daily, open yourself to how God might direct your time and actions to changing that issue?

The point of Advent is to make room for Christ’s arrival, to be surprised again that God was willing to enter into our lives and history and take on our vulnerability in order to give us hope. Most think God is sitting up in heaven either smiling or frowning down at us depending on our behavior. But the God we know does not do that. The God we know comes down from heaven to take on our humanity and our life and give us hope by being with us and being one of us. Jesus did not come down screaming repentance but inviting us to eternal life and helping us to see our neighbors, not as competitors for scarce resources, but as brothers and sisters in Christ. If Advent is a time to slow down, it is so we can have that time to prepare for Christ among us.

Which means the holidays can be a time, should be a time in which we are encouraged to take action and step toward God’s dream for our lives and our communities. If we do this now, Advent itself might become a more meaningful season for us all.

Amen.

Hate is Never Okay, Fr. John Bedingfield, November 30th

November 27, 2016
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         This is the first Sunday of Advent – that season in the Church where we wait for the coming of the baby Jesus and the Second Coming of Jesus the Christ.  During this season we typically examine who we are and whether or not we are ready for the impending arrival of the Incarnate God.  But the season of Advent should also be about looking at the world around us and attempting to prepare it for the Second Coming as well.

         St. Paul told the Church in Rome:

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. ….[1] 

         In the last few weeks there has been a significant uptick in the number of reported cases of harassment of people, based upon their race, ethnicity, religion or general sense of “otherness”.  I do not know how many reports I have read or heard about in which someone has been accosted or threatened and in which either the words “sieg heil,” the swastika or a combination of the two was involved.

         Clearly these attacks – on both people and places – are meant to evoke fear in the victims.  There is a name for this behavior, it is called terrorism.  These actions are taken by people whose hearts are filled with hate and loathing, in order to frighten their victims into doing something different … whether that be moving to some other place, not voting, or changing the way they look or talk.  That is the definition of terrorism.  What is being done in this country today is absolutely no different than the burning of a cross in someone’s yard.  It is an overt act of hatred.  And that is never acceptable.

         Recent events have included: swastikas drawn on the dorm room door of Jewish students at the New School in New York City; at Texas State University, in San Marcos, some students advertised to start of vigilante squad whose mission it would be to torture the professors who taught the value of diversity; at a high school in Minnesota, there were racial slurs and threats to people of color, scrawled in a restroom; “Make America white again,” along with a swastika, was spray painted on a baseball dugout in upstate New York; and at an Episcopal Church in Silver Spring, Maryland – a church that had gone through the effort of starting a Spanish-speaking service – had the banner that advertised their multi-lingual service defaced with the words, “Whites only.”  This is only a short list (and not a list of the worst) of what is happening in America today. 

St. Paul continued in his letter to the Romans with:

Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably,

         That is what we Christians are called to do – to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  In other words, to live honorably.  And as we Episcopalians say in our Baptismal Covenant, with God’s help we will: persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, we will repent and return to the Lord; we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; and perhaps most importantly, we will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.  If those things are true; if we at all believe anything that we have pledged to God, there is no place in our faith tradition for anything that even hints at disrespecting any of our neighbors, much less outright hating them.

         The Most Rev. Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, recently said, in response to this spate of hateful violence,

"As Christians, we believe that all humans are created in God’s image and equal before God ….

As a Church, seeking to follow the way of Jesus, who taught us, 'you shall love your neighbor as yourself,' (Mt. 22:39) and to 'do to others as you would have them do to you' (Mt. 7:12), we maintain our longstanding commitment to support and welcome refugees and immigrants, and to stand with those who live in our midst without documentation.  We reaffirm that like all people LGBT persons are entitled to full civil rights and protection under the law. We reaffirm and renew the principles of inclusion and the protection of the civil rights of all persons with disabilities. We commit to the honor and dignity of women and speak out against sexual or gender-based violence.  We express solidarity with and honor the Indigenous Peoples of the world. We affirm the right to freedom of religious expression and vibrant presence of different religious communities, especially our Muslim sisters and brothers. We acknowledge our responsibility in stewardship of creation and all that God has given into our hands. We do so because God is the Creator. We are all God’s children, created equally in God’s image. And if we are God’s children we are all brothers and sisters.

'The Episcopal Church Welcomes You,' is not just a slogan, it’s who we seek to be and the witness we seek to make, following the way of Jesus."

         We may not have any way to effect what is going on in other parts of the country.  We cannot stop people from misbehaving in Texas or in New York, or in Minnesota.  But we can have some influence on what happens in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana.  If we hear about events like this in our community, I call upon you here and now, to step up and speak up.  Let people know that this is not the way we treat other children of the Creator God.  Tell them that terrorism is not the right way to deal with what you perceive as a problem.  And above all, let them know that the Golden Rule is the bare minimum of how we are to treat each other.

         Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.  That is the essence of who we are what we are called to do.  Do not let your political passions or your distaste for another lead you away from this bedrock principle.

         Let me close this sermon with a collect from the Book of Common Prayer. 

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;  unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

[1]  Romans 13:11-14 (NRSV)

Get Over Fear - Follow Jesus, Fr. John Bedingfield, November 13th (Late Publication)

November 22, 2016
00:0000:00

Jesus said that the days were coming when the grand and glorious Temple in Jerusalem – one of the wonders of its day, a magnificent edifice that took over 40 years to construct – would be completely destroyed … not one stone left on top of another.  And when the Disciples asked about when this might happen, Jesus gave them cryptic answers that ended with their own persecution and execution.  Welcome to the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, huh?  Actually, it is.

What we read today is a part of the apocalypse of Luke 21.  Matthew and Mark contain similar apocalyptic writings.  Today, apocalyptic literature is not written for general consumption very often.  But in Jesus’ day, it was quite common.  And the purpose of apocalyptic writing is quite simple: it shows how horrible things may or will get, in order to show the hope of coming out on the other side.  That is what Jesus was doing in this passage.  He was telling the Disciples exactly how horrible it could get, in order to assure them that God would have their backs, and that in the end, all things would be well.

Another part of reading apocalyptic literature is that it can be corrective.  The Letter to the Thessalonians also concerned the coming Day of the Lord (known as the final apocalypse).  You see, some of the people of Thessalonica were using the Apostle Paul’s belief that the Second Coming was imminent to forsake their work and to wait idly for the expected new life.  Thus the writer of the Epistle warns against joining those who were divisive do-nothings while they waited.  But most of all, apocalyptic literature is meant to provide comfort and to ease our fears.

Human beings have tough times.  They always have and they always will.  Times get hard and people worry.  It has always been that way.  Throughout all of human history, there have been great disappointments, huge upsets, and events that have sent people into tailspins of grief and fear.  But Jesus’ message to the Disciples – indeed, Jesus’ message for us – is that God’s got this.  Jesus KNEW, and wanted us to understand, that no matter how things go in our lives, no matter what kind of difficulties we may encounter, the God of all creation is still in charge.  And as long as we remember the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we should always have hope.

It seems to me that fear, more than any other single factor, holds us back from living the life that Jesus calls us to.  All sorts of things can cause us to fear.  We worry about not measuring up to someone else’s standard of what we should be.  If we do nothing, we cannot fail, thereby disappointing someone whose opinion matters to us.  So, we do nothing.  We fear that we will lose those things that we have worked so hard to achieve.  And so we hold on as tightly as we can – never sharing what we have for others because scarcity is surely right around the corner.  We fear looking foolish to others – so much so that we will do or say anything to raise our stature in others’ eyes.  So, we lie (or at least fudge a little bit) when we talk to people.  And there are those times where the world around us scares us.  We see events unfolding around us that make us uneasy, fearful and depressed.  So, sometimes we act out to try to share our deep fear and frustration with others.  But Jesus tells us not to be afraid.  If we but trust in God, all will ultimately be well.

Elie Wiesel, the Jewish author and Holocaust survivor, tells a story of two little boys whose mother asked them to chase a chicken snake out of the family’s henhouse.

They looked everywhere for that snake, but couldn’t find it.  The more they looked, the more afraid they got.  Finally, they climbed up slowly and stood on their tiptoes to look on the top nesting shelf ... and came nose to nose with the snake.

They fell all over themselves and each other, running out of the henhouse.

“Don’t you know a chicken snake won’t hurt you?” their mama asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” one of the boys answered, “but there are some things that will scare you so bad you’ll hurt yourself!”

I completely understand that story.  I am really, really afraid of getting shocked by electricity.  I detest that feeling more than I detest having my teeth drilled – and that’s saying something.  I was told one time that my fear of electricity would ultimately hurt me.  And I have hurt myself, quite a few times, by jerking away so fast that I rammed my elbow into whatever was nearby.  Fear can cause us to do all sorts of harm to ourselves and others.

When we allow fear deep into our lives, it can change how we see everything around us.  It can make us suspicious of people who are not really a threat to us.  It can make us hear other people with such a predisposition that, even when someone says something that is not confrontational, we are ready to fight.  Fear can make us doubt the motives of others to such an extent that they can never do anything “right” in our eyes.  We can see people through such prejudiced eyes that if we were to find out they had cured cancer, we would complain that they were adversely affecting our doctor friends.  Fear is a powerful negative motivator – and other than the “fight or flight” response (the one that kept our ancestors from being eaten by wild animals), it really does not serve much of a positive purpose.

So what do we do to combat the fears that threaten to overtake our lives?  We remember how Jesus told His Disciples not to worry or be afraid.  Later in Chapter 21, after He has foretold all of the calamities that are coming, He tells them, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  In other words, when you look around and think that things cannot get any worse, rejoice because I am about to show you a new thing – a new way of life.

And that is really what Jesus offers us in all of the cares and troubles of life … a new life.  No matter how bad things may get, no matter how intense the storms of life may be – the Way of Jesus offers us hope, comfort and peace.  But to get the most value out of the lessons that Jesus taught us, we must get out and do the work that He did – we must go out into the world and walk in the footsteps of our master. 

I read just the other day, a quote from the Dalai Lama (clearly not a Christian himself, but someone who knows a thing or two about walking in the footsteps of his master).  He said,

“If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another.  If you wish to know that you are safe, cause others to know that they are safe.  If you wish to better understand seemingly incomprehensible things, help another to better understand.  If you wish to heal your own sadness or anger, seek to heal the sadness or anger of another.”

And that seems to me to be as good a reading of what Jesus said, as has been put out by any Christian author.  Live like Jesus and let go of the fear, anger and resentment.

In just a couple of minutes, we are going to baptize mine and Donna’s beautiful and precious granddaughter, Kennedy Madison Norman.  And in the course of that part of the service, we are going to reaffirm our baptismal promises, as Kennedy’s are made for her.  We will promise to persevere in resisting evil, and when we fall into evil and sin, we will repent and return to the Lord.  We will promise to proclaim by word and example, the Good News of God in Christ.  We will promise to seek and serve Christ in other people, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and we will promise to seek justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.  That is a long way breaking down what could be said as, “I will seek to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in all that I do.”  And there is no better way to get over our fear, than to do as Jesus did. 

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