Whose Son Is Jesus? Fr. John Bedingfield January 4th

January 4, 2015
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In the name of the Incarnate God, Amen.

          Today’s Gospel story is one of a kind.  This is the only story in all of Holy Scripture that tells us anything at all about Jesus between the time of his infancy and the time that He takes up his earthly ministry as an adult.  And for a short story, this one is packed with information.  There are several aspects of this story that bear examination, but the one that really stands out to me is the question: “Whose son is Jesus?” 

          Now obviously, we Christians know that Jesus is the Son of God.  We know this because we already know the story of Jesus.  We know about the miracles, the teachings, and most importantly, we know about the Resurrection from the dead and the Ascension into heaven.  But perhaps the issue of whose son Jesus was, might not have been so clear cut, early on.

          In today’s story, Jesus was twelve years old – or in modern vernacular – He was a “tweenager.”  The experience of having a tween in the house is, to say the least, an interesting one.  At an age in which a young person sits right on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, many interesting (and sometimes maddening) things happen to them, not the least of which is, the beginning of a need to start separating from their parents.  At this stage of life, a young person starts to create an identity of his or her own.  And that is a part of what was going on in this story of Jesus.

          When Mary and Joseph left Jerusalem at the end of the Passover festival, Jesus stayed behind, literally and figuratively separating from his earthly parents.  We do not know exactly why Jesus stayed behind in the Temple, but clearly it was more than just being a tweenager, it had something to do with living into the title of Son of God.

          In Luke’s Gospel, from the time of the Annunciation to this time, Jesus’ relationship to God the Father has been spoken of by others.  First, the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she would carry the Son of God in her womb.  Then Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, told Mary that John leapt in her womb when he heard the voice of the Mother of his Lord.  Then Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, prophesied that Jesus would be the Savior of Israel and the prophet of the most high.  And then, when Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple for the first time – as an infant – an old man named Simeon walked up to them and told them that he could now die happy, because his eyes had seen, “salvation, which [God had] prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [God’s] people Israel.”  And as soon as they had left Simeon, Mary and Joseph ran into the 84 year old prophet, Anna, who praised God and spoke to everyone about Jesus as the redemption of Jerusalem.  But when Mary discovered that Jesus was not with the caravan of friends and relatives going from Jerusalem back to Nazareth, and she and Joseph trekked back to find Him in the Temple, Jesus’ first words in this Gospel are His announcement of whose Son He is.

          For twelve years Mary and Joseph had been very good parents to Jesus.  They had fed, clothed, cared for and taught Jesus.  They had been good, devout Jews themselves and had no doubt imparted the importance of living a devout life to their child.  They had Him circumcised on the 8th day; took him to the Temple for infant purification rites, and they made the costly and time-consuming yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover.  Mary and Joseph took good care of their son, we should never doubt that.  They were his loving parents and he was their son.  Then came that day.  Jesus had been missing for three days by the time His parents discovered Him.

          After a couple of days searching the Temple, His mom and dad found Jesus with the teachers, “listening and asking questions.”  As an aside here, I think that it is important to note that – unlike the renaissance paintings which portray Jesus to have been “teaching in the Temple,” – what Luke tells us is that Jesus was listening to the teachers and asking questions.  In other words, He was being a student.  But the thing that made Jesus stand out was the combination of His young age and the understanding of the Scriptures that he already possessed.

          When Mary and Joseph found him there they heard him interact with the teachers and saw the amazement of both the teachers and students who heard him.  It must have been an amazing mix of emotions for His parents at that moment.  On the one hand, they must have been incredibly proud of their son.  But on the other hand, Luke tells us that Mary said, “Child, why have you treated us like this?  Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  The word translated as “anxiety” here, is only used three times in the New Testament, and each time it means the broken heartedness of one who is losing someone they love.  So clearly Mary and Joseph had the same feeling of sadness and loss that any parents would have if their child was missing.

          Imagine what they thought next, when Jesus responded to His mother, “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?”  Jesus made that announcement and thus made His first public proclamation about whose Son he really was.  Jesus, the twelve-year-old prodigy with extraordinary knowledge of Scripture was now much more than just a gifted tween, suddenly he was something no one had experienced before, the face of God among humans.  And this is where Jesus gives His first lesson on faithfulness.

          There He stood in the Temple – the place where the Jews believed that God actually lived, the holiest place on earth – and He could very easily have told His mother that He had decided to stay there and continue His education while preparing Himself to do the work of His Father in the world.  But He did not do that.  He faithfully followed God’s call and returned with His parents to Nazareth and “was obedient to them.” 

          When He was a child, Jesus needed to know very little, other than the fact that His mom and dad loved Him.  But as He grew, He began to experience God in new ways and He began to understand who He really was – and is.  Whose Son is Jesus?  He is the Son of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth – earthly parents who loved and cared their child.  But Jesus is also the only Son of God.  The Son of the God who created and loves the world deeply enough to enter into our existence and love us the same way parents love their children.  Amen.

Holy Name of Jesus Fr. John Bedingfield 010115

January 1, 2015
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In the name of One God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit, Amen.

          This is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.  I am so glad that that is now the name of this day because, until the 1979 prayer book revision, this day was called, “The Circumcision of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  A priest friend of mine used to joke that during the time when we celebrated “the circumcision,” the most appropriate hymn for the day should have been the one called “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded.”  It’s a bad joke, I know.  Although it does seem a little weird to call a celebration, “Circumcision Day.”  The irony is, even though the prayer book now refers to this day as “Holy Name,” the event that we remember is exactly the same, the brit milah (or bris) – the Jewish rite in which the infant, Jesus was circumcised and given His Hebrew name.

          There is power in naming something, or someone.  In the Harry Potter series, the most villainous of all villains is often referred to as “he who must not be named.”  Even saying the name of Lord Voldemort meant that something bad might befall the speaker. 

Even as children we are aware of this power.  We are frightened by some strange sound or shadow in our rooms and then, when mom or dad comes in and shows us what was casting the shadow or causing the noise – in other words, names the thing – we can obtain control over the thing, or our fear of it.  That’s the power of a name.

          Luke tells us that on the eighth day after His birth, Mary and Joseph took their newborn son to be circumcised, as was, and is still the requirement for Jewish males.  During the liturgy of circumcision, the baby boy is named.  That day long ago in ancient Palestine, the Mohle – a specially trained Rabbi who performs the ritual of circumcision – said something similar to, “Name this child,” to which Mary responded, “Jesus.”  And there it was.  He was named.

          Throughout the ancient Near East, it has always been thought that names carried with them a description of the person or thing named.  People chose names for their children very carefully because the name should describe some aspect of a child’s hoped for character or identity.  A “good” name would say something about who the parents prayed their child would become.  Jesus is a Latinized version of Joshua or Yehoshua which, in Hebrew means “God is Salvation,” “God delivers” or “God rescues”.  The Angel of the Lord had come to Mary and told her that she would have a son and would name him Yeheshua.  So, God had ordained that this child would be known as God’s salvation, God’s deliverer or God’s rescuer.  There’s certainly power in THAT name.  But there is something even more powerful about GIVING that name to THIS child.

          After all, Jesus was not just the firstborn child of Joseph the carpenter and Mary of Nazareth.  He was the incarnation of God; God among us; the God of all Creation and as human as any of us. 

One of the tenets of Judaism is that the name of God cannot be said or written by humans.  People cannot possibly know the character or true identity of God, so they cannot possibly name God.  Jews write God’s name with asterisks or dashes where the vowels would go (Y*HW*H, the God of Moses) and they do not speak it.  (If you really want to impress your friends at cocktail parties, this way of expressing God is called the tetragrammaton).  There have always been ways for Jews to express that it is God about whom they are speaking.  From the time of Creation to the Exodus from Egypt, or at least until the covenant with Abraham, God was referred to as Elohim meaning “strong God,” which was taken from the name of gods in the days when the people had individual household gods, before they became acquainted with the singular God of all creation.  Later the chosen name to speak became Adonai, which became translated as “Lord,” in English.  Lordship may describe one aspect of God’s character, but certainly not all of it.

          The world into which Jesus was born knew only a God who was so distant from the people, so apart, so “other worldly,” that God’s name could not even be spoken.  This was the same God who spoke with Moses from a burning bush and warned him not to look at God or else Moses would die.  Elijah tried to glimpse this same God in gale force winds, earthquake and fire, but could only find God in a still, small voice.  This was the same God about whom the prophet Ezra said the people could not lift their faces heavenward because they were not worthy to be seen by God.  No wonder the coming ministry of this little child would be such a challenge and such a threat to Jewish authorities.  Jesus – God’s salvation – brought not only a name to God, but a face as well.  Suddenly people could not only speak ABOUT God, they could speak TO God and could SEE God’s face as they did so.  How much power is there in THAT?

          Look at the Old Testament stories, full of the wonder and might of God, but also full of God’s wrath against humanity.  And who could blame God for being angry and vengeful?  All God ever asked of humankind was to love God with all their hearts, minds souls and strength, and to follow some fairly straightforward commandments.  But the people could never seem to accomplish this seemingly simple task.  Instead, they created false gods and they broke every commandment given them.  God tried everything to get their attention; banishment, flood, fire and brimstone, enslavement, and freedom from slavery.  God sent prophet after prophet to the people to tell them what their mistakes had been and to try to return them to God’s path.  Nothing worked.  Until finally God decided to try a new way.

          As St. Paul tells us in this morning’s reading from the letter to the Galatians,

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.  And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”  So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

God decided to approach humans in an entirely different way, as one of us.  And from that day on, we occupied a different place in God’s created order.

In the fullness of time, God sent a baby named Jesus – God’s salvation – to take us from being fearful subjects of an angry ruler, to being children of the Living God.  Jesus came into the world to redeem us from slavery to sin and to show us the face of a loving God.  Jesus brought us close to God in a way that had never been experienced before.  He did something that could never have been accomplished by a prophet or a teacher or a great religious leader. 

The angel said to (Mary), ‘(N)ow, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, … He will be the Son of God.’

Jesus – what a name.

Amen

Slaughter of Holy Innocents Fr. John Bedingfield December 28

December 28, 2014
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In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

          In today’s Gospel reading, Matthew alludes to the story of what is known as the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.  After Jesus’ birth, King Herod ordered the killing (for political and power-seeking reasons) of all of the children under two years of age in the region of Bethlehem.  Herod believed that if he killed all the children, the infant Jesus would not grow up to be the King of the Jews.  As a result of Herod’s rage, some historians put the number of dead in the 10s of thousands.  That is an incredible atrocity. This sort of ridiculous violence has always existed in the world and continues today. 

          Two weeks ago, seven members of the Pakistan Taliban walked into a school in Peshawar and opened fire on unarmed, innocent people.  Before local authorities could arrive and put a stop to the carnage, the men had killed 132 students and 15 adults.  In the last decade there have been any number of such mass killings in the name of religion or ethnicity.  How do we explain that?

          One explanation, and one that is very popular with some people today, is that there is no God, or if there is a God, it is not a God who cares us.  The image being: a God that created the world and then turned it loose to function as it would – sort of like a watchmaker, who crafts a beautiful timepiece, starts it running and has nothing else to do with it.  It is much easier to rationalize horrible mass killings or disasters that cause loss of life on scales that we cannot imagine, by saying there cannot be a God who loves God’s creation.  Otherwise this kind of thing just could NOT happen.

          I submit to you that that is, indeed the easy way out – to dismiss God from the equation and move on.  What we, the children of God, the faithful, have as our task is much harder – reconciling what has happened with the God we have not only read about, but have experienced in this world.  We all know the old sayings that have followed us throughout our Christian journeys: things such as, “the Lord works in mysterious ways,” and “we cannot know the mind of God.”  But all such expressions used in these circumstances, are meant to tell us that God is definitely in charge, even though we cannot understand what good God is up to.  Frankly, such statements (no matter how true) are less than comforting to most people. 

          Unfortunately, situations like the one in Peshawar inevitably trigger, among theologians, philosophers (and those who are neither but have very strong feelings on the subject), debates on the existence or the relative power of God to act in the world.  But, as one religious commentator wrote, these are not times to consult with theologians or philosophers, but rather with poets.  So we look to the Psalmist for guidance.  In today’s reading we find,

If the LORD had not been on our side, *

when enemies rose up against us;

3

Then would they have swallowed us up alive *

in their fierce anger toward us;

4

Then would the waters have overwhelmed us *

and the torrent gone over us;

5

Then would the raging waters *

have gone right over us.

6

Blessed be the LORD! *

he has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.

8

Our help is in the Name of the LORD, *

the maker of heaven and earth.

 

          So how do these visions of the Psalmist, and our own experience of God’s work in the world square with what we have seen on television and in other media outlets for the last decade or so?  First, we look at God in the world.  God created the world to be the world.  God is perfect.  But the world is less than perfect.  What began as Eden became less than perfect when people could not follow God’s rules.  But it was God who created humans with free will, freedom to do and be what we will.  God is not an uncaring watchmaker, but neither is God a master puppeteer, pointing a finger making the world bend to Godly will. 

          The Living God is decidedly active in the world.  If you do not believe that, follow the news stories of the people of Pakistan and their response to the Taliban attack.  There has been an incredible outpouring of love and support for the families who lost someone and the people and government are beginning to fight back against the extremist forces who have terrorized their people.

          God exists.  God is alive.  God cares about each and every one of us, regardless of who we are or where we are.  God is the God of all comfort, the God who never promised that we would not suffer from horrible occurrences; the God who suffered incredibly Himself, while Jesus suffered on the cross.  This God is the one who promised to be with us through thick and thin, through good times and horrendous times, on sunny days and days when storms threaten to wash us away.  This is the God who became a human, just like us, so that God could fully understand what it means to be a suffering person in a world filled with the tragic deaths of Holy Innocents.

Amen.

What God Wants for Christmas Fr. John Bedingfield December 24

December 28, 2014
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In the Name of the Incarnate God, Amen.

          Have you heard Darius Rucker’s new Christmas song?  For my money it is one of the better songs written for the season in a number of years.  It is called, What God Wants For Christmas.  Rucker wrote the song, along with Frank Rogers and Monty Powell.  In it, they look around at all of the presents being exchanged at this time of the year and wonder what might be on God’s wish list.  What the song writers imagined say a lot about how many people view God.

          The song writers suggest that God’s Christmas list includes: no more empty seats in church, every Bible without dust and the Devil giving up; all of which sound perfectly plausible.  But are those things really what God would wish for?  

First, I would dispute the part about defeating the Devil.  If you read the Book of Revelation, there is one thing that is certain – in the end, God wins!  There is no doubt that in the fullness of time, God will defeat Satan and all evil – so our wishing for it is wholly unnecessary. 

          And then there is the part of about filling the churches and making sure that everybody reads their Bibles.  Obviously, as the head of a church congregation, I am all for those things.  I think that everybody should be in church every week and that all people should – as our Book of Common Prayer tells us – hear, read, mark and inwardly digest God’s Word.  But again, is that at the top of God’s list of wished for things?  I mean, after all, Jesus never had a church building and He did alright.  And (at least the New Testament of) the Bible was not written in His day, so for everything preceding the last two millennia, there was no Bible to blow the dust off of.

          I think Darius Rucker gets a little closer to the important stuff when he says that perhaps God would wish for, “more sister, more brother, more loving one another,” and that we should “believe in [God] like He believes in us,” because it seems to me that God would want those things that are the most important for the well-being of this world that God created.

          On this night, almost 2000 years ago, a baby boy was born to a teenaged virgin and her fiancé, in a non-descript town.  With the exception of the part about the “mother who was still a virgin,” the same thing was happening all over the world and no one but the immediate families of those other babies cared very much.  But although this baby looked, cried, made messes and did all of the other things that all infants did, this one was very different.  This one was Emanuel – God with us.  This one was the only Son of God, the God who entered fully and completely into the lives of all humanity by becoming human.

          So, as Darius Rucker asks, “what do you give someone who gave His only Son?”  I believe that that same Son, Jesus, answered that question, himself.  In the 25th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells His listeners:

Matthew 25:34-45   'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'  37  …

[And they asked Him when they had done these things to Him.  He said,]

 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.' 

[And then He told them about the people who did not do such things.]

…  I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'  44 Then they also [answered], 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?'  45 [And Jesus answered], 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'

          Churches are wonderful places and you should be in one (hopefully this one) every week.  The Bible is the story of God’s on-going love affair with human beings, and you should read, mark, learn and inwardly digest that story until it becomes an ingrained part of your own story.  But if you really want to reach deep and figure out how you can give the Creator of the Universe a gift that means something – something more than a new necktie, or sweater, or gift card to iTunes – then begin to change your life into a life that reflects God’s love in the world.  That would be a gift that would probably make God, our Father in Heaven, well up with tears, in the same way that we earthly fathers get teary eyed when our children give us gifts from the heart.

          Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  Treat your neighbors as if they are Jesus returned to earth.  Feed them, clothe them, give them something to drink and care for their other needs.  In other words, BE God’s Incarnation to those around you – believe in God in the same way that God believes in you.

          May God’s eternal blessings be with each of you on this evening of the Nativity of our Lord.  And may each of you begin this night to give that gift that God wants for Christmas, tonight and every day that follows.

Amen.

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

December 21, 2014
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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.

Amen.

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

November 16, 2014
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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.

Amen.

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
00:0000:00

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?”  

“Lutheran.”

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

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

Episcopalian

“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.

Amen.

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

October 20, 2014
00:0000:00

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
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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.

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