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
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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.

Politics and the People of God, November 20th, Mthr. Mitzi George

November 20, 2016
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As I prepared for this morning’s sermon, I thought that these scripture readings were so perfect for all of us at this point in our countries history, no matter which side of the political spectrum. First and foremost, those of us gathered here this morning are not Republicans, Democrats, or Independents; we are the people of God gathered to worship and give thanks to the God who sustains, the God who forgives, the God who loves each and every one of us.

So just to be clear about who we are gathered here today I want to invite those who were Hillary supporters to sit one my left and the Trump supporters to sit on my right, and those of you who dare to vote third party could go sit in the back of the room. Just a little political humor to lighten the gospel we share on this last day after Pentecost or Christ the King Sunday.

As I examined todays Gospel and considered how this gospel might speak to us today, I realized that this gospel passage is the extreme example of politics gone awry. The scene that Luke shares with us contains political chaos and confusion, political power and corruption, politics at its worst; and yet there are huge lessons embedded here that every one of us needs to consider before we have our next political conversation, listen to another political analyst, or search the web for the latest juicy bit of political gossip.

Make no mistake; Jesus is executed for political reasons. Those standing closest to the scene of this execution were embroiled in a passionate political struggle. They saw Jesus as a political risk, and because of their fear, their need for power, and their lack of understanding and inability to rationally consider their own political flaws, they seek to have Jesus put to death.  Jesus is crucified to settle the political tension of the time. Some of those standing in the crowds were not even aware that Jesus would be killed, they had been caught up in the frenzy of the crowd. Others just stood by idly and watched to see which side would win the battle. Others thought it would be a simple, quick fix to calm the fears of political rivals.

In the crowd, there were the leaders who scoffed, there were those who cast lots for his cloths, others who mocked him, there were those who stood by watching, and then there were the two thieves: one on the right, the other on the left. Some there were Jews, some Romans, and some from other places far and wide.

Jesus was arrested and interrogated all through the night. He was then; stripped, beaten, and forced to carry his own cross through the streets to the hill outside the city, to the location where they nailed him to it, and hung him to die, in the heat of the day

Jesus through it all said very little.

Jesus did not defend himself, he did not argue, he did not protest, he stood silent most of the time. Even as he hung on the cross for hours there were few words spoken by him. However, there are huge lessons for those of us sitting here today. Especially for those of us who find ourselves either fearful of our present political condition, or if we find ourselves on the winning side feeling a little smug, defensive, or dismissive of the fears of our political foes.

 You and I, most of us here, consider ourselves Christians. We are Baptized.  We profess Jesus as our Savior. We have made certain promises to follow the way of Christ and if that is true then Luke’s passage must be one of the great lessons we learn for how we conduct ourselves as followers of Jesus the Christ.

 Jesus’ response to his political adversaries was “Father, forgive them for they not what they are doing.”  Jesus did not encourage his followers to fight or to cause political unrest of any kind. In fact, if we examine all the Gospels to extract just what Jesus taught about how his followers should react toward political adversaries what we find is this: Jesus teaches, “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give to God, that which belongs to God.” Then this: “A dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” In Matthew that same message reads this way, “‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.26It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave;8just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Just before his arrest, this scene is played out,” When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’50Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him.”

Jesus never advocated or instructed civil unrest. Jesus did teach humility, servanthood, caring for the poor, the widowed, the sick, the marginalized. Jesus instructed his followers not to worry about tomorrow, not to store up riches that thieves could break in and steal. Jesus taught kindness and gentleness toward all people regardless of their position in life, regardless of their political affiliation, regardless of their gender, age, race, nationality, or political affiliations.

When I look out at those of you gathered here with me today, I do not see Republicans, Democrats, or Independents. I see the People of God. I see good people who love and serve the community of Lafayette and beyond. I see people who love God and love one another regardless of gender, age, race or nationality, sexual preferences. I see you, the beloved community of St. Barnabas, a light shining in the darkness.

My hope and prayer for all of you can be summed up in the words of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which we read today. “

11May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Let us put down our political rhetoric, let us look at one another knowing that each of us, every o is a member of the family of God, let us take comfort knowing we are people of God, and be encouraged to do good each and every day, in the name of Christ our Lord. Let us seek to be the peacemakers, and let us walk in light, loving and serving our God.

 Amen

Persistently Thankful, Fr. John Bedingfield, October 16th

October 16, 2016
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In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 



[1]  Jonah 3:10 (NRSV)

 

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

October 9, 2016
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In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

[2]  Matthew 6:24-31 (NRSV)

The Unworthy Servant, Mother Mitzi George, October 2nd

October 2, 2016
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A Bishop, a priest, and a young seminarian were out on a lake fishing one morning. The Bishop decides he need to relieve himself, so he stands up, climbs out of the boat and walks on top of the water to the shore. A few minutes later he walks back across the lake and gets in the boat. After a while the priest decides he too needs to head to the shore, so he climbs out of the boat and walks across the lake toward the shore, returning a few minutes later. The seminarian is so impressed by the faith of the Bishop and the priest. The young seminarian wants to prove he has as much faith as they do, so he decides to demonstrate it and follows suit. He stands up, climbs out of the boat, and makes a huge splash sinking into the water. The priest looks down at the water, then glances back at the Bishop and says, "I guess we should have told him where those rocks were?"

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Is this what it takes to be a disciple?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Amen+

Bridging the Chasm, Fr. John Bedingfield, Sept 25

September 25, 2016
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         Almost 10 years ago, when I was serving a parish in Southeast Texas, the Diocesan Cathedral (Christ Church, Houston) sent out invitations to parishes around the diocese, asking that we come and tour our cathedral and to see their latest outreach project.  I still remember that event well.  The cathedral – which is what we call the church where the Diocesan Bishop’s chair (or “cathedra”) sits, is sort of the “home church” for the Bishop.  Diocesan cathedrals are usually pretty large and grand places, and the one in Houston is no exception to that rule.  It stands on the same spot where it was built in 1848 and has the distinction of being the longest standing, constantly occupied church in the city.  Naturally, Christ Church is a pretty wealthy parish, with an annual budget that is about 1/3 higher than the budget of our entire diocese.  But remember that I said at the beginning, we were invited to the cathedral to, among other things, tour their latest outreach project.  All of that is to say, that today’s Gospel speaks to the work of Christ Church in interesting ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Lost But Loved, Fr. John Bedingfield Sept. 11

September 11, 2016
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         Have you ever been lost?  I do not mean lost like when your GPS leads you in a different direction than you know to be right, but you follow it anyway.  When you end up driving along in the middle of the Achafalaya Basin Bridge, and the GPS calmlysays, “In 500 feet, turn right!”  That is not the kind of “lost” I mean.  I am talking about the kind of “lost” that makes your heart beat fast and causes you to break out in nervous sweat.  Have you ever been that kind of lost?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 4, 2016
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The Reverend Eugene Peterson is aPresbyterian minister, author and theologian. He has written over 30 books.  Buthis most famous is, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language.  Pastor Peterson studied biblical languagesextensively.  And one day, while he wasteaching a Sunday class on the Epistle to the Galatians, he looked around theroom and saw several blank stares.  Asanyone who has ever taught a bible study knows, that is not an altogetheruncommon occurrence.  Pastor Peterson believedthat the community in Galatia probably heard the letter in a much different waythan did his 21st Century audience. He decided that the problem was, people could not get the immediacy orthe depth of what the Bible was saying, because they were not reading it in thelanguages in which it was originally written, including all of the slang andidiom that the people would have used in those original languages and dialects.  So he set out to re-translate the entireBible, from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, not only into English –which had already been done, countless times – but to translate it into themodern American idiom.  Meaning that,instead of using formal English, he used Americanized English, including slangterms.  The result is a very accessibleversion of the Bible, which has naturally caused some scholars to scoff, butwhich has sold very well and has been the basis of successful Bible studyseries of its own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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