Faith in Jesus and His Mission, Fr. John Bedingfield 26th June

June 26, 2016
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         In one of my favorite films, Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman does a masterful job of playing Lucas Jackson, a Korean War hero who goes to prison after drunkenly destroying municipal property.  Over the course of his excessively long term on a prison chain gang, Luke repeatedly escapes.  Each time he is brought back and each time the prison authorities teach him a lesson – with an ever-increasing level of brutality after each escape.  Finally, Luke escapes again, but instead of continuing to run, he finds himself in an abandoned church – for the first time in his life, talking with God.  It is in the church that Luke comes to an understanding of the fact that he has reached the end of the road.  The only thing left for him to do is die – thereby living on as a sign of hope in the hearts of his fellow prisoners. 

Into the church comes Luke’s number 1 disciple, his “St. Peter” if you will, a man named Dragline, who tells him that things are all worked out so that Luke can go back to the chain gang and serve out his time, without having to pay any price for this latest escape attempt.  But Luke knows what is about to happen and he tells Dragline off – telling him to leave.   So, with the church surrounded by armed prison guards and police officers, Luke goes to a window and mocks the warden by making fun of the warden’s own words, which he knows will result in immediate retribution.  His words are instantly followed by the sound of a rifle shot and a bullet hole in Luke’s neck.  He knew that he was going to die, but he continued on his mission anyway.  He wouldn’t let anyone’s words keep him from doing what he had to do so that the people whom he loved could benefit from his death.

We hear some tough sayings from Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.  The author of this Gospel tells us that at this point in the story, Jesus had “set his face toward Jerusalem.”  That meant that he and the Disciples were taking their last road trip together.  Jesus was walking steadfastly toward what he already knew would be the end of his earthly ministry.  In other words, Jesus knew that he was headed toward his own death, and he was determined to see his mission of salvation through sacrifice come to its inevitable end.  So perhaps it is no wonder that Jesus was, shall we say – a little testy – with the people in this story.

A man came up to Jesus and said that he was ready to follow Jesus “anywhere.”  But Jesus, whose mind was set on what was to come, responded by saying, in essence, “You have no idea what you are signing on to.  You say that you will go anywhere with me, but you don’t realize that I don’t even have a home to go to.  There is nowhere that I can go that takes me away from doing the will of the Father in Heaven.”  This may sound a bit harsh to us, but in the midst of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, these words are actually quite kind and caring.  Instead of saying, “Get away from me, you are not worthy to follow me in this mission.”  He simply said, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.”

But the other two men with whom Jesus conversed are even more troubling for us.  Jesus told them to follow him.  One of these men asked Jesus to be allowed to bury his father before he goes to be a disciple.  The other merely wanted to say goodbye to his family.  And for us – the modern readers of this story – Jesus was downright rude to these two men. 

To the man who wanted to bury his father, Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  That seems more than a bit harsh to us.  And frankly, biblical scholars disagree on what he could have meant by this saying.  Some say that Jesus was talking about those who were spiritually dead taking care of those who were physically dead.  But I think that the better way to look at it might be that Jesus was so focused upon his mission of getting to Jerusalem to lay down his life, that anything that got in the way of that was to be ignored – just like when Dragline tried to talk Cool Hand Luke into giving himself up and going back to the old life.  Nothing could be allowed to get in the way of the mission.

And the same can be said of the man who told Jesus that he simply wanted to say goodbye to his family.  Jesus told him that anyone who had put their hand to the plow and then turned away was not ready for the kingdom.  This is clearly the same message – that nothing should get in the way of following Jesus on his kingdom of God mission.  When he talked about the plow, he was alluding to the fact when was one plowing a field with yoked animals, if one took a hand off the plow to look backward, the entire row could be messed up by allowing the animals to pull the plow in the wrong direction. 

The words may sound harsh to us, but they are not so much harsh as uncompromising.  Jesus wanted his first hearers to know, just as he wants us to know, that being the disciple of the Son of God, the Savior of the World, can be a hard task.  Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ had no set address; no worldly comforts; no safety and security in his life.  In fact, God’s anointed Son knew, as he walked along the dusty road through Samaria that at the end of the journey he would be: tried by a sham tribunal, turned over to the sworn enemy of his people, mocked for being who he was, spat upon, beaten, nailed to a cross and killed in one of the worst ways ever devised by man.  That is what God’s “Chosen,” was faced with.  And if we choose to be his disciples, we need to understand that the same horrible fate could possibly befall us as well.

I don’t believe that Jesus intended his message to be that we should all live as though we were all going to be martyred.  Martyrdom or physically suffering for the sake of Christ, is not what all of us are called to.  But there are other ways that we may be called to suffer loss on behalf of Jesus.

Almost all clergy people have served in a place that they loved and then, one day been called to another place and had to leave all of their beloved relationships in order to follow Jesus.  (And, before you ask, NO that is not a subtle hint of any kind).  Many of us have lost friends over differences within the Church.  There are myriad ways in which we can suffer loss for the sake of the kingdom message.  But perhaps one of the most personal one is when we are asked to physically sacrifice for the Church.

Our society asks a great deal of us  in the 21st Century.  We all have heavy demands on our time and other resources.  But the Church – the actual Body of Christ in the world – asks that we regularly come to services.  Or more demanding than that, the Church asks that we get involved in the ministries of the Church.  We are asked to give up our precious time on Sundays and then asked further to give up time to serve in other ways.  And … We are asked to give of our earthly wealth.  We are requested to stretch already tight budgets a little tighter in order to financially support the ministries of the Body of Christ. 

But here is the thing.  Jesus never asks us to give up anything without getting something else in return.  Jesus may tell us to walk away from our father’s funeral in order to proclaim the kingdom message.  He may ask us to forego telling our family goodbye before we go off to work in God’s vineyard.  He may demand the very best that we have – thereby leaving someone, or something else with less than our best.  But what we get back is infinitely more valuable.

If you heed Jesus’ call to follow, you will always receive more than you gave.  If you roll out of bed on Sunday and get here for services, you receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to prepare you for the rest of your week.  You get the spiritual refreshment necessary for your to tackle life’s tough tasks.  If you put yourself out and take on a ministry here – or elsewhere – you will be blessed by the fulfilling feeling of serving in a way that God called you to.  And if you give of your earthly treasure, you will be blessed with the gift of abundance – being able to see how all things work out when you put God first.  All of which will often be experienced as, “the peace which passes all understanding,” in the midst of the storms of life.

Jesus always demands our best.  And sometimes we aren’t able to give our best, because our faith is insufficient to convince us to risk it, or because our head overrules our heart and keeps us from stepping out in faith.  But here is the part that is missing from today’s reading.  God knows when we can’t – or won’t – give our best to God.  And God loves us anyway.  If you are in a place where you are struggling with trying to follow God’s call to you, don’t worry.  God will not relegate you to the “outer darkness,” of hell.  God will always be available and ready to forgive.  But God’s grace is not a reason for us to stop trying to accept and follow the call.

Remember that no matter how demanding Jesus’ call to us may sound, he never asks anything that he would not do himself.  Have faith and courage.  Say yes to God – and watch everything else in your life turn around and become more fulfilling as well.  Faith in Jesus is the answer, no matter what the questions is.

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

Love, the Response to Hate, Fr. Bedingfield 19 June

June 19, 2016
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         Here we are again.  A week after yet another mass shooting event.  But, you know, it would literally be possible for me to say that every week, given the fact that we have already had 182 mass shooting events in 2016.  Think about that for just a minute.  We have had 182 times in the first 6 months of the year, in which at least 4 people were shot in a single event.  Already this year, 188 people are dead at the hands of mass shooters – not to mention the hundreds who have been wounded.  But somehow, the Pulse club in Orlando shooting feels different.

         Perhaps it is because this is the largest number of people who have been killed in a single event by a single shooter.  But maybe there is more to it than that.  I believe that this one contains almost all of the elements that make these events so horrific.  This man apparently had mental health issues.  He definitely planned his crime in order to incite terror.  And he perpetrated his crime against minority individuals.  And not just a single minority – these were people of color who were also LGBT people.

         Last Thursday night we held a Requiem Eucharist service for the victims of the Pulse massacre.  On that night, I preached about the scourges of both gun violence and hatred of gay people and people of color in this country.  And I wondered aloud about what our reaction as a nation might be.  But I have had an additional couple of days to think about it, and here is what I believe.

         I think that this massacre may have been a tipping point.  I believe that things may be beginning to change.  I am no starry-eyed idealist.  So I do not believe that things will improve today or tomorrow.  But over the last few days, I have read and heard about the Senate of the United States agreeing to vote on measures to try to stem the tide of gun violence.  That does not mean that there will actually be a law passed, only that the first of many votes has been agreed upon.  Simply agreeing to vote on a bill may not sound like much, but it is exponentially more than we have had in the last twenty years.  I see hope there.

         I also see hope when I look around this church.  For the most part, this congregation has made the conscious choice to love one another, even when we do not agree with each other.  Within this particular gathering of the Body of Christ, we have African-American, Latino, Asian and Caucasian people.  We have straight and gay, lesbian and bisexual people.  We have people whose background was strict Catholic and Baptist and Pentecostal and Buddhist … as well as a few cradle Episcopalians.  There are people worshipping here who just barely make it from payday to payday, as well as some people whose checkbooks do not care what day of the month it is.  And there are staunch Republicans and ardent Democrats, along some Libertarians in this group.  And we all continue to work, worship and occasionally play together in spite of our differences.  In other words, St. Barnabas represents a gathering of people that understands what St. Paul was talking about in today’s reading from the letter to the Galatians.  Paul told them:

[I]n Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.

         St. Paul was describing a truth that we should always keep in mind, particularly when we have things happen around us that show us just exactly how divided the world has become.  That truth is that we are all children of the same Creator God.  We were all created in that same God’s image.  We are all, quite literally, sisters and brothers under the skin.  And God loves each one of us as if each of us was God’s only child. 

What that means, especially at times like this, is that we should concentrate all the more on the Great Commandments – loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (in other words, loving our Father in heaven as much as the culture tells us that we should love our earthly fathers); and we should love our neighbors the same way that we love ourselves (meaning that we should cut other people the same slack we allow ourselves, and we should always want the best for others).

         Times are tough right now.  The news media and our social media feeds are bursting at the seams with people telling us to be afraid of other people, because they are after us.  And as sure as the sun comes up in the east, fear always leads to distrust.  And distrust always leads to separation.  And separation always leads to resentment and hate.  And hate always leads to violence.  But as I said before, I see some small cracks beginning to show in this negative worldview. 

         Yesterday I read a story online about a few Marines in California who posted on social media a picture of one of them with an M-4 (the military version of the AR-15), and the caption said, “Coming to a gay bar near you.” Along with another caption, “Too soon?”  At first, the story just depressed me to no end.  But then I thought about the sorts of reactions that are starting to come when these stories show up.  Most people are no longer laughing horrible jokes like that one.  Instead, people are starting to see how hurtful and dehumanizing such sentiments are.  When I was a child in suburban Dallas in the 1960s, it was not uncommon at all to hear racist or homophobic jokes in gatherings of the adults I knew.  But the acceptance of those sorts of things is dying now—at an ever-increasing rate of speed.  And in that, I see hope as well.

         Obviously, things are not perfect – or even close to perfect – yet.  For instance, much has been made in recent months about the people in this election year who are fighting back against “political correctness.”  It is as if that term has, in some circles, become a “dirty word.”  But here’s the thing, my brothers and sisters in Christ.  You cannot say on the one hand, “I will not be politically correct, I’ll say exactly what I want to say.  And people should just get over it,” while on the other hand you are saying that you love your neighbor as yourself.  Because every time you say something that is racially insensitive, every time you say something that degrades the other gender, every time you use a homophobic slur, you are telling another one of God’s children that you are better than that person, that only your feelings matter, not theirs.  My hope is that much of the sentiment behind the use of such language is evolving out of our society.

         Jesus told the Disciples that they should love one another the same way the He loved them.  He said that that was how people would know that they were Jesus’ Disciples … by their love.  In times when there are still so many people around us who are spewing hate and mistrust constantly, it is important for us to keep the hope that I have been talking about alive.  And the way that we nurture that hope, the way that we give it the best chance of blossoming, is through love.

         So go out this week and love other people, especially those who do not agree with you.  When you hear someone speaking unkindly about someone else – or another group of people – speak up for those who have no voice.  You do not have to argue with anyone, or create more animosity, simply point out that they are talking about some of God’s children … children just like you and me.

         It’s Father’s Day today.  Let’s all try to spend the day reflecting the love of our Father in heaven, as we spend times with, or remember our fathers on earth.  Love one another as God loves you.  And before long, the hope of societal change will burst into reality.

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

Requiem Eucharist Orlando Shooting Victims, June 16, 2016 (Text Only)

June 16, 2016

Homily for Requiem Eucharist – Pulse, Orlando Shooting Victims, June 16, 2016.

         We are gathered here tonight to remember and pray for the repose of the souls of the forty-nine women and men who were massacred last Sunday morning at Pulse – an LGBTQ friendly club in Orlando.  And we are here to support those who were injured in the shooting, as well as to support each other in our grief.

         Since Sunday, the news media spent a great deal of time talking about this event solely as an Islamic terror attack, while occasionally mentioning the fact that Pulse was a “gay club.”  Very seldom over this last week have I heard anyone talk about this attack as a hate crime against either the Latino or LGBT community.  But make no mistake, my brothers and sisters, that is exactly what it was.

         We will likely never know exactly what was in the mind of the gunman when he walked through the door of Pulse.  But now we do know that he visited the club on several other occasions, so he was very aware of what Pulse stood for.  This man walked into a club that was an oasis of peace and acceptance for a community that has consistently been ostracized and demeaned – and he shattered that peace – at least in part because of a hatred for the way that the men and women in that club were made by the Creator God.

Hate crimes are nothing new to the LGBT community.  In a recent article in The Atlantic magazine Emma Green wrote:

In a 2011 analysis of FBI hate-crime statistics, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that “LGBT people are more than twice as likely to be the target of a violent hate-crime than Jews or black people,” [That from] Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the center.  Because the population of LGBT Americans is relatively small, and the number of hate crimes against that group is significant, LGBT individuals face a higher risk than other groups of being the victim of an attack.  …  Sexual orientation motivated roughly 20 percent of hate crimes in 2013, according to the FBI; the only factor that accounted for more was race.[1]

While the Stonewall Riots of 1969 may have started the “Gay Rights Movement,” in this country, they arguably also started a violent backlash that, to one extent or another, lasts today. 

When you Google “LGBT hate crimes,” the list is long and ignominious.  Even if you only include the ones that received a lot of publicity, the list is still horribly long.  Simply as examples, in New Orleans, in 1973, 32 mostly gay men died and over 30 others were injured when an arsonist set fire to the UpStairs Lounge.  The fire was set because of the sexual orientation of the people who frequented the club.  Harvey Milk was assassinated in San Francisco in 1978, simply because he was an outspoken, openly gay politician.  Branden Teena, the subject of the film, Boys Don’t Cry, was raped and murdered in 1993 because his supposed friends found out that he was transgender.  And of course there was the infamous case of 21 year-old Matthew Shepherd, who was viciously beaten, hanged on a fence and left to die in Wyoming in October of 1998.  There was even the case of a gay man, Scott Amedure, being shot to death, because he had to audacity to reveal that he had a crush on a straight man, on an episode of The Jenny Jones Show.  The list goes on and on and on, leading inexorably to the worst mass murder in this country since 9/11, and the worst episode of single-gunman gun violence in our history.  And in a country that has had 126 events in which a lone gunman has killed at least 4 people in the latter half of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century[2], that is saying something.

A group of people who were part of a minority in this country – many of them part of two minorities, since it was Latin Night at the club – being gunned down simply for being who they were.  What do we do with that?

We could get – and likely have already gotten – angry.  But anger with the one who perpetrated this horrible atrocity is useless anger.  Being angry with someone who set out to terrorize a community simply for existing, it seems to me, is anger with no worthwhile outlet.  Righteous anger with those who do nothing to take military grade weapons out of the hands of bad people, is useful anger.  Get politically active.  I am not a “ban the gun” kind of guy, but working toward commonsense gun reform seems to me to be a good outlet for our anger and frustration.  But that alone will not get us farther down the road to healing.

Healing in the aftermath of such a tragedy can only come through love.  Jesus told the Disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.[3]”  He knew that the Disciples would face people in the world who hated them simply for being His disciples.  He knew that they would face persecution for who they associated with.  And His prescription was that they love one another.

At times like this, it is ever so easy to succumb to the siren call of the culture around us.  We hear all the time that we should be afraid.  We should more heavily arm ourselves because “they” (whoever “they” may be) are coming for us.  And then when something like the Pulse shooting happens, we are told that we should seek retribution, or revenge, by increasing bombing on the other side of the world.  But as Mohandas Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. both knew that violence begets violence … every time.  Both of those great men lead non-violent protests against the systems that kept their people enslaved through violence.  They knew that love was the only sure and certain way to defeat hate, and that in the end, you cannot crush violence, you can only love it out of existence.

Loving one another though, is pretty easy.  We can see each other as we are – all children of the one Creator God.  The people in this church tonight, for the most part, do not have a problem with loving the other people in this church.  It is when we go outside these walls and have to face a world that shows hatred for who we are – the “we” being LGBT people and the straight people who love (or at least respect) them. 

When we go back out into the world tonight, we need Jesus and His love more than ever.  We need the power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us for our journeys.  And we need to be God’s hands and feet in the world, holding onto one another when things get tough and taking strength and courage from each other, as well as all of the generations of disciples who have gone before us.

Love one another.  Be strong.  Be brave.  Be together.  And BE the light of Christ’s love to this broken and hurting world.  That is the only real way to effect change.

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



[1]   http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/06/the-extraordinarily-common-violence-against-lgbt-people-in-america/486722/

[3]  John 13:34-35 (NRSV)

The Compassionate God June 5th Fr. John Bedingfield

June 5, 2016
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In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

         This Sunday could rightfully be known as “widows’ Sunday.”  The story I just read from Luke’s Gospel, although only seven verses long, is quite profound in its telling of Jesus’ raising the son of the widow of Nain from the dead.  And there is absolutely no doubt that the early Church’s congregations – those from around the time that St. Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians, would have heard this story of the widow of Nain and would have immediately thought of the widow of Zarephath from the book of 1 Kings, which we also just heard.  You see these two stories are deeply and inextricably intertwined for St. Luke.  The story of the widow of Nain reverberates or echoes with the story of widow of Zarephath, thereby making the telling of the latter story that much more powerful for its early audience. 

         Elijah, the great prophet of God was early in his ministry when he went to Zarephath – an area suffering under a great drought – and there he met a widow with one son.  Elijah asked her to get him some water and a little bread.  She told him that she had only enough meal and oil for one small cake of bread – and that after making the cake, she and her son intended to eat it and wait for death, because they had nothing left and were out of options.  Elijah prayed, the woman faithfully shared with him, and her supply of meal and oil did not run out until the drought ended.  That story butts up against the one we heard this morning.  Sometime after Elijah’s miracle with the water, meal and oil, the woman’s son falls ill and dies.  Elijah, who had been given deeply faithful hospitality by the widow of Zarephath, was then asked to help, and he did – perhaps because he was called by God to do so, but perhaps because he felt like he owed her that, given how she had shared with him when she had so very little.  And then we have Jesus.

         Jesus was walking along the road from Capernaum to Jerusalem and came to the city of Nain.  He too was early in His ministry and had just healed the slave of a Centurion in Capernaum, attracting a great crowd of people who followed him the 20 or so miles He walked.  As they got to Nain, the funeral procession was coming out the gate of the city. 

Jewish funerals of the day would have included musicians, a group of mourners – the women you see in scenes from the Middle East who wail loudly and cry very vocally; and finally would have come the Rabbi, the body and the family.  This is the part of the procession that was coming out of the city as Jesus walked up.  The bier-carriers, our modern pall bearers, were bringing the body out as He approached the gate.

         Widows in the ancient Middle East lived very precarious lives.  They had no right of inheritance from their husbands and therefore might be left with absolutely nothing.  It was expected that her children would take care of a woman who had been widowed.  But what of those women who had no children living – or in the case of the two women we hear about this morning – had only a single son, who died?  Those women had NOTHING.  They were destitute in a society with no social welfare programs.  No wonder Elijah cried out to the Lord. 

And Jesus, as we heard, had compassion for the widow of Nain.  In the only place in Luke’s Gospel where we hear about Jesus’ emotions, Luke says that Jesus, in His compassion, told the widow, “Don’t cry.” 

Elijah took the widow’s son away from everyone else.  He took him up to the room where Elijah slept and laid him on the bed.  Then Elijah stretched his body over the cold body of the widow’s son – three times – crying to the Lord each time for God to send the boy’s life back into him.  And his life came back into him again, … he “revived.”  This is where the stories really diverge from each other.

Jesus told the widow not to cry.  Then, in front of both the crowd that followed Him and the funeral procession, He walked up to the bier – sort of an early coffin without a top – and Jesus laid His hand on the bier (He didn’t have to touch the deceased, only the coffin) and said simply and with authority, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”  And the dead man sat up and began talking.

Elijah and Jesus both gave the newly risen sons to their mothers and both heard those around them say that they were great prophets of God.

But notice how the raisings were accomplished.  Elijah cried out to God repeatedly and laid over the boy – ostensibly to put his own heartbeat, or his own spirit into the boy to reanimate him.  And “The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.”  Clearly the boy was raised by God.  Elijah was a great prophet and a man of God, but it was the power of God that raised the boy.  Jesus, on the other hand, simply laid his hand on the side of the bier, spoke to the deceased and he was again alive.  No histrionics.  No calling out to the Lord.  No physically repetitious acts to try to persuade the deceased to live again.  Instead, Jesus spoke, the young man lived.

This God of ours –the one we confess in the Creed as the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; one being/three natures – has always been a God of compassion.  When Adam and Eve had their fruit snack, God didn’t strike them dead, instead they had to live with the consequences of their actions, but they were still loved by the God who created them.  When humanity had so completely separated themselves from God that there was virtually no communication left, God destroyed the world with a flood – but had compassion on the goodness that was buried in human souls and had Noah save what was capable of salvation.  God had compassion on a faithful Abraham and gave him a son – and then spared Isaac from possible sacrifice.  King David should have been struck down for his sinfulness any number of times, but God saw something worthwhile in him and took compassion on him.

And God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to the end that all who believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  Jesus Himself IS compassion.  Jesus’ very existence IS compassion.  Again the world had gotten into such a horrible place that God could easily have brought on another flood.  But instead God decided to become incarnate, to live and die as one of us in order show us the face of God in humanity and to show us God’s true compassion in action.

Jesus exerted the power of God’s compassion to save the widow’s son.  But that stuff only happens in the Bible.  Right?  Wrong!  Have you ever talked with someone who had been diagnosed with cancer in one doctor visit and then diagnosed as cancer-free on the next visit?  How about the person who walks away from a wreck without a scratch, when the car is mangled beyond recognition?  Or the person who is completely at his or her physical and emotional end because of drug or alcohol use, who finally throws up his hands and prays, “I give up!  I can’t take it anymore.  You have to handle this because I can’t!” and thereafter never takes another drink.  What about those, and the myriad other stories just like them?  God is a God of compassion – both in the Bible and now.

The fact that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected should be sufficient proof of God’s compassion.  But just in case we missed the subtleties of that act, Jesus continues to act as the epitome of compassion for us today, looking in on those who suffer and bringing them comfort.  It’s not always in the form that people would prefer – or would choose if they could – but for those who invite the presence of the living Christ into their lives, there will always be compassion around every corner.  Whether through dramatic, miraculous events or simply in the loving, caring, helping hand of another human being, compassion will always be there.

The God of all compassion and comfort will not always give us the miraculous raising from the dead – physically or metaphorically – that we might want, but God will ALWAYS be there when we need comfort and compassion.  In the worst of times, we never walk alone – Jesus the definition of compassion is right there.  All we have to do is ask and He will walk with us, talk with us, care for us no matter what happens.

Amen.

Trinity Sunday, What Does It Mean? Fr. Bedingfield, May 22nd

May 22, 2016
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In the name of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Do you want to know what goes through the preacher’s head as the Gospel is about to be read on Trinity Sunday?  It goes something like this, “Joy, joy, joy!  It’s that time of year again!  Breathe deeply, quickly utter several prayers during the last stanza of the Sequence hymn, and, if need be, grip the sides of the pulpit to steady yourself.  Don’t remember Brother Elric, the twelfth-century monk who, after botching a sermon on the Trinity, took a vow of silence for the rest of his life.  It would be better to remember the words of Frederick Buechner, who so aptly remarked, ‘Sermons are like dirty jokes, even the best ones are hard to remember.’”

This is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after the feast of the Pentecost.  This is one of the odd times in the church year where we celebrate not an event, nor a person, but a doctrine.  On most of the “special” Sundays, there is a Gospel text that speaks directly to our celebration.  Not so today.  It is the DOCTRINE of the Holy Trinity we hold up in celebration this morning, and that is cause for some explanation.  

A few years ago, I attended a continuing education conference at the Seminary of the Southwest, where we studied John’s Gospel.  It was a good conference, but at one point we had a discussion that surprised me a little.  One of our instructors was trying to get us to read John’s Gospel through more “pure” eyes, if you will.  She wanted us to remove the lenses we had built up over the years of hearing other people explain what John was saying; lenses of the other Gospel accounts being laid over the top of John for the sake of harmony, lenses of our own experience in the world jaundicing how we hear John’s words; and the lenses of Episcopal tradition and reason.  That’s where I ran into a problem.  

In the context of trying to get us to look anew at how John describes “the Word – λόγος (Logos) of God,” commonly understood to be Jesus, one instructor referred to the Nicene Creed and its statement of the Trinitarian God we believe in, as the “Classic Comics version” of who God is.  That comment sparked my need to defend the Creeds of the Church as well developed and valid statements of how we believe in God.  I was a little surprised at how strongly I felt that need to defend our creedal beliefs.  That set me wondering, what is so important about the Holy Trinity and what does the doctrine say about what we believe?

We believe in one God – the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.  We believe in God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.  Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We all know this version of the Holy Trinity and more or less accept it as written.  We understand God the Father, who made everything that is and walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve.  We have a little more difficulty with the Christ, but we still basically get that Jesus was 100% human AND 100% divine; God incarnate who – as John says at the beginning of his Gospel, was with God in the beginning, and in fact WAS God.  And last week’s Pentecost readings make somewhat clear the Godly aspect of the Holy Spirit.  That is the power of God at work in the world.  But we should remember that Genesis starts with the story of the Spirit of God moving across the water.  So Scripture says that all three aspects of God have been alive and at work since before time began.  But how do we get our heads wrapped around what this doctrine of the Trinity really means?  And is there any value in such a study?

For centuries theologians have tried to find a way of expressing the Holy Trinity in some way that would really connect with people – really grab them with its reality, no matter how hard it might be to get the concept of “three in one, one in three,” logically.  St. Patrick is said to have taught the pagans of Ireland about the Trinity by using the image of a shamrock, three leaves and one entity.  The image of the Trinity in liturgical vestments is many times still an equilateral triangle with three interlocking circles, which, when rendered by some artists, looks for all the world like a shamrock without the stem.  But that image does not do it for many people.

I have said in the past that it was in this struggle to find an acceptable metaphor to explain our trinitarian understanding of God that I came upon the one I like the best, and it is the image of Taylor’s hair.  Donna often does Taylor’s hair in at least one braid.  These braids start at one in the same place – Taylor’s entire head of hair.  And that head of hair is split into three equal and distinct pieces, which are then wound into and out of each other so that they remain distinct but completely intertwined, until they come back together at the end to be indistinguishable from each other again.  Remove one strand and the braid collapses.  Comb the hair together and the braid ceases to exist.  That is Trinity.

But the most important thing about Trinity – the thing we should never forget is – WE, HUMANS invented the concept in order to try to put into words what we had already EXPERIENCED.  Let me say that slightly differently, humanity experienced God’s presence and then tried to explain it as God the Father/Creator, God the Son/Redeemer and God the Spirit/Sustainer.  We knew God, then we tried to describe God.

Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Nicodemus (a Pharisee) came to Jesus.  Nicodemus said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  In the 1977 mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth, Lawrence Olivier played Nicodemus and had this great ability to seem both wise and wondering at the same time.  That is the way that I visualize Nicodemus — both wise and full of wonder.  When Nicodemus came out to talk to Jesus, he probably did not think that he was going to meet the Word of God.  He also probably did not go out to that place expecting to see God the Redeemer.  Instead, he went out to learn something more about what this rabbi – a man whom he believed to be a “prophet of God” – had to say.  But he got so much more.  

Nicodemus experienced, up close and personal, God Incarnate.  Jesus explained to him about being open to God, about being willing to experience baptism by the Spirit in order to be prepared for discipleship.  Then comes a very important part of the story.  Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”  How indeed.

It is only partly about what we are told concerning heavenly things.  It is much more about how we experience heavenly things here on earth.  Nicodemus experienced, just as we do, a God who is so awesome and all-encompassing that there is no way for us to use words to adequately describe God.  

Saint Augustine said we only gain knowledge of God as Trinity from our knowledge of love.  “Love is of someone who loves,” he said, “and with that love, someone is loved.  So here are three things: he who loves, and that which is loved, and (the) love (itself).  What this means for the Christian community is that our life is based on and in the mutual overflowing love of the Trinity.”  This means that we – the Christian community – in order to experience the wholeness of the Triune God, must be with each other, in community.  We must stay together because to love, without having an object for that love, means the love ceases to exist.  Just like once a single strand of hair is taken out the braid, the braid ceases to exist.  We are the children of the Holy Trinity.  

God loved God’s children so much that, time after time, God made covenants with faithless humans and never turned away from them – always being ready to take them back.  God loves us so much that after the Resurrection, God sent a Holy Spirit to comfort, encourage and empower us on the way.  And God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to the end that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Let me close with the wonderful trinitarian words of the Apostle Paul in the second letter to the church in Corinth.  “Finally, brothers and sisters, .…  Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.  Greet one another with a holy kiss.  All the saints greet you.  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

Amen.

Holy Spirit, Unpredictable Power, May 15

May 16, 2016
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In the name of One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

         Pentecost Sunday – known in the Church of an earlier day as Whitsunday – has been called by some, “the birthday of the Christian Church.”  While we could argue about whether Christmas, Easter or Pentecost is the REAL birthday of the Church, it is pretty well agreed that these three Holy Days are of equal importance and stature within the Church calendar.  They are all “high Holy Days.”

         Pentecost celebrates the existence of the Holy Spirit as one of the three persons of God – the Holy Trinity.  It is one of my strongly held beliefs that the Holy Spirit is the misunderstood and ignored member of the Trinity – sort of the way middle children feel in a family.  You’ve got the oldest – the one who is clearly in charge amongst the children – that would be God the Father, the creator of all that is.  Then you have the youngest – the cute one and the one everyone loves – that would be Jesus, the member of the Trinity with whom we all identify.  Finally, we have the middle child – the one who often isn’t seen and gets ignored unless he acts up or acts out – the Holy Spirit, the member of the Trinity that (just as with we middle children) is the true life force in the family. 

We have two basic problems with the Spirit.  First is this lack of personification.  We can put faces with the other members of the Trinity – God the Father with white beard and a golden throne (or at least a “fatherly” image) and Jesus in tunic and sandals, with little children all around His feet, but there’s no way to put a face with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is described in Scripture as: the wind, the breath of God, a dove and tongues of flame.  It is very hard for humans to identify with a breeze or a bird or fire.  But it is the Holy Spirit with whom we – you and I – have had most of our more memorable encounters. 

One spring, when I was in elementary school, kite flying became a craze again.  All the boys in my neighborhood bought or built kites and we would get together after school in an open yard and fly them together.  Some of the boys had kite battles where they would ram their kites into each other’s, trying to make each other crash and burn.  But when I finally got the perfect kite – a multi-colored box kite that flew effortlessly – I wanted nothing to do with fighting, I wanted to fly for time and distance.  So my friend and I tied three spools of string together and I started letting it go up and up, higher and higher, until I could no longer see my kite – only the string going up and disappearing.  But even when I could no longer see the kite, because it was so far up, I still knew it was there.  I could still feel it tugging at my hand with every gust of wind – or breath of God.  That’s the way most of us experience the Holy Spirit, a tugging at our heart and mind that animates us, or makes us do something we would not otherwise have done.  It was the Holy Spirit tugging at her heart that moved Donna to agree to Taylor’s adoption.  It was the same Spirit nagging at my mind and heart that moved me to give up a career, suffer the slings and arrows of a discernment process and go back to school in order to become ordained.  That was the Holy Spirit in action.  And it has happened to each and every one of you, too – if you only recognize and acknowledge it.

But there is something else about the Holy Spirit that makes us tend to push it to the back of the Holy Trinity pack – makes us ignore it for as long as we can before acting.  Something that I think is more important than our inability to personify the Spirit.  And that is, the Spirit is completely uncontrollable.  As Jesus said, “the wind blows where it chooses.”  That’s the Holy Spirit – blowing where it chooses.  The wind can cool us off on a hot day, but as this community knows all too well after Rita came through, the wind can also be incredibly dangerous because of its uncontrollability.  A fire can keep us warm or cook our food, but fire can also destroy everything we have and even take our lives if it burns beyond what we can handle.  The Holy Spirit is God’s power at work in the world.  If there’s one thing we should give appropriate respect to, it’s the power of God’s Spirit.

Given the unpredictability and potential danger of the Holy Spirit, how do we go about harnessing its power to do the work that God has given us to do?  As Hamlet so aptly put it, “therein lies the rub.”  We CANNOT harness the power of the Spirit.  The Spirit is truly the power of God at work and can only do what God wills it to do. 

In his book, Wisdom of the Desert, the Trappist monk and noted Roman Catholic author, Thomas Merton, told a story of a fourth century group of monks in an Abbey,

Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: ‘Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?’  The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands into heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire.  He said, ‘Why not be totally changed into fire?’

Totally changed into fire ….  The power of the Holy Spirit at work.  The awesomeness of the power is hard to imagine, but so is the danger. 

         The danger of having the Holy Spirit really and truly at work in our lives is that, in order to make room for the Spirit’s indwelling we must completely and totally surrender to it.  We must give ourselves over to the power – and unpredictability of the Spirit and go with it where it chooses.  That means giving up control over our lives and making room for God to be in charge.

         How does this Holy Spirit power at work in our lives look?  It looks amazingly like walking into a dense fog, not knowing what will be there when we take our next step, but believing that walking is the right thing to do – and continuing to take one step after another, in faith that God will lead the way.  It involves risks like:

v When Donna and I agreed to adopt a baby whose medical status was very much unknown to us; or moving from Houston to Silsbee while we still had a house to sell in Houston, with no guarantee that things would work out as we wanted them to, only a belief that they would work out.  Or

v Beginning new programs around here with no way to foresee how they will be received, only knowing that the Spirit is nagging and pulling in new directions.  Or

v Making changes in the way we do, or have done things, not because one way seems better than another, but because the power of the Spirit seems to be pulling in a different direction.

The Power of the Spirit is about risk.  It’s about danger.  It’s about change.  But it’s also about faith – growing faith – deepening faith – POWERFUL faith; a faith in a VERY real, very PALPABLE God, a God who may not do things the way we want them done, nor in the time we would like them done, but a God who, given our acquiescence, definitely has the POWER to DO things in our lives.

              The Spirit is here.  That rushing you hear is not just the air conditioner, it’s the Spirit blowing through as well.  Are you ready?  Buckle your seatbelts.  It’s going to be a wild ride, but it will also be the most spiritually fulfilling thing you’ve ever done.  Let go of the reins – God is in charge and the power of the Spirit is driving.  Let us bless the Lord whose power can do infinitely more than we can ever ask or imagine.

Amen.

St. Paul and the Jesus Movement, Fr. John Bedingfield March 13th

March 13, 2016
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In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

            We started the service by praying this:  Almighty God … Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; ….  That says a lot.  Let’s look at what we are asking for today.

            We want God’s grace – to love what God commands.  According to Jesus, what God commands is simply this: that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and that we love our neighbors as ourselves.  Jesus said that all the law and the prophets – in other words, everything else in the Bible – hangs on those two commandments.  Jesus also said that we are supposed to love one another the same way the Jesus loves us.  So today we asked for God’s grace that we be able to do those things.  When we just read the words in Scripture, it seems pretty simple – and pretty easy.  However, we know from experience that loving God and loving each other the way Jesus loves us, is much more complicated than it seems.  So let’s see what else we prayed for.

            We asked for God’s grace to desire what God promises.  What promise might that be?  In Jesus we learn that the promise He brought us was nothing short of everlasting life.  In the single most famous line in Scripture, St. John tells us that Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in Him should not perish but might have everlasting life.”  God’s promise to us is: that we are beloved children of God the Father and that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been given entry into heaven as a result of God’s grace alone.

            Finally, we prayed that, “among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found …”  This is the one that is purely up to us.  Sure, we asked for God’s grace that it might be accomplished, but make no mistake, this one is 100% on us.  We have asked simply that God support us in all of the weirdness and uncertainty of our lives, and that we may open our hearts to the truth of Jesus Christ – where true joys are to be found.

            Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry uses the term, the Jesus Movement to describe what it means to fix our hearts where true joys are to be found.  He calls all Episcopalians to be not only followers of Jesus, but lovers of Jesus as well.  He talks often about how we are to come together as we are today, in order to be fed and nourished in order to carry out the work of the Jesus Movement in the world.  He believes that we will indeed find true joy by going out beyond our church walls and engaging the community.

            Now it is crucial to remember that what Bishop Curry is talking about is not the same thing as going on a traditional mission trip.  Now please don’t get me wrong, there is NOTHING wrong with a traditional mission trip, in which people go and help another community by providing what that community needs, and perhaps giving a helping hand in deploying their newly received assistance.  That is good and godly work.  But Bishop Curry is talking about something else – something in addition to that other work.

            He is talking about our going out and creating relationships with the people who are in need in our local communities.  That means that we go out and meet them on the same plane they occupy, not as the people who have come to write checks and save them; but as the people who care about their day-to-day lives and want to partner with them in improving those lives.  That is the work that Jim Lambert and his faithful group of men are doing with AMI Kids, and that is the work that St. Paul did when he traveled around.

            In today’s reading from Philippians, Paul was writing from a prison cell, to the first Christian community he founded, in what is modern-day Greece.  This church had been in his heart since the time that he gathered them together and became one of them.  At the time of this writing, Paul had been gone from them for a while and there were other teachers who had come in and begun to tell them that the Law of Moses was as important (or more important) than the grace and love of Jesus Christ.  So he wrote to assure them of his love for them, and to straighten out those things that might have begun to be confusing.

            So, in inimitable Paul style, he told them why he was an authority on the things these new teachers were saying.  He told them that he, Saul of Tarsus (before his name change) was a much better Jew than the ones who were bringing their message to the Church in Philippi.  He said,

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, (meaning the Law of Moses, or what we call the Old Testament) I have more: circumcised on the eighth day (in other words, Jewish from birth), a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin (inferring that he was from the same blood line as King Saul), a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee (Paul had studied under the leading Pharisaic scholar of the day, Gamaliel); as to zeal, a persecutor of the church (referring to what he did before Jesus came to him in a vision and converted him); as to righteousness under the law, blameless (clearly not true, but definitely an effective argument).

Paul wanted the people to know that there was no argument that their new Jewish teachers could make to him, that he had not already considered.  His Jewish pedigree was better than any of theirs and whatever they could teach, he had already taught.

            Then Paul went on to tell his loved ones in Philippi that, since his conversion, he had reevaluated everything in his old life and found no value in it whatsoever.  He said,

I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

         To my way of thinking, St. Paul is the perfect example of what a person who is a part of the Jesus Movement does.  He went to cities and became a partner with the people in creating community – a community that cared for one another and wanted only the best for each other.  And by the way, loving one another as Jesus loved us means just that – that we genuinely care for and want the best for our neighbors.

         So, we prayed today that God would grant us the grace to begin to love one another as Jesus loves us, and then to extend that grace so that we might become more like Jesus – to the end that we could find joy in being Christ-like.  That, it seems to me, may be the best collect we have ever prayed.

         Now, please look in your bulletin and let’s pray it one more time.  Hopefully it will stick with us all this week and we will begin the process of accepting the grace of God that could make our prayer become reality.

         O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen..

The Prodigal Father, Fr. John Bedingfield March 6th

March 6, 2016
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May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength and redeemer.  Amen.


This story of the prodigal son is probably one of the most famous Gospel parables that there is.  It certainly is “Luke’s Greatest Hit.”  This is one that we’ve heard over and over.  And we have heard it explained in so many ways.  But there is something about this parable that I really want to talk to you about this morning, that hopefully will let you see it in different light.


When the Gospels were being written, the authors did not put in headings, like you see in your Bibles today.  Those were added centuries later.  In the original writing, this parable was not called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”  It did not have a title, it was just a parable.  But over the years, someone looked at it and said, “This is a parable about a child going away from the family, wasting all his money and then coming back.  So this is a story of a prodigal son.”  That says something about the person who gave it that title.  That the most important aspect of the story is that the child lost all of the money.  I would submit to you that a better title would be, “The Prodigal Father.”


Prodigal, as you may or may not know, just means “excessive.”  It just means that child spent all of the money — spent it excessively — and so was guilty of “prodigal spending.”  But I would like for you to look at it from the other perspective, from the father’s point of view.  The father loved, and forgave and showed grace to his sons in a very prodigal manner — excessively.  As a matter of fact, the father’s love for his sons was overly abundant.


Think about the beginning of this story.  The young son comes to his father and he says, “Father, give me everything that is mine.  I want to leave town and go away.”  There was a set formula for the way that this would have been done.  There were not wills in those days.  If you were the first son, you got a double share.  All of the other sons got a single share.  And the daughters … got nothing.  So in this case, there were two sons.  The first would have gotten a 2/3 share while the younger son got a 1/3 share.  It was pretty easy to figure out.  So the father gave him what he asked for.  I can tell you that that is not the way THIS father would have handled it.  If my son came to me and said, “Father give me all that is mine,” I would have given him a hearty handshake — not only because that was pretty much all he was going to inherit from me anyway — but also because what the son did was so incredibly disrespectful.  In essence, he walked up to his father and said, “Hey Dad, drop dead.  I’m leaving town.”  That is the essence of what he told his father.  


But the father in the parable was so gracious and loving to his son that he just whipped out his checkbook and sent him on his way with his 1/3.  And of course we know what happens then.  The son goes away and blows all of his money in what the Bible refers to as “dissolute living.”  Each one of you has the power to determine for yourselves what “dissolute living” is.  It can be anything from ordering extra desserts to the use of drugs, or whatever.  But at the end, he was broke — as people who live “dissolutely” always are.


Then he took a job tending pigs.  Have you ever been near a pig farm?  Then you know that there are few places in the world that smell worse than a pig farm.  We, modern city dwellers, think, “Man, that is a horrible job.  I would not have wanted that job.”  But it was a much bigger deal than that, to this guy.  He was a Jew.  And Jews were prohibited from having anything to do with pigs, because they were unclean animals, according to the law of Leviticus.  So not only did he have a horrible job that didn’t pay very well (because he was still starving), but he was also living in a way that violated the tenets of his religion.  


He comes back home and before he even gets there, his father comes out to meet him.  He has a speech that he has been rehearsing all the way home.  It is truly a speech of repentance and confession.  “Father, I am no longer worthy to be your son.  You should pay no attention to me.  But please let me work for you.”  That is truly repentant.  But his father did not even let him complete his confession before he forgives him.  That is some prodigal forgiveness.  That is amazing, incredible forgiveness.  The father is telling him that he understands that the son wants to be forgiven and come home.  He says, “I can hear in your voice that want forgiveness and I give it to you.”  


That would be a great story.  But Jesus doesn’t leave it there.  But Jesus went further.  He turned the story in a different direction, as he often did.  And in that next section, he was saying, “All of your religious authorities back there in the back, this one is for you.”  And he begins to talk about the 1st son.


The older son returns from the fields and refuses to join in the celebration the father has thrown for the second son.  When he sees the celebration going on, he is livid.  And you can just hear, from the way that this is written, that the father has been hearing these complaints for months.  Every night, when they have dinner, the father has to listen to the litany of complaints again: “I still can’t believe that you gave him his whole share!  You let him go away and have a great old time, while we stayed here and worked every day, working the land!”  The father has had to hear it over and over again.  Maybe it was finally starting to settle down, when the younger son returns home.  


And when the older son sees that the younger one has returned — and that thee is a huge party going on — the older brother loses his stuff!  The father goes out to him to try to calm him down, but he is having none of that.  He doesn’t even address his father as “father.”  He is so angry that he says, “Listen!  You have given him everything!  And you have never given me anything!  Not even enough to have a party with my friends!  But I’m the one who has been here EVERY day!  I’m the one who has done ALL of the work!  I’m the one who has been so faithful all these years!  And THIS IS THE WAY YOU TREAT ME!?!  That is unbelievable!”


The Prodigal Father again does not do what this father would have done, which would have been to bow up to my son and say, “Back it up!  Don’t forget that you are talking to your father!”  Instead, the father in the parable says, “I love you.  All that I have is yours and you are here with me all the time.  But I have to throw a party to celebrate that your brother is home.”  After all that the son has said; after all of his disrespect; the father does not even require that the older son repent and confess — he just forgives him.  That is prodigal forgiveness.


This father is the ultimate example for us of what the Father in heaven is like.  This is a way for us to really wrap our minds around who the Father in heaven really is.  That is the point of this parable.  Jesus was telling all of the religious leaders who were standing in the back, “You — second sons back there — you who stayed at home (in the Temple) while everyone else got to go out and enjoy themselves — you who resent everyone else for not being as faithful as you are — Get over yourselves.  The Father loves all of these sinners who are being rescued.  But that does not mean that the Father does not love you anymore.  The Father has never stopped loving you.  Now you need to forgive and love these others.”  That is the point.


We as modern as modern Christians need to keep in mind that when people are different from us, when people have lived different lives than we have lived, when people have gotten angry and gone away from the Church and hurt our feelings, they are still loved by the God who loves us.  We need to love in the same way.  That is point of the story of the Prodigal Father.  Prodigal love, prodigal forgiveness and prodigal grace is what the Father wants from us.  Amen.

The Faith of Abram, Fr. John Bedingfield, Feb 21

February 21, 2016
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In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

         As I have said from this pulpit before, the story of Abraham (or, as he is in today’s story, Abram) and God is one of my favorites.  Abram and Sarai’s story is just so unlikely, so totally outside of our experience, and yet so completely like our walk with God, that it just pulls me in when I read it.  But much more important than the way Abram’s story captivates me, is the deep lesson in faith that we can learn from this incredible servant of God.

         By the time that we get to this morning’s story in the Book of Genesis, we have learned that Abram was a very wealthy man who loved his wife, Sarai very deeply, though the two of them had never been able to have children.  Abram was a deeply faithful man, who followed God’s instructions to a new land that God gave him.  On that land, he built up his herds, riches and slave holdings even further, until his holdings were so large that he and his nephew, Lot had to split up and move away from each other, so that there would be sufficient pasture for each herd.

         Abram was indeed blessed by God.  And Abram was faithful to God.  In the chapter that precedes what we read this morning, Lot and his family had been kidnapped by an army that attacked their home city of Sodom.  Abram found out about it and took all of the men of fighting age who worked for him (318 of them) and staged a raid.  They conquered the opposing army and rescued his nephew.  But Abram refused to take all of the wealth from the defeated army (as was the custom in those days), because he did not want anyone to think that the spoils of war – rather than God – had made him wealthy.  So at the beginning of this morning’s reading, God offers Abram a reward for doing a good deed and for not wanting anyone to think less of God for it.

         When God appeared to Abram, God told him that his reward would be great.  Now here is one of the things that I really love about Abram.  Instead of saying, “Thank you, God.  I appreciate it.” Abram says, (in essence) “I have all sorts of wealth, God.  How are you going to reward me when the only thing that I do not have, that I want, is an heir?  You have never given me a son!”  That exchange between God and Abram was an example of how the two of them communicated.  It was always a conversation when Abram talked with God – not an edict from God that Abram followed.  When these two spoke with each other, Abram never hesitated to tell God exactly how he felt, or to even bargain with God.  And God responded as would a friend.

         Abram complained about not having a son and God’s response was, “‘[N]o one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’  (Then God took Abram outside) and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’  Then [God] said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’”  That is a bold promise for God to make.  It is a particularly bold promise when you consider that Abram was nearing his 100th birthday when God told him this.  But the truly amazing thing here is Abram’s response.

         This time, instead of arguing or complaining or bargaining, Abram, “believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  When the author of Genesis talks about “reckoned as righteousness,” it means that God saw Abram’s response as faithful, and therefore, called it righteousness.  As one commentator put it, “This is a key moment in the text –  in the Bible – in human history.  Abram decides to trust the promise rather than the evidence.  God has been faithful to him in many ways, so he believes that God will be faithful to him in this way as well.[1]”  But even this faithful and righteous man was not above seeking proof.

         Abram then asks God, “How will I know that this is to be true?”  Another reason that I love Abram as a Biblical character is that, in some instances, he is exactly like us.  Here was this very faithful man, who had just confessed to God that he would trust that God’s outrageous promise would be fulfilled; and the next thing he says to God is, “How will I know that it has happened?”  Just like we can be in our relationship with God; at that moment, Abram wanted to trust but verify.  And that led God to enter into a covenant with Abram that affects us today.  God promised that Abram and his natural descendants would possess the land that God gave them, forever.  And the only thing Abram promised, was his continued faith.

         Another thing that we need to learn from Abram is that questioning God is not the same as not having faith.  Abram questioned many times – and even argued with God on one occasion.  But he never lost his faith that God would do what God promised – and more importantly, that this God was one who was worthy of his faith.  So, over and over again, Abram followed where God led.

         I think that all of us would like to have faith like Abram’s.  I have trusted God for much of my adult life – decidedly more, the older I get.  When it came to my mid-life call to ordained ministry, I really had to trust God completely.  There was no way that I could see the whole thing working out as it did.  It was only through completely trusting that God was in charge that I got through all of the ups and downs of the discernment process.  But that doesn’t mean that my faith is perfect, or even complete.  Just like Abram did, after God made the promise, I am not above trying to verify that what God said was true.

         But, you know, there is only one way for us to increase our faith, and that is through exercising it.  Our faith is no different than the muscles in our bodies.  If we exercise it by testing it under all sorts of conditions, we will see that God is always faithful … and our faith will be stronger the next time it is put to the test.  But if we never step out in faith – if we never take risks that God has asked us to take – we will sit by idly as our faith atrophies and withers away.  Trust in God.  Step out in faith and find out just how faithful God really is.

            Here is a modern story of faith that will hopefully set this in your mind.  Charles Blondin became famous on September 14, 1860, when he became the first person to complete a tightrope walk across Niagara Falls.  People from both Canada and America came from miles away to see this great feat.

He walked the ¼ mile across, 160 feet above the falls, several times, each time making it harder for himself.  Once, he did the walk in a sack; once on stilts; then on a bicycle; in the dark; and blindfolded.  One time he even carried a stove and cooked an omelet in the middle of the rope!

A large crowd gathered and the buzz of excitement ran along both sides of the bank. The crowd really “Oohed and Aahed” as Blondin carefully walked across pushing a wheelbarrow holding a sack of potatoes.

The crowd cheered wildly as Blondin addressed them: "Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?"

The crowd enthusiastically yelled, "Yes!  You are the greatest tightrope walker in the world.  We believe you can do it!"

"Okay," said Blondin, "Who wants to get into the wheelbarrow."  There was complete silence.

The crowd watched his daring feats.  They said they believed in him.  But... putting their faith into action was a real problem.[2]

As a postscript to the story, one day, Blondin's manager, Harry Colcord, did ride on Blondin's back across the Falls.  I Googled Harry Colcord just to make sure and he did NOT die by being dropped into Niagara Falls.  Harry Colcord had true faith in Charles Blondin.  He was pretty close to Abram as far as the Blondin story goes. 

Faith is an easy thing to talk about but a hard thing to perfect.  But like most things in life, practice makes perfect.  This Lent is a great time to exercise your faith muscles as you learn to trust God in all things.  Amen.



[1]  Richard Donovan, www.lectionary.org

[2]  http://www.inspire21.com/stories/faithstories/CharlesBlondin

Temptation of Comfort Food, Fr. John Bedingfield, Feb 14

February 21, 2016
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In the name of God who became human and faced temptations as we do.  Amen.

         From the time I was in preschool, up through about junior high, whenever I was sick and stayed home from school (not those times where I faked it because I hadn’t done my homework, but when I was really sick) my mom would make a pot of potato soup and that is what I would have for lunch.  For as long as I can remember, potato soup has been one of my comfort foods.  “Comfort food,” is defined as, “food that comforts or affords solace; hence any food … that is associated with childhood or with home cooking.”

         Now … think about a time when you fasted intentionally.  I don’t just mean a time in which you were so busy that you skipped a meal, but rather a time when – for whatever reason, you decided not to eat.  Maybe you were having “a procedure” done and you were told, “nothing to eat or drink after midnight;” or maybe it was a Lenten discipline under which you did not eat from sunup to sundown; whatever it was, you were hungry.  When you don’t eat, you get hungry.  But when you choose not to eat for some reason, your hunger seems to double or quadruple in size and intensity.  Now imagine it has been 39 days since you chose to eat.  That’s what Luke’s Gospel tells us happened with Jesus in the wilderness.

         What might have been going through Jesus’ mind as He walked alone that day?  Scripture tell us that Jesus was 100% God, but also 100% human.  That being the case, in the 40th day of a fast, I promise you Jesus was hungry!  And because He was human, I promise you He had His favorite comfort foods as well.  On that day, as He was walking through the wilderness, He may have been thinking about the lentil soup that Mary made when He was a child.  Whatever it was, I’ll bet that Jesus had more than passing thoughts of home cooking as Satan approached Him.

         Satan said to Jesus, If you are God, command that rock to become bread.  This is why I asked you to remember a time when you were really, intentionally hungry.  After you’ve had your “procedure” or after the sun has gone down, or whatever the triggering event may be … wouldn’t you eat just about anything – and love every bite?  I remember lying on a gurney in a recovery area one time … it was almost 4:00pm and I hadn’t eaten since about 7:00pm the previous night.  A nurse walked up and asked if I would like to have a package of peanut butter crackers and a cup of ice water.  At that moment in time, that was the most delicious thing I had ever had – and if she had wanted to make a deal with me for those crackers and water, I’d have considered selling my soul.

         Jesus – six weeks without food – and an equal time without human company – and the great tempter came up to Him and offered what He probably longed for even more than peanut butter crackers … comfort food … homemade bread.  And because Satan followed up the food offer by tempting Jesus with promises of enormous power over the world around Him; the lure of comfort food – that reminder of the simpler time of childhood – must have been incredibly strong.  That is temptation!

         We all face temptations that – in their own ways – are just as hard as what Jesus faced that day.  During this season of Lent we are supposed to have our usual temptations brought into sharper focus for us by adding Lenten disciplines to our lives – disciplines that invite us to be tempted to give them up.  But it is not just in Lent that we face temptations.

         When we think of Satan, we think of the scary creature of movies like The Exorcist, or we think of the guy in the red long johns, with the horns, pitchfork and pointed tail.  But that cannot be the way Satan is – otherwise, why would anyone be tempted by him?  No, if Satan is going to tempt anyone, he has to be very alluring and attractive.

         In the film, The Devil’s Advocate, Al Pacino plays the devil incarnate in the character of John Milton (a name meant to remind of the author of the epic poem about the fall of man, Paradise Lost).  Milton is the senior partner in the law firm of Milton, Chadwick, Waters.  The film deals with the meteoric rise to fame, power and wealth of small-town lawyer, Kevin Lomax, who is recruited by Milton to become an integral part of his prestigious Manhattan firm.  Kevin ignores the warning signs about Milton and his firm until it is too late for him to get away.  And the reason that he gets sucked so deep into the devil’s lair is quite simply that Satan understands humans and tempts them, in very alluring ways, with what they most desire. 

         In the case of Kevin Lomax the temptation was success in his chosen profession.  John Milton was smooth, charismatic and successful himself.  And he promised Kevin everything Milton seemed to have: wealth; possessions; prestige; but most of all … a life in which he never lost a case in court.  The temptation was so great that when Kevin’s wife began to suffer a mental and emotional breakdown, it seemed completely reasonable for him to tell Milton that as soon as he finished trying his case, he would turn all his attention to helping his wife recover.  That’s how Satan works.  We are tempted to follow his ways – to gain what we want – to be who Satan tells us we deserve to be – and then when we take the offer, we find out that the price is very high – like hurting those we love.

         What are your temptations?  What is it that your evil nature will allow you to seek after – even in the face of proof that your temptation is bad for you?  Like Kevin Lomax, are you tempted by money and possessions to abandon, or at least ignore your family?  Are you tempted by your taste buds to eat more than you should?  Do you drink to excess or use other substances because you are tempted by the need to forget about real life for a while?  Or is it something as seemingly innocuous as being tempted to sleep late or play golf on Sunday morning instead of attending worship services?  We are all tempted – and always by those areas of our lives where we have the biggest weaknesses, but in which our egos tell us we are completely in control.  Fortunately for us though, just like Jesus we have the tools at our disposal to be able to resist The Great Tempter when he comes calling in all his alluring attractiveness. 

         Jesus resisted Satan, not by running away, nor by arguing with him.  Instead, Jesus pointed out to Satan what God had previously said on the subjects at issue.  Jesus used Holy Scripture to point out to Satan just how far from God’s choice of paths the devil wanted Him to go.  We have that same tool in our tool kits. 

         So the next time you are tempted by something that seems alluring – but somewhere in the back of your mind (or somewhere in the recesses of your heart or soul) you feel that twinge that is trying to tell you something – take a serious look at your temptation (and your tempter).  Then consult with God, through Scripture and prayer, and see what it is that God wants – rather than what you and Satan know is just a beautiful trap.

         If you don’t feel prepared to respond to your temptations through the use of Scripture, we can fix that.  If you don’t feel prepared to respond through the use of prayer, we can fix that as well.  But if you’re not here – if you’re not in the midst of a loving and supportive community of faith … the tempter has a real edge because you fight alone and with one hand tied behind your back. 

         If you want the skills and abilities to be able to deal with the dangerous temptations in your life, come here to the place where you can gain the skills and support you need … and more importantly where you can come to the altar rail and receive the TRUE comfort food … the bread and wine of communion … the Body and Blood of our Lord.  The only comfort food we ever really need and the source of our ability to resist any and all temptation.  Amen.