We Are All Blind Sometimes Fr. John Bedingfield Mar 26

March 26, 2017
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One sunny May day in Central Park, a blind man was seen tapping for attention with his cane and carrying on his chest a sign: “Help the Blind.” No one paid much attention to him. A little farther on another blind beggar was doing better. Nearly every passerby put a coin in his cup, some even turning back to make their contribution. His sign read: “It is May—and I am blind.” Blindness vs. sight – those who can see versus those who believe they can see – that is the message of today’s readings.

In 1st Samuel, Jesse brings his sons to the prophet, so that the next king of Israel and Judah can be chosen. But God does not see the young men the same way that the prophet Samuel does. The prophet was blind to what God sees in a king. Fortunately, he was not deaf as well as blind. Ultimately he listened as God selected David to be king.

In the Epistle, St. Paul tells the church in Ephesus,
Once you were darkness, (in other words, blind) but now in the Lord you are light (you can see). Live as children (who have sight) -- for the fruit of (having a vision of Christ) is found in all that is good and right and true.

Paul wanted the Ephesians to know that Jesus had delivered them from their spiritual blindness and that slipping back into it was not an option. And then there is the Gospel.

Jesus heals a man born blind. The first thing that we must understand is that this man was – in the minds of the people in 1st Century Palestine – not just born blind, but he was born without eyes. That is why Jesus spat on the ground and made mud that he put on the man’ eyelids. It is a reminder of God creating humans out of the earth, in Genesis. Jesus did not heal the man – he created something out of nothing, just as God did with human beings. But this is not just a Genesis-like creation story, there is a second (unspoken) miracle that takes place here. In this case, Jesus also had to instantly rewire the man’s brain. People who are born blind have no connections that would allow their brains to interpret what their new eyes can see.

So Jesus performs a double miracle of creation and then sends the man to the pool of Siloam to complete the process by washing. In this nod toward the rebirth of baptism, the man does as Jesus instructs and immediately is able to see. “Siloam” means “sent” or “sent one.” In the context of the story, the man is healed not by the waters of Siloam, but by the “Sent One”—Jesus. And the rest of the story deals with who can see and who cannot.
I read something this week that encapsulates this story in a wonderful way.

The author, Dr. Peter Gomes, says:
This passage is full of delicious irony:
• The blind man sees, but those who have eyes choose to close them to the truth.
• The authorities call the man to give glory to God by denouncing Jesus as a sinner, but the man gives glory to God by witnessing to Christ.
• The authorities continue questioning, trying to find a hole in the man's testimony. He responds by asking if they want to become Jesus' disciples.
• The authorities say that Moses' authority comes from God, but they do not know where Jesus comes from––implying that he must not come from God. The man responds by pointing out the obvious truth, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing!”
• The authorities imply that one cannot be a follower of Moses and Jesus, but must choose one or the other. The message of the Fourth Gospel is that one can be faithful to Moses only through faithfulness to Jesus.
• The authorities repeatedly use the phrase, “we know,” but repeatedly reveal their ignorance (and their blindness).
• The authorities accuse the man of trying to teach them. The reader is aware that he is capable of doing just that, but they refuse to learn (or to see).

This whole story is a wonderful example of St. John’s use of irony. The healing of the blind man is a signpost that points directly to Jesus as the Christ. But the Pharisees, the supposedly all-knowing and visionary leaders of Israel, cannot – or will not – see the truth. And I would submit to you that we – modern Christians – can be every bit as blind as the Pharisees, about whom we love to feel very superior.

Christian Wiman is an American poet and former editor of Poetry magazine. He was raised in a Texas Southern Baptist home and was steeped in faith during his childhood. But during and after college, he says that he would not call himself an atheist, but rather that his faith went “underground,” much the way a hibernating animal might. And it was years before his faith stirred from its slumber.

He says that sometime in 2002, he fell into a deep and unexplainable despair. He could no longer write. He says that he does not know if that was the cause or an effect of his despair. But as it hit its low point, he unexpectedly met and fell in love with the woman whom he would marry. Christian says that he still could not write, but at least the despair was lifted. He says that he and his new wife would occasionally say some small prayer before they ate. That grew into some intentional, if brief prayer time. And then, when they had been married for about eight months, he was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer. It was then that Christian says the light of Christ – the truth of Jesus – began to shine in a way that was undeniable. In other words, the erudite, well-educated man who wrote poetry that saw the world in ways others could not, had been blind for decades, but now had been given new eyes by Jesus.

In a series of essays, entitled My Bright Abyss, Christian wrote,
Just as some of Jesus’ first-century followers could not credit the presence of the risen Christ, so our own blindness, habit, and fear form a kind of constant fog that keeps us from seeing, and thereby believing in, the forms that grace takes in our everyday lives. We may think that it would be a great deal easier to believe if the world erupted around us, if some savior came down and offered as evidence the bloody scars in his side, but what the Gospels suggest is that this is not only wishful thinking but willful blindness, for in fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.

Whether or not we want to admit that our blindness is caused by “dullness” of our spirits – in other words, spiritual laziness, we are all plagued with that blindness from time to time. And when our blindness really comes out is when we believe that we, like the Pharisees, are the only ones who can see.
Look around St. Barnabas. Do you believe that you can see what is wrong with the other people around you? Do you believe (at least occasionally) that you know what would be best for some of the other people here? That is spiritual blindness. To look at it slightly differently, do you believe that you are the one who can see the faults of St. Barnabas and know exactly what it takes to fix them? That too is spiritual blindness.

What we see when we look at people or institutions is a thin slice of the whole. It is like when you look at a sheet of paper from its back or front. It appears to be 8 ½ x 11 inches. But if you look at it from the sides or ends, it is incredibly thin. People are complicated, and so are parishes. We only know what we see. And the rest is hidden from our natural blindness.

As you judge other people or things, remember the limitations of your vision. What you may believe to be 20/20 sight, may turn out to be perfect blindness. Jesus is at work in ways you may know nothing about. So just look to Him and His gracious love for your sight. Then you cannot go wrong.

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

The Woman at the Well, Mthr. Mitzi George, March 19th

March 20, 2017
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Two things are important to remember when we are looking at John's gospel. The first is that Word is synonymous with God. And because of that, conversation is vital to John's gospel, like the conversations we have heard both last week with Nicodemus and this week with the Samaritan woman's the well.

The second important thing to remember is revelation, or the revealing of who Jesus is and what God's kingdom looks like, and how it functions. Of course these revelations happen in conversation, like the one we read this morning.

I love the Woman at the Well in John’s gospel. I think it is because she reminds me of me. The woman Jesus meets at the well is a little feisty, a little cynical, and quite capable of holding her own. She certainly does not seem to get intimidated, especially when she encounters this strange Jew, at the well.

In this story, we have a contrast to last week’s gospel reading. In the story of Nicodemus last week, we had a wealthy, Jewish leader whose name we know well, a leader, an upstanding Jewish leader. The Samaritan woman is an outcast with no name. She is an outcast in the Jewish tradition because she is a Samaritan, but perhaps an outcast in her own community too, for moral reasons.

 Nicodemus wanted to meet Jesus, while the Samaritan woman had an unexpected encounter with Jesus. She probably had never heard of him.

 Jesus never tells Nicodemus who he is, he leaves the conversation with Nicodemus still wondering, but he tells the Samaritan woman exactly who he is.

 Nicodemus met Jesus in secret, in the dark, while the Samaritan woman meets Jesus in broad daylight at a public place. Even though the meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus would not have broken any taboos, the meeting between Jesus and the woman at the well, however, was taboo on many levels, for both the woman and Jesus.

 It is obvious that John has an important agenda to address in his gospel. From the beginning of this gospel, John wants us to know and understand that God’s kingdom is inclusive and non-judgmental.

 John announces early in his gospel that God’s kingdom is broader, bigger, more far-reaching than anyone had ever imagined. John wants us to know that God loves the world far more than we can ever comprehended.

 The writer wants us to know that Jesus did in fact come to his own people, but the mercy and benevolence of God was always going to spread beyond the Jewish community. From the beginning, God’s kingdom was intended for the whole world according to John; and with the advent of Jesus Christ, God’s grace was breaking into the world.

That point is poignantly illustrated in this dialogue between the Samaritan woman who had experienced shame and ridicule and the Son of God who was tired and thirsty. In this story at the well, a thirsty Messiah and a quick-witted woman find out that they need each other. This is a wonderful metaphor for how God and humanity are intimately connected.

Ironic that the Messiah who feeds five thousand in the wilderness, requests the help of a Samaritan woman, because he is thirsty. The same Messiah who turned water into wine at the wedding at Canna, needed this woman to draw water from the well, so he could drink.

Throughout John’s Gospel conversation seems to be key in discovering who Jesus is and what he has to offer. Conversation is essential for building faith. In John’s Gospel relationship and faith go hand in hand. It matters that the revelation of who Jesus is and the woman’s awareness of who he can be for her happens in conversation. Their conversation is symbolic of what true relationship looks like -- supportive, reciprocal, respectful, and honest.

Without real conversation, we lack intimacy and understanding, connection and empathy. Without real conversation, we risk detachment and distance from one another and from God, or in other words, we risk sin.

The church can be and should be the place that shows society what authentic conversation sounds like. The church is supposed to be the place that demonstrates how dialogue about faith might result in mutual respect and tolerance. Lord knows, we need that today more than ever. But what does real conversation look like? The dialogue between the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus provides an outline that not only offers a model for real conversation but also points to the very nature of God.

First, the conversation begins with mutual vulnerability. Jesus is thirsty and she needs that living water that only Jesus can provide. That is where truthful conversations must start -- from a place of mutual vulnerability, from a space that recognizes that each party risks being known and being seen. I suspect that very few conversations begin with the expectation of vulnerability, yet theological conversations have to start there because this is a fundamental characteristic of God.

Second, questions are critical to conversation. Not questions in which one party or the other has already determined the right answers, not questions asked only to pretend polite or interest. Questions that communicate curiosity, a genuine interest in the other, a longing for knowing and understanding, those are the kinds of questions I am talking about. The woman at the well is full of questions, thoughtful questions, questions that matter and lead Jesus to reveal to her who he really is.

Jesus affirms questions, even invites them. God wants us to ask questions because it is in the questioning that our relationship with God is strengthened. I have met so many people who have lamented about questioning faith issues. My response is always the same; “Don’t apologize for questioning the faith, or God; that is how we grow closer to God and stronger in faith.”

When it comes to having a conversation with Jesus or about Jesus, expect to be surprised. Expect God to reveal something about God’s self that you have never seen before. In John’s gospel, the woman, at the well, is the first one to whom the true-identity of Jesus is revealed. The first absolute I AM in the Gospel of John was not to the Jewish leader or to the disciples, but to her, a religious, social, political outsider. This is who God is, it is how God works. John reveals early in the gospel that this God loves the whole world.

When we risk those honest conversations about faith and God we have to anticipate being changed in the process. The woman at the well goes from being shunned to being a witness, from dismissed to disciple, from alone to being one of the flock.

When we have honest and open dialogue with others, Jesus is there with us and God’s grace breaks in all around us. That is what the Samaritan woman experienced; she recognized grace breaking in on her life and recognized it in Jesus. It did not matter that she was a Samaritan. It does not matter where we are coming from either. What matters is that we recognize Christ in our conversations with others, with one another and even with strangers.

Jesus says, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth.”

That is what the woman at the well did.  She met Jesus by chance in the mundane routine of her daily life.  She was not afraid to be honest or truthful. She was vulnerable and allowed the truth to set her free.  She then took that freedom and shared it with the others in her community. That is what we are supposed to do, share our story, share our experience of God’s grace and our encounters with Christ.

What redeeming or transforming experience have you had because you have met and conversed with Jesus Christ?  Those are the stories that draw others to Christ, our story, our personal encounters, our personal story of faith and vulnerability. No one needs to know how well versed you are in scripture or liturgy. What we need to know is how Christ has touched you or been present in your life.

Yesterday I had an hour-long phone conversation with a senior seminarian at Virginia Theological, who had contacted me because she had heard of our mission work in Navajoland. She was writing her thesis on mission and how mission impacted relationship. I told her relationship was key to all we do when we do mission, here at St. Barnabas. Relationship is what results from honest conversation, mutual respect, and genuine care. Relationship is where we encounter the living Christ. Relationship is the key to what happened between Jesus and the woman at the well.

So anytime you want to share your story with me, or you want to hear mine, please feel free to engage me in conversation, and please know questions are always encouraged. But remember, I am a little feisty, a little cynical, and quite capable of holding my own.

Amen

“Finding our swing,” through the Holy Spirit, Fr. John Bedingfield, March 12th

March 12, 2017
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         New Testament scholars are all over the place in their theories of why Nicodemus came to see Jesus in the night.  Some believe that Nicodemus wanted to make certain that his fellow Temple leaders did not see him meeting with this renegade rabbi, Jesus.  After all, the rest of the Temple authorities were actively trying to get Jesus arrested and crucified.  And that certainly seems like a valid reason that this man would have snuck out at night and come to inquire of Jesus, while no prying eyes could see.  But here is what I think.  I think that Nicodemus came in the night because Jesus was always surrounded by crowds during the day.  I believe that Nicodemus said to himself, “If I am going to talk with Jesus for any length of time, it will have to be at night, when the crowds are sleeping.”

         Of course there is also the symbolism that is always present in John.  Nicodemus comes in the night because darkness represents those who cannot see Jesus for who He really is, and light represents those who can.  But none of those things speaks to why Nicodemus came.

         Nicodemus was a learned man.  A man of great and abiding knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament), and from the perspective of a Scribe, Pharisee or Sadducee (in other words, his peers), he did not need to learn anything from a transient rabbi.  But again, I don’t believe that that is how Nicodemus saw things.  I truly think that Nicodemus came to see Jesus that night, simply because he was a seeker.  He had questions.  He was a seeker of knowledge.  A seeker of wisdom.  A seeker of answers about the Kingdom of God.

         There is a lot of talk in church growth circles these days about “seekers,” those people who visit our church because they are looking for something that they haven’t yet found anywhere else.  Maybe they come here because they have had a bad experience in their previous forays into organized religion.  Perhaps the church of their parents no long comports with their political, social or world view.  Perhaps they feel burned by the religion of their childhood.  Maybe they had no religious upbringing at all and are now curious.  Or maybe they have recently married or otherwise gotten into a serious relationship, and the significant other has a strong religious background.  But no matter where they come from or what their agenda might be when they come through the doors … they are coming through the doors.  And we need to meet them where they are.

         Last September, the Washington Post ran an article entitled: To Attract Young People to Your Church, You’ve Got to be Warm.  Not Cool.  The article talked about research in 250 congregations that concentrated on ages 15-29.  Since the majority of today’s “seekers” seem to be of this millennial age cohort, perhaps the article has something to say to us.  The Post article said that today’s millennial seekers are looking for congregations that are: welcoming, accepting, authentic, hospitable, and caring.  The researchers referred to this as the “warmth cluster.”  They discovered that trying to attract these people with things like “Top 40” Christian music and “cool” ministry programs is not the answer; nor is busyness.  They went further and said that a congregation that is nice to each other also doesn’t work with the young people of the survey.  What the survey showed that young people want, is to belong – a sense of intergenerational family.

         It seems to me that the essence of what these young seekers are after is something that Jesus hinted at, when He was talking to Nicodemus, and that is … the Holy Spirit.  Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”  Here’s a little “inside baseball,” information for you.  When John wrote this Gospel, the word that he used for “wind,” the Hebrew word, “ruach, could mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit.”  So, when Jesus said that the wind blows, He could have been referring to the literal wind, or to the movement of the Holy Spirit – which He references in the next sentence.  I believe that Jesus was trying to lead Nicodemus to an important truth; that we can never get far in our quest for the Kingdom of God, without the power of the Holy Spirit.  And conversely, if we tap into the power of the Spirit, we will always find what we are seeking.

         The generation of millennial seekers – who are the next generation of Church leaders – want an authentic, familial place of worship; a place where people are real people and get along with each other in spite of their warts, their bad breath and their general eccentricities.  And that can only come through the power of the Spirit.

         Do you remember the movie, The Legend of Bagger Vance?  If you don’t, don’t feel bad, thousands of people walked past it in the theaters to see something else.  It was a pretty star-studded film though, with Will Smith, Matt Damon and Charlize Theron leading the cast.  Anyway, Matt Damon is Rannulph Junuh, who had been an almost mythically talented golfer before World War I, but who suffers from what the modern world knows as PTSD, and therefore could, or would no longer play the game.  But in the midst of the Depression, when an exhibition match between the two greatest golfers in the world comes to his former girlfriend’s golf resort.  He reluctantly agrees to be the third player, in part to try to save his Charlize Theron’s character from losing her resort to creditors. 

And into the story comes Will Smith as Bagger – a man with no past, and a penchant for speaking in riddles.  Bagger helps Junuh get ready for the match – and for facing the rest of his life – by helping him to “find his swing,” and “see the field.”  At one point, Bagger says that it doesn’t matter where you want the ball to go, it doesn’t even matter if you are hitting the ball at all.  It only matters that you find the swing you were born with – the one that has gotten away from you because of all of the events of your life.  Bagger says that if Junuh finds his authentic swing, everything will be right, and winning or losing the match won’t really matter.  [Spoiler alert, Matt Damon finds his swing, succeeds in the match and reunites with the love of his life.  Then Bagger disappears.]

         What Bagger Vance (clearly a Jesus character in the film) ultimately taught Junuh was that the Spirit was always there, inside him, and all he had to do was tap into that Spirit, trust it, and be who God intended him to be.  That is the lesson that Jesus was teaching Nicodemus.  And it is a lesson for us.

         St. Barnabas is a place where the Holy Spirit blows through like the wind blows during big scenes in Bagger Vance.  The Spirit is here – alive and active.  And each of you received that same Spirit at your baptisms. 

As this year continues to unfold, we are going to be evaluating how we do what we do here – what we do well and what needs work.  We are going to be finding our swing and seeing again who God intends for us to be.  We are going to try to get as many of you as possible involved in discerning where that powerful Spirit is leading us.  And then we’re going to go out into the world, continuing to serve others as we always have, while we also blaze new paths of caring for the least of God’s children.  And while all of that is going on, we will also appeal to that Spirit to bring us closer to each other – and to seekers who walk through the doors – as we make St. Barnabas the warmth cluster that radiates the Spirit to all who come near.

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

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

February 20, 2017
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The problem with this section of the Sermon on the Mount, as in the rest of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is that it is easy to dismiss it as something that only applies to Jesus’ time and not ours. After all, Jesus’ world was simpler than ours. Jesus’ world view did not have the complexities of our own global realities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

February 12, 2017
00:0000:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 15, 2017
00:0000:00

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

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

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

Merrill said:

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

December 26, 2016
00:0000:00

In the name of the Incarnate God, Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHRIST WAS LOVE.  And He still is, today.

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

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

God bless you all. And Merry Christmas.

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

December 24, 2016
00:0000:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Amen.

Extraordinary Presence, Mthr. Mitzi George, December 18th

December 18, 2016
00:0000:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we waited and waited and no Jesus showed up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I was … offended.

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