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

October 20, 2014
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Render To The One To Whom It Belongs

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

          Finally, we hear Jesus saying something this morning that we can instantly understand.  For the last several weeks we’ve had a series of cryptic sayings, parables and allegories that might have driven us to distraction; but this morning we get a good old saying that we can sink our teeth into.  “Give … to (Caesar) the things that are (Caesar’s), and to God the things that are God's.” 

          This morning we find Jesus in the Temple teaching.  The Pharisees are still trying to trap him into saying something that will make him appear in a bad light.  So they send some of their disciples to ask him a very carefully crafted question.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  It is not often that someone of my limited Greek scholarship disagrees with translators, but this is one such time.  The original Greek does not use the word, “pay,” here, but rather the word doumai (doumai) meaning, “give.”  The Pharisees used this word to make certain that Jesus could not hide behind legal obligation in His answer.  Now the trap that they set is obvious for modern readers who know the story.  If Jesus says yes, it is lawful under Torah to pay taxes, he incurs the wrath of faithful Jews who resent Roman occupation and dominance.  If he says, “No, it is not lawful under Torah,” then the Romans have grounds to arrest Him for sedition.  But Jesus knows this.  That is why he questions them about trying to tempt, or trap Him.

          Jesus’ response to His questioners though, is truly inspired by the Holy Spirit.  He asks these disciples of the most holy and scrupulous of all Jews, the Pharisees, to give him the coin used for taxes.  Apparently one of them whipped out a denarius.  This is interesting because the denarius was equal to a full day’s wages – some say that it would be roughly equivalent to $100.00 today – and this disciple (a student of the religious leaders) had this much rattling around in his pocket.  More interesting though is the fact that one of these devout Jews had this coin in his pocket, in the Temple.  Jesus asks the pointed question, “whose image is on the coin?”  His questioners respond that it is Caesar’s image.  In actuality, what was on the denarius was the reason that no devout Jew should have been carrying one in the Temple.  The coin had Caesar’s face on it alright, but it also had an inscription that said, “Tiberius Caesar, August son of the divine Augustus, high priest,” which made it both idolatrous (for carrying a graven image) and blasphemous (for holding Augustus out as being divine).  So Jesus has already exposed the questioners as being hypocrites who came to trap him, not to really converse with him.  But then comes the coup de gras.  Jesus tells them to give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.  Here, the Greek uses the word, apodote (apodote), which is related to the word doumai (doumai) but means, “to give back.”  And it is here that our lesson this morning takes its interesting turn.

          Rather than what we have most often been taught in our lives, Jesus was NOT trying to define a distinction between the secular and religious worlds here.  Not at all.  Rather, what Jesus was doing was pointing out the absolute and awesome truth of the world.  That which bears Caesar’s image, belongs to Caesar.  Caesar minted it.  Caesar decided its value.  Caesar circulated it and decided what it could be used for.  Therefore, Jesus says, if you believe it appropriate to give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, then do so.  However – and this is a huge “however” – you must also give back to God that which belongs to God.  The implications there are daunting, if not downright frightening.

          The Psalmist says, “Ascribe to the Lord the honor due His name, bring offerings and come into His courts.”  Jesus is saying much more than that!  He is saying to give to Caesar all that bears his image and was made by him.  Give to God ALL that bears God’s image and was created by God.  Suddenly we’re not talking about giving a part of what we have as our weekly, monthly or quarterly offering.  Suddenly we are talking about (as I said two weeks ago) all that we have – indeed, all that we ARE, belonging to God and our need to give THAT back.

          Every year, in every Episcopal Church in the United States, about this same time, in virtually every church, you’ll hear the same things.  Tithe, “proportional giving,” sacrificial giving.  These are all code words for what so many clergy have trouble talking about, money.  You’ll also hear every year phrases like, “time, talent and treasure,” which are code words for, “I really want to talk about money, but I have such a hard time with it, that instead I’ll talk about the other areas of your life where you can give.” 

          Be it good or bad, I don’t have any trouble talking about money up here, and I will tell you right here, today that part of what Jesus is talking about – just a part, but part nonetheless – is money.  Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we should “lay not up for ourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal, but rather lay up for ourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”  Jesus then goes on to say, “for where your treasure is, there also will be your heart.”  Truly, Jesus knew that if you follow the money you will most often find people’s priorities.  Jesus talked a lot about money, because he knew the incredible power it had in most people’s lives and He worried about how the power of money could badly affect people’s relationships with God.  So here, Jesus is not saying, just give the first 10% to God and all will be well.  This goes much farther than that.  This is about dedicating our lives to God.

          Jesus wants us to understand, in no uncertain terms, that it IS about money, but not JUST money.  It IS about time, but not JUST time.  It IS about our talents, but not JUST about our talents.  Give back to God, that which belongs to God.  The sheep on the hill are God’s because He made them.  The grass they graze upon is God’s for the same reason.  Likewise the dirt and rocks in which the grass grows; the rain that waters the grass and the sun which causes it to flourish.  It is ALL God’s and therefore all should be given back.

          Reality check time.  Am I saying that we should all go home and sell everything we have and give all of the proceeds to the poor?  No.  Not unless money and possessions get in the way as we try to know God.  What about all of our “stuff”?  It is not a big deal unless it becomes an obstacle to our dedicating ourselves to God – to our giving back to God that which God has so graciously given us.

          How that will look when we take the opportunity to give back to God, to answer God’s call, will completely depend upon where each one of us is in life.  Some of us don’t feel like we have much in the way of money to give back.  Some of us have what we believe to be an absolute dearth of time to give back.  Some of us feel as though our talents may be less than useful.

          It is up to each of us to look deep inside – to look critically at our own lives and to actively listen for God’s call as we try to discern what it is that God is calling us to give back.  What, in each of our lives, will be so central to who we are that when we give it, it will feel like we have given it ALL back to God?

          Years ago, I knew a man who was, by most standards, wealthy.  He gave more to the church than any other, single giver in the parish.  But to him that did not feel like he was giving it all back.  That’s why he volunteered to handle all of the building and grounds issues at the church.  He didn’t write checks to repairmen, he learned how to do the repairs himself and spent his precious time and energy getting them done.

          I knew a young woman who really struggled financially, but went out of her way to come a long distance to the church so that she could help with the children’s education program.  It felt like it was what God was calling her to do, so she gave the time – difficult though it might be on any given Sunday.

          And I know many people who have given up lives that were successful and full in many ways, in order to follow God’s individual calls to them and to seek ordination, with all of the secular uncertainty that that decision brings.  They have given back their careers because that is what they believe God called them to do.

          Are these people better, or more holy, or closer to God than all of you?  No, just different.  Everyone is called by God, to, as St. Paul says, to exercise the individual gifts we’ve been given.  So this week, let’s all look critically at where the things are that can separate us from God and begin to rid ourselves of them.  Then let’s start, one day at a time, to try to discern God’s call, heed that call and give back to God ALL that God has given us, by walking in the path God has given us and living into the wonder of a life lived faithfully answering God’s call.  We all have to give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.  Now let’s see if we can treat God better than we treat Caesar and give to God ALL of that which is God’s.  Amen.

The Banquet, Mtr. Mitzi George, Oct 12

October 20, 2014
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There was a Baptist minister who noticed this poor ragged family living a couple blocks from his church. He watched the family for a few weeks as he came to work, left on errands, and in the evenings on his way home. After observing them for some time, he realized they often had on the same dirty cloths and usually looked rather un-kept. So, he decided one day to stop and visit with the family to see if he could offer any assistance. After his visit, the preacher thought maybe if they had some nice clean clothes they would come to Church, so he gathered clothing from the congregation in all the appropriate sizes, along with shoes, etc. He went for another visit and gave the clothing to the mother and father who were very appreciative. They did not know how to thank the preacher but kept insisting there must be some way to repay him and his congregation. “Well,” the preacher said, “How about if you all just come to Church Sunday?” “Well, sure, we can do that!” They said. Sunday came and the preacher was so excited that the family was coming to visit, but the family never showed up. Well the preacher was disappointed; and on his way to work on Monday, he stopped by to visit with them again. When the father answered the door, the preacher said, “I thought you all were going to come to Church Sunday, what happened?” The mother and father looked at each other with surprise and then replied, “After we all took a bath and put on those nice clothes you brought us, we looked so good, we thought we should go to the Episcopal Church!”
I know most of us read today’s gospel and think well that is kind of the point Jesus was making. We need to dress appropriately for Church, you now “dress for success, wear your Sunday best, etc.” And, very often when we are approached by those who don’t dress like us, we feel offended, so it’s easy to throw this passage from Matthew up and justify our feelings. After all Jesus told a parable, according to Matthew, about the guest who was thrown out of the wedding feast because he didn’t dress appropriately for the occasion. We certainly don’t want those people who wear overall without a shirt or pants so low they have to spread their legs apart so their pants won’t fall down around their ankles when they walk. I mean we don’t want to see another person’s underwear in our naïve, right? We also do not want to sit next to people who don’t bath regularly, or as often as we think they should, and we can refer right back to this scripture to make our point.
But is that the point of the parable?
This parable is layered and complicated isn’t it? Obviously, a very complex allegory with multiple implications and twists this Gospel is rather unsettling when we dissect it. First we have a king giving a feast or party in honor of his son’s wedding. So naturally he invites all the important business people, the wealthy merchants and land owners from throughout his kingdom. He sends the first invitation and then summons them a second time which is customary in the first century, by the way.
However, the second invitation is met by multiple rejections and then we are shocked by the sudden violence toward the slaves. We weren’t expecting that were we? The king responds to the violence, by engaging in an all out war, he sends in his army and slaughters those responsible for the uprising. All of this sounds more than a little extreme doesn’t it? We have to ask ourselves what is it we need to deduce from this odd story.
Those who were too busy with other things like business, spending time with family, staying home because it was their only day off, or any number of things; they were just too overwhelmed by their lives to make themselves get ready and enjoy the feast. They had excuses not unlike some we have used from time to time.  Things like; “well it’s the only day I have to mow the grass, or I need to take some time for myself today, or take my son fishing, or I haven’t had any time to catch up on my _____________ you fill in the blank. There is always a reason, and excuse not to get up, not get ready, and not come to the feast. We’ve all made excuses like these, even when invited to wedding celebrations haven’t we?  
Now, the violence with which we are faced might make more sense if we look at the violence in the gospel passage from this perspective: the king’s invitation is really a mandating. After all it was the king. One doesn’t really turn down the king. Let’s say that the city that captured and killed the slaves was a city that was already planning a revolt against the king. This city wanted to become its own city-state and decided this was a great time to exert an uprising, or revolt.  The king was preoccupied with making arrangements for his son’s wedding. The people in that city probably didn’t expect such a swift response. They didn’t expect the king to declare war on the city so quickly because of his son’s wedding, but the king did. And once the city was conquered the king returned his attention to the feast. Nothing was going to stop the king from celebrating! Not even a war!
Now that is a bit extreme isn’t it? But that is indeed part of the message. The feast goes on no matter what, the celebration continues and nothing will interfere with it.
You see, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to this parable. A feast that was all ready fully prepared for the invited guests to enjoy, but they didn’t come. They made excuses, all sorts of excuses for not attending the party. There were others who didn’t want to be a part of the king’s kingdom, but even that didn’t stop the celebration. The feast will be filled with anyone from anywhere who is willing to come in and celebrate. The celebration will go on!
But then there is a horrifying twist, isn’t there? That one poor soul who is at the feast who somehow is not appropriately dressed for the feast encounters the king and his wrath. The parable tells us he didn’t have on the right garment.  But let’s remember, this guy comes in from the street, he wouldn’t have had a wedding garment with him if he was getting off work, or if he had been a street beggar. So what’s the deal? What is the point?
Remember this is an allegory. So the garment is a figurative term. Perhaps this guest was not enjoying the feast. Perhaps the inappropriate garment represents his demeanor, his attitude. The king is mingling with the guests and notices this man not being joyful or fully participating in the celebration. Have you ever seen anyone at a party that is looking dismal? There is nothing that will ruin a celebration quicker than a guest who is bringing everyone down. Right?
And of course when we encounter someone like this we think to ourselves; “why don’t they leave, why did they come?” But let’s remember this poor soul was drug in off the street to the king’s feast, he really didn’t have a choice but to be there, and he probably had other things on his mind. The king in our story is enraged at the man’s appearance and has this guest thrown into outer darkness or out of the kingdom completely. A little extreme, yes!
But it’s no more extreme than the rest of the parable. You see I think this parable is an allegory for how God views God’s kingdom. As members of God’s kingdom, God expects us to be joyful, to come willingly to the feast prepared for us, to come to the feast clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and filled with thankful and joyful hearts.
Unfortunately, many come to the feast reluctantly, some stay away from the feast for any number of excuses, some revolt completely and refuse to be a part of the kingdom, and still others come with bad attitudes. But the reality is we are called to be participants at the feast and it’s supposed to be a celebration!
It’s easy to come to a celebration of Holy Baptism, like today’s service, and feel joyful and uplifted because, well, who can look at this sweet child about to be Baptized and not feel warm fussy thoughts? The words of the Baptismal service remind us of God’s love toward us and all of God’s creatures. And we are aware that when we baptize this child we are clothing them in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, placing the light of Christ in his/her head, as my husband’s Sitti (grandmother) used to say.
But what about all the other times we come here to celebrate the sacraments do we come with appropriate attitudes, with appropriate joy? All the times we are invited to this feast we call Holy Communion do we come gladly or begrudgingly? Do we fully participate or are we preoccupied with all the things we should be or wish we were doing?

Christian brothers and sisters, fellow St. Barnabites when you come to the feast of this table not just today but any day, when you come to celebrate this Great Thanksgiving, come with hearts filled with joy, come with gladness, come fully prepared to celebrate. And when you leave this place, carry that joy and gladness into the world. Don’t do as so many Christians do and make it seem as though we live in complete drudgery.  We live in the kingdom of God now, today, not just in the world to come but in the world in which he came and for the world to which he came. So let us with gladness present ourselves in order to celebrate the great feast and be joyful at the reality that we live in God’s kingdom this day and everyday!     Amen.

What If Everything DOES Belong to God? Fr. John Bedingfield Oct 5

October 5, 2014
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In the name of the God who created it all.  Amen.

There is a lot to think about in the parable (or more accurately the allegory) of the wicked tenants that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel.  It is a bit longer than many of His parables and it is pretty involved.  But there is a simple point that we need to ensure we never miss in this story.  That is: the world is God’s vineyard, and we are the managing tenants.

You see, the creator God, has given the entirety of the world to us, its current tenants.  What do you think of when I say that God created everything?  Do you think of: the heavens and the earth; the seas; the birds, fish, and creatures of the land; every plant and every tree?  What about the atmosphere that sustains our lives and the gravity that ties us to the earth?  It is God’s great design that allows all of the plants and creatures of the world to continue to exist and thrive.  But what about this?  Every time our hearts beat, every breath we take happens because God created our bodies to be self-sustaining in that way.  God made our bodies the most amazing machines in existence.  Do you consider all of that when you think of God as creator of the universe?

So God created the world and put us in place as the tenants who live in this vineyard.  We have been asked to care for God’s world, and everything that is in it; to nurture it and build it up; to plant and to tend; to support the cycles of life; so that when the harvest comes in, we might give back to the one who gave us all this abundance.  We are asked to give some small token of our thanks for God having placed all of this in our care.

            All of that means that we are the stewards of this world.  Every year at around this time, we hear that same message.  Historically this is the point at which you expect me to tell you about giving your tithe, ten percent of your income, and how that is your duty to God.  Well … that is definitely part of the message, because I do believe in the tithe as a goal and as a measure of our monetary giving to the church.  But, this notion of being stewards over the whole creation is much broader than that.  Being good stewards means much more than simply having faith enough in God’s provision to allow us to write a check.

            In the allegory, God was understandably angry because the tenants, the stewards of God’s property were keeping everything for themselves and refusing to give back to the provider, that which had been provided for them.  Setting aside our theology of giving, our basic American sense of fairness says that we should do it differently.  God put stewards in place to manage God’s resources and therefore, in fairness and out of respect, the stewards should have given back to God, that which belonged to God.  But what this story tells us, is that everything belongs to God.  Rather than just quietly walking past that concept, trying to pretend that it doesn’t say what it says; think about it for a minute.  What if everything we have is not, in fact ours?  What if everything really does belong to God and we really are just stewards over it all?  What does that do to our understanding of this parable and our part in it?

            Stewards are managers.  They have no ownership interest in property.  Their job is to oversee the use of the property.  An apartment manager may make a living by looking after rental property, but if that manager decides to tear down a building, he had better consult the owner of the property first.  And imagine what would happen if the manager of the local Wal-Mart decided one day – “It is my job to manage all of this.  I think it would be a better idea to make this a car dealership, so I’ll give away all of the merchandise and bring in some used cars.”  The corporate office of Wal-Mart (the owners) might not appreciate that.  It’s the same with our relationship to God and the world.

            So you may be thinking, “This is silly.  I know that I own my house and my cars and my retirement account.”  Yes.  We have legal documents that give us the right of possession and disposal over our houses, cars and the like.  But those documents are in place to keep us from fighting with each other, they have no effect whatsoever on our relationship with God.  Remember the old adage – which contains some true wisdom – no matter how much you own in this world, you can’t take it with you when you die.  So that does not change who REALLY owns all that we have.  For that matter, we do not even own the bodies in which we dwell.  If you don’t believe that, ask someone who has had a heart attack how it worked out when they told their body to stop that nonsense and get back to doing what they wanted to do.  The heart attack victim realizes in an instant that his or her body is not their own.

            No … we’re here for a little while (in the great scheme of life) and God’s creation goes on.  The Native Americans understood this concept.  They did not have disputes over who owned land because they understood that no one did – the humans were only given dominion over the land during their short lives.

We have been given everything in our lives – bodies, minds, souls, and all of the “things” around us, for our care and keeping – not for our ownership.  God, as the landowner in this story, is entitled to receive back from us a portion of what God has given over to us for our care.  How do we do that?  Do we write a check every week or every month (or better yet, give on-line) what for most of us is some amount of money that doesn’t significantly impact our home budget, some amount that is certainly not a sacrifice for us.  OR do we start looking at everything in our lives and try to find meaningful and sacrificial ways to give back?  Ways that better reflect the value we place on what God has given us to manage.  I vote for the latter.

We need to begin to look at everything in our lives as stewardship matters.  We need to see climate change as a stewardship issue.  America’s overuse of oil is a stewardship issue.  The lack of recycling that clogs landfills and creates additional pollution is a stewardship issue.  How we care for our bodies, whether we are healthy or not, whether or not our bodies operate as God designed them, is an issue of stewardship.  As is keeping people alive artificially, long after their bodies have ceased to be viable.  Hording food, water and money (because of some perceived danger looming in the dark unknown of the future) while other people have none of those resources, is absolutely the kind of stewardship issue we hear about from Jesus.  Because when Jesus says, “If you do these things for the least of my children, you do them for me,” He means that the stewards of the planet – all of us – are also charged with caring for all the other stewards.

You see, it’s not just about writing a check or making a payment on-line.  That’s clearly part of it, but only a part.  Stewardship is about committing to changing the way we view our place in God’s creation and then acting like we understand it.  It’s about looking at all things differently and asking, “What would God want me to do to make the most of this, right here and right now?”  The answer will always be, dedicate it to God; give it back freely and gladly for God’s use; and watch it flourish. 

Rather than being the wicked tenants of God’s world, let us – the loving and dedicated stewards of God – try things in a new way this year.  Let’s make 2015 the year in which we see it ALL as God’s property.  And let’s give back to God – through our time, our talents AND our treasure – the way that a faithful manager would return what he managed to its rightful owner.  And then, let’s watch what God does with those offerings and see it all grow and flourish as only God can make happen.  Amen.

Getting Into Heaven Is Just Not Fair Mthr Mitzi George Sept 21

September 28, 2014
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Who Does Jesus Love Most? Fr. John Bedingfield Sept. 28

September 28, 2014
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In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Last week, Mother Mitzi told us that for most of her life she has been a “good girl,” saying that she has given up a lot of things in her life to work for the Kingdom of God.  She went on to say that she was a little resentful that some of the ne’er-do-wells that Jesus talked about might get into the heaven ahead of her.  Since I managed to be in the congregation and hear her last week, I was able to internally nod my head and agree with her.  Clergy tend to initially have a visceral response to last week’s Gospel, even more of a visceral response than do the faithful Episcopalians in the pews.  We all have given up a great deal in our lives to follow where we believe God is leading us, and to give everything we have to help bring the Kingdom here.  And it seems unfair that we would not have places of honor after all of our hard work and sacrifice.

If that was a sort of natural response to last week’s Gospel, how in the world will we all feel about todays?  In this portion of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is telling the chief priests and the elders that he believes them to be people who talk the talk without walking the walk.  Today’s reading follows immediately on the heels of last week’s tough words.  Jesus tells them today,

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.  For John (the Baptist) came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

This is truly one of Jesus’ most scathing take-downs of the religious leaders of His day.  To tell a chief priest or an elder (think Vestry person), that for all of their faithfulness in attendance and belief, they were going to be rewarded by getting into heaven after two of the groups on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, was what is known today as a huge smack down.  And many a good sermon has been written about the difference between talking like a faithful believer and walking like one. 

But … not today.

Today I can’t help thinking about the other huge lesson to be learned from this Gospel reading.  Consider for a moment the implications of this statement – the lowest in society and the ones we consider to be the most notorious of sinners are closer to Jesus’ heart than we might be.  Now that is a message that is hard to hear.  But let’s face it, it is absolutely true.

Jesus does not just say that in this reading.  He says it over and over again: “many who are last shall be first and the first shall be last[1]”; “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance[2]”; And, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.[3]”  And that is just a representative sample of the kinds of things Jesus said about the poor, the humble, the social outcast and those who are despised.  There is absolutely no doubt that Jesus has a special place in His heart for the underdogs – but it is not just the underdogs – it is also those people that you and I (the religious faithful of our day) tend to look down our noses at; the people who do things or live in ways that we just do not approve of. 

Jesus ate and drank with prostitutes, tax collectors, and even touched the dreaded lepers.  That means that Jesus wanted all of those people to know that He loved them – that God loved them – and that He understood and felt their pain.  Jesus loves the unlovable.  It is as simple as that.  But He was also saying that one reason He loves these outcasts is because they recognize that they are sinners and they readily repent.

But what about us?  What about we who come to church, who participate in ministries, who give of our time, talent and treasure for the work of the Kingdom?  What about us?  Does Jesus not love us as well?

Here is the deal.  When Jesus made all of these harsh statements; when he seemed to be marking lines of division that appear incredibly unnecessary, if not downright unfair – every time He did these things it was to try to make a strong point.  He wanted the religious faithful to know that they were not allowed to recline and rest on their laurels, nor were they allowed to pass judgment on their fellow human beings.  And finally, He wanted them to know that if they thought they did not need to repent and turn back toward God, they were horribly wrong. 

Jesus wants to make sure that the faithful know that their faith in God does not entitle them to special treatment.  Instead, becoming faithful followers means that we have additional responsibilities.  We who understand the gracious blessings of God are called to pass those blessings along – to pay it forward, if you will.  And we who know the God of all comfort, the God who never leaves us alone in times of trouble are called upon to exhibit that love of God to the rest of the world in our daily lives.  But most importantly, we who know that we have been saved from eternal death by the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are called upon to look at ourselves honestly and respond faithfully to what we see.

When I look in the mirror, I see a faithful priest of God’s church.  I see a man who gives the best he has in almost all situations, in thankful obedience to God’s call to serve.  But I also see a sinner.  I am clearly less sinful now than I have been at other times in my life, but I am a sinner nonetheless.  When I take an honest look at myself, I am mindful of what St. Paul said in this morning’s epistle: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” 

I would love to tell you that I never land on the wrong side of St. Paul’s rules.  But if I told you that, I would add lying to my sins.  You see, we are all sinners, in ways both great and small.  As St. Paul told the church in Rome, “we all fall short of the glory of God.[4]”  In other words, we are all sinners.  And the repentance that John the Baptist called for, is what Jesus says it takes to stay close to God and right in line for your place in the Kingdom.

Repent and return to God.  Participate in the work of the Kingdom and do not judge anyone else.  Love the Lord your God.  Love your neighbor.  And all will be right in this world and the next.

Amen.



[1] Matt: 19:30 (NRSV)

[2] Luke 5:32 (NRSV)

[3] Luke 14:11 (NRSV)

[4] Rom 3:23 (NRSV)

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, Fr. John Bedingfield, Aug. 24

August 24, 2014
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In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

            St. Paul tells the Church in Rome this morning, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  There is enough in this one sentence for several sermons.  But this morning, I would like to focus on “present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” and the last phrase of this sentence, “which is your spiritual worship,”  Interestingly, when you go the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, and look up the word, “sacrifice” it tells you to look under “worship.”  That led me to look deeper into the concepts of sacrifice and worship, and what they meant in Jesus’ time, and what they might mean today.

            Remember that St. Paul, the author of this Epistle, was born Saul and was educated and raised as a Pharisee before he was converted by an encounter with the risen Christ.  He understood the background of the Jewish religion, and he was a citizen of Rome who was familiar with pagan ways.  He also understood the theology of Jesus the Messiah.  In the first half of the Epistle, he outlines who Jesus was (and is) in relation to the Christian Church.  When we get to chapter 12, Paul wants to shift gears and talk about what Jesus’ mission of salvation means.  That’s why this chapter begins with the word, “therefore.”  Jesus is the reason we have been forgiven of our sins – He is the author of our salvation.  Then we get the “therefore.”

            So, because of who Jesus was and what He still is to us, St. Paul “appeals” to all Christians, by the mercy of God.  The word that our NRSV Bible translates as “appeal,” is translated elsewhere as “urge” or even “plead.”  The point of the word is exhortation.  Paul is spurring the Roman Christians on – he is like a coach who wants the greatest possible performance out of his team.  He exhorts them, by the mercy of God, to present their bodies as a living sacrifice.

            The idea of sacrifice has been around as long as humanity has.  Sacrifice has always figured into human worship of God – whether that god was the one true God or any deity worshiped by any people.  As early as Chapter 4 of Genesis, we get a story of Cain and Abel making sacrificial offerings of the fat portions of the lamb and the best of the grain grown, to the God who blessed them with abundance.  From that story through the stories of Abraham giving the best he had to God when God came to visit his camp, through the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on the altar of God, if that was what God wanted, we have story after story of sacrifice as a part of worship.

            Once God led the children of Israel out of Egypt, Jewish worship began to take shape – a shape that decidedly included sacrifice.  Through the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, Moses’ brother Aaron and the house of the Levites were trained in the ways of Priestly worship and sacrifice.  Cattle, sheep, goats, doves and pigeons became the sacrificial animals of ancient Judaism.  By the time that King Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem, the Priests had honed the art of sacrifice greatly. 

            In the Temple, there were several different kinds of sacrifices – each involving different animals and offered for different reasons.  The burnt offering was the most common and most general of sacrifices.  Any kind of animal could be used – as long as it was male and free of blemishes – it was ritually killed, skinned and burned on the altar.  The burning sacrifice was believed to take the prayers skyward and brought a “pleasing aroma” to God, (which is why we use incense in church even now).  This sacrifice could be offered as thanksgiving or in atonement and was done twice a day, every day, in the Temple in Jerusalem.  In addition to this twice daily sacrifice, there were peace offerings, thank offerings, free-will offerings, votive offerings, sin offerings and ordination offerings.  Each had its own purpose, its own prescribed animals and traditional actions associated with it.  In other words, each sacrifice had its own liturgy attached to it. 

But most of these sacrifices shared some common elements.  The animal involved would be ritually killed – that is, prayed for as it was killed as quickly as possible.  In some rituals the blood of the animal was splashed on the altar, in others that was not the case.  But the carcass of the animal was always burned on the altar – with some part of the resulting cooked meat being offered to the Priests in payment for their work. 

            One of the sacrifices offered by the Temple Priests did not involve killing the animal or using its blood as a part of the rite – which all of the other sacrifices did, except for sacrifices of grain or wine, obviously.  On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the High Priest would take one of the male goats destined for sacrifice.  Because this was a sacrificial animal, it would be as close to perfect as could be found.  The Priest would take this perfect goat and say prayers in which he would lay all of the sins of the Jewish people on the goat.  Then the goat was run off into the countryside, where it would presumably take the sins of the people with it.  By the way, this sacrifice of the goat on Yom Kippur is where we get the modern term, “scapegoat,” for one who takes the blame for another’s wrongdoing.  Do you see where this is headed? 

            During our service, when we say Eucharistic Prayer A, we say that Jesus “offered himself, in obedience to (God’s) will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  That is the way St. Paul understood Jesus’ crucifixion, as a perfect sacrifice, as the ultimate act of atonement for the sins of the whole world.  To Paul, and to most of the modern Church, Jesus’ hanging on the cross was the perfected version of an animal without blemish being laid on the altar in the Temple.  Just as Jesus said that He came to fulfill the Law of Moses, so also was His sacrifice the fulfillment of sacrificial acts in the worship of God.

            So, when St. Paul tells the Romans that they are to present their bodies to God as a holy and living sacrifice, he didn’t mean that they should be ritually killed in the name of God.  Jesus did that, one time for all of us.  No, Paul meant that they were to offer their soma (soma) – their hearts, souls, minds and bodies; their entirety – to God.  In our Eucharistic prayer B, we offer to God “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”  That’s clearly part of what Paul was talking about, but not all that he was talking about.

            Paul says that this offering of – again as we put it in our Rite I Eucharistic celebration – “ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice to God,” – is the very least we can do, given the immensity of what God has given us.  Most prominent among the gifts of God is the sacrifice of God’s only Son as the “scapegoat for our sins”.

            Today we are still called by God, just as was the Church in Rome almost 2000 years ago.  We are all called to offer to God everything we have in thanksgiving for all the ways in which we have been blessed.  And we are equally called to offer God the “thanksgiving of our prayers and praises,” in atonement for all of the ways in which we have fallen short.  When Jesus’ sacrifice perfected sacrificial death, our sacrifices became those things, short of our lives, that we have to offer God.  For modern Americans that means the “Three Ts” we talk about during the Fall of every year: time, talent and treasure.

            In coming weeks, this theme – the theme of our need to sacrificially give – is going to reemerge several times.  As those weeks and those sermons come around, I want you to keep a couple of things in mind.  First, none of this is about giving because God needs it (or worse yet, because the Church needs it).  Of course God doesn’t need our money and of course the Church does.  Money is what the modern world runs on and the Church is a part of that world.  But this is not about the need to pay the electric bill and to keep the clergy fed.  This is about our need to offer a sacrifice to God.  Remember that in the beginning of this sermon, I told you that sacrifice had been a part of worship as long as there has been worship.  That’s because people need to give sacrificially in order to connect with God on a deeper level and to feel that they are a part of God’s work in the world.  It’s the worshiper’s need, not God’s that is at work.  Keep that in mind in coming weeks. 

            But also, keep in mind that our time and our talent figure in to this sacrificial giving just as does our treasure.  Think about how you give of your time and how you use your God-given talents.  God blesses your work every day, not just on Sundays.  How you use the time God has given you is, in Paul’s words, “a part of your spiritual worship.”

            Paul said, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Amen.

Wheat and Weeds … We’re Both! Fr. John Bedingfield, July 20th

July 20, 2014
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In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

What is the favorite sport in the United States today?  Is it baseball – the great American pastime?  If you look at recent experience, someone might answer “soccer” or futbol.  Or is it college or professional football that is the favorite?  Honestly, I do not think that any of the above is America’s favorite sport … certainly not America’s favorite pastime.  In my opinion, the favorite sport of the people of this country is judging other people.

Now do not get me wrong.  I understand that there are legitimate needs to judge.  Every day we have to judge between the things that are safe and those that are dangerous.  We have to judge between the things that are good for us and those that are not.  And in a civilized society we have created laws that sometimes require us to judge people who have been accused of crimes.  Those are all necessary and legitimate uses of our human ability to judge between things.  I am not talking about any of those.  I am talking about judging the worth, the acceptability or the righteousness of fellow human beings.

If you want to see what I mean, turn on Fox News or MSNBC – which both make their money by feeding like-minded people the information they want to hear.  On these and other networks like them, people are brought on, not because they are necessarily experts in their field, but rather because they love to argue.  Instead of two people discussing the merits or lack thereof of their positions or beliefs, they launch into what the ancient Romans called argumentum ad hominem (judging your opponents personal worth and broadcasting your judgment).  Instead of saying: “I believe that gun control is a bad idea because there should be nothing that regulates free persons’ access to their weapon of choice,” the people on these shows tell anyone who disagrees, “You are a socialist who is trying to march through the streets, confiscating all of our guns so that you can become the king of America who enslaves the people.”  In short, on cable television today, raising your voice and calling someone else a name is now substituted for debating important issues. 

This same thing happens in editorial columns in newspapers and on websites.  But the kings of judgmentalism in modern America are Facebook and Twitter.  Never before have people had the ability to say anything they want to say, to a huge audience, while simultaneously maintaining relative anonymity.  This combination has consistently proved to trigger landslides of communication in which one person, or group of persons, feels complete freedom to pass judgment on someone else’s appearance, belief system, body type, sexual identity, or any number of other personal traits, and always in the most hurtful language possible.

Personal attacks are nothing more than judging the worth of another human being, based upon some perceived difference.  When you hear someone disparage someone else because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or whatever else; all the person is saying is: I must be superior to that person because they are (fill in the blank) and I am not.  Such attacks are the heart of the bullying, racism and gay bashing that are all too prevalent in America today.

Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares is all about this way of looking at other people as less than we are.  Jesus told this parable so that His disciples could understand the difference between the way that God views people and the way people view people.  You see the point of the parable is this: the world is God’s field; all of the people of the world are the wheat and the tares; we are all planted together, side-by-side; and whereas humans desire to judge which is wheat and which is tares, and to pull up the tares during their lifetime, God is the patient farmer who waits until for harvest time to do the judging.  And Jesus tells us that God is the only one qualified to judge what is good wheat and what is worthless weed.

Even though Jesus says, over and over that we should not judge the worth of other human beings, we have this strong desire to ignore His command and judge ourselves as better than the other guy – whoever that might be.  St. Augustine had an interesting point when he wrote about this parable he said:

There is this difference between people and real grain and real weeds, for what was grain in the field is grain and what were weeds are weeds.  But in the Lord's field, which is the church, at times what was grain turns into weeds and at times what were weeds turn into grain; and no one knows what they will be tomorrow.

Augustine understood that what makes all of this even more ridiculous when people judge people, is that most of us are not consistently good nor consistently bad, we are some of each at different times.  Which is all the more reason for us not to judge one another.

          And the Church is not immune from this sort of judgmentalism either.  Each denomination blithely goes about judging itself to be superior to all of the others, and differing factions within our own denomination judge each other to be true believers or not – calling each other everything short of apostate in various ways.  But Jesus tells us the prerogative of judging anyone’s faithfulness or relationship to God, is God’s alone.  God is the ultimately tolerant farmer who loves the entire wheat field enough to wait for the harvest to judge.

          Today we are baptizing young Cecilia into what St. Paul consistently told us was the Body of Christ.  Think about that for a minute.  We, the Church, are the Body of Christ.  We are Christ’s active members in the world.  Whatever gets done in the name of Jesus Christ, gets done by this body.  We are the current incarnation of the living God.  That means that we are called to be wheat.  We are called to be the good grain, sown by the Creator God.  That does not mean that we get to look at everyone else and accuse them of being tares, it means that we are called to produce the abundant harvest that Jesus spoke about.  And it means that we should do all of this as Christ’s Body would do it – in love and in tolerance. 

          Cecilia is being inducted into this Body in just a few minutes.  We should now be able to show her what being the healthy Body of Christ – the wheat in the field is all about.  We should do everything in our power to help bring the Kingdom of God near, to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, heal the sick, visit the shut-in, and all with the joy that comes from living into God’s mission in the world.

          So … I promise not to judge you or your faithfulness if you promise not to judge mine.  Let’s live together in this portion of God’s wheat field, believe that we are surrounded by wheat – or at least that the tares in us might be converted to wheat before the harvest.

Amen.

Impetuous and Abundant Blessings - Fr. John Bedingfield, July 13th

July 13, 2014
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In the name of the God of abundant blessing,

          The parable of the sower is perhaps one of Jesus’ best known parables.  Believe it or not, there has been great debate among biblical scholars about this parable.  You would think that there would not be much argument, what with Jesus giving the explanation at the end and all, but that is not so. 

Scholars talk about whether this is really a parable or an allegory, whether Jesus is referring to the people as the ground or as the sowers themselves, and the list goes on.  Sometimes I think that is the way it is in our lives.  What should be fairly straightforward and simple, we make difficult by over analyzing it.  So rather than entering into these scholarly debates and weighing in with my own opinions and suppositions, I thought it might be better to take a look at one aspect of the parable this gets overlooked on the way to the debatable points.

          I do not know how many of you have an agrarian background.  I suspect that it would probably be less than half.  My suspicion is that more people who live in this part of Lafayette have a background similar to mine.  You probably either grew up in Lafayette or in a similar city, or at least in the suburbs of a city.  I started life in the Dallas suburbs and the closest to farming I got was talking to my grandfather, who had been born on one of the biggest farms in Rockwall County, Texas and lived there until he and his older brothers lost the farm during the Great Depression.  But even through my many conversations with my grandfather, and with my father (who worked on farms in the summers), I learned very little about farming, other than the fact that you cannot make a living when it costs you a nickel a bale to plant cotton and you’re getting 3 cents a bale when you sell it.  That was one of my first lessons in micro economics, but it didn’t illuminate the life of a farmer much.

          Because I had so little knowledge of farming, I had to look a little broader into the background of Jesus’ parable before I understood what a first century Judean farmer would have done to earn a living.  You see, when Jesus tells the parable of the sower, he is talking about someone who walked through his fields (and “field” was a pretty loose term that encompassed anyplace where some of the rocks had been cleared and the soil turned over), anyway the farmer would walk through the field with a bag of seed tied around his waist and would grab handfuls of seed and cast them out – broadcasting them like your modern fertilizer spreader does.  Because the sower was literally tossing the seeds wherever they might land and there was not the structure of machine-made rows like there is now, we get the situation Jesus describes in the parable, where the seed lands in all kinds of places and all kinds of soil.

          Thinking about this broadcast method of planting got me thinking about what a great analogy that is, not only for the spreading of the Word of God (which is really what Jesus is talking about), but also for the gracious blessings of God.  God blesses without regard to where the blessings are going.  That is to say, as Jesus tells us in the 5th chapter of Matthew, the Lord makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  In other words, grace abounds.  Or as the author of works on spirituality, Brother Lawrence says,

When God finds a soul penetrated with a lively faith, He pours into it His graces and favors plentifully; there they flow like a torrent which, after being forcibly stopped against its ordinary course, when it has found a passage, spreads itself with impetuosity and abundance.

          I love Brother Lawrence’s image of God’s graces flowing out with “impetuosity,” and in abundance.  That is the God I have experienced, the God I trust will always be there, even when I deserve it the least.

          As many of you know, in my last year of seminary I had surgery to remove some disk material from my neck and to fuse two of my vertebrae.  It was an uneventful surgery and I got immediate relief of my symptoms from it.  What I didn’t know though, was that I also picked up an infection in my blood during that surgery and the staph germ I picked up, migrated to a valve in my heart.  [That is the valve I had replaced two years ago.]  That infection became endocarditis and while I thought I was battling the flu for weeks and weeks, it continued to weaken me to the point that, I was hospitalized for a week and was on 24 hour a day IV antibiotics for another 6 weeks. 

          Donna and I had been married for 27 years at the time, and in all that time I had never been sick – not really sick anyway.  Needless to say, I could not have recovered from that illness without a lot of help and support from Donna.  However, her being there for me meant that she was not going to work, which meant that she was not going to get paid.  Like most Americans, we lived (and still pretty much live) paycheck to paycheck and when her check started to be cut, it was very problematic for us.  That is when the gracious hand of God took over and blessed us more abundantly than we could ever deserve. 

A member of the congregation in which I was serving during seminary went to our landlord and paid our rent for a month.  And several other people gave us monetary gifts that helped to bridge the gap between what we brought in and what we needed.  Still others, people with whom Donna taught, donated days of their leave to help get her out of the hole she was in.  These were God’s people, doing God’s work of blessing each other in the world.  That was truly an example of God blessing us extravagantly, and without regard to whether or not we had earned the blessing.  We were just faithful people who needed God’s help.  And God’s people responded, impetuously and abundantly casting blessings wherever they might land.

          There is a passage from the prophet Isaiah that exemplifies this aspect of the reality of God in the world.  The prophet says,

[E]veryone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?  Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live ….”

          That is the God of abundance speaking through Isaiah; the God who casts God’s mercies on everyone.  And all that you have to do is listen and pay attention to get them.  You can call such goodness, “luck” or “coincidence,” if you choose.  But by doing so, you are missing one of the greatest parts of the gift, the desire it instills in its recipient to go out and do likewise.  That is where the real blessing comes in: the blessing we get from the feeling of doing God’s work in the world ourselves; the feeling that we have helped to bless someone else’s life as abundantly as our own lives have been blessed. 

          I read a quote a while back that was unattributed.  I’d love to take credit for it myself, but I’m not that talented.  So my thanks to whomever wrote this. 

People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered.  Love them anyway.  If you do good, people may accuse you of selfish motives.  Do good anyway.  If you are successful, you may win false friends and true enemies.  Succeed anyway.  The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow.  Do good anyway.  Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable.  Be honest and transparent anyway.  What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.  Build anyway.  People who really want help may attack you if you help them.  Help them anyway.  Give the world the best you have and you may get hurt.  Give the world your best anyway.”

          God gives us God’s best every day.  We get the sun and the moon and the stars.  We get sunrises and sunsets.  We get rain, sometimes even when we do not need it.  God let us all wake up this morning and come to this place where we are surrounded by God’s servants in the world.  God blesses impetuously and abundantly.  God even gave His best to the world – His only begotten Son, and the world mocked, beat and killed him.  But God goes on giving God’s best to us every day.  Let’s go out and do likewise.  Amen.

Abraham Did What? Fr. John Bedingfield Jun 29th

July 8, 2014
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In the name of ever-faithful God of abundant provision, Amen.

  I have preached on Abraham several times since I have been here.  But every time the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac comes up, I feel like we have to tackle it again.  The story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most compelling – and potentially most troubling stories in the Bible.  I remember when I was a kid, I wondered if my parents would ever sacrifice me.  That was a horrible possibility to consider as a child.  Then later, after I became a father myself, I wondered, “What kind of a God would do this to someone who was faithful to God?”  But then I also pondered the question, would I have been able to do what Abraham had done?  This story is definitely thought provoking. 

The Bible is useful to us because it can teach us about who God is in the world, based upon who God was in the stories we read in Scripture.  That being the case, it falls upon us to try to figure out what God is telling us about ourselves through Abraham’s story … and more importantly, what God is telling us about God’s self.  In order to get anything at all from this story – other than the shock to modern sensibilities of a father being willing to kill his son – we must look at the story of Abraham and God that precedes this passage; the “prequel” if you will, of today’s reading.

Abraham’s story has several themes that run through it.  Most important among those themes is: Abraham was faithful and God provided.  Throughout his life, God called on him to show that he was faithful.  And throughout his life, Abraham proved his faith in this unseen God.  Likewise, throughout Abraham’s life, God provided for him in ways both large and small.

God told Abraham (then known as “Abram”) to take his wife, (then “Sarai”) and his nephew Lot and leave his ancestral homeland for a land where they knew nothing and were acquainted with no one.  Abraham followed in faith and God provided safety and ultimately abundance.  Then there was a famine in the land and God told Abraham to take Sarah and Lot and go into Egypt.  Again, God provided both safety and increased wealth – to the point that when Abraham finally moved from Egypt into Canaan (again on orders from God), he and Lot had to split up because they had so much livestock that the land wouldn’t support all of their herds.  Abraham was faithful to God and God provided in every way possible.

But during all of the traveling and the wealth accumulation, there was one thing God had not provided – children.  By the time the Abraham assemblage made it into Canaan, he was over ninety and in all likelihood, so was Sarah.  God had called Abraham into this land with a promise that Abraham would be the “father of a nation,” and that his descendants would outnumber the stars, or the grains of sand in the desert.  This particular promise, God had not kept – but Abraham remained faithful.

Then one day, Abraham and Sarah received heavenly visitors who promised that she would get pregnant and deliver within the year.  Abraham was 99 years old at that time and without hesitation, he believed that God would keep the promise – in other words, he was faithful.  And again, God provided - this time, by giving the couple their own baby – Isaac.  No longer would Abraham have to think about his only heir being a baby he was talked into having with Hagar the Egyptian slave woman.

So you see, Abraham’s experience of God was completely consistent.  God called on him to do something he had never considered doing.  Abraham was faithful, took God’s instructions and did as he was told.  And because of his and Sarah’s faithfulness, God always provided for them in every way they could ask.

Although Scripture is silent about Isaac’s early childhood, we can surmise that Abraham and Sarah absolutely doted on him.  After all, they waited a hundred years for his miraculous birth, there is no chance that they didn’t lavish all their time and attention on him. 

After Isaac’s birth, we are told that God said Abraham should send Hagar and Ishmael (Abraham’s illegitimate son) away.  He knew what that meant.  When he sent them into the desert alone, their food and water would soon run out and they would die of thirst, hunger or exposure.  But Abraham followed God’s instructions and again God provided.  When Hagar knew the end was coming, she laid Ishmael under a bush and went far enough away that she couldn’t hear his cries.  Then she sat down to die.  But God came and showed her a previously unseen water well – and led she and Ishmael to a land where the boy would grow to be the father of his own nation.  Then – some years after Isaac’s birth – Abraham got the call that we heard about this morning. 

Throughout Abraham’s life, God had called upon him to risk more and more.  And every time, Abraham had readily followed the command.  Several times Abraham put all that he owned on the line in obedience to God.  One time, in Egypt, he risked his own life – and Sarah’s virtue – in order to follow God.  And throughout his life, God had provided for Abraham in ever increasing ways.  God gave: travel directions; safety and security; sufficient provisions; great wealth; and finally an heir.  But now God wanted Abraham to give the last – and greatest – gift back.  And in order to understand what this meant, we need to understand something about God’s call for Isaac to be sacrificed: in ancient Israel, sacrifice was the primary form of worship for most people.

Our word, “sacrifice” comes from the Latin, “sacrificium” meaning “to make holy.”  The people of ancient Israel understood that when they killed a calf or a goat or a lamb and put it on the altar to be burned, they were turning the ordinary into the holy.  They were taking something God had provided to them and giving it back to God – transformed into something worthy of God. 

Perhaps the best way to understand this is to think about gifts we parents are given by our young children.  Maybe the gift is something the child made him or herself.  Or it is cologne, or a necktie, or handkerchiefs – none of which the parent necessarily needs – and all of which is probably purchased with the parent’s own money.  But the gifts are important because they represent the deep relationship between the one who (in some wholly imperfect way) is giving something back, and the one who provided in the first place.  It is the giving that’s important.  Through giving back, God sees our desire for a deeper relationship with the One who gives to us.

Based upon the totality of the story of Abraham and God, I truly believe that on the day they set out for the mountain, Abraham knew that somehow, in some completely unexpected way, God would provide – and Isaac would be saved.  But meanwhile, he was called to make the decision to offer back to God the most precious thing God had ever given him – his one and only son, miraculously born.  When he made that decision, and followed through on it, God – just as had always been the case – provided for Abraham’s sacrificial offering and Isaac went on to begin the Nation of Israel, just as God had promised.

And the story of faith and provision did not end with Abraham and Isaac.  The Old Testament prophets lived faithfully – and God always provided for them.  In the New Testament, we have the feeding miracles of Jesus, followed by His sending the Disciples out with no provisions, no extra clothes and no hotel reservations – and then welcoming them back, weeks later, with tales of the power of their ministries and the way they were provided for by other children of God.

So what does all of this have to do with us?  How do these stories of people’s faithfulness and God’s generosity inform our lives today? 

God is calling.  As surely as God called Abraham, God calls us today.  In ways both great and small we are asked by God to be faithful.  We are called to take what God has entrusted to our care and keeping, and to give it sacrificially – to bless it and make it holy – and then to return it to the One who originally gave it.  Just as we do not need the gifts our children give us, God does not need the offering of our precious things.  Instead, just as it was with Isaac, when we offer the best of what we have, the most beloved of what we’ve been given, our relationship with the Great Provider is deepened and we experience God’s willingness to provide in new and astounding ways – like an unseen water well in the desert or a ram that appears from nowhere – God provides. 

It has always been so.  It will always be so.

Amen.

God Knows You Have Family Stress, Fr. John Bedingfield, June 22nd

June 22, 2014
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In the name of One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This is a happy group of Scripture readings today isn’t it?  I mean, seriously.  First we hear about Abraham throwing out his first born son … seemingly sending young Ishmael and his mother Hagar out in the wilderness to die, with too little food and water to sustain them.  Then we get Matthew’s Gospel, in which Jesus tells us that He has come to set family members against one another, and that those who follow Him will be spoken about as if they were the Devil himself.  At first blush this all seems like doom and gloom – tough stuff that no one wants to hear.  But there is more to consider; perhaps a message underlying this that could be important for us.

In a surface reading of the Genesis story, the father of all nations, Abraham sends these two people (people with whom he shared some measure of love) into exile and possible death because his “real family,” his longtime wife and infant son demand that it be done.  There is a telling (and touching) passage in the story, after Sarah has demanded that Ismael and Hagar be sent away.  Reading from the contemporary translation, The Message, this passage says,

The matter gave great pain to Abraham—after all, Ishmael was his son.

Abraham got up early the next morning, got some food together and a canteen of water for Hagar, put them on her back and sent her away with the child.  She wandered off into the desert of Beersheba.

I can almost see the anguish Abraham was feeling.  He was an incredibly old man by this time and the only thing he had ever lacked in his life was children.  When Sarah could not conceive, she had finally talked him into fathering a child by her maid – a common practice at the time.  Hagar had given Abraham an heir, allowing him to feel good about the fact that his fortune and name would be well cared for by a natural born son.  But (and this is really important to the story) God was not through with Abraham and Sarah and gave them their own child – Isaac – who (although there was a tradition that a firstborn son always carried on in the father’s name) was truly the son that Abraham had always longed for.  He was born to Abraham and the love of his life, as compared to Ishmael, whose conception was simply an act of necessity.  But none of that changed the heartache Abraham felt when he turned his back on Ishmael and made Hagar walk away.

And in this morning’s Gospel passage, context is critical.  Jesus is speaking to the newly chosen twelve Disciples.  He has just commissioned them to go on their first mission trip.  He has given them the power to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and cast out demons.  And He has told them where to go and who to minister to.  In what we hear today, He is telling them that it will not be all “peaches and cream” while they are doing their work.  He lets them know that everyone will not appreciate them, any more than they appreciate Jesus himself.  What He is trying to get across to them is that there will be hardship and strife that come with being a Disciple.  He is telling them that, along with the great power God will give them comes a none-too-comfortable life.

Even with that context in mind, Jesus’ words still bring up some issues for us.  He tells the Disciples that, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household.”  That is a real gut punch to modern Americans who profess such an exalted place for the family in national life.  Our Lord and Savior is going to tear apart our families?  How can that be the case?

Well, it is NOT the case that Jesus’ mission – that which the Father sent Him to accomplish – was to tear families apart.  That is NOT what He is saying at all.  Instead, He is simply stating a truth.  When someone becomes a Disciple of Jesus Christ – when someone begins to take the journey of faith that Christ calls us all to make, some of the people who are close to them will literally or figuratively be left behind.  Sometimes those loved ones begin to see the disciple in a new and possibly unappreciated light.  The idea that a relationship with Jesus has changed someone or made someone a new person can cause strife between family members.  If you do not believe that to be true, just ask anyone who has ever been ordained in the Church, particularly those who come to ordination later in life.

When you announce to your extended family that you are pursuing ordination, a very interesting thing happens.  Suddenly family members look at you with fresh eyes.  For decades, they have been seeing you in a particular role within the family system.  No matter what position you have occupied, news that you may become ordained immediately changes things.  People begin to try to see you through whatever lens they have developed for the clergy in their lives.  If they have always placed clergy on a pedestal, they begin to try to work out how you could possibly fit up there.  That is a problem, but not nearly as a big a problem as comes from those family members who might have been wounded or disappointed by a member of the clergy.  Those folks suddenly start evaluating you in a new light – a light of skepticism – even if you have always had their trust.  They began to look at you as someone who (as my grandfather used to put it) has gotten above your raisin’.  These issues can, and often do bring animosity between the one seeking ordination and the family, because when two family members start to clash, the rest of the family begins choosing sides.

Although this is not technically family, let me give you a real-world example of what I am talking about.  When I began the process of discernment, I was a senior associate attorney at a law firm in Austin.  Every year I was near the top billers of the firm and no one had complained about my job performance in the five years that I had been there.  I got along well with the other associates, the partners and the support staff.  In other words, I was a valued member of the team (or family if you will).  One day, in conversation with one of the partners, I let slip the fact that I was in the discernment process.  The man considered what I had said for a moment and then said, “Well that pretty well tells me that you are not completely dedicated to the law, so why don’t you find another place to work?”  The message was, “You have changed.  You are no longer who I had decided you were.  Therefore I do not want you around.”  In other words, being a disciple of Jesus Christ had come between me that member of the family.

          That story is just a simple and stark example of what Jesus was talking about.  When Jesus makes a very powerful and new entry into a family system, things within the system will have to change – and many people do not handle change well.

          So what are we to make of the family strife exhibited in both Genesis and Matthew this morning?  First, we should simply acknowledge the truth that there are always problems in families.  Anyone who says that they have a dysfunctional family is speaking a redundancy.  We all have dysfunction, it is just a matter of what yours is and how severe it might become.  But the second thing to understand is: God knows that we struggle in our families, in our work places and particularly in our lives as disciples.  And, as Jesus told the Disciples in Matthew,

So have no fear ….

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

          Strife and problems come and go.  But God’s love and concern for us are constant.  You will most assuredly run into difficulty and disputes on the discipleship road.  With the love and support of God, keep working toward being the best disciples that you can be.  And have faith that, in the end, all will be well.  When an old man was asked one time if he understood everything in the Book of Revelation, he answered that he knew the most important part – that in the end, no matter what happens, God wins.

Amen.

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