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

August 24, 2014

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.

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

July 20, 2014

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.

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

July 13, 2014

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.

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Abraham Did What? Fr. John Bedingfield Jun 29th

July 8, 2014

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.

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

June 22, 2014

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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Holy Trinity and Trinitarian Congregations - Fr. John Bedingfield, June 15th

June 15, 2014

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

          This is Trinity Sunday, the day that most preachers dread more than any other.  It’s not that preachers in general – or me in particular – do not like, or otherwise approve of the doctrine of the Trinity; it is just that the Holy Trinity is very difficult to grasp and therefore difficult to explain.  Now please believe me when I say that I am not linguistically patting you on the head and saying, “I will try to put this in language that you will understand.”  That is not it at all.  It is just as hard for someone who has seminary training to really grasp the Trinity as it is for someone without that training.  And as I heard from another preacher one day, “Frankly, I don’t trust anyone who says that they understand Trinity.”  After all, the early Church argued about the nature of the Trinity for almost 300 years, resulting in three different creeds, each purporting to do a better job than the last at making things which are beyond our comprehension, comprehensible. 

          Do you know how we humans came to try to explain the Trinity through words and artistic representations?  It is the nature of theological discovery.  The way we come to such things is: first we experience God; then we try to come up with words to effectively communicate what we have already experienced.  In this case, people experienced God the Creator (Father), God the Redeemer (Son) and God the Sustainer (Holy Spirit) as three persons that are distinct and yet are one "substance, essence or nature".  In this context, a "nature" is what one is, while a "person" is who one is.   Now you can understand why there is such a problem with trying to preach about this doctrine.  But if indeed we experience God first and then use words to try to represent what we have experienced, the logical questions is, “Where do we find Trinity in the Bible?”  The short answer is: we don’t find the term “Trinity” anywhere in the Bible.  But we certainly do see Trinity in action in those pages.

          The first example of Trinity in the Bible is in the Genesis Creation Story we heard this morning. 

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, (there is God the Father, creating) the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (there is the Holy Spirit – the wind of God beginning to empower or sustain).  Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.  …  And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters."  As the Gospel of John tells us in its prologue, Jesus is the Word of God.  When God spoke (through Jesus) the creation continued.

There are many other places in the Old Testament where an author refers to God, not as a single entity, but rather as Creator or Word or Spirit.  Not to mention the multiple passages in Genesis in which God refers to God’s self as, “we,” or “us.”  But naturally enough, the best examples of Trinity come from the New Testament, particularly in Jesus’ baptism narratives. 

          Listen to Matthew’s description of Jesus being baptized by John:

when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. [1]” 

Then there is the most obvious of all, when Jesus gives the Disciples the Great Commission to go and, “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,[2]

          You may be asking yourself, what practical difference it makes that I know (or don’t know) the difference between the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity and (for example) the ancient Arian heresy of believing the three to be completely separate, to the point that Jesus is created by and subordinate to the Father?  Once again we go back to the Council of Nicaea in 325 to have that debate.  But for us, here at St. Barnabas today, it again just points out that the Doctrine is important to our understanding of historical faith, but perhaps not so important to our daily lives.

          What IS important for our faith lives is the fact that the One God who created all that is, redeemed the world from sin and enlivens the world – that God is STILL with us today, doing everything we need to empower and support us in our daily life and work.  And perhaps, instead of worrying about a complete understanding of God as Trinity, it might be better to think of what it would look like to be a Trinitarian Congregation.

          I recently read this definition of what a Trinitarian Congregation might look like: “one that sees itself as called and sent by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed for the sake of the world God created and loves so much.[3]”  Now it seems to me that that is where, as the old commercial put it, “the rubber meets the road.”  If we truly believe in a trinitarian God, then it only makes sense that our work in the world would be done in a trinitarian fashion.

          Bishop Jake has said that the Church does not have a mission.  Jesus has a mission and we have work to do to fulfill that mission.  God’s mission in the world is reconciliation.  So it is our job to try to find new ways, all the time, to bring reconciliation, through the power of the Spirit, by bringing the Good News to a broken and hurting world, that God loves enough to enlist our help.

          Reconciliation takes many forms, some of which seem much bigger than anything we can accomplish.  But others are things that we, as a community can tackle.  And by taking care of those things that are close to us, we can possibly make a bigger dent in the larger ones as well.

          Think for a minute about what St. Barnabas has done within these walls to begin to reconcile differences in worship forms.  We have celebrated a jazz mass, a country mass, numerous contemporary masses, high masses at Easter and Christmas, with beautiful and traditional music, and of course our French mass.  All of those were different expressions of worshiping God, designed in part to show that everyone has access to God’s grace and glory, regardless of how they do it. 

This congregation is also involved in reconciliation of people of differing backgrounds, through its open and welcoming heart.  When I look out at this congregation I am always heartened to see a microcosm of the Kingdom of God.  Here we have people from all walks of life: professionals and laborers, blended families, former Catholics and lifelong Episcopalians, gays and straights, different colors, ethnicities and languages.  And here we all see each other as we are, children of God.  Each of us reconciled to the Father through the sacrifice of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.  All of that is wonderful, but it is not the end of our work of reconciliation.

          What we are also called to do is to find ways, outside these walls, to reconcile the broken parts of God’s world.  There are so many people out there who are doing without and hurting; people who need tangible help and need to hear and feel the love of God.  The Holy Spirit is ready willing and able to empower us to carry out the Jesus’ command that we love the Lord our God, with all our heart, soul and mind; and that we love our neighbors as ourselves.  Trinitarian congregations do these things.  And I pray that we will continue to learn new and better ways to help reconcile the world.  And we will take it as our mission to cure those places in this little corner of God’s creation.  Amen.



[1]  Matthew 3:16-17  (NRSV)

[2]  Matthew 28:19  (NRSV)

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What Does The Ascension Mean, Fr. John Bedingfield, June 1st

June 1, 2014

In the name of the Ascended Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father, Amen.

A man died and stood in front of the pearly gates.  St. Peter came out and said, “Before you meet with God, I should tell you — we’ve looked over your life, and to be honest we really didn’t see much.  You never did anything particularly good or bad. We’re not really sure what to do with you.  Can you tell me anything you did that can help us make a decision?”  The man thought for a moment and said, “Yeah, once I was driving along and I saw a woman who was being harassed by a group of thugs.  So I pulled over, grabbed my baseball bat, and went up to the leader of the thugs.  He was a big, muscular guy with a ring pierced through his lip.  Well, I tore the ring out of his lip, waved the bat around, and told him he and his gang had better stop bothering this woman or they would have to deal with me!”  “Wow that’s impressive.  When did this happen?”  “About three minutes ago.”

Luke’s Gospel says, “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”  In the Acts of the Apostles, we read, “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  That is the extent of what we know about the Ascension event.  What do you think of when you think of Jesus ascending to the Father?

Maybe it is a generational thing.  If you are of a sufficient age, you probably think of Glinda the good witch of the East, slowly rising in her bubble until neither Dorothy nor the munchkins can see her anymore.  If you were a child of the 60’s, like me, you probably think of Captain James T. Kirk’s famous line, “Beam me up, Scotty.”  But if you came along a little later, then perhaps you think of the final scene from The Matrix, in which Neo – who has finally discovered the extent of his powers – gets off of the telephone and shoots straight up into the sky like he has rockets on his boots. 

So is that what we are supposed to take from Jesus’ Ascension; that He was floating, or shooting off to return to heaven; or alternatively, that Jesus was “beamed back up” to “the mother ship”?  No, that is really not it at all.

Jesus’ Ascension did not really have anything to do with being zapped back home.  It had more to do with who He is – God Incarnate – and the fact that He was leaving the Disciples, and would not be back (at least not until the Second Coming), as he had come back after the Resurrection.  This was a wholly otherworldly departure that was meant to imprint the Disciples with the idea that what they had had with Jesus was now completely changed.  They were now left to do the work He had commissioned them to do.  They had His blessing.  But more importantly, they were about to receive the power of the Holy Spirit to give them everything they needed to accomplish their work.  But until the unknown time when the Spirit was to come, Jesus’ followers were left with great uncertainty.

Once Jesus left the sight of the Disciples for the last time, after they got over what they had just seen, they must have wondered, “What now?”  Jesus had told them to go and do the work, and He had promised them the Spirit.  But even with those messages, they must have wondered what they were to face.  And they undoubtedly worried about what exactly the Spirit would mean for them.

Uncertainty is one of the things that weighs heavy on most people.  We are pretty tough and resilient beings for the most part.  We can stand almost anything … except not knowing what will happen next.  The only reason horror movies work is because we are afraid of what is about to happen.  The same is true of thrill rides at amusement parks.  Once you have ridden the rollercoaster a few times, it is no longer scary because you know that the bumps happen in the same place every time, the coaster is not actually going to fly off the track right there, it is just a bump they put in to make you think that.

Uncertainty of any kind can put us on edge.  But uncertainty over what will happen next in our lives is exponentially worse.  Maybe your job is changing, or has changed; leading you to worry about what comes next.  Perhaps retirement is right around the corner and you are not certain about your preparedness or who you will be when the identity of your job is taken away.  Or – as happened to the Disciples in this morning’s readings – someone you love and rely upon has been taken away (by physical separation, divorce, illness or death) and you have no idea how you will go on.

Just as happened with the Disciples, we have Jesus’ promise that we will never be left alone in such circumstances.  Jesus promised to be with us always – both in the bread and wine that is transformed into His Body and Blood, and through the Holy Spirit God sent to both empower and comfort us.  So in those times of uncertainty and pain, a faithful attitude, a belief in the power of the creator God, the love of Jesus Christ and the comfort of the Holy Spirit can help us to look beyond present circumstances and to see that we will make it through to the other side.

In the Collect for today, we ask God to, “Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, (Jesus) abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.”  It is faith in that kind of a loving God that provides us with support in difficult times.

In the portion of the Letter to the Ephesians that we heard this morning, we heard St. Paul say this. 

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

In other words, just have a little faith that God’s got this.  Keep alive the hope that God’s goodness will win the day.  That does not mean that every prayer to God will get the outcome we hope for or expect.  God is not a vending machine into which we insert our prayers, and out of which comes whatever we choose.  Instead, God is a gracious, loving creator, who desperately wants us to work as co-creators with God to make the world better.  It is that partnership with God, one built on faith in God’s goodness and belief in God’s grace that helps to get us through life’s rough patches.

          When things get tough in your life; when it seems that there are monsters in the dark corners, everywhere you look; when you are deeply frightened by the unknown, just remember that Jesus told the Disciples – and us – that He would be with us always, even to the end of time.  And as long as He’s got it covered, we can get through it.

Amen

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Who’s in and Who’s Out? Fr. John Bedingfield, May18th

May 19, 2014

In the name of the risen Christ, Amen.

One day a rabbi went to get a haircut.  After he was finished, he reached into his wallet to get his money but the barber stopped him.  He said, “No, rabbi.  I never charge clergy for a haircut.”  The rabbi thanked him and left.  The next day the barber found a large, hot loaf of Jewish Challah bread by his front door. 

A few days later a priest went in and got a haircut.  When he tried to pay, again the barber stopped him and said, “No, father.  I never charge clergy for a haircut.”  The priest thanked him kindly and left.  The next morning, the barber found a lovely bottle of wine next to his door.

A week later a nondenominational preacher went in to get a haircut.  The same thing happened when he tried to pay.  “No.” the barber said, “Preacher, I never let clergy pay for a haircut.”  The preacher thanked him and left.  The next morning the barber found 10 other preachers outside his door waiting to get in.

I cannot tell you the number of funerals that I’ve done.  I have preached today’s Gospel passage more than any other, by a factor of 4 to 1.  It has to do with the imagery of Jesus going before us to prepare a place for us.  But there is another side to this passage – a dark side involving what I believe to be a horrible misuse of Scripture.  And it has to do with the single sentence, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  This single line of Scripture has been the backbone of countless times in which Christians judged other people, separated themselves from those people and labeled those people as “outside of God’s grace.”

As an example of this, I recently read this letter in the Daily Advertiser on-line.  Since the date of the post is February of this year, I have to assume that the person to whom the letter was written was Rev. Franklin Graham, heir to his father, Billy Graham’s evangelist ministry.  The question went like this:

Dear Rev. Graham: What right do we have to send missionaries to people in other parts of the world, trying to get them to believe the way we do? They have their own religions, and we ought to let them alone and not disrupt their lives with our beliefs.

It was signed by someone called, “KU.”  Here is Rev. Graham’s response.

If all religions were the same, and they all led to the same place eventually, then you’d be right -- there wouldn’t be any point in sending out missionaries.  But all religions aren’t the same, as even a superficial study will show.  Some believe in one God; others believe in thousands of deities.  Some believe in a strict moral code; others encourage all kinds of immoral behavior.  Some believe in life after death; others don’t.  Some urge their followers to love even their enemies, while others instill hate and violence.  They can’t all be right, can they?

But the Bible gives us a startling message: In spite of our sin and rebellion, God still loves us, and He has proven it by coming down to earth in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.  Jesus came so our sins could be forgiven and we could be reconciled to God, and He made this possible by dying on the cross for our sins.  Because of this, only Jesus could say, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” John 14:6).

My prayer is that you will see your own need for God’s forgiveness, and by faith turn to Christ and commit your life to Him.  Once you come to Christ and experience the joy of His presence, you’ll want to tell others about God’s love for them -- both those around you, and those in the far corners of the earth.

          I have multiple issues with this theological stance.  Here’s the first:  Rev. Graham begins by saying that all religions are not equal.  He goes on to say that Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths believe in the same God, but not “those others” whose views might not match “the big three.”  The funny thing is, when push comes to shove, Rev. Graham will tell you that Jews and Muslims are separated from God and are going to hell because they do not confess a faith in Christ.  I think that my biggest problem with this stance is its certitude – and the limitation that it puts on God.

          People who want to tell me who will be “saved,” or who will be in heaven, and who will not, those people worry me.  I have probably read as much or more theology than most of these folks, and quite frankly I cannot tell you with any measure of certainty, who will be in and who will be out.  I can tell you what my education and my heart tell me is probable, but I cannot tell you exactly how it will work.

          The other thing in this part of the argument is that people like Rev. Graham limit God to having to do things the way they think God should.  If you don’t confess Christ to be the Incarnate Son of God, then God cannot let you in.  I have told you in the past that I know of at least two exceptions to this rule of who is in and who is out.  If Rev. Graham is right, then Mahatma Gandhi and remote tribes who have never learned about Jesus are both out.  Gandhi was one of the greatest agents for peace and love in the history of the world.  Keeping him out of heaven does not sit well with many of Jesus’ teachings.  People who have never heard the Word being kept out because of ignorance is also against Jesus’ entire ministry to the poor and disadvantaged.

          The Episcopal Church has never held this “us versus them” theology.  In our Catechism, we find the following statement in a definition of human life:  “all people are worthy of respect and honor, because all are created in the image of God, and all can respond to the love of God.”  Nothing in that statement mentions belief in Jesus.  Rather it is about the love of God which we, as Christians understand to have been revealed the world in the person of Jesus.

          But what about Jesus’ statement in John 14?  Again, two things are at work here.  First, you have to remember that we Episcopalians believe in a Holy Trinity.  In our understanding, Jesus IS the Father, just as Jesus IS the Holy Spirit and those two entities ARE Jesus and each other; and ALL of them are God.  In other words, when we talk about Jesus we are talking about one aspect of God – love incarnate.  So if Jesus said, no one gets to the Father except through me – that only makes sense.  No one gets to the full Trinitarian God without going through all aspects of the Trinity.  Second – and I think more importantly – is our understanding of Jesus’ role in all this.

          Jesus said that no one gets to the Father except through Him, and many Christians unfortunately hear that as exclusionary.  But if you look at all that Jesus taught and all that He did, it makes more sense to me that Jesus – as the gate to the sheepfold (which we heard about last week) – herds people in to heaven.  To me, this vision of Jesus is one of Him being the usher rather than of Him being the bouncer.

          And here is the last thing.  If Rev. Graham and others are right, it seems to me that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross – an act that we refer to every week when we pray the Eucharistic prayer, as: “He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world,” this sacrifice would have to be less than perfect.  Notice those last two words, “whole world.”  Jesus’ death on the cross and subsequent resurrection were so powerful and all inclusive that EVERYONE, past present and future, has already been saved from sin and eternal death.  It is only humans turning their backs on this gracious gift of salvation that can separate us from eternal life with the creator of the universe. 

          So there you go.  I cannot guarantee you that what I have said is right.  But then again, in actual fact, neither can Rev. Graham, or anyone else.  What I can tell you is that everything I have told you here, fits in well with Episcopal theology and our understanding of the depth of God’s love for ALL HUMAN BEINGS.  The next time someone tells you that they know that they will be in and someone else will be out, think about the all-inclusive love that Jesus exhibited throughout His earthly ministry.  Then try to see how He would have gone for a system that left people out for any reason other than those people’s personal desire to stay out.  That is the God I understand and believe in.

          How about you?  Amen.

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Finding Our Emmaus, Fr. John Bedingfield May 4th

May 19, 2014

In the name of the resurrected Christ, Amen.

          A priest was driving through the deepest, most back wood part of Southeast Texas.  He stopped at a one-pump gas station.  Seeing that the priest had one arm in a cast, the proprietor of the station came out to help him fill his car.  As he started pumping the gas, Bubba, in his overalls and gimme cap said, “Why are you dressed like that?”  “I’m a Roman Catholic priest,” came the reply.  “What happened to your arm?” asked Bubba.  “I fell in the bathroom and broke it against the commode.” said the priest.  When Bubba went into the station to get the priest’s change, Billy Joe Bob – sitting inside– said, “Why is he dressed like that?”  “He’s a Roman Catholic priest.” said Bubba.  “What happened to his arm?” asked Billy Joe Bob.  “He broke it on the commode.”  “What’s a commode?” asked Billy Joe Bob.  “How in world should I know?” said Bubba, “I’m a Baptist, not a Roman Catholic.”

          The road to Emmaus story carries a lot of meaning with it.  The United Methodist Church version of the Episcopal spiritual renewal program Cursillo is, in fact called the Walk to Emmaus.  People often concentrate on the spiritual opening of the disciples’ eyes in this story, on their going from blindness to sight through the breaking of the bread and opening of Scripture.  But maybe there is more for us to consider as we walk toward Emmaus this morning.  So, like good reporters, let’s dig into this story a bit and try to find the “who, why and where” of it all.

          As far as the “who” of this story goes, we don’t know much of anything about these disciples, travelling the road that day.  We know that one is named Cleopas, but we don’t even have a name for the other.  We know that they were in Jerusalem when Jesus suffered the Passion and the crucifixion, or at least that they know Jesus’ story; and because of the end of this passage, we know that they knew the 11 disciples and the women who were Jesus’ inner circle.  But other than these few facts, Cleopas and the other disciple are virtually unknown to us.  And this is the only time in all the Bible where this character Cleopas appears, what do we make of that?  We know so little about them that they could be anybody.  And maybe that’s the message in their identities – or lack thereof.  These disciples who met Jesus on the road and had no idea who he was, could be any disciples; could be any of us.

          Why were they on the road that day?  They left Jerusalem on what would turn out to be Easter Sunday.  The women had already gone to the tomb, found it empty and had returned to the other disciples and reported their encounter with angels.  But remember from earlier in this Chapter, Luke tells us that the disciples did not believe the women and thought they were telling idle tales.  So for these disciples, Jesus was still dead – and now his body was missing as well – and everything they had believed in had been taken away.  The Messiah – the Christ – the one they had called “the Son of God,” had been arrested and taken away like a common criminal, and had been summarily executed.  “How could that happen to a true Messiah?” they must have wondered.  So they left Jerusalem, disappointed, dejected and downtrodden.  All they could do was walk and complain about how badly things had gone.

Where were they going?  We don’t know.  We know they were on the road near Emmaus, but we don’t even know where that village was located.  Luke tells us that Emmaus was approximately 7 miles from Jerusalem.  From the early Church on – and especially during the Crusades – people have tried to determine exactly where Emmaus was, but none has been able to do so, definitively.  So why Emmaus?  Why not Bethsaida – or Nazareth?  Perhaps for the same reason we know so little about these disciples.  Emmaus could be anywhere.

Have you ever gone anywhere just to get away from something?  Maybe that’s what’s happening in this story.  The disciples have just suffered what was undoubtedly the biggest disappointment of their lives.  If they were like the others, they had given up everything they owned and everything they knew, just to follow Jesus.  And now all that seemed to have gone up in smoke – leaving them empty and wondering what to do next.  So they walked down the road, away from what had happened, not necessarily to anywhere, just away from what had happened.

The wonderful writer, Frederick Buecchner, in his book, The Magnificent Defeat, said,

Emmaus is where we go when life gets to be too much for us; … the place we go in order to escape – a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, ‘Let the whole … thing go hang.  It makes no difference anyway.’ … Emmaus may be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes than you really want, or reading a second-rate novel or even writing one.  …  Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred; that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that men have had – ideas about love and freedom and justice – have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish men for selfish ends.

Emmaus … where is it for you?  It may not be the same every time you need it.  It may change, depending upon how deep or how bad your hurt is.  Something like being disappointed that you didn’t get the recognition you thought you would at work, may simply be a trip to Emmaus by way of Ben and Jerry’s, or Bluebell.  But the loss of a job, a serious illness, or the loss of a loved one, might require the purchase of a Harley or a new convertable in order to get away.  We all need to get away from life’s bad news sometimes.  But lest you think I’m advocating answering every one of life’s disappointments and hurts by giving in to our narcissistic need to make ourselves feel better – or at least feel less bad, remember how today’s story ends.

Cleopas and his buddy meet a stranger on the road – and His teaching of the Gospel story, complete with an understanding of how it fits in with the Old Testament, sets their hearts on fire.  And then, when they share Holy Eucharist with this stranger, they discover that Jesus is Alive! – and they run back to Jerusalem, in the dark, to share the news with all the other believers.

Now we know the “who,” the “where” and the “why” – but what’s the moral of this story?  Simply this: it is human to suffer disappointment, pain and setbacks in this life.  Those things are as unavoidable over the course of a lifetime as is the new day’s sunrise.  And when those things happen, often we need an Emmaus – and oasis – through which we can temporarily block out the pain and let the loss sink in before we start to heal.  BUT … and this is the real point here … we need to raise our eyes from the road to Emmaus so that we don’t miss the fact that Jesus is walking next to us. 

Jesus – the risen Lord – is always on the road with us.  That’s one thing He promised us – I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.  And when we have had enough of walking away from our pain, Jesus is there to reignite the fire in our hearts – to turn us from looking inward and trying to lose our pain, to looking outward and upward toward the Good News of the Gospel.

If Jesus’ resurrection story tells us anything, it is that there is hope – even in loss, even in death.  There is the hope that can only come from the God who loved us enough to send His Son to suffer death for our sins, and then to make that Son rise from the dead to walk with us each and every time we need to find Emmaus.

Amen.

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Jesus Is Alive! Tell Somebody! Fr. John Bedingfield, April 27th

April 27, 2014

In the name of the Risen Lord, Amen.

One day God was looking down at earth and saw all of the evil that was going on.  God decided to send an angel down to check it out.  So God called on a female angel and sent her to earth for a time.  When she returned she told God, “It is bad on earth!  95% of the people are bad and 5% are good.”

Well, God thought for a moment and decided that maybe it would be good to send down a male angel; just to get both points-of-view.  So God called a male angel and sent him for a time.  When the male angel returned he went to God and said, “Yes the earth is in decline, 95% of people are bad and 5% are good.”

God thought, “This is not what I want.  So God sent a letter to the 5% that were good, to encourage them; to give them something to help them keep going.  Do you know what that letter said?  …  Oh, you didn't get one either?

Mother Mitzi and I went to Camp Hardtner this week for a clergy conference, put on by Bishop Jake.  We had guest speaker for the first two days of the conference.  Bishop Jeff Fisher came from the Diocese of Texas to share some things with us.  Bishop Fisher and I go back a few years.  He was a curate (that is a brand new priest), finishing his first year at St. Mary’s in Cypress, Texas when I started my first year of curacy at Holy Spirit, in Houston.  Jeff’s parents are members of Holy Spirit and I met him through his mom, Nancy, with whom I worked very closely.  Nancy and her husband, Nelson are some of my favorite people from Holy Spirit.  Jeff and I got along very well together as relative “newby” priests.  No one was happier to hear that Jeff had become Bishop Jeff than I was – and it was great to see him again; now in his purple shirt.

That was a lot of background to tell you that one of Bishop Jeff’s sessions contained a portion of what I am going to say to you today.  After he spoke, I went up to him and told him that I intended to liberally steal from him.  When I told him what I wanted to do in this sermon, he said, “Hey.  That IS a great idea for a sermon.  Now I know what I am going to preach about this Sunday.”  Since I have his permission, here we go.

What is the first thing that goes through your mind when something surprising, or amazing or great happens in your life?  When you have a new baby; when you have a new grandchild; when you get all “A’s” or make the Dean’s List at the end of a semester; when you get a new car or buy your first house; what do you want to do first?  Tell someone.  Right?  Immediately you call someone close to you to share your excitement with them.  Or in today’s culture, you quickly text everyone in your friends and family group, or you tweet it, or put it on FaceBook.  Does that sound right for you?  It is an absolutely truism that any time something wonderful happens in our lives, we do not keep it to ourselves … somehow, by some means, we tell someone!

In today’s Gospel reading, St. John tells us, “[I]t was evening on the day of Resurrection, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, (when) Jesus came and stood among them ….”  So right now, put yourself in that place for a few minutes.  Here we all are, closed in this pretty large room.  We are kind of huddled together here because each of us either watched Jesus be crucified (from a safe distance), or we heard about what happened to Him after we had run away and hidden, afraid for our own safety. 

As we sit together in this room, we are all incredibly sad at the loss of our friend and teacher.  But some of us also show deep disappointment because we were just sure that He was somehow going to save Himself.  He would come down from the cross (which would be one of His greatest miracles) right before He actually died.  But He didn’t.  He just hung there and slowly died.  And then He was taken to Joseph of Arimathaea’s tomb and sealed inside.  He is definitely dead.  And here we sit … wondering what we are going to do now.

The outside doors are locked – we know they are because we are so scared of how things are going with the Temple authorities and the Romans.  We don’t want to get arrested and we certainly do NOT want to follow Jesus to the cross.

Suddenly … through those doors, comes Jesus!  He is standing right here in the middle of the room.  And He speaks to us!  He says, “Peace be with you.”  That is what He always said when he came into a room.  It really is HIM!  Now He breathes on us and sends us out to do what He has taught us to do in the world.  He is showing us the holes in His hands and feet.  We are close enough to tough Him!  He is clearly human, because we can see His hands and feet up close.  He is Jesus, the man we knew.  But He is also something else.  We never saw Him walk through a locked door before.  He has never shown us that sort of spirit-like behavior – and He would have if He could have done that before now.  He is definitely Jesus – but somehow changed.  And now He is gone again.

All around this room the buzz starts.  Jesus is alive!  What are we going to do now?  …  Tell somebody!  Thomas comes into the room and we all immediately clamor to tell him what has happened.  But after failing to convince Thomas, what then?  What do we do now? 

The answer is clear.  We get up and leave this room, this church, and we go out into the world again.  And we tell someone … anyone … everyone … that Jesus is alive.  So … all of you who have your smart phones with you – take them out.  Come on.  You do not often get this opportunity from a preacher.  Now tweet, or FaceBook or whatever social media you use.  Send out this message – Right now – Jesus is alive! #stbarnabassunday. 

How many people did what I asked?  Raise your hands.  OK.  I am not a huge FaceBook user, but when I posted that, it went to about 500 people.  If everyone who just tweeted/posted has about the same number of folks attached to them, how many people just got the message that Jesus is alive?

You see, that is what Jesus calls ALL of us to do – not just during this Easter season, but ALWAYS!  In all that we say and all that we do, all of the time, we are called to tell out the Good News that Jesus IS alive – not that He WAS alive back there in ancient Israel – but that HE IS ALIVE, NOW, TODAY! 

Unfortunately, just like those first Disciples in a locked room in Jerusalem, we can sometimes get “locked” into our church.  We can get so wrapped up in what do within these walls that we can forget to take the message out into the world.  One of the great pitfalls of having a wonderful church community like we have is that we can become complacent about God’s message.  We can begin to see God as something that we keep in a very nice box, something that we bring out on Sunday mornings (or evenings) when we need that little “shot of Jesus” and then we put God back in the box until next week.  That is NOT the way the Living God works.  This God who was and is and is to come, this LIVING God calls upon each of us to consistently – make that, constantly – to proclaim God’s loving mission to a wounded and hurting world.

We all need to start thinking about how we can proclaim the Good News.  Let us use this Easter Season to consider how we currently take the Good News into the world and what new ways God is calling us, as a community to begin.  As St. Francis of Assisi famously said, “Always remember to preach the gospel, (the Good News) and if necessary, use words.”  It is not always the words we use, as much as the lives we live.  But either way – by words or by deeds …  Tell somebody!  Tell them today!  Jesus is alive!   Amen.

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