Discipleship Fr. John Bedingfield, September 10th

September 10, 2017
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In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

As a preacher, there are days where I read the slices of Scripture, the lectionary readings, that we get for the day (in case anyone ever asks you, the seminary word for such slices is, pericope) and I am amazed at how the chosen pericope for the day fits just perfectly with what my heart and soul tell me to preach. . . . And then, there’s today.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love this Gospel passage from Matthew. It has a lot to tell us about how Christians should settle disputes. And today, we also get the wonderful Passover story from Exodus. Those are great readings. But today, at St. Barnabas, we are embarking on a spiritual renewal program and a new year of church ministries, and we are about to baptize another wonderful baby boy, James Charles Capdepon. And frankly, those readings don’t really speak to this day, place, and time. So, let’s look at the Epistle to the Romans.

In Paul’s preeminent writing, he introduces himself to the Church in Rome and lays out his understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Most scholars break this letter into several sections, and what we read today comes from the third section, which addresses what it means to live by faith in Jesus. Or stated differently, what it means to be one Jesus’ disciples.

In chapter 12, which immediately precedes what we just heard, Paul says, “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.” He was laying out the argument to his first readers, that in order to be good disciples of Jesus, they must discern God’s will and then try to conform their lives to that will.

In today’s reading, Paul tells us that we should owe no one anything except love. Just as God gives us ongoing love, we too should love all of God’s children endlessly. The great biblical scholar, Walter Bruggeman said of this passage, “While some Christians feel that they can fulfill (this) love obligation by ‘a superficial and saccharine profession of love for the entire world, … Paul calls for the difficult task of real love for real people who are met in everyday life, not theoretical love for humanity as a whole.’”

If we want to know what that sort of real love for a real person looks like, all we have to do is go back again to chapter 12 of this epistle, in which Paul says, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (12:18) –– and “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink: ....” (12:20)

Paul told the Romans that loving their neighbors — that is ALL human beings — as they love themselves, is the absolute fulfillment of the law of God. In other words, as Jesus said, all of the law and the prophets, every other part of the Bible, hangs on loving God and loving other humans the same way we love ourselves.

So, this glorious Sunday on which we are kicking off the RenewalWorks program and restarting our ministries, and bringing another new Christian into the family, we are reminded that being disciples of our Lord is all about how much we can show our love for other people. And we are reminded to seek to become better disciples in all that we do.

I was reading quite a bit about discipleship this week. A baptist pastor from Texas had an interesting story about his church members who believe that simply being baptized, as James Charles is about to be, is sufficient to make one a fully formed, instant disciple. He said,

There is no such thing as an instant disciple; like the word, it takes discipline. (The 1980s) Russian comedian, Yakov Smirnoff talk(ed) about when he first moved to America, he was amazed at the variety of instant products he could buy in the store. There’s powdered milk: just add water and you have milk. There’s powdered orange juice: just add water and you have orange juice. Then he saw Baby Powder and thought, “What a great country! If you want a baby, just add water!” Some people think that’s how discipleship works. You take a believer, add a little baptism water, and “poof” you have a fully-devoted follower of Jesus–a real disciple. But it takes more than water to make a disciple. Disciples are made, not born.

Pastor Dykes is really onto something there. While we Episcopalians believe that baptism is truly all that it takes to be a Christian and a full member of the Church, it is NOT all that it takes to be an effective disciple. In order to become a true disciple of Jesus Christ, you must have what modern writers have referred to as the “Marks of Discipleship.” And those marks include:

1. Daily prayer. Meaning that you must have devoted prayer time in your day, every day. And that that prayer time should be systematic — as in praying the Episcopal Daily Office.

2. Weekly worship. This is the height of preaching to the choir, but this means that you need to make the effort to be here every week. Not only because worshipping as a community has power that worshipping alone just doesn’t have. But also because it is here — gathered around this altar, receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior, that we are spiritually fed and nourished for the continuing work of discipleship.

3. Reading and studying the Bible. I know that this is asking a lot, but the best way for you to do this, is to become a part of an on-going bible study. I pray that this year we will begin new groups through St. Barnabas, in which people can meet with people with whom they share things in common, and study Scripture together. But do you know what? This may be a big shock to some folks … but we do this kind of work EVERY SUNDAY during the Christian Formation hour, and you are ALL invited.

4. Developing and growing spiritual relationships. We must keep expanding our circle of friends and the sphere of our spiritual relationships. Doing the work of Jesus in the world — the real hands and feet kinds of work like feeding the poor and clothing the naked — begins by building relationships with other people and finding out what their needs are, so that we can become part of their solution.

5. Engaging in work in the community. One of the goals of the months of self-study we are about to start, with the RenewalWorks program, is to determine what we should be doing to reach out to the community around us and to be engaged in local works — as a congregation. Feeding the poor and clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty and visiting those in need is important and widespread work. We just have to determine where we should plug in to do some good.

6. Sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. I know, that sounds like the four letter word — evangelism (yes, I do know that evangelism is more than four letters). But do you know what evangelism really is? It is sharing something you love with people whom you would like to have what you have. That’s all. Share the story of your Christian journey with people you know, and see what happens.

7. Practicing generosity with your time, talent & treasures. Give of yourself, your time, your money, your skills and abilities, in ways that can make a difference. We will be talking much more about this in weeks to come.
That is it. That is what it takes to become a full, capable disciple of Jesus Christ. You can get a copy of this sermon on-line, staring this afternoon. Just go to saintbarnabas.us and follow the link. Then print out the list and put it on your refrigerator, with everything else you don’t want to forget. And let’s begin working on this list together. Starting today, when you go across to Ramsay Hall and find a new ministry in which to share your gifts.

God bless you all. Have a great day and find new ways to serve.

 

Who’s Your Dog? Fr. John Bedingfield, August 20th

August 20, 2017
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         Last week, I preached about the sin of racism in America today.  At the risk of people believing that I will never preach about anything else, today’s Gospel – and the events of the intervening week – mean that we’re going to talk about it again.

Jesus said, “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”  Who are the dogs in your life?  Who is it in your world who is so inconsequential that they don’t rate being treated as well as you treat your friends and loved ones?

         When Jesus was confronted by the woman in today’s Gospel story He responded in a way that is most uncharacteristic for the Jesus we’re used to.  He and the disciples left the ever-growing crowds in Galilee and went off into the land of the Gentiles, the land of Canaan. 

Canaan is the land founded by Noah’s son Ham.  He was the one of Noah’s three sons who was shunned by his family after he saw Noah one night, drunk and naked.  Noah cursed Ham, whose name he changed to Canaan, and vowed that Canaan would forever be cursed and that his descendants would always be slaves to the descendants of his brothers.  Canaanites were different.  They were NOT God’s chosen.  Heck, they weren’t even really people.

So the Canaanite woman comes hounding Jesus, yelling at Him incessantly, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!”  This is a different story than we usually see with Jesus.  Here, the woman yells and pleads for help and Jesus does what?  He ignores her.  Jesus, the compassionate lover of souls; Jesus the Good Shepherd; gentle Jesus, meek and mild; ignores her.  And then, it gets worse.

When she keeps at Him, He doesn’t smile at her and say, “My daughter, your prayers have been answered.  Go in peace.”  No, when she asks for His help, He tells her, “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”  This is one ticked off Jesus.  This is Jesus trying to make a serious point.  He knows what His ministry is, and that ministry does not include this woman or her demon-possessed daughter.  She is not who He came to save – in fact, she’s not even a “who” she is a “what.”  She is an animal, without a name, worthy of nothing from the table of the Children of Israel, the chosen of God.

Who are the dogs in your life?  Make no mistake, we all have them.  The dogs in our lives are the people we prejudge – the people whose worth we believe to be less than our own, simply because of some characteristic about them that we don’t like, don’t approve of, or simply don’t understand.  Have you ever told a joke, or laughed at one, that made fun of someone else’s color, ethnicity, or sexuality, in a cruel or demeaning way?  Of course you have.  Admit it, we’ve likely laughed at them, we’ve perhaps told them, but we’ve absolutely heard them.  How are those jokes different from Jesus calling the Canaanite woman a dog?  Aren’t both dehumanizing?

How about people who are otherwise different than you?  What if they’re dirty or homeless?  Are they any different than the Canaanite woman in the story?  What about Muslims?  Especially those who live in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, what about them?  Are they different than this dog of a woman from Canaan who came to Jesus?

“Dogs” are all around us.  Anyone can be a “dog.”  All we have to do is take away someone’s humanity and we can turn that person into a dog.  Once someone has been reduced to the anonymity of dog status, then it is incredibly easy for us to treat them any way we want, without consequences.  After all, they’re not like us, they’re not as good as we are, so why should we worry about treating them the way we’re treated?

I don’t think Jesus was only trying to give us an object lesson here.  I think what we see in this story is the truly human Jesus learning a lesson of His own from the Father in Heaven.  Jesus’ mission up to this point had been to care for the children of Israel and to try to bring them to the fulfillment of their destiny as God’s chosen people.  But Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine.  For the fully human Jesus, I think His ministry unfolded in front of Him, much as our own lives do.  By that, I mean that for most of His life on earth, I don’t think He necessarily knew what was coming next.  So, when Jesus treated this woman as a dog, as anonymous and sub-human, I can just hear the voice of the Father in His ear, “Whoa.  Hold on just a minute.  I made this one, just the same as I made all the others.  They are all My children.  They are all worth the same to Me.  Get to know her and see what you think.”  So Jesus stops ignoring her and listens with those compassionate ears we’re used to, when she says, “Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” and He suddenly sees her for what she is, a child of God who is faithfully praying for help.

Jesus told the disciples to love their neighbors as themselves – to love each other even as Jesus loved them.  I think it was that teaching that flooded through Jesus as He answered her, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”

My brothers and sisters, we live in an increasingly anonymous and segregated world.  More and more, every day we are being isolated from the rest of humanity.  We travel in large, comfortable metal cocoons we call cars.  No one can hear us when we call them names for cutting us off in traffic.  We live in homes that are separated from other homes by acreage or fences.  We speak to each other by text-message, email, or perhaps by telephone, but rarely face-to-face.  We post comments on webpages or we tweet using anonymous twitter handles.  We don’t look into the eyes of people very often in this isolated world.  Anonymity is the name of the game, and on top of that, we’re constantly being told that we should fear or hate everyone who doesn’t look or think the way we do.  They’re “Islamic fascists” not people.  They’re illegal aliens, not people.  They’re refugees, not people.  They’re people of other colors, not people.

We can most easily start treating people as children of God when we get to know them as children of God.  We can only begin to treat people with the love of neighbor that Jesus called for, when we get to know them as human beings first.  The message I want you all to take home today is simple: it’s all too easy to mistreat people whom we have dehumanized – it’s harder to treat someone as a dog if we know his or her name, if we know about their family and their lives.

Next time you hear someone reduce an entire segment of the world’s population into a stereotype or a punch line, or the next time you’re tempted to do so yourself, remember that every one of those people has a name, a mother and a father, a life story that will almost certainly have similarities to your own.  We are all different.  There are bad Muslims, there are people who sneak across our borders who are evil, there are people of different colors or ethnicity or sexuality who do things that harm their communities.  But those harmful people are the same small percentage of the population as are all “bad” people. 

We are all fundamentally the same.  God made every one of us and loves each of us as we want to be loved; as cherished parts of a wonderful creation.  Those who deserve to be feared and ostracized will prove it over time.  But until you get to know them, you’ll never know which people are more like you and which ones are not.

Don’t make anyone an instant dog.  Assume first that they’re children of God.  Assume that they deserve the same respect you do.  If they don’t, you’ll know it.  But more will than won’t.  We are all God’s children.  We should all act like it’s so.

Amen.

“Beware of Sinners Judging Other Sinners, Especially With Finality,” Fr. Bedingfield July 23rd

July 23, 2017
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I do not often begin writing a sermon by having a title. That is just not how my process works. Not so today. Today, the title came first. This sermon is called: Beware of Sinners Judging Other Sinners, Especially With Finality. I readily admit that I stole that title directly out of one of the sources I was using to prepare for this. But that sentence just struck me between the eyes. It is exactly what I believe Matthew’s Gospel is saying to me today.

Today’s Gospel reading is sort of the sequel to last week’s Parable of the Sower. Today we hear Jesus teach the Disciples by giving them an allegory, instead of a regular parable. In today’s story there are absolute connections between the things in the story and the real world. You know … the sower is Jesus, the seeds are the children of God, the weeds are the children of the devil, etc. Jesus wanted to make sure that none of the Disciples mistook any of what he was saying for something else, so He made it plain.

An obvious lesson to be learned from this allegory is: we servants of the Lord, do not have the ability to remove the weeds from the garden, without harming the good grain that God has sown. Therefore, we should be patient, appreciate the growth that God provides, and wait for Jesus and God’s reapers to determine who belongs where. Or put in more familiar terms, “judge not, lest ye be judged.”

We should always be patient and tolerant of one another — including those with whom we vehemently disagree, and those of whom we are most afraid. We must guard against thinking that because we are “good Christians” who do our best to follow Jesus, we somehow know how to judge another human on God’s behalf. That is not only arrogant, but Matthew tells us it is also dangerous, because we risk destroying something that is of great value to God when we do so. You see, not only do wheat and weeds look alike to us; but we individually, are also made up of both wheat and weeds. So we should be patient, tolerant, and be ever so thankful that the one who will judge in the end is the one who loves us deeply enough to give His life for ours.

Jesus told the Disciples that we humans have limited vision. We cannot see what God sees. We do not have anything approaching the divine understanding of the world, or its inhabitants. Therefore, when we categorize and separate people, based upon our so-called knowledge of who is in and who is out, we have already gone against what it is that God would have us do, thereby putting ourselves in the “out” category. Ironic, huh?
When we presume to say, for instance that all Muslims are out to destroy our country and all of Christianity, we are judging on behalf of God and therefore have already gone against what Jesus taught. When conservatives judge liberals, or liberals judge conservatives, and believe that we know what is in the other’s heart, thereby knowing who is wheat and who is weed, we have already placed ourselves in the weed category.
Jesus says that the mere fact that we humans dane to do Jesus’ work of judging the hearts of other humans, makes us susceptible to judgment. As Carl Jung, famous psychotherapist, is quoted to have said about those who judged each other, “The brighter the halo, the smellier the feet.” In other words, we cannot ever hope to be able to judge another’s worthiness to be a child of God. The more we do so, the more we show the world how unworthy we really are.

On a local level, when we judge who is “good” and who is “bad,” based upon our own criteria (whatever they may be), we are overstepping our bounds, or as my grandfather said, we are “getting too big for our britches.” And according to Jesus, going agains the express wishes of the One who sows the grain in the field. When we judge each other, we can destroy existing (or soon to bloom) relationships, because we infuse them with suspicion and distrust.

Here is an example that hopefully makes this point clear. Fifteen or so years ago, there was a young boy in this congregation who was a HUGE problem. His parents brought him for Christian Formation every Sunday. And he would run around the classroom, creating havoc everywhere he went. He antagonized other children and was a constant disruption in the class. But, even though the teachers sometimes had to do so through gritted teeth, they refused to judge the child as unworthy of being a part of the community. They kept loving him and trying find ways for him to fit in more fully. And over time, he began to show signs of blossoming. Then he began to flower. Now, this Friday evening, we will have a going away party as Laurent De Prins goes off to seminary, where he will be formed into a priest of the Church. This particularly lovely and loving flower would never have bloomed is the members of this congregation had gotten impatient with God and uprooted that little weed, all those years ago.

Remember: Beware of Sinners Judging Other Sinners, Especially With Finality

If we take this same message to a world stage, the allegory from Jesus translates to a warning that we should be very careful before we wage war on other humans in the name of a “Christian Nation,” because in our limited vision, we may well have taken on a cause that is not God’s at all, but is our cause that we hope to imprint with God’s blessing. As I read this week, “We will never eradicate ‘the tares,’ or ‘tarishness’ from the world. We might unseat a tyrant and bring him to justice; but we will not succeed in eliminating global evil. Only God can heal the fallenness of creation.”

Our own Bishop Jake has a particularly good blogpost this week, entitled, “Whose Side is God On?” In it, he discusses many of the issues that I wrestled with this week, and he does it in the context of one of the most horrific stories in the Bible; the Old Testament story of Jephthah’s daughter. I will not steal his thunder here, so — after the service, please — go to www.jakeowensby.com, and check it out. Anyway, in the post, Bishop Jake says, “when we co-opt God into our own violent agenda, our own cruelty can reach soul-crushing depths. We will consume not only our enemies but also ourselves and those we love with violence.” That is an eloquent statement, which makes clear that we judge others, and act on that judgement, at our own peril.

". And there is very little in the world that is more final than war.

Whether it is within your family, your pew, within your neighborhood, our city or state, or within the nations and peoples of the world, Beware of Sinners Judging Other Sinners, Especially With Finality. Be patient. Be loving. Be willing to let God be God. And stop worrying about anyone else’s worthiness. Love God and love your neighbor. That is enough.

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

God Sows Abundant Love On YOU, Fr. John Bedingfield, July 16th

July 17, 2017
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Today’s Gospel is one of Jesus’ most famous stories. It is the parable of the Sower. Many of us have heard this passage so many times. The sower sows seeds all over the place and we get to figure out what happened to each bunch of seeds and why. In order to get much out of this parable, we probably ought to take a look at it — even though Jesus ostensibly explained it to the Disciples on the day that He told it.

When you think of someone sowing seeds, what picture do you get in your mind? In today’s America, it would be a huge machine that precisely places in seeds, equidistance apart, each in its separate hole. Or, if you go back a hundred and fifty years or so, you might see someone poking holes in the ground with a tool and placing seeds that way, or dropping seeds carefully into mule-plowed furrows. But what Jesus was talking about was none of that. He was talking about the kind where a guy with a bag full of seeds walks around taking great handfuls of seeds and throwing them everywhere, willy nilly — as if he just didn’t care where they landed. Like the legend of Johnny Appleseed, who supposedly sowed apple seeds everywhere, just hoping that apple trees would grow all over the American countryside. [That’s not how John Chapman really did it, but for us, the legend works.]

So Jesus tells us that the seed is the Word of God. That would lead us to think that Jesus was the sower. Not so fast! Jesus IS the Word of God — as we know Him to be from John’s Gospel (you know, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.) So, if Jesus is the seed in this parable — who is the sower? Who are we in this parable? Or is it an allegory? Either way, we are the soil — or are we the sowers, who sow the seed (the Word of God) around to others? You can see the problem when we begin to dig deeply into Jesus’ parabolic or allegorical telling of this story.

But for today, please set all of that aside for a few minutes. Here is what I would like for you to take from this parable today. God is the sower and God sows abundantly! Forget everything else. God sows abundantly. And not just abundantly, but extravagantly, recklessly, and even improvidently. You see, this parable is not just about the Word of God being given out to everyone, it is about how God loves us in the same way.

Let’s face it, we are all of the different kinds of soil — as Jesus explained the parable. And we are all of them interchangeably. But we are not just those types of soil when it comes to hearing the Word. We are also those different types of soil when God casts the great, overflowing handfuls of love onto us.

Sometimes, when God throws a heaping handful of love on us, we are like the path. Our hearts have been so trampled down and hardened by everything else life has thrown at us, that we forget how to accept love — human or God-given — so the love just runs off of us, like so much excess rain water. If life has been hard enough, if we have suffered enough at the hands of humans, we can not allow the love to enter in. We cannot allow ourselves to be that vulnerable. And we miss the restorative blessing of God’s abundant love.

In other situations, God’s love just pours over us and we are like the rocky ground. The love hits, but it has no way to sink in deeply. We instantly feel the love, but because we are “rocky,” we cannot really trust that it is love that is meant for us. Instead, we believe that we are not “worthy” of the love. We cannot really believe that God could ever love us, in our broken and sinful state. So we figure that there must be a “catch,” that when we reach for the love, God will just snatch it away and laugh at us for thinking it was ours. And we turn away from the love, leaving it behind.

Many times in our lives, we are like the soil with the thorns. God gives us so much more than simply abundant love. Instead, God showers us with torrential love, and it really sinks in. We stop slumping over, head bowed, fear in our hearts when we are present to God. We truly let God’s love into our hearts and we begin to transform into something more closely resembling what God wants us to be. But the world creeps back in. We get busy with work, or kids, or we become disillusioned with our particular house of worship, and we turn our backs on God — no longer accepting the ever-flowing Godly love. Instead, we spend our days worrying about things we cannot change, and being miserable, because nothing in our lives works the way think it should. And we slowly forget the love that started to change our lives.

But, if we will just be open to it ….

We have the capacity to become fertile soil for God’s profligate sowing of love in the world. If we are the fertile soil, we will receive God’s love and dedicate our lives to reflecting — and returning — that love into the world, by following Jesus Christ into the places where there are thorns and rocky ground and hardened paths. When we truly open ourselves to the abundant gift of God’s love, our lives actually change. The good things get better, because we appreciate where they came from and we give hearty thanks. The bad times even get better, because we are secure in our knowledge of God’s love. So we never doubt for minute that, no matter how things turn out, everything will be good, because the one who loves us perfectly will always be right beside us, showing us that love in myriad ways. And when we can accept God’s love deeply — all the way into the marrow of our bones — the that love will multiply 100 fold, so that WE never run out, no matter how much we give out to those with whom we interact. If we allow it, we can actually become almost as prodigal with our sowing of love as is the God who literally IS love.

I recently read a poem that was attributed to someone about whom I could find no information. So if you know anything about the origins of this poem, please share them with me. The poem is by Kashi Rahman, and it goes like this:

Scatter love as you scatter seeds––
Your store stays undiminished.
For love makes love as seeds makes seeds
In a harvest never finished;
Nor look to see how your gift fares––
It is enough to plant it;
Just sow love with a lavish hand
And take (the) harvest for granted.

Today I would like for you to take this thought with you when you leave. No matter who you are, or where you came from; no matter what you have done, or left undone in your life; whether you have always seen yourself as a good person, or your life has been so far off the straight and narrow that you cannot stand to look in the mirror; no matter how much love you have refused to give or receive up to now; God loves YOU — abundantly, extravagantly, recklessly, and even improvidently. God loves you as if you were the only person in the world. God knows everything you have ever done — and loves you, not in spite of those things, but because those things make you, you. God loves you the most, when you are completely unloveable.

So try to start living like that is true. Grow in God’s love. Drink it in. Luxuriate in it. And then get up and go out into the world — trying your absolute best to sow that same love wherever you look — on the path, on the rocks, in the thorns, or in the lush meadow.

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

It’s Empathy! Fr. John Bedingfield, June 18th

June 18, 2017
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         Those of you who are FaceBook friends with me, know that I shared something on Friday, from the group who call themselves “Episcopal Memes.[1]”  This one meme just seemed to really say something about the way I have been feeling, especially this week.  The picture is one of John Coffey (the giant of a man who is a central figure in the Stephen King book and the Frank Darabont film that share the title of: The Green Mile.)  John, who is clearly a Jesus figure in the story, looks out and says, “I’m tired boss.  Mostly I’m tired of people being ugly to each other.” 

         I know that I am not telling you anything that you don’t know, when I say that the this week, congressman from New Orleans, Steve Scalise, Matt Mika, Zach Barth, Crystal Griner, and David Bailey, were all shot at a Republican legislators’ baseball practice.  And on that same day, just a little while later, there was workplace shooting in San Francisco, in which, Wayne Chan, Benson Louie, and Michael Lefiti were all killed, and two others wounded.  On the day, I sighed, and I knew that I should preach another sermon on gun violence in America today.  But frankly, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I was pretty sure that I didn’t have another such sermon in me.  We have had so very many multiple shooting incidents in this country now, that it’s hard to feel outrage anymore.  It’s even beginning to be difficult to churn up anger about absolutely senseless killing of human beings.  And my inability to become outraged, made me sadder.

         You can count back as far as you want – so that you can blame the people who disagree with you – and you can perhaps identify that time period in which our politicians and public personalities began to say truly vile things to each other.  Like I said, we will all determine what that time was, based upon whom we want to blame.  But be all of that as it may (I am not at all interested in assigning blame), last week just seemed a lot like a watershed moment to me, and by the time I started writing this sermon, it was weighing pretty heavy on me.

         One of the truly thoughtful modern Christian writers, Diana Butler Bass, posted on FaceBook this week that we should resist blaming what happened in Alexandria, VA, on the words which created the “toxic environment,” around modern politics today.  She said that blaming the words themselves was too easy.  She went on,

"[W]ords themselves -- even passionate, angry ones -- are not the problem.  Even angry words can give life.  The Anti-Word is the problem.  When words are used not to express, not to create, not to make space for justice.  Like Anti-Christ, they pretend to be anointed, but they are a pale imitation of the true thing.  The Anti-Word twists reality, undermines love and peace, destroys hope and possibility, colonizes and oppresses.[2]"

So, Diana Bass got me past blaming the ofttimes horrible words that almost all of us are guilty of using (at least sometimes) and which our political leaders are way too often guilty of using in public discourse.  So I started thinking about what else it was that was weighing down my soul.  If it wasn’t just the words – and if I actually could no longer feel the pain of the actions of people – what was it.  And then I found it.

         Matthew tells us,

“Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.  When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, . . .”

         And it hit me!  Compassion – or at least some level of empathy – is what is missing.  In the world today – and because it is what I experience every day – I will say that especially in America, there is a distinct lack of empathy for other people.  We no longer seem to be bound by even the simple, old-fashioned Southern courtesy of my childhood.  And courtesy, or manners, is what used to cover up for those places where empathy was missing.  Now it is just a stark and constant barrage of people being mean to each other in order to diminish the other.  And it can wear you down.

In The Green Mile, the scene from which the quote I read, came near the end.  John Coffey had his date of execution set, for a double murder that he did not commit.  And over his time on the Green Mile, his jailers had come to know that John was a gift to the world, directly from God.  He was pure goodness, surrounded by a broken world that couldn’t accept him.  In the scene, John is in his cell, talking with Boss Edgecomb, the head jailer.  What John Coffey says is this:

"I'm tired, boss.  Tired of bein' on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain.  I'm tired of never having me a buddy to be with, to tell me where we's going to or coming from, or why.  Mostly, I'm tired of people being ugly to each other. I'm tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world every day.  There's too much of it - it's like pieces of glass in my head, all the time.  Can you understand?"

Yes, John Coffey, I thought to myself, I can understand.  Sometimes those of us in the helping professions can take in a little too much of the misery and it can be like carrying a weight of your own, some little tiny piece of what Jesus must have carried when He stopped ministering to people and took that lonely walk to the cross.  And I have to tell you, it can be exceptionally draining on one’s reserves of Holy Spirit. 

         There is so much ugliness in the world today.  We can no longer go a single day where the news – whether local, national, or international – is not filled with back-to-back stories of people killing, maiming, or simply saying horrible “anti-words,” to each other, incessantly – and then crowing about how they got the advantage over someone else.  And it can drag down the human spirit if we let it.

         But you know a wonderful thing about the Spirit, is that it has infinite reserves – because the Holy Spirit is always creating; always adding more to the world’s ability to reach out to each other.  And so it was that I was asked to go the hospital room of a man who is in the final stages of a particularly painful type of cancer.  Wanting to maintain privacy, I will not mention his name.  But suffice to say that our conversations over the last week have been amazing.

         I met a man who knows much more about how and when his life will end, than any of us would like to.  But he told me a long story about how incredibly lucky he was.  He told me about being lucky to have a hospital full of doctors and nurses who cared for him and tried their best to keep him comfortable.  He wanted to talk about what happened after we die – not because he was afraid, but because he was interested in how our conversation might go.  I got to know him pretty darn well in the time that we have been visiting … and even though he was in the hospital bed, he ministered to me.  He showed me the goodness and the hope that come from the power of the Holy Spirit in the world.  He reminded why I am ordained.  And I give thanks for that.

         So what do we do with all the ugliness in the world today?  We can get involved with it.  We can post and repost ugliness on FaceBook and Twitter and Instagram.  We can let it wash over us until we and those around us begin to drown in it – exactly as the “Anti” part of the world would like.  Or, we can go out in the world and find people to help.  We can share the Good News of God in Christ.  We can revel in the creative and supportive power of the Holy Spirit.  And we can experience the goodness and love of God in the world.  I choose the latter.

         This week, try to show others the love of Christ that lives in you – in every way you can.  Make this corner of the world, the Kingdom of Heaven, regardless of what others say. 

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

 

[1]  https://www.facebook.com/E.C.M.churchhumor/

[2]  https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass, posted June 15, 2017

You Can’t “Learn” the Blues, Fr. John Bedingfield, June 11th

June 11, 2017
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         I have been playing guitar for over 50 years.  For a few of those years, in my teens and early twenties, I played pretty seriously.  By that, I mean that I practiced every day and got paid (sometimes) when I played.  Throughout those years, I was primarily a rock/folk/country rhythm guitarist.  That means that I played chords behind myself or someone else who was singing, or someone who was playing the lead part on guitar or keyboard.  But in recent years, I decided to teach myself to play blues on guitar.  And that is when I discovered something.  Human beings cannot be taught to play the blues.  For sure, you can learn to play the notes and patterns of notes that make up what are known as blues “licks.”  But you cannot be taught to play the blues.  You cannot think your way into it.  In order to truly play blues guitar, you have to experience the blues through the notes – the same way lovers of the blues (like me) experience the blues through hearing it played and sung.  How many, if any, of you love listening to Son House, or Muddy Waters, or Robert Johnson?  Well I cannot teach you to love their music.  I can, perhaps, teach you to appreciate the art form, but you cannot be taught to love the music.  You simply have to experience what they are playing in order to love it.  It is the same way with humans and God – what we celebrate today as the Holy Trinity.  You cannot be taught to understand the Trinity.  You have to experience it.

         For about two thousand years now, people of great faith and learning have tried, universally without success, to explain what we mean when we say that we believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three in one and one in three.  Jeremy Taylor, the 17th Century Anglican priest and gifted writer, said it well:

He who goes about to speak of the mystery of the Trinity, and does it by words, and names of man’s invention, talking of essence and existence, hypostases and personalities, priority in co-equality, and unity in pluralities, may amuse himself and build a tabernacle in his head, and talk something—he knows not what; but the renewed man, that feels the power of the Father, to whom the Son is become wisdom, sanctification, and redemption, in whose heart the love of the Spirit of God is shed abroad—this man, tho he understand nothing of what is unintelligible, yet he alone truly understands the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

         Episcopalians believe that the way we come to know God is through experience.  First we experience who God is, and then we come to believe and understand.  As we heard to the creation story from Genesis, God created the world, and with each new creation, God said, “It is good.”  When we experience the goodness of God’s creation, whether it be: a walk in the woods; a wonderful meal with friends; holding someone we love close to your heart; or even listening to B.B. King play Lucille; we begin to understand that God is good.  Esther de Waal wrote in Every Earthly Blessing[1]: “Creation reveals God. It is as though the world is the teacher who sets forth and preaches God.”

         When we begin to experience the love of God, as exhibited in the Incarnation of God in Christ, then we begin to understand the second person of the Trinity.  The Bishop of Nevada, +Dan Edwards, wrote, “God the Son is the compassion of God who understands our experience and loves us enough to share our affliction.  Thus, our suffering is not diminished, but is transformed.”[2]  When we are in deep misery and someone reaches out to us, not offering us easy answers or platitudes, but rather offers us unconditional love and understanding through listening and empathizing, then we begin to experience the Son of God.

         When we feel the unmistakable and palpable “hand of God,” in our lives – as in those times where we pray for wisdom and suddenly have a certainty about what we should do; or when we are in the midst of turmoil and say a quick prayer, followed by a deep sense of peace; or when we are deeply in need and without warning someone calls or comes by and raises our spirits; then we have begun to experience the third member of the Trinity.  Again, Bishop Dan says, “As the Divine force that gives and restores life, God the Holy Spirit—acting with “gracious serendipity”—is present in every situation to revitalize and empower our hope and courage.”

Thus it is that we first experience the Holy Trinity, and then we begin to seek out ways to express that experience in words.  John Wesley was quoted as saying, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and the I will show you a man that can comprehend the Trinity.”  Of course he was talking about trying to teach the Trinity, not experiencing it.  To put it another way, one of my favorite modern Christian writers, Anne Lamott, said, “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.”[3]

         When we have experienced and begun to see those experiences as being the power of the Holy Trinity, one God, in our lives, then we can start to search out ways in which God is calling (or pushing) us into action.  Perhaps the best way to look at this is through the life and ministry of Jesus.  As I read recently, “Jesus did not spend a great deal of time discoursing about the Trinity, or original sin or the incarnation which have preoccupied later Christians.  He went around doing good and being compassionate.[4]

         As a congregation, we at St. Barnabas are about to enter a time of intentional and hopefully deep discernment about who we are and what God is calling us to do.  In September, we will begin a program called RenewalWorks©.  You will soon begin hearing much more about this program, from the lay leaders of the congregation.  But for now, suffice to say that is will be a couple of months of intense self-study and on-going discussions about how God acts in our lives and how we thereafter, act in the world. 

         In the context of today’s celebration of our experience of the Holy Trinity, our coming time of renewal will be focused on making us a truly experiential Trinitarian congregation.  That means that we will hopefully live into God’s call that we begin to see ourselves 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.[5]

            Let me end today with a benediction.  May we learn to love the blues through listening to the recently deceased Gregg Allman, and  “May God the Father bless us; may Christ take care of us; may the Holy Spirit enlighten us all the days of our lives.”  Amen.

 

[1]  Harrisburg, Penn.: Morehouse, 1991, p. 57

[2]  God of Our Silent Tears, Los Angeles: Cathedral Center Press, 2013.

[3]  Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, N.Y.: Riverhead Books, 2005.

[4]  Armstrong, Karen, Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science, Steve Paulson; N. Y.: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[5]  Synthesis, June 11, 2017

Love Jesus But Hate The Church? Fr. John Bedingfield May 28th

May 28, 2017
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A brand-new priest arrived at his first church.  As usually seems to be the case, several of the original members of the parish had waited for their new priest to arrive before they would die. Consequently, in four weeks he did eight funerals. He was so busy with the funerals that he did not have time to write his regular Sunday Sermons. So, he used the sermon from the Sunday he arrived … 3 more times. The Vestry went to the Bishop complaining that this new priest had used the same sermon 4 times in a row. The Bishop asked what the sermon was about. The Vestry members couldn't remember, they scratched their heads and hemmed and hawed - but they really couldn't remember. So the Bishop said, “Let’s let him use it one more time.”

I read a blog thread online this week. It had a provocative title: “I love Jesus, but hate His church.” I LOVE Jesus, but I HATE His church. The question being pursued in the blog was, in essence, is that possible? Unfortunately, the blog I was reading, didn’t lend itself to a very high level of discussion on either missiology (the study of religious missions and their methods) or Christology (the study of the person, nature, and role of Christ). And the question lingered on in my mind.

This question, or one like it, has existed probably since the Church began. It has been expressed in many ways, like the benign, “I am spiritual, not religious,” and confrontationally, like the famous statement from Mahatma Gandhi, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” No matter how it is phrased though, the sentiment that Jesus and the Church are separate from one another, and that someone could choose between them, is a popular one among some post-modern thinkers.

To talk about these things, we must first agree upon what we are talking about when we use the word, “Church.” When we say “the Church,” we can mean “our parish,” or the Episcopal Church, or what I believe that most people who are discussing big Christian issues mean – all of Christianity. So, for my purposes, “the Church,” with a big C, means the universal Christian church, while “the church” with a small c would mean St. Barnabas, “our church.”

So, I think that when people say that they love Jesus and hate the (big C) Church, what they are saying is: “I love the idealized Jesus that I’ve created in my mind and I really hate organized religion.” And there seems to be a lot of this kind of thought these days, among many Americans, especially millennials. Here is what I would like to say to all of those people who express sentiments similar to this.

First: Who exactly do you believe that Jesus is, and where did you get that idea? Most of the “spiritual but not religious” people say something along the lines of, “Jesus is love.” That is absolutely correct in one sense, but it does not even begin to scratch the surface of who Jesus is.
Jesus is 100% human, which means that He came to earth and lived for somewhere around 33 years as one of us. He got cold and hot, tired and sweaty, joyful and depressed. He joked with people and chewed some of them out. He ate and drank and burped when He had indigestion. All just like us. BUT … He was also 100% God. That means that He was around from the time before the world began. He was there as the creation came into being. He knew Adam and Eve, and Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He knew King David and all of the prophets. And He understood the mind of God in all things. He understood the creation of life and how humans interacted with God. He could call down miraculous power at will. And He was faithful to God as He lived a completely sinless life.

To say that this Jesus is only love is to sell Him short, and to misunderstand much of His mission on earth. The Creator God – God the Father – sent His only begotten son so that all who believe in Him might have everlasting life. Jesus came into the world so that we might be freed from bondage to sin and death, and so that through His sacrifice on the cross, we could be in a position to accept His gracious, redemptive love and have a personal relationship with the Triune God. And Jesus came into the world to begin the work of repairing and restoring the world, bringing the Kingdom of God into fruition. And through our baptisms, He commissioned us to carry on the work.

Saint Paul told the Church in Rome, “4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another,” (Rom 12) something that he had previously told the Corinthians. We … The Church (big C) ARE the Body of Christ. To explain this to the Corinthians, Paul said,
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12)
St. Paul explained well just how the Church functions as the Body of Christ, the hands, feet, eyes and ears of Jesus in the world.

So if someone says that he or she loves Jesus but hates the Church, what they are saying, is: “I love whoever it is that I’ve decided Jesus is, but I hate Jesus’ body in the world.” Which at least matches Gandhi’s sentiments, but still doesn’t deal with the fact that you logically cannot hate Jesus’ body but love Jesus.

No, the people who say things like this are really trying to express another sentiment altogether. What they mean to say is, “I love the ideals of Christianity but I hate the institutions that do not adhere to those ideals.” At this point in the sermon, many people will sit back and sigh and say to themselves, “At least he’s not talking to us, the members of St. Barnabas, because we are good members of the Body of Christ.” To which I would respond, “Not so fast.”

St. Barnabas is a wonderful parish. I am into my seventh year among you and I feel like I have a pretty good handle on who and what this parish is. You are good people and for the most part you work hard at being good Christians. Please do not take offense that I said, “for the most part.” That was not a dig at anyone. It is a recognition that NO ONE, including me, works hard a being a good Christian all of the time. But this parish has a heart for reaching out to others, and that is a building block in bringing the Kingdom of God to perfection. However … that heart for reaching out is not enough. We can and must do more.

As I am often reminded, one of my predecessors, Fr. Ken Cooper used to end services by saying something like: “Feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and love those who have no one but you to love them.” That pithy and well phrased statement is a good call to action. It reminds us that Jesus told us to: feed the hungry, bring drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, tend to the sick, visit those who are imprisoned. And that list is a good roadmap for all that we, as the Body of Christ, should be doing to usher in the Kingdom.

In the world around us – actually in the neighborhood around us – there are many strangers whom we need to meet. There are many hungry, thirsty, naked (or nearly naked) people. There are sick and imprisoned people. And all of them could use relationships with authentic Christians. Not people who want to “fix” them. Not people who want to preach to them, or worse yet, condescend to them. They don’t need people who will throw money at them and leave. They need relationships with the Body of Christ, people who will care about them, listen to them, enter into the problems they have and help find solutions. St. Augustine said it well when he said,

"What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like."

The children of God who are not members of St. Barnabas need THAT kind of love. And we have it to give. We, the Body of Christ in the world, can begin today to try to find new ways to reach out to this broken and hurting world, starting right here. And who knows, maybe some of those who “hate the church,” might just take notice that we are the Body of the Jesus they “love,” and come and join us in this work.

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

We Are All Blind Sometimes Fr. John Bedingfield Mar 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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