The Wilderness, Fr. John Bedingfield, February 18th

February 19, 2018
00:0000:00

Jesus, “was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, ….” That is all the author of Mark’s Gospel tells us about what happened after Jesus’ baptism. And that couple of phrases tells us very little about what went on in the wilderness.

Of course we have all four Gospels at our disposal, so most of us have read elsewhere, that Satan waited until Jesus was very hungry, thirsty, tired, and weak, and then he moved in and began to tempt Him. First he challenged Jesus to make food out of a rock. Then he challenged Jesus to jump from a high place, the implication being that God would, as Matthew and Luke say, “not allow you to dash your toe on a rock.” Finally he offered Jesus the opportunity to be the ruler over all of the kingdoms of the world, if Jesus would simply bow down and worship Satan. And of course, we know that Jesus did not succumb to any of these temptations, whereupon, Satan disappeared. But let’s think for a minute about those forty days in the wilderness.

Mark tells us the Jesus was “driven” into the wilderness, where he spent forty days. The Greek word used for “driven” is the same one the author uses when he tell us about what Jesus did to the evil spirits that inhabited some of the people. So Jesus was “compelled, or driven” out of his world, into a place where He was cut off from everything. And He had to survive without the community.

But why so long? Why forty days without food or water? Commentators say that this is a reminder of the forty years that Moses led the children of Israel around in the desert — a time in which they too had to rely completely on the faithful grace of God in order to live.

So Jesus was in the wilderness, driven away from all of the people and things that he knew, without food or water, surrounded by wild animals, for over a month. Sounds like part of the synopsis for a Stephen King novel, doesn’t it?

It was a dark and stormy night. Jesus had been driven from His home by an unseen force. He found Himself lost in the wilderness; without food or water. And He could hear wild animals circling around Him as He tried to sleep. … Then, He encountered Satan!

I make fun, but seriously, think about the 100% human Jesus, and what a physical, mental, and emotional toll this must have taken on him. He must have been absolutely miserable by the end. Let’s face it, being in the wilderness is no fun!

This week we had yet another mass shooting in a school. And I found myself having to struggle to feel anything: sadness, grief, frustration, rage, … anything at all. And I started to think about how much this is beginning to feel as though our whole nation has been driven into the wilderness, for a time of testing that seems never-ending.

Back in the dark ages of the 1960s, (and no, this is not one of those, “things were better when I was a kid,” rants), I grew up in a middle-class household, with two parents (and for several years, two grandparents) in the home. During my elementary school years, we were not rich, but we also never wanted for anything. That is, if we needed something, we got it. I would not call my older sister or me spoiled. We did not get everything we wanted, but certainly everything we needed. We went to church every Sunday — and I do mean every Sunday. If you weren’t on death’s doorstep, with a banana peel under your foot, you got out of bed and went to church … at 7:30 in the morning no less. And there were always adults around to be role models. Sure, sometimes they drank too much, or swore too much, or got a bit loud. But in the large, extended community in which I grew up, all of those adults were good people. They were not physically, mentally, or emotionally abusive — not to each other, and not to any of us kids. I was absolutely blessed to grow up in a community of people who were trying their hardest to follow Jesus and have a good time doing it.

From Jr. High (what is now Middle school) on, I was never the most popular, the most handsome, the best athlete, or any other “best” or “most.” But I was always a part of the group. I was always someone who found a way to fit in and be accepted. After my father reached a certain level in his corporate career, we began to move every few years, as his promotion progression demanded. So I went to quite a few schools in my career. And during only one year did I feel like an outcast.

When I was in the eighth grade, we were living in Northern Virginia, about 85 miles outside Washington, D.C. It was 1969 and racial tensions were still running high after the riots in D.C. in the aftermath of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And that was the year that our school district finally ran out of appeals and had to comply with the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. So, in September, I got on a bus and went across town to what had been the historically African American Junior High. I went from the 1968 school year in an all white school, to the 1969 year, in which I was one of the 10% white population with a 90% African American majority. Over the course of that year, I began to feel what it means to be driven out of your own community and left to fend for myself, in exile.

The minority were treated by the majority in the school, exactly the way these same students had always been treated by a white majority in Virginia society. We were constantly treated as “less than,” the other students. We were looked down upon and pushed around — both physically and emotionally — by everyone with whom we came into contact. I was threatened with physical violence, strictly because of the color of my skin. And it took a toll on my psyche as the year wore on.

I am grateful that that school year ultimately taught me some positive lessons. Rather than retreating to my own “white side of town” and becoming resentful of those who were currently oppressing me; I was able to talk with a couple of my teachers, one white, one black, who helped me understand that none of this was about me, but that it was built up rage that was finding an unhealthy release. I lived through that time of exile and loneliness, with nothing like long-lasting scars. But the same is not true of everyone.

We have now had so many mass shooting events in this country that we are forming a sort of informal profile of who becomes a mass shooter. The people who do these sorts of things are, generally speaking, white males who have long-standing grievances against society, or some slice of it. At some point in their pasts, they have all learned callousness toward others, as a defense to their own pain, or simply as a coping mechanism. And almost 60 percent of them have been involved in some form of domestic abuse. Please don’t come to me after this sermon with an example of a mass shooter who does not fit this profile. I realize that there are exceptions.

The point that I am making is this: mass shooters are — in general terms — not born, they are made by their circumstances. When children or young people do not have what I had as a child, a loving and supportive home life; a larger community that mentored me and cared for, and about me; good role models; and schools that taught me (among other things) civics and good citizenship; when people are raised without these things, they run the very great risk of acting out against society in horrific ways.

And when you add the ease with which such people can get their hands on weapons that, by their very design, are meant to kill multiple people, in combat situations, you have multiple tragedies, just waiting to happen.

Being driven out into the wilderness can do bad things to some people. Coming out of the wilderness, angry, lonely, and detached from humanity — and being able to get an efficient means of killing, believing one is just “getting even,” is the worst of all possible situations. We, Christians, Episcopalians, need to let our legislators know that helping people who are mentally ill is a moral imperative, as is taking an honest look at how we can handle gun violence in a more proactive manner. We cannot allow God’s children to kill God’s children at this atrocious rate. No more retreating to our corners and saying what we have always said. It is time to stop the killing — and the ignoring of the problem.

Close Encounters with God, Fr. John Bedingfield, Feb 11th

February 11, 2018
00:0000:00

         The story of the Transfiguration that we just heard is an interesting Gospel reading.  It appears in remarkably similar language in all three of the synoptic Gospels, which is – in itself – somewhat unusual.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell this story the same way – and they all say that none of the disciples told what they had seen on the mountain.  And so, even though this event is depicted three times in the Gospels, there is not much explanation of what it meant, or means in the lives of people of faith.

         When Peter, James and John went up the mountain with Jesus, they knew what to expect.  Ancient Jews knew that going up on a mountain meant encountering God.  Jesus often went up on the mountain to pray – the disciples were used to that.  But they also knew the stories of their forebears who had encountered God on mountains.  There was the story of Moses, part of which we just heard Laura read.  Moses went up on Mount Sinai and received the commandments of God.  He wasn’t allowed to see God face-to-face, but he spoke with God as one would with a friend, after which, Moses’ face glowed with a divine sort of light that he had to keep hidden from everyone else.  Moses had experienced God in a very close and personal way and was forever changed. 

         The disciples also knew the story of the greatest of the prophets, Elijah, who went up on Mount Horeb to have a face-to-face meeting with the Lord.  Elijah stood in a cave while a great wind broke the mountains – but God wasn’t in the wind.  Then an earthquake came – but God wasn’t there either.  Then came a great fire, but God was not in the fire.  Finally, in the sheer silence that followed; Elijah heard God speak with him and his life’s work was changed.

         So … up the mountain the disciples went with Jesus – keeping in their memories all of these things.  But imagine their surprise when Jesus didn’t just stop on the mountain to pray.  Instead, he was transfigured – the Greek word for which is metamorfothe (metamorphothe) from which we get our word, metamorphosis – and Jesus suddenly appeared to them as something brand new – the face of God incarnate.  The point of Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus is quite simple; they represented the Law and the Prophets of ancient Judaism.  But they had also both spoken directly to, and had interacted with God – and what the disciples were now experiencing was not that, it was something brand new – something beyond anything they had ever imagined before.

         Peter, James and John saw the human face of the God who created the entire universe!  Moses was threatened by God with certain death if he saw God’s face.  Elijah searched and searched, trying to see a glimpse of God, but had to cover his own face with his mantle and only got the voice in the silence.  No one had ever seen God’s face – but these three disciples did.  Why didn’t they come down the mountain and brag to everyone about what had happened to them?  Why didn’t they hold it over the other disciples’ heads that they had seen something no one else in the history of the world had seen?  Maybe there’s a hint in what happened next.

         Peter wanted to build booths, or tents, for Jesus, Elijah and Moses to live in.  Obviously from what Peter had suggested the implication is that he wanted to stay on the mountain.  Many preachers will tell you that this is about Peter trying to “capture” the moment and keep it forever, sort of a proverbial “mountaintop experience” that would never end.  That’s one valid point of view.  But what about this alternative?  What if Peter was so unnerved by what had just happened to him that he wanted them all to stay on the mountain to keep them from having to face what going down the mountain meant?

         The disciples had just seen the face of God and nothing about their lives would ever be the same again.  This “up close and personal” encounter with the living God was not something that would wear off, it was something that transfigured the disciples as well.  They experienced their own metamorphosis on that mountaintop and when they came down, business as usual would never be business as usual again.

         Peter, James and John had been partners in a fishing business.  “Cephas and the Sons of Zebedee, Inc.” had been what they knew, and they had almost undoubtedly been pretty good at it.  There is an indication in the Gospel of Mark that the business had some hired men working for it, so it is pretty certain that they were more than a little successful as fishermen.  These were men who had been doing the same work for a long time and knew what they were doing.  Now they had left all that and begun following this new Rabbi who was saying and doing some remarkable things.  Their lives had changed greatly over the time since they met Jesus – but this … was something altogether different.

         While I am willing to guarantee that no one here today has experienced the face of God in quite the same way that Peter, James and John did, we all have had close encounters with God, even if we don’t admit them to other people.  I know that some of you out there have been to Cursillo.  The Cursillo program is specifically designed to facilitate people more closely encountering God.  And it works for a lot of people.  But the kind of encounter with God that I’m talking about doesn’t have to take place in the context of something as dramatic as Cursillo.  Indeed, most people encounter God for the first – and often strongest – time during a period of deep despair.  The loss of a loved one; the loss of a job; substance abuse problems; illness or the breakup of a marriage – these are all times when people have the most receptivity to seeing the human face of the Creator God.  And those who have – and acknowledge – such encounters are changed forever.

         We will enter the season of Lent this week; a time when introspection and quiet are what we aspire to.  Remember that Elijah had to wait for the sheer silence in order to encounter God.  If we will take the time and effort to – as the Psalmist says in number 45, “be still and know that I am God,” – we likely will more closely encounter the living God.  But such activities are not without risk.  Just like Peter up on the mount of transfiguration, we should be very aware that close encounters with God have the real possibility of leaving us changed forever … in ways we can never imagine.

         Not everyone who closely encounters the living God will change vocation, like Peter, James, and John did – and like many clergy have, after hearing God’s call to ordination.  But everyone who takes the time and effort to seek out an encounter with God can count on entering into a more personal relationship with the One who created us, a relationship in which we, like Moses, can talk with God as a friend and can then risk being forever changed into a vessel for God’s continued use, or as the collect for today says, “strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into (Jesus’) likeness from glory to glory.”

Amen.

If It’s Not About Love, It’s Not From God, Fr. John Bedingfield February 4th

February 4, 2018
00:0000:00

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

Recently there has been a plethora of TV shows (both documentary and drama) about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.  Believe it or not, it has been twenty-five years since that fateful standoff, outside of Waco, Texas.  Having been a news junkie living ninety-nine miles from Waco when all of that was going on, I have been very interested in all of the retellings of this story, now that we all have 20/20 hindsight.  But that is not why I bring up the Branch Davidians today.  Stay with me for a few minutes and we’ll see if I can tie the phenomenon of David Koresh with today’s Gospel message.

In today’s passage from Mark, we heard that:

Jesus left the synagogue at Capernaum, and entered the house of Simon … (whereupon he healed Simon’s mother of a fever).

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, … (Jesus said) “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

This odd, short passage tells us something very important about Jesus and His earthly ministry. 

  • He had Godly power. After His instantaneous healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, He either healed or cast out demons from nearly everyone in Capernaum.

But this passage tells some other things too:

  • Jesus recognized that the people were coming to Him only for the healings. That is: they were not really hearing His message.  And certainly they were not being transformed by what He was teaching them – with the authority of one who has lived his subject – God.  That is one reason that He silenced the demons.  If the people were not going to get the message from Jesus’ teachings, then He certainly did not want to leave it to evil spirits to explain to them who He was.
  • And He left Capernaum so that, as He said, “I may proclaim the message (in other places) also; for that is what I came out to do.

You see, the healings and the casting out of demons, those were what John’s Gospel refers to as “signs.”  The healings and feedings and other miraculous acts were not the reason that Jesus came to earth.  They were the opening act.  While they brought comfort and betterment to people’s lives, they were, in essence, just a signal for people to look up and pay attention to the real message … the message of gracious love and eternal life that comes from knowing and following Jesus.

This little passage from Mark tells us that Jesus was acutely aware that His miracles were not the story – the glory of God was the story.  And if people did not internalize the real story, they would run the risk of worshiping the “miracle-working-man” rather than God Incarnate in Jesus.

There have always been preachers, prophets, and miracle-men who seemed so out of the ordinary, so charismatic, so outwardly special, that people flock to them.  These leaders take small, insignificant gaggles of people, or moribund congregations and bring amazing growth to them.  Suddenly there is new life and conviction in the place.  There is a sense of mission and a banding together of the community – working with one purpose toward a single goal.  But here is where it gets tricky.

If that unified goal is anything other than the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ; if the message is anything other than, as our Presiding Bishop puts it, bearing witness by our very lives, to the unconquerable love of the God we know in Jesus; if the goal of any preacher, prophet, or miracle-man is anything other than that, problems inevitably ensue.

Vernon Howell, later known as David Koresh, preached Armageddon.  He preached that he – Vernon, or David – was the Messiah, the Christ returned to earth.  And he believed, or at least he convinced his followers, that that title gave him the right or the duty to forego preaching love and redemption, in order to punish those who “deserved” punishment and reward those who “deserved” reward.  Unfortunately, as with all self-proclaimed, latter day messiahs, the power that he took from his followers made him into a despot who punished many and praised few, ultimately leading them to die rather than betray him.  Whether you believe that David Koresh was a deluded “true believer” or an able con man, either way, his story ended just as most such stories end, in tragic loss of life and shattered dreams.

Koresh believed in himself and his avowed “expertise” in a book of the Bible that was never meant to be read literally, by anyone, ever.  He neither espoused, nor lived the love of all human beings that is the hallmark of Jesus Christ.  And that is why he failed in his self-defined mission.  But it does not have to be as dramatic, nor as tragic as the Branch Davidians, or Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana.  There are other, less dangerous, but in some ways equally sad examples around us all the time.

How many of you have seen or heard about a church – maybe even an Episcopal church – that gets a new leader, in our case a rector, who comes in and makes a huge splash, only to have the congregation later disintegrate?  I bet that you all have.

I know a priest whose personality is bigger than life.  When he enters a room, particularly a room with a stage or platform in it, he dominates the whole room.  He is outgoing, gregarious, smart, funny, and always entertaining.  He has natural charisma, but over the years has honed that charisma into a razor sharp tool.  Everywhere this priest goes, the average Sunday attendance, the membership rolls, and the budget all swell.  One of his churches almost doubled all of those numbers in the first two years that he was there.  I hear you out there.  “Where is this guy and how do we get him to come here?”  Exactly.  That is what has happened to him throughout his career.  But there is a distinct downside to bringing him, or one of many like him, into any congregation.

No please do not get me wrong.  This is a man of deep faith and love for our Lord.  But here is the thing.  When he preaches, when he celebrates the Eucharist, when he teaches and when he leads other programs, Jesus may be part of what is going on, but the priest and his aim of making that congregation the biggest and best it can be … that is the real agenda.  And it comes out in his rallying of everyone to “his program,” and to “his way” of doing things.  The central focus of his congregations slowly shifts away from “bearing witness by our very lives, to the unconquerable love of the God we know in Jesus,” to “getting everyone on board.”

When this priest leaves, as all priests inevitably do, his congregations crater, and within a year or two, go back to the size that they were before he arrived, or maybe even a little smaller.  And now, because they had such huge expectations, their old size does not seem good enough anymore.  And even the dedicated, long-term people of the congregation leave because they are disillusioned.

You see, when it is about the miracles, or when it is about the man who shows you the miracles, it is never about God.  When it is about God, it is never about the person who leads you.  When it is about God, it is about transforming your life; it is about, “bearing witness by your very life, to the unconquerable love of the God you know in Jesus;” it is about proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; it is about seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself; and it is about striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

No attendance figures, no budget minimums, no litmus tests or must-achieve goals; being the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement is never about anything other than the love and life of Jesus, and trying to live as He did, all day, every day.  That is work enough for all of us.

Amen.

Held Close to the Heart of God, Fr. John Bedingfield, Christmas Eve

December 24, 2017
00:0000:00

As many of you know, I am a movie buff. I love watching Turner Classic Movie channel and seeing the true classic movies, as well as those that are classically bad. In all of my movie watching, I have become more and more aware of how well great directors tell stories, and how poorly bad directors do. Around Halloween this year, TCM aired a bunch of old horror films, and frankly there were some of the mid 70’s Dracula films that made me say; “I’m sorry. That was just too hard to swallow. Even in the ‘monster movie genre,’ I cannot believe the plot of that story.”

I started thinking about the phenomenon of unbelievable stories, as I was preparing for Christmas services. In the year 2017, when virtually everyone in this church over the age of about 12, has a device in his or her pocket or purse that allows communication of any thought or idea to almost anyone, anywhere, instantly; when the internet allows anyone to do research on any topic, just by typing it into Google™; is the story of the Nativity of our Lord, the story we just read from St. Luke’s Gospel, passé? Have we reached the level of sophistication which makes this story just too hard to swallow?

If we look at the Nativity story from a purely historical perspective, in the “cold, harsh light” as it were, of science and/or history, the story might be more than we can believe. The God who created the entire world, became human, and not just human, but an exceptionally poor human, born in one of the world’s true “nowheres,” in Bethlehem of Judea. And as if that weren’t unbelievable enough, the God of the universe became human, not in a palace, surrounded by servants and caretakers, but in a place where common farm animals live. On its face, when phrased that way, it does seem a bit much.
But God doesn’t ask us to accept this story standing alone, without any context. Instead, God asks us to consider the story as the next chapter of a much older saga, the epic story of God’s loving relationship with all of humanity.

The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber told this story:
Rabbi Aaron once came to the city where little Mordecai, who later became the Rabbi of Lechovitz, was growing up. His father brought the boy to the visiting rabbi and complained that he did not persevere in his studies. ‘Leave the boy with me for a while,’ said Rabbi Aaron.

When he was alone with little Mordecai, Rabbi Aaron lay down and took the child and held him next to his heart. Silently, he held the boy close to his chest until the father returned. The old rabbi told the father, ‘I gave him a good talking-to. From now on, he will not be lacking in perseverance.’

Throughout his life, whenever Rabbi Mordecai of Lechovitz related this incident, he added, ‘That was the day that I learned how to convert others.’

You see, God made human beings with free will. That means that we have the choice of whether we love and worship God or not. God does not force nor coerce humans into loving God. We have always been offered God’s self as a being worthy of our love and worship, and then God has left it up to us to respond as we ought. But … God has tried to “convert” human beings since the beginning of time – to turn us into the creatures God originally intended us to be. As I said, God did not do this through coercion or force, but by revealing God’s very self to us, so that we would see God for who God is, and then naturally be converted into the humans we should be.

First God tried to make humans into God’s own loving creatures through the magnificence of creation itself. But God disclosing to people what God looked like through creation was not enough. After a while, people stopped seeing the world around them as a miraculous reflection of God. They began to take creation for granted.

Humans did not persevere in their worship of the creator God. In response to this lack of perseverance, God gave them “a good talking to” in the form of a flood that wiped away almost all of creation. Then God sent a rainbow to Noah as proof that this particular way of talking to the children wouldn’t happen again. Still the children were not converted and continued to rebel.

Some thousand years later, God tried to disclose who God was by appearing to Abraham and making him the father of a great nation. The children of Abraham became the chosen children of Israel. Those children rebelled against God, so God gave them a good talking to, by making them slaves in Egypt. Then God again revealed His gracious love to the children by sending Moses to be their liberator.

The children of God rebelled again and God gave them the law, the Commandments, a good talking to, meant to show them that God was constant, and that there must be rules to the relationship. But they were still not converted. And so, again they got a good talking to from God when the prophets came to them to try to convince them that there was a different way to live.

Through all those generations of people, the children were never converted. Every time God’s beloved humans failed to persevere and live up to their potential, God metaphorically gave them another good talking to. But nothing seemed to work.
Then, after millennia of people failing to persevere, God gave up on the old ways and something never-before-experienced happened. On this night, over two thousand years ago, in a barn in Bethlehem, God took all of humanity and held it close to God’s heart. In other times, God had been said to have temporarily inhabited a human form. But the birth of Jesus, was a completely new and different event in the history of the world. Mary of Nazareth, fiancé of Joseph the carpenter, gave birth and laid Jesus in a feeding trough and in that simple act, the God who created all that is, held us next to the very heart of God.

Through this most incredible, and yet completely ordinary of events – the birth of a baby boy, God came into the world in a most amazing and miraculous way. Suddenly we had the ability to see God in this poor and innocent child. Suddenly God’s heartbeat was right there, in a place where we could hold God and feel the rhythm of life.
In his 1984 song, Mary Did You Know, songwriter, Mark Lowry put it very well, “Mary did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod? And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.”

That’s the magic of this story. If we were to just look at it as an historic event, standing by itself, virtually all of us would have to say, that this couldn’t have happened. But through the eyes of faith, and with the ability to look back through the entire story of humanity in the Bible, we can see this story for what it really is – the fulfillment of God’s promised love for us. Not only is this story possible, it was an absolute necessity for our conversion.

God has always loved us: enough to give us this rich and self-sustaining world in which to live; enough to endow us with the ability to love and be loved by other people; enough to give us the ability to choose and the desire to excel, so that we never have to be bored by what we do in life. And yet, through it all, humanity has never persevered in its love and worship of God.

A good talking to, over and over. God tried it all, again and again. Then, on this night, a couple thousand years ago, God determined that the only way to reach us, to convert us, was to take us and hold us close to God’s heart. The Incarnation of God brought the Almighty and the ordinary together, forever.

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding is the great I AM.

Merry Christmas. Amen.

The Power of the Ordinary, Fr. John Bedingfield, Advent 4

December 24, 2017
00:0000:00

Have you ever seen a painting of The Annunciation – that moment where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that God was entering her life in a very new and very unusual way? Well, I took to Google this week and started looking at all of the paintings of this event, some by masters and others by folks who painted in relative obscurity. What I found, really did not surprise me much, but it was still interesting. Because what I found was that the vast majority of these artistic representations do not come anywhere near showing how I truly believe the event of Gabriel’s visitation would have looked.

First thing is: most of these paintings show Mary to be a grown woman. We know from our study of ancient Palestine and ancient Jewish custom, that most women – girls really – married at a very young age. The rabbis of the day held the opinion that twelve was an acceptable age for the girl to be engaged – and that thirteen was a good marrying age. Very few of the paintings show Mary to be a pre-teen or even a thirteen-year-old.
Then there is the really odd commonality in many of these paintings, that they show Mary reading – usually something that we can easily imagine to be Scripture. Remember that Mary was in Nazareth – a backwater town in the armpit of the Roman Empire, in the year 30 BC or so. I am willing to bet that only the rabbi in town could read – and perhaps even he couldn’t. And even if several people in town could read, there is very little chance that one of them was a young girl.

Perhaps my biggest issue with Annunciation paintings, is that they generally show Mary with a beatific smile (many looking suspiciously like the Mona Lisa). She is always dressed impeccably, is exceedingly calm, and many times is wearing what looks to be a nun’s wimple (the white head covering that all nuns used to wear and some still do). In still others, Mary has a halo over her head, indicating that she is holy.
My problem with all of these portrayals, is that they lose Mary’s ordinariness – which, I believe, cheapens the story. Fabrizio Boschi almost got it right — at least in my humble opinion. In his painting, Gabriel and the cherubim, are about to bless Mary, and instead of the knowing smile and the total comfort with the situation, Mary is almost recoiling and looking askance at them. This one, as I said, is almost right, but not quite. Again, Mary is too old in the painting, and her expression, although appropriately showing confusion and some level of disbelief, reminds me of Gary Coleman from the early 80’s sitcom, Diff’rent Strokes, just as he would say, “What you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”

For my money, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in his 1850 painting, The Annunciation, other than the halo that Mary wears, came the closest to representing the important things about this story. In his work, Rossetti shows an obviously young girl, cowering as far back into the corner of her bed and the wall, as she can get. She cannot bring herself to look at the angel, and the look on her face says, “I have no idea what all of this means.”
You see … despite the way that painters have painted this scene, and despite the way that some religious writers have written about it, Mary’s visitation from Gabriel was an example of the extraordinary intersecting with the ordinary. It was a completely ordinary girl being confronted with the Archangel who, throughout Scripture, was tasked with taking messages directly from God and transmitting them directly to humans, usually with a corresponding power and understanding – and with a call to perform some function for God. That’s the reason that every time Gabriel appears in Scripture, his entrance is accompanied by the words, “Do not be afraid.” Because, let’s face it, if we saw Gabriel right here, right now, we would be petrified.

Mary being initially frightened and later confused, is important, because it means that Mary was just like us. She was NOT born from a virgin mother herself, as some legend holds. There is nothing in Scripture that indicates even what Mary’s parents’ names were, much less about her conception and childhood. All of that stuff comes from legend and apocryphal accounts. And all of those legends are designed to make us believe that Mary was different from us, even before Gabriel visited. That is nonsense, and I believe that it does damage to her story.

The true power of the story of the Nativity (which was preceded by the story of the Annunciation) is that the God of the entire universe – indeed, the God of all that is – came to be one of us in a completely ordinary place, to a completely ordinary mother; that is, completely ordinary before Gabriel appeared. Because after the Archangel appeared, nothing in Mary’s life was ever ordinary again.

Mary’s story is at its most powerful, not in who she was before that day. It is at its most powerful when this completely ordinary, confused, frightened, and shocked young girl looked at the Archangel of God and said, “Okay. I’ll do what you ask.” That is where heaven and earth intersected for a time, and out of which came the Incarnation of God. Without Mary’s, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” none of the rest would have been possible.

Episcopal priest and extraordinary author, Barbara Brown Taylor, said,

"Mary wins her place in history not for her cleverness, nor for her beauty, nor even for her goodness. She becomes the most important woman in the world simply because she is willing to say yes to an angel’s strange proposal without a clue where it will lead her. Doing so, she becomes the prototype for all of us who are also invited to bear God into the world."

And that is really the point of Mary’s story, isn’t it? She received a call from God that was decidedly more dramatic than most of ours. But make no mistake, we are all called to bear God in the world. And how we answer our own calls dictates whether or not that part of God’s mission in the world will be accomplished.

Leonard Bernstein, the famous orchestra conductor, was once asked what is the most difficult instrument in the orchestra to play. Bernstein replied immediately, “Second fiddle.” He said, “I can always get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm––or second French horn––or second flute––now that's a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”

Sometimes when we get a call from God, it can seem like we are being called to play “second fiddle.” In most cases, we are acutely aware of the ordinariness of what we do, and of the fact that second fiddle is what we do. In many cases, our work for God seems so ordinary – or even pedestrian: handing out bulletins, driving for a youth group event, cooking for a potluck (or even more important, cleaning up afterward). In some cases, our calling seems somewhat higher: teaching a Sunday school class or singing in the choir. But as we all know very well, kids can be unruly and sometimes someone near us sings off key, and in those moments, we wonder why we bother. The point of the story is that everything we are called to do: the high and the low; the ones that bring adulation and the ones no one notices; those that seem irreplaceable and those that feel completely unimportant; all fit into God's scheme of things in ways that we cannot understand, any more than Mary could fully understand what Gabriel told her. And just as it was with the totally ordinary Mary, it matters less whether or not we execute our tasks with skill and gracefulness, than it does that we approach them with devotion. I read recently that, “God desires, not the skill of our hands, but the love of our hearts. The person who has only the ability to love God and neighbor is all important [to] God….”

When God asks, say “yes.” Then dive in and watch what wonders God can work. Amen.

Rejoice Always, Fr. John Bedingfield, Dec 17th

December 17, 2017
00:0000:00

         This is Gaudete Sunday – the 3rd Sunday in Advent.  This Sunday gets its name from the fact that it is a day of celebration, and Gaudete is Latin for rejoice.  The fact that this is the Advent Sunday of unrestrained rejoicing, is marked by – among other things – the rose-colored candle that we lit this morning.  It is not as deep and dark in color as the violet candles that surround it.  But, you may be wondering, “Why are we rejoicing on this Sunday in any way that differs from other Sundays?”  Glad you asked.

         For more than the first thousand years of its existence, the Church universal commemorated Advent in much the same way that it commemorates Lent.  That is, it was a season of 40 days (not counting weekends) and the season – just like Lent – was marked by fasting and penitence as everyone repented and prepared for the coming of Jesus – both in the Nativity and through the 2nd Coming.  And also like Lent, there was a middle Sunday where everyone could take a break from fasting to celebrate.  In Lent the fourth Sunday is called Laetere Sunday (in England its known as Mothering Sunday, or Pudding Pie Sunday).  Laetere is the Latin word for being glad, so that day was one where everyone could forget that it was Lent for the day and just celebrate.  That is the way that it was in the early centuries of Advent, so we had Gaudete Sunday.

But in the Church where everything was read/said and prayed in Latin, every service, every week, began with the Gaudete; the introit to the service, which took lines from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  I have no desire to stand up here and completely butcher the Latin pronunciations, so suffice to say that every church service began: 

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. … [1]

That is a truly lovely way to begin worship.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love the Book of Common Prayer and its language.  I really like our Collect for Purity that opens the service.  But I have to say, there is something pretty comforting about the Gaudete.  And today, we get a similar sentiment from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, where he says:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  …  May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.[2]

         This week, I could not help but think of St. Paul’s request that we rejoice always, and his call for us to pray without ceasing.  On Friday, I had one of those interesting days that priests (and I’m sure Bishops, for that matter) have sometimes.  At one point during the day, I left the office with Donna, so that we could go to Taylor’s class Christmas party.  Let me tell you that you have never had a Christmas party until you have had one with a special needs high school class, the majority of whom have Down Syndrome.  All I can say is, those folks know how to rejoice.  The laughter and love in her classrooms was an amazing thing indeed.  To tell you how great the party was, we told Taylor that she could leave and come home with us, but she declined.  She wanted to stay at school until the end of the day, because she was rejoicing so much.

         After the party, Donna dropped me at my car and I went to one of the retirement facilities to visit with a parishioner who has recently been put on hospice care.  We had communion together and talked a bit about family and everything that was going on outside of the room.  And I thought, “this is where the praying without ceasing really becomes recognizable.”  I am not praying for this person to get better and walk out of the facility.  I am praying for spiritual healing, peace, and rejoicing.  When the end of life comes near, the greatest gift we can get, is people who visit, support us, listen to us, and bring us what we need as we transition from this life to the next.  And that is where I really made the connection to rejoicing always.

         When our bodies get old and stop working the way we want them to, sometimes they betray us in horrible ways.  Organs stop functioning as they should, and our quality of life can drop off precipitously.  So the rejoicing begins when spiritual healing begins, when the person makes peace with the situation and finally sees the possibility of rejoicing in the Kingdom of Heaven.

         When I left that place, I drove to the hospital – arriving too late to be there for the birth of a Sloane Cecilia to Haley and Mike Wiley.  It was an emergency delivery and pretty scary.  But by the time I got there, the relief and the rejoicing had begun.  So, I prayed – without ceasing – that Haley and Sloane would continue to get better and stronger by the minute, and that the whole Wiley-Fuller clan would be able to embrace their newest member in a very short time.

         Partying with people whose abilities are different from our own; being a supportive presence in a room that is slowly leaking life out; and being part of a celebration of new and healthy life; they are all part of God’s creation – the creation over and through which we should truly rejoice always.

         All of the things I described are part of the human condition.  We were all born.  We all have skills and abilities, and lack others.  We will all pass from this life to the next at some point.  And through it all, we should give thanks to the one who created it all, and we should rejoice!  We are here – today – in this place and at this time, with all of these other people whose presence we should also rejoice. 

         We are here at St. Barnabas because this is where God has placed us at this time.  We have work to do here – work that requires praying without ceasing and work over which we can truly rejoice.  We are called to make a difference, right here in Lafayette and around the world.  We are called to ease suffering, bring comfort, and share joy.  We are called to make our lives a constant prayer (that is, without ceasing) and bring a spirit of rejoicing everywhere we go.

         For the rest of the service today – during our pledge card ingathering, during the prayers of the people, and particularly during communion, rejoice with me.  Lay aside your troubles for a while.  Put a smile in your heart and on your face. 

REJOICE ALWAYS!

Amen.

 

[1]   Philippians 4:4–6 (NRSV)

[2]  1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, 23 (NRSV)

Want to be Ready — Fr. John Bedingfield, Dec. 3rd

December 3, 2017
00:0000:00

Welcome to the first Sunday of a new Church year.  On this first Sunday of Advent,  our readings require some thought, before we can figure out if there is a pattern to them, an overall message that we should take away from them. 

These readings call us to begin to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ child, the Christmas event, and at the same time, they call us to prepare for the second coming of Christ.  In actuality, three things are being thrown at us simultaneously and we are asked to catch them all and to try to juggle them all, as we consider what we will do with them.  So let’s get started.

First there is the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah.  Today’s passage comes from a section of the his writings in which he was bemoaning the perception of the people that God was absent from the world.  He says in the section we just heard,

O that (God) would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at (God’s) presence-- as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make (God’s) name known to (God’s) adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at (God’s) presence!

You can almost hear the anguish in Isaiah’s voice as he pleads with God to please come down from heaven and make Himself known to the people.  The prophet says that the people have sinned because they don’t know who God is anymore and, to Isaiah’s mind, this must make God angry.  But really, Isaiah is calling on God to come home and be with the family. 

I’m sure that there are more than a few of you who experienced a time like I did when I was a child.  I was probably in kindergarten when my parents took me to a large store and I got separated from them.  When I looked up and discovered that the man I was standing next to was not my father, I was panicked.  My father was gone.  I was alone.  And I had a sudden, desperate need to see him again.   That is exactly where Isaiah finds himself. 

God, the Father of all things, had been gone – at least in the peoples’ perception – for a very long time.  When Isaiah spoke to the people, they were longing for the Father to return home, even if He was angry, just to show the people that the Father loved them enough to come back – although it meant punishment would be meted out when He returned.  And while Isaiah wanted an old-time show of power from God – a show of fire and mountains trembling – he didn’t want these things to come too close to the people.  That is why the prophet said, “Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever.”  In other words, it is OK for you to be mad enough to shake the earth up a little bit, but please God, don’t be so angry that you get rid of your children.

Now, unlike Isaiah, we 21st Century Christians know the next chapter of the story.  We know that God did, indeed answer the prayers of Isaiah and others, to return to the world in a form in which people could see God.  We know that God came down to inhabit the earth.  This is the second thing we are asked to juggle today; the fact that God did not come back the way Isaiah requested or expected.  Instead of a being God of strength and power, coming back to the earth to shake things up; God had another plan.

We have the benefit of the New Testament and we know that God did, in fact “come home.”  The Latin term, adventus, from which we get Advent, means, “coming,” as in “coming home.”  We are asked today to take this second item and consider that, instead of coming in a blaze of glory and power, God came in the form of a helpless infant.  God came to earth, not as the mighty warrior.  Instead, God came in human form, meek and humble and full of love, so that all the people of the world could see and experience the true power of God – the power of love.

Jesus is the fulfillment of every promise God made to the people of Israel.  God made a covenant (or promissory contract) with the people, in which God gave the people this world in which to live.  God gave them dominion over the earth.  And God gave the children the scariest of all gifts, free will.  God then said, “take care of your selves and take care of each other.  I will be around, but I will not be walking in the garden with you anymore.”  As time went by, God gave the children the law, and the prophets to explain the law.  Then, when the time was right, God came back to earth in human form, to fulfill the promise of a new way of living.

And as we know from the Gospels, Jesus set the standard for living as a human.  He who was completely human, but without sin, lived, died and was resurrected to save us from sin, but also to show us how to live in this world.  Through our exercising of that frightening free will, we had gotten so far off course – in Isaiah’s time and on through Jesus’ time – that we no longer knew how to live as children of God.  We had misbehaved badly while the parent was away.  When Jesus came, He came not as the stern, judging parent, but as the example of what we should have done while we thought we were alone.

That brings us to the third ball we have in the air this morning, the Second Coming.  Again, our modern-day prophets are yelling that we have gotten so far off course, we have stopped living like children of God.  In many ways, our world no longer reflects God’s creative love, and it no longer functions as the product of Jesus’ redeeming power.  So some say, we must look to see what it means that Jesus will come back to earth again.

Mark tells us that when Jesus returns, it will be like the Father, returning in judgment of those who have misbehaved.  Jesus tells His listeners in today’s passage, that there will be suffering and darkness and all the stars will fall from the sky.  Then, those who have misbehaved while the parents were away, will have to answer for the mess.

So what do we take away from our juggling act this morning?  Since we can’t slow the balls down enough to consider each one separately, we will have to look at the blurred images as a whole.  Here we need to look at what St. Paul said to the Corinthians this morning. 

Paul says that if we stay awake and alert, and consistently try to emulate Jesus in our everyday lives, we have already been enriched in Christ enough that we are not lacking in anything we need.  Our Spiritual Gifts are sufficient as we await the day of our Lord’s return.

So the message for us is involved, but basically pretty simple. 

  • God has been in relationship with God’s people since time began.
  • God’s part of the covenant relationship has always been fulfilled – God has always loved us unconditionally.
  • We have failed to fulfill our part of the covenant throughout history, by not loving God and each other.
  • God came to earth as a human being in order show us, for all time, what it means to be a child of God.
  • At some time in the future, God, in Christ, will return and the final era of judgment will be upon us.

It seems to me we ought to be paying particular attention this year when the baby comes on December 25th, so that we take more intentional note of the fulfilled promises of God.  Christ will return in judgment, but God promised that we would have all we need to be ready.  That promise, like all God’s promises, has been fulfilled.  We’re ready for the return of Christ, if we want to be ready.  Let’s want to be ready.

Amen.

Be Careful What You Choose - Fr. John Bedingfield - Nov 26

November 26, 2017
00:0000:00

In the name of Jesus Christ, who will come again in glory, to judge the world.  Amen

This is the last Sunday of the church year.  Next Sunday begins a brand-new year with the season of Advent — the season of preparation, in which we prepare for the arrival of the Christ child.  So why would we use this week before Advent to celebrate the festival of Christ the King, with all of these odd and worrisome readings?  Quite simply, because of the Alpha and Omega — the circle of life — the beginning and the end.  Next week we will look at the beginning of the story of Jesus, this week, we look at what Jesus tells us about the very end.

In this Gospel reading, Matthew tells us what Jesus has to say about the end of time or the second coming of Christ — in fancy biblical scholar terms, the parousia.  Jesus says that He will return to the earth again.  He will come in glory, with all the angels and will sit on the throne of righteousness.  Notice the differences between what it was like when Jesus came to earth the first time and what it will be like next time.  The first time He came as the poor, helpless child.  He was born in the lowliest of all circumstances in the most unlikely of places.  In other words, he was not only like us, he was born into an even more humble beginning than most of us.  And after he was grown, he was an itinerate preacher, depending upon other people for his very existence. Now contrast that with what Matthew describes today.

Jesus will return in triumph and great glory.  With angels around Him and with all nations of the world gathered before Him, He will sit on the throne of glory, as ruler of the world.  What a difference! 

You see, the first time He came, He wanted to draw us closer to Him and to show us a glimpse of the heavenly kingdom, so that we would know who it was that called us and why it was that we should respond.  Jesus was gentle and humble and healing because that is what humans respond to the most positively.  By his humility, he taught us the power of humility and by his love, taught us the power of love.  But when Jesus returns, it will be too late for all of that.  As Matthew’s Gospel makes clear this morning, Jesus’ return will usher in the judgment.  Sheep will go one way and goats will go the other.  Some will be ushered into the glory of God’s heavenly eternity and others will be cast into the eternal fire where there will undoubtedly be weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth — as Matthew is so fond of saying.

We in the Christian world, and particularly those who have any background in Roman Catholicism, are very familiar with this notion of God’s judgment.  Artists have painted foreboding pictures of flames and fire and demons torturing the unfortunate who end up in hell.  In more modern times, we have had movies to show us hell and its agonies.  2005’s Constantine, had scenes where the hero and heroine each got pulled into hell and then rescued.  The director’s vision was a vast, desert-like wasteland, with scorching heat, howling winds and skeletal demons running wild.  People have spent lifetimes, and great sums of money trying to “make it up” to God so that they can avoid what they believe might await them when Jesus is the judge of all humanity, or upon their death, whichever comes first.  And it was the Roman Catholic clergy’s practice of selling indulgences — a sort of a “get out jail free” pass that could be purchased to keep one from going to purgatory, or worse yet, hell, that was the final straw for Martin Luther, and the catalyst for his founding of the Lutheran church. 

Some of us worry a great deal about God’s judgment and hell and what might befall us at some future date, and Matthew makes it fairly plain that a negative judgment would not be a pleasant thing.  But I’ll let you in on a little secret, if we read this Gospel passage differently, we will get an entirely different picture of Jesus as King, coming in judgment.

True enough, Matthew says Jesus will come in judgment, with power and might like we cannot imagine.  But what happens next in this section of the Gospel?  What follows the discussion of separating the sheep from the goats?  The discourse on doing acts of mercy, charity and kindness for the least of Jesus’ brothers.  Jesus says we will all be counted as the “blessed of the Father,” who “inherit the kingdom prepared” for us from the foundation of the world, if we will give Jesus some food, a drink, some clothing, simple nursing care and a visit in time of need.  Jesus says, when we do this to the least of His brothers, we do these things for Jesus himself and we will inherit the kingdom.  That sounds to me like a choice, not like an arbitrary selection of sheep versus goats.  This sounds to me more like us walking up to two signs and seeing “Sheep this Way” with an arrow, and “Goats this Way” with an arrow pointing the opposite way, rather than like a conveyor belt on which we ride until we get to the point where Jesus looks at us and points up or down, without giving us any explanation.  To me, today’s reading is the text which proves something that one of my seminary professors told us many times.  He said, “the gates of hell are locked from the inside.”  That means that we get to hell, indeed we stay in hell, by our choice, not by God’s choice.

John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world that He gave His only son to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  That is a great statement of the God that I have read about and experienced in my own life.  The God of all creation, who made a covenant with the children of Israel and said, “you are my children and I am your God, I will never abandon you.”  That same God has always been faithful to that covenant, no matter how many times the children have been unfaithful.  That same God loves us so much that God became incarnate, took on our very humanity in order save us from our sinful selves.  Jesus died once for all.  His death and resurrection broke the bonds of death and threw open the gates of hell.  But there were still people in hell, trapped in a prison of their own making.  The only thing that Jesus could not and cannot save us from is our own choice to ignore His calls to us.

Today’s discussion of caring for the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters is a call to us to live a Christ-like life; to do those things that Christ would do in every situation.  With this simple choice — simple to make, not so simple to carry out — we can self-select as sheep and rest certain that we will inherit the kingdom prepared for us when Jesus returns.

Now, here comes the rub — the process of selection is never over.  At least not until our lives on earth are over.  Every day, in every encounter of our lives, there are two signs hanging over our path.  We need to keep those signs in mind as we go about our daily business during the week.  Let Jesus’ words and the vision of the signs guide us as we are faced with decisions like, “what do I do when this homeless man gets to me and asks me for money?”  Or, “how should I deal with my child, who has disappointed me so badly?’  Or, “what is the best way to handle my boss whose demands are totally unreasonable?”  Or, “How do I treat this member of the congregation who pushes my buttons and gets on my last nerve?”  It is all of one big piece, you see.  How we treat God’s children is, in every instance, how we treat Jesus. 

So the next time you are faced with a situation in which people have been divided into groups or camps, into “us” and “them,” or otherwise given a label so that you are tempted to treat them as somewhat less than human, remember that the signs hanging over the groups may look like, “us” and “them” when we look at them, but to Jesus, they may just read, “Sheep” and “Goats.”  Self-selection is available all day, every day.  Be careful what you choose.

Amen.

Risk Everything — Fr. John Bedingfield, Nov 19th

November 19, 2017
00:0000:00

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

In yesterday’s RenewalWorks group meeting, we were talking about the Bible, and how much – or how little – the congregation of St. Barnabas knows about it. At the risk of getting a little bit ahead of the RenewalWorks project, I will share with you that one of the things that we discovered in our survey is that the majority of the people in the pews every week do not believe that they know very much about the Bible. While on some level I believe that that finding is accurate, I also told the group that I believe that this congregation knows much more Bible than you think that you do.

Please believe me when I say that I am not going to call on anyone nor will I put anyone on the spot at all. But please raise your hand if you have heard the Parable of the Talents (that we just read, from Matthew’s Gospel) before. Now of all of you who raised your hand, raise it again if you feel like you have heard this parable more than once. Now, do you see what I mean? People are saying that they are familiar with this parable. Familiarity means that you “know” this part of the Bible, on some level.

Okay, pop quiz, part 2. How many of you have heard this parable preached on in the context of an annual stewardship campaign? Right! Everyone who feels pretty familiar with this story has doubtless heard a sermon tying it to how we give our time, treasure, and talents, to God, by giving them to God’s Church to use. So let me say right now, this parable can reasonably and accurately be read to say, “If you do not step out in faith and use all that you have – time, treasure, and talents – for the good of the Kingdom of God, then you are acting like the third servant. And your fear will not stand you in good stead with the God who gave you everything that you have.” That is a solid stewardship message, and one that we at St. Barnabas can stand to hear right now.

Keep that message in the back of your mind – because I want to talk to you about something a little different than that. I want to talk with you about the importance of risking everything as you seek to be a Disciple of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus told this parable to the Disciples, it was near the end of a long “Farewell Discourse” or going away speech. Jesus was moving ever closer to his date with crucifixion, and he was making sure that the Disciples had all of the knowledge that they needed, before He left them to carry on His work. From the 23rd Chapter of Matthew, through today’s reading and beyond, Jesus was preparing them for events of the future, particularly His return to the earth, on the last day.

So when He told them this parable, He was obviously telling them something about being prepared for His return, and how they should use their talents wisely as they wait for Him. But Jesus was also passing along a broader message: you cannot thrive and grow as a Christian, if you are not willing to take risks. He was telling the Disciples – and us – that risk is key to growing and moving forward; that being willing to lose everything, was the only way to grow in Christ.

Here now is a different parable about being willing to lose it all in the Kingdom of God.

A long time ago, a monk set out on his travels accompanied by his assistant, a Brother. Night was falling when the monk told the Brother to go on ahead to find lodging. The Brother searched the deserted landscape until he found a humble shack in the middle of nowhere.

A poor family lived in the shack. The mother, father, and children were dressed in rags. The Brother asked if he and the monk could spend the night in their dwelling.

“You are most welcome to spend the night,” said the father of the family. They prepared a simple meal consisting of fresh milk, cheese, and cream for the Brother and the monk. The Brother felt moved by their poverty and even more by their simple generosity.
After they had finished eating, the monk asked them how they managed to survive in such a poor place.

In a resigned voice, he told them, “We have one cow. We sell her milk to our neighbors who do not live too far away. We hold back enough for our needs and to make some cheese and cream—that is primarily what we eat.”

The next morning, the Brother and the monk said their good-byes and set out to continue their journey. After they had walked a few miles, the monk turned to the Brother and said, “Go back and push the family’s cow off the cliff!”

“Father,” the Brother replied, “they live off the cow. Without her, they have nothing.” The monk repeated his order: “Go back and kill the cow.”

With a heavy heart, the Brother returned to the shack. He worried about the future of the family because he knew they depended on their cow to survive. Yet his vow of obedience bound him to follow the orders of the wise monk. So he pushed the cow off the cliff.

Years later, the young Brother became a monk. One day he found himself on the same road where he had been given lodging so many years earlier. Driven by a sense of remorse, he decided to visit the family. He rounded the curve in the road and, to his surprise, came upon a splendid mansion, surrounded by landscaped gardens, in the place where their shack used to stand. The new house exuded a sense of prosperity and happiness. The monk knocked on the door.

A well-dressed man answered. The monk, not recognizing him, asked, “What ever became of the family who used to live here? Did they sell the property to you?”
The man said he and his family had always lived on the property. The monk told him how he had stayed in a humble dwelling on the same spot, along with his master, the old monk. “What happened?” he asked.

The man invited the monk to stay with him as his guest. While they ate, the host explained how the family’s fortune changed. “You know, Father, we used to have a cow. She kept us alive. We didn’t own anything else. One day she fell down over the cliff and died. To survive, we had to start doing other things, and develop skills we did not even know we had. We were forced to come up with new ways of doing things. It was the best thing that ever happened to us! We are now much better off than before.”

If we risk everything that we have, in pursuit of the Kingdom of God on earth, we have no idea what the God of all abundance will do with it. If we have complete trust in the Jesus, who risked His very life for the abundance of the Kingdom, we too can see that trusting and risking it all is the way to God’s abundance, both now and for eternity.

I read this week: “Michelangelo (1475–1564) once said, ‘The great danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high, and we miss it; but that it is too low, and we reach it.’ Whatever we do, we are to make it an offering to God. In the end, that is the only thing that matters, regardless of personal consequences. It is in this way that we may truly enter into the joy of our master.”

We have a great financial challenge facing our congregation this year. If we, as a congregation, have faith enough in God to risk it all — to be fearless in the face of loss — then we can be free to find new ways of doing things, and we can potentially reap blessings beyond measure as the Kingdom of God comes near.

Risk it ALL as we work together to overcome adversity and to grow into faithful and dedicated Disciples of the One who never hesitated to risk all that He had. Amen.

Stay Alert and Ready, Fr. John Bedingfield November 12th

November 12, 2017
00:0000:00

         This is an odd parable that we get from Matthew’s Gospel today, isn’t it?  I mean, to begin with, Jesus’ parables almost always have a twist at the end that is designed to turn what we believe – about how the Kingdom of God works, and about who we are – upside down.  Not so with this one.  Some commentators refer to this one as an allegory rather than a parable, because you can just assign Jesus the part of bridegroom and all of us the bridesmaid roles, and then the story makes sense – and scares the bejeebers out of us.  But you know what?  I really don’t care one way or the other, and I bet you don’t either.  What I want to know is: What does this really strange, and frankly somewhat off-putting parable have to say to all of us gathered here today?

         Before we can figure that out, let me give you a bit context that might help. 

         The story tells us some details about wedding customs in Palestine at the time of Jesus.  Once the groom-to-be and the bride’s father had agreed on the terms of the marriage contract, they would enter into the contract, sometime between a day and seven years after which the groom would gather his friends and relatives and ride – or walk – to the bride’s family’s house.  He would take his bride from her family home and voila, they were married.  Then came the great part.  The return of the groom followed by his bride, which would begin a multi-day wedding party to rival a Kardashian wedding.

         Now here’s where the parable starts to come in.  Young women from the bride’s family would act as the bride’s attendants.  The members of both families, including distant relatives, would wait in the groom’s father’s house until the wedding party arrived.  There was no set time for the groom’s entourage to appear, thus, the arrival could not be predicted.  It did, however, often occur during the night.

         As the parable begins, ten bridesmaids wait with lamps to light the way for the bridegroom, who leads the way for the rest of the group.  The “wise” bridesmaids brought along extra oil for their lamps, while the “foolish” bridesmaids figured that they had enough oil in their lamps to get the job done.  As the time of the arrival was delayed, the bridesmaids became drowsy and slept.

         Finally, at midnight, the arrival of the bridegroom was announced and all went out to greet him.  The five wise bridesmaids were prepared with enough oil to refill their lamps.  But the lamps of the five foolish bridesmaids were empty.  When the foolish asked the wise for some of their oil, they responded that they did not have enough to share.  So, the unprepared bridesmaids had to run down to the oil vendors to replenish their supply.  And when they got back, they had been locked out of the wedding celebration – never to be admitted.  Happy little story, huh?

         Now obviously, if we go back to that allegory theory, we are talking about the 2nd Coming of Christ, and if we are not properly prepared – whenever the day and time may be – we will be in danger of missing out altogether.  But frankly, there are evangelical preachers who are preaching that message every day. 

         I believe that Jesus told the Disciples this story so that he could give them this strong message: If you want to be my Disciples (or Bridesmaids), if you want to be part of the banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven, you have to stay alert at all times; you have no idea when the bridegroom will need something from you, and you have to be alert and ready to respond.

         “A man once approached Mother Teresa and said, ‘Mother, I want to do something great for God, but I don’t know what.  Should I start a school, be a missionary in a foreign land, build up a charitable agency?’  He had great visions.  Mother Teresa looked at him closely, with kindness in her eyes, and responded: ‘What you need to do is make sure that no one in your family goes unloved.’  And by this she doubtless also meant the entire human family.[1]

         Jesus’ final commandment to His Disciples – at least as St. John tells it – was that they should love one another just as He loved them.  And because Jesus is the epitome of God’s love for all of creation, that means that we are to be alert and find those who are in need, we are to care for those needs, and we are to always be alert to find new ways to reflect the love of God in the world.  And our desire to do as Christ does, will hopefully help us learn to be alert and ready in all things.

         “Being alert and ready, like everything else, takes practice though.  Jesus also told a story about a wise man who built his house on a rock and a foolish man who built on sand, Jesus said that that wisdom comes from hearing God’s Word and doing it.  Being alert and ready happens when day by day, week after week, we hear God’s Word and partake of the holy meal, living in a state of being open to the presence of God.  We become more nearly ready each time we open ourselves to the call of God.  Following Jesus in our daily lives keeps us alert.[2]

         So … being alert and ready is possible for us if we will:  show up here; listen to the Holy Word; eat the Communion meal that will nourish us for our work; give of ourselves in time, talent and treasure, pray for ourselves and others, in a regular fashion; and constantly find new ways to feed the poor, tend the sick, give rest to the weary, visit shut-ins; and care for those who have no one to care for them.  These are the things that we are hopefully already doing.

         As the author Robert Farrar Capon exhorts in The Parables of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ., 1989):

‘Watch therefore,’ Jesus says at the end of the parable, ‘for you know neither the day nor the hour.’ When all is said and done—when we have scared ourselves silly with the now-or-never urgency of faith and the once-and-always finality of judgment—we need to take a deep breath and let it out with a laugh.  Because what we are watching for is a party.  And the party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us.  It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs.  The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way through the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace.  God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether her wedding-present china has been chipped.  He is a funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other.  We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.

So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, be forever ready and alert!

 

[1]  Synthesis, 12 Nov 17

[2]  Id.