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Trail Notes: 6/18/2017

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“Let us go forth…”

When I was in seminary, we used to talk about the gathered church and the scattered church.  The gathered church – everybody together in a church building doing “churchy” things – is much easier to visualize and understand.  We know what that looks like; we know how to do it. 

The scattered church, on the other hand, is harder to grasp.  This is the people of God going forth into the world – into daily life – and living out our Christian values at work, at school, in the neighborhood.  It’s every kind word and deed of mercy we offer; every contribution of money; every ethical decision we make; every time we speak out against injustice and prejudice when we see it.  Many would say that the scattered church is the most important aspect of our Christian lives. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is training his disciples to become the scattered church.  I’m sure they were much more comfortable just hanging out with Jesus, listening to his wise words and watching him teach and heal people.  But Jesus pushed them out of the nest to go do ministry themselves.  He sent them without any money or other supports, so they would have to relate to the people they met.  Imagine going on a trip without a credit card in your pocket! 

When they came home from their “mission experience,” they were pretty excited about what had happened – they taught and healed in Jesus’ name, and many people welcomed their message!  Some even wanted to become part of the Jesus Movement – part of the gathered church.

This is the challenge for us who live after Pentecost: to go forth into the world in the power of the Spirit, to speak and act in the name of Jesus, to be the scattered church in a world that desperately needs God’s voice of love and justice.  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 6/11/2017

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Queen Esther has a secret.  She is beautiful.  She becomes the favorite queen of the Persian King Ahasuerus. But Esther is a Jew.  When the King is tricked into signing an edict to destroy the Jews, Esther faces a decision: to “come out” and plead for her people, or to stay silent and hide her true identity.  

This is a decision that has faced LGBT people and others: hide their true selves to get along, or boldly declare themselves in solidarity with others who face hardship and discrimination.  Esther offers her own face as the face of the Jews, and saves them all. 

Today we celebrate Pride Sunday as well as Trinity Sunday.  The Trinity points to the mystery of God’s diversity within God’s oneness.  Pride Sunday reminds us of the human diversity God created and loves.  Both occasions call us to hold fast to our unity as God’s people, even as we are infinite in our variety.  It’s not always easy, but it’s the right thing to do. 

Scripture tells us that God is love – love itself!  Love holds us together in an infinite web of relationships.  Love must conquer division.  When we face moral questions, we must follow the love.  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 06/04/2017

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Power Switch

Pentecost is the day God showers the Holy Spirit on the Church.  What does that mean to us?  The scriptures tell us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you….”  That means God’s Holy Spirit is about power.  It’s a little like switching on the power on our electronic devices.  Then we can go to work.

Once we know we’ve got power, we can do a lot – communicate, make plans, think and write, teach and learn, reach out to help a neighbor or start a movement. Power is the beginning of all work and change.  But are we using the power we’ve been given for God’s work?  Are we using God’s power actively to help our neighbors who are poor and desperate?  To examine society’s unjust structures and work to change them? 

Furthermore, are we using God’s power to shape our own lives…to make our lives more Jesus-like?  That might mean simplifying our material lives, rebalancing the work-play-refreshment balance in our days.  Richard Rohr writes:

E. F. Schumacher said years ago, “Small is beautiful,” and many other wise people have come to know that less stuff invariably leaves room for more soul. In fact, possessions and soul seem to operate in inverse proportion to one another. Only through simplicity can we find deep contentment instead of perpetually striving and living unsatisfied. Simple living is the foundational social justice teaching of Jesus, Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Pope Francis, and all hermits, mystics, prophets, and seers since time immemorial. 

It takes power to live contrary to society’s teaching that “more is better,” or that “I’m important and others aren’t.”    But Pentecost tells us we’ve been given the power.  All we have to do now is use it.  The Holy Spirit is already here among us, and within each of us.  As some say, there’s a spark of God in each of us.  We only need to turn on the power switch.  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 05/28/2017

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Ascension Day may not mean much to you.  It may seem to be one of those arcane theological observances that only a seminarian could love.  It is the Thursday, 40 days after Easter, when Jesus appeared to his disciples bodily for the last time, and “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  It sounds very ephemeral and fantastical really. 

But it is really about transformation, as St. Paul makes clear.  Jesus’ earthly body is withdrawn, so that we can become the Body of Christ, and individually, members of it.  This transformation will be completed on Pentecost (Sunday, June 4), when the Holy Spirit fills the crowd with passion and power to be God’s people.  The Body of Christ goes from being one person to being many – all of us who seek to follow Jesus. 

Paul saw the Christian endeavor as a communal effort, not a bunch of individual free agents.  Richard Rohr writes,

Paul had a concrete missionary strategy of building living communities able to produce a visible and believable message. Yet for centuries we’ve interpreted his message as if he is speaking about individuals being privately “saved.” This has made Paul seem more like a mere moralist than the mystic he is. Mystics tend to see things in wholes rather than getting preoccupied with the parts.

So, Ascension Day is the beginning of transformation: from an individual Messiah to the Body of Christ, from an individualized understanding of salvation to a communal sense of “we’re all in this together.”  This transformation is completed at Pentecost, and then the Church is set loose on the world – to turn it upside down!  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 5/7/2017

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Shepherd, Gate and Gatekeeper

Traditionally the 4th Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This image is made clear in the collect for this day.

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people; Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Each year on this Sunday, we hear a different section of the 10th chapter of John’s gospel. This year is the first 10 verses and in those we hear three different descriptions of Jesus - shepherd, gatekeeper and gate. Each of these words bring so many images to mind, both positive and negative. Clearly some of those negative connotations have been used to warrant exclusion and the understanding that some are inside and others are not allowed. For me this is a narrow reading of the text and doesn’t take in the wholeness of the parable.

Seeing Jesus in all of these descriptions opens a deeper meaning to the parable. It also allows me to see others in those images. Who has been Jesus in my life as gate, gatekeeper and shepherd? Who has been Jesus in your life as gate, gatekeeper and shepherd?

L. Sue von Rautenkranz
 

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Trail Notes: 04/30/2017

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Getting There.

I am a person focused on destinations.  When I set out do to a task, or go on a trip, or achieve a goal, I am focused on getting there.  I’m one of these people who likes to make to-do lists just so I can check things off! 

The risk of this kind of disposition is that I can easily miss what’s going on right now, at the moment.  I can be so eager to reach the destination that I don’t enjoy, or even notice, the journey.  That’s a shame.  Because a lot of good stuff happens on the way, on the road.  John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” 

Two disciples, Cleopas and his wife, are walking home on the first Easter Day, confused and dejected after their friend and rabbi Jesus had been executed.  There had been reports that he had been seen alive again, but that didn’t seem credible.  So they were focused on getting home, back to Emmaus, back to their old lives, to try to rebuild a life. 

As they walked down from Jerusalem on the dusty, hilly road, a stranger appeared and walked with them.  They began to talk.  The stranger asked about what had gone on in Jerusalem – he didn’t seem to know.  But he shared how the scriptures spoke of a suffering messiah. 

When they reached home, Cleopas and his wife asked this interesting stranger to stay and eat with them.  When he broke the bread, all became clear….

For Cleopas and his wife, what happened on the road was far more important than reaching their destination.  In fact, the journey was the destination – their moment of destiny. 

Pay attention to what happens along the way, en route, on the road.  It’s there that a stranger may appear, and change your life.  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 04/23/2017

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“I doubt it.”

The Church can be ironic.  One week after we have we proclaimed the resurrection of the dead through Jesus at Easter, we confront the inevitable reaction: doubt that such an amazing, miraculous thing could occur.  St. Thomas has carried the heavy burden of “doubter in chief” for us for two thousand years, but most of us would acknowledge our own doubts about many Christian beliefs.  They may come and go. 

Some doubts stick with us and complicate our life in the church.  For some, it is hard to say the ancient creeds with integrity, with their arcane Fourth Century formulations of Christian doctrine.  How is Jesus “only-begotten of the Father”?  Can we in all honesty call ourselves Christians if we don’t – or can’t – see our way to believe all these things? 

The evils of the world are in constant tension with our belief in a good and loving God who is active in the world. We rightly celebrate signs of life, love, and hope.  But we also wonder why the bad guys seem to be winning much of the time!

I submit that doubt is not the enemy of faith (nor is doubt the enemy of the faithful).  It is in fact the flip-side of faith.  Honest doubt is what makes faith real, and challenging.  Just as darkness allows us to see and define light, so doubt provides the contours of thoughtful faith.  The 10:45 a.m. sermon will explore Jesus’ reaction to doubt, which may surprise us when we examine it.  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 04/16/2017

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God is Green!

Most of the Easter sermons I’ve heard (and preached!) focus on individual salvation: in Christ God redeems us from the powers that keep us from fullness of life with God.  Sin and death are usually named first and foremost among these powers.  There’s nothing wrong with that message – it’s still true. 

But this year, as Earth Day is near, I am thinking about a broader, more universal salvation that God offers to us – the salvation of the whole creation itself.  It’s not just human beings that are in a mess and need God’s grace and love to get out.  It’s the earth, the cosmos, the skies, the rivers, the seas…and all creatures who on earth do dwell, as the hymn puts it. 

Modern science has taught us just how interconnected life is on our planet.  Humans have great power to use creation – for good ends, and for ill.  The earth is pretty good at renewing itself: the cycle of nature includes life, death, and rebirth. In the last 150 years, however, the industrial revolution has put huge pressures on the ability of the earth to cleanse and renew itself.  We need God’s help – now more than ever – to change and guide humanity, so that the earth itself can find redemption and new life. 

When we read the scriptures with eyes for creation, we see it everywhere.  “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now,” writes St. Paul, “and not only the creation, but we ourselves….”  Human destiny, and human salvation, are tied up with that of creation, the earth, our fellow creatures.  In other words, God is green!  Think of that this Easter, as we tend the earth in the beauty of springtime.  God is speaking to us.  Listen.  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 4/9/2017

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Resistance

Resistance movements seem to on the rise recently, in the face of our political polarization in the U.S.  But there is a long history of these movements that we should recall.  Human beings have banded together to resist many forms of oppression, slavery, taxation without representation, infringement upon human rights, and alcoholic drinks during Prohibition! 

But on Palm Sunday, the resistance movement I want to focus on is the Jesus Movement.  Christian resistance should be aligned with the things that Jesus himself condemned and resisted in his life – even to the point of dying.  What did Jesus resist?

  • Jesus resisted the economic degradation brought down on the large peasant class of his day, caused by double taxation (by Rome and by the Temple), indebtedness, and foreclosure of land. 
  • Jesus resisted hypocrisy (this is one of Jesus’ most detested sins).  When people didn’t act in accordance with their own professed beliefs, Jesus responded harshly.  The Scribes and the Pharisees saw a lot of this. 
  • Jesus resisted greed and stinginess.  Sharing God’s abundance was Jesus’ agenda.  When some people got rich and hoarded, others went hungry.  Jesus saw this as idolatry – setting up money as a god to worship. 

On this Palm Sunday, we remember those things Jesus resisted.  And we also focus on how he resisted.  We see here an example of nonviolent resistance, which the world has rarely emulated.  Jesus’ nonviolence was hard for even his own disciples to understand.  When Jesus was taken prisoner in Luke 22, a disciple struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear.  Jesus not only condemned the attack, he healed the slave’s ear.  This is where we get the phrase, “The one who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” 

This Holy Week, ponder what you are resisting in life. Are you resisting what Jesus would resist?  What behaviors are acceptable in resistance? What are you prepared to give for Jesus’ Resistance Movement?  JBM


 

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Trial Notes: 04/02/2017

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Now this, from John’s Gospel…

The very alert among you may have noticed that, while we are generally hearing Matthew’s Gospel proclaimed in church this year, the last few weeks we’ve heard from John’s Gospel.  Why did the lectionary designers do this? 

As we draw close to Holy Week and Easter, the stakes are getting higher for any of us who try to follow Jesus.  He is heading toward confrontation and extermination by the powers that be.  If we follow, death is likely to be our fate also.  John’s Gospel is the one that confronts death head-on.  John asks the hard questions.  Who really can give us life, both on this earth, and beyond it? 

In today’s long story of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, Martha is the strong character.  She sends word to Jesus of Lazarus’s illness.  Jesus comes…but not until the fourth day.  Martha greets Jesus with the stinging words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 

Here’s where it gets up-close-and-personal for me.  My eldest brother David was bi-polar, and took his own life in his early twenties.  At the age of 14, I was Martha, saying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 

If we live long on this earth, we all have losses and heartbreaks; we all face death.  The ultimate religious question, I believe, is: Who gives life, even in the midst of death?  St. John’s unequivocal answer is: the God of Jesus.  This God gives life to the Samaritan woman at the well, to the man born blind, and to Lazarus in his tomb!  This God raises his own son Jesus to life after the powers of this world dispatched him.  In the end, Martha’s tough faith sustained her; God did not leave abandon her.  God does not abandon us.  Do you believe this?  JBM


 

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