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Trail Notes: 08/13/2017

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“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”

I cannot read the story of Joseph and his brothers without thinking of the charming musical play by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.  Sibling rivalry is on full display – extending to cruelty and near murder!  Again, “biblical family values” are taking a beating here. 

Anybody who’s ever had a brother or sister knows that both the best and the worst aspects of relationships: fierce love and loyalty alongside jealousy, anger, and sometimes viciousness.  Families bring out the best and the worst in us.  Joseph, the youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons (until Benjamin was born), was his daddy’s favorite (problem #1). He was also born of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel. Joseph was also a bit conceited, bragging about his dreams (problem #2).  Joseph’s older brothers let their emotions cloud their judgment (problem #3).  Everybody gets some blame here.  Joseph nearly gets killed by his brothers (a throwback to the First Fratricide of Cain and Abel), but they relent and merely sell him into slavery in Egypt.  They all could use a good family therapist. 

We can identify with these folks and their family drama.  Sibling rivalry is not dead!  But what’s significant about this story is how it moves the grand narrative forward: God uses Joseph’s brothers’ jealousy and cruelty to move Joseph into position to rescue the family from famine.  Even more importantly, this shift of Joseph and his family to Egypt lays the groundwork for the later story of Hebrew slavery and redemption in the time of Moses – 500 years later!  This narrative shows us how God uses human failings in Jacob’s family to set the stage for “the greatest story ever told”: that of the Exodus.  The lesson here:  Out of evil God can bring good.  Out of death God can bring life.  Out of hatred God can renew love.    JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 08/06/2017

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Mysteries of the Nighttime

Jacob was having a bad day.  A very, very bad day.  His brother Esau was spitting mad, and coming after Jacob with 400 men! 

Jacob tried to protect his family (two wives, two maids, eleven children) by sending them across the river Jabbok.  Then he spent the night and waited to see what would happen. 

Sometimes strange things happen at night.  Jacob was sleeping rough, and he would encounter a strange man – an angel from God – who wrestled with him all night until daybreak!  That’s a lot of wrestling. 

I have had a few nights like that – wrestling with a decision, a terrible event; wrestling with myself, and with God.  Maybe you have, too.  Strange things can happen in the nighttime.  Our true, vulnerable selves seem very exposed: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Dreams can be disturbing.  We may feel very alone, scared, even terrified.  We may feel exhausted, unable to take another step forward. 

But these night journeys are thin places – places where the boundary between ourselves and God are very thin and porous.  Strange, sometimes wonderful encounters can occur.  That’s what happened with Jacob – he ended up marked forever with a limp…and also with a blessing. 

How might God be present – and speaking – with you during the dark hours of the night?  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 07/30/2017

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All in the Family

This Sunday in Genesis 29 we read a strange story of Jacob and his Uncle Laban, his mother Rebecca’s brother.  If you think your own family is strange, the biblical family is probably stranger!  Abraham and his descendants do not display “biblical family values,” whatever those are – there is manipulation, deception, misuse of women, not to mention multiple wives and concubines. 

Here, Rebecca does not want her favored son Jacob to marry a Canaanite woman (not our kind of people), so she encourages him to travel to her brother Laban. (Rebecca was rather controlling.)  There he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Rachel, younger daughter of Laban (marriage to first cousins was common then).  Jacob agrees to work 7 years for Laban in exchange for Rachel’s hand.  (Modern men might balk at that!)

After 7 years, Jacob asks for his wife as agreed, and a wedding is held.  But Laban slips his elder daughter Leah into the marriage tent instead of Rachel, and Jacob doesn’t notice!  (Here, both deception and drunkenness seem to be at work.)  So Jacob is tricked into “marrying” Leah – and ends up working another 7 years before he gets Rachel too.   

What do we make of all this?  Well, God’s leaders in Israel were certainly flawed and imperfect people; sin and dishonesty were at work throughout the patriarchs’ lives.  God even seems to use the deviousness of dishonesty to further the patriarchal family.  God also makes a pattern of raising the younger offspring over the firstborn to establish the dynasty. 

In our own families, we run into controlling behaviors, manipulation, deception  and infidelity with some regularity.  I often wonder why we can’t be more honest with family members?  If we were more open and honest, we could talk to our older kin about death and dying.  We could talk with our children about our own mistakes in life, and our hopes for them.  We could be more open with spouses and partners about our own hopes for our relationship, our dreams for the future, and our disappointments.  Those are the kind of “family values” that could make life better and richer for us.  JBM 


 

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Trail Notes: 7/23/2017

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Who controls access to God? 

I’m not crazy about ladders – they remind me of gutters full of wet leaves, and of stupid things I did painting houses when I was growing up.  Jacob’s famous vision of a ladder is just that: a vision, a symbolic image to aid our understanding.  It stretches from earth to heaven, with the angels traveling up and down it (I wonder how they avoided tripping on their long angel-gowns….).  It seems to point to a channel of access between the human and the divine, between ourselves and God.  Jacob and his posterity receive a grand blessing from God, based on this relationship. 

This symbolic vision points to the question of human access to God: how do we connect with God?  Is it an open line of communication, or must we use certain channels, go through certain intermediaries?  The Church historically has a mixed message on this.  The early Church inherited the Jewish understanding of sacrifice as the way to reach God, and in fact influence God to pardon sins, grant blessings, and generally stay happy with us.  The Jerusalem Temple had a monopoly on the sacrificial system, and so in Jesus’ day the Temple leaders had huge power to distribute God’s grace.   

The early Church sought to understand and interpret the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and soon it was interpreted as sacrifice also, “to take away the sin of the world.”  The Eucharist or Mass which re-presents that offering of Christ’s Body and Blood, became a means of grace providing forgiveness and renewal.  The priesthood controlled this sacrament, as well as the sacrament of Confession for forgiveness.  So, once again, religious leaders tried to monopolize access to God’s grace. 

But is sacrifice our only channel to God?  No.  We also understand prayer as a means of connection.  But can we pray directly to God, or do we need an intermediary?  Again, the Church’s history is mixed.  Jesus the God-Man became a logical connection between human and divine.  Thus we often pray, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  But in the Roman Catholic tradition, the veneration of St. Mary cast her in the role of intercessor for us, with her son Jesus. (Worse, the Church offered to sell “indulgences” to reduce people’s time in purgatory after death!) This was hotly contested during the Protestant Reformation, which insisted that no “middleman” was needed to receive God’s grace.  Our Anglican Eucharistic prayer made this clear with its language that Jesus is “our only mediator and advocate.”

Today the Church faces a challenge:  how to help people find access, connection, and relationship with God, without trying to control it through the priesthood, the sacraments, or other church-controlled means.  God is bigger than any of us, and surely God’s grace and love is freely offered in all kinds of ways.  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 07/16/2017

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How does your garden grow?

I’ve been trying to get some grass to grow to fill in the (large) gaps in our lawn.  This is caused by a) dogs trampling, b) too much hot sun, c) too much deep shade, or d) I have no idea. 

I don’t think Jesus had a suburban yard to worry about, but he did know something about planting seed and wondering if it would take root and grow.  And he knew our relationship with God is a bit like that: sometimes a struggle, sometimes a lovely emergence of green grass – or better yet, something useful like wheat – something that can feed us and our neighbors. 

The story of the sower who scatters seed -  some on the path, some on the rocks, some in the thorns, and some in good earth -  connects our spiritual lives with the common, earthy realities of living and eating.  Notice what a chancy operation this is – much of the seed bears nothing – but some of it bears a great deal – a hundredfold!  It all seems very inefficient – a cardinal sin in today’s economy.  But that’s how Jesus describes it. 

This parable of Jesus is one of a few where the Gospel writer provides an “interpretation” – an explanation which treats the parable as an allegory.  It’s quite doubtful that Jesus provided this (who explains his own jokes?).  But in this case, it’s worth a look.  The seed of the parable is the “word of the kingdom” of God.  It’s the Gospel, the Good News, we need to hear.  Many things can get in the way of this “word” taking root in us: the evil one can snatch it away, or we can lack sufficient “root” to nourish it when things get tough.  The “thorns” represent the cares of the world and the lure of wealth: they choke the word.  But when the seed lands in good soil, wonderful things happen. 

I don’t know about you, but this sounds a lot like my spiritual life!  So many things get in the way of my being open and receptive to God.  But now and then, a ray of light shines through and I know I am loved, blessed, and energized for life.  It’s the most inefficient process…but that’s the way it is.  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 7/9/2017

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United to one another with pure affection

This phrase from our collect for this Sunday has an interesting resonance in this week following the celebration of our country’s Independence Day. I watched as my Facebook feed was inundated with the colors of red, white and blue; pictures of food, picnics and barbeques; and marching bands, parades and fireworks. But not all was celebration.

There were also articles and posts that came from those who feel excluded and not a part of the celebration of liberty and freedom. My native friends struggle with the celebration for obvious reason. How does one celebrate the declaration of independence that lead to the deprivation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for one’s way of life? The Washington Post carried a story this week of a girl’s robotics team from Afghanistan who were denied entry into the U.S. for a world competition. Ironic? I watched a video presentation from young black men and women who feel their lives threatened and unable to celebrate the freedoms I celebrated.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t partake or find enjoyment in these moments. I have a deep desire to wave the flag and I love a good parade. And seriously, I’m always up for a amazing display of fireworks. But we also have serious work to do. Serious responsibilities to engage in the life and work of our nation and labor to accomplish the beliefs and truths within that declaration for all, and especially those who were not included in that declaration.

And as Christians the work is greater and deeper. Our discipleship calls us to something greater than our civic duties or patriotic celebrations. Our faith invites us to strive for justice and peace for all, by loving our neighbor.

My experience has been that when I engage in the work of loving my neighbor and striving for justice alongside them, I feel the weight of this burden is lightened. We are all invited to take on the yoke of Christ, and promised that when we do, we will find rest.

For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew11:30


 

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Trail Notes: 07/02/2017

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Quid pro quo?

The near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham in today’s Genesis passage raises the whole issue of sacrifice, which is as old as the religious quest to relate to God, or the gods.  The impulse to offer something to deities, in hopes of receiving something – bountiful harvests, success in war, pardon for wrongdoing – is as old as humanity itself. 

The Hebrews advanced religion dramatically from other ancient models: first by asserting one God instead of many.  The second advancement concerns human sacrifice – typically the offering of a first-born son as God’s due.  This entailed human sacrifice, as Abraham was about to do, to our horror.  But in the story God stops the sacrifice, and God substitutes a ram for Abraham’s son.  Furthermore, God provides the ram as a sacrifice – a new and strange twist. 

So, in Hebrew religion we see no more human sacrifice – thank God.  But the sacrifices of animals and foodstuffs would continue as long as there was a temple in Jerusalem in which to offer them.  This ended completely in 70 C.E. when the second temple was destroyed by the Romans – a few decades after the life of Jesus. 

Sacrifice enters Christian theology as the early church tried to figure out and describe what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant.  Many saw Jesus as sacrificing his life on the cross – and clearly he did accept that punishment for rocking the uneasy boat of Roman-Temple cooperation to keep the Jews peaceful. 

But if Jesus’ life and death were a sacrifice, then to whom were they offered, what benefit (quid pro quo) was derived, and who received the benefit?   

To answer these questions, a whole array of Atonement Theories have arisen during the history of the church, and (wisely) the church universal has never specified just one as the correct understanding.  One such theory as risen to the fore in the Western church, and was recently voted by the Southern Baptist Convention USA to be the only way to understand Jesus’ work on the cross in that denomination:  “penal substitutionary atonement.”  In short, this theory asserts that only human beings can repay the debt to God’s justice that  was/is incurred by our willful disobedience to God (sin).  To save us from the rightful penalty for sin (death), God sent Jesus to die in place of all humanity.  This satisfies God’s justice (or wrath). 

This no doubt sounds familiar from hymn texts, some Scriptures, and parts of our liturgy.  But is it the only way to understand Jesus’ death on the cross?  Is it the best way?  I don’t believe so. 

I object to this theory on a couple of counts.  First, it is transactionary: it involves a quid pro quo.  But Christian faith teaches us to live a life based on love and grace, not buying and selling.  Why, if love and forgiveness are paramount in Christian life, can God not simply and freely forgive humanity for our sins?  Why exact a terrible price, to be paid by an innocent bystander (Jesus)?  Why would God use violence to solve the problem of sin? 

Historically, many parts of the church have never assented to this theory.  The Franciscans, for instance, see Jesus’ death as a sign of his suffering with all humanity, especially poor and oppressed people.  Jesus’ love for us means he is willing to be vulnerable as we are, to walk with us even through death itself. 

JBM

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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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