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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  



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



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  



Trail Notes: 4/9/2017

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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



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



Trail Notes: 03/26/2017

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“The Lord looks on the heart.” 

Innumerable stories in scripture deal with people who are blind.  Blindness is clearly a primary metaphor for what ails us spiritually.  We don’t see properly; we don’t see the way God sees. 

When God rejected Israel’s first King, Saul, God sent a startled prophet Samuel to anoint a new king from the sons of Jesse.  Samuel saw seven sons, and thought they were worthy, but the Lord chose none of them.  God advised Samuel to look differently: “Do not look on his appearance….  The Lord looks on the heart.”  Finally, the youngest, David, was called in from the fields, and the Lord said, “This is the one.” 

Even the prophet Samuel couldn’t see as God sees…and neither do we, much of the time.  Samuel was afraid to challenge the status quo of King Saul, but God was moving on.  Sometimes we just don’t want to see new realities.  Our human needs, desires, and insecurities get in the way… they blind us to what we don’t wish to see.  Yet God may have something new – and very good! – in store for us. 

Personally, I struggle these days with the news, because there’s so much news I just don’t want to see.  Yet God calls us to be citizens of the world, and to work in our communities for compassion, mercy, and justice.  So I need to balance my own need to limit negative inputs, with my need as a Christian to be active in the world.  Maybe you can identify with this struggle. 

Jesus healed many blind persons, in various circumstances.  He called himself “The Light of the World.”  Jesus gives us the gift of true sight.  He shows us how to see God in our needy neighbors.  He lights our trail for us.  “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”  JBM



Trail Notes: 03/19/2017

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On preaching and hearing the Word of God.

“The pulpit is no place for anything political!”

“Jesus’ message was all about transformation of society, and that includes political issues!” 

We don’t all agree on the place of political issues in church. Recently I read some helpful words from our neighbor, Bp. Eugene Sutton of the Diocese of Maryland (based in Baltimore). They seem balanced and useful to preachers and listeners alike. 

We all seek to follow our baptismal vows, which include “respecting the dignity of every human being,” and “striving for justice and peace among all people.” I sometimes feel compelled to preach justice and compassion for persons who are in want and distress.  Occasionally I preach against public policies that do not respect human dignity equally. See what you think of Bp. Sutton’s advice, and I’d love to discuss it further at St. Dunstan’s.  JBM

A guideline for preachers

  • Always preach the gospel. Respect the pulpit; don’t view it as your personal political platform.
  • Speak as one informed witness to Christ’s gospel, acknowledging there are other witnesses.
  • Remind your listeners that this is the beginning of a conversation you want to have with them, not the end of a needed conversation.
  • Show some courage. It’s easier in the long run for your pastoral ministry than cowardice.
  • Be willing to listen, be willing to change your mind, be willing to repent.

A word to listeners

  • Cut your preachers some slack. They really are trying to say and do the right thing.
  • Acknowledge in yourself that Jesus was both a spiritual and a political teacher.
  • Read the cited Scriptures, and have the conversation with God and with others that the preacher is inviting you to have.
  • Be willing to listen, be willing to change your mind, be willing to repent.



Trail Notes: 03/12/2017

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What does it really mean to be “born again”?

“I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior and was born again on May 12, 2005….”  

I just made that up, but many Christians have such a specific experience of conversion at a particular moment in their lives.  Episcopalians, however, tend to see conversion as an ongoing process – a long journey of turning toward God.  Which is it? 

Today’s Gospel about Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus doesn’t specify the duration of “being born again” or “born from above,” only that it must happen.  Nicodemus is a Jewish leader, a Pharisee no less!  Yet he sees God working in Jesus, and comes to see the young rabbi under cover of darkness.  Jesus responds, “Truly, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus mistakes Jesus’ point and questions how anybody could be physically born again.  That’s not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus is saying that conversion to God is first and foremost about seeing.  In order to see the kingdom of God, in order to see God’s hand at work in the world about us, we must in some way die to our old life and be born again of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe it’s like finally opening your eyes after having had your eyes bandaged up due to a terrible accident.  Or like putting one a pair of glasses and seeing clearly after years of diminishing eyesight.  Things look different.  The world is shot through with the wonder of God.  The beauty of the earth and of the faces of people is overwhelming.

This new sight, this rebirth in the Spirit, is available to all of us, right now.  Open the eyes of your heart, and look at the world as God sees it.  JBM   



Trail Notes: 3/05/2017

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“Lead me not into temptation…I can find it myself!”

We always begin Lent with an account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert for 40 days after his baptism.  These days, we have nice parties after baptisms, but Jesus was driven by God’s Spirit immediately into a most uncomfortable situation!

Scholars have attached many interpretations to these three temptations of Jesus by Satan…and there are many good ways of looking at them.  This Lent, I want us to think about little temptations vs. the greater temptations in our lives. 

Custom invites us to “give something up” for Lent, which is a fine thing to do.  But these small sacrifices (sweets, gossip, alcohol) need to represent something larger and more meaningful: the greater temptation that God is concerned about. 

For instance, Jesus’ first temptation was to turn stones into bread.  He was truly famished, so this would be tempting indeed.  But the greater temptation here is to use divine power for personal gain.  Jesus refused to do it. 

Likewise, If I give up alcohol for Lent (not a bad experiment for any of us), more than wine with dinner, or an occasional scotch, is involved.  The greater temptation is to succumb to other addictions: the addictive tendency of human beings.  That includes my addiction to wealth and comfort, to power and prestige, to getting my way in relationships.  (Not to mention other clinical addictions I might be hiding – to gambling or food or sex or shopping.) 

So this Lent, whatever you are “giving up” or “taking on” as a symbolic sacrifice with Jesus, let’s concentrate on the greater temptations we face, and how we as a Christian community can support each other and create a healthy, faithful, joyful environment in our congregation.  JBM  



Trail Notes: 02/26/2017

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Jesus’ Transfiguration, and Ours

Jesus climbed a mountain with a few of his disciples, perhaps uncertain about what course his ministry should take.  Would preaching kindness, healing people, and gathering a small community be enough?  Or did God demand more of him: a hard road of challenge to the status quo, standing up to the powers that be, announcing God’s Kingdom of love and mercy on earth?

The event we commemorate today – Jesus’ Transfiguration – changed Jesus.  It set Jesus on a new, more dangerous course.  He encountered his Hebrew forebears, Moses and Elijah, and realized that his mission was like theirs: to lead humanity out of bondage into freedom. 

Faithful, stumbling disciple Peter is there to witness it, but his vision is not big enough.  Peter offers to build a shrine – “three booths” – to contain all this wonderful holiness!  But God thunders from heaven, dismissing this idea, and confirming Jesus’ mission to save the whole world through his self-giving. 

At St. Dunstan’s today, we gather to consider our life as a church, a community of Christ.  We elect leaders and conduct our formal business.  But that’s not enough.  God calls us out of our own shrine here on Mass. Avenue, to carry the Word of God into the world surrounding us.  We have no other purpose than to transfigure lives for Christ.  And surely, our own lives must be transformed before we can take that Good News to others. 

St. Dunstan’s is a wonderful church and I love it.  But we need new passion for the transforming work of Christ.  Maintaining our “shrine” is not enough.  Awful as it was, Jesus’ Cross has infinitely more power than any shrine ever could.  Why? Because Jesus poured out his life, his love, for us on that cross.  And he calls us to do the same.  Are you ready?  JBM  


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