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Trail Notes: 01/21/2018

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Jonah: It’s not about the whale.

Yes, there’s a big fish that swallows Jonah, but that’s not the heart of the story!  Jonah is a reluctant prophet…and in that he is like many of us.  We are hesitant to stick our neck out and say anything about God and God’s will in the world.  We’re afraid of how people might react.  They might be offended!  God forbid! 

In Jonah’s case, there’s a twist.  Jonah finally does preach God’s word to Ninevah, a notoriously evil city  – basically, “Because of your evil ways, you will all perish!”  Lo and behold, the Ninevites heard, and they did repent.  They cleaned up their act, they showed remorse, they fasted.  And God changed God’s mind and spared them.  So was Jonah pleased by their change of heart?  Not at all.  He was humiliated that he had preached their doom, and then God had changed God’s mind.  Jonah was incensed at God’s forgiveness of the Ninevites, and he went off to sulk about it. 

Being called to speak and act for God – that’s what prophets do – is often a lonely and trying vocation.  A good prophet is one whom nobody loves, because we all want to follow our own way, and not God’s.  So we shy away from speaking out, even when we feel strongly that God’s will is not being done. 

But we can work on this; we can try to do better.  We can speak up – right away – when somebody speaks ill of another race or group of people.  We can choose a social issue – maybe immigration rights – and demonstrate, write letters, pester politicians, and be heard.  We can stand up for others in our workplace who aren’t getting treated fairly.  (I was pleased to see Mark Wahlberg donate his movie earnings when he realized that his costar Michelle Williams was paid just .07% of what he was paid.) 

It’s not easy to be a prophet of God.  Jonah tried hard not to.  But it’s not a choice for Christians…unless you want to go live in the belly of a big fish.  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 01/14/2018

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To Be Fully Known

“O God, you search me and you know me….” 

So begins the 139th Psalm, long one of my favorites.  Why?  Because it describes my own relationship with God – the mystery we call God, whom we can love but never fully know, but who knows us deeply and completely yet loves us still. 

For me, this psalm is closely related to my call from God – my vocation.  It is the God who searches me and knows me who gave me, 39 years ago, a sense of call to the priesthood of the church.  After several years of discernment and seminary study, I had the wonderful, affirming experience of ordination to the priesthood out in Lincoln, Nebraska (who knew that God traveled that far from the Eastern Seaboard?).  At that service, it was my privilege to kneel down on the chancel step and sing in plainsong the psalm for the day:

O God, you have searched me out and known me;
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.  
 
Where can I go then from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

I don’t speak often about my call to the priesthood, because I want all of us (not just clergy) to understand ourselves to be called by God: to be deeply known by God, loved by God, and to know our God-given mission in life.  The Reformation reminded a wayward church long ago that the priesthood belongs to all believers, not just a few monks or nuns or clergy. 

Today’s scriptures describe several “call stories”: how the prophet Samuel was called, and how Jesus called his disciples.  Our challenge is to discover God’s call to us – today, in this life.  Life is immeasurably richer when we know that we are loved, and called, by God.  JBM  

 

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Trail Notes: 1/07/2018

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Fast Forward Thirty Years

We leave the warm light of the manger and the Holy Family, and move to Jesus’ baptism this Sunday.  But Jesus was not baptized as an infant; 30 years have passed, and Jesus is an adult, having worked with his father Joseph for a good 15 years or so as a carpenter, we assume.  But something changes in him, and he feels led – compelled? – to redirect his life.  He walks several day’s journey south into Judea, and joins the group around a fiery young prophet named John.  John is preaching a message of repentance to Jews, and he is offering a sign of washing and renewal: baptism in the river Jordan. 

We don’t know how long Jesus spent listening to John, perhaps joining John around a campfire in the evenings, asking questions about John’s view of God, and John’s understanding of what would happen in the not-to-distant future.  (I’d give a lot to have tapes of those conversations!)  At some point, Jesus decides to commit: to undergo baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Jesus becomes a disciple of John.  (The meaning of John’s baptism is well-described in the Advent hymn “On Jordan’s Bank,” so we shall sing it on Sunday.) 

But John has attracted negative attention from the Roman governors; he has criticized Herod for improperly marrying Herodias, the former wife of his half-brother. He was a troublemaker to Herod.  Soon John was imprisoned, and subsequently executed.  This created a void into which Jesus stepped.  The story picks up there in the Gospels.  Jesus began to preach and gather his own disciples around him.  Jesus’ message is not identical to John’s, however.  Jesus preaches not just repentance, but a completely new mode of relating to God, based on love and grace, rather than on law and sacrifice.  The question for us is, how do we live based on God’s love and grace, when the world turns on the basis of power and transactional relationships?  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 12/31/2017

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At Christmas we start with the specific and move to the universal. 

First we draw close to the miracle of a baby born to a poor couple, with only a barn to shelter them.  The dim stable lamplight forms a kind of halo around them as we gaze.  The mixed smells of animals and damp fodder fill our nostrils – not the ideal environment for childbirth.  But this is what the world gave.  The scene is so intimate, filled with such bittersweetness, that we take care not to intrude.  Others gather with us – shepherds wander in, angels disguised in many garbs – captivated as we are by the stillness of the night.  Stars shine in the sky – one more brightly than all the rest.  God has touched the earth in this place, at this time. 

But we cannot hold onto that sweet moment forever.  A new day comes, with its demands, its fears, its challenges.  The little family moves on, as do we.  What shall we carry away with us – a memory? A mission? 

Ever since that night, that moment, we ponder the meaning of this scene at the manger.  What will this child mean for the world?  For us?  Jesus grows up as we all do, and finds his purpose, his mission in life.  It is not an easy one.  He feels called to preach about God – not the vengeance of God, but the love, the mercy, the forgiveness of God.  It is a beautiful message…but the world, it seems, cannot, or will not, receive it.  We are too caught up in our ways of competition, domination, and violence – or are we? 

Jesus fights not with a sword, but with a word of love; not with an army but with a community of the least and the lost.  He appears to be defeated by his foes, yet his message is not dead.  The love lives on.  Its light still shines in the darkness.

We are part of his light: his hands and feet in the world, his voice of love and reconciliation, his smile of welcome to all, especially to the poor and unwelcome in the world’s eyes.  The miracle of a baby, born long ago to a poor couple, lives on, in us.  Merry Christmas.   JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 12/24/2017

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Today is Mary’s Sunday.  We rightly honor Mary for her unique role as mother of Jesus – the one most intimate with our Lord, who bore his body and suffered for his birth.  In the Orthodox churches, she is called “Christotokos” – Christ-bearer – or even “Theotokos” – God-bearer. 

Although Mary’s role is unique, she is not the only one whom God calls to bear Christ in the world.  God asks that of us all.  As God invests God’s self in human form, we become God’s instruments, God’s tools, God’s media in the world.  Saint Teresa of Avila famously said,

“Christ has no body now but yours.  No hands, no feet on earth but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world.  Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.  Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Christ has no body now but yours.”

That’s a tall order – scary even.  If we are Christians, then people look at us as representatives of Jesus.  What we say and do reflects on Jesus.  That’s why it’s so disturbing these days when people who self-identify as Christians say and do things that are contrary to Jesus’ teachings. 

In today’s American society, fear has become a huge driver of behavior.  Some preach that we should fear those who are different from us – people who look different, or come from another country.  Some say that we all need guns to defend ourselves from all the perils of life.  But Jesus said repeatedly, “Do not be afraid!”  A life lived out of fear is wretched, and can cause huge damage to our human community. 

When the angel Gabriel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary,” Mary accepted his words, and accepted the holy mission Gabriel came to announce to her.  Mary did not fear the future, the opinions of other people.  She said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.  Let it be with me according to your word.”  The world would be a much better place if all of us could go and do likewise.  JBM  

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Trail Notes: 12/17/2017

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Have you heard a voice in the wilderness? 

Have you ever been heading down a questionable path, and had a friend care enough to challenge you to rethink it, to turn back, to seek a better future? 

Maybe you were in a relationship that was seductive, but really unhealthy.  Maybe you were stuck in a job that was deadening, but you were afraid to change.  Maybe you were violating your own deep values in some way, and somebody called you to account. 

That person was your “John the Baptist” – the one who called you to turn, to repent, to redirect your life.  Like John, her words might have sounded harsh.  You might have wanted to turn away, not listen, continue as you were.  But something gave you pause.  There was truth in her words. 

We all need a “John the Baptist” sometimes, to challenge our ways when we get complacent, when we seek expediency more than doing the right thing.  But we also need something to turn toward…to draw us into a better, healthier, more honorable life.  John didn’t do that part.  Instead, he pointed toward the one who could: Jesus of Nazareth.  While John could be off-putting, Jesus was magnetic: he drew people with his love of life, the wisdom of his teaching, his gift of hope. 

We all have times when we are “in the wilderness” – not comfortable with the status quo, searching for something better, truer.  Maybe you are in the wilderness right now.  Listen for “John” who calls you to turn, to reevaluate your life.  Then look for Jesus to draw you to himself, to love and forgive you into a new life.  JBM 

 


 

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Trail Notes: 12/10/2017

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Five Talents Saves Lives

Our friends and longtime mission partners from Five Talents will be here at both services this Sunday, Dec. 10, and between services during our social time, to share their recent ministries.  St. Dunstan’s is currently supporting the project in South Sudan, a place where few aid organizations can even work due to instability there. 

Five Talents is the Anglican microfinance ministry – with a difference: FT doesn’t just make small loans and hope it will help poor people.  FT works through local Anglican churches.  It creates local communities called savings circles, give training in business practices, and walk with these brave entrepreneurs who start businesses to support their families.  Most FT group members are women, who use their money to buy food and medicine, and pay school fees for their children.  Each small loan (often under $100) lifts up many lives out of extreme poverty, saving lives, giving dignity and hope.    

What could be more fitting in this Advent season, when we pause to remember how God came to a poor family in Palestine, in order to bring hope to a world full of poor and scared people?  Our own needs may not be material, but we are spiritually thirsty for something to encourage us in a world that’s often pretty dark.  Some of us are despairing of the hatred and indifference we see in societies today.  We need the hope and light of Jesus just as much as a South Sudanese woman who is trying to keep her children safe and fed. 

God gives something to each of us – maybe five talents (a whole lot!), maybe just one talent (still considerable resources).  Each of us is responsible to use what we’ve been given for God’s glory.  How are you using the resources entrusted to you by God?  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 12/3/2017

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A New Year, a New Gospel, Apocalypse Now

On this New Year’s Day of the Church, we begin Advent, and our Gospels come from Mark.  But we don’t start at the beginning of Mark; instead we begin in chapter 13, with Mark’s description of the end times.  This counter-intuitive start comes from the church’s custom of connecting the two comings of Jesus – his incarnation in history, and his final coming in glory. 

This chapter is often called Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” because it paints a fantastic picture of the time when Jesus comes again in glory to wrap things up in the world.  It’s not meant to be taken literally.  It points to an experience beyond our ken: “The Son of Man coming in clouds… [sending] angels to gather his elect from the four winds….”  This is not everyday language; it’s suggestive of a dramatic culmination of the world as we know it. 

But Mark’s Gospel is not really focused on these “end times,” according to scholar John Dominic Crossan.  Mark insists that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and we must respond – now!  We must repent and believe in the Gospel (Mark1:14-15).  Further, Crossan asserts: “The Kingdom is at hand or near in the sense not of promise but of presence and that its power is made visible in the commonality of shared miracle [healings] and shared meal.” 

I’ve always had trouble with the idea of a dramatic (some would say violent) culmination of the world by God.  Jesus indicates in today’s passage that his own generation would see this happen (Mark 13:30), but they did not.  I don’t believe in a vengeful, punishing God who will reward a few elect, and condemn the rest (of us) to damnation. 

What I do believe is that we are invited – urged! – by Jesus to experience God’s presence now.  Jesus points to the fig tree sprouting leaves: sign of the fullness that the tree already embodies now.  God is present now, in every healing, every sign of growth, every reconciliation, every shared meal…especially the Eucharist. 

Mark’s Gospel is well-known for being in a hurry – the word “immediately” appears dozens of times.  But I don’t think that means he wants to rush us into the future.  Rather, I think he means us to focus on the now, “the fierce urgency of now,” has some have put it.  That’s really all we have.  And that’s where we’ll find and know God if we stay awake.  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 11/26/2017

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It’s the Sunday of Christ the King.  What kind of king is Jesus

Who needs a king these days?  The idea of monarchy has faded in the modern age, although a few remain – most notably that of the “United Kingdom.” Some still revel in the trappings of royalty: the wealth, jewels, palaces, intrigues, and love affairs. It does make good theatre.  But most of us prefer more democratic political structures. 

So what kind of king is Jesus?  What does our declaration “Christ is King!” mean to us? 

The recent spate of movie and TV productions about the British monarchy have fascinated many of us, starting with “The King’s Speech,” and continuing with Netflix’s “The Crown” and others.  Queen Elizabeth II has just celebrated 70 years of marriage.  These have given me a new appreciation for the hardships a monarch can bear. 

King George VI (of “The King’s Speech”) came to the role with great reluctance when his brother (Edward VIII) abdicated the throne after less than a year, in order to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, which was considered a scandal.  George VI, known to his family as “Bertie,” never wished to be king, but was forced into the role.  In a few years, Britain was embroiled in an existential struggle for survival in World War II.  King George VI struggled with a stutter – an all-too-evident weakness – masterfully portrayed by Colin Firth.  (I love Colin Firth!) 

I bring all this up because of the way George VI and his wife remained in solidarity with the hardships of the people of the UK and in particular London.  The monarchs stayed mostly in London through the Blitz, observed the rationing rules, and visited bombing sites.  A bomb at Buckingham Palace nearly killed them.  They forged a spiritual alliance with their embattled people.  They suffered with the people of Britain. 

George VI also presided over the dismemberment of the British Empire, allowing that behemoth to unravel with relative grace into a “commonwealth” of associated independent nations.  He relinquished the title “emperor.” 

All of this does not make George VI into a modern-day Jesus, or even a particularly saintly man.  But it helps us imagine a model of kingship as servant leadership – of one who sacrifices much, shares the burdens of his people, and seeks to strengthen them.  King George VI did not give his physical life for his people, but he gave his best to the unwelcome task of serving as king.  His brother, Prince George, was killed in the war in 1942. 

I’m not sure how helpful the image of “Christ the King” is to modern people; there is so much baggage associated with kingship and monarchy.  But perhaps we can get a glimpse of the kind of king Jesus was: one who gave his love and his life for his people – for us – to lead us into a better country, a place of peace.  JBM  

 

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Trail Notes: 11/19/2017

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“The Rich Young Man”

It’s time. 

It’s decision time…. pledges to support St. Dunstan’s in 2018 are due this Sunday.  Your Vestry leaders will then build a budget plan based on your giving.  This is never an easy process – there are always more needs than we have dollars.  But if every household makes a generous pledge our job will be much easier!  Thank you, in advance, for your support and commitment.    

Today’s Gospel is the well-known if not well-loved story of the rich young man.  He is much blessed.  He sees the world laid out before him, full of options, possibilities, and pleasures.  Yet Jesus fascinated him, attracted him….  God’s path of righteousness, of radical love, drew this young man in.  He wanted that for himself!

But what about all those other inviting paths for his life? We can imagine a lavish lifestyle of comfort, servants to meet his every need, an easy life in blissful solitude, undisturbed by the suffering of the world….

This story makes me uncomfortable because I see myself so clearly in this fortunate man.  He has so much.  But he feels a hunger for something more, something different than the satisfactions the material world can offer.  Yet it’s so hard to turn away from the cultural values of wealth and ease, sequestered from the hardships faced by most humans on the planet. 

Choices

For the rich young man, Jesus posed a stark choice – all or nothing.  But our lives are not like that.  We face innumerable everyday choices on how we shall live.  What do I buy?  What shall I invest money in?  Where shall I put my time and energy for the good of the world, the upbuilding of God’s Kingdom? 

Now is the time to make one of the important choices in your life.  Your pledge to St. Dunstan’s is an investment in love, justice, mercy, and community – in a world where all of those are desperately needed.  Your pledge is an outward and visible sign of your commitment to Christ’s love.  It is time to throw the weight of our lives to the side of love.  I ask you to do that this Sunday.  JBM


 

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