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Trail Notes: 10/11/2015

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This week in our Creation Season, we move from planting to nurturing…just as nature moves in the cycle of life. 

My wise mother-in-law Nancy says, “We come to love what we take care of.” She should know; she has taken care of others – children, elderly folks, animals – all her life. She is one of the most nurturing people I know. 

But when I first heard this bit of wisdom, I thought it was turned around – reversed. Surely, we love first, and then take care of what (whom) we love, I thought. But upon reflection and observation, I’ve come to see that Nancy had it right. 

We all live this reality. Parents don’t already love a baby who has just arrived; we take care of an infant and in the caring, our love takes root and grows. When we adopt a dog, we generally don’t know her personality well. But after caring for her, we come to love her, foibles and all. (Here I speak from experience.) 

This even holds true with plants that we have nursed along through a drought, or a house we have lived in, painted, and repaired over the years. Caring leads to loving. 

So in today’s Gospel, when Jesus (at the end of his earthly life) asks Peter three times to “tend and feed my sheep,” Jesus is showing Peter the path to loving his neighbors, by caring for and nurturing them. Peter hadn’t always shown his love and devotion very clearly or consistently. Jesus spoke from experience. 

What have you cared for in your life – perhaps even involuntarily – that, eventually, you came to love? How have you helped to tend Jesus’ sheep?  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 10/04/2015

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Creation Season begins this Sunday for the 4 Sundays in October. Come for the pet blessing at the 9 a.m. service – in the tradition of St. Francis. 

This year, we are focusing on God’s abundant provision for us in the harvest. This first Sunday’s theme is planting. Jesus uses this image of planting, nurturing, and harvesting in many of his teachings. I can imagine him teaching a group in the countryside, pointing to a mustard tree on one side of the road, and beginning:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field…it is the smallest of seeds, but grows into the greatest of shrubs!” 
(Matthew 13:31, 32)

All of life, all of creation, is part of the natural cycle of new birth, growth, fruition, decay, and death…only to begin again with birth. We explore that cycle this fall, and seek to find God’s hand at work in each one of these parts of the cycle. 

Chief Seattle reminds us of our connection with this cycle of the earth, and our responsibility toward the earth and our children:

Teach your children what we have taught our children: that the earth is our true mother. Whatever happens to the earth, happens to the children of the earth.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus invites little children to gather around him and teaches the crowd: Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Our children are our primary “crop” as human beings! There is a childlike openness to the world that we must recapture if we are to preserve the earth and nurture what God plants. 

I’ve not got a green thumb, but I still know I have to work with God to plant and cultivate good things in this life. What part of your relationship with this earthly home seems strained or out-of-balance? What changes might God be calling you to make? How might God want you to “welcome the little child” into your life?  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 9/27/2015

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The Nazis were not the first to try to annihilate the Jews

Twenty-four centuries earlier, in the fifth century BCE in Persia, an earlier attempt at such genocide was made, and thwarted.  This is recounted in the book of Esther.  It is a dramatic tale of palace intrigue: a powerful King (Ahasuerus), a beautiful queen (Ether), and a diabolical prime minister (Haman). 

Haman despises the Jews, because they will not bow down to him as ruler.  So he plots a genocide.  In the end, it is up to Queen Esther (a Jew) to appeal to the King to stop Haman’s wicked plan.  At great risk to herself, she cleverly arranges to obtain the King’s favor, and asks him to spare her life, and the lives of her people.  Haman is thwarted, and hoisted by his own petard…that is, hanged on his own gallows.  The Jewish festival of Purim continues annually today to celebrate this rescue from evil Haman. 

This colorful tale from long ago points to the age-old human tendency to divide humans into groups by ethnicity or creed, and then demonize certain groups.  The Jews have suffered more than their share of this kind of persecution.  Esther’s story echoes into our present day, in that Persia is modern-day Iran.  Maybe it’s no wonder the state of Israel does not trust the Iranians.

Jesus seemed to fall victim to this same tendency to denigrate other groups, as when he called the gentile Syrophoenician woman a “dog” – quite an insult.  But Jesus moved beyond that way of thinking, and became the greatest champion of equality among all people – the preciousness of each human being in the eyes of God. 

Polls this week say that anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise in America. We have a long way to go before we can really say we love our neighbors.  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 9/20/2015

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Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who’s the fairest of them all? 

Humans compare ourselves to each other by nature. I love the old sit-com MASH.  In one episode, the wise Col. Potter counsels the brilliant, brash young surgeon Hawkeye who is bent out of shape. Why? Because another, “very average” doctor from his hometown is getting awards and lucrative research grants while Hawkeye slaves away in obscurity, patching up wounded soldiers in the Korean War. (In fact, Hawkeye is quite literally “bent out of shape” – his back has gone out – a stress reaction.)

Col. Potter sits down with Hawkeye and says, “Son, the only person you need to compete with, the only one you need to get better than, is yourself…and that would be a hard enough standard for anybody to meet.”

The disciples in today’s gospel are caught by Jesus arguing over which among them is the greatest. They are sheepish, because they know they shouldn’t be competing!

Why do we continually compare ourselves to others? I don’t know, but I do it all the time. I compare our parish with others around us; I compare my yard with my neighbors’ (mine doesn’t compare very favorably); I compare my “success” in life with other people’s, even though I know I should just be thankful for the blessings God has given me. 

Jesus turns all of this comparison upside down. He preaches humility…a willingness to sacrifice for others. We are not meant to try to be the greatest; we are meant to become servants. It’s a hard teaching for us competitive humans, but this is in fact the way to true joy and peace in life. 

The word Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” Let’s try a little exercise: each time you receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist, resolve to focus more on thanksgiving and less on competition. Let’s focus on how we can serve God’s creation, rather than how we can win over others. Let the bread and wine be food for thanksgiving, and drink for self-giving.  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 9/13/2015

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Open mouth; insert foot. 

We all know what it’s like to say the wrong thing, and immediately regret it. 

Last week, it was Jesus who said, “ It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

This week, it’s Peter who wades in too deep when he rebukes Jesus for telling about the suffering and death that was coming… Peter started off so well…. You are the Messiah...,”but he went downhill from there.   

The strange Epistle of James doesn’t mince words about the dangers of our tongues, and the damage we can do with what we say (and what we fail to say): 

“The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire…. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” 

The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is an outright lie. Words are powerful; they can hurt and they can heal.  Words can curse, and they can bless. One advantage of getting older is that I don’t put my foot in my mouth quite as often as I used to…and that’s a mercy. 

But what we can also do so much good with our words, when they are well chosen and well timed. We can comfort, reassure, encourage. We can lift others up, inspire positive actions, strengthen, and yes…bless. After all, God sent Jesus to be the Messiah:  the Word of God in human flesh. And that Word is love…unconditional love for us and all creation. So this week, think about how you can use your words to bless someone.  JBM





 

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Trail Notes: 9/06/2015

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Was Jesus a bigot?

That question is presented by Sunday’s difficult story of Jesus who, when he was accosted for help by a Syrophoenician woman, likened her to a dog. This  undermines our image of Jesus as someone who “respects the dignity of every human being” (to use our baptismal formula in the BCP). 

Coincidentally, I just read Harper Lee’s newly published novel, Go Set a Watchman. It takes place years after the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, but was written much earlier and unnoticed until recently. For all of us who loved the younger Atticus Finch for his human decency and lack of racism in the old south, this book is tough. The old man Atticus Finch is involved in local efforts to resist the Federal imposition of black voting rights on southern states. His outspoken daughter, Jean Louise (“Scout”), now living in New York, is aghast to come home to Maycomb, Alabama and find her father implicated in these efforts to maintain racial segregation and white dominance of the political system. 

The book is too complex to summarize here, but the challenge it presents is similar to the Gospel story of Jesus denigrating a foreign woman as unworthy of his good offices because she was not a Jew. How do we reckon with that? 

Scout’s first instinct is to leave her hometown and never come back.  But her wise uncle Jack urges her to consider coming back to Maycomb to live. “The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right…”

Somehow, in order to help humanity change and grow, we must acknowledge our complicity in prejudice and sin, and work for change from within. We cannot stand apart, at a safe, clean distance, and lob denunciations at our neighbors. 

Jesus learned this lesson. As he grew towards God, he realized his humanity was tied up in his neighbors, his society, his world.  He could not stand apart. As St. Paul wrote about Jesus, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew so sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  (II Cor 5:21)

These are not simple thoughts. I would love to have further conversation with you all about the scriptures and Harper Lee’s surprising book. If any are interested in gathering for a discussion of Harper Lee’s astounding novels, please let me know.    JBM





 

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Trail Notes: 8/30/2015

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What do we do with religious law? 

That’s a tricky question for Christians. Jewish devotion to the Law (Torah) is much more straightforward. Jesus was a Jew all his life, and treasured his heritage. But Jesus also questioned – sometimes quite pointedly – a slavish adherence to the letter of the law, especially if the spirit of the law was not being followed. By “spirit of the law” I think of the great commandments to love God and love our neighbors. 

Jesus regularly chastised the Pharisees for worrying about small details in the law, yet neglecting the main thrust of the law: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me….” The issue this Sunday is whether Jesus’ disciples washed their hands before eating. Of course, hand-washing is an excellent practice to maintain; we know now that it prevents the spread of disease. But the Pharisees seemed to be more concerned about ritual cleanness than, say, about the many people who were going hungry while the Pharisees washed up and ate their abundant meals!

Jesus does not dispense with the Jewish Law, but he always puts it in the context of God’s deeper purpose: to foster love and respect among all people, to lift up the lowly so that all have a share in God’s abundance. Jesus himself – his example and his teaching – becomes the bar by which to measure the many lesser laws in Scripture. 

Thus the Epistle of James emphasizes doing God’s word (God’s will), and not just hearing it. How we live with each other is the main thing. True religion is not so much about how we wash our hands, but is this: “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)  JBM





 

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Trail Notes 8/23/2015

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King Solomon built the first great Hebrew temple in Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE, importing lavish materials of gold and cedar. The ark of the covenant – the holiest object in Hebrew religion – was then placed in the inner sanctum of the new temple. Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the new temple is what we hear in today’s reading from I Kings. 

While the temple completed King David’s vision for Jerusalem to become a unifying capital city for the Hebrew tribes, it also introduced new dangers for Hebrew religion. Ironically, what is erected for God’s glory easily becomes an end in itself.  Solomon actually conscripted forced labor from 30,000 Hebrews in order to build the great building – the first time Hebrews had been enslaved since Egypt. The tax burden to support construction, as well as Solomon’s extravagant court, was very heavy. While Solomon proudly hoped that this would be an eternal monument to God, many would say that the seeds of the temple’s subsequent fall (4 centuries later) were planted at the beginning. 

That’s all very interesting, but most of us do not identify with Solomon’s grandiose building projects. Enter Jesus with his simple, pithy teaching about the house built on the rock versus the house built on sand.  Jesus emphasizes the foundation – the basis – upon which we build any edifice, whether it’s a building, an organization, or our own spiritual health. If the foundation is not firm, the rest will crumble. If the church’s one foundation is not Jesus Christ himself, then all that we try to build will be for naught. 

St. Dunstan’s Church is not so much a fancy impressive temple as it is a school of love, a place of hospitality, a haven for children every day. Jesus was concerned about people – that hungry people should be fed, sick people should be cared for, that our spiritual foundations be firmly built on the rock. This fall, we’ll be feeding hungry folks in our city, teaching faith to our children, and serving our neighborhood. We’ll be exploring our faith through scripture and worship and song. We dedicate this place, and ourselves, to Christ’s service in the world, praying, as Solomon did, that God’s “eyes may be open night and day toward this house.”  JBM


 

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Trail Notes 8/16/2015

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JOY
When was the last time you really enjoyed yourself - put your cares aside and had a blast?  Was it a party, or a reunion with an old friend, or a paddle down the river? Each of us finds joy and gladness in different ways, but one thing is clear: Joy is God's wish for us. Jesus said, "I have come that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full!" 
 
We get a glimpse of this in the wonderful tale of Jesus' first sign (or miracle), done at a wedding feast in the Galilean town of Cana. We know the story well - Jesus turns water into fabulous wine, over 100 gallons of it.
 
Jesus' first sign is meant to bring joy! The joy of a party was important enough for Jesus to intervene. These folks were very poor; in some ways they had little to celebrate in their lives.  But a wedding was special. Wedding festivities in those days went on for days; at some point the wine ran out. Jesus' mother told him the problem. Jesus gave us a sign - a potent prediction of his whole ministry. He turned what was still and lifeless - water - into something lively and refreshing and joyful - wonderful wine. The old becomes new. Jesus is still doing this miracle in our lives today, and in our world. 
 
[While wine was an integral part of life in biblical times, and three of our scriptures today mention wine, it's important to note that alcohol is a powerful substance that can make us both glad and sad. Ephesians reminds us not to drink to excess, but to depend on God's Spirit to find deep joy in life. Getting together to sing and give thanks (Eucharist) is the best way to find deep joy and satisfaction in life: wine tasting every Sunday!]  JBM


 

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Trail Notes 8/9/2015

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I am reading the book “All the Light We Cannot See” – a bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner.  It is about two human stories during World War II: The first one about a little blind French girl, Marie-Laure, trying to survive German occupation. Her father loves and protects her with all his might. The other story is that of a young German orphan boy, Werner, who is selected for an elite Nazi school, and trained to hate: hate weakness, hate Jews, hate any who do not bow to Hitler’s Reich.  Eventually, their stories come together…I haven’t gotten there yet. 

This book makes me wonder:

What prompts lavish acts of love?

Why do we sometimes give free reign to our resentments and bitterness and lash out fiercely? Why do we often follow the crowd, even against our own moral compass? And other times find the mercy and forgiveness and courage to take a stand, to respond in generous love? 

Scripture is full of examples – good and bad.  King David has shown his best and worst selves: the wanton killing of Bathsheba’s husband is certainly David at his worst; but today’s account of his love and mercy for his treasonous son Absalom is David’s best self. His grief at Absalom’s death is the most heart-wrenching in all of scripture: “Absalom, Absalom!  Would that I had died instead of you….” 

Christians believe that the power to overcome evil with love comes from God. We can’t gin it up on our own; at our best, we are conduits through whom God’s love and forgiveness flows in the world. At our worst, we are plugged-up drains which allow none of the water of life to flow, only collecting the fetid water of resentment and forgiveness. At our best, we follow the example of Jesus…we become little Christs. At our worst, we follow the crowd, and become little Hitlers.  JBM




 

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