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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



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  


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