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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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Trail Notes: 11/12/2017

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“All who take the sword will perish by the sword.”  

(Matthew 26:52)

I prefer to write these columns about our scriptures for the day.  But that doesn’t seem possible this week.  As we peacefully worshipped God at St. Dunstan’s last Sunday at 11 a.m., an armed man entered another church full of people trying to do the same thing, and slaughtered 26 people and injured many more. 

Christians rightly ask what we can do to prevent more of this carnage.  Each case is different, but there is a common thread of readily-available firearms meant only for the fast slaughter of human beings.  Politicians may try to deny that guns are the problem, but I insist they are part of the problem – a big part.  This is demonstrated by the fact that societies with fewer guns have far fewer such incidents. 

Jesus was really clear about violence being a dead-end (pun intended).  If we choose to live by violence, we can expect to die by violence too.  Jesus was in mortal danger when he told his disciples to put down their weapons (Matthew 25:50-56).  It was a moment when violence might have seen most justified – self-defense!  Yet Jesus refuses that path: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

I personally have never wanted to have or carry a firearm.  My father, who captained an artillery unit in World War II, wanted no part of guns in later life.  My friends who have guns to hunt have no desire to have rapid-fire assault weapons.  So why should they be so available?  Why do people want them? 

My best guess is that it is a desire to control others, to have power over other people, to feel powerful when the world can make us feel impotent.  Desiring that kind of power over others is a form of pride, I believe – the opposite of the humility taught and modeled by Jesus. 

Human civilization has developed with many protections of our individual rights – Americans have our Bill of Rights to prevent undue loss of personal freedoms, privacy, and safety.  We have consigned to the state the power, when warranted, to take property, deny liberty through incarceration, or take human life (through war or capital punishment…that’s another issue…).  The state is designed to provide due process before these rights are abrogated (although that process is certainly imperfect).  For one human being to arrogate the power physically to harm or kill another human being strikes me as prideful and alarming for all.

I realize how contentious the gun safety issue is in our country.  Our bishop has made it one of the main issues she speaks about.  It’s past time to join that conversation and look honestly at America’s strange relationship with guns.  JBM


 

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