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Trail Notes: 02/24/2018

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What do you make of DEMONS? 

This week, Jesus continues on his teaching and healing mission in Galilee, casting out demons from many people.  We modern folks tend to be puzzled by this kind of talk.  What exactly are these demons?  Can they really speak?  How do I know if I have one? 

Most people, I believe, put biblical demons in the category of mental illness.  For those of us who have lived with mental illness, as my family has, we know that it does seem demonic: it takes over and twists our thought processes, distorts our emotions, and leaves us feeling well and truly possessed by a foreign power.  The language of possession and liberation rings very true to all who have suffered from depression, acute anxiety, or personality disorders.  Persons with addictions also know this feeling all too well.  The opioid epidemic has unleashed thousands, maybe millions, of demons on struggling people in our country.  Jesus is weeping. 

Jesus was compassionate and generous with his healing gifts, but he also knew that his mission was even larger than that.  He was clear about his primary task (as the management gurus like to put it).  His primary task was to “proclaim the message,” that is, to preach the coming Kingdom of God, in which all of us would become compassionate healers and workers for justice.  Jesus’ ministry was not just a one-man show; it is a movement… “The Jesus Movement,” as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to put it.  And we are all part of it.  How can you be one of Jesus’ merciful healers in the world?  JBM  

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Trail Notes: 1/28/2018

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“…With Authority,” or Fake News?

Twice in today’s Gospel we are told that Jesus spoke with authority.  The question of authority is more pressing than ever today.  How do we know when we are dealing with a source with authority?  What gives Jesus this authority, which we are told that the scribes did not have? 

The word authority means “originator.”  An author is the originator of a written work.  To ascribe authority to Jesus is to point to his origin in God, the great original of all.  Today’s Gospel passage is intriguing because not just friends, but unclean demons, recognize Jesus’ authority.  When your enemy respects you, that’s something. 

In today’s swirl of news and opinion, fact and innuendo, truth and falsehood, measuring authority is imperative.  How do you judge the authority of those who speak and write in the public square?  How do you determine which messages (and messengers) you can trust, and which are dodgy? 

If we accept the authority of Jesus, how does that affect our reception of all the voices coming at us in modern life?  Jesus spoke the truth, and demanded nothing less than the truth from others.  Can we use the teaching and example of Jesus, whom we call Lord, as a measuring rod for the truth in God’s world?  JBM


 

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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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