Entries by Jeff MacKnight

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Trail Notes: 11/08/2015

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Widows take the lead in today’s scriptures.  One is Naomi, the bereft mother-in-law of Ruth, who is herself a new widow.  The widow Naomi may have lost her husband and both her sons, but she is far from powerless: she is clever – even shrewd – beyond belief!  She engineers a new life for her daughter-in-law, and for herself.  And in doing so, she gives Israel her greatest king and leader, David.

Another widow is seen by Jesus in the Temple, offering her gift – her “mite” – of two copper coins to God.  Jesus admires this poor woman for giving all she had.  Jesus drives home his point: “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”  (Matt 12) 

[Just for good measure, yet another story from I Kings about the Widow of Zarephath is also an appointed reading for this day.  Elijah comes to this poor widow who, with her son, is about to starve.  At Elijah’s request, she shares her last morsel with Elijah, and discovers that her jar of meal never emptied, and her jug of oil never ran dry! In giving, she received much in return.]

These widows have almost nothing.  How can they give?  How can they trust God to walk with them into their future?  My first impulse when I’m “running short” is to save, to hoard, to conserve what I have and try to make it last.  There is some wisdom in that.  But that is human wisdom, wisdom without God, without claiming the promises of God.  It is so easy to fall into the trap of earthbound thinking, where life is a zero-sum game, it’s everybody for himself or herself, and I’d better look out for number one.  I get that!  And I struggle with that every day.  But I do not want to live that way.  I want to live according to God’s economy of abundance and sharing. 

It comes down to trust in the end. Can we trust God that we can give today, and God will fill us full again tomorrow?  That is the question when we consider our pledge, our annual giving to our church here at St. Dunstan’s.  Can we trust God that we can give generously today, and God will walk with us tomorrow…and the days after that? 

I can only speak from my own experience.  Giving a tithe (10% of income)  to God has never brought our family material want, or caused financial distress to us.  Other financial decisions I’ve made have sometimes caused me grief, but not my pledge to the church.  I’ve made bad investments and lost money.  But our investment in the church has always returned many blessings to us, to our children, and, I believe, to the world.  Our jar of meal has never emptied, and our jug of oil has never run dry. 

I can only ask you to talk to God about your giving.  Ask God what a bold level of generosity would be for you…what step you can take this year in your trustful giving for the church and for the world.  You might be surprised at what becomes possible!  JBM

 

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Trail Notes: 10/25/2015

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Creation - Celebration

My mother lost almost all her eyesight from macular generation in the last several years of her life. She had used her eyes well for 8 decades – she loved to read and instilled that love in me; she used to do fine needlework. She had an eye for the beauty of creation – for color and design. She always looked her best for visitors: as a southern woman she never left the house without her “face” on! 

Jesus encounters Bartimeus near Jericho: a man who had gone blind (we don’t know how) and was reduced to begging for his daily bread. He hears of Jesus, and cries out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus meets him, asks him about his hopes and longings, and restores his sight. Imagine his amazement, looking up and seeing, for the first time, the Master’s face!

The story of blind Bartimeus always reminds me what a blessing is the gift of sight: eyes to see the earth and sky, the grass and flowers, a cat, a mouse, a crackling fire…eyes to behold the wonderful variety of people I meet, and expecially those dearest to me. And, of course, eyes to read – everything from murder mysteries to Holy Scripture. Never take your sight for granted. 

Our Creation Season has taken us from planting to nurturing to harvesting, and this Sunday, to celebration. Let us see anew the wonder of creation and rejoice in all that we have been given! My mother died in darkness, but I believe she is with the Lord now and sees again all that is lovely in life and love. Her eyes have been opened. May God open your eyes and my eyes to see God’s hand in all God’s works.  JBM  

 

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Trail Notes: 10/18/2015

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Look around. 
God has done God’s part. 
Now it’s up to us!

Crisp bright days and chilly nights, autumn leaves in a riot of color – we can’t miss the movement of God’s creation outside. This is one of Washington’s most beautiful times. I’m so glad I live in a place with four real seasons! 

Yes, God has outdone Godself once again in the splendor of creation around us.  We now need to look within – within ourselves, within our church – to see and mark what God is doing in us. This is not as easy to point to as a sugar maple glowing an impossible shade of orange, but our inner lives are just as much the site of God’s creative work!

What has God been doing in you – in your heart, your mind? Where has God moved you toward greater love, a growing passion for justice, a heart for people who are poor and struggling? Where has God given you greater joy and gladness?  Where is God calling you to greater generosity? What is the harvest God wants to gather in?

Our parish’s Annual Giving Campaign begins today. Every year, we take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re going. We open our eyes to see God’s gracious hand at work in our lives and in our world. And then we respond with our own offering of praise and thanksgiving…for the church and for the world. 

Our response – our pledge to St. Dunstan’s – is first and foremost a spiritual offering, a part of our spiritual journey with God. It is our small act of reciprocation to God’s huge gift of life and love and beauty. Most of us here have been given so much more than we need. At our house, our problem is too much stuff, not too little! 

But we have an opportunity, with our giving, to make a difference in the lives of others…to welcome and teach children in our faith, to help students in Ecuador, to feed the hungry in Washington, to care for a neighbor who is sick or is grieving a death. We gather to celebrate births and marriages and all the milestones of life.

Through our pledge to our parish church, we can touch people in real need. We also uphold this wonderful house of God and keep it strong, as our forebears have done since 1958. 

The Judeo-Christian tradition has always upheld the tithe – 10% of income – as our standard of giving. That may seem like a lot, but it is a goal that can be reached.  We can take small steps every year to increase our giving. Our parish needs more money each year, just to continue our current ministries. Can you take a step upward in your pledge commitment for 2016? 

Some folks who feel stretched by expenses work toward giving 5% to the church.  If your income is $100,000, that would be a $5,000 pledge. That’s easier on a tight budget, and yet still so helpful to the parish! Every single pledge makes a difference in this community, so please listen to the voices of our 4 week campaign, read the letters in the mail, and make this your most generous year ever.  JBM

Look around. 
God has done God’s part. 
Now it’s up to us!

 

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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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