Entries by Jeff MacKnight

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Trail Notes 8/16/2015

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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



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



Trail Notes: 7/19/2015

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Once King David is well settled in his new cedar palace in Jerusalem, he starts to think maybe he should build a house for the ark of God, which had been carted around for years and set up in a tent. David proposes his idea to the prophet Nathan, who at first approves.  But God speaks to Nathan and dismisses the idea that God needs a house, a building to dwell in. 

God declares that he is much more interested in building up the family of David into a great people. The Lord declares that “the Lord will make you a house,” that is, a community of God’s people – the “House of David.”

Then we meet up with Jesus and his disciples, who have been out “in the field” doing ministry of teaching and healing.  They gather with stories to tell, and Jesus suggests they go off on a little retreat to reflect on their experiences. But the crowds followed them to the other side of the lake – they could find no peace. So Jesus continues to touch and heal all those who were brought to him. 

Jesus’ primary concern is clearly with the people around him. Jesus had a very ambivalent response to the Temple, the great building in Jerusalem where the religious ritual sacrifices were offered. We get the sense that God is not comfortable being “housed” (or confined), to any house built by human hands.

The church often strays into obsession with buildings and structures. We do need places to gather and to do ministry, but buildings are a means, not an end. We need to care for our buildings and grounds (and I’m thankful for those who work at that!), but the true “House of God” is the family of people who gather, worship, learn, and minister together as Jesus did: looking around the immediate neighborhood and seeing where people are suffering, in need, or lonely. If we focus there, the rest will fall into place.  JBM



Trail Notes: 7.12.2015

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If you tend to look askance at worship “innovations” such as liturgical dance, today’s description of King David entering Jerusalem won’t please you. David, girded only with a skimpy linen ephod, danced before the Lord with all his might!

David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant to its new resting-place in his new capital city of Jerusalem, and he knew how to make a satisfying ceremony of it. He wanted his kingship, and the new capital, to bind the 12 Israelite tribes into one nation…much as George Washington wanted Washington D.C. to become a unifying center for the American colonies. 

In today’s Eucharistic liturgies, we echo David’s parade in our vested processions into the church.  When we gather for the liturgy, we are entering a holy place set apart – a kind of “new Jerusalem,” where we have a foretaste of life in God’s perfect kingdom.  We’ll be singing three classic old “Jerusalem” hymns to mark the occasion…some of you will recognize “Jerusalem, the golden” from your earlier days. 

As King David knew, and Jesus knew, it is imperative that we keep before us the vision of God’s kingdom as it will one day be fully realized. Without that vision, we can lose our way and follow the wrong trail forward. Without that vision, we can also lose hope that the world can change and become better…more and more aligned with God’s will.  Even in the midst of the world’s major ills, from ISIS to Greece’s economic collapse, I believe we can detect signs of progress which must make God smile. In our own country, more of us will have affordable health care, and more of us can marry the one we love. We can give thanks for these glimpses of God’s kingdom breaking into our world.  JBM



Trail Notes: 7/5/2015

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The old saying goes that an “expert” is somebody who comes from at least 50 miles away and carries a briefcase. 

It appears that Jesus was a victim of this way of thinking. After he had traveled a bit and wowed the crowds with his teaching and his healings, he came back to his hometown, to Nazareth – a dusty little village with little to commend it. As was common for a Jewish teacher – or rabbi – Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach on the Sabbath day. He was, to put it delicately, not well received. His old neighbors couldn’t fathom that he was a great man of God. 

Or maybe they did see it, but didn’t want to accept it. After all, they seem to acknowledge that Jesus did great deeds of power. They realized that he taught with unusual wisdom. But he was just Mary and Joseph’s son! They knew his brothers and sisters – all ordinary folks, putting on no airs.They didn’t like their small world-view turned upside down by Jesus. Who did he think he was, anyway? 

Oh my goodness, we are all so much like those Nazarene neighbors of Jesus. However good or bad our lives may be, we have a certain comfort – a familiarity – with things as they are. As they say,“Better the devil you know.” We are very resistant to new voices, strange ideas, questions about the way we do things. We are especially resistant when that voice is somebody near us, someone we know well. We already have a set opinion of the people around us, so they’d better not upset the applecart of our preconceptions. 

Where in your life is somebody crying in the wilderness, and you don’t want to hear it? Who might have a word for you from God, but is so familiar to you that you can’t imagine such a thing? What would it take to open your ears to hear God say a new thing, call you in a new direction, question your assumed path?  JBM



Trail Notes 6.14.2015

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Today we begin a cycle of readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, from First Samuel to Second Samuel and finally into First Kings in August.  This way, the Sunday lectionary provides a semi-continuous narrative from an important time in Hebrew history: the rise of a king in Israel – first David, then Solomon.  These were great – but flawed – men.  Unlike much other ancient literature, the Bible does not wallpaper over the faults of hits heroes.  They are presented to us “warts and all,” with all their virtues, vices, and contradictions.  And somehow, God uses them to move forward the story of God’s people. 

I’ve always liked the story of the prophet Samuel going to pick out a new king from among the sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite.  Each of Jesse’s sons is brought out, like models on a runway.  But starting from the eldest, the Lord rejects each one in turn – seven of them.  “Are all your sons here?” asks Samuel.  Jesse replies, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.”  So David is sent for, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

As the youngest of four boys in my own family, I like the idea that good things can come in smaller packages, that it’s not always the eldest or the most important whom God chooses to use.  David was a little shepherd boy (although we are told that he was ruddy and handsome and had beautiful eyes…that never hurts!).  He would grow into the role of leader, sometimes excelling, sometimes faltering badly.  And yet God is always with him… encouraging, strengthening…sometimes chiding, confronting…but always loving David: sometimes with gentle love that renews and inspires, sometimes with tough love that demands repentance. 

In these stories, we see what God can do, starting with small, seemingly insignificant people, and leading to great acts of leadership, compassion, and justice.  The little mustard seed scattered on the ground grows up to be a great shrub, such that the birds can nest in its branches. 

When you feel small and powerless, God can do great things with you, too, if you are willing to say yes when God calls.  JBM



How do we learn truth?

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Not facts, not information, but truth: truth about ourselves, about humanity, about God? 

I am a reader and thinker by nature – I love sopping up information and ideas just as a sponge sops up spilled milk. But, as much as I love this, I have come to realize that truth comes in other packages. Books and lectures may point us toward the truth (or not). But real, deep truth comes through experience, relationship, and our humanity.

In the religious life, we can learn about God from books and sermons. Reading the Bible can teach us how our forebears understood God. We can study the history of ideas about God.  Jesus’ life and teaching give us a wonderful glimpse of God and God’s ways. But to know the truth of God, we must have experience – an encounter with God. Likewise, to know the truth about another human being, we must meet and know that human being. And even more than that, we must come to love that human being…as we love ourselves. 

I say all this because we celebrate LGBT Pride this Sunday – God’s inclusion of all of God’s people in the beloved family of God. One expression of that family is the Church. The Christian Church has often not lived up to Jesus’ radical call to love our neighbor. We have divided humanity into groups; we have excluded many. We have called some “sinners,” when every one of us falls short of God’s perfect will. We have failed to answer God’s call to love – and hence to know the truth that others bring. Until we meet and know and love each other, we cannot understand each other. 

As I have come to meet and know others who span the broad spectrum of sexual identity, I have realized that we all share the same deep longing: to love and to be loved. We are all imperfect in the practice of love, yet Jesus calls us to love one another as he loves us. And when we do, he promises us joy:

“Abide in my love….that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”                                                                                         (John 15:10-12)

Jesus does not promise us a life of ease, a life free of conflict and hard decisions, or a life without sadness and loss. But Jesus does promise us joy: the deep gladness that comes from walking in love with God and our neighbors…even when our love is imperfect. That, in the end, is what we are on this good earth to do. It is in the loving that we learn the truth of things.  JBM



"You are a witness of these things"

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After the Emmaus story, the disciples are gathered again in Jerusalem, telling one another about what they have seen and heard: Jesus is alive and active! Then Jesus appears yet again among them. He invites them to touch him – to verify that he is real. He eats some broiled fish for the same reason. And, as he did on the Emmaus road, Jesus explains how the Jewish scriptures point to Jesus as Messiah – one who must suffer, die, and rise again.  “You are witnesses of these things.” 

Once the disciples have seen the risen Jesus, the question is: What will they do about it?  How will they witness to these things? What difference will it make? And that is the question for us, in our own day, who claim to follow this Jesus. 

Sadly, I think we have lost the art of witnessing to the presence and action of Jesus in our lives. I wonder what it would take to re-enliven that aspect of our faith? In last Sunday’s Post, the popular author Ann Patchett tells about her experience as the owner of a new indy bookstore in Nashville. She talks about her lifelong compulsion to tell people about books that they simply must read.  I often have the same drive to tell people when I read a book I really love. Why not share one of the great joys in life – discovery of a life-changing story or message? 

Most of us know how enthusiastic we get about a new restaurant we love, or a recipe we’ve just tried, or a movie we’ve seen.Readers can be over the moon about a great new author or story we’ve discovered. I wonder what it would take for us to enthuse about our experience with God in the same way? After all, isn’t the risen Jesus a life-changing story…a compelling message to share? 

Of course I understand that we are conditioned in polite society not to foist our religious views onto others. But that doesn’t mean we can’t communicate how meaningful our faith is to us, and invite others who might be interested. I wonder what St. Dunstan’s would need to be/do in order for us to recommend it to our friends as we would a great new restaurant?  Do we need to improve our wine list? (Perhaps you are getting tired of port!)  Update the décor? Tell the story in different ways? 

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I’d sure love to talk about these things.  Dr. Tricia Lyons will be with us again this Sunday. We all enjoyed her energy and passion 2 weeks ago. I hope she can help us know the risen Christ, and be faithful “witnesses of these things.”  JBM



Looking and Seeing

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We continue our Easter season with a new resurrection story each week, and todays just might be my favorite: The Road to Emmaus. What a fabulous tale – filled to the brim with symbolism: the journey, the conversation, and finally the broken bread. This is yet another resurrection story centered on seeing – and it helps us connect the dots in many ways. As Tricia Lyons, our preacher last Sunday, mentioned, it’s also all about recognizing Jesus…and how difficult that is for us. 

Most of us can identify with Cleopas and his wife (whom I call Anna), trudging home after a tragic and demoralizing experience, the death of Jesus. They had heard the rumors during that Easter Sunday that Jesus had been raised…but they could not believe it. There was no resurrection for them…yet. We’ve been there too, in that place of disappointment, dejection, even hopelessness. 

Then a stranger appears and walks with them along the road…and things start to happen. They still aren’t seeing clearly (they can’t recognize that this is Jesus himself!). But gradually, this stranger “opens for them the scriptures” and they do begin to see the grand arc of God’s saving acts through history. Could God act again – in their own day, in their own lives? Can we see it?

The answer for Cleopas and Anna, and the answer for us and all Christians, must be yes: yes God still acts in our lives, yes we can see God’s resurrection power all around us, and yes the risen Christ in fact takes up residence in us – we become his instruments of hope and help in this world. 

I thank God I am seeing resurrection everywhere I look: in the late-blooming cherry trees in our yard; in the utter joy and delight of the Cabaret at Paddy’s Pub; in the loving care of this congregation when folks are experience illness, death of a loved one, or other crises; in the life of many small groups and the spiritual sharing and growth that is happening; in increased attendance and interest at Holy Week services this year; in the faithful, generous giving of our congregation for our own needs and for outreach; in the laughter and fun of Tricia Lyons, who enthralled us with her exploration of Harry Potter as a resurrection story par excellence.    

Dwelling on resurrection stories does not mean we ignore the bad stuff in life – the hurts and illness and poverty and war.  Resurrection in itself acknowledges that death has occurred…but declares a higher power – the power of Life, the power of God.  This is hard stuff to get, and to hold onto – that’s why we need all the gatherings, the reminders, the conversations, all the meals and celebrations we can muster.  Come and meet Jesus for yourself…in the breaking of the bread.  JBM



Stories of Resurrection- The Third Week of Easter

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“We die daily.  Happy those who daily come to life as well.”

George MacDonald


Some monks in olden days slept at night in coffin-like cots, in recognition that sleep is deathlike experience, and waking every morning is a little resurrection!

During the 50 days of Easter Season, we are focusing on resurrection stories – human experiences large and small which bring new life and light and hope into our lives, after we have suffered pain, loss, or disillusionment.  If we have eyes to see, we’ll realize that God’s fingerprints are on these experiences of renewal.  We’ll begin to see our stories in the light of Jesus’ story. 

In adult formation last Sunday, we began to explore this theme in the beloved movie – The Sound of Music.  Think about Maria, the nuns, the children, Captain Von Trapp, even Liesl’s young Nazi boyfriend.  Nearly everybody in that story experiences loss and renewal and transformation.  Most of the characters emerge as more fully human – more alive and able to love than they started.  That’s why it’s such a great story! 

So what is your resurrection story?  Have you experienced the death of a relationship, and then discovered new life on the other side?  Have you lost someone you love, and found the strength to enjoy life again?  Have you been badly hurt by someone, and found the grace to forgive?  Or are you in a place where Easter hasn’t arrived, and all you can do is wait and hope? 

At the men’s group, we shared our experiences of Holy Week and Easter: the descent into the depths of loss and emptiness, and the miraculous rebirth of life and hope that follows, by the grace of God.  Don Baker, who leads the group, asked us to ponder where in our lives we are in need of resurrection, of rising from the dead. 

Finding the language we need to tell these stories is a challenge, but when we do share them, we are all enriched and inspired in our Christian journeys.  We’ll have two guests sharing resurrection stories with us on Sundays – Patricia Lyons of St. Stephen and St. Agnes School in Alexandria, and retired rector of St. John’s Norwood, Susan Flanders.  I hope you’ll come and find new life yourself.  JBM


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