Entries by Jeff MacKnight

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Trail Notes: 09/24/2017

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Why is it so hard to forgive? 

A colleague sabotages your project at work.  A friend breaks a confidence and embarrasses you.  Your father berated you mercilessly as a child.  Your spouse has been cheating on you for the last six months with a mutual friend.  Your child squanders her opportunities and resorts to drugs and risky behaviors.  You cannot accept your own failures to accomplish your most cherished goal. 

Once again, Peter asks a question on all our minds:  How much do I have to forgive my neighbor?  And myself?  Multiple times?  And Jesus responds with his usual radicality:  Not multiple times; unlimited times.

Both our Christian tradition, and now popular psychology, tell us that we must forgive to free ourselves – of bitterness, corrosive anger, and captivity to the past.  I believe that; perhaps most of us do.  But we still find it so difficult to let go of past offenses, whether others who have hurt us, or our own failures and lapses that gnaw at our sense of self.  To let go feels like losing part of ourselves, a loss of dignity.    

Forgiveness is a virtue that must be practiced intentionally.  The forgiveness muscle is one that must be exercised, built up, if it is to meet the challenges of our imperfect lives.  At root, forgiveness is an act of the will, not just an emotion that we cannot control.  Jesus is calling us to do regular workouts with our forgiveness muscle, so that it grows strong and steady.  This does not mean we do nothing to change abusive relationships.  It means that we make our life choices free of the corrosive power of vengeance.  JBM


 

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Trail Notes:9/17/2017

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(How) Does God Answer Prayer? 

Today’s Gospel invites a frank discussion of prayer, and what we expect from our prayers.  “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven,” Jesus says in Matthew 18. 

What do we really thing happens when we pray?  What is our part?  What is God’s part?  I’m sure many thousands have asked these questions as they’ve endured the hurricanes and earthquakes recently.  How may prayed to be spared damage and death, and were not spared?  How many believed their prayers were “answered”?  Is Jesus really saying that, when my wife and I agree to pray for a new car, God will have to provide it?  What about when we pray for the cure and healing of a sick child? 

Prayer seems simple when we teach children:  “God bless mummy and daddy and sister and even crotchety old Aunt Matilda….”  But prayer is not simple.  We’ll try to talk honestly about it in Sunday’s sermon.  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 09/10/2017

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“All who labor and are heavy-laden….”

I hope we all enjoyed a good Labor Day.  Those of us fortunate to have salaried jobs generally get the day off – always welcome.  But more and more folks in our economy are hourly workers, or occasional (‘gig’) workers, without benefits such as paid holidays.  They are not so fortunate to be able to relax for a day. 

Jesus was always very concerned about the basic human struggles people faced.  He came from peasant stock, and he knew the struggle of putting food on the table.  He spoke more about poor people, and the right use of money, than anything else except the Kingdom of God itself.  In Jesus’ day, laborers were getting squeezed: their land was being foreclosed upon by loan sharks, and the tax burden from Rome was crippling. 

This Sunday we’ll think about Jesus’ parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.  This story confounds many folks, because the owner pays all the laborers the same daily wage, even though they worked very different hours.  Is this fair?  Why would Jesus condone this?  I think it was because Jesus’ first concern was “food on the table” – if those workers didn’t get paid that day, their families probably didn’t eat that night. 

On Monday night, St. Dunstan’s follows up on this issue with our community forum on the question before the Montgomery County Council: “Should we have a $15 minimum wage?”  Councilmembers Roger Berliner (District 1) and Marc Elrich (at-large) will debate the issue here at 7 p.m. Monday.  Please come and bring your neighbors. 

Of course Jesus doesn’t tell us what the minimum wage should be in 2017.  But Jesus did want everybody to have enough of God’s gifts to live a decent life with dignity.  In today’s economy, many people work long hours and still don’t have enough to live.  The is particularly acute in high-cost areas such as ours.  Economic justice, like charity, should begin at home.  JBM  


 

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Trial Notes:09-03/2017

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SBNR

Are you an “SBNR” ?  I recently read a book about folks who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.”  As fewer people profess an affiliation with a particular worshipping community, this category is growing in surveys. Some say that’s because the church has disappointed them in some way.  But what does it mean – what does it look like – to be an SBNR?  How are these folks living out their spirituality? 

Today’s scripture gives us a clue.  In Exodus, we read the wonderful story of Moses, who was shepherding sheep near Mt. Horeb – the “mountain of God.”  There, he had a “spiritual experience.”  An angel appeared in a flame out of a bush, but the bush never burned up.  Moses was intrigued! 

When Moses stopped to look, God spoke to him by name:  “Moses! Moses! … Come no closer!  Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 

Moses encountered God – a being or power infinitely greater than he was. It would change his perspective, and the course of his life – forever. I think that’s what SBNRs, and also we religious folk, are longing for.  We may look for it in different places, but it is the same longing for connection, for meaning, for transcendence.  I prefer to seek that encounter with God (or whatever one calls God) through a community with a tradition from which to learn.  Others believe that just nature, or friends, or family, or art are sufficient for discovering God and experiencing that uplift and larger perspective.  What do you think?  Where do you experience the divine?  Are you an SBNR, or a person who longs to make the journey with a community of like-minded friends and neighbors?  JBM  

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Trail Notes 08/20/2017

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Welcoming Strangers

“Jesus sought me when a stranger wandering from the fold of God…” (Hymn 686)

Welcoming strangers (and making them friends) is at the heart of our Christian life.  It is also a measure of our Christian community.  How well do we welcome and include new persons, especially when they are not just like us?  The events of Charlottesville remind us how important this is…and what the world looks like when we have not learned this lesson.  The ugliness there shows us how far we have to go. 

In today’s scriptures, Joseph finally reveals his true identity to his brothers who have fled a famine, and invites them to take refuge in Egypt, where there is food.  He and his brothers find forgiveness and a new sense of family. 

The Gospel story is a tough one!  Jesus at first rejects the Canaanite woman who comes humbly seeking healing for her daughter.  We are startled by his harsh, racist words – calling the woman a dog.  This kind of tribalism was the norm in Jesus’ world.  Fortunately, we see Jesus break out of it, and see the woman as a human being – in fact, a woman of great faith.   

One of the differences between Christianity and our mother faith of Judaism is that Christian identity is not tied to ethnic or national identity, nor to a particular place or land.  This has allowed our faith in Christ to spread throughout the world, and adapt to many cultures.  But human nature seems to love our tribes – identifying ourselves with a group that is distinct from others.  Wanting to belong is not a bad thing, but much evil has sprung from the need to set ourselves apart and denigrate other groups.  This is the evil of white supremacism.

Christians must guard against denigrating or disrespecting any other communities, and repent of our participation in hateful world views.  When I heard a Charlottesville white supremacist lament, “They are pulling up southern culture, white culture, Christian culture by the roots…,” I realized how dangerous this thinking is.  As we follow the Way of Christ, we must never let that Way be co-opted by those who seek to use Christianity as a weapon against others.  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 08/27/2017

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The Path to Enslavement

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph….”

Time has passed since the amazing story of Joseph rising to power in Egypt, and then welcoming his father Jacob and all his brothers to come and settle there.  They have prospered, Jacob has died, and finally Joseph dies (at the age of 110!).   The Israelite family was prolific and multiplied, so that Egypt was full of them. 

That’s when a new king, or pharaoh, arose over Egypt, who did not know (remember) Joseph.  And that meant trouble.  When we forget our history, we easily lapse into bad habits, fear, and even hatred.  When the new pharaoh forgot what Joseph had done for Egypt, his fear of the growing Hebrew population took over.  That led to the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt. 

Among our cardinal precepts as Christians is the simple commandment that we love one another – that we see each other has human beings, that we know each other as persons and not objects, that we respect each other’s dignity and right to coexist.  When we begin to forget – when we cease to “know” each other, we are in grave danger of falling into the abyss of fear and hatred.  This is what we have seen in recent white supremacist actions.  This is the path to oppression and enslavement of our fellow human beings – whether it be Egyptians enslaving Hebrews, Americans enslaving African Americans, or Nazis enslaving Jews and other “lesser” races.  Nothing could be further from the teaching of Jesus.  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 08/13/2017

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“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”

I cannot read the story of Joseph and his brothers without thinking of the charming musical play by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.  Sibling rivalry is on full display – extending to cruelty and near murder!  Again, “biblical family values” are taking a beating here. 

Anybody who’s ever had a brother or sister knows that both the best and the worst aspects of relationships: fierce love and loyalty alongside jealousy, anger, and sometimes viciousness.  Families bring out the best and the worst in us.  Joseph, the youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons (until Benjamin was born), was his daddy’s favorite (problem #1). He was also born of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel. Joseph was also a bit conceited, bragging about his dreams (problem #2).  Joseph’s older brothers let their emotions cloud their judgment (problem #3).  Everybody gets some blame here.  Joseph nearly gets killed by his brothers (a throwback to the First Fratricide of Cain and Abel), but they relent and merely sell him into slavery in Egypt.  They all could use a good family therapist. 

We can identify with these folks and their family drama.  Sibling rivalry is not dead!  But what’s significant about this story is how it moves the grand narrative forward: God uses Joseph’s brothers’ jealousy and cruelty to move Joseph into position to rescue the family from famine.  Even more importantly, this shift of Joseph and his family to Egypt lays the groundwork for the later story of Hebrew slavery and redemption in the time of Moses – 500 years later!  This narrative shows us how God uses human failings in Jacob’s family to set the stage for “the greatest story ever told”: that of the Exodus.  The lesson here:  Out of evil God can bring good.  Out of death God can bring life.  Out of hatred God can renew love.    JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 08/06/2017

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Mysteries of the Nighttime

Jacob was having a bad day.  A very, very bad day.  His brother Esau was spitting mad, and coming after Jacob with 400 men! 

Jacob tried to protect his family (two wives, two maids, eleven children) by sending them across the river Jabbok.  Then he spent the night and waited to see what would happen. 

Sometimes strange things happen at night.  Jacob was sleeping rough, and he would encounter a strange man – an angel from God – who wrestled with him all night until daybreak!  That’s a lot of wrestling. 

I have had a few nights like that – wrestling with a decision, a terrible event; wrestling with myself, and with God.  Maybe you have, too.  Strange things can happen in the nighttime.  Our true, vulnerable selves seem very exposed: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Dreams can be disturbing.  We may feel very alone, scared, even terrified.  We may feel exhausted, unable to take another step forward. 

But these night journeys are thin places – places where the boundary between ourselves and God are very thin and porous.  Strange, sometimes wonderful encounters can occur.  That’s what happened with Jacob – he ended up marked forever with a limp…and also with a blessing. 

How might God be present – and speaking – with you during the dark hours of the night?  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 07/30/2017

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All in the Family

This Sunday in Genesis 29 we read a strange story of Jacob and his Uncle Laban, his mother Rebecca’s brother.  If you think your own family is strange, the biblical family is probably stranger!  Abraham and his descendants do not display “biblical family values,” whatever those are – there is manipulation, deception, misuse of women, not to mention multiple wives and concubines. 

Here, Rebecca does not want her favored son Jacob to marry a Canaanite woman (not our kind of people), so she encourages him to travel to her brother Laban. (Rebecca was rather controlling.)  There he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Rachel, younger daughter of Laban (marriage to first cousins was common then).  Jacob agrees to work 7 years for Laban in exchange for Rachel’s hand.  (Modern men might balk at that!)

After 7 years, Jacob asks for his wife as agreed, and a wedding is held.  But Laban slips his elder daughter Leah into the marriage tent instead of Rachel, and Jacob doesn’t notice!  (Here, both deception and drunkenness seem to be at work.)  So Jacob is tricked into “marrying” Leah – and ends up working another 7 years before he gets Rachel too.   

What do we make of all this?  Well, God’s leaders in Israel were certainly flawed and imperfect people; sin and dishonesty were at work throughout the patriarchs’ lives.  God even seems to use the deviousness of dishonesty to further the patriarchal family.  God also makes a pattern of raising the younger offspring over the firstborn to establish the dynasty. 

In our own families, we run into controlling behaviors, manipulation, deception  and infidelity with some regularity.  I often wonder why we can’t be more honest with family members?  If we were more open and honest, we could talk to our older kin about death and dying.  We could talk with our children about our own mistakes in life, and our hopes for them.  We could be more open with spouses and partners about our own hopes for our relationship, our dreams for the future, and our disappointments.  Those are the kind of “family values” that could make life better and richer for us.  JBM 


 

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Trail Notes: 7/23/2017

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Who controls access to God? 

I’m not crazy about ladders – they remind me of gutters full of wet leaves, and of stupid things I did painting houses when I was growing up.  Jacob’s famous vision of a ladder is just that: a vision, a symbolic image to aid our understanding.  It stretches from earth to heaven, with the angels traveling up and down it (I wonder how they avoided tripping on their long angel-gowns….).  It seems to point to a channel of access between the human and the divine, between ourselves and God.  Jacob and his posterity receive a grand blessing from God, based on this relationship. 

This symbolic vision points to the question of human access to God: how do we connect with God?  Is it an open line of communication, or must we use certain channels, go through certain intermediaries?  The Church historically has a mixed message on this.  The early Church inherited the Jewish understanding of sacrifice as the way to reach God, and in fact influence God to pardon sins, grant blessings, and generally stay happy with us.  The Jerusalem Temple had a monopoly on the sacrificial system, and so in Jesus’ day the Temple leaders had huge power to distribute God’s grace.   

The early Church sought to understand and interpret the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and soon it was interpreted as sacrifice also, “to take away the sin of the world.”  The Eucharist or Mass which re-presents that offering of Christ’s Body and Blood, became a means of grace providing forgiveness and renewal.  The priesthood controlled this sacrament, as well as the sacrament of Confession for forgiveness.  So, once again, religious leaders tried to monopolize access to God’s grace. 

But is sacrifice our only channel to God?  No.  We also understand prayer as a means of connection.  But can we pray directly to God, or do we need an intermediary?  Again, the Church’s history is mixed.  Jesus the God-Man became a logical connection between human and divine.  Thus we often pray, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  But in the Roman Catholic tradition, the veneration of St. Mary cast her in the role of intercessor for us, with her son Jesus. (Worse, the Church offered to sell “indulgences” to reduce people’s time in purgatory after death!) This was hotly contested during the Protestant Reformation, which insisted that no “middleman” was needed to receive God’s grace.  Our Anglican Eucharistic prayer made this clear with its language that Jesus is “our only mediator and advocate.”

Today the Church faces a challenge:  how to help people find access, connection, and relationship with God, without trying to control it through the priesthood, the sacraments, or other church-controlled means.  God is bigger than any of us, and surely God’s grace and love is freely offered in all kinds of ways.  JBM


 

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