Entries by Jeff MacKnight

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Trail Notes: 03/11/2018

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“We detest this miserable food!”

Complaining about the food is a time-honored pastime – whether it’s the school cafeteria, the mess tent, or the company lunchroom.  Food is something almost all of us care about – it’s basic to our happiness.  When we don’t like, it, we say so. 

Sometime during the Hebrews’ 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, we have this story from Numbers chapter 21 about the people moaning and complaining against God and Moses about the poor food.  God apparently gets fed up with them, and sends poisonous snakes which bite the Israelites so that many died.  This seems a bit extreme, although it’s true that the Hebrews had been complaining about the food for a good 10 chapters.  When the people realized what God had done, they admitted their sin and asked Moses to intercede for them.  God, strangely, tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole. When those who were bitten by the snakes look at the bronze serpent, they are allowed to live. 

John’s Gospel, again strangely, compares this bronze serpent to Jesus lifted up on the cross, who also brings life to those who believe in him.  This comparison doesn’t work very well for me.  I get stuck on the fact that God sent the venomous snakes to kill in the first place.  What do you think? 

We don’t hear from the Book of Numbers that often on Sundays.  It is one of the first five books of the Bible, known as the Books of Moses or the Pentateuch.  Its name comes from the many lists and enumerations that fill the book, starting with a census of all the people and tribes of Israel.  Numbers tells much of the same history of the time in the wilderness that we also hear about in Exodus.  Numbers does give us a number colorful vignettes: Balaam’s talking donkey, the manna and the quails, the spies sent into Canaan, a man executed for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and of course today’s bronze serpent. 

Numbers also gives us this beautiful benediction which is still often used, known as the Aaronic Blessing: 

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”                                         

                                                                                                                                    JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 03/04/2018

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An Angry Jesus?

Today we encounter Jesus turning over tables and driving animals out of the Temple courtyard with a whip of cords!  This story has always stood out against the “meek and mild” picture of Jesus many of us grew up with – a Jesus usually pictured with pale, delicate features and blue eyes.  But the Jesus in this story is strong, vital, and athletic…and no doubt dark-skinned and swarthy. 

While the other gospels use this story near the end of Jesus’ life, just after Palm Sunday, John’s Gospel begins with it: it appears in chapter 2.  Maybe John wants us to know from the outset that Jesus can get angry when he encounters behavior that he believes runs counter to God’s will.  He is even disruptive. 

To me, Jesus’ anger is a reflection of God’s own indignation when we contravene God’s commandments – when we treat each other badly, make war, despoil the creation, and disrespect the God who made us.  Anger is the very natural reaction to events and behaviors that we abhor – how else would we react? 

The big question, however, is how do we respond in our anger?  We teach our children to own their angry feelings, but still control their responses. Spiteful words and destructive behaviors are not okay, even though we are angry.  Yet Jesus does overturn the furniture and wreak havoc with the livestock in the Temple courtyard.  Are there times when such acting out is warranted? 

We need our righteous indignation to fight some crucial battles in our society right now.  One such battle is over guns: who should have the privilege of keeping a gun?  What kinds of guns are reasonable for citizens to own?  How do we keep guns out of the hands of irresponsible persons?  The March for Our Lives is gathering on March 24, 2018 in Washington to demand a response.  St. Dunstan’s will be hosting folks from out of town that weekend.  Palm Sunday weekend will be full of meaning this year.  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 02/25/2018

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“I would take a bullet for the kids.”

That’s what one of the Parkland, Florida teachers said to his wife after the shooting there.  We can all applaud his willingness to sacrifice for the sake of other. 

But I wonder how his wife felt hearing that.  If that were to transpire, she would face not only the loss of her life partner, but the father of her children.  Untold suffering would come with his selfless decision. 

Of course, without the evil of shooters such an act would not be needed.  But in our present climate where there is no political will to do anything to arrest this madness, this is the world we live in. 

This sad state of affairs helps me understand Jesus and his decision to “take a bullet for the world.”  Without human evil, it would never have happened, never have been needed.  But there was human evil aplenty in the first century, as in our twenty-first. 

Our Lenten theme is “Meeting God in the wilderness.”  Today we focus on “Meeting God in suffering” – a place I do not like to visit!  And yet suffering can be necessary.  Suffering can lead to a greater good.  Suffering can be sacrificial. 

 

If I were a school teacher, I have to wonder…if “I would take a bullet for the kids.”  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 02/182018

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“Seasonal Affective Disorder”

It’s Lent again – how does that make you feel? 

I have a hunch that many of us don’t look forward to Lent.  I, for one, like the jovial spirit of Mardi Gras with its pancake suppers, dancing in the streets, and colorful beads.  As winter wears on (and on), we need a pick-me-up.  Lent doesn’t seem to be it. 

I also believe that we all have plenty to feel bad about these days without heaping more onto the pile.  We’re well aware of our own failings, the struggles in our personal lives, and the huge troubles and dangers in the world today.  Political systems aren’t working well in the U.S. or many other nations.  Nuclear war is back on the front page.  Violence, disease, and famine rage.  Do we need a church season to make us feel S.A.D.? 

No, we do not.  Fortunately, Lent has received a theological and spiritual makeover in many quarters.  It doesn’t need to be maudlin, with an air of self-flagellation.  Instead, we can use Lent to acknowledge the tensions and struggles in life and bring God’s life-giving message to assuage them.  We can, in fact, Meet God in the Wilderness. 

One way to counteract the world’s heaviness is to reinvigorate a relationship that brings you joy and comfort.  If you are like me, you have wonderful friends whom you just don’t keep up with.  They may live far away, but these days that’s not a big impediment.  Reach out and contact that person, and see if the spark of delight is still there in that relationship.  If so, you have a companion in the wilderness, someone to walk with you.  Maybe that person can be Christ to you.  Maybe you can be Christ to that person. 

Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, with a booming affirmation from God.  Then he was driven into the wilderness.  Life’s highs are fleeting; the wilderness times are less so.  Jesus took with him, into the wilderness, his relationship with God.  He borrowed strength from God and his loved ones.  And he survived.  We might say, he got by with a little help from his friends.

Lent doesn’t have to bring with it “Seasonal Affective Disorder.”  It can be a season of claiming our joy, and treasuring those who walk with us, even with wilderness all around us.  JBM  

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Trail Notes 02/11/2018

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Our Jewish Lord Jesus

How easily the Christian world forget just who Jesus was!  How many paintings of a blue-eyed, fair skinned Jesus have you seen?  How can Christians continue to denigrate the Jewish people, when Jews was a devoted, practicing Jew his whole life? 

I’ve been reading a lot about Jesus in his historical and cultural context lately.  This may not sound riveting to you, but I continue to be fascinated by this man who changed the world from during his short earthly life in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire.  No matter what one believes about Jesus, there is no question he has changed the course of human events, and still propels humanity with his simple challenge to love our neighbors. 

Today’s story called “The Transfiguration” comes every year just before we enter Lent.  In it, a few disciples see Jesus on a mountaintop glowing a dazzling white.  He is conversing with Moses and Elijah, two leading lights of Jewish tradition.  The message is clear: Jesus is a continuation of God’s revelation to the Jewish people through Moses, Elijah, and many other prophets and leaders.  Christians follow the same God as the Jews.  Jesus did not supersede or dismiss the Jews’ relationship with God – how could he, since he was himself a faithful Jew? 

As we enter the season of Lent again this year, our parish theme is “Meeting God in the Wilderness.”  We wander with Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in our various wildernesses.  Let us trust that God will meet us there – on a mountaintop, or in a deep valley, or on a dusty road.  JBM  


 

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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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