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Trail Notes: 12/17/2017

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Have you heard a voice in the wilderness? 

Have you ever been heading down a questionable path, and had a friend care enough to challenge you to rethink it, to turn back, to seek a better future? 

Maybe you were in a relationship that was seductive, but really unhealthy.  Maybe you were stuck in a job that was deadening, but you were afraid to change.  Maybe you were violating your own deep values in some way, and somebody called you to account. 

That person was your “John the Baptist” – the one who called you to turn, to repent, to redirect your life.  Like John, her words might have sounded harsh.  You might have wanted to turn away, not listen, continue as you were.  But something gave you pause.  There was truth in her words. 

We all need a “John the Baptist” sometimes, to challenge our ways when we get complacent, when we seek expediency more than doing the right thing.  But we also need something to turn toward…to draw us into a better, healthier, more honorable life.  John didn’t do that part.  Instead, he pointed toward the one who could: Jesus of Nazareth.  While John could be off-putting, Jesus was magnetic: he drew people with his love of life, the wisdom of his teaching, his gift of hope. 

We all have times when we are “in the wilderness” – not comfortable with the status quo, searching for something better, truer.  Maybe you are in the wilderness right now.  Listen for “John” who calls you to turn, to reevaluate your life.  Then look for Jesus to draw you to himself, to love and forgive you into a new life.  JBM 

 


 

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Trail Notes: 12/10/2017

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Five Talents Saves Lives

Our friends and longtime mission partners from Five Talents will be here at both services this Sunday, Dec. 10, and between services during our social time, to share their recent ministries.  St. Dunstan’s is currently supporting the project in South Sudan, a place where few aid organizations can even work due to instability there. 

Five Talents is the Anglican microfinance ministry – with a difference: FT doesn’t just make small loans and hope it will help poor people.  FT works through local Anglican churches.  It creates local communities called savings circles, give training in business practices, and walk with these brave entrepreneurs who start businesses to support their families.  Most FT group members are women, who use their money to buy food and medicine, and pay school fees for their children.  Each small loan (often under $100) lifts up many lives out of extreme poverty, saving lives, giving dignity and hope.    

What could be more fitting in this Advent season, when we pause to remember how God came to a poor family in Palestine, in order to bring hope to a world full of poor and scared people?  Our own needs may not be material, but we are spiritually thirsty for something to encourage us in a world that’s often pretty dark.  Some of us are despairing of the hatred and indifference we see in societies today.  We need the hope and light of Jesus just as much as a South Sudanese woman who is trying to keep her children safe and fed. 

God gives something to each of us – maybe five talents (a whole lot!), maybe just one talent (still considerable resources).  Each of us is responsible to use what we’ve been given for God’s glory.  How are you using the resources entrusted to you by God?  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 12/3/2017

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A New Year, a New Gospel, Apocalypse Now

On this New Year’s Day of the Church, we begin Advent, and our Gospels come from Mark.  But we don’t start at the beginning of Mark; instead we begin in chapter 13, with Mark’s description of the end times.  This counter-intuitive start comes from the church’s custom of connecting the two comings of Jesus – his incarnation in history, and his final coming in glory. 

This chapter is often called Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” because it paints a fantastic picture of the time when Jesus comes again in glory to wrap things up in the world.  It’s not meant to be taken literally.  It points to an experience beyond our ken: “The Son of Man coming in clouds… [sending] angels to gather his elect from the four winds….”  This is not everyday language; it’s suggestive of a dramatic culmination of the world as we know it. 

But Mark’s Gospel is not really focused on these “end times,” according to scholar John Dominic Crossan.  Mark insists that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and we must respond – now!  We must repent and believe in the Gospel (Mark1:14-15).  Further, Crossan asserts: “The Kingdom is at hand or near in the sense not of promise but of presence and that its power is made visible in the commonality of shared miracle [healings] and shared meal.” 

I’ve always had trouble with the idea of a dramatic (some would say violent) culmination of the world by God.  Jesus indicates in today’s passage that his own generation would see this happen (Mark 13:30), but they did not.  I don’t believe in a vengeful, punishing God who will reward a few elect, and condemn the rest (of us) to damnation. 

What I do believe is that we are invited – urged! – by Jesus to experience God’s presence now.  Jesus points to the fig tree sprouting leaves: sign of the fullness that the tree already embodies now.  God is present now, in every healing, every sign of growth, every reconciliation, every shared meal…especially the Eucharist. 

Mark’s Gospel is well-known for being in a hurry – the word “immediately” appears dozens of times.  But I don’t think that means he wants to rush us into the future.  Rather, I think he means us to focus on the now, “the fierce urgency of now,” has some have put it.  That’s really all we have.  And that’s where we’ll find and know God if we stay awake.  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 11/26/2017

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It’s the Sunday of Christ the King.  What kind of king is Jesus

Who needs a king these days?  The idea of monarchy has faded in the modern age, although a few remain – most notably that of the “United Kingdom.” Some still revel in the trappings of royalty: the wealth, jewels, palaces, intrigues, and love affairs. It does make good theatre.  But most of us prefer more democratic political structures. 

So what kind of king is Jesus?  What does our declaration “Christ is King!” mean to us? 

The recent spate of movie and TV productions about the British monarchy have fascinated many of us, starting with “The King’s Speech,” and continuing with Netflix’s “The Crown” and others.  Queen Elizabeth II has just celebrated 70 years of marriage.  These have given me a new appreciation for the hardships a monarch can bear. 

King George VI (of “The King’s Speech”) came to the role with great reluctance when his brother (Edward VIII) abdicated the throne after less than a year, in order to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, which was considered a scandal.  George VI, known to his family as “Bertie,” never wished to be king, but was forced into the role.  In a few years, Britain was embroiled in an existential struggle for survival in World War II.  King George VI struggled with a stutter – an all-too-evident weakness – masterfully portrayed by Colin Firth.  (I love Colin Firth!) 

I bring all this up because of the way George VI and his wife remained in solidarity with the hardships of the people of the UK and in particular London.  The monarchs stayed mostly in London through the Blitz, observed the rationing rules, and visited bombing sites.  A bomb at Buckingham Palace nearly killed them.  They forged a spiritual alliance with their embattled people.  They suffered with the people of Britain. 

George VI also presided over the dismemberment of the British Empire, allowing that behemoth to unravel with relative grace into a “commonwealth” of associated independent nations.  He relinquished the title “emperor.” 

All of this does not make George VI into a modern-day Jesus, or even a particularly saintly man.  But it helps us imagine a model of kingship as servant leadership – of one who sacrifices much, shares the burdens of his people, and seeks to strengthen them.  King George VI did not give his physical life for his people, but he gave his best to the unwelcome task of serving as king.  His brother, Prince George, was killed in the war in 1942. 

I’m not sure how helpful the image of “Christ the King” is to modern people; there is so much baggage associated with kingship and monarchy.  But perhaps we can get a glimpse of the kind of king Jesus was: one who gave his love and his life for his people – for us – to lead us into a better country, a place of peace.  JBM  

 

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Trail Notes: 11/19/2017

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“The Rich Young Man”

It’s time. 

It’s decision time…. pledges to support St. Dunstan’s in 2018 are due this Sunday.  Your Vestry leaders will then build a budget plan based on your giving.  This is never an easy process – there are always more needs than we have dollars.  But if every household makes a generous pledge our job will be much easier!  Thank you, in advance, for your support and commitment.    

Today’s Gospel is the well-known if not well-loved story of the rich young man.  He is much blessed.  He sees the world laid out before him, full of options, possibilities, and pleasures.  Yet Jesus fascinated him, attracted him….  God’s path of righteousness, of radical love, drew this young man in.  He wanted that for himself!

But what about all those other inviting paths for his life? We can imagine a lavish lifestyle of comfort, servants to meet his every need, an easy life in blissful solitude, undisturbed by the suffering of the world….

This story makes me uncomfortable because I see myself so clearly in this fortunate man.  He has so much.  But he feels a hunger for something more, something different than the satisfactions the material world can offer.  Yet it’s so hard to turn away from the cultural values of wealth and ease, sequestered from the hardships faced by most humans on the planet. 

Choices

For the rich young man, Jesus posed a stark choice – all or nothing.  But our lives are not like that.  We face innumerable everyday choices on how we shall live.  What do I buy?  What shall I invest money in?  Where shall I put my time and energy for the good of the world, the upbuilding of God’s Kingdom? 

Now is the time to make one of the important choices in your life.  Your pledge to St. Dunstan’s is an investment in love, justice, mercy, and community – in a world where all of those are desperately needed.  Your pledge is an outward and visible sign of your commitment to Christ’s love.  It is time to throw the weight of our lives to the side of love.  I ask you to do that this Sunday.  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 11/12/2017

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“All who take the sword will perish by the sword.”  

(Matthew 26:52)

I prefer to write these columns about our scriptures for the day.  But that doesn’t seem possible this week.  As we peacefully worshipped God at St. Dunstan’s last Sunday at 11 a.m., an armed man entered another church full of people trying to do the same thing, and slaughtered 26 people and injured many more. 

Christians rightly ask what we can do to prevent more of this carnage.  Each case is different, but there is a common thread of readily-available firearms meant only for the fast slaughter of human beings.  Politicians may try to deny that guns are the problem, but I insist they are part of the problem – a big part.  This is demonstrated by the fact that societies with fewer guns have far fewer such incidents. 

Jesus was really clear about violence being a dead-end (pun intended).  If we choose to live by violence, we can expect to die by violence too.  Jesus was in mortal danger when he told his disciples to put down their weapons (Matthew 25:50-56).  It was a moment when violence might have seen most justified – self-defense!  Yet Jesus refuses that path: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

I personally have never wanted to have or carry a firearm.  My father, who captained an artillery unit in World War II, wanted no part of guns in later life.  My friends who have guns to hunt have no desire to have rapid-fire assault weapons.  So why should they be so available?  Why do people want them? 

My best guess is that it is a desire to control others, to have power over other people, to feel powerful when the world can make us feel impotent.  Desiring that kind of power over others is a form of pride, I believe – the opposite of the humility taught and modeled by Jesus. 

Human civilization has developed with many protections of our individual rights – Americans have our Bill of Rights to prevent undue loss of personal freedoms, privacy, and safety.  We have consigned to the state the power, when warranted, to take property, deny liberty through incarceration, or take human life (through war or capital punishment…that’s another issue…).  The state is designed to provide due process before these rights are abrogated (although that process is certainly imperfect).  For one human being to arrogate the power physically to harm or kill another human being strikes me as prideful and alarming for all.

I realize how contentious the gun safety issue is in our country.  Our bishop has made it one of the main issues she speaks about.  It’s past time to join that conversation and look honestly at America’s strange relationship with guns.  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 10/29/2017

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The Elephant that’s not in the room. 

We’ve had very small congregations at church in recent weeks.  We need your presence in worship, to bring life and vitality to our services! 

There’s an old tale about an old village that saved up to build a beautiful new church in which to worship God. The architect designed a lovely edifice.  As it was being completed, the villagers noted there were no lamps over the pews in the church.  They asked the architect why not, and he said, “Let each individual and household bring a lamp to worship and hang it over their pew.  Then, when all are present, the church will be filled with light.  And where worshippers are absent, there will be a dark place to remind that they are missed.” 

Worship is like that – we need to gather together, to be present for God and for each other.  When persons and families are missing, they leave a hole in our community.  Please be present in church each Sunday, and bring your light.   JBM 

Reformation Sunday –

This Sunday marks 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the chapel door in Wittenburg, officially starting the Protestant Reformation of the Western Church.  Churches throughout the world will be recognizing this anniversary. 

Our Episcopal/Anglican tradition separated from papal authority along with the reform movements of continental Europe.  But we retained catholic practices such as the sacraments, the ancient liturgies, and the ministry orders of bishop, priest, and deacon.  The English Reformation became a rich well of scholarship, tradition, and missionary zeal, which has now spread around the world as the Anglican Communion.  Today, most Anglicans are people of color, with a huge portion residing in Africa.  The churches in the UK and the US are shrinking by comparison.  We’ll discuss the legacy of the Reformation in our sermon this Sunday.  JBM.  


 

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Trail Notes: 10/15/2017

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The Possibilities of Spring

We come this Sunday to our third season in Creation Time: Spring.  After the cold, dark, and fallowness of wintertime, Spring is always welcome – a sense of possibility, newness, growth, and surprise come with this season. 

In the Gospel today (Matthew 22:1-10) Jesus tells the story of a king who gives a wedding banquet for his son – certainly one of the most significant parties one ever throws, tied up with the hopes and dreams we have for our children.  He sends advance invitations (the first-century equivalent of “save-the-date” cards), and the guests reply.  Then when the moment comes, he sends messengers to bring in the guests who had promised to come.  Then all hell breaks loose.

The guests give excuses for not coming – new property purchases, recent marriage, new livestock to tend.  The king is not amused.  (Here the story lapses into hyperbole about murder and mayhem among the guests and the king’s servants.  This seems to be a reference to the historical misfortune of prophets (messengers or slaves), and the destruction of Jerusalem 40 years after Jesus told this parable.  Thus, these violent outbursts are probably not original to Jesus’ parable, but added later.) 

What I take from this story is about God’s invitation to us to step away from our day-to-day lives and consider something new.  There’s a banquet laid for us in life, but we have to be willing to step out, explore what’s new, and perhaps change our course in life from time to time.  Aunty Mame of Broadway fame once said, “Life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!”  That’s what can happen when we don’t accept God’s invitation to try new things, explore new possibilities, new callings, new ministries.  What better way to honor Spring?  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 10/08/2017

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Winter Work

I wonder, is it possible for 21st century Bethesda folks to stop working/driving/doing/responding/tending and just be still for a while? 

Winter is a time in nature where things slow way down. Bears just find a nice spot to curl up and hibernate.  Rivers and streams freeze.  Even the sun gets lazy and comes up late, and goes to bed early.  Plants shut down and go dormant as the weather grows cold.  Only humans continue their fevered pace of life. 

In my mostly-rural home state of Nebraska, the seasons dictated the rhythm of the agricultural year: Spring and Fall were busy with planting and harvesting; provisions were piled up for the Winter.  Cold weather and snows kept folks mostly indoors, with more time for rest, conversation, and quiet pastimes. 

Scripture tells us that God ordained a Sabbath year not just for humans, but for the land – every seventh year the land should be allowed to lie fallow and rest.  John’s Gospel goes on to say that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Somehow, it seems, rest and quietness contribute to a full life as much as motion and busy-ness. 

So what about Sabbath time for humans?  What might happen if we let ourselves go fallow for a season?  If we let the grain fall into the earth and die?  If we let Winter do its work on us - if we walk slowly through the snowy woods, dark and deep, to hear what God might say to us in the stillness?  Only you can find out.  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 10/01/2017

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An Honest Yes

Jesus gives us a parable this Sunday with a pretty simple meaning: Do what you say you’ll do – let your words and your deeds be one.  I’ve always said that, according to the Gospels, Jesus detested two human failings most of all:  greed and hypocrisy.  Concerning greed, a lack of generosity and sense of justice caused terrible poverty and untold misery among Jesus’ neighbors.  Jesus’ ethic of love simply does not permit us to hoard our wealth when others go hungry.  What’s more, we find our own lives enriched and expanded when we learn to live simply and give boldly in life. 

Hypocrisy was rampant around Jesus, as religious leaders often said one thing but did another.  Actions speak louder than words, Jesus says, loud and clear. 

As we contemplate God’s creation, we must confront our own hypocrisy.  Do we claim we want to protect the environment, but then live wastefully?  Do we go the extra mile to recycle as much as we can?  Do we drive inefficient, gas-guzzling vehicles?  Do we support public policies that honor the sacredness of the earth, the waters, and the skies?  As all signs point to humanity changing the very climate of the earth – warming seas, rising sea levels, huger and wilder storms -  are we willing to say so, and take action to mitigate this change for the good of all humanity and the whole earth? 

Americans have always been huge consumers of resources, compared to the rest of the world.  We are also huge polluters.  We can do better.  Jesus calls us to live more simply, so that others may simply live.  JBM  

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