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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



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  



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



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



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



Trail Notes 8/23/2015

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King Solomon built the first great Hebrew temple in Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE, importing lavish materials of gold and cedar. The ark of the covenant – the holiest object in Hebrew religion – was then placed in the inner sanctum of the new temple. Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the new temple is what we hear in today’s reading from I Kings. 

While the temple completed King David’s vision for Jerusalem to become a unifying capital city for the Hebrew tribes, it also introduced new dangers for Hebrew religion. Ironically, what is erected for God’s glory easily becomes an end in itself.  Solomon actually conscripted forced labor from 30,000 Hebrews in order to build the great building – the first time Hebrews had been enslaved since Egypt. The tax burden to support construction, as well as Solomon’s extravagant court, was very heavy. While Solomon proudly hoped that this would be an eternal monument to God, many would say that the seeds of the temple’s subsequent fall (4 centuries later) were planted at the beginning. 

That’s all very interesting, but most of us do not identify with Solomon’s grandiose building projects. Enter Jesus with his simple, pithy teaching about the house built on the rock versus the house built on sand.  Jesus emphasizes the foundation – the basis – upon which we build any edifice, whether it’s a building, an organization, or our own spiritual health. If the foundation is not firm, the rest will crumble. If the church’s one foundation is not Jesus Christ himself, then all that we try to build will be for naught. 

St. Dunstan’s Church is not so much a fancy impressive temple as it is a school of love, a place of hospitality, a haven for children every day. Jesus was concerned about people – that hungry people should be fed, sick people should be cared for, that our spiritual foundations be firmly built on the rock. This fall, we’ll be feeding hungry folks in our city, teaching faith to our children, and serving our neighborhood. We’ll be exploring our faith through scripture and worship and song. We dedicate this place, and ourselves, to Christ’s service in the world, praying, as Solomon did, that God’s “eyes may be open night and day toward this house.”  JBM



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: 8/2/2015

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"This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom God has sent." John 6:29

What are you hungry for?

There are images that stay with you for a long time. My recent experience in Ecuador is a source of many images in my head these days. Many are images of those who are much poorer in resources than I have ever been. Fire jugglers earning their daily meal, a man asleep on a rock with empty bottles scattered around him, indigenous folks selling their creations, and the ever present street dogs searching for food in the garbage. Images of the family home we visited - the dirtiest kitchen I have ever seen, two rooms, an outside wash stand, Guinea pigs, chickens, kernels of corn, a couple much younger than they look, a pre-adolescent son - yet smiles of welcome and gratitude.

Each time I come back from Ecuador, or other places where I have witnessed places in need of the basics we take for granted; I wonder and have conversations in my mind about what I will do differently. How can and will I make a difference, will I be able to keep alive my desire to change one thing about myself that could provide for others, and in the big picture of the world how will what I do make an impact on anything?

Last week I spoke of gratitude. This week I challenge all of us to dig deeper.

I want a world where a child does not die every 3 seconds from hunger; where every child can go to school; where medications are made available for curable diseases; where clean water is the norm; and where … the list goes on and on.

Each of us can do something to make a difference. One of our small groups is looking at the big picture of economic justice, the imbalance of our structures, and how we might begin to address this through legislative action in our diocese. They have been hungry enough to meet and discern on this issue almost bi-weekly, even over the summer!

This year, I am hungry enough to sponsor a child for one year of education in Ecuador. It is only $384 per year, but it is one thing I can do, and it will make a difference for that child and their family. And hopefully I will sustain this for years to come.

Many in our church are making a difference in various ways - what is your story of changing the world? If you are hungry for something and don’t know how or where you can make a difference, let’s talk. Together we will find a place to begin dealing with that hunger.

Sue von Rautenkranz



Trail Notes: 7/26/2015

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‘The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,* and you give them their food in due season. You open wide your hand,* and satisfy the needs of every living creature’ Psalm 145:16-17

These words have long been in my memory since the first days I attended summer camp in the Diocese of Fond du Lac. Every meal at camp began with the call and response of these two verses - between the person offering the thanksgiving for our meal and the campers and staff. This was a tradition I had to learn my first year at camp, and thankfully my priest shared this tradition with me before I attended my first session. Much like how we learn many things in our tradition - I learned it by listening and repeating - not by reading it first.

This passage also fills my head with images of the last couple of weeks in Ecuador. Helping a family de-kernel dried corn for grinding, watching women prepare mounds of food for our team in a kitchen no bigger than St. Dunstan’s parish hall closet, and seeing beggars on the streets selling anything to get money for food.

Even in the worst times of my life, I have never truly been hungry or lacked in putting food on the table. My mother, a child of the depression, never had an empty pantry. And as one of her children - I not only learned to cook simple meals from staples - but also never have an empty pantry. I’m sure many of us can relate to full cupboards. Most in the U.S. live in a place of abundance when we compare ourselves to the rest of the world; where many live on just $1 a day. Yet, we seem to have an insatiable need for more, better, bigger, and who can be first.

How do we change this? I think it is by trying to live into a place of gratitude - not of what we have done - but by understanding that everything that we have - our livelihood, our abilities and our abundance - is a gift from God. If we truly believe that all we possess is God’s then we can be more generous in what we give away.

As those of old their first fruits brought of vineyard, flock, and field
to God, the giver of all good,  the source of bounteous yield;
so we today our first fruits bring, the wealth of this good land,
of farm and market, shop and home, of mind, and heart, and hand.
A world in need now summons us to labor, love, and give;
to make our life an offering to God that all may live;
the Church of Christ is calling us to make the dream come true:
a world redeemed by Christ-like love; all life in Christ made new.
With gratitude and humble trust we bring our best to thee
to serve thy cause and share thy love with all humanity.
O thou who gavest us thyself in Jesus Christ thy Son,
help us to give ourselves each day until life’s work is done.


The Hymnal 1982 #705
Words: Frank von Christierson ©1961 The Hymn Society of America
All rights reserved, reprinted under #A-712267

Sue von Rautenkranz



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