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Trail Notes: 07/16/2017

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How does your garden grow?

I’ve been trying to get some grass to grow to fill in the (large) gaps in our lawn.  This is caused by a) dogs trampling, b) too much hot sun, c) too much deep shade, or d) I have no idea. 

I don’t think Jesus had a suburban yard to worry about, but he did know something about planting seed and wondering if it would take root and grow.  And he knew our relationship with God is a bit like that: sometimes a struggle, sometimes a lovely emergence of green grass – or better yet, something useful like wheat – something that can feed us and our neighbors. 

The story of the sower who scatters seed -  some on the path, some on the rocks, some in the thorns, and some in good earth -  connects our spiritual lives with the common, earthy realities of living and eating.  Notice what a chancy operation this is – much of the seed bears nothing – but some of it bears a great deal – a hundredfold!  It all seems very inefficient – a cardinal sin in today’s economy.  But that’s how Jesus describes it. 

This parable of Jesus is one of a few where the Gospel writer provides an “interpretation” – an explanation which treats the parable as an allegory.  It’s quite doubtful that Jesus provided this (who explains his own jokes?).  But in this case, it’s worth a look.  The seed of the parable is the “word of the kingdom” of God.  It’s the Gospel, the Good News, we need to hear.  Many things can get in the way of this “word” taking root in us: the evil one can snatch it away, or we can lack sufficient “root” to nourish it when things get tough.  The “thorns” represent the cares of the world and the lure of wealth: they choke the word.  But when the seed lands in good soil, wonderful things happen. 

I don’t know about you, but this sounds a lot like my spiritual life!  So many things get in the way of my being open and receptive to God.  But now and then, a ray of light shines through and I know I am loved, blessed, and energized for life.  It’s the most inefficient process…but that’s the way it is.  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 7/9/2017

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United to one another with pure affection

This phrase from our collect for this Sunday has an interesting resonance in this week following the celebration of our country’s Independence Day. I watched as my Facebook feed was inundated with the colors of red, white and blue; pictures of food, picnics and barbeques; and marching bands, parades and fireworks. But not all was celebration.

There were also articles and posts that came from those who feel excluded and not a part of the celebration of liberty and freedom. My native friends struggle with the celebration for obvious reason. How does one celebrate the declaration of independence that lead to the deprivation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for one’s way of life? The Washington Post carried a story this week of a girl’s robotics team from Afghanistan who were denied entry into the U.S. for a world competition. Ironic? I watched a video presentation from young black men and women who feel their lives threatened and unable to celebrate the freedoms I celebrated.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t partake or find enjoyment in these moments. I have a deep desire to wave the flag and I love a good parade. And seriously, I’m always up for a amazing display of fireworks. But we also have serious work to do. Serious responsibilities to engage in the life and work of our nation and labor to accomplish the beliefs and truths within that declaration for all, and especially those who were not included in that declaration.

And as Christians the work is greater and deeper. Our discipleship calls us to something greater than our civic duties or patriotic celebrations. Our faith invites us to strive for justice and peace for all, by loving our neighbor.

My experience has been that when I engage in the work of loving my neighbor and striving for justice alongside them, I feel the weight of this burden is lightened. We are all invited to take on the yoke of Christ, and promised that when we do, we will find rest.

For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew11:30


 

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Trail Notes: 07/02/2017

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Quid pro quo?

The near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham in today’s Genesis passage raises the whole issue of sacrifice, which is as old as the religious quest to relate to God, or the gods.  The impulse to offer something to deities, in hopes of receiving something – bountiful harvests, success in war, pardon for wrongdoing – is as old as humanity itself. 

The Hebrews advanced religion dramatically from other ancient models: first by asserting one God instead of many.  The second advancement concerns human sacrifice – typically the offering of a first-born son as God’s due.  This entailed human sacrifice, as Abraham was about to do, to our horror.  But in the story God stops the sacrifice, and God substitutes a ram for Abraham’s son.  Furthermore, God provides the ram as a sacrifice – a new and strange twist. 

So, in Hebrew religion we see no more human sacrifice – thank God.  But the sacrifices of animals and foodstuffs would continue as long as there was a temple in Jerusalem in which to offer them.  This ended completely in 70 C.E. when the second temple was destroyed by the Romans – a few decades after the life of Jesus. 

Sacrifice enters Christian theology as the early church tried to figure out and describe what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant.  Many saw Jesus as sacrificing his life on the cross – and clearly he did accept that punishment for rocking the uneasy boat of Roman-Temple cooperation to keep the Jews peaceful. 

But if Jesus’ life and death were a sacrifice, then to whom were they offered, what benefit (quid pro quo) was derived, and who received the benefit?   

To answer these questions, a whole array of Atonement Theories have arisen during the history of the church, and (wisely) the church universal has never specified just one as the correct understanding.  One such theory as risen to the fore in the Western church, and was recently voted by the Southern Baptist Convention USA to be the only way to understand Jesus’ work on the cross in that denomination:  “penal substitutionary atonement.”  In short, this theory asserts that only human beings can repay the debt to God’s justice that  was/is incurred by our willful disobedience to God (sin).  To save us from the rightful penalty for sin (death), God sent Jesus to die in place of all humanity.  This satisfies God’s justice (or wrath). 

This no doubt sounds familiar from hymn texts, some Scriptures, and parts of our liturgy.  But is it the only way to understand Jesus’ death on the cross?  Is it the best way?  I don’t believe so. 

I object to this theory on a couple of counts.  First, it is transactionary: it involves a quid pro quo.  But Christian faith teaches us to live a life based on love and grace, not buying and selling.  Why, if love and forgiveness are paramount in Christian life, can God not simply and freely forgive humanity for our sins?  Why exact a terrible price, to be paid by an innocent bystander (Jesus)?  Why would God use violence to solve the problem of sin? 

Historically, many parts of the church have never assented to this theory.  The Franciscans, for instance, see Jesus’ death as a sign of his suffering with all humanity, especially poor and oppressed people.  Jesus’ love for us means he is willing to be vulnerable as we are, to walk with us even through death itself. 

JBM

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Trail Notes: 6/18/2017

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“Let us go forth…”

When I was in seminary, we used to talk about the gathered church and the scattered church.  The gathered church – everybody together in a church building doing “churchy” things – is much easier to visualize and understand.  We know what that looks like; we know how to do it. 

The scattered church, on the other hand, is harder to grasp.  This is the people of God going forth into the world – into daily life – and living out our Christian values at work, at school, in the neighborhood.  It’s every kind word and deed of mercy we offer; every contribution of money; every ethical decision we make; every time we speak out against injustice and prejudice when we see it.  Many would say that the scattered church is the most important aspect of our Christian lives. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is training his disciples to become the scattered church.  I’m sure they were much more comfortable just hanging out with Jesus, listening to his wise words and watching him teach and heal people.  But Jesus pushed them out of the nest to go do ministry themselves.  He sent them without any money or other supports, so they would have to relate to the people they met.  Imagine going on a trip without a credit card in your pocket! 

When they came home from their “mission experience,” they were pretty excited about what had happened – they taught and healed in Jesus’ name, and many people welcomed their message!  Some even wanted to become part of the Jesus Movement – part of the gathered church.

This is the challenge for us who live after Pentecost: to go forth into the world in the power of the Spirit, to speak and act in the name of Jesus, to be the scattered church in a world that desperately needs God’s voice of love and justice.  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 6/11/2017

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Queen Esther has a secret.  She is beautiful.  She becomes the favorite queen of the Persian King Ahasuerus. But Esther is a Jew.  When the King is tricked into signing an edict to destroy the Jews, Esther faces a decision: to “come out” and plead for her people, or to stay silent and hide her true identity.  

This is a decision that has faced LGBT people and others: hide their true selves to get along, or boldly declare themselves in solidarity with others who face hardship and discrimination.  Esther offers her own face as the face of the Jews, and saves them all. 

Today we celebrate Pride Sunday as well as Trinity Sunday.  The Trinity points to the mystery of God’s diversity within God’s oneness.  Pride Sunday reminds us of the human diversity God created and loves.  Both occasions call us to hold fast to our unity as God’s people, even as we are infinite in our variety.  It’s not always easy, but it’s the right thing to do. 

Scripture tells us that God is love – love itself!  Love holds us together in an infinite web of relationships.  Love must conquer division.  When we face moral questions, we must follow the love.  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 06/04/2017

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Power Switch

Pentecost is the day God showers the Holy Spirit on the Church.  What does that mean to us?  The scriptures tell us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you….”  That means God’s Holy Spirit is about power.  It’s a little like switching on the power on our electronic devices.  Then we can go to work.

Once we know we’ve got power, we can do a lot – communicate, make plans, think and write, teach and learn, reach out to help a neighbor or start a movement. Power is the beginning of all work and change.  But are we using the power we’ve been given for God’s work?  Are we using God’s power actively to help our neighbors who are poor and desperate?  To examine society’s unjust structures and work to change them? 

Furthermore, are we using God’s power to shape our own lives…to make our lives more Jesus-like?  That might mean simplifying our material lives, rebalancing the work-play-refreshment balance in our days.  Richard Rohr writes:

E. F. Schumacher said years ago, “Small is beautiful,” and many other wise people have come to know that less stuff invariably leaves room for more soul. In fact, possessions and soul seem to operate in inverse proportion to one another. Only through simplicity can we find deep contentment instead of perpetually striving and living unsatisfied. Simple living is the foundational social justice teaching of Jesus, Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Pope Francis, and all hermits, mystics, prophets, and seers since time immemorial. 

It takes power to live contrary to society’s teaching that “more is better,” or that “I’m important and others aren’t.”    But Pentecost tells us we’ve been given the power.  All we have to do now is use it.  The Holy Spirit is already here among us, and within each of us.  As some say, there’s a spark of God in each of us.  We only need to turn on the power switch.  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 05/28/2017

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Ascension Day may not mean much to you.  It may seem to be one of those arcane theological observances that only a seminarian could love.  It is the Thursday, 40 days after Easter, when Jesus appeared to his disciples bodily for the last time, and “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  It sounds very ephemeral and fantastical really. 

But it is really about transformation, as St. Paul makes clear.  Jesus’ earthly body is withdrawn, so that we can become the Body of Christ, and individually, members of it.  This transformation will be completed on Pentecost (Sunday, June 4), when the Holy Spirit fills the crowd with passion and power to be God’s people.  The Body of Christ goes from being one person to being many – all of us who seek to follow Jesus. 

Paul saw the Christian endeavor as a communal effort, not a bunch of individual free agents.  Richard Rohr writes,

Paul had a concrete missionary strategy of building living communities able to produce a visible and believable message. Yet for centuries we’ve interpreted his message as if he is speaking about individuals being privately “saved.” This has made Paul seem more like a mere moralist than the mystic he is. Mystics tend to see things in wholes rather than getting preoccupied with the parts.

So, Ascension Day is the beginning of transformation: from an individual Messiah to the Body of Christ, from an individualized understanding of salvation to a communal sense of “we’re all in this together.”  This transformation is completed at Pentecost, and then the Church is set loose on the world – to turn it upside down!  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 5/7/2017

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Shepherd, Gate and Gatekeeper

Traditionally the 4th Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This image is made clear in the collect for this day.

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people; Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Each year on this Sunday, we hear a different section of the 10th chapter of John’s gospel. This year is the first 10 verses and in those we hear three different descriptions of Jesus - shepherd, gatekeeper and gate. Each of these words bring so many images to mind, both positive and negative. Clearly some of those negative connotations have been used to warrant exclusion and the understanding that some are inside and others are not allowed. For me this is a narrow reading of the text and doesn’t take in the wholeness of the parable.

Seeing Jesus in all of these descriptions opens a deeper meaning to the parable. It also allows me to see others in those images. Who has been Jesus in my life as gate, gatekeeper and shepherd? Who has been Jesus in your life as gate, gatekeeper and shepherd?

L. Sue von Rautenkranz
 

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Trail Notes: 04/30/2017

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Getting There.

I am a person focused on destinations.  When I set out do to a task, or go on a trip, or achieve a goal, I am focused on getting there.  I’m one of these people who likes to make to-do lists just so I can check things off! 

The risk of this kind of disposition is that I can easily miss what’s going on right now, at the moment.  I can be so eager to reach the destination that I don’t enjoy, or even notice, the journey.  That’s a shame.  Because a lot of good stuff happens on the way, on the road.  John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” 

Two disciples, Cleopas and his wife, are walking home on the first Easter Day, confused and dejected after their friend and rabbi Jesus had been executed.  There had been reports that he had been seen alive again, but that didn’t seem credible.  So they were focused on getting home, back to Emmaus, back to their old lives, to try to rebuild a life. 

As they walked down from Jerusalem on the dusty, hilly road, a stranger appeared and walked with them.  They began to talk.  The stranger asked about what had gone on in Jerusalem – he didn’t seem to know.  But he shared how the scriptures spoke of a suffering messiah. 

When they reached home, Cleopas and his wife asked this interesting stranger to stay and eat with them.  When he broke the bread, all became clear….

For Cleopas and his wife, what happened on the road was far more important than reaching their destination.  In fact, the journey was the destination – their moment of destiny. 

Pay attention to what happens along the way, en route, on the road.  It’s there that a stranger may appear, and change your life.  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 04/23/2017

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“I doubt it.”

The Church can be ironic.  One week after we have we proclaimed the resurrection of the dead through Jesus at Easter, we confront the inevitable reaction: doubt that such an amazing, miraculous thing could occur.  St. Thomas has carried the heavy burden of “doubter in chief” for us for two thousand years, but most of us would acknowledge our own doubts about many Christian beliefs.  They may come and go. 

Some doubts stick with us and complicate our life in the church.  For some, it is hard to say the ancient creeds with integrity, with their arcane Fourth Century formulations of Christian doctrine.  How is Jesus “only-begotten of the Father”?  Can we in all honesty call ourselves Christians if we don’t – or can’t – see our way to believe all these things? 

The evils of the world are in constant tension with our belief in a good and loving God who is active in the world. We rightly celebrate signs of life, love, and hope.  But we also wonder why the bad guys seem to be winning much of the time!

I submit that doubt is not the enemy of faith (nor is doubt the enemy of the faithful).  It is in fact the flip-side of faith.  Honest doubt is what makes faith real, and challenging.  Just as darkness allows us to see and define light, so doubt provides the contours of thoughtful faith.  The 10:45 a.m. sermon will explore Jesus’ reaction to doubt, which may surprise us when we examine it.  JBM


 

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