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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  



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  


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  



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  


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



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  



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  



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  



Trail Notes: 12/31/2017

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At Christmas we start with the specific and move to the universal. 

First we draw close to the miracle of a baby born to a poor couple, with only a barn to shelter them.  The dim stable lamplight forms a kind of halo around them as we gaze.  The mixed smells of animals and damp fodder fill our nostrils – not the ideal environment for childbirth.  But this is what the world gave.  The scene is so intimate, filled with such bittersweetness, that we take care not to intrude.  Others gather with us – shepherds wander in, angels disguised in many garbs – captivated as we are by the stillness of the night.  Stars shine in the sky – one more brightly than all the rest.  God has touched the earth in this place, at this time. 

But we cannot hold onto that sweet moment forever.  A new day comes, with its demands, its fears, its challenges.  The little family moves on, as do we.  What shall we carry away with us – a memory? A mission? 

Ever since that night, that moment, we ponder the meaning of this scene at the manger.  What will this child mean for the world?  For us?  Jesus grows up as we all do, and finds his purpose, his mission in life.  It is not an easy one.  He feels called to preach about God – not the vengeance of God, but the love, the mercy, the forgiveness of God.  It is a beautiful message…but the world, it seems, cannot, or will not, receive it.  We are too caught up in our ways of competition, domination, and violence – or are we? 

Jesus fights not with a sword, but with a word of love; not with an army but with a community of the least and the lost.  He appears to be defeated by his foes, yet his message is not dead.  The love lives on.  Its light still shines in the darkness.

We are part of his light: his hands and feet in the world, his voice of love and reconciliation, his smile of welcome to all, especially to the poor and unwelcome in the world’s eyes.  The miracle of a baby, born long ago to a poor couple, lives on, in us.  Merry Christmas.   JBM  



Trail Notes: 12/24/2017

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Today is Mary’s Sunday.  We rightly honor Mary for her unique role as mother of Jesus – the one most intimate with our Lord, who bore his body and suffered for his birth.  In the Orthodox churches, she is called “Christotokos” – Christ-bearer – or even “Theotokos” – God-bearer. 

Although Mary’s role is unique, she is not the only one whom God calls to bear Christ in the world.  God asks that of us all.  As God invests God’s self in human form, we become God’s instruments, God’s tools, God’s media in the world.  Saint Teresa of Avila famously said,

“Christ has no body now but yours.  No hands, no feet on earth but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world.  Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.  Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Christ has no body now but yours.”

That’s a tall order – scary even.  If we are Christians, then people look at us as representatives of Jesus.  What we say and do reflects on Jesus.  That’s why it’s so disturbing these days when people who self-identify as Christians say and do things that are contrary to Jesus’ teachings. 

In today’s American society, fear has become a huge driver of behavior.  Some preach that we should fear those who are different from us – people who look different, or come from another country.  Some say that we all need guns to defend ourselves from all the perils of life.  But Jesus said repeatedly, “Do not be afraid!”  A life lived out of fear is wretched, and can cause huge damage to our human community. 

When the angel Gabriel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary,” Mary accepted his words, and accepted the holy mission Gabriel came to announce to her.  Mary did not fear the future, the opinions of other people.  She said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.  Let it be with me according to your word.”  The world would be a much better place if all of us could go and do likewise.  JBM  

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