Posted by: smstrouse | January 6, 2020

Now the Work of Epiphany Begins

susan-pratt-smith-st.-joseph-church-northwoodEpiphany is a much too important part of the Christmas story to be overlooked in the jam-packed holiday season we’ve just come through. If the only story we know is the one we learned from children’s Christmas pageants, we assume that the Magi arrived on the scene at the same time or shortly after the angels and shepherds and were simply part of the great birthday party in the Bethlehem stable. But the Magi play a very specific role in this story that Matthew created to illustrate what the life and death of Jesus meant to him.

As cute as the little kids are in their bathrobes and cardboard crowns, carrying props that resemble gold, frankincense and myrrh, the words of the traditional song hint at darker days to come:
Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrow, sighing, bleeding, dying, Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.

Not the most cheerful birthday party song. I pity the one who had to offer Jesus that gift. But then Matthew wants us to know that from the very start Jesus was going to cause problems for the powers-that-be. Starting with King Herod, who had so obsequiously asked the Magi to come back and tell him about the newborn child so that he could go and pay tribute, too. If this were a movie, we’d be shouting at the screen, “Don’t believe him!” Thankfully, they’re warned in a dream not to report back and go home another way.

But that’s not the last of it. According to Matthew, after the Magi depart Joseph has a dream in which an angel warns him to take his family and flee to Egypt. A good thing he does because when Herod realizes he’d been tricked by the Magi, he goes into a rage and orders the deaths of all children in and around Bethlehem two years old or younger. 

Did that actually happen? There is no historical evidence for it, despite other valid accounts of Herod’s misdeeds, including murdering three of his own sons, his mother-in-law, and his second wife. But historicity is not Matthew’s point.

His point is that the birth of Jesus would have both religious and political implications. The news of Light coming into the world was not necessarily good news for the rich and powerful of Jesus’ day. In fact, as the Magi discovered, the rich and powerful actually have a vested interest in destroying that Light. As one commentator wrote: “While politicians promise to shake things up and drain the so-called swamp, their words reveal more heat than light. The rich and powerful want to remain rich and powerful even if it means holding onto the status quo of widespread poverty, destruction of species and the eco-sphere, and the growing disparity of the rich and poor.” 

Herods abound – as much today as they have throughout the ages. That’s the reality. But as the Magi discovered, that does not mean that it’s the end of the journey. It simply means (as my GPS often tells me) “rerouting” and going a different way. 

I say simply, but it’s not that simple, is it? When you expect things to go a certain way, anticipate one outcome, one pathway but then have to let go of it and embrace another? Sometimes we get to choose another road, but other times not. All kinds of things can force us onto paths we would not have chosen: job loss, illness, accident, divorce, natural disaster, national upheaval. We make our plans, but often have to turn off the GPS and go forward, not fully knowing where our new path will

That doesn’t mean, though, that we are left with no guidance system. If the Epiphany story tells us anything, it tells us about Divine guidance. A star in the sky leads the Magi to Jesus. A dream warns them to go home a different way. And Joseph’s dream, too, ensures that the Light will continue to shine on.  

I think this is why I love Epiphany so much. It doesn’t allow the Christmas story to stop with a sweet scene in a stable on a silent night. It zooms the birth of Jesus out into the political realm with a realism that we recognize all too well. I remember when I was a kid, I couldn’t understand why Jesus was called Prince of Peace. If he came to bring peace on earth, something had obviously gone wrong. But then I came to understand that the birth of Jesus wasn’t about there being a new Herod in town. The politics of Jesus weren’t the politics of the world. And the politics of Jesus would always be confrontational to the halls of wealth and power. We would always have to stand in opposition to the powers-that-be.

It’s no wonder that being a Christian for the first three centuries was so dangerous. Even the Christmas story itself, so beloved for its promise of “peace on earth,” was essentially a story of political resistance, proclaiming a radically different kind of Savior and a vision of peace on earth based not on power over others, but upon compassion and justice for all people. I think the poem by Howard Thurman, the African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, says it best.

Now the Work of Christmas Begins
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,

to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

That was the work of Jesus; it is our work as well. And I love that Thurman adds making music in the heart to our mission as followers of Jesus. Because music takes us out of our heads and into our hearts – into the realm of wonder. There is wonder in this Epiphany story: stars, dreams, angels, intuition, Zoroastrian strangers with symbolic gifts. Our rational minds want to shout, “That didn’t happen!” But our rational minds don’t know it all. Just because a story isn’t historically true doesn’t mean there’s not truth in it. 

imagesAnd the truth is that there is a star that guides us. Holy Wisdom, Divine Light beckons us both inwardly, into where our own heart of wisdom resides – and outwardly, into the world where we can walk unknown paths with un-rational confidence. 

Our dreams guide us, too. We’re coming up on Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, and we still remember his dream – not just his speech, but his dream – and we recommit ourselves to making it come to pass. We have our own dreams. Maybe you’re a fan of dream interpretation, as I am. Or maybe you strive for a vision that you hold for yourself, your family, your country. Dreams are real and they are powerful. Matthew knew that when he wrote them into his story.  

Epiphany reminds us to pay attention to the mystics – the ancient as well as contemporary ones. Meister Eckhart wrote in the 13th century, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. For God is always needing to be born.” And writing about Christmas, the 20th century mystic, Thomas Merton wrote: “Today, eternity enters into time, and time, sanctified, is caught up into eternity.” 

We, too, are caught up in the mystery of Christ – beyond the story of the first Christmas as told by Matthew and Luke; beyond all the trappings that have come to surround this season – we acknowledge our role in bringing to birth God’s dream for the world. 

There was a TED Talk that went viral back in the fall. Rabbi Sharon Brous spoke eloquently on the subject: “It’s Time to Reclaim Religion.” The video went viral and engendered tons of discussion. What caught my attention were her opening comments about the state of religion today. She began with religious extremism, but then she said that extremism isn’t the only challenge that religion faces today. She says, “At the very same time that we need religion to be a strong force against extremism, it is suffering from a second pernicious trend, what I call ‘religious routine-ism.’ 

“That’s when we find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don’t mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealously guarded doctrine that’s completely and wildly out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that’s the way things have always been done.”

I would add that for Christianity, another pernicious trend is the normalization of a kind of faith that I don’t believe Jesus would recognize, for example religious leaders like Franklin Graham aligning themselves with political powers-that-be. 

This Epiphany, we cannot succumb to ‘religious routine-ism’ or the normalization of a Christianity not true to the gospel. We must step out in faith into the world to claim the name of Jesus as our teacher, the Spirit of Christ as our guiding star. 

There’s a new Herod in town. But our Divine GPS system is on the job, giving us the new way. It might not be an easy way – I dare say that it won’t be easy at all. But if we’re true to our roots as Christians, we’ll acknowledge that it was never meant to be easy. 

The Twelve Days are over. The Nativity set is put away. 

The song of the angels has now been stilled, the star in the sky is gone,
the Magi have gone home, and the shepherds are back with their flocks.

And now, now – in Epiphany, the work of Christmas begins.




Posted by: smstrouse | December 22, 2019

Revolutionary Love on Advent 4

weaselHow Would You Define Love?

We could spend hours discussing that question. But here’s a definition I didn’t expect. According to a prominent theologian, love is a “weasel word.” I didn‘t know what a “weasel word” was, but it didn’t sound good. So I looked it up. A “weasel word” is a word that’s used to create an impression that a meaningful statement has been made, but really communicates only a vague or ambiguous claim. 

I knew immediately what that meant. Some time ago, at an interfaith meeting, we were trying to come up with a name for a new children’s program. Someone suggested “Interfaith Families for Peace.” Someone else said, “No, peace is such a meaningless word.” I was shocked at first, but then I got it: “peace” has also become a “weasel word.” How sad that two of the most important words in the church have become so trite – two words that are so integral to this season. 

But if love is going to be more than a “weasel word,” we have to be very intentional about what love is. But what is it? Despite the millions of poems, songs, and works of art devoted to love, there are very few definitions.


I was at a rally recently, and one of the leaders was leading a prayer chant. She started out by saying we would be using the name God, but if anyone was uncomfortable with that, they could use the word “Love” – which for those of us who believe in God is totally fine, since we say that God is Love.

Still, it’s a little hard to pin down exactly what it means. But as we approach the Christmas celebration, we are coming closer to the story that, for us, makes the most meaningful statement – not with academic theological ruminations, but with song, poetry, and imagery. Maybe that’s the only way we really can get at it. And whether you believe in the literal facts presented by the gospel writers or you believe they created their Nativity stories to convey a greater truth, it doesn’t matter. Their message is clear: God – Love – is here among us.

Mary, the Prophetb7770a4b333704c36f81804c600ec3c3--church-t-shirts

Today, as we stand on this threshold between the expectation of Advent and the revelation of Christmas, the figure who most captures our imagination is not yet Jesus, but Mary. But you know what? In a way, Mary has unfortunately also become a “weasel word” because we’ve relegated her to a passive vessel: obedient, meek and mild. Yes, of course, we see Love in her eyes when we picture her in the stable with baby Jesus. But remember, she is the prophet whose song we read last week: 

My soul proclaims your greatness, O God . . .
You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit.
You’ve deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places.
You’ve filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Those are not weasel words!


As I was pondering this image of Mary, another picture came to mind. Another young woman named Valarie Kaur. She an award-winning filmmaker, lawyer, and civil rights activist. She’s a follower of the Sikh religion. She was born and raised in Clovis, CA, where her family, coming from India, settled as Sikh farmers in 1913. She is, among many other things, the founder of the Revolutionary Love Project (you can join the movement here).

And she’s a mother. You might have seen the YouTube video of her TED Talk when she describes giving birth to her son:

There is a moment on the birthing table that feels like dying. The body in labor stretches to form an impossible circle. The contractions are less than a minute apart. Wave after wave, there is barely time to breathe. The medical term is “transition,” because “feels like dying” is not scientific enough. During my transition, my husband was pressing down on my sacrum to keep my body from breaking. My father was waiting behind the hospital curtain … more like hiding. But my mother was at my side. The midwife said she could see the baby’s head, but all I could feel was a ring of fire. I turned to my mother and said, “I can’t,” but she whispered in my ear. “You are brave,” she said. “You are brave.” Suddenly I saw my grandmother standing behind my mother. And her mother behind her. And her mother behind her. A long line of women who had pushed through the fire before me. I took a breath; I pushed; my son was born. 

Mary didn’t have a mother whispering encouragement to her or the sterile luxury of a birthing table. But I can imagine Mary and Valarie comparing notes on each of their labors of love.  

I saw another video of Valarie Kaur last November at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto. She was scheduled to be a keynote speaker, but at the time, she was eight months pregnant with her second child, and so spoke to us by video. Watching it again on YouTube, as she cradled her belly, I saw Mary – in the transition between Advent and Christmas, speaking to us – as Mary did – in a prophetic voice about Revolutionary Love (a lot of what follows is taken from her talk).


She said: I am an American civil rights activist who has labored with communities of color since 9/11, fighting unjust policies by the state and acts of hate in the street. And in our most painful moments, in the face of the fires of injustice, I have seen labors of love deliver us. My life on the frontlines of fighting hate in America has been a study in what I’ve come to call revolutionary love. Revolutionary love is the choice to enter into labor for others who don’t look like us, for our opponents who hurt us and for ourselves. 

In this era of enormous rage, when the fires are burning all around us,
believe that revolutionary love is the call of our times.


I’m looking at the fourth candle on our Advent wreath today, traditionally known as the Love candle. And all I have to say is, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” I also had to laugh because she said, “If you cringe when people say, ‘Love is the answer,’ I do, too (obviously she knows what a weasel word it’s become).

So she goes on to tell us what she means by revolutionary love. She told the story of her uncle. Do you remember, after 9/11, the first person killed in a hate crime was a Sikh man, who was standing in front of his gas station in Arizona? This was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a family friend whom Valerie called “uncle.”  

She tells how she went to be with his widow. She said, “I wept with her and asked her, ‘What would you like to tell the people of America?’ I was expecting blame. But she looked at me and said, ‘Tell them, ‘Thank you.’ 3,000 Americans came to my husband’s memorial. They did not know me, but they wept with me. Tell them, ‘Thank you.'”

First Lesson in Revolutionary Love: “There are no strangers.”

This was her first lesson in revolutionary love. She said, “Thousands of people showed up, because unlike national news, the local media told Balbir Uncle’s story. Stories can create the wonder that turns strangers into sisters and brothers.” There are no strangers.

Second Lesson in Revolutionary Love: “We love our opponents when we tend the wound in them.”

Fifteen years later, she returned to that gas station and lit a candle in the spot where her uncle had bled to death. His brother Rana said, “Nothing has changed.” But she said, “Who have we not yet tried to love?” And they decided to call the murderer in prison, this man named Frank Roque, who once had said, “I’m going to go out and shoot some towel heads. We should kill their children, too.”

She describes the act of will it took to wonder, to ask him why he had agreed to speak with them. He said, “I’m sorry for what happened, but I’m also sorry for all the people killed on 9/11.” Valerie says she became angry because he failed to take responsibility and she was worried for Rana.
But Rana was still wondering – and listening.
He said, “Frank, this is the first time I’m hearing you say that you feel sorry.”
Frank said, “Yes. I am sorry for what I did to your brother. One day when I go to heaven to be judged by God, I will ask to see your brother. And I will hug him. And I will ask him for forgiveness.”
And Rana said, “We already forgave you.”

“Forgiveness Isn’t Forgetting; Forgiveness Is Freedom from Hate.” 

“Because when we are free from hate, we see the ones who hurt us not as monsters, but as people who themselves are wounded, who themselves feel threatened, who don’t know what else to do with their insecurity but to hurt us, to pull the trigger, or cast the vote, or pass the policy aimed at us. But if some of us begin to wonder about them, listen even to their stories, we learn that participation in oppression comes at a cost. It cuts them off from their own capacity to love.

“We love our opponents when we tend the wound in them. Tending to the wound isn’t healing them — only they can do that. Just tending to it allows us to see them. I looked back on all of our campaigns, and I realized that any time we fought bad actors, we didn’t change very much. But when we chose to battle bad systems, that’s when we saw change. The choice to love our opponents is moral and pragmatic, and it opens up the previously unimaginable possibility of reconciliation.”

“But remember, it took 15 years to make that phone call. I had to tend to my own rage and grief first.  Loving our opponents requires us to love ourselves.

“Because for too long have women and women of color been told to suppress their rage, suppress their grief in the name of love and forgiveness. But when we suppress our rage, that’s when it hardens into hate directed outward, but usually directed inward. But mothering has taught me that all of our emotions are necessary. Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger is the force that protects it.

Third Lesson in Revolutionary Love: We love ourselves when we breathe through the fire of pain and refuse to let it harden into hate. 

“That’s why revolutionary love must be practiced in all three directions. Loving just ourselves feels good, but that’s narcissism. Loving only our opponents is self-loathing. Loving only others is ineffective. We need to practice all three forms of love. And this is how.

#1: “In order to love others, see no stranger. We can train our eyes to look upon strangers on the street, on the subway, on the screen, and say in our minds, “Brother, sister, aunt, uncle.” And when we say this, what we are saying is, “You are a part of me I do not yet know. I choose to wonder about you. I will listen for your stories and defend you when you’re in harm’s way.”

#2: “In order to love our opponents, tend the wound. Can you see the wound in the ones who hurt you? Can you wonder even about them? And if this question sends panic through your body, then your most revolutionary act is to wonder, listen and respond to your own needs.

#3: “In order to love ourselves, breathe and push.”

We Are All Meant to Be Mothers of God

Revolutionary Love is not just for pregnant women, not even just for women. Remember, as Meister Eckhart, the 13th century mystic said,

quote-we-are-all-meant-to-be-mothers-of-god-for-god-is-always-needing-to-be-born-meister-eckhart-226278So, as Valarie Kaur reminds us: “When we are pushing into the fires in our bodies or the fires in the world, we need to be breathing together in order to be pushing together. So, how are you breathing each day? Who are you breathing with? Because … when executive orders and news of violence hits our bodies hard, sometimes less than a minute apart, it feels like dying.”

In a lovely story she tells us how, in dark times, her son will come and put his hand on her cheek and says “Dance time, Mommy?”
“And we dance,” she says. “
In the darkness, we breathe and we dance. Our family becomes a pocket of revolutionary love. Our joy is an act of moral resistance. So, how are you protecting your joy each day? Because in joy we see even darkness with new eyes.

“And so the mother in me (and I would add Mary, too) asks, what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our future is not dead, but still waiting to be born? What if this is our great transition? Remember the wisdom of the midwife. 

‘Breathe,’ she says. And then — ‘push.’ Because if we don’t push, we will die.
If we don’t breathe, we will die.”

Here we are today, with Mary, about to give birth to revolutionary love. With her, we will be required to breathe and to push. Sometimes it may feel like dying. And when it does, you will hear the whispering in your ear, “You are brave.”

And soon we will also hear Jesus whispering in our ears, “Emmanuel; God is with you.”



Posted by: smstrouse | December 3, 2019

Ordained by God? The Religious Left Must Address This!

shutterstock_211871884 copy.jpgAre politicians chosen by God?

A lot of Christians think so. Apparently a lot of politicians do, too. Or at least they say they do in order to appeal to voters on the Religious Right. 

Last week, outgoing Secretary of Energy Rick Perry stated that the election of Donald Trump was ordained by God. To be fair, he also said that Barack Obama had been sent by God, too. Although, also to be fair, I can’t remember anybody defending Obama’s divine appointment to the presidency. Still, here is the crux of the Religious Left’s dilemma. We might scoff at claims such as this. But they’re not the rantings of religious fanatics. This is a theological belief system espoused by many people in this country. And those of us who don’t subscribe to this brand of Christianity had better wake up and smell the coffee. 

Evangelical Trumpians are busily promoting the claim that DT is the “chosen one.”

  • Franklin Graham stated in an interview, “I think God was behind the last election.” In a radio interview, he called opposition to DT “almost a demonic power.” When the host interrupted to say, “It’s not almost demonic. You know and I know, at the heart, it’s a spiritual battle,” Graham agreed.
  • Brad Parscale, DT’s campaign manager tweeted, “Only God could deliver such a savior to our nation, and only God could allow me to help. God bless America!”
  • DT himself has declared that he is “the Chosen One.” When defending his trade war with China, he said, “This is a trade war that should have taken place a long time ago. Somebody had to do it.” Then, looking up at the sky, he added, “I am the Chosen One.” Watch the video clip here.
  • In a Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked if we could compare DT to Queen Esther, helping to save Israel from the modern-day Haman – Iran. He replied, “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.” And later he stated, “I am confident that the Lord is at work here.”
  • In another CBN interview, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times, and I think that He wanted Donald Trump to become president. That’s why he’s there, and I think he has done a tremendous job in supporting a lot of the things that people of faith really care about.”
  • David Brody, Chief Political Analyst for CBN News, began his recent interview with Nikki Haley by asking the “spiritual question: is he (DT) there for such a time as this?” (Queen Esther again!) He continued by asking, “What are your views spiritually on the sovereignty of God and what is He doing exactly putting DT as president of the United States?” Haley’s answer was to credit God with putting DT in power for ‘lessons’ and ‘change.’ 

And then there’s Paula White . . .

The prosperity gospel televangelist has been DT’s spiritual advisor since October. She has also declared that a spiritual war is being waged against DT.

Here’s part of one speech: “Let every demonic network that has aligned itself against the purpose, of the calling of Donald Trump, let it be broken, let it be torn down in the name of Jesus.” 

And this from a recording of the prayer in a conference call with other Christian leaders: “Any persons [or] entities that are aligned against the president will be exposed and dealt with and overturned by the superior blood of Jesus.”

She continues by saying that believers know that Trump and his Christian supporters “do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against principalities, powers, rulers of darkness of this age, hosts of wickedness in heavenly places.”

And then prays: “Stretch out your arm and deliver President Trump and rid him of any bondage the enemy would try to bring against him.”

Need I go on?WomanGirdUpSquare-1

I don’t like to use militaristic language like “spiritual warfare,” but maybe it’s time to gird up our metaphorical loins and get busy.

I’ve watched a lot of CBN this week because I’ve become very interested in this fusion of religion and politics on the Religious Right. I know, they’ve been around forever – well, ever since the 700 Club debuted in 1966. Probably most mainline Christians know the name of founder Pat Robertson, if only from some of his absurd pronouncements, such as describing feminism as a “socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” 

It’s easy to poke fun at this kind of rant and dismiss it as irrelevant. But after watching interview after interview, I have to say that I was pretty impressed with the whole CBN operation – the operation that is, not the theology. When I looked up their mission statement, right there as the #1 method of achieving that mission is “the strategic use of mass communication and education that will train the young and old to understand how the principles of the Kingdom of God relate to those spheres of human endeavor which play a dominant role in our world.”

And friends, they are killing it. Now, we have some good stuff. But I don’t see us producing the 24/7 barrage they’ve got going. And what really gets me riled up is that so many pastors are taking heat about mixing religion and politics – even when they’re simply preaching the gospel. I’m not condoning bringing partisan politics into the pulpit, but listen to those interviews with Mike Pompeo and the other political guests. I guess their pastors aren’t taking any flak for it.

I don’t know what the answer is. We do not want to follow the CBN model. But there must be a way to get out the Gospel According to the Religious Left without being obnoxious about it.

Come on, faithful America!


I do like the work that Faithful America is doing. But their focus is on issues of social justice – and yea! to them for that. But I’d love to hear from more of us on other issues of faith – and how that faith informs our public life. Yes, we have spiritual views that are all over the map; we don’t have one nicely compact statement of belief like CBN, but that’s OK. That’s our strength. We just need a better marketing plan.

Unless we want to continue being called part of the “demonic network” aligned against the calling of DT, we’d better start letting it be known that our politics are also informed in the name of Jesus. We don’t have to (and shouldn’t) “demonize” those whose beliefs are different. But what if we had a 24/7 media outlet that put out the message of liberation, justice, compassion, inclusion, radical hospitality, and the intersection of spirituality and politics? I mean, it couldn’t hurt, right? 




Posted by: smstrouse | December 1, 2019

Advent 1: Hope Is the Thing with Feathers

little_blue_flickering_candle_by_emmaweasley-d5aq9loBetter to light a candle than to curse the darkness

I am not optimistic about the state of the world. However, I have great hope for the state of the world. To anyone who doesn’t know about Advent, those two statements are diametrically opposed; one cancels out the other. But those who do know about Advent – and get its deeper meaning beyond opening up a little door in a calendar the month before Christmas to find a piece of chocolate – know a secret: amid darkness, hope is deeper than optimism.

Don’t get me wrong; I love opening the little doors of Advent calendars with chocolates hidden behind them in the countdown to Christmas. I’m not a Scrooge! But I also don’t want to miss out on the profound message that is also hidden in this Advent time. It’s a message so counter-cultural, even counter-intuitive, that we do often miss it. Advent is a time we look with hope -both to the celebration of the birth of Jesus 2000+ years ago and to the continuing birth of Christ light into our lives and world.

So a little group of people comes together on a Sunday morning and lights a candle. Such a small, seemingly insignificant thing. Yet it is part of a much bigger movement undertaken by people of many different religions and spiritualities. We are not alone in our longing for light. Many spiritual traditions look to the natural cycles of light and dark, morning and evening, summer and winter as an invitation to consider the movement of our inner lives.

Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains have already had their festival of lights, called Diwali.


One of the major festivals of Hinduism, it spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. The 5-day celebration includes lights shining on houses, around outside doors and windows, and around temples and other buildings.

This year, the 8-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah – commemorating the time when the wicks of the menorah burned for eight days even though there was only enough sacred oil for one day – begins on December 22. Of course, we in the northern hemisphere have inherited many of our Christmas customs from northern Pagans, for whom the Winter Solstice (or Yule) is a major festival marking the longest night of the year.

It’s no coincidence that this time of year heralds the beginning of the Christian calendar, the season of Advent. Winter darkness has descended. Night comes too early. Many, even in the relative warmth of CA, suffer from SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. We wait for spring. We wait for the light. Even the spiritual-but-not-religious can identify with the underlying need for Advent. Candles, wreaths, Advent calendars tap into universal deep feelings and ideals. Not the least of which is hope.

Our longing for light is not just a physical desire. The long night also symbolizes our fears: for ourselves, our families, our nation, our world. It’s become traditional in many churches to call the first candle on the Advent wreath the flame of hope. But hope is often elusive. And there are few things worse than feeling hopeless. As Swiss philosopher Emil Bruner wrote, “What oxygen is to the lungs, such is hope to the meaning of life.

The thing with feathers

But wouldn’t it be nice if hope were more clear-cut? It seems we can approach it, at best, only through metaphor. For example, according to Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope”hope-2

This little poem is packed full of meaning. Hope is a feathered bird in the soul.
What does this bird do? It sings.
How does it react to hardship? It’s unabashed in the storm.
Where can it be found? Everywhere.
And what does it cost? Nothing, not even a single crumb.

But where can we find such hope in the midst of a dark night of the soul – whether it’s in the soul of an individual, the soul of a church,  or the soul of a nation?

This is where we have to remind ourselves that hope is deeper than optimism. It shouldn’t be confused with belief that everything – whether your own life or the future of the nation or the survival of our planet – is going to work out just fine. Hope is not wishful thinking. The late Christian writer Henri Nouwen, emphasizing that hope is faith in something beyond our control, said “I have found it very important in my life to let go of my wishes and start hoping.” Adding, “Hope is always open-ended.”

Fake it til you make it

But you know as well as I do that hope, like faith, can often be elusive. How does one get it? How does one keep it? Well, to be honest, sometimes it’s simply a matter of – as is often said in 12-step meetings – faking it until you make it. Living “as if” you have hope can actually open up the spiritual space for that “thing with feathers” to build its nest. Other times, it’s a matter of carrying hope for someone who’s not yet able or allowing someone to carry it for you.

Years ago, when I was a hospital chaplain, I was visiting a patient who told me that he didn’t have any hope. I don’t remember what the situation was, but I do know that I wouldn’t have encouraged unrealistically optimistic medical expectations. So it wasn’t necessarily about hoping for a cure. Before I left, I told him it was OK that he wasn’t able to feel hopeful just then, but that I was going to be hopeful for him. I’ll never forget the huge smile on his face when I said that and his appreciation of my offer. I don’t know what happened to him. I can only hope that the open-endedness of “things hoped for” made some difference in how he saw his life and his situation.


Oddly enough, apocalyptic writing in the Jewish and Christian scriptures – those passages about the end times – was all about hope in times of deep darkness and persecution. We usually read them today as threats. For example, the gospel warned: “Be vigilant! For you do not know the day your Savior is coming.”  In other words, “You better watch out, you better not cry, Jesus Christ is comin’ to town.” Or, in the old Bob Hope quote, “The good news is that Jesus is coming back. The bad news is that he’s really pissed off.”

But we too can think about apocalypse in a hopeful way. Everything in the New Testament, from the teachings of Jesus to the letters of Paul, is informed by the anticipation of the arrival of the realm (commonwealth, kin-dom) of God. Jesus was very specific about what that kin-dom would be like: the thirsty receive water, the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, repentance and humility are practiced, the poor are lifted up, the rich are brought down from their thrones. This kin-dom is not necessarily a time in the future, but happening now. In other words, apocalypse is really about revealing, showing forth the signs of God’s commonwealth right here and now. It’s happening all the time and all around.

Don’t go back to sleep!

And this is where another big Advent theme enters in. If we’re going to notice these in-breakings, we have to pay attention.  As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep.”

shutterstock_1503095924 copyI’m also partial to the poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi:
The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep!

The Buddhists call this mindfulness. Don’t sleep through your life. Don’t let a holy moment catch you unawares. Don’t miss God moments occurring throughout the day. The Divine comes to us in every encounter. A pivotal life event might be happening right now. Pay attention. Don’t go back to sleep. Creative transformation – awakening to God and living in God’s commonwealth – is available to us all the time. We need to prepare moment by moment to experience God’s provocative possibilities. Advent living isn’t just a month-long thing that ends on Christmas Day. It’s our training exercise for a lifestyle of expectancy. We’re to live as if God is with us, precisely because God is with us.

Is it hard for me to remember this when I pick up a newspaper? You bet it is. Am I feeling optimistic about the state of the world? Not by a long-shot. But if there is one thing I know, it is that amid darkness, hope is deeper than optimism. And Advent calls us to exercise and develop our spiritual muscles so that, as followers of Jesus, we can be light to the world: bringing water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, forgiveness and hope to those in deep darkness, lifting up the poor, and bringing down systems that benefit only the rich.

One little candle symbolizes it all. Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness, as the saying goes. This quiet lighting of a candle can help us nourish our hope, deepen our resolve, draw strength from the fertile darkness and bear witness to the community we long to become and are working to create.

I’ll close with this blog post by Rick Morley, Episcopal priest in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. It’s been a source of inspiration for me – reminding me to stay focused on what is of ultimate importance and reminding me to be prepared.

Advent 1a: you know nothing

No, if we know anything these days, it’s that we know so very little.

Our confidence can wither in moments, and everything that we once thought was “up” will be found to be “upside down.”

For the pundits and the pollsters try and lull us to sleep with their braggadocio. They hypnotize us with their numbers, and plans, and historical perspectives. They have their canon laws, their proof texts, and their little prayers that we can read at the end of a gospel tract and rest confident that we are going to be part of that number when the saints go marching in.

But then you’ll be grinding meal, and in a flash your partner will be gone. Or, she’ll be left at the grinding stone by herself, wondering where you went when there was so much work to be done.

If there is one thing that we know, it’s that we have no idea what’s going on.
But, that’s ok. We don’t need to be in the know.
All we need to be is awake. Prepared. Ready.

For what? God knows what.
You know nothing, John Snow.
Maybe we’re getting ready to shoot up into the sky. Maybe we’re ready for that little mustard seed in us to sprout suddenly into the greatest of trees.
Maybe we’re waiting for something as silly as a child being born in a manger.

Who knows? I don’t.
But, I can be awake.

No, I am not optimistic about the state of the world. However, I have great hope. Wait with me and watch. Don’t go back to sleep. For the light – this little light and so many like it – shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.



Isaiah 2:1-5
Let us walk in the light of God, so says the prophet Isaiah. With darkness descending in the Northern hemisphere and fears of darkness politically and globally, these words are good counsel. The dark night – whether in terms of weather or the social order – challenges us to embrace God’s enlightened paths. Open to the light, we can see growth within darkness. We can also find our way through perilous personal, congregational, and political pathways. Isaiah proclaims the impossible possibility.

It is written . . .

This is what Isaiah ben-Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
In the last days, the mountain of YHWH’s Temple will be established as the most important mountain and raised above all other hills – all nations will stream toward it.
Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us climb YHWH’s mountain to the Temple of the God of Jacob, that we may be instructed in God’s ways and walk in God’s paths.”

Instruction will be given from Zion and the word of YHWH from Jerusalem. God will judge between the nations and render decisions for many countries. They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation will not raise the sword against another, and never again will they train for war.

O house of Leah and Rachel and Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of YHWH!

Romans 13:11-14
The time to wake up from sleep is now. This passage acts as an alarm clock. It is not the unpleasant kind that wakes you up for another day of time famine, when you feel inadequate, overwhelmed, lost, or meaningless. It is instead an alarm clock that wakes you up for a day of adequacy, preparedness and meaning. Let us use this Advent season as a time for our own growth and the growth of our spiritual community.

 It is written . . .

You know the time in which we are living. It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep, for our salvation is closer than when we first accepted the faith. The night is far spent; the day draws near. So let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live honorably as in daylight, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourself with our Savior Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the night.

Matthew 24:36-44
Jesus’ words complement the counsel of Romans 13. Although there is an implicit threat in the unexpected coming of God, ultimately this passage is about mindfulness. Stay awake. Holy moments may catch you by surprise. Creative transformation – awakening to God and living in God’s realm – is available to us all the time. The future is in our hands as well as God’s and we need to prepare moment by moment to experience God’s vision of Shalom, God’s provocative possibilities embedded in every encounter.

It is written . . .

“No one knows that day and hour – not the angels of heaven, nor even the Only Begotten – only Abba God.

The coming of the Promised One will be just like in Noah’s time. In the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, having relationships and getting married, right up to the day Noah entered the ark. They were totally unconcerned until the flood came and destroyed them. So it will be at the coming of the Promised One. Two people will be out in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two people will be grinding meal; one will be taken and one will be left. Therefore be vigilant! For you do not know the day your Savior is coming.

Be sure of this: if the owner of the house had known when the thief was coming, the owner would have kept a watchful eye and not let the house be broken into. You must be prepared in the same way. The Promised One is coming at the time you least expect.




Posted by: smstrouse | November 24, 2019

The Evolution of Christ the King

shutterstock_1321985210.jpgIt was 1925. Pope Pius XI was troubled by the political climate he saw around him. Dictators, such as Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin were exerting alarming authoritarian power in Europe. Concerned about rising nationalism, as well as the decreasing authority of the Church, Pius introduced a new day onto the Church calendar, the Feast of Christ the King. By doing this, he was hoping, in part, that the nations of the world would see that the Church has freedom from the state.

Fast forward to a recent book by Dean G. Stroud describing a certain leader and his rise to power:
He seems to have thought about how Christians would view him . . . He certainly did not hesitate to reference God and to suggest divine support of his [agenda] . . . Getting off on the right foot with Christians was certainly an early priority.

Further on, the author writes:

Surely if we have learned anything at all about [this leader], it is that nothing he ever said could be taken at face value. We must test his every word against what actually took place. These pious words . . . have no basis in reality. [It] is just another example of propaganda.


The author is writing about Adolf Hitler. The book, called Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow, is about the way Hitler used Christianity to give religious legitimacy to Nazi ideology, and  includes 13 sermons by pastors who courageously spoke out against the Reich. Despite what you might suspect, the author did not write this as a comparison to our current administration. It was written in 2013.

But given Evangelical Christian support for this presidency and the kind of Christianity it espouses, it is chilling. Especially since Paula White, the president’s spiritual advisor, is among those claiming the president was divinely ordained, anointed by God.  She has also said that opposition to the president is opposition to God. I don’t care what your political persuasion is or who you voted for. But as Christians, we should be alarmed at language like that.

(See Preaching in Trump’s Shadow by Leah D. Schade) 

But let’s go back to Pope Pius and his way of resisting the troubling politics of his day. I’d venture a guess that Christ the King Sunday hasn’t been a particularly meaningful day on your calendar. Maybe you recognize it as the last Sunday in the church year, the Sunday before Advent. And I’ll confess that I’ve often looked at this day as an archaic remnant of a bygone time. Looking back, most sermons I can remember giving began: “Now I know we live in a democracy, so it might be hard to get the idea of being subject to a king.”

Of course, we can read about it in the Bible. The reading from Jeremiah is a rant against a king, probably Zedekiah, the last of King David’s dynasty. It was Zedekiah’s actions that had brought about invasion, siege, destruction, and finally exile to Babylon, so his popularity rating was zilch. 2010-03-01-Everybody-Wants-2_4503

I imagine the prophet Samuel laughing from the Great Beyond. Because Samuel had long ago tried to talk the people out of their desire to have a king at all. He warned them:
He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots for him to ride in luxury. He’ll take your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and give them to his friends. He’ll tax your harvests to support his extensive bureaucracy. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you’ll cry in desperation because of this king you want so much.  And so it was.

But what’s really important about this warning is that is an expression of the tension between prophet and ruler. Remember: the prophets of ancient Israel weren’t predictors of the future or foretellers of Jesus; they were critics of the government, thorns in the side of kings, emperors, and other officials of both church and state. Which is still the role of prophets today.

Which brings me back to Pope Pius and Christ the King. Even though the original intent was to confront authoritarianism, there are some problems. As you’ve gotten to know me, you may have learned that inclusive language is very important to me and whenever I’m here I ask if we can we use The Inclusive Bible for our readings. I’m a firm believer that language matters in the face of oppressive regimes, and that includes the words we use in church. In fact, I was part of a panel at the Parliament of the World’s Religions last year on “Dismantling the Religious Roots of Patriarchy.” And #1 on my list of action items was: Use inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for God – which, by the way, was incorporated into the ELCA’s latest social statement, “Faith, Sexism, and Justice.”

So I’ve always resisted using ‘king’ language because of the gender issue. But there are other problems (I know, this is more than you ever wanted to know about Christ the King, but bear with me, I’m going to get to the good news).

Many churches have switched over to the gender-neutral title: Reign of Christ. But that doesn‘t solve it either. Patriarchy isn’t just a gender issue. It’s about hierarchies of power, of one group over another: white over black, straight over gay, privileged over poor, etc.


And in light of our growing awareness of these issues, we’ve also begun to question our old understanding of a God who is ‘up there’ somewhere reigning ‘over us’ – embracing instead the realization of the presence of God all around us and within us.   

Words convey meaning about all kinds of things, not the least of which is what we believe about God and about ourselves. So it’s not just the matter of cleaning up language pertaining to humanity. It’s also about evaluating our language about God – paying attention to imagery that is exclusively male, as well as hierarchical and triumphalistic. Christ the King Sunday is a perfect storm of these concerns – and some have chosen to ditch it altogether.

I’m not big on throwing out words and images just because they’re not working for us anymore, at least not throwing them out without an attempt at transforming them. I have to admit, results have been mixed. Some years ago, in an attempt to highlight the creative power of Christ throughout the universe, we called it the ‘Culmination of All Things in Christ.’ But one clever wag thought it made Christ sound like the Terminator (imagine ‘Christ the Culminator’ with an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent), so that was the end of that. Then we tried the ‘Cosmic Christ,’ ‘Christ the Alpha and Omega,’ and finally settled on ‘Christ, the Anointed.’

So it’s a work in progress. But an important one as we continue to navigate the language of the church of the 21st century in the midst of the issues of our day. Therefore, along with ‘king,’ there is also the question of ‘kingdom.’ ‘Basileia tou Theou’ (Greek for Kingdom of God) was the main preaching point of Jesus’ teaching: the kingdom of God is like this; the kingdom of God has come near; the kingdom of God is within you. But ‘basileia’ is being interpreted in some interesting ways these days: reign, realm, even regime of God. Some New Testament scholars are even calling it the ’empire’ of God – because Jesus’ main agenda addresses his major antagonist, the ’empire of Rome.’

Others aren’t so enamored. Theologian John Cobb, who describes ‘basiliea tou theou’ as a counter-culture based on the values that were rejected by the political, economic, and religious establishments of Jesus’ day, prefers to call it the ‘divine commonwealth.’ The Inclusive Bible calls it the kin-dom of God.

As much as I can appreciate the rationale behind ’empire of God,’ I have a hard time translating that to Christ the Emperor. I’m much more attracted to ‘kin-dom’ or ‘divine shutterstock_1084540790commonwealth’ because they get us away from feudal or empire language and broaden out into a more cosmic, interconnected vision – like that of the ‘divine milieu’ of early 20th century scientist-priest Teilhard de Chardin.

In this ‘divine milieu,’ Christ is described at various times as the Total Christ, the Cosmic Christ, the Whole Christ, the Universal Christ or the Mystical Body of Christ. For Teilhard, Christ isn’t just Jesus of Nazareth risen from the dead, but rather a huge, continually evolving Being as big as the universe. In this colossal, almost unimaginable Being each of us lives and develops, like living cells in a huge organism.

With the help of all the human sciences as well as the scriptures, Teilhard shows how we – the cells and members of the Body of Christ – can participate in and nurture the life of the Total Christ. He shows how, thanks to the continuing discoveries of science, we can begin to glimpse where that great Being is headed and how we can help promote its fulfillment. In a spirituality like this, the power of God is not a coercive power like that of a king, but a persuasive power that beckons us forward into the way of Christ, whose task it is to transform this fragmented world, through love.

Now, if that sounds too far out, remember that even in a spirituality of the divine milieu, the cosmos includes all the mundane, down-to-earth stuff we wrestle with each day, including the work of peace and justice. We never sit back and expect God to come and fix things for us. In the words of St. Theresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which Christ blesses the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are Christ’s body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

27164538_10213773989517253_952116539923756464_oWhich then brings us back around to the call to be prophetic witnesses. For as Pope Pius worried about the political climate of his day, so we worry about ours. The assaults on human rights, constitutional law, and Mother Earth herself are seemingly endless and threaten to overwhelm us. But the words of the prophets are still being written on subway walls and tenement halls, as Simon and Garfunkel sang 50 years ago. But now also on protest signs, Twitter feeds, email blasts, and Facebook walls. And they are calling on us to join our voices, to join forces. For example, a recent message from Faithful America said:
“Every church that is faithful to Jesus Christ must now become a sanctuary for those coping with violence and degradation.”

How do we do that? How do we translate our understanding of the Cosmic Christ, Christ the Alpha and the Omega into action in the world. I’ve come to one conclusion, one word: compassion. Maybe you think that’s too simplistic and unrealistic.  But more than two million people around the world have endorsed The Charter for Compassion, which says:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.charter_brand_transp_blue_small

This is the ethic of the divine milieu, the
kin-dom of God. This vast universe that is the body of Christ is alive and we are part of it, growing and evolving in awareness and faith. And while such an immense reality may seem too big to include our concerns, our own individual concerns or the struggles of immigrants or the conflicts within nations, the truth is that in this commonwealth, each cell matters, each person matters, each hope, fear, dream, joy matters. This is the message we take with us on this final Sunday of the church year.

As we stand on the cusp of a new church year, ready to enter the Advent season of waiting and expectation, we do not succumb to discouragement. Because as we go out as prophetic witnesses to the peace and justice of the kin-dom, we can know that we are loved by a Love unbounded by space and time or by titles and political systems. Bigger than any king or queen or president, power or principality. This is the reality to which we cling and from which we take heart – and action. In the name of Christ, the true anointed one.


Jeremiah 23:1-6
In every age political and religious leaders have often created difficulties for those for whom they had responsibility. This text makes abundantly clear that ancient Israel was no exception. It is likely that these oracles were pronounced against the advisers of King Zedekiah of Judah (597-586 BCE). Placed on the throne as a vassal of the Babylonians, he was the last of the Davidic dynasty to reign. His rebellion against his overlords brought about the invasion of the kingdom, the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and the exile of the king and the nation’s leading citizens to Babylon.

 “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep in my pasture!” declares Yhwh. “Thus says Yhwh, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who are tending my people: You have scattered my flock and driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds, declares Yhwh. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have dispersed them, and will bring them back to their own pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will also raise up shepherds who will look after them and pasture them. They will no longer be afraid or terrified nor will any by missing, declares Yhwh.

Behold, the days are coming, declares Yhwh,
when I will raise up for the house of David
a righteous branch,
who will reign as a true ruler and act wisely,
and do what is just and right in the land.
In those days, Judah will be saved,
and Israel will dwell securely.
This is the Name on which they will call:
‘Yhwh, Our Justice.’”

Colossians 1: 15-17
The Supremacy of Christ

Christ is the image of the unseen God, and the firstborn of all creation;
for in Christ were created all things in heaven and on earth,
everything visible and invisible.
Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignty, Powers—
all things were created through Christ and for Christ.
Before anything was created, Christ existed, and all things hold together in Christ.

Luke 1:68-79
Known to Christian tradition as The Benedictus, this psalm may well have had Jewish origins long before the birth of Jesus. It is composed of a series of familiar Old Testament phrases taken chiefly from the Psalms. It became an early Christian hymn and was incorporated into Luke’s Gospel as part of the poetic narrative of the Messiah’s birth.

“Blessed are you, the Most High God of Israel-
for you have visited and redeemed your people.
You have raised up a mighty savior for us
of the house of David,
as you promised through the mouths of your holy ones,
the prophets of ancient times:
salvation from our enemies
and from the hands of all our foes.
You have shown mercy to our ancestors
by remembering the holy Covenant
you made with them,
the oath you swore to Sarah and Abraham,
granting that we,
delivered from the hands of our enemies,
might serve you without fear,
in holiness and justice,
in your presence all our days.
And you, my child, will be called
the prophet of the Most High,
for you’ll go before our God
to prepare the way for the Promised One,
giving the people the knowledge of salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
Such is the tender mercy of our God,
who from on high
will bring the Rising Sun to visit us,
to give light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace.”



Posted by: smstrouse | November 3, 2019

Evolutionary Saints: A Sermon for All Saints Day

shutterstock_159194039Where do we go when we die?
That’s a question that’s been asked through the ages. You may have asked it yourself. Or had it asked of you. It comes up especially when a loved one dies. Even if we believe in an afterlife, something called heaven, we still want details: where is it, what’s it like, is my loved one happy there, will I go there some day?

On All Saints Day we remember deceased loved ones and we honor the One who loved them into life and received them in death. And we celebrate their entrance into what is called in church-y language “the church triumphant” – as opposed to “the church militant,” an unfortunate term for those of us still doing battle in this life. Together we make up the communion of saints. Although physically separated by death, we are still united with one another in, as the old hymn says “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”

Still we wonder. Call it what you will – heaven, the church triumphant, the afterlife – what is it like? The answer is simple: we don’t know.” Although people throughout the ages have put forth their ideas about it. A seminary professor I once had once expressed his vision of heaven as singing in an eternal choir. I don’t know; even though I like to sing, I’m not too thrilled about doing it for all eternity. I mean, eternity is a long time! What kind of music will it be? Who gets to pick? Will we ever get to sing Beatles songs or show tunes? Will we all have good voices in heaven? Will there be auditions? Can I bring my U-bass? I think his vision has some flaws. But then that’s just one vision.


The writer of the Book of Revelation imagines a scene God’s throne room with an immense crowd of people in white robes, from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne, holding palm branches, singing and worshipping. It’s one of the not-scary parts of Revelation that we like to read at funerals because of its words of promise:

The One who sits on the throne will shelter them forever. Never again will they be hungry or thirsty; the sun’s scorching heat will never beat down on them, for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe every last tear from their eyes.

Although the promise of never again experiencing any deprivation or suffering is certainly appealing, the image of the throne, the Lamb, palm branches and robes is rather off-putting (at least to me).

An evolutionary process?
I remember the homily given by the pastor when my grandmother died, in which he said, “She is now everything that God intended her to be.” Those words struck a chord with me, although I don’t know exactly what it means. When I try to think about it too much, it makes about as much sense as my professor’s vision and the revelation of John of Patmos.

I do know that my grandmother, at the age of 26, became a widow with 4 children under the age of 6 on the eve of the Great Depression. She went to work as a janitor at the junior high school and did that until she retired in 1968 – almost 40 years. She never remarried. Of course, she had her family, her wonderful grandchildren – especially the oldest one (me) – but I often wondered what her life might have been in another era, under different circumstances. What did God intend for her? And is she living in that reality now?

shutterstock_1084540790I was reminded of that funeral homily when I read this paragraph by Bruce Epperly this week: “What some call the beatific (or heavenly) vision is, I believe, an evolutionary process. Beyond the grave, we continue to grow in wisdom and stature. We forgive and are forgiven. We experience the healing of memories and relationships and continue to explore paths not taken, in companionship with God. This applies to saints as well as mere mortals. A life of saintliness is a life of adventure and growth, dissatisfied by any static heavenly vision. We continue the journey, freely and creatively responding to the grace that leads us toward wholeness.”

While this doesn’t give us any details either about how this process happens, the concept is more appealing than an unchanging, eternal heavenly choir – or any vision, no matter how wonderful. The idea that God’s care for us doesn’t end at death, but continues in a new way, another dimension, a different reality – ever luring us onward from brokenness to healing, from sorrow to consolation, from sin to grace is not inconsistent with the biblical witness.

The author of the first letter of John wrote: “we are God’s children now, but what we will be has not yet been revealed,” which gives us insight into the idea that we are in the process of becoming what God intends us to be, and that our ultimate way of being is something that we just can’t imagine. But the letter proclaims with certainty that “we will be like” the One who calls us to become who we are and who we will continue to be as we evolve in God. So. if the One who seeks our wholeness in this lifetime continues the process beyond the grave, then indeed my grandmother – along with all the blessed dead – has become (or is in the process of becoming) all she was ever meant to be.)

An opportunity for forgivenessshutterstock_465080141
This way of considering the evolutionary process of afterlife also provides us with the 
opportunity, not only to give thanks for the blessed dead, but also to forgive them. All of the people who have shaped our lives are saints – even with all their imperfections. This is good news especially for those who have had difficult relationships with the influential people in their lives – parents or grandparents, siblings or friends.

Just 2½ weeks ago, I found out that Roger, a resident of a nursing home that I had been visiting for the past 13+ years, had died. The span of those 13 years was definitely an evolutionary process in both emotional and spiritual awareness. Despite having multiple university degrees and having had a successful marriage until his wife’s untimely death, he could never get over the rejection he had felt from his parents, particularly his father.

And I got it. My brothers and I still talk about the legacy we inherited from our parents and our need to come to terms with the effects of growing up in a household impacted by alcoholism and other unhealthy behaviors. I’ve done a lot of study and personal work in this area, so I get the feelings of rejection, abandonment, hurt, loss, and anger that can last a lifetime and make forgiveness seem an impossible task.

And it is true that in the beginning stages of awareness of the dysfunctionality of one’s family system, it’s common to feel anger, bitterness, even hatred toward the one or ones who didn’t provide the kind of nurturing needed in childhood. Forgiveness might not seem possible, in light of the difficulties engendered by the parents’ behaviors. The proverb quoted in the book of Ezekiel sums it up:
The parents have eaten sour grapes; the children’s teeth are set on edge.

The fact that there’s a proverb that addresses this tells us that family dysfunction is not uncommon. Since we’re all human and we bring our humanity into every situation, of course every family is dysfunctional to a certain degree. No one is a saint, at least not in the usual use of the word. But each one of us is a saint in the sense that we are each a beloved child of God.

Now I can hear some questions coming. What about the so-called “monsters” of the world? What about Hitler and Pol Pot and other mass murderers? My response is to say that I don’t know. We need to leave them to God. But I would also say that the question about monsters deflects attention from the skeletons in our own closets. They’re the ones we have to deal with. Even if they are no longer living. Death doesn’t end the relationship, even a fractured one. Not for God and not for us either.

Even the realization that one’s parents had their own sorrows doesn’t take away the taste of sour grapes. My mother grew up quickly at age 6 when her father died and her mother went off to work. Those events played a huge role in who she would become. My father followed in the footsteps of his father in alcohol abuse and in neglecting the diabetes that would kill him. We can understand how they became who they were. In time, hopefully, we can even forgive them.

Roger was not able to get there in this life. I had hoped that he would find some measure of reconciliation and serenity before he died, but it was not to be. For his sake, I hope that the afterlife is evolutionary, that “beyond the grave, we continue to grow in wisdom and stature. We forgive and are forgiven. We experience the healing of memories and relationships and continue to explore paths not taken, in companionship with God.”

However, our forgiveness can go even deeper when we accept our place among the communion of saints, where we see that the universal experience of suffering is what binds humanity together. In Revelation, the great throng of diverse people is united in a common experience of coming through a great ordeal. Our common humanity and our universal experience of suffering call us into partnership with God in embodying compassion. In this vision, they join as one body and give voice to their experience by praising the One who lures us into living in such a way that we are aware of the suffering of others, even those who have caused us suffering, and to persevere in embodying compassion to all.

That’s the work of the church militant – or better to say ordinary saints like you and me – to actively embrace our relationship with the Divine, with ourselves, our families, neighbors, strangers and all of creation, and work to nurture those relationships in order to continue to grow and become what God is calling each of us to become – in this world and the next.

UniverseIn the last months of his life, the Rev. Bill Lesher, former Lutheran seminary president and pioneer of the modern interfaith movement, spoke of his impending death as “moving into the Immensity.” I like the sound of that, as it conveys the boundlessness of God’s Presence, while retaining the Mystery of what exactly that is like.

I pray that for Roger – and for all of our saints remembered here today or any day – that they have found themselves, their true and complete selves in the all-encompassing immensity of Divine Love. In faith, I trust that it is indeed so. May we remember them and celebrate their lives – both earthly and eternal.

And in faith and trust, we continue on our way through this life, not looking to heaven as an escape from the world, but fully engaging in the world until it is our time move into the Immensity. With all the saints.



Revelation 7: 9-17
After that, I saw before me an immense crowd without number, from every nation, tribe, people and language. They stood in front of the throne and the Lamb, dressed in long white robes and holding palm branches. And they cried out in a loud voice, “Salvation is of our God, who sits on the throne, and of the Lamb!”

All the angels who were encircling the throne, as well as the elders and the four living creatures, prostrated themselves before the throne. They worshiped God with these words: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever! Amen!”

Then one of the elders asked me, “These people in white robes—who are they, and where do they come from?”

I answered, “You are the one who knows.” Then the elder said to me, “These are the ones who survived the great period of testing; they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white. That’s why they stand before God’s throne and the One they serve day and night in the Temple; the One who sits on the throne will shelter them forever. Never again will they be hungry or thirsty; the sun and its scorching heat will never beat down on them, for the Lamb, who is at the center of the throne, will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe every last tear from their eyes.”

1 John 3:1-3
See what love Abba God has lavished on us in letting us be called God’s children! Yet that in fact is what we are. The reason the world does not recognize us is that it never recognized God. My dear friends, now we are God’s children, but it has not been revealed what we are to become in the future. We know that when it comes to light we will be like God, for we will see God as God really is. All who keep this hope keep themselves pure, just as Christ is pure.

Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountainside, and after he sat down and the disciples had gathered around, Jesus began to teach them:

“Blessed are those who are poor in spirit: the kin-dom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who are mourning: they will be consoled.
Blessed are those who are gentle: they will inherit the land.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice: they will have their fill.
Blessed are those who show mercy to others: they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are those whose hearts are clean: they will see God.
Blessed are those who work for peace: they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of their struggle for justice:
the kin-dom of heaven is theirs.

“You are fortunate when others insult you and persecute you, and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward in heaven is great; they persecuted the prophets before you in the very same way.”





Posted by: smstrouse | October 27, 2019

You Say You Want a Reformation

shutterstock_717138073I titled this sermon “You Say You Want a Reformation” before I knew we’d be using the Beatles Mass today. John Lennon may have sung “you say you want a revolution” back in the 60s, but sometimes it feels like there’s a revolution going on within the church today. Great numbers of people, disaffected with church for various reasons, have left or never joined in the first place. On Reformation Sundays of old, we’d sing sang “A Mighty Fortress” like it was our national anthem. These days, we wonder if the fortress will hold. So, what’s the message for the faithful remnant as we gather, both for the 502nd anniversary of Martin Luther’s revolutionary stand back in Germany, as well as the 75th anniversary of Grace Lutheran Church here in San Francisco?

There’s a quote attributed to President James Garfield, which seems to be following up on the words of Jesus in John’s gospel: “If you live according to my teaching, you’ll know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Garfield is reported to have said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”


As much as we love the words of Jesus, I’m sure many of us have found Garfield’s additional commentary to be true – although I actually prefer Gloria Steinem’s version, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Sometimes the truth does hurt or is a huge challenge to our usual way of thinking or being. Getting pissed off is a common response to being confronted with a different reality than the one we thought was true. Why else do we sometimes wonder whether it’s best to tell a friend or loved one the truth about something we know will be very hard to hear? Or will make them angry – maybe with us?

But this wasn’t the case with Martin Luther. He wouldn’t have agreed with either Steinem or Garfield – at least not when he had his so-called “Tower Experience,” which he wrote about. The story in a nutshell is that while studying Romans 1:17 (our second reading) in his study in the tower of the monastery in Wittenberg where he lived as an Augustinian monk, Luther had one of those light bulb moments. You know how that goes; a light goes on in your head and you suddenly see something in a way that you never had before and you suddenly get it, whatever “it” is. A revelation. An epiphany! An “ah hah!” moment. A blinding flash of insight that reveals – the truth.

And for Luther, that truth did set him free and it did not piss him off or make him miserable. In fact, he’d been angry and miserable before this revelation:
I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.

His big “ah! hah!” moment was when he was set free from a way of thinking about God that was unhealthy, destructive, and wrong. Now, he could have done what many do and stop there. Many people abandon the idea of a wrathful, vengeful, punishing deity who needs to be appeased. To be fair, who can blame them? A lot of terrible things have been done in the name of this idea of God.

But Luther didn’t go there. What he discovered in Romans 1:17 was freedom:
All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.

On Reformation Sunday we don’t usually think about Luther having a spiritual awakening. We tend to focus on the shift from a belief that one’s good deeds could get you into heaven to a doctrine of justification by faith through grace. In the 16th century that was a big deal; the Church was selling indulgences so people could help loved ones get out of Purgatory more quickly. The title of Luther’s list of 95 theses was actually “A Disputation on the Power of Indulgences.”

But things are different today. 20 years ago, The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which essentially ended the 500-year-old conflict at the root of the Reformation. And 2 years ago, at the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church held an historic joint commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden.

So – times have changed. And reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics and agreement on a doctrine is something to be celebrated. But I wouldn’t like our commemoration of the Reformation to stop there. I would like us to savor that moment of spiritual awakening that caused Martin Luther to discover that his idea of who and what God was no longer made sense. And I would like us to celebrate his magnificent and joyful new awareness of the true nature of the Divine.

It’s a moment and an awareness that many of us have experienced and that, by the grace of God and our efforts, many more will experience. I often quote the late Marcus Borg, who liked to say in response to someone who said they didn’t believe in God, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” When the person would describe a version of Luther’s wrathful, vengeful, punishing deity who needs to be appeased, Borg would say, “I don’t believe in that God either.” And then would begin a conversation on the true nature of God – loving, compassionate, luring us into wholeness, calling us into works of peace and justice – the God that had Luther joyfully running through the Scriptures and finding more proof of what he’d discovered: “the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.”

This wasn’t a mere intellectual; exercise. Why else would he write, “I exalted this sweetest word of mine, ‘the justice of God,’ with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase was for me the very gate of paradise.” A liberating, spiritual  awakening indeed. A re-formation of a man’s relationship with the holy truth of Divine Love.

rummage+saleToday, many thinkers, writers, theologians are claiming that we are in the midst of a new reformation. There are at least 3 new lists of theses (which are simply items for discussion). The late Phyllis Tickle often talked about the fact that about every 500 years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. And I believe she’s right. We’re going through our religious “stuff” – doctrines, language, practices, etc. – and making decisions about what should stay, what should go, and what might still be a treasure if we just cleaned it up a little bit. The process is messy; discussions about what stays, what goes, what gets transformed are chaotic, unsettling.


Some go even further. A recent article was entitled “Why the Church Must Die.” Now before you dismiss the author as an atheistic curmudgeon, listen to what she says: “The Church must die. Churchianity specifically. The elevating of an organization or institution, and its importance over that of Jesus, is what I mean by churchianity. Often in America, the words church and churchianity are virtually interchangeable. And this gospel of its death is really good news.”

Even our image or concept of who or what God is up for discussion. Not that this is something new. It wasn’t even new to Luther. In ancient times, the idea of God being more than a tribal deity, one among many other tribal deities, was re-formed to a belief in one God. The idea that God is comprised of persons, including Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, was a re-formation brought about by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In recent times, we’ve had to re-examine what we think we know about God in light of what people of other religions think they know about God. Those who have declared themselves to be atheists present us with the challenge of defining what we mean when we claim to believe in a deity. Science does this also. And this is all good. We are free to wonder and question and explore.

shutterstock_402345496And this is in direct line with Reformation history. We have not simply called 1-800- GOT JUNK and thrown away all of our tradition. However, we do take seriously the notion of “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” (“the church is always to be reformed”). That phrase is thrown about a lot, especially on Reformation Sunday. And it’s a great rallying cry for keeping the church up-to-date with current needs. But it doesn’t come from Luther, as many think. In fact, it isn’t from the 16th century at all. It was coined by 20th century Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth. And it’s important to understand Barth’s context.

Before World War II, Barth was a strong critic of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. He also criticized the many churches that went along with the Nazis, for not fulfilling their prophetic role in society. In 1917, a group of these Nazi Protestants coopted the 400th anniversary of the Reformation, in an event that endorsed German nationalism, emphasizing that Germany had a preferred place in the Protestant tradition, and legitimizing anti-Semitism.

They used Luther’s admonishment to respect secular authority to justify their positions. When Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, Barth was involved in the drafting of the Barmen Declaration opposing these churches. So Ecclesia semper reformanda est is not simply a call for change for change’s sake. It is a call to look around at our own cultural context (Barth is often quoted as saying that one should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other) and to be the church with integrity. This is the tradition in which we stand. As Luther famously said, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

In today’s cultural context, we find ourselves taking our stand in the midst of a great number of people disaffected with the church, with clergy, and with God (or at least God as God has been defined in the past). We also find ourselves among a great number of people who imagine the Divine differently from the way we do.

We can respond to this in one of two ways. We can wring our hands and lament the good old days when churches were full and we could hold a real old-time Reformation service where we bashed Catholics and sang “A Mighty Fortress” like it was our national anthem.

Or we can say we want a reformation and enter into the spirit of semper reformanda with the freedom granted by the gospel. And with joyful hearts, knowing as Luther discovered in that transformational tower experience, that God is gracious and good, compassionate and healing, freeing – and challenging us to bring peace and justice and healing to the world.

So let’s not talk about the God we don’t believe in. Let us share the good news of the Divine Presence in which we do live and move and have our being. There’s a Reformation going on. Here we stand.




An excerpt from Martin Luther’s “Tower Experience”
. . . in that same year, 1519, I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God” . . . I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God . . . . I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant . . . I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.

Romans 1:16-17
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is itself the very power of God, effecting the deliverance of everyone who has faith – to the Jew first, but also to the Greek. For in that gospel, God’s justice is revealed – a justice which arises from faith and has faith as its result. As it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

John 8:31-36
Jesus said to those who believed in him, ‘If you live according to my teaching, you are really my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’

They answered, ‘We are descendants of Sarah and Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be set free”?’

Jesus answered them, ‘The truth of the matter is, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not always remain part of a household; an heir, however, is a member of that house forever. So if the Heir – the Only Begotten – makes you free, you will be free indeed.










Posted by: smstrouse | September 29, 2019

The Parable of the Great Income Divide

shutterstock_1465957463The Rich Man and Lazarus = Income Inequality
What a difference a week makes! Last week’s parable was so outrageous, yet at the same time bewildering, I just didn’t know what to do with it (if you missed it and are curious, you can read it here). Today’s parable is just the opposite. It’s also outrageous, but that’s because of the ridiculously exaggerated descriptions of the rich man (sometimes called Dives, which simply means ‘rich man’ in Latin) and the poor man (whom Jesus calls Lazarus, maybe playfully after his good friend?).

So, we see the rich man in his fine clothes eating the finest food at the best restaurant; and poor Lazarus, hungry and covered with sores, hoping to maybe get the take-out box the rich man was having wrapped up, and instead, having to contend with stray dogs licking his sores. You get the picture, right? If Jesus wanted to grab his audience’s attention in order to get his message across, I’d say he succeeded – even 2000 years later.

It’s all about our use of our wealthshutterstock_444159427
Not only does Jesus get our attention, he effectively gets his point across as well. This isn’t a description of the afterlife. It’s about our use of our wealth, a common theme throughout Luke’s gospel. And it’s perfectly clear that Jesus is on the side of the poor man and has only words of rebuke for the rich man. From the passage from the prophet Amos, it’s not hard to see where Jesus gets his ideas. Despite the fact that there are Christians today who buy into the prosperity gospel (that is, the belief that financial blessing is God’s will for them), it’s undeniable that concern for the poor is a core principle in both Judaism and Christianity.

It’s such a core principle that it’s kind of hard to find anything more to say about it. You may have heard the term ‘preferential option for the poor,’ which refers to the theme that runs throughout the Bible (the commands of God, the pronouncements of the prophets, the teachings of Jesus and others) about attending to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society. It’s pretty hard to miss the message. And I suspect that if asked, each of you – though you might not identify with the man in purple and fine linen – could give examples of giving from your wealth to those in need.

So what more is there to say? As you might recall, parables are always about what life is like in the realm of God in the here and now and that they often have multiple layers and meanings. So I went back for another look. And what intrigued me about this parable this time is this great chasm that Jesus describes as existing between the place of torment and the realm of the angels.

waterfalls-river-stream-gorgeNow I’m picturing this chasm as the dictionary defines it: a yawning fissure or deep cleft in the earth’s surface, originally used to describe a split in a land formation.

My first thought on reading this was the Niagara River Gorge. I spent 17 years in western New York, not far from Niagara Falls. So I know this chasm, 300-feet deep and 7 miles long along the US-Canadian border downstream of the Falls. At one point, there is a huge whirlpool in the river.

27809721799_95ebe16989_bTo get a closer look at it – and a great view of the Falls – you can take the Whirlpool Aero Car, an antique cable car suspended 200 feet above the river. In the 17 years I lived there, I never did that. In fact, I don’t think you could pay me to do that. But in my mind, that’s what I see when Father Abraham tells the rich man that a great chasm has been fixed that no one can cross.  

It’s about income inequality
But a chasm isn’t only a split in a land formation. It can be a deep divide that is either literal or figurative. So, while you might think an article entitled
The California Chasm would be about an earthquake fissure, you’d be wrong. It is about income inequality. The state of California is the wealthiest and most populous state, yet we also have the highest number of people who are homeless. We’re home to more super rich people than any-where else in the country, yet we also have the highest poverty rate – when the cost of living is factored in. Hence, the article’s subtitle: Inequality in One of the Most Unequal States in the Country. An article in yesterday’s New York Times calls it “one of the most extreme manifestations of economic inequality gripping the country.”


I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. Still, it’s astounding to see statistics, such as: CEOs, in 1965, made about 20 times more than the average worker in their companies. In 2016, that gap had risen to 271 times more income. The middle class appears to have fallen into the abyss.

It’s a real Dives and Lazarus situation. This parable wasn’t meant to describe the punishment that the rich would suffer in Hades; it was meant to motivate us to close the gap now, in this life. We live in a different world than in Jesus’ time. Our system of government is different; our economic system is different; the gap between rich and poor is caused by different factors. But the message is the same: close the gap.

Talking Heads3 copyAnother figurative chasm that I’ve become interested in is what’s been called the red/blue divide. Or as one dictionary gives as a current example, the chasm between Republicans and Democrats. Or as some say between progressives and conservatives.

According to some political scientists, one of the reasons for this polarization is this high level of inequality. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich wrote in an article called 10 Ways to Close the Inequality Gap, “When large numbers of Americans are working harder than ever but getting nowhere, and see most of the economic gains going to a small group at the top, they suspect the game is rigged. Some of these people can be persuaded that the culprit is big government; others, that the blame falls on the wealthy and big corporations. The result is fierce partisanship, fueled by anti-establishment populism on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.”  

But what can we do about it?
We’re all aware of this. We all know it, but we don’t know what to do about it. Maybe we  are even kind of relieved that Father Abraham appears to give us an out here: “this great chasm has been fixed and no one can cross over it.” But Jesus is not giving us an out. He’s telling us that we can bridge the divide.  

And some people and groups are already doing it. Hands Across the Hills is an initiative that began right after the 2016 presidential election. It brought together two very different groups of people. One was a group of liberals from a peace organization in Leverett, MA. The other was a group from Letcher County, KY, a conservative coal-mining community deep in the heart of Appalachia. The facilitator was Dr. Paula Green, founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Boston. You can watch a video of some of the process on their website and I highly recommend it. If nothing else, it’s an inspiration to see that dialogue, relationships, even friendships can be formed even in a country fractured by political and cultural divides. As Paula Green said,

What was astounding for us was we didn’t know what was going to transpire between us, and although we don’t agree politically,
we’ve come to love and care about each other a great deal. 

I found out just this week that the folks from Letcher County are going back to Leverett again in October to continue the bridging project that brought them all together in 2017. 

I’ve been very inspired by Hands Across the Hills and since June, I’ve been involved in an initiative to recreate this process in the Bay Area. The goal is not to try to get people to change their minds politically or get everyone to agree, but to learn again how to have civil discourse, respectful conversation in the midst of our disagreements.

Hearts across the divide poster draft 4 copy

Our project is called Hearts Across the Divide, and we’ve begun organizing the two groups. Not everyone thinks this is possible. Several friends have told me it’s too late. Others,  from both sides of the divide, have been critical of even thinking about talking to the other side. But I believe it’s work that needs to be done. It’s what the parable calls us to do.

I was at an interfaith conference at Stanford back in June, hosted by the United Religions Initiative. It was called Accelerating Peace. On one of the days, there was a conversation between Bishop Bill Swing, founder of URI and General James Mattis, Secretary of Defense until his resignation last December. In the Q&A time, General Mattis was asked this question: “What do you see as the greatest threats to peace or the greatest challenges to peace from the perspective that you’ve seen in the world in your time?” His answer:

Very simply, the lack of respect for one another, contempt for each other’s belief.
It’s a lack of willingness to listen to each other. I see it in all walks of life and those are the seeds for what is becoming a much more violent response – this lack of respect and I would even say alienation that you see in so many people today.  It’s as if we’ve forgotten how to be human beings with each other and I think it goes back to respect.

The call to cross the divide
Mattis’ words reinforced, in my mind, the call to cross the chasm. And the hope is that it will work when we realize that we are united in our humanity and treat one another accordingly. In Hands Across the Hills, the people from Letcher County worried that they would be ridiculed and mocked by northern liberals. As one woman said, “I was a little apprehensive — afraid it was another ‘save the dumb hillbillies’ project.”

But, as Paula Green recounts,

We had a surprisingly successful, profoundly challenging dialogue exchange on
all the hot-button issues, and discovered we had a lot of common ground.
Now, as friends, we are working on a range of common projects, including reaching out together with our dialogue process to another region of the country, collaborating on agriculture, working on gun control issues we agree on. Hands Across the Hills has melted away stereotypes so that we can see each other’s human face.

I think Jesus would be pleased.
Maybe this kind of exchange doesn’t directly close the income inequality gap. But frankly, I don’t know how to do that. It’s a huge problem with lots of moving parts. But what I can do – and so can all of us – is get involved at the grassroots, bridge the divide from the ground up.

I don’t know if our Hearts Across the Divide project will be successful. I do know what’s not working. I’ve had many conversations with people who have tried unsuccessfully to get those of other beliefs to change their minds. Conversations turn into shouting matches, as both sides dig in their heels. Facebook is rife with posts and counter-posts, going nowhere, changing no one. The chasm widens.   

It’s going to take something different. We’re going to have to be different. We’re going to have to go deeper. We’ll need the courage and commitment to confess our own contribu-tions to the divide, our own self-righteousness and failure to love all of God’s people. And then enter into the hard work of face-to-face, in-person relationship-building.

imagesI know; it’s almost as intimidating as taking the Whirlpool Aero Car over the Niagara River. It’s a challenge to confront our own prejudices and stereotyping, to learn new communication skills, to resist becoming defensive, to be open to possibilities we can’t foresee. But if we’ve learned anything from listening to Jesus, we know that in order to experience resurrection, new life, new hope, new possibilities – we have to give up our egos, our selves and be vulnerable to the process of emptying, of dying to self.  The way to bridge the chasm is the way of the cross.

Father Abraham counseled the rich man about the fate of his brothers, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

We are convinced that someone has risen from the dead. That chasm has been conquered.

And now Jesus calls us onward to conquer new ones. IMG_4673



Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint them-selves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore, they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

Luke 16:19-31
Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen who feasted sumptuously every day. At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. Lazarus died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he’s comforted here, and you’re in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

He said, ‘No, Father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”





Posted by: smstrouse | September 22, 2019

That Parable of Jesus’ I Just Love to Hate

Slide1-250x187Parables are supposed to evoke a response –
but this is ridiculous!

I’ve often said that I love the parables of Jesus. That’s because they’re supposed to be an experience – not just something you hear and then say, “Nice sermon, Jesus,” and go on your way. Parables are supposed to evoke a response, an insight, or a realization about what the realm of God is like and what our relationships and behavior would be in this new reality Jesus was always talking about.

But parables can be complicated. In one way, a parable can make us scratch our heads  because its meaning isn’t always clear. In fact, it can have layers of meaning. At the same time, it will try to get us out of our left brain, our logical, rational, thinking mode and into our right brain, where our thinking is more intuitive, imaginative, creative.

It’s a complicated enough process when we’re dealing with a parable like The Good Samaritan or The Prodigal Son. When we get one like today’s (see below), it’s like we’ve jumped into parable hyperspace.


I’ll tell you what, this parable has (to put it crassly) kicked my butt this week. I mean, really Jesus, what is this? There are two characters in this story and neither one is what we’d call an example of model behavior. And I don’t know about you, but when I read what the manager did going to each debtor and working out a payment plan, all I could think was, “Wait! This is Donald Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal.” And then when the master praises him for his deal-making, what are we supposed to think: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so when it’s gone, you can be welcomed into their eternal homes?” No! Just no! 

While I have often praised parables for (kind of) slapping us upside the head and getting us to think outside the box, this is outrageous. It is, in fact, the most outrageous parable Jesus ever told. After I read it several times and could get no glimmer of a message about the realm of God, I turned to biblical commentaries. Surely someone had figured out the secret of this frankly offensive story. But, I discovered, almost every article or book I consulted began with “This is a difficult parable” or words to that effect. Well, no duh! Then they went all over the map in their interpretations.

I hate this parable!
So, I spent the week being outraged. I hated this parable. I was mad at Jesus for using these two reprobates as characters in his story. I was tempted to preach on the Amos text. I complained (maybe whined is a better word) to my partner and to other pastors.
If a parable is supposed to be an experience that evokes a response – this one did its job! But if it’s also supposed to bring about an insight or revelation about our life in the realm of God, then it was obvious that further digging had to be done. I can’t tell you the last time I had my Greek New Testament out. But if we were going to find any good news in here, drastic measures had to be taken.

So, let me say right up front, there is good news here.
But we’re going to have to go deep into the mine in order to find the gold.

The first thing we have to do (or rather not do) is assume that the master is God. That would take us way down the wrong tunnel. The other assumption not to make is that the financial system here is capitalism; it’s not. There’s a lot that could be said about financial practices in those days that might explain the master’s praise for the manager. But we won’t go down that tunnel either.

The next thing we have to work through is the parable’s title. Sometimes it’s called The Dishonest Manager, sometimes The Unjust Steward, or The Unrighteous Steward. Sometimes it’s The Shrewd Manager, or The Prudent Steward. So, I wondered, which is it? Dishonest isn’t the same as prudent or shrewd, right? This is where the Greek New Testament came in. It turns out we need to pay attention to that very first line, which could be translated: “There was a rich man who had a manager who was accused of wasting his possessions.

Now this was interesting. The Greek for ‘accuse’ has the sense of ‘falsely accuse, slander, lie about.’ The word is diaballein. Our word diabolic comes from the same root. The great Accuser in the Greek Bible is the Devil, diabolos. Ah, ha! The manager may be innocent after all. And if he’s been falsely accused, but can’t prove it, he can show his boss what a shrewd operator he is and always has been. So I’m going with The Shrewd Manager – which already makes it a very different story from The Dishonest Manager.

What did Jesus say?
The next thing we have to do is recognize that there’s been more than one hand at work in this text. Biblical scholars don’t all agree on the exact divisions, but the consensus is that the original parable told by Jesus ends at verse 8a: “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”

That’s a pretty typical kind of “Twilight Zone” ending we expect from a parable. Think of the landlord in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, who pays all the workers the same, regardless of how many hours they’d worked. Or the Samaritan who becomes the example of a good neighbor. It’s the shocking nature of such characters or actions that makes us look beyond the story for its meaning. So “the master commending the manager for acting shrewdly” may strike us as bizarre, but it’s actually a good ending for a parable.

But we don’t throw away the rest of the passage, which is Luke’s interpretation of the parable. Luke’s gospel has an ongoing theme of rich and poor and our relationship to wealth, which he, no doubt, gleaned originally from Jesus’ teaching and adds here. Many sermons have been preached from this perspective – which is just fine. But I’m going to stick with just the original parable and try to get at what Jesus could possibly have been trying to do here.

shoppingThe art of the deal
OK, we’ve got the title and the original parable. Now, we get to the meat of the story. What is of concern to us here is not the truth of the accusations brought against the manager by unnamed characters, but what he’s going to do about the situation in which he finds himself. He’s in a crisis; how will he respond? We know how; he makes deals.

Some would explain that the master made the best of a bad situation by sharing in the generous act of his manager. Others say that what we have here is one cynical businessman applauding a fellow con artist. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The important part is the manager’s response to his crisis. His prudent action is more important than speculations about any of their motivations. The Greek here refers to sensible, thoughtful, prudent, wise actions, by which he was able to move himself from impending disaster to a place of honor. In this story, Jesus commends the manager’s shrewdness.

This brings us to the heart of it. In the realm of God, the antidote to crisis is shrewdness. The Greek word here means to act with wisdom, intelligence, and prudence. It also has the connotation of doing what’s in your own best interest. It’s the same word in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus concluded, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and put them into practice is like a wise person who builds their house on a rock” In his sermon, Jesus says it’s in our best interest to build our lives on his teachings, his wisdom.

There are different types of parables: riddles, example parables with object lessons. This one is a challenge parable. And in it, we are being challenged to look at the crises in which we find ourselves with prudence and wisdom.


What’s your crisis?
So what crises are we in? We could start on the national level. And here I’m going to add Luke’s commentary in verse 8b: “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

In a book entitled State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States—and the Nation, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez focuses on powerful conservative groups that have emerged since the 1970s and have built their power at the state level. He also discusses progressive organizations that have tried to counter them. But most of these arrived on the scene too late and never developed enough strength to mount an effective opposition. He said, “The history of progressive state networks…might best be characterized by repeated cycles of panic.” We’re in a crisis because “the children of this age are more shrewd than the children of light.”

Coming at this from the religious angle, a similar movement began in the 90s when the religious right organized a take-over of many local school boards – more than 2,000 of them, one group claims. Citizens for Excellence in Education is a conservative religious organization dedicated to restoring classroom prayer and public school Bible reading, banishing sex education, and stopping “the homosexual/lesbian invasion” in public education. Its founder has written of his decision one night in the late 80s to form a nationwide network to help conservative Christians take over school boards. In a San Francisco motel, he wrote the war manual of the movement, “How to Elect Christians to Public Office.” While I’m sure they would never describe themselves as children of this age rather than children of light, we progressive Christians have experienced the crisis of being unfairly identified with the religious right. Many have questioned why we’re not able to counter this better. Maybe Jesus is right: They’re just more shrewd than we are.


“Wise up!” – Jesus
Jesus commends the manager, not because he’s a scoundrel, but because he used his head and acted quickly and cleverly. Jesus is saying essentially, “Look, if this guy can act shrewdly to save his hide, shouldn’t you be able to act shrewdly to advance the realm of God?

Another statement Jesus made is recorded in Matthew’s gospel: “Look, I’m sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”


Be as wise or as shrewd as a serpent?! It’s unusual in the Bible seeing the snake as a purveyor of wisdom, but there it is. As we know from the second creation story in Genesis, the serpent was more crafty than any other creature God had made.

How interesting that Jesus should encourage us to be crafty as well. This verse always reminds me of a colleague back in Buffalo. We were both pastors in the city and our congregations were part of a joint all-day Vacation Bible School for kids. It was a low-cost program that included lunch, field trips, etc. So naturally we had to find money to fund it. My colleague described writing grant proposals to both secular and religious funding organizations. He said, “When I’m writing a grant to a secular organization, I tone down the religious language and emphasize the need for safe child care in the summer and the free lunches for low-income families. When I’m applying to a religious organization, it’s all about the Bible School. See, you have to be as wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove!”

Going back to the Greek again, ‘innocent’ here isn’t about being naive or guilt-less. It actually means guileless, without falsity, without mixture of vice or deceit. So here we have the way we are called to deal with any crisis, be it of national proportion or your own personal predicament. We maintain our innocence, that is, we stick to what we’ve learned from Jesus. We stay true to ourselves and to God. We also use our God-given shrewdness, the wisdom that Jesus himself embodied, to get smart in dealing with the powers-that-be in this world, which know all too well about craftiness. So we have to claim ours, as well.

This is the challenge . . .
that Jesus lays out in this parable. I don’t think he had any intention of presenting it as an easy thing. We’ve been reading all summer about his heading toward Jerusalem and his calling us to the way of the cross. The gospel in all of this is the wisdom that we need to do that is already ours. We already have everything we need to take up the challenge. Christ is our Wisdom. When crisis times hit us, we – like the shrewd manager – can dig down into the depths of our souls and find a way to deal. Maybe not always in the way we’d prefer, but a way.

It’s a tough parable – the most outrageous one Jesus ever told. Parables are supposed to evoke a response, an insight, or a realization in us about what the realm of God is like and what our relationships and behavior would be in this new reality Jesus was always talking about. Maybe it’s one we need to really take some time in pondering, allowing wisdom to bubble up in the midst of our crisis times – and then taking it a step further and figuring out how to apply that wisdom, in a shrewd way, to the situations in need of our attention.

That’s the challenge; that’s the invitation. That’s the deal.



Luke 16:1-13
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So, he summoned him and said, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your work, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’

“Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg.
I know what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’

“So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

The man answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’
The manager said, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’

Then he asked another, ‘How much do you owe?’
This one replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’
The manager said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’

“And the master commended his manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

“I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”




Posted by: smstrouse | September 16, 2019

A Sermon for ‘Show Tune Sunday’

shutterstock_1333895981 copy
Delivered at Grace Lutheran Church, San Francisco, September 15, 2019

When I learned that this was Show Tune Sunday, a medley of musical numbers started playing in my head. Now I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of older musicals, although I’ve seen a number of them – mostly dinner, theater, community theater, and school productions. The first show I ever saw on Broadway was Hair and the last one was Spamalot, so you see how my tastes run. But, as President Obama said (see below), “whether we want to admit it or not, we all have the lyrics to a few Broadway songs stuck in our heads.” So, for me, this week was a sentimental journey back through some of the songs that remain firmly planted in my head.

I watched the video again of the finale of the 10th anniversary performance of Les Mis, with seventeen Jean Valjeans from around the world singing “Do You hear the People Sing?” Always gives me goosebumps! Then I had to listen to “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line. And “At the Ballet.” It’s funny how that one has stuck in my head. I’m no ballerina, but Sheila’s song of longing amidst her dysfunctional family has always resonated with me.


A painting inside the Tây Ninh Holy See depicting the Three Saints signing a covenant between God and humanity. From left to right: Sun Yat-sen, Victor Hugo and Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm.

I’m with President Obama on this too: “Musicals carry us to a different time and place, but in the end, they also teach us a little bit of something about ourselves.”

And oftentimes they can teach us about our relationship with God. The themes of suffering, forgiveness, grace, and redemption are so powerful in Les Misérables; it’s no wonder that Victor Hugo is worshipped as part of the pantheon of gods in the Cao Dai religion of Viet Nam.


Martin Luther also had quite a lot to say
about the power of music:

  • As long as we live there is never enough singing.
  • Music is the art of the prophets and the gift of God.
  • My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.

And my favorite:

  • Anyone who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being and should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.

4455204223_9c8f7dd911_bJesus Christ Superstar
Luther wasn’t around in 1970 when the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, debuted. But I have to believe he would have liked it. I remember parts of the album being played in church during Holy Week services that year. It was quite the revolutionary thing. It went to Broadway the following year, with Jeff Fenholt (who died just this past week) as Jesus, Ben Vereen as Judas, and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene. It seemed like those songs were everywhere. People I know from the interfaith community have told me that they knew all the words to all the songs. It seems that Superstar transcended religious boundaries. That became true again when Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert was broadcast on Easter Sunday last year, with John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Alice Cooper.

Do you have a favorite song from Jesus Christ Superstar? I’m partial to Hosanna Hey Sanna Sanna Sanna Hosanna . . . Especially the part where Jesus responds to the religious authorities:
Why waste your breath moaning at the crowd?
Nothing can be done to stop the shouting.
If every tongue were stilled
The noise would still continue.
The rocks and stone themselves would start to sing

I can’t think of a better Palm Sunday song than that one to imagine the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem that day.

Hamilton and Superstar
Speaking of revolutionary things, has anyone here seen Hamilton? I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve been listening to the soundtrack. And I have to say that I’m struck by some of the similarities between Hamilton and Jesus Christ Superstar.

First of all, they’re both versions of stories that took place in history and they’re told from a particular point of view. As a pastor, watching the new John Legend version of Superstar, I had some disagreements with it. For one, I always get apoplectic when Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a repentant prostitute. This version also ended with a quasi-resurrection scene, which the original did not have. I wouldn’t want someone who knows nothing about the Jesus story to get it only from this version. Having said that, though, we wouldn’t want to take only Matthew’s version, or Luke’s, or Mark’s, or John’s – each of them with a particular slant.

I’m sure historians have the same kind of reactions with Hamilton, also a version with a point of view, which shouldn’t be taken as literal fact. If we learn anything from these two musicals is that when we take the multiple versions of the story together – even with their discrepancies and inconsistencies – we’re more likely to find important truths within.

As I listened to the Hamilton sound track, it occurred to me how chaotic the early days of the United States must have been. While we tend to look back at the Founding Fathers as a monolithic unit, all in agreement with each other and in how to create a new government, it was actually quite messy. Same with the Jesus movement. Christianity didn’t spring forth fully formed from the head of Jesus. There were many versions living side by side until the Council of Nicea voted on the winning version in the 4thcentury.

Hamilton and Jesus Christ Superstar both have antagonists who open the show. Both Aaron Burr and Judas Iscariot counsel moderation, being cautious. Judas says it would have been safer for everyone if Jesus stayed in Nazareth, and Aaron Burr explains why he doesn’t like taking risks. Both become intricately connected to the title character and both deeply regret the part they play in the title character’s eventual death.

You also have two flamboyant, arrogant, over-the-top kings: King George and King Herod – just picture Alice Cooper as Herod. And two romantic interests: Eliza Schuyler and Mary Magdalen, both loving their respective men, both suffering because of it.

Both musicals are obsessed with the concepts of legacy and historical memory. How will you be remembered after you’re dead? Pontius Pilate, Judas, and Aaron Burr all lament how they’re doomed to be remembered as men who killed a great leader.

The song at the end of Hamilton asks “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.”
Aaron Burr: “When you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame?”
Eliza: And when my time is up, Have I done enough?
Company: Will they tell my story? Will they tell your story?

At the end of Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas sings:
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ

Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar
Do you think you’re what they say you are?

It’s a great ending, but the question really is: who do we think Jesus was and/or is? Does his legacy have anything to offer anyone today? The gospel writers were the ones to tell the story. Can we read them, not as dusty old books, but as Mel Brooks described musicals as “blowing the dust off our souls”?

The Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin
Take today’s reading from Luke include the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. What could Jesus better address than the state of being lost? I got lost once when I was in kindergarten. I went home with a friend (which I wasn’t supposed to do) and couldn’t find my way back home. I was found crying on a sidewalk somewhere by a woman who I remember only from about the knees down: a blue skirt and shoes and she was carrying a shopping bag. She called my parents who came and got me – and I might say unlike God, who doesn’t punish the repentant sinner – sent me to my room. That woman was Jesus to me that day and the lost was found.

I went on to bigger and better mistakes in my life and lost my way any number of times. Other people incarnated the loving arm of God sweeping me back into the fold. Musically speaking, I think we have to go back to Les Mis. After Jean Valjean is released from prison, no one will give him shelter because he’s an ex-con. Desperate, he knocks on the door of the bishop, who takes him in and treats him with kindness. Valjean repays the bishop by stealing his silverware. When he’s arrested, the bishop covers for him, claiming the silverware was a gift. Valjean is is released and promises the bishop that he will become an honest man. His song, “What Have I Done?” both reflects his anguish and shame at what he’d become and his wonder at being offered such extraordinary grace:

One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I had a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

Yes, there is.  The lost was found and has become a new person.

We may not be in as desperate straits as Jean Valjean, but we can surely understand the feeling of being lost at times. When we’re in a new situation, whether voluntarily or involuntarily; when life becomes confusing and we’re unsure of the way forward; when our old ways of doing things or coping don’t work anymore; when we feel betrayed or abandoned by someone we trusted – there are all kinds of situations when we feel lost.

Take for instance, this poor woman in Iceland:


When we’re lost, we all need to know that someone is looking, that somebody cares. And some days we’re the lost sheep and some days we’re the shepherd. Some days we’re the lost coin; some days we’re the woman with the broom. This is the legacy of Jesus, this outrageous, extraordinarily generous love that does not die, no matter how we may try to kill it.

It’s the grand finale of the musical, that should have us on our feet, clapping and dancing and singing all the way out of the theater into the streets, where others can’t help noticing something different about us.

As I wrote this, I was remembering the finale of Spamalot. As confetti and streamers rained down on the audience, we stood swaying and singing along with cast “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Totally inappropriate for church!  But maybe just this little bit will work:

Always look on the bright side of life
If life seems jolly rotten,
There’s something you’ve forgotten!
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing,
When you’re feeling in the dumps,
Don’t be silly chumps,
Just purse your lips and whistle — that’s the thing!

Or, we could sing “Tomorrow” from Annie, remembering as President Obama said,

Musicals carry us to a different time and place, but in the end, they also teach us a little bit of something about ourselves.



Contemporary Reading                         by Barack Obama[1]

Now, as we’re about to see this evening, there’s nothing quite like the power and the passion of Broadway music. At its heart, it’s the power of a story-–of love and of heart-break; of joy and sorrow; singing witches, dancing ogres. Musicals carry us to a different time and place, but in the end, they also teach us a little bit of something about ourselves. It’s one of the few genres of music that can inspire the same passion in an eight-year-old that it can an 80-year-old–-and make them both want to get up and dance. It transcends musical tastes, from opera and classical to rock and hip-hop. And whether we want to admit it or not, we all have the lyrics to a few Broadway songs stuck in our heads.        

In many ways, the story of Broadway is also intertwined with the story of America. Some of the greatest singers and songwriters Broadway has ever known came to this country on a boat with nothing more than an idea in their head and a song in their heart. And they succeeded the same way that so many immigrants have succeeded-–through talent and hard work and sheer determination.

Over the years, musicals have also been at the forefront of our social consciousness, challenging stereotypes, shaping our opinions about race and religion, death and disease, power and politics.

But perhaps the most American part of this truly American art form is its optimism. Broadway music calls us to see the best in ourselves and in the world around us-–to believe that no matter how hopeless things may seem, the nice guy can still get the girl, the hero can still triumph over evil, and a brighter day can be waiting just around the bend.

As the great Mel Brooks once said, musicals “blow the dust off your soul.”



Gospel Reading                   Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”



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