Posted by: smstrouse | July 15, 2018

Bring Me the Head of John the Baptist!

head-of-st-john-the-baptist-1600-1650-cleveland-museum_of_art-300x194A SERMON FOR JULY 15, 2018

It’s not the kind of thing you want to think about on a beautiful summer day. But the beheading of John the Baptizer shows up today as our appointed reading – so here we are. I was tempted to make a switch, to substitute another gospel story. Maybe a nice miracle, like turning water into wine. Or how’s this for a summer’s day: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”  Tempting, indeed.

But that gory image of the head of John the Baptizer on a platter wouldn’t go away. There was something strange about those sixteen verses in Mark 6:14-29, something puzzling. Now I love solving puzzles, so I started looking more closely. But the more I looked, the more curious it became. Here’s the thing: Mark’s gospel is the shortest one of the four. You could say that it’s the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the Jesus story. There’s no unnecessary information, no extra details. It would be up to Matthew and Luke to later add their own material to this bare-bones account.

So what’s up with sixteen whole verses about the beheading of John? Notice that Jesus isn’t even mentioned, nor is there anything about the message Jesus had been preaching and teaching about – the realm of God. But if we’ve learned one thing about the gospel writers, it’s they crafted their accounts with intentionality and purpose. So the puzzle here is why this gruesome story pops up now – just about midway through the public ministry of Jesus, just after he has sent out the disciples to carry on the work.  What’s going on here? What’s Mark trying to tell us?

The picture that began to emerge was a study in contrasts. Up to this point, Mark is all about the realm of God, which meant the liberation and welfare of the people in the here and now, which Jesus was proclaiming now to be in effect. But suddenly the image shifts like one of those optical illusions and now what we’re seeing in these sixteen verses is the reality of empire, of the brutality of the Roman occupation. Taken alone, this picture looks like very bad news: empire trumps gospel. But then, immediately following this passage, the picture shifts again and Mark gets us back to the realm of God with the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Very curious.

I’ll be honest; this story really spoke to me this week. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been struggling lately to process all the bad news from our own version of empire. There’s even a word for it: outrage fatigue syndrome. Day in and day out, the nefari-ousness just keeps coming, so fast that there’s no time to absorb one disaster before we’re confronted with another. The heady enthusiasm and hopefulness after the Women’s March in 2017 and vows to join the resistance have turned to weariness –sometimes even despair. I don’t think I’m the only one to feel it; I hear people talking about it all the time.

So, in a powerful way, the story of John’s death is a reality check. It reminds us that going up against empire is not quick and easy, it’s dangerous, and it’s soul-wearying. When we tell the story of Jesus, we often forget that his story is set smack-dab in the middle of Roman occupation. But everything that Jesus said and did has to be under-stood in the context of Roman imperial order and resistance to it. Jesus consistently contrasted what life is like when we live in the realm of God with what life is like under imperial rule. And of course, he was killed by imperial power.

However, we know that his execution was not the end of the story. So, while Mark gives us a heavy dose of reality today, we know that there’s still good news to be found. For us, as we live in our own version of imperial rule, the question then becomes: how do we live faithfully, according to God’s realm, without succumbing to outrage fatigue syndrome?

As I thought about all this, I remembered that I wrote several blog posts last year at the beginning of the current administration and looked back to see if any of it still made sense. And I rediscovered the book I read on my way to Washington D.C. for the Women’s March. It’s called Spiritual DefianceBuilding a Beloved Community of Resistance by Robin Meyers. It actually came out in 2015, which reminds us that the “empire” we are called to resist is not limited to the current regime. The realm of God is always at odds with the powers-that-be and the church should return to its roots as a community of resistance.

This is what he says about being a community of resistance: by resistance I mean that the church of Jesus Christ should be, as it once was, an “embodied force opposed,” a beloved community of defiance, a joyful but resilient colony of dissenters from the forces death (both physical and spiritual) that destroy and marginalize creation. The assumed premise here is that compliance with the unacceptable, even through apathy or indifference, is a sin. The body of Christ was born to resist in love all that is the enemy of love.

I think I can safely say that St. Francis, as well as many other congregations, have indeed been beloved communities of defiance. We don’t need to be convinced to join the resistance. What we do need is encouragement for the struggle, for those times – like the beheading of John was in Jesus’ day – when it seems like the powers of death are winning. We need to be able to see the big picture of the gospel and know that ultimately, love wins.

So here’s what I had to say back in March of 2017 –with some updated commentary:

If there’s one thing we know, it’s that our resistance against the dismantling of our democracy is going to be a long haul. I hate to use war imagery, but it seems appropriate to say that we’re waging a war with innumerable fronts: health care, the environment, the rights of women, immigrants and refugees, transgender people, Black people, Muslim people, scientists, etc., etc., etc.  (little did we know then the extent of attacks on all these fronts).

My email inbox overflows with petitions, calls for letter-writing and phone-calling – and of course, requests for donations. I’m approaching burn-out. And from what I hear from others, I’m not an isolated case. (and this was over a year ago!) So here’s the thing, members of the resistance: we have to develop a strategy for the long haul. I’ve been giving this some thought, and here’s what I’ve come up with for both my own activism and my own sanity.

1. Choose your battles. It will be impossible to sustain energy for every one of the fronts under attack by the current regime. I suggest picking one, two, or three (however many you have the ability to make an impact) and put your efforts into those. I find that I am most passionate about women’s issues and countering Islamaphobia. This doesn’t mean that I don’t care about all the other despicable actions being taken in other areas. I’ll join in resisting those as I’m able. But my main focus will be in my two primary choices. This also means that I’m going to have to trust that people of good will are stepping up and putting their effort into the areas they’re most passionate about. And I will give them my full endorsement and encouragement We are truly all in this together.

(What I find helpful these days is seeking out stories of people and organizations who are doing really good and important work. Like RAICES, an organization working to reunite children and parents separated at the border. Like The Religious Institute, helping people of faith express their support for the health care provided by Planned Parenthood. Like the United Religions Initiative, which seeks to bridge differences between people of all beliefs, to create community, and to solve local and global challenges. There are many, many people and groups doing amazing things. It’s a valuable spiritual practice to seek out their stories and to consciously express gratitude for the hard work they’re doing day in and day out.

2. Find your community. The resistance can’t be waged solely on an individual basis. Collaboration is the name of the game. Not only is it more effective in getting things done, it’s also better for morale to be among those working for the same goals. As Robert Fulghum wrote inAll I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.

(I’m reminded of last week’s gospel when Jesus sends the disciples out in pairs. I imagine them encouraging each other on the way. When one became discouraged, the other could give emotional support. When they had an exciting encounter, they could share the exhilaration together. Now, church can – should – fulfil that function. The sad irony today is that so many people are rejecting the church, yet are searching desperately for community, a place to be accepted, supported, and encouraged.)

3. Be positive. I know, this is a hard one. But Michelle Obama had it right: “When they go low, we go high.” We need to keep our language civil and stop hurling epithets at those with whom we disagree. As a Christian, I need to continually remind myself of the belovedness of each and every person in the eyes of God. That doesn’t mean I have to condone their behavior. But if I truly believe that the presence of divinity in each person means that there is always the possibility of transformation, then I must include even He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

(I know there’s been controversy about this lately, brought on by a restaurant’s request for a member of the administration to leave, and other recent incidents. I think there’s a wonderful opportunity here for us in the church to have a conversation about how to do civil disobedience and civil resistance. It can be done).

4. Rely on your spiritual practice. This might be Sunday worship. It might be your own private prayer or meditation. It might also be getting out into nature, immersing yourself in writing, music or art. This isn’t an escape from the world; it’s part of how we are called to be in the world.  

Take the example of Vedran Smailović. During the brutal four-year siege of Sarajevo SarajevoCellist_VedranSmailovicin the 90s during the Bosnian War, Smailović, a cellist with the Sarajevo Opera and the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, came to the ruined square of a downtown Sarajevo marketplace where a mortar round had killed twenty-two people waiting for food. For twenty-two days, in the midst of bombed out buildings and often under the threat of snipers, he played. I can’t think of a more powerful expression of prayer. His example is a reminder to me of the power of beauty and wonder in the midst of unspeakable tragedy.

So whatever gets you in touch with something bigger than yourself and inspires your soul – do it. It will be the fuel that will fire your imagination and energize your resistance. We don’t have the luxury of burning out.

The beheading of John the Baptizer did not end the Jesus movement. Neither did the crucifixion of Jesus himself. The gospel lifts us up when we are tired. The realm of God sustains us in the struggle. Our congregations can be communities of resistance which will keep the fire of liberation and freedom burning.



Mark 6:14-29
Meanwhile, Herod, the ruler of Judea, had heard about Jesus, whose reputation had become widespread. Some people were saying, “John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead, and that is why such miraculous powers are at work in him.”
Others said, “He is Elijah.” And others: “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”When Herod heard of Jesus, he exclaimed, “John, whom I beheaded, has risen from the dead.”

Now it was Herod who had ordered John arrested, chained and imprisoned on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom Herod had married.For John had told Herod, “It is against the Law for you to have your brother’s wife.”
As for Herodias, she was furious with John and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so. Herod feared John, knowing him to be good and holy, and kept him in custody. When Herod heard John speak, he was very much disturbed; yet he was moved by John’s words.

Herodias had her chance one day when Herod on his birthday held a dinner for the court circle, military officers and leaders of Galilee.When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, this delighted Herod and the guests so much that he told the young woman, “Ask me anything you like and I will give it to you.”And Herod swore an oath, “I will give you anything you ask, even half of my entire realm.”
She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?”

Herodias replied, “The head of John the Baptizer.”
The woman hurried back to Herod and made her request, “I want you to give me the head of John the Baptizer on a platter.”

Herod was deeply distressed by this request, but remembering the oath he swore before, he was reluctant to break his oath to her. So Herod immediately sent one of the guards with orders to bring John’s head. The guard beheaded john in prison, then brought the head on a platter and gave it to the young woman, who gave it to her mother.When John’s disciples heard about this, they came and took the body away and laid it in a tomb.








At first, I thought from the title that I was going to disagree with the author. But that was not the case at all. She clearly states the case for the need to pay attention to our language.

I had a startling experience in church recently. It was Father’s Day, and the pastor was talking about how “God is our heavenly Father.” For the first time in 17 years, that idea held some appeal to me. But no sooner did the thought enter my mind, then it was ripped away by the realization that my church will never allow me to symbolize the divine as a “father.”

I grew up with “God the Father” language saturating my churches. I also grew up with a rageful, unsafe, sometimes abusive father, who was also wonderful, empowering, and feminist in many ways. Seventeen years ago, I attended my first seminary lecture on the topic of Feminist Theology. That day changed my life, as did my exposure to feminist theology throughout seminary and at a queer Methodist congregation. My journey took me through more scholarship and liturgy, jobs as chaplain or as…

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Posted by: smstrouse | July 8, 2018

Following Jesus in the Trump Era

Tom the Dancing Bug

A Sermon for Sunday, July 8, 2018

A very strange thing happened a couple of weeks ago. You might not have caught it, but to my mind it was an incredible phenomenon. Let me say, first of all, that I am a news junkie. I’ve had to limit my intake lately just to stay sane, but on June 15 and for a few days after the airwaves were really lighting up. June 15, you might remember is the day that Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted from the New Testament book of Romans to justify the policy of separating immigrant children from their parents. And with that, all of a sudden, the Bible became a hot topic of conversation and Jesus began popping up in unexpected places.

News commentators were not only quoting the Bible, some of them were talking about what Christianity means to them. Matt Miller, former spokesperson for Attorney General Eric Holder and a frequent guest on news shows, outed himself as the son of a Baptist minister, saying, “That’s not the Bible I was taught.” On MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell unabashedly preached about Jesus over several nights.

n_vr_wwjd_180615_1920x1080.860;484;7;70;5The really surprising one, though was Ali Velshi, who is a business and economics correspondent. He began his segment by saying, “Some of you probably don’t know this about me, but I have a bachelor’s degree in religion. And we’re about to go to church.” Whereupon he whipped out a Bible and started quoting from scripture. Never mind that Velshi is a Muslim; he was preaching right out of the gospels! Even Stephen Colbert got serious about it in his Late Show monologue, as he began quoting the Bible, too! All I could think was, “Oh my God, these people are witnessing!”

Now, I’m a Lutheran. I know how shy we can be about sharing our faith. The hardest slots to fill in church are on the evangelism committee. And it’s no wonder. Talking about your faith to another person could be the very definition of vulnerability. You just don’t know how you’re going to be received.

I mean, look at Jesus. Even he had to admit failure with the crowd at Nazareth. You’d think the hometown folks would have been proud of him. But the gospels tell us that they couldn‘t get past the fact that he was just Mary’s kid. That was such a stumbling block that they were unable to get anything out of his teaching. Jesus was able to do very little there. Luke’s gospel goes even further by telling that they were so appalled by Jesus that they tried to run him off a cliff. All Jesus could do was mutter, “Prophets aren’t without honor, except in their own hometown.”

But he didn’t quit. In fact, he sent his disciples out to continue the work. I’ve always wondered what Jesus did while they were out there without him. In my imagination, he went off on retreat – which he often did, going off to a mountain to pray or to a quiet place away from the crowds. I imagine that he needed some time to recover from being so rejected by his own people. Remember, too, just a few weeks ago, we read a few chapters back in Mark about his mother and siblings coming to get him because they thought he’d gone out of his mind. Poor Jesus. Maybe he needed time to recenter himself. Of course, he would need to be centered in his identity and his message for the ultimate rejection of the cross.

We all need to be grounded and centered in our identities as followers of Jesus in order to do the work of witnessing – whether by words or by deeds. Our actions in the world have to be balanced with times of inner reflection and refreshment. Because, as Jesus well knew, the work isn’t easy. He didn’t tell them to shake the dust from their feet when they’re not well received just in case that might happen. He knew it would happen.

So there are some valuable lessons we can glean today from the instructions Jesus gave so long ago. We may not need to worry about sandals or how many tunics we have, but we do need to keep it simple. Sharing your story is simply all that it takes. Talking about what being a follower of Jesus is like for you is all you need to do. You don’t need a theological degree or extensive biblical knowledge. You don’t have to be able to explain how the Trinity works or what how the doctrine of transubstantiation is different from consubstantiation. All you need is your story.

Another lesson we can glean here is that we should be unattached to the outcome of our sharing. That’s good Buddhist teaching, but Jesus has it here, too. Not everyone will want to hear your story. Not everyone will appreciate that what you do in the world is a result of being a follower of Jesus. Some may even be downright rude or hostile about it. For some people, Christinaity (or any religion) is at best foolish, at worse, destructive. Don’t take it peronally. All you need to do is move on. Shaking the dust from your shoes needn’t be a hostile act to them in return, but simply one of letting go of that person. And continuing to tell your story to others.

A third lesson is: we’re not in this alone. I’m sustained in my ministry by my pastor, my spirtual director, my spirtual friends. I couldn’t do it without them helping to keep me grounded and centered in God’s Spirit. As Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs, I imagine them encouraging each other on the way. When one became discouraged, the other could give emotional support. When they had an exciting encounter, they could share the exhiliration together. Now, church can – should – fulfil that function. The sad irony today is that so many people are rejecting the church, yet are searching deperately for community, a place to be accepted, supported, and encouraged.

There are a lot of reasons for the decline of the chruch – some of our own making, some not. But maybe things are changing. Maybe as even secualr news stations talk about Jesus, we’ll find it a little easier to talk about our faith and our convictions that come out of our religious tradition, our sacred texts. Maybe we’ll be brave enough to say, ” I care about these issues and I do this work because I’m a follower of Jesus.” That’s not a way of discounting the religious tradition of someone else or of some-one’s having no religious tradition at all. It’s simply your story.

 In closing, I’ll share with you part of my story. Back in January, as I was participating in the annual Martin Luther King March in San Francisco, I noticed there were very few signs or banners from churches and few clergy wearing collars or other clerical garb – including myself. I noticed this again at the Women’s March later that week. And I realized how important it was to have the presence of faith communities visible and vocal in these public gatherings.

35113976_2165792116769926_3533260304957833216_nSo last month, when the Pride Parade came around, I agreed to be one of the coordinators of the Lutheran Reconciling Works contingent. So I marched, along with other Lutheran clergy and lay folks, and three bishops. And under my tee shirt that proclaimed “My Faith Does Not Discriminate” I wore my collar. The bishops and some of the other clergy also were decked out in clerical garb. Lay members of St. Mark’s Lutheran, SF carried the Reconciling Works banner. Others carried signs with the names of our churches that are Reconciling in Christ congregations. We handed out Luther Rose stickers. We were a36188880_10214984360335767_3921558720412123136_n very strong presence in the parade this year.

And I have to tell you how receptive people were. I made a point to try to make eye contact with people in the crowd along the way. I noticed that there were many people who smiled and made eye contact back, many who said “Thank you.” People cheered the bishops. I felt very strongly that we were making a powerful witness to the all-inclusive love of Christ, and that people appreciated it. After the parade, I was stopped by a group of young people I didn’t know. They asked it they could take my picture because they loved my tee shirt.  It was a wonderful witnessing moment.

But I have to tell you another quick story. At the same parade, my friend John – decked out with a rainbow umbrella and a rainbow pin, along with his clerical collar – was asked by a young woman if he was anti-gay. John was shocked – given the rainbow umbrella and rainbow pin. But she said she thought because of the collar that he might be there as an anti-gay protester.

Folks, we have a lot of work to do out there. Your witness is needed in all kinds of places. And if Ali Velshi can do it, so can you. Just remember:
Keep it simple.
Don’t be attached to outcome.
And stick together.

In the name of Jesus.



Mark 6:1-13
After leaving there, Jesus came into his own town, followed by the disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and the many listeners were astounded and said, “Where did he learn all this? What is this wisdom that has been granted, and these miracles that are performed by his hands? Isn’t this the carpenter, son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses and Judah and Simon?  Are not his sisters here with us?” They found these things to be stumbling blocks. Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their own hometown and among their own relatives and in their own households.”

And he could work no miracles there, apart from laying his hands upon a few sick people and healing them; their lack of faith astounded him. He made the rounds of the neighboring villages instead, and spent the time teaching.

Then Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out in pairs, giving them authority over unclean spirits. He instructed that they should take nothing for their journey, except a mere staff – no bread, no bag, no money in their belts.  They were to wear sandals, but he added, “Do not take a spare tunic.”
And Jesus said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave town. Any place that does not receive you or listen to, as you leave it, shake off the dust from the soles of your feet as a testimony against them.”

And so they set off, proclaiming repentance as they went. They cast out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.




Posted by: smstrouse | June 15, 2018

Rescued By Jesus?

shipwrecked-2018-easy-vbs-logoIt’s been a long time since I’ve had to shop for Vacation Bible School programs. So they’re not usually on my radar. But I this one caught my eye. Shipwrecked: Rescued By Jesus is a program from Group Publishing that I saw today on the website of one of the local churches in my denomination. 

I don’t have any argument with the “shipwrecked” theme. I also don’t have any argument with the blurb describing the program:
Venture onto an uncharted island where kids survive and thrive. Anchor kids in the truth that Jesus carries them through life’s storms.

But the second part of the title troubled me: “Rescued By Jesus.” Rescued from what? For41XsRk3cfHL._SL500_AA300_ what? I’m wary of a theological message that says that God/Jesus will save or protect us from all trouble and harm. That’s a dangerous message to give to kids (to anyone, for that matter) who will undoubtedly encounter situations from which no ‘rescuer’ from the sky is going to swoop down and make it all go away. One of the songs, “Rescue Me” (not the Fontella Bass version) has lyrics that say:

The waves are crashing all around
I need you God and I need you now. Rescue me.
I can feel the water rising. Rescue me, Jesus

Maybe it’s OK if we’re speaking only metaphorically. But I’m not sure kids would get the distinction. To be fair, there are other songs that are pretty good. The theme song, “Holding on to Your Promises,” says:

Through every storm of life
I know you’re by my side. 
So I am holding on
to your promises.

It’s one thing to know that God/Jesus is with us even when we’re in the midst of a storm. It’s quite another to expect that we’ll be rescued. That’s an expectation/idea of God that I believe needs to go. Because when bad things do happen, the obvious question becomes, “Why didn’t God help me?” Or “Why didn’t God heal me?” Or any number of ways we feel we have not been rescued. 

Marcus Borg was once asked at a workshop about resource material for kids. He replied that he didn’t have any specific recommendations, but he did give this advice: don’t teach kids what they’ll later have to unlearn. I think those are wise words to follow. 

Posted by: smstrouse | June 15, 2018

Battle for the Bible

1535ecbf2222493496c9b46e7d93d63f_1LX2J4I_headerIf there’s anything good that has come out of the insidious statements by Jeff Sessions and Sarah Huckabee Sanders that separating children from their parents is biblical, it is this: the Bible has become big news.
And not the Sessions/Sanders version. The news cycle has been filled with reactions to this latest blasphemous outrage. And what encourages me about this is hearing commentators speaking up about what Christianity means to them.
OMG, are they witnessing?! 
Matt Miller, a frequent guest on The Rachel Maddow Show and other MSNBC news shows, former spokesperson for AG Eric Holder, responded to this nonsense by outing himself as the son of a Baptist minister, saying, “That’s not the Bible I was taught.”
Both Ali Velshi and Lawrence O’Donnell had  Father James Martin, SJ on their shows to explain what is really in the Bible:

It is not biblical to treat migrants and refugees like animals.
It is not biblical to take children away from their parents.
It is not biblical to ignore the needs of the stranger.
It is not biblical to enforce unjust laws.
Do not use the Bible to justify sin.

O’Donnell has spoken before about Christianity, but I’d never heard Velshi do so. Yesterday, he began his segment by saying, “Some of you probably don’t know this about me, but I have a bachelor’s degree in religion. And we’re about to go to church.” Whereupon he whipped out his Bible and started quoting from scripture.

Wow! This is left wing TV – and they’re quoting Jesus! 

Even Stephen Colbert got serious about it. “If that sounds evil, then good news: your ears are working.” And then he began quoting the Bible, too!

Here’s what I think. If these news commentators and comedians can quote passages from the Bible that talk about caring for the poor, the immigrant, the children, the religious ‘other,’ and all vulnerable people – then so can we.

Yes, it’s been hard to claim the name Christian for a while now. It’s been too identified with people with whom we do not want to be identified. But maybe that’s changing. Maybe it’s gone too far, and we’re ready to take the name back. Maybe we’ll find it a little easier to talk about our faith and our convictions that come out of our religious tradition, our sacred texts. Maybe we’ll be brave enough to say, “Yes, I care about these issues and these people because I’m a follower of Jesus.”

So let’s follow the example of the apostles Miller, O’Donnel, Martin, Colbert, and Velshi and get out there and witness, too – for Christ’s sake! 



Posted by: smstrouse | June 9, 2018

Who Is My Family: a Sermon for Pentecost 3

Pentecost 3                  Genesis 3:8-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

Who’s My Family?
Twenty-some years ago, when I was a chaplain at Sisters of Charity Hospital in Buffalo, NY, I became friendly with one of the other chaplains – Kathy. One day, Kathy invited me out for dinner; she had something she wanted to ask me. I said OK, not having any idea what the something might be. After dinner, Kathy explained that she’d been in therapy for a while for some issues with her family, and now her therapist was suggesting that she put together a healthy family with members of her own choosing. She asked if I would consider being her big sister. I was honored to be asked. I was honored several years later when she and her husband asked me to be godmother to their first daughter. It was good to be part of this intentional family.

Then, the cool thing was, as I was telling this to an older acquaintance, she said that she’d love to be my sister, too. Her relationship with her own sister was strained to say the least. So I also acquired an older sister. Now, for me, this wasn’t about doing these friends a favor. I have had my own family issues. If you’d ask about my relationship with my family, I’d have to say, in the words of Facebook “It’s complicated.”

I suspect that’s true for many of us. For some, even “It’s complicated” might be too positive. I saw a post the other day on Facebook that said: DfA-E_rU8AI1kixI think “support yourself” means “love and care for yourself” in this context. At least I hope it does.

Reading the gospel text for today, I couldn’t help thinking that that could have been written by Jesus. You know, so often, when we think of Jesus, we picture this perfect man kind of floating around in a pious cloud, not having to deal with messy human realities like family. Yet, here we have snapshot from the Mary and Joseph family album that’s a lot different from those sweet baby pictures of the holy family in Bethlehem. Here we have a story of Jesus’ relatives – mother, brothers, sisters – coming to “take charge of him” because they thought he had lost his mind. To be fair, Jesus was going about teaching in a way that was challenging the religious and political authorities. Maybe they thought that one would have to be crazy to poke the bear of church and state. They were right to be fearful for him. But they didn’t understand that it wasn’t madness that drove him; nor was it Beelzebul, as the religious leaders thought. It was the vision of God’s realm that invites us to participate in a family beyond the bounds of the biological – and even the intentional – families to which we belong.

I mean, listen to what he says. As he’s teaching, one of the people in the crowd listening to him breaks in to tell him that his mother and brothers are outside asking for him. Jesus immediately turns this into a teaching moment and says, “Who is my mother? Who is my family?”Looking around at them all, he says, “You’re my family! Anyone who’s doing the will of God is my sister, my brother, my mother.”

This was unheard of. It was one thing for him to violate the Sabbath (like last week), but this time Jesus was undermining the very fabric of society. In that culture – as in Arab and Jewish culture to this day – nobody talks about their family like that. Family’s the core reality around which every other aspect of life revolves. Yet Jesus turns his back on his own kin, embracing here a new kind of family, one created through relationship with God rather than by blood.

Now I don’t believe that Jesus was issuing some kind of commandment that we should all go out and disown our family members. I think the family relationship status on his Facebook page would also say, “It’s complicated.” We have the stories of Jesus disrespecting his parents at a young age when he stayed behind to talk with teachers in the temple. We hear him being rather snippy with his mother at the wedding in Cana. When Mary tells him that the wine has run out, he retorts,  “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?”

But we also have him reminding his disciples of the commandment to “honor your father and mother.” And John’s gospel tells of Mary standing near the cross with the disciple that Jesus loved. When Jesus saw them, he said to his mother, “Here is your son” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother,” ensuring that his mother would be cared for after he was gone. Complicated, messy human relationships. Jesus knew all about that from his own experience. And knows all about it from our experiences as well.

His declaration that “Here’s my family, here with all of you” breaks wide open the possibilities for healthy relationships within the human family, among those who seek to dwell in God’s realm of compassion, justice, and peace. Possibilities, perhaps for reconciliation with relatives who have not been loving or accepting. But perhaps not. Forgiving someone can happen even when there’s no repentance on their part, because to forgive means letting go of that person – to stop allowing them, as Dr. Phil would say, “to rent space in your head.” It does not mean condoning what they’ve done or continuing to put up with it.

Reconciliation can also happen, but only in a spirit of mutual acceptance and respect. When that’s not present, there’s no reason to continue being disrespected, unloved, or abused. That is not God’s realm of compassion, justice, and peace. We need to remember that the realm of God is not only a dream of some day in the future after we die; it’s right here and right now.

So, perhaps this Pride month, we are a little more mindful of those who might need to hear: “Congratulations! I’m your family now. Stay hydrated. Eat your veggies and support your-self. I’m proud of you.” As citizens of God’s realm of compassion, peace, and justice, we need to reach out to convey that message – and then follow through on it.

I have to tell you that when I became Kathy’s sister, I had to stop and think about what that meant; what were my responsibilities as a sister? This was more than friendship; this was family, healthy family. Did I know how to do that? It also called into question my relationships with my two brothers, with whom I’d not been close. I began to seek ways to connect and be an accepting, caring sister. I found that, in God’s realm, transformation can happen.

We might also be mindful this month of our own need to hear “Congratulations! I’m your family now. I’m proud of you.” And if that’s true, I encourage you to take the courageous step of asking someone to be part of your intentional family. Maybe it’s not even a formal invitation, like mine was. Maybe it’s just being thankful for someone who is already filling that place in your heart. In which case, it would be a great idea to tell them how grateful you are for them.

Before I close, I do want to offer a word of caution. Sometimes we think of church as family. Which is fine – unless it becomes a closed system that no one else can break into. I’ve seen it happen in congregations unknowingly. It’s not what they set out to do, but the circle becomes so close, so tight that it’s almost impossible for anyone else to join.

A congregation I served many years ago had as its symbol a circle of people holding hands. The problem was that there were no openings in the circle for anyone else to get in. This was a small congregation. The altar was in the round and everyone was able to come to the table for Communion at the same time – which was very lovely. But I often wondered what would happen if more people joined and there wasn’t enough room for everyone at one table. We did grow enough to experience that, but before too long the numbers dwindled back down so the “family” could be together. That’s the danger. That’s not the kind of family Jesus is talking about here.

Sometimes the circle is tight because of a shared experience, whether joyous or tragic. Bonding naturally happens, but the question then must be asked, “How do we include others who haven’t had the same bonding experience? Or who aren’t like us? That’s the call to the church in every age, but now more than ever. With diminishing numbers across the church, it would be too easy to circle the wagons and close ourselves off in survival mode. But that’s not what the realm of God is about. The commonwealth of God is open, flexible, ready to move, ready to change in response to changing needs – not to change the message of the gospel of compassion, justice, and peace – but how to deliver it to a changing world. What also doesn’t change is the human need to belong. In Jesus, we have the unique opportunity to offer community and real human connection to people, especially to those who are estranged from their family for whatever reason.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean we’ve lost our minds. Being part of the church doesn’t mean we check our brains at the door. Here, family doesn’t mean being exclusionary. All really are welcome. That is as radical and countercultural as it was in Jesus’ day. And we celebrate that fact.

So congratulations! We’re family now. So stay hydrated. Eat your veggies and support one another. I am proud of you.



Genesis 3:8-15
For my commentary on this text, see “Eve Was Framed here.

When they heard the sound of YHWH walking in the garden in the cool of the evening, the man and the woman hid from YHWH’s presence among the trees of the garden. YHWH called to the man: “Where are you?”

“I heard you walking in the garden,” replied the mam, “I was afraid because I was naked and I hid.”
“Who told you of nakedness? Have you eaten from the tree whose fruit I forbade you to eat?”
The man replied, “It was the woman you put beside me; she gave me fruit, and I ate it.”
Then YHWH asked the woman, “What is this that you have done?”
The woman said, “The snake tempted me, so I ate.”
Then YHWH said to the snake, “Because you have done this, you are accursed: lower than the cattle. Lower than the wild beasts; you will crawl on your belly and eat dust every day of your life.I will make you put enemies of one another, you and the woman, your offspring and hers; her offspring will wound you on the head, and you will wound hers in the heel.”

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
But as we have the same spirit of faith that is mentioned in scripture -“I believed, and therefore I spoke” – we too believe and also speak,knowing that the one who raised Jesus to life will in turn raise us with Jesus, and place you with us in God’s presence.You see, all of this is for your benefit, so that grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow, to the glory of God. That is we don’t lose heart. And though this physical self of our may be falling into decay, the inner self is renewed day by day. These light and momentary troubles train us to carry the weight of an eternal glory, which will make these troubles insignificant by comparison. And we have no eyes for things that are visible, but only for things that are invisible; visible things last only for a time, but the invisible are.For we know that when our earthly tent is folded up, there is waiting for us a house built by God, an everlasting home in the heavens, not made by human hands.

Mark 3:20-35
Then Jesus went home and again such a crowd gathered that he and the disciples were unable even to eat a meal. When Jesus’ relatives heard of this, they went out to take charge of him, thinking that he had lost his mind. The religious scholars who had come down from Jerusalem said of Jesus, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “He casts out demons through the ruler of the demons.”
Summoning them, Jesus spoke in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?If a realm is torn by civil strife, it cannot last.If a household is divided according to loyalties, it will not survive.Similarly,if Satan has suffered mutiny in the ranks and is torn by dissention, the Devil is finished and cannot endure.No attacker can enter a stronghold unless the defender is first put under restraint. Only then can the attacker plunder the stronghold. The truth is, every sin and all the blasphemies the people utter will be forgiven, but those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness they are guilty of an eternal sin.” Jesus spoke of all this because they said, “He is possessed by an unclean spirit.”
Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived and sent in a message asking for him.A crowd was sitting around Jesus, and they said to him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
Jesus replied, “Who is my mother? Who is my family?”
And looking at everyone there, Jesus said, “This is my family! Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my sister, my brother, my mother.”

Posted by: smstrouse | June 3, 2018

Sabbath: Rest, Remember, and Respond

sabbath-300x190A Sermon for Pentecost 2     June 3, 2018     
Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6

Way back in the dark ages when I was little, my family moved into a new house. I remember the day we moved in and met the kids next door: Carole Jane and Lee. Carole Jane was my age. Lee was a little older, so he was assigned to walk me to school the next day and show me where my first grade room was located. Needless to say, we all bonded pretty quickly. But I soon discovered a fact about my new neighbors that was new to me. They weren’t allowed to play on Sunday. No going to the movies either. Nothing. Their mom explained that they followed the third commandment: remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Even at that young age, and even though we went to Sunday school every week, I remember feeling a bit like we were the new heathen kids on the block.

This was in Pennsylvania, where the blue laws were still on the books. William PennWilliam_Penn himself had written Sabbath-keeping into the law in 1682: “Whoever does or performs any worldly employment or business whatsoever on the Lord’s day . . . works of necessity and charity only exempted, or uses or practices any game, hunting, shooting, sport or diversion whatsoever on the same day not authorized by law is considered to be a law breaker.” This was serious business. Not only were you breaking God’s law, but state law, too. Of course, blue laws have largely been done away with. Even the neighbor kids were eventually allowed to play with the heathens next door on Sunday afternoons.

For good or bad – maybe a combination of both – keeping Sabbath is no longer a civic responsibility. But it is still a commandment, although one that I would contend has become increasingly more challenging to keep – at least in the way my former neighbors did. But that’s no reason to toss it aside. Even though the commandments may indeed have been written in stone,the spiritual task of every age is to discern what it means to keep the Sabbath today. Jesus himself was challenged to do so. His critics tried to turn the law against him, but he was able to rightly defend his actions according to the spirit of the law. So what are we to make of Sabbath-keeping today? I’d like to suggest three parts to the commandment: rest, remember, and respond.

A day of rest; now who could argue with that? But in this age of decreased leisure time, increased driving time, continual bombardment by multimedia, and high expectations for getting things done – it is often hard to get a really, truly good rest. I’m not talking about plopping down on the couch after work and watching TV or sitting in the yard with your phone catching up on email. Our culture doesn’t encourage quality down time. If we’re lucky, we might get to get away for a week or two of vacation – although if you’re like me, I usually say that I need another vacation to rest up after traveling. And if I stay at home, there are too many neglected projects calling my name.

The fact is, we’re rewarded for doing. Just being is not considered a worthy activity. Our identities are often intricately entangled with the work we do. I went to visit a family once and wondered why the man of the house wasn’t there. His wife told me later that he stayed hidden in another room because he was embarrassed about losing his job. Which is sad, because you’d think that he would have known that his pastor would certainly affirm his identity as a beloved child of God – no matter what his employment status.

But I get it. Retirement has brought this home to me. Not doing the things I’m used to doing, not being on a particular schedule, having the freedom to do things I want to do and not do things I don’t want to do is a new experience. Having time to rest is a new experience. Friday used to be my day off: I called it my Sabbath. Now, every day is my day off – so what is Sabbath? I had to think about this.

And what I believe Sabbath rest is – for all of us – is not simply stopping doing for a little while. It’s paying attention to being in the presence of God. I’ve always been a fan of Brother Lawrence’s little book, Practicing the Presence of God, in which he advocates that in every moment, even in the mundane chores of daily life, we remember that  Presence is within us and around us. But, in practicality, that doesn’t always work – especially when I’m in traffic. We need to cultivate times of holy rest, when we allow ourselves to rest in the arms of God – completely and with no to-do list in the back of our minds. Breaking through the urge to be human doings and allow ourselves to sink into human and Divine being is the call to Sabbath rest.

A second part of this call is to remember. “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” The Exodus story is part of our history. Even though most of us can’t claim to be of Hebrew descendant, we certainly claim our spiritual heritage. Even though we can’t look back to a time of slavery in Egypt, we can examine ourselves for other ways we have been enslaved.

“Ex,” as in Exodus, means “out.” “Hodos” is Greek for “a way.” Exodus is a way out. It’s no coincident that the early Jesus movement was called “the Way.” Jesus, who many saw as a new Moses, sets us free from bondage. Bondage to what? We often say in our confession, “we confess we are in bondage to sin . . .” And that’s true. But what if we look at sin in a broader sense than just the things we do wrong? What if we look at the ways we are broken – maybe because we are addicted to something that keeps us from living a full life. Maybe it’s work. As a recovering workaholic, I can attest to the power of that addiction. Maybe it’s a substance problem. That is certainly bondage. Maybe it’s an abusive relationship; when it seems that there is no way out.

Maybe it’s not anything so drastic or dramatic. Still, for you, it’s a problem or concern. And it causes brokenness, bondage to a way that’s not life-giving. Yet God has declared that there is a way out. Remember. Remember that I’ve done this before. Remember that time in Egypt? Remember that time in Palestine when you thought Jesus – and all of your hope – was dead. Remember that? If I could do that, then I can make a way out for you.

Sabbath time is remembering time – not just of the times throughout history when God made a way through the wilderness, but also the times when God made a way through your wilderness. And if you don’t have one of those stories of your own yet, read the Bible stories and the stories of others, tell your stories to one another – and then remember. Rest and remember.

Now I know you’re remembering that I had three parts of the commandment about Sabbath-keeping. The third one is respond. Sabbath is not just about me and my private spiritual practice – although it is a big part of it. But the other big part is our response to the Sabbath needs of others. “You shall not do any work: you, your children, your animals, immigrants living in your country, or your slaves.

I know we’re offended by the word slaves here, as we should be. But it was a part of life in that time and reading about it in our sacred texts doesn’t mean we condone it. Actually, it makes the commandment that much more extraordinary, in that it includes everyone – from the most powerful down to the very least. What it conveys is compassion. Compassion God has for us, and we in turn should have for everyone, including animals.

In another version of the law in Exodus, there is even Sabbath for the land: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow.” Reading that reminded me of what a young woman from Nepal told me several years ago about Mt. Everest. She said that it’s known as the highest garbage dump in the world. The severe environmental impact of too many climbers has led scientists to say that access should be closed and the mountain allowed to rest for a few years.

There’s a lot of wisdom in this commandment. We all need Sabbath: Mother Earth and all her creatures. Sabbath is communal; if compassion were the law of the land, then we’d live in God’s shalom. Is that a pie-in-the-sky fantasy? If so, it’s God’s fantasy. Everyone, from the greatest to the least, would be recipients of our compassion. Everything, from mount-ains to seas and sky, would be recipients of our compassion – not just a “feeling sorry for” kind of compassion, but a “do something about” kind. In other words, we are to not only take Sabbath, but to give it – to respond to our own liberation by offering love to the world

And no, that is not an easy thing to do. Jesus knew that his response to the religious authorities would fuel their opposition to him. Still, he continued to live out the greatest commandment: that of love. The law was important; it was given for our good, to live in right relationship with God and with one another. But mercy, empathy, and compassion outweigh the law.

I can’t help thinking about the story from Oakland back in April when a woman who is white called the police on a black family at Lake Merritt. Their crime was grilling in one of the park’s designated barbecue zones using a charcoal grill, instead of a “non-charcoal” grill. So, OK, the rule was no charcoal grills in that part of the park. According to the law, she was right. But what about according to the law of compassion?

Maybe that’s an extreme example. It’s contingent on each of us to look at those places and times in our lives when we allow other considerations to get in the way of acting out of the commandment to love ourselves, to love others, and to love our planet home.

So our take-away for this Sabbath day (or maybe our thoughts to ponder during the coming week) is three-fold:

  1. How / where do you find Sabbath rest? How might you cultivate a practice of holy rest?
  2. What remembrance do you have of a time when you experienced “exodus” – a way out of a difficult situation? What prayer do you have now to be shown a new “way”?
  3. How do you carry Sabbath out into the world? Where have you found it easy to show compassion? Where have you found it difficult? How might you expand your capacity for mercy in the future?

The Sabbath was made for you and for me. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote in his book, The Sabbath:
To observe the Sabbath is to celebrate the coronation of a day in the spiritual wonderland of time, the air which we inhale when we ‘call it a delight.’ Call the Sabbath a delight: a delight to the soul and to the body. ‘You might think I have given you the Sabbath for your displeasure; I have surely given you the Sabbath for your pleasure.‘

Have a delightful Sabbath!
Amen. May it be so.

abstract nature illustration


Posted by: smstrouse | May 31, 2018

E.R.A: One More State!

New York Times headline today:
Illinois Ratifies the Equal Rights Amendment. One More to Go. 

16115007_10210618735357871_4578684579538322641_nThe NY Times article very nicely explains the origin of the E.R.A. and what has brought it to life again. It also explains that one more ratification doesn’t automatically make equal rights for women the law of the land. In fact, the article says we should “expect a legal showdown, intense lobbying and constitutional fireworks.” (So what else is new in today’s political climate?

On the morning of the Women’s March in Washington, I was thrilled to IMG_3883_previewattend Congresswoman Jackie Speir’s breakfast to kick off a new push to get this done (see photobomb below). Tonight, I am thrilled that her (and others’) work is paying off. 

I know that there are still many obstacles on the path to equal rights under the law. I also know that the law is not the only way to dismantle patriarchy. The church has to be involved as well – reexamining scripture and tradition and changing its language and practices. 

But tonight I applaud the state of Illinois. It certainly is wonderful to get some good news for a change. While #45 and his minions continue to dismantle democracy, we continue to resist.
Dismantle patriarchy!








Posted by: smstrouse | April 2, 2018

The Theology of “Jesus Christ Superstar”

“Jesus-Christ-Superstar-Live-in-Concert”First let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed last night’s airing of Jesus Christ Superstar Live. The staging was great and some of the performances were simply outstanding. It’s been 48 years since I first fell in love with the rock opera, and maybe 20 years since I saw a stage version. But I’m proud to say that I remembered most of the words. 

However, some things have changed since 1970.
On the plus side: a black Jesus. It’s always bothered me that the only person of color in the original cast, the movie and every production I’ve ever seen has been Judas. So it was a welcome improvement to see the diversity of last night’s cast.  

The ending was also changed.
One of the more controversial issues when Jesus Christ Superstar was released in 1970 was that there was no resurrection. It ended with the crucifixion. Last night saw John Legend’s Jesus on the cross fading into cosmic light. I guess one could argue that it was an appropriate ending for Easter evening; the original was more suited for Good Friday. So I have mixed feelings about this one. Theologically speaking, the message of the cross is not that transformation or new life comes immediately after a loss (whether it’s the ending of a relationship, the loss of a home or  job, or the death of a loved one). The need to dwell in the grief and pain is a lesson that most of us do not want to learn, but it is the reality of death and resurrection. Most of us want to fast forward quickly to resolution. The original ending didn’t let us do that. 

Other issues I had last night, though, had nothing do with this production but with Rice and Webber’s original script.

  1. The crucifixion was not God’s plan.
    Judas was not set up (“God, God I’m sick. I’ve been used, And you knew all the time. God, God I’ll never ever know why you chose me for your crime.”). Some even argue that Judas was not an actual person, rather a literary myth. Here is a good overview of this position. In any event, Jesus was not killed to satisfy some sadistic need of God. He was killed by the Roman Empire, with the collaboration of the religious establishment. Which brings me to #2.
  2. Pontius Pilate had to keep order in the empire.
    Pilate was not the angst-ridden ruler so wonderfully portrayed by Ben Daniels (a much better performance than Alice Coopers, imho). Granted, the gospels themselves started it, letting the Romans off the hook and blaming the Jews. Here is an interview with biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan that has some good insight into this. Crossan also has a book entitled Who Killed Jesus: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus – which gives you a good idea of where that direction led us. So, while I can’t blame Jesus Christ Superstar for telling the story this way, it disturbs me to see that message propagated.

  3. And then there’s the trouble with Mary.
    Let me say this as forcefully as I can: MARY MAGDALENE WAS NOT A PROSTITUTE!  And portraying her as such was never, ever biblical. Here is a group that advocates for Mary – and for “all women who dare to work among men as equals (and) get sexualized and marginalized.”
    Yes, Sara Bareilles was lovely as Mary. But I cringed at the words: 

He’s a man he’s just a man41ZW3FNWJ6L._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_
And I’ve had so many men before

In very many ways
He’s just one more

Puh – leeeze! You know, if they can change the ending to include the resurrection, why can’t they change Mary from a prostitue to an apostle?

All in all, I loved last night’s performance. I just hope we remember that this isn’t biblical scholarship or theological correctness (whatever that is!) And it’s a darn sight better than The Ten Commandments or The Greatest Story Ever Told – imho.

Posted by: smstrouse | February 13, 2018

Earth Shaken as God Is Stripped of “His” Masculinity

5546445563_87d37cc027God must be quaking in “his” boots. The masculinity of the Divine One is under assault.

In January, at its annual convention, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington passed a resolution concerning the use of gender-neutral language for God. Episcopal News Service delivered the scary news:
The Diocese of Washington is calling on the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to consider expanding the use of gender-neutral language for God in the Book of Common Prayer, if and when the prayer book is slated for a revision.

In other words, no time soon.


But that hasn’t stopped God’s protecters from coming to “his” defense As one article  explains for our benefit: “Throughout scripture, God continually refers to Himself as “Father” and presents Himself to humanity as masculine. Christ, who is also both man and God, called God the “Father” and ascended into heaven in a male body. For Catholics, the feminine aspects of the Church have always been represented in the Virgin Mary, whom they believe was crowned “Queen of Heaven,” and by the Church itself. Either way, God has never presented Himself as anything other than a masculine Father.” 

In other words, end of discussion. 

When the Lutheran Church of Sweden decided last year to change God language in its 41+G6WahyML._AC_UL320_SR212,320_worship handbook, it faced the same resistance. In “No, the Swedish Church Has Not Banned the Male Pronoun God, they tried to explain, 
“God is beyond ‘she’ and ‘he’, God is so much more.”

That’s in alignment with the Episcopal resolution which recommends using “expansive language for God from the rich sources of feminine, masculine, and non-binary imagery for God found in Scripture and tradition.” 

The ELCA has been struggling with this issue for years. We were trying to get inclusive language into worship when I was at seminary over thirty years ago!  But now we’ve received the draft copy of the new “Social Statement on Women and Justice” for our study, discussion, and response (What are social statements in the ELCA).

Of particular interest to me are sections addressing the issue of language.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commits to: 

  • Use inclusive language for humankind and inclusive and expansive language for God
  • Encourage the use of language for God that expands rather than limits our understanding of God’s goodness and mystery
  • Support developing liturgies, hymns, prayers, and educational materials that broaden our language beyond primarily male images
  • Promote scriptural translation and interpretation that support gender justice, acknowledge the patriarchal context in which the Scriptures were written, and reject the misuse of Scripture to support sexist attitudes and patriarchal structures.
  • Call upon our leadership and members to enlarge the dialogue about and practice of expansive language and images for God. 

Well, alright! Maybe there’s hope. It remains to be seen, however, how many pastors and congregations will heed the call. 

Note the use of words like expansive, expands, broadens, and enlarge.

Hmm. Maybe it’s not an assault on God that people are so worked up about after all.
Maybe it’s the assault on patriarchy. 


See also:
How Can We Dismantle Patriarchy and Still Call God Exclusively “He”?
How Can We Dismantle Patriarchy While Still Having a Theological Hierarchy?

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