Posted by: smstrouse | August 29, 2018

Do I Have the Right Not to Marry?

marraigejpg-2429551_lgIsn’t it ironic?
For so many years, I supported the right of LGBTQ people to get married. And I rejoice with those who have made that decision. I’ve presided at same-gender weddings and celebrated at their receptions. I support the right to marry for all those who want to marry. And I also support the right not to marry. But I’ve discovered that my insurance company does not agree with me. 

Having been through two disastrous marriages myself, I am convinced that it’s not for everyone. Whatever the reason (e.g. poor parental role models), some of us do not do well in this kind of commitment. Now don’t get me wrong; I am not anti-commitment. In fact, I’m in a domestic partnership; we have the certificate to prove it. And the state of California grants us the same rights and privileges as marriage – without the religious, legal, and emotional baggage.

The state of California recognizes this arrangement, as does my church denomination. However, the insurance company of my denomination does not. They used to include coverage for the domestic partner of a contributing member – until same-gender marriage became legal. So now I can’t put my partner on my policy. Either she has to pay for her own, doubling our health care budget or I have to opt out of my plan. 

Danger! Danger! Warning!
An article in the Fordham Law Review comes at it from a legal perspective:
When I refer to a “right not to marry,” I refer to the right to be free from state-imposed marriage as a matter of current U.S. constitutional doctrine.

But this describes exactly what has happened to us with my insurance company:
In Obergefell v. Hodges, the United States Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry. Although the decision is an important milestone in the struggle for equality, it also threatens to destabilize the relationships of those who previously entered into civil unions or domestic partnerships and may, for a variety of reasons, prefer not to trade their existing status for marriage. That is because states have routinely responded to the legalization of same-sex marriage by eliminating their non-marital statuses. Some states have terminated such statuses and have required couples to opt into marriage to continue receiving the rights to which they had become accustomed. Other states have converted the non-marital statuses to marriages and have required couples wishing to avoid marriage to dissolve their legal relationships. These actions have made it difficult—and in some cases practically impossible—for couples to choose not to marry.

Now this really ticks me off (I originally typed another word here). I like my plan. I like my doctors. I spent a lot of time researching options when I retired, so I could have the best supplemental plan possible. Now today I’m back at the computer, researching again. (Did I mention that I absolutely hate doing this? I’m actually writing this post to avoid working on it.).

In his book Living in Sin, John Shelby Spong has a section of a chapter devoted to what he calls the “post-married,” that is “mature single people, many of whom are not interested in remarriage ever again, or at least not at this time.” Indeed, I may change my mind someday, but certainly not because the Church or an insurance company tells me to. 

I would add to Spong’s statement that “post-married” applies to those who identify as gay, straight, or non-binary. Regardless of the fact that I’m a straight, cis-gender woman, Spong describes me perfectly. The Fordham article also doesn’t go far enough because it addresses only the status of same-sex domestic partnerships. It is sadly ironic that the right of same-sex couples to marry has engendered problems for those who prefer a civil union or domestic partnership. 

However, it has also created an opportunity for discussion about the Church’s teachings about marriage.

Should the Church Be in the Wedding Business?
I have long believed that the Church is overdue for an overhaul of its thinking about shutterstock_1022015119marriage. The frequently bandied-about statement that “marriage was instituted by God,” in my opinion, is hogwash. If Genesis 2 is the only basis for this, then I want to know who officiated at the wedding of Adam and Eve. 

I have no doubt the marriage was indeed instituted as a way to organize society and provide a social and legal framework in which to work. And maybe it was even divinely inspired. Mosaic Law, which guided the ancient Jewish people, may indeed have been so. But there’s a lot within those laws that are now outdated or otherwise unnecessary. Even if divinely inspired, there is no reason not to revisit teachings about marriage. 

For better or worse, the state is the arbitrator of who can get married and by whom. The license comes from the state, not the Church. Which is why I would prefer to see the Church get out of the marriage business altogether. For those who would like to have a spiritual blessing, then that would be the appropriate role for the Church. It would also remove much of the rigamarole of church weddings for non-church folks. Although many couples today are opting for venues other than churches, enough still want a pretty church, a cooperative clergyperson, and a reasonable (cheap) fee for services. 

The Min Biz
My late landlady proudly informed me when I filled out the application to rent her house that she had been ordained by the Universal Life Church so that she could officiate at weddings. As I left, she said, “We’ll have to get together one of these days to talk about “the min biz.” I sadly thought about my years of study, the student loans, the sweat and tears of parish ministry. I saw on the ULC website that I could get an ordination certificate forblogs-aisle-say-friend-officiating-wedding-ceremony a very reasonable price in the “Minister Store.” Sigh.

Now I know many people who in good conscience want to officiate at a friend or loved one’s wedding. But why not provide for their participation in a civil ceremony or create a lovely ritual for the religious blessing? The “min biz” simply highlights the absurdity of our current system. 

So what now?
I can imagine the blowback for even suggesting that: 

  • marriage was not ordained by God
  • non-married couples can live in committed relationships without endangering their eternal souls 
  • churches would no longer have to be wedding chapels 
  • (gasp) not everyone wants to get married
  • insurance companies should stay out of relationship issues 

But what if we just started to talk about it? What if we did some real biblical study on the origins of the Christian understanding of marriage? What if we took into consideration the realities of life today as opposed to biblical times (i.e. longer life spans, financial considerations, etc.)? Just asking.

The Latest Update
Today my insurance company responded that they want to work with us to see what options are available and would work best for our situation and for the denomination. I’m pretty sure that allowing for our domestic partnership is not going to be best for the denomination. That would be opening up a can of worms that an insurance company doesn’t want to deal with. So it looks like I’m going to be switching my provider – and sadly, my doctor.

Well, OK. So be it. Just because I’m ticked off with my insurance company doesn’t mean I don’t still want to talk about this.

Anybody else want in on the conversation? 

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Posted by: smstrouse | August 28, 2018

Having the Courage to Converse

shutterstock_1094129717 copyWhat do you do when you have a good friend whose politics are different from yours?
It didn’t use to be so much of a dilemma. But
after the presidential election of 2016, maintaining a friendship with someone who voted for
He Who Shall Not Be Named became a huge challenge. We did have a few short phone conversations and went out for dinner once since the election. But we never approached the subject of the elephant in the living room. That was OK for a while, but I knew it wasn’t a recipe for a lasting friendship. So what to do?

Maybe the first thing you do is go out to a really nice place for dinner.
Sitting in a seafood restaurant overlooking the San Francisco Bay, sipping a raspberry margarita turned out to be a good way to start. Let me confess: I did not have any plans for launching into a political conversation. Call me a wuss; I was just trying to be a friend. Maybe that’s all she had in mind as well. But finally, after about two hours of catching up on job and relationship news, she went there. I had a moment of dismay, and then decided that this was the perfect opportunity to practice what I preach. So off we went into uncharted waters. shutterstock_286118273 copy

And guess what! It actually went very well. I really shouldn’t be surprised Both of us come at things from a spiritual perspective; we served together on the board of an interfaith organization; we’re both trained as ministers. We’re on opposite sides of the political divide, but in other ways we are very much aligned. 

But the presidential campaign and election definitely put a strain on us. I knew she had felt alienated during and after the election; supporters of HWSNBN are rare here in the Bay Area. After feeling verbally attacked by people at her church when she tried to tell them that not everyone in the congregation was on the same political page, she has mostly kept quiet about her politics. I, on the other hand, have been vocal in my criticism of HWSNBN, those who voted for him, and those who continue to support him. It would seem that there would be no common political ground on which we could stand.

The second thing you do is listen, really listen . . .
But I was determined to listen. And as I did, I realized something. My friend was not talking so much about politics as the emotional pain of not being able to have civil conversation about issues, of not being able to be her authentic self, of being pre-judged. She also was expressing her dismay at personal attacks on HWSNBN and others in the administration. I realized that what was upsetting her most was our inability to separate issues from people. 

Then you confess . . . (at least to yourself) . . .
I had to agree that it’s not right to shut down someone who is expressing an opinion – even if you vehemently disagree with it. It’s not right to attack a person’s very being – even when they are behaving in a reprehensible manner. It’s the old “do unto others” rule. And I confess that I’ve been put off by some of the over-the-top mockery from the Left. Even when I laugh along with it, I’m not entirely comfortable with stooping to mean-spiritedness. Still, while I was agreeing in principle, it was hard to keep from coming back with, “Yes, but . . . “. I must admit, this election has most certainly tried my adherence to the Golden Rule. “Going high when they go low” seems to have only emboldened bullies. And yet . . . 
You can probably sense my ambivalence here; this is a hard mirror to look into. Is it possible to separate the being of HWSNBN from his actions? My spiritual belief tells me that it is and that I have to pay attention. 

Even HWSNBN
What I told my friend – and this is what I do believe – is that no one is beyond the possibility of transformation. Each and every person is born a beloved child of the Divine. And even when life has piled on layer after layer of hurt, disappointment, trauma, and other woundings – that beloved child is still inside. I have to believe that is true of HWSNBN. But – as I also told my friend – I will never accept the behaviors that he exhibits; I will never stop doing whatever I can to get him out of power. And she accepted that. We continued to discuss and disagree on some of the issues of the day over coffee, but that was OK. 

Taking it on the road???
As we were getting ready to pay the check and leave, I commented that we should put together a workshop on how to have civil conversation in the midst of political differences. I reminded her of Don Frew, a friend of ours from interfaith activities. Don, a Wiccan elder, has been friends for over 30 years with Brooks Alexander, a conservative evangelical Christian and one of the founders of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (you can read the full story here). They have a program they do together (which I’ve attended) in which they tell their story and model how they manage to maintain such an unlikely friendship. Maybe my friend and I could do the same.

She wasn’t convinced. Maybe some day when she wasn’t feeling so hurt by reactions to her by people like me. I wanted to come back with, “Yeah, well, all of us have been feeling hurt since you elected him.” But I didn’t. That would not have done anything to advance the cause of civil discourse. However, she did agree that coming at it from a spiritual perspective would be the right way to go. So maybe . . .

No illusions
I have no illusions that this will be easy. As I watch the petulance of HWSNBN in refusing to acknowledge the life and service of Senator John McCain, I can’t separate him from his actions. However, I can also see the wounded, fearful, mistrustful, anxiety-ridden person hiding behind all the bluster. The layers are massively thick around this one’s beloved center. So I will continue to pray for the healing of that wounded human being, even as I continue to work against the damage he is causing. That is the commitment I make to civil conversation – and to my friend. 

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Posted by: smstrouse | August 20, 2018

Abiding in the Divine Milieu

A sermon for Pentecost 13, August 19, 2018

beginningI used to have a love/hate relationship with the gospel of John. On the one hand, I’ve always loved his soaring, cosmic opening: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Even if I didn’t know exactly what that meant, I knew John was telling us that Jesus was something special.

Where I ran into difficulty with John’s Jesus was in some of the “I Am” passages. Let me give you an example. Some years ago, I attended a funeral. At the church, I saw my friend Kitty from our interfaith women’s group and sat next to her. When the priest read the familiar passage from John’s gospel, I heard it through the ears of my friend Kitty, who is Jewish: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” I was God-smacked. I’d preached on that same text many times, but hearing it this time was such a powerful epiphany that I didn’t want to go up for Communion. It felt rude, exclusionary, and offensive.

Another example is the gospel today. There’s a song I used to love called “I Am the Bread of Life.” The lyrics are pretty much taken right from this passage. But the first time I heard it after my experience with Kitty at the funeral, I heard the words in a new way:                                                                                                                                                    Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man
And drink of his blood, you shall not have life within you
.

I couldn’t sing that song any longer. Then there were other experiences that confronted me as I became more involved in interfaith activities. And I developed a whole lot of questions about the exclusivity of Christianity as the only way toGod.

What About “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life?
she-likes-itshe-likes-itI also knew that many other people had the same questions. I discovered when I spoke to Christian groups about interfaith matters, the question that always came up was: What about “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life and “Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood, you shall not have life within you.”? Which is why I wrote my book and my blog, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters.

This isn’t a plug for the book (OK, maybe it is!), but rather a way of taking us even more deeply into this 6thchapter of John’s Bread of Life chapter that we’ve been seemingly stalled in for four weeks now. And I believe that it’s an important place for us to be stalled. If the church is to be relevant in the midst of the religious diversity all around us, we need to be firmly grounded in our own understanding of who we are as followers of Jesus. How can we be unapologetically, yet non-exclusionary Christian?

This is no small question, given that John has often been used as a weapon against other religions. It’s absolutely essential for us to understand that this gospel was written in a time when Jews who were followers of Jesus were evolving from being a sect within Judaism to becoming its own religion. Scholars debate over the exact date when Christianity became fully separated from Judaism, but it’s agreed it was by the end of the 1stcentury – not at the birth of Jesus, not at the death or resurrection of Jesus. So you can imagine that in the decades of this transitioning process, there was a lot of back and forth about what it meant to be a Jew and what it meant to be a Jewish follower of Jesus. And as is the way of all church matters, there were conflicts. So you have John saying some pretty harsh things about “the Jews.” Which is why The Inclusive Bible that I use instead calls them the Temple authorities, mindful that “the Jews” has been used – even in contemporary history – to fuel anti-Semitic flames.

So – mindful that John’s community was undergoing a process of figuring out their identity as followers of Jesus in the midst of another religion, we can see the same process going on for us today as Christians in the midst of many other religions.

Betraying Jesus?
head-slap-283x300Another story. In the days after 9/11, many congregations wanted to learn about other religions. At my church, we decided to begin a study of the world’s religions and picked Hinduism to look at first. I asked if they’d be open to inviting a Hindu guest, who was willing to share her story and answer any questions, to one of our sessions. They said yes, so I invited a Hindu woman who was active in interfaith activities to come to our next meeting. The visit went well. The Christian participants were welcoming and respectful. They asked insightful questions. But after the session one of the group asked if she could talk to me about something that was bothering her. She began by saying how much she was enjoying the study. She had appreciated meeting our guest and hearing her story. But she had a big concern: “If I accept the Hindu path as equal to Christianity, I’m worried that I’m betraying Jesus.”

 As I thought about this later, I knew she’d raised a significant issue for Christians today. I ended up getting a doctoral degree on the subject and writing the book and blog – and am now working on a video series. So you can see that this is a subject near and dear to my heart, which is why I can’t shy away from these difficult words in today’s gospel. But I also can’t go on and on with all this background information – after all it took me a whole book to say it all! But one important thing I’ve learned about these passages is to avoid using them to answer questions that weren’t originally asked, and to look instead for the message the author actually is trying to convey.

One of John’s Favorite Words!
Which is why, as I was thinking about today’s reading, I was drawn to the word abide. It’s kind of an odd word; we don’t use it that often. I usually think of it in a negative sense, as in “I can’t abide Brussels sprouts!” – meaning I can’t tolerate them. Or as in telling your rowdy children that you simply “won’t abide that behavior” – as in there are consequences for breaking the rules.  Neither of these applies to John’s meaning.

I did have an interesting encounter with another aspect of abide last Easter. I happened934984_10200507251937105_301113930_n to notice the sign on a bar I always passed on my way to work that said “The Dude Abides.” I actually took a picture of it because I thought it was a great Easter message. It wasn’t until I posted it on Facebook that I discovered the line was from the cult classic movie The Big Lebowski. Evidently, at the end of the movie, after the Dude’s been through all kinds of escapades, he sums up his philosophy of life, “the Dude abides,” meaning that he’ll continue on just fine. Not quite the Easter message I was looking for – or what John is talking about.

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I abide in them.” Now if abiding isn’t about not tolerating nasty-tasting vegetables, or about enforcing rules, or about being a slacker like the Dude, what does it mean? I decided to do a search of the New Testament and found that in the New Revised Standard Version, the Greek word μένω is translated as abide 38 times: 13 times in John’s gospel and 24 times in I John. Turns out it’s one of John’s favorite words! The only other place is “now faith, hope, and love abide; the greatest of these is love” in I Corinthians. Nowhere else. So we can see that ‘abiding’ is a major theme for John; it’s his primary way of characterizing what discipleship is.

Living in the Divine Milieu
9781903900581To abide in Christ is to recognize that we live within the Mystery of Divine life – or as the philosopher/priest/scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called it – the Divine Milieu, the body of God in which we live and move and have our being, as St Paul described it..

Here’s one description of it: “A milieu is as penetrating and omnipresent as the air we breathe; yet we mostly take it for granted. We simply forget about the atmosphere, even though we are dependent upon it at every moment. As soon as we are deprived of oxygen to breathe, we quickly become aware of our need for it. Fish live in a milieu of water yet are unaware of its importance until they are taken out of it. The most important spiritual fact of our existence is that at every minute you and I are swimming in a divine sea. Fortunately we can’t be taken out of it. At every moment we are inhaling and exhaling the divine life. In the divine milieu we live and move and have our being. While it is true that God is always “in heaven” (transcendent) and also always “within us” (immanent), the more important fact is that we are always living and moving (we could say abiding) within the divine milieu.”[1]

This is not some abstract philosophical discourse. There are implications for our daily lives. We’re reminded that in this milieu, we’re all connected – as Jesus said in another “I Am” saying: “I am the Vine and you are the branches.” Organic, interdependent. Abiding in Christ is never an individualistic matter.  The more we’re open to a way of experiencing ourselves, everyone else, and in fact, all of creation in this way, the more we will naturally want to care for one another – following the example of our Teacher, Jesus.

Bread of Life
The Last SupperFor John, abiding is deeply sacramental. In this Bread of Life chapter, the language of Holy Communion abounds. I’ve spoken about that in previous weeks. This table is one of the primary ways we open ourselves to the experience of Divine Presence. But the more we can realize how pervasive this Presence is, we can carry the mystic sweetness of Communion with us into all aspects of our daily lives – the easy parts as well as the challenges. We can also carry this Presence with us in all of our encounters with those of other religious traditions – abiding in Christ and being Christ in compassionate, diverse, inclusive relationships – in the name of the One in whom we live and move and have our being.  

Amen

John 6:51-58
Jesus said:

“I myself am the living bread
come down from heaven.
If any eat this bread,
they will live forever;
the bread I will give
for the life of the world
is my flesh.”
The Temple authorities then began to argue with one another. “How can he give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus replied,
“The truth of the matter is,
if you don’t eat the flesh
and drink the blood of the Chosen One,
you will not have life in you.
Those who do eat my flesh and drink my blood
have eternal life,
and I will raise them up on the last day.
For my flesh is true food
and my blood is true drink.
Everyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood
abides in me, and I abide in them.
Just as the living Abba God sent me
and I have life because of Abba God,
so those who feed on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
It is not the kind of bread your ancestors ate,
for they died.
Whoever eats this kind of bread
will live forever.”  

[1]Louis M. Savary,The Divine MilieuExplained, Paulist Press , 2007.

 

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | August 12, 2018

Bread of Life for the Hungry Heart


900_Viktor-Hertz_Hungry-heart-1Everybody’s Got a Hungry Heart

When I was a little girl, I’d sometimes go into the kitchen and say, “Mommy, I’m hungry.”
My mother would say, “What are you hungry for?”
I’d say, “I don’t know.”
She would then go through a list of possible snacks.
“Do you want some cheese?”   “No.”
“Do you want an apple?”   “No.”   
“How about some orange slices?”    “No”
“A bowl of cereal?”   No.”
Finally she’d say, “I don’t think you’re really hungry.”

She was undoubtedly right. I was probably bored or in need of attention other than the food kind. I think of those times when now, as an adult, I will wander into the kitchen in search of – something. Have you ever opened the refrigerator door and just stand there looking? The fridge might be filled with all kinds of good stuff, but there’s nothing that appeals to you. So you start looking in cupboards, and maybe find a cookie or a couple of crackers. But somehow, even these are not satisfying. Sometimes hunger isn’t about food.

One of our great modern-day theologians, Bruce Springsteen, put it like this:
Everybody’s got a hungry heart; Everybody’s got a hungry heart.
Lay down your money and you play your part; Everybody’s got a hungry heart.

It’s All About Food for the Soul
This hunger is what the writer of John’s gospel is getting at in his long chapter, in which he portrays Jesus going on and on and on about being the Bread of Life. In last week’s reading, Jesus made it clear that he wasn’t talking about physical food – although make no mistake about it, physical food is important, but that’s another part of the gospel and a different sermon. This Bread of Life series is all about the hunger in our souls. When one eats to satisfy physical hunger, the satisfaction is never permanent. Only the bread of God that gives life to the world will ultimately satisfy the deepest hunger.51dGKNZ7YnL._AC_US218_

We might also call this hunger ‘longing.’ Another contemporary theologian, actually a Sufi teacher, has written: “The soul’s longing is a universal theme. The innate longing to unify with the Divine . . . reaches out towards the eternal. Such longing opens our hearts towards a greater understanding of our beings, our lives, our souls, and the Divine that embraces all that exists.”

And lest you think this is just a recent discovery, St. Augustine wrote in the 4thcentury: “O God, You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” 

How the Church Got It Wrong
This hunger is a universal theme, not restricted to any age, place, or any one religion. It’s a longing expressed by those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” or by those who would never even use the word spiritual, yet who seek for something that gives meaning to their lives, that feeds their hunger for community, for purpose, for something bigger than themselves. Unfortunately, the Church hasn’t always been very good at conveying the message that John tried to hammer into us: there is Divine food, Bread of Life, enough for everyone, with lots even left over.

Well, it’s not surprising. John says that even Jesus had a hard time convincing people. They could only see a local kid, Mary and Joseph’s son. Who did he think he was, talking about bread from heaven? Who he was was a thoroughly spirit-imbued teacher who was so completely connected to the Divine within him that he could envision all people living so closely and intimately within the heart of God. He longed for his friends and followers to feed off of his example and open their hearts to the Divine Presence.

Unfortunately what happened was that Christianity became codified, written into creeds and doctrines that made faith a matter of believing a set of assertions put forth by the winners of the great theological debates of the 4thcentury. Maybe even more unfortunately, John’s gospel has often been used in the service of a kind of Christianity that turned the great “I Am” sayings into a way of excluding those who don’t believe in the same way, creating barriers between those who are in and those who are out.

Hooray for the Mystics!
But throughout the ages there have always been those who have seen things in a Hildegard of Bingendifferent light. Thankfully, in recent years there’s been renewed interest in the experiences and writings of mystics, who were all too often were ostracized and even punished for their trouble: from St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, the German mystics, such as Hildegard of Bingen and Johannes Tauler (who had a profound influence on Martin Luther), to contemporary thinkers, like Brother Wayne Teasdale, author of The Mystic Heart. Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong even nails it in the title of his recent book – The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.

But it was theologian Henri Nouwen who said that we’re all called to be mystics. Now you might be thinking that that’s going too far. But hear me out. I know that for many people, when they hear mysticism, they immediately think of heavenly apparitions, visions, and other woo-woo behaviors. But what if we said that mystics are those who have “a learned capacity to recognize God within themselves, in others, and in all things.” (Fr. Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know)?  “The mystic is anybody who finds union with God in real life — in the bread and wine of Communion, in moments of creativity or in flashes of awe-filled wonder, in the overwhelming love that carries us beyond ourselves into the source of all life. We might say that every experience of grace is a mystical experience.” (Mary M. McGlone, Do You Love Me)

So in these “I Am” sayings: the Good Shepherd, the Gate, the Vine, the Way, Truth, Life, Light of the World, Bread of Life – you might imagine the Presence of God reaching out for you. In Jesus, we can see the embodiment of this Presence, beckoning to us, longing for us to come into that Presence, to go more deeply into a way of being that is, in actuality, the fulfillment of what humanity is meant to be. That’s what Jesus is talking about. He’s not telling the disciples to obey rules, he’s inviting them to share his heart.

You Might Be a Mystic If . . .
Last Sunday I invited you to be on the lookout throughout the week for ways that you sensed that God was trying to feed you with food that gives life. Perhaps, as you reflect on some of those moments of insight, you might also recognize – in light of Fr. Rohr’s definition – that you’ve had a mystical experience. 

Another criticism of mystics is that they are otherworldly, totally unconcerned with earthly matters. But that also is a misconception. I quoted a Sufi teacher earlier. Her name is Dr. Nahid Angha and I do meditation with a student of hers. You may or may not know that Sufism is the mystical tradition of Islam (at this level of religion, there is a great deal of common wisdom). The evening after the election in 2016, I was scheduled to go to meditation. To be honest, I was depressed and didn’t feel like going anywhere. But I did decide to go. Sufi meditation is all about connecting with the Divine within your heart. And I spent about 40 minutes in silence, sometimes struggling to feel any connection at all, sometimes feeling an overwhelming Presence. At the end of the meditation, I felt a profound peace that I wouldn’t have thought possible that day.

We then talked about how, as people of faith, we deal with the heartbreaks and injustices of the world. The wisdom of that evening, which I’ve lived by ever since, is that when we connect with the Divine Presence in our hearts, we are infinitely more capable of doing the work we need to do in the world.

What Drives You?
Another important learning was that even the times that my mind is distracted, when I can’t feel the connection – it’s of value to simply recognize the longing. And this made me think of a psychological test I took years ago. The purpose of the test was to determine what your drivers are, what motivates you and influence your thinking, feeling and behavior. Basically, they’re the internalized demands and expectations of the authority figures in our lives. They’ve become such an integral part of our being, we don’t usually even recognize them for what they are. 
There are different versions of the list of drivers, but the one I remember has five:

  • Be Strong
  • Be Perfect
  • Please Others
  • Hurry Up
  • Try Hard                      

Now there are plusses and minuses to these drivers. And self-awareness is key to emo-tional health. But I was thinking also that these drivers also represent ways that we want to be fed. If my driver is to please others, I hunger for love, acceptance, validation. If my driver is to be strong, I long for autonomy and control over my environemnt. If my driver is to be perfect, I am restless when I make a mistake or can’t live up to the expectations of myself or others. 

imagesAnd if one (or more) of those is my driving motivation, my deepest hunger, then I’m really in need of life-giving food. Another thought came to me as I wrote this, of the acronym H.A.L.T., which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. It’s a check-in tool used by people with dependency or addiction issues as a way to avoid relapse. But you don’t have to have a drug or alcohol problem to need HALT. All you have to do is ask yourself: what is my deepest hunger? What have I tried to do to feed that longing?

We all do something. If I’m hurt or angry, my drug of choice is a bag of Utz sour cream and onion potato chips. For some people it might be chocolate, alcohol, shopping, a new relationship. None of these bad on their own (well, except maybe the chips). But when used as food to feed our deepest hunger – empty calories. Only Bread of Life, life-giving food – deep connective experiences with the Presence of God – can truly satisfy. That’s what Jesus is talking about in John’s gospel.

Your Invitation
So this week, my invitation to you again is to partake of the mystic sweet Communion of vessels-ministry-the-heart-of-god-lightthis table. And to go out again and pay attention to those moments of creativity, and flashes of awe-filled wonder, to experiences of overwhelming love that carry you beyond yourself into the source of all life. 
Be fed. Take it in. Drink it up. Savor the mystery and the wonder. And don’t worry; there’s plenty more where that came from. There’s enough for you to have your fill and then some to share. You are mystics –like Jesus – deep within the unity of God and with arms stretched out to the world.  Amen


Hungry Heart: a Song by Bruce Springsteen print by Viktor Hertz

John 6:35, 41-51
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry; no one who believes in me will be thirsty.”

The Temple authorities started to grumble in protest because Jesus claimed, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They kept saying, “Isn’t this Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph? Don’t we know his father and mother?  How can he claim to have come down from heaven?”
“Stop your grumbling,” Jesus told them. “No one can come to me unless drawn by Abba God who sent me – and those I will raise up on the last day.  It is written in the prophets,
‘They will all be taught by God.’

Everyone who has heard God’s word
 and has learned from it  comes to me. Not that anyone has seen Abba God –  only the one who is from God  has seen Abba God.
The truth of the matter is, those who believe have eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, and if you eat it you will never die. I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | August 6, 2018

Bread of Life – And No Carbs!

31821_sfs-sourdough-8If you know me, you’ve probably figured out one thing about me: I like to eat. And one of my favorite foods is – bread. Any kind of bread: wheat, rye, pumpernickel, and of course since moving to the Bay Area, sourdough. I also love anything made with bread dough: pizza, pretzels, bread bowls, you name it. Maybe the same is true for some of you. Maybe we would also share another thing: the fact that our love for food can cause problems. Bread, in particular, can be a nemesis for the diabetic and gluten intolerant, as well as the weight-conscious among us. As much as it breaks my heart, I know I have to limit my intake.

So it’s with mixed feelings that I entered into the series of gospel reading for the next imagesseveral weeks, which are all about – bread. It started last week and will go on for the rest of the summer. Which is kind of strange. You may not have noticed this, but up until last week, we were reading from the gospel of Mark. We’ll go back to Mark in September. But in between, the lectionary (schedule of assigned readings) has thrown in five weeks from the gospel of John. It’s as if the creators of the lectionary have announced,
We interrupt our regularly scheduled program with this important message from John.
It’s weird in a way because we’ve jumped out of the earliest of the gospels into the latest (at least 20 years after Mark), from Mark’s no-frills, just-the-facts Ma’am account into John’s more mystical and metaphorical creation.

So we need to shift gears a bit to figure out what’s going on. Five gospel passages from the same chapter that go on – and on – about bread. It must have been really important for John because he takes a whole chapter to talk about it. But I mean, how much can you really say? Bread of life: we get it.

But I actually like this detour we’re taking. Maybe it’s because I struggle with food that I appreciate the necessity of wrestling with what John is trying to tell us in these passages. Of course, we know that what John is talking about here is Jesus, the Bread of Life – not your everyday pumpernickel. It’s one of the many ways that John tries to convey the immensity of who and what Jesus was and is. In this case, he confronts us with the question: How is it that God is trying to feed us with food that gives life?

one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other-27204709Last week, it was (on the face of it) all about physical hunger and physical food. Jesus fed 5000 people with just five loaves of bread and two small fish. The other gospel writers also tell the story, but John has his own unique way of telling it. If you had one of those pictures that showed the four gospels and said “one of these things is not like the others,” you’d have to pick John, who has crafted a way of portraying the Jesus story through the use of metaphors, particularly the seven “I Am’ sayings, like the Good Shepherd, the Vine, and of course the Bread of Life.

He also doesn’t use the word ‘miracle’ to describe some of the works of Jesus; they’re called ‘signs.’ Again, there are seven – another way of telling that he’s using a lot of symbolism. The first sign was the changing of water to wine at the wedding in Cana. Last loavesfishesweek was a double-header: signs four and five, the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on the water. The feeding ‘sign’ in last week’s reading was meant to point us back to the prophet Elisha, who was able to feed over 100 people with some barley loaves and grain because God said, ‘They’ll eat and have some left.'”Sounds familiar, right? And then today we’re reminded of the Moses story, when God provides manna – bread from heaven.

So we had the feeding story, but now we’re going to go more deeply into what John is getting at. Because Jesus challenges the disciples to go deeper: “What you saw back there wasn’t about eating your fill of bread. That’s food that perishes. Necessary for life.
But now it’s time to seek the life-giving food that lasts for all eternity.“

In John’s gospel, Jesus is clear: “I Am the Bread of Life.”  John wanted his community toI-AM- know that Jesus brought the very presence of the Divine (the great I Am) to his followers through these signs. Now some 2000+ years later, we are reading this profound claim that lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus.

But what does it mean to be fed with the Bread of Life? How do we get this bread? The disciples didn’t get it at first; they took the feeding sign at face value. If Jesus would continue to pull off miracles like that, well, no one would go hungry. Indeed, with actions like that, Jesus could gather enough support and power to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. Life could be good. But as we learned last week, Jesus took off when he realized they wanted to make him a political ruler, a king.

So what is the point then? Why does John’s Jesus go on an on about being fed with the Bread of Life? I believe there are three parts to the question for us to ponder:

  1. How is it that God is trying to feed you with food that gives life?                                                  
  2. How is it that God is trying to feed your congregation with food that gives life?
  3. How is it that God is trying to feed the world with food that gives life?

monkimage.phpTo start with (going back again to last week), we remember that Jesus often shared meals with people – in large gatherings and small.  At the very heart of the Jesus movement was the good news of the immediacy of active Divine presence among us, the realm of God. As practiced and taught by Jesus, this realm of God was expressed in signs of renewed community among people, especially among people who were overlooked by the powers-that-be. Maybe the most visible sign of the realm present among the people gathered around Jesus was the way that people shared meals, crossing social boundaries and discovering new community. It was truly radical. In the interfaith community, it is often said that the best way to make friends with your religious “others” is to have a meal together. Or as one person put it, “at every interfaith gathering, you have to have music and food!”

In the realm of God, there’s not only enough for everyone, there is abundance. The ‘sign’ stories in John evoke the expectation of super-abundance in the messianic kingdom at the end of time. But Jesus proclaims that time is now. Living in the realm of God, we discover that God is oh, so generous with us. And God calls us to be generous in response.

Of course, you may have recognized language here that reminds us of Holy Communion. Communion SymbolsAnd here we can certainly find one answer to our question. We can be fed with the very presence of God every time we partake of bread and wine at the table of grace to which we are all invited. It’s a mystical experience every bit as powerful as a little boy’s lunch providing enough for everyone to eat or water being changed into the finest wine. We can come away from the table filled, fulfilled, with hearts overflowing with the realization of being touched by the Holy. Knowing also that there is plenty of gratitude, love, and compassion to be distributed out in the world – by us. Call it a sign or a miracle – it is truly a wonder!

And don’t we need this feeding in order to go out into the world? There’s no doubt that we live in troubling times. We struggle to know how to respond, how to participate in the healing of our families, our communities, our nation, our world. We feel discouraged, hopeless, helpless, even despairing at times.

If it makes us feel any better, in some ways we’re not too different from the people of John’s day. They had a hard time making sense of what was going on around them. The fledging Christian community was struggling to follow the teachings of Jesus in the midst of political and religious chaos. Yet, John declared, there was Bread of Life, food for body and soul that would enable them to have life abundant, even in the midst of turmoil.

There’s food for us too. How is it that God is trying to feed us with food that gives life? It’s here today. It’s here every week. The meal to which we are invited has the power to take our discouraged, hopeless, helpless selves and transform us into renewed, hopeful, energized communities of hope, life, love, justice, and mercy.

We have a lot to do out in the world, no doubt about it. But we need to be adequately nourished or we won’t be able to withstand the slings and arrows. Thankfully we have spiritual resources near at hand.

And there are other ways of being fed and nourished by God’s Presence. These can be more attuned to our individual tastes and personality types. Listening to music, contemplating a work of art, spending time in nature, gardening, devotional reading, meditation. Actually a lot of things can be nourishing if we sense that it’s a way that God is trying to feed us with food that gives life. Watch for signs in these coming weeks, keep your senses open to the Divine all around you. Take it in, share it out.

But remember, that here, in the community of Jesus, the Bread of Life, we know what God is doing. We are invited to a meal where we don’t have to worry about calories or carbs. All of our anxieties and fears can be laid aside, as we take nourishment – tangible food and drink – from our God who is always with us, always with enough and lots left over for us to take to whatever part of the world we inhabit.

Can we believe it? Really believe it and live like we do? Maybe John knew we’d need five  weeks for it to really sink in. Can you imagine: people like you and me – bread for the world through Jesus? It really is a miracle.

Amen

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Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
                                                                                                                                  They began to complain against Moses and Aaron there in the wilderness.The people of Israel said to them, “If only we had died by YHWH’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat next to pots of meat and ate our bread till we were filled! But now you have brought the whole community out into this wilderness to die of hunger.”

Then YHWH said to Moses, “Look, I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people will go out and gather a day’s portion every day, so that I can test them to see if they will follow my instructions.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Tell the whole Israelite community, ‘Present yourselves before YHWH, who has heard your complaints.'”

As Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of YHWH appearing in the form of a cloud. Then YHWH spoke to Moses and said,”I have heard the complaining of the people of Israel. Say this to them, ‘In the evening you will eat meat, and in the morning you will have your fill of bread. then you will know that I, YHWH, am your God.'”

So it came about that in the evening quail flew in and all around the camp. And in the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. When the layer of dew evapor-ated, there on the surface of the desert were flakes of something: delicate, powdery, fine as frost. When they saw this, the people of Israel said to one another, “What is it?” – not knowing what it was. But Moses told them, “This is the bread YHWH has given you to eat.”

John 6:24-35
When the people saw that neither Jesus nor the disciples were there, they got into the boats and crossed to Capernaum looking for Jesus.  When they found Jesus on the other side of the lake, they said,  “Rabbi, when did you get here?”   

Jesus answered them,  “The truth of the matter is, you are not looking for me because you’ve seen signs, but because you’ve eaten your fill of the bread.  You shouldn’t be working for food that perishes, but for the life-giving food that lasts for all eternity; this the Chosen One can give you, for the chosen one bears the seal of Abba God.” 
At this they said,  “What must we do to perform the works of God?”   

Jesus replied,  “This is the work of God:  to believe in the one whom God has sent.”   

So they asked Jesus,  “What sign are you going to give to show us that we should believe in you?  What will you do?    Our ancestors had manna to eat in the desert; as scripture says,  ‘God gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”   

Jesus said to them,  “The truth of the matter is, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Abba who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Teacher, they said,  “Give us this bread always.” 

Jesus said to them,  “I am the Bread of Life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry; no one who believes in me will be thirsty.”

 

 

 

 

 

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.

THE PUZZLE OF THOSE 16 VERSES
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?

A STUDY IN CONTRASTS
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.

OUTRAGE FATIGUE SYNDROME
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?

THE BELOVED COMMUNITY OF RESISTANCE
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.

ADVICE FOR THE LONG HAUL
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.

Amen

 

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.

Amen

 

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! 

 

 

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