Posted by: smstrouse | February 17, 2019

A Bad News / Good News Sermon

ok9Defense lawyer says to her client: “I have good news and bad news.”
Client says: ”What’s the bad news?”
The lawyer says, “Your blood matches the DNA found at the murder scene.”
“Oh, no!” cries the client. “What’s the good news?”
“Well,” the lawyer says, “Your cholesterol is way down.”

Teenager says to his father: I have a good news and bad news.
Father:  Give me the good news first.
Teenager: The airbags work really well in your new Mercedes.

Husband: “I have good news and bad news”
Wife: “Tell me the bad news first.”
Husband: “The washing machine broke.”
Wife: “Oh, no. What’s the good news?”
Husband: “The dogs are clean.”

Who doesn’t love a good news/bad news joke? I know that neither of the writers of the books of Jeremiah and Luke intended to make a joke. But I couldn’t help seeing the good news/bad news theme in both passages today.

Jeremiah 17: 5-10 (see below)
The good news is first: blessed are you who trust in God, you’ll be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. You won’t fear when heat comes. You won’t be anxious in times of drought. The bad news is: woe to you who trust in mere mortals whose hearts turn away from God. You’ll be like a shrub in the desert. You’ll live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.Michelangelo,_profeti,_Jeremiah_02

That’s definitely not funny. Nor was it meant to be. It’s not for nothing that a long lamentation or complaint or list of woes is called a jeremiad. The prophet Jeremiah preached to the Hebrew people during a time of great national crisis. The Babylonians were on the move and coming their way. As we know now, they would conquer Judah and take their best and brightest into exile. Jeremiah is often (rightly) seen as a prophet of doom and gloom. But as we can see by the good news part of his prophecy, there are blessings to be had even among the woes.  

Then There’s Jesus (Luke 6: 17-26)
First the good news:”Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry now, you who weep now. Blessed are you when you are hated, excluded, and reviled. You will be rewarded.”

Then the bad: “Woe to you who are full now; you’ll go hungry. Woe to you laughing now; you’ll be in mourning. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you; you’ll be known as a false prophet.”

Our epiphany revelation about Jesus this week should be that following him has consequences. There’s an edge in this part of the teaching that maybe we’re not used to hearing.  We like to focus on the good news, the comforting news.

This Is Not Matthew’s Beatitudes!
The good news part of Jesus’s sermon should remind us of another version of the same sermon. In Matthew’s gospel, we find another list of blessings, often called the Beatitudes (from the Latin ’beatitudo,’ meaning “blessedness”). But you might also recognize some differences. Matthew’s version has Jesus preaching on a mountain (Sermon on the Mount). Luke’s version, often called the Sermon on the Plain, says “he stood with them on a level place.”

UnknownThen there are fewer blessings in Luke (four, compared to Matthew’s nine). There’s nothing about the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, or the peacemakers. And two of the ones that remain have some major differences: Luke’s ‘poor’ become Matthew’s ‘poor in spirit’ and to Luke’s ‘blessed are you who hunger, Matthew adds ‘for righteousness.’ We’ve moved from a spiritualized ethic in Matthew to a more practical one in Luke. Luke’s version also moves from speaking about ‘them’ to addressing ‘you’ (us). We’ve moved from abstract ideas to concrete practice, from theory to real life.

And, perhaps most notably, there’s the addition in Luke of four woes to those who refuse to hear and embrace these teachings – very reminiscent of the warnings we heard from Jeremiah. It’s also reminiscent of what we heard not all that long ago, back in Advent, when Mary sang the Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”: The mighty, who may be winning now, will be brought low. The oppressed will be lifted up; the empty will be filled. Those who are full will taste what it feels like to be empty. In other words, there are ‘woes,’ there are consequences to living in opposition to God’s intentions.

We don’t get to read this version that often in church. We read Matthew’s Beatitudes every year on All Saints Sunday. But Luke’s sermon comes around in the lectionary just once every three years on the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany. Depending when Easter is, which determines when Lent begins, and therefore Epiphany ends, Epiphany 6 doesn’t come around that often. Easter is late this year, so Epiphany lasts seven whole Sundays, as opposed to just four Sundays three years ago. So I would venture a guess that most people not only are more familiar with the Beatitudes, but prefer that version of Jesus’ sermon to Luke’s.

Jesus on the Level
My first recollection of the Beatitudes is that they were pasted into a back cover of a Bible under the heading “For Those in Need of Comfort.” 
But I’ve never seen a similar thing for Luke, under the heading “For Those in Need of Challenge.” But here we are on Epiphany 6 with Jesus speaking to the crowd on a level place. Might we also hear Jesus speaking to us – on the level?

We could see the blessings and woes as an either/or situation. Either you live right or you don’t. Either you’re blessed or you’re cursed. But the reality is not so cut and dried. I don’t consider myself to be rich, do you? Except we are rich, compared to most people in the world. I’m never hungry, not really. In fact, we’re so full so much of the time that many of us have health issues from our over-consumption.

We do weep, some of us more often than others. And we take that seriously. But we also love to be entertained, to distract us from the overwhelming tragedies of the world. Yemen, Syria, and Somalia are far-away places; let’s change the channel and watch “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

We rarely have people saying seriously bad stuff about us, especially on account of Jesus. We’re respectable, comfortable, nice people. Except when we do speak out in a prophetic way, letting loose a jeremiad against those who exploit the poor, the hungry, the oppressed – when our desire to make a stand for justice outweighs our need to be liked.

We’re All in This Together
logoThe reality is that we are complicated creatures. Martin Luther said it best when he described us as simultaneously both saint and sinner. In thinking about that paradox, I was
reminded of the challenge we have these days with privilege: white privilege, male privilege, middle class privilege, straight privilege, able-bodied privilege. It has become commonplace to get into all kinds of tussles about who’s using their privilege and when.

But here’s the thing. I know that I enjoy certain kinds of privilege – as a white, middle-class, able-bodied person. I also know that I’ve experienced the other side of the coin as a woman; I obviously don’t enjoy male privilege. We could each name where we have privilege and where we don’t. That’s why many are calling for intersectionality, which says that all oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and can’t be dealt with separately from one another.

In other words, we’re all in this together – in both the blessings and the woes of life. We all have some form of brokenness in our lives. Sometimes that brokenness is visible, oftentimes it’s invisible, but it’s there nonetheless. Yet even in the midst of our brokenness, God calls us into a way of transformation – both for ourselves and for our communities and our world. It’s called resurrection life.

I Corinthians 15: 12-20
Paul, in his plea to the Corinthians to remember the resurrection, reminds us where we need to put our trust as well. Living as we do in the paradoxical way of being both saint and sinner, we have to rely on the life-giving power that’s beyond our own efforts and will power. Resurrection isn’t just about eternal life when we die; it’s also about the promise of new life, new possibilities in the midst of seemingly impossible problems. As we confront our own brokenness, sinfulness, the ways we’re caught in systems from which we cannot break free (our woes) – we also open ourselves up to the blessings.

In this very challenging manifestation of the person and work of Jesus in the world, we are called to follow in the way of resurrection and blessing. The call to discipleship demands a response. Depending on how you look at it, the way of Jesus can be a good news/bad news story: the good news is that God loves you. The bad news is now you have to do something about it for the sake of the world.

Hmm, that doesn’t sound right. Let’s turn it around. Jesus has bad news and good news: the bad news is that you’re a sinner and you can’t free yourself and you live in a world of woes. The good news is that you are beloved and perfectly OK because God has made it so. Now go, and do something for the sake of the world.

Jesus has come to us “on the level” to tell us that the good news wins. Resurrection wins. Love wins – for our sake and for our prophetic work and witness in the world.

Amen

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Jeremiah 17:5-10
YHWH says: 
   Cursed are those who trust in human ways 
      who rely on things of the flesh, 
      whose hearts turn away from YHWH.
   They are like stunted vegetation in the desert, 
      with no hope in the future. 
   It stands in stony wastes in the desert,      
       an uninhabited land of salt.

   Blessed are those who put their trust in God, 
      with God for their hope.
   They are like a tree planted by the river, 
      that thrusts its roots toward the stream. 
  When the heat comes it feels no heat; 
       its leaves stay green.
   It is untroubled in a year of drought, 
      and never ceases to bear fruit.

   The human heart is more deceitful 
      than anything else,
      and desperately sick – who can understand it?
   I , YHWH, search into the heart, I probe the mind, 
       to give to each person
       what their actions and conduct deserve.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Tell me, if we proclaim that Christ was raised from the dead, how is it that some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then all of our preaching has been meaningless – and everything you’ve believed has been just as meaningless. Indeed, we are shown to be false witnesses of God, for we solemnly swore that God raised Christ from the dead – which did not happen if in fact the dead are not raised. Because if the dead are not raised, then Christ is not raised, and if Christ is not raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in are the deadest of the dead. If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are the most pitiful of the human race. But as it is, Christ has in fact been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Luke 6:17-26
Coming down the mountain with them, Jesus stopped in a level area where there were a great number of disciples. A large crowd of people was with them from Jerusalem and all over Judea, to as far north as the coast of Tyre and Sidon – people who had come to hear Jesus and be healed of their diseases, and even freed from unclean spirits. Indeed, the whole crowd was trying to touch Jesus, because power was coming out of him and healing them all.

Looking at the disciples, Jesus said: 
“You who are poor are blessed, for the reign of God is yours. 
You who hunger now are blessed, for you’ll be filled. 
You who weep now are blessed, for you’ll laugh.
You are blessed when people hate you, when they scorn and insult you and spurn your name as evil because of the Chosen One. On the day they do so, rejoice and be glad: your reward will be great in heaven; for their ancestors treated the prophets the same way

But woe to you rich, for you are now receiving your comfort in full.
Woe to you who are full, for you’ll go hungry. 
Woe to you who laugh now, for you’ll weep in your grief.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in the same way.”

 

Texts are from The Inclusive Bible

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Posted by: smstrouse | February 10, 2019

Mystic Fishing: Church in the 21st Century

3518252658_dcda301c80_bSermon for Epiphany 5

Sigh. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that what was good news in the 1stcentury has turned into a source of angst for the 21st.  “Don’t be afraid. From now on you’ll be catching people.” Well, as Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that workin’ for you?”

I remember discussing this text with a group of pastors in western New York back in the early 1990s. Those of us who were in city churches were of the opinion that the fish being caught by the churches experiencing growth were in reality being scooped out of our congregations and transferred to aquariums out in the suburbs. It was a pretty depressing conversation.

But then we discovered the Church Growth Movement. We attended workshops and seminars, bought books and videos, followed church growth gurus who promised to teach us how to reach out (mainly) to younger members of our community. Back then it was Generation X, those born after the Baby Boomers. These experts told us that if we followed their instructions to the letter, our churches would grow. We had one such expert visit my church in Buffalo and promise that our little congregation – in a Northeast rustbelt city – would go from 50 people on Sunday to 500. I overheard one of our older members mutter, “But I don’t want 500 people.”

Now, don’t misunderstand me: I’m all in favor of doing outreach to those searching for a way to explore their spirituality and to those with no church home. However, as a veteran of the church growth movement of the 90s, I know the pitfalls of easy characterizations and easy solutions. We actually bought a program called Blueprint for Church Growth. We received a big binder of step-by-step instructions – and a church growth consultant!

Looking back, the idea was ludicrous. We were a mainline church in a city itself in decline. But even more ludicrous was the advice of our “expert” consultant. He took one look at our building, sitting on the corner in the middle of two lovely lawns with large shade trees, and declared that we needed to rip out the trees and the lawns and put in parking lots. Rule #1 of church growth: you have to have a parking lot.

Needless to say, we did not tear up the lawns. They provided play space for our pre-Positively_no_trees,_Leesport_PAschool and summer program. They were places of hospitality for neighborhood gatherings, such as the annual National Night Out. The trees provided shade and beauty, as well as nesting places for birds. We were a green space in a city neighbor-hood. Should we really have “paved Paradise and put up a parking lot?”

I’m happy to report that the congregation is still there, some 25 years after our venture into church growth. It’s still small, but they’ve partnered with a suburban congregation and are doing vibrant, creative ministry together. When I returned for their 90th anniversary celebration in 2013, one of the things I enjoyed most was the picnic held out on the back lawn under that big beautiful tree.

Despite my obvious feelings about the experience, I learned an important lesson: there are no one-size-fits-all answers to the questions of how to catch fish for Jesus.  So when I see articles, books, videos, seminars, etc. with titles like “How to Effectively Reach Millennials” and “Simple Ways Your Church Can Reach and Keep Millennials,” I don’t take the bait. But it doesn’t mean I don’t care.

1549523927422You may or may not have heard of a relatively new ministry in our synod called Middle Circle. It was started by Pastor Anders Peterson as a way to reach people (mostly millennials, his own age group) who were not likely to connect to an existing church. It’s a ministry partially funded by my previous congregation, First United, San Francisco. First United was interested in reaching out to people who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious,’ in hopes of attracting them to a progressive form of Christianity that would appeal to them more than a more traditional church.

We learned a lot in the process. One: “spiritual but not religious” is not a homogeneous population. They’re all over the map. Some don’t even like the word ‘spiritual,’ although they do all want a community where they can explore life’s meaning and values. So it’s definitely not a one-size-fits all operation. But I will say that Pastor Anders has been catching a lot of fish in his Middle Circle net. It doesn’t look at all like a traditional church, but maybe that’s a clue for us as we navigate the waters of the 21stcentury church.

Another thing we learned (to our dismay) is that, for most of that group, even the uber-progressive, outside-the-the-box congregation we considered ourselves to be is too traditional. Let me tell you, attracting people to the church these days is hard. As if you didn’t know. As if any mainline church doesn’t know, even the bigger ones.

A lot of the ways we learned to fish in the past just don’t work any longer. So the story of Simon and the other fishermen working all night and catching nothing is more like our experience than letting down the nets and catching so many fish that our nets – or our buildings – can’t hold them all.

Now, I am aware that I’m supposed to be bringing you good news – and all I’ve probably done so far is make you depressed about the future of the church. So it’s time to get to the good news. Bruce Epperly, a United Church of Christ pastor and blogger wrote a surprisingly positive post about this week’s readings. Although it shouldn’t be surprising; it is the season of Epiphany after all. He wrote:
Get ready for a wild ride! Strap on your seat belts and put on your helmet! We’re entering the amazing realm of the Twilight Zone, Narnia, and Hogwarts, an enchanted world, wild and wonderful, with mysticism and miracle, signs and wonders, where God shows up and turns our world upside down. Where God asks, and then empowers us to be more than we can imagine!

 Wow! Is he reading the same story? But knowing Epperly’s writing, I’d expect him to find a deeper spirituality here and not simply a how-to manual of church growth.  Listen to what he says about Isaiah:

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Dome of Hagia Sophia

Isaiah’s mystical experience in the Temple awakens us to the possibility that there may be “thin places” everywhere, as the Celtic Christians say. Places where the veil between heaven and earth is pierced and we see life as it is – Infinite. Where God’s grandeur abounds and angels guide our paths. Out of nowhere, God shows up – a theophany that rocks Isaiah’s world. The doors of his perception open and he experiences the majesty and wildness of the world – the mysterious, fascinating, and tremendous. Isaiah receives God’s transforming and healing touch and a blessing beyond belief. He is anointed by fire, and then given a task.

Then he asks:When we hear these words, “Whom shall I send” what will our response be? Surely God calls us each moment of the day with nudges, intuitions, insights, and encounters.

Then he goes on to I Corinthians, saying:
Like Isaiah, Paul’s mystical encounter with the Living Christ turned his world upside down and gave him the vocation of ministry with the Gentiles. This passage gives us confidence in God’s power in the world and invites us to consider our own calling. No one is bereft of God’s grace or power to embody God’s vision and be God’s represent-atives in the word.

And then to the gospel:
Not expecting anything, and disappointed over an unsuccessful night’s fishing, Peter is welcomed into a world of wonders. Jesus calls him to go further and despite his doubts, Peter follows Jesus’ advice and receives “more than he can ask or imagine.”

Peter’s experience mirrors the experience of many pastors and congregations. We have Unknownworked hard and sought to be faithful and yet our congregation shrinks in size, budgets are tight, and the demographics are against us. We have tried all the latest church growth programs and the downward trend continues. And yet, God offers one more thing – launch out into the deep, go toward the horizon, awaken to new possibilities. Don’t give up, be faithful and join your imagination with faithful action that goes beyond church survival to healing the world.

Now we see that – as we’ve known all along – God is in charge here. And there are epiphanies still to come. The possibility is always there for you, for me to have God show up and rock our world – and our church.

And while an epiphany can happen any time and quite unexpectedly, it certainly does not hurt for us to open up space in our souls, to develop our spiritual muscles, to be ready for when a ‘thin place’ opens up and gives us a glimpse into Infinity. 

And this isn’t just about a personal encounter with Divine Presence. This is also about re-creating, re-forming the Church with Holy Imagination and Creativity. It’s about launching out into the deep, awakening to new possibilities. No store-bought, cookie-cutter program will do it. It will take creativity and imagination, along with faithful action that will lead us out of despair or survival mode to renewing the Church and healing the world.

Remember how impossible Peter thought another fishing expedition would be that night: “We’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing.”
Yet he knew something was up; he knew enough about Jesus to say, “OK, if you say so, I’ll lower the nets.” Maybe he didn’t have any expectations; maybe he couldn’t even imagine what might happen. But he did it; he lowered the nets. Like Isaiah, he said, in effect, “Here am I. Send me!”

So, if anybody tells you they have all the answers to the mystery of being the Church in the 21st century, for only $19.95, I think we would do well to remember this prayer from Evening Prayer:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Christ our Savior.

 Amen

 

Isaiah 6:1-8
In the year of the death of Uzziah, ruler of Judah, I saw YHWH sitting on a high and lofty judgment seat, in a robe whose train filled the temple.Seraphs were stationed above, each of them had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.

They would cry out to one another, “Holy! Holy! Holy! is YHWH Omnipotent! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”The doorposts and thresholds quaked at the sound of their shouting, and the Temple kept filling with smoke.

Then I said: “Woe is me, I am doomed! I have unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips! And my eyes have seen the Ruler, YHWH Omnipotent!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding an ember, which it had taken with tongs from the altar.The seraph touched my mouth with the ember. “See,” it said, “now that this has touched your lips, your corruption is removed and your sin is pardoned.”

Then I heard the voice of the Holy One saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”

“Here I am,” I said, send me!”

1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Sisters, brothers, siblings: I want to remind you of the Gospel I preached to you, which you received and in which you stand firm. You are being saved at this very moment by it, if you hold fast to it as I preached it to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain.

I handed on to you, first of all, what I myself received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried, and in accordance with the scriptures, rose on the third day; that he was seen by Peter, then by the Twelve.After that, he was seen by more than five hundred sisters, brothers, siblings at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.Next he was seen by James, then by all the apostles.Last of all, he was seen by me, as one yanked from the womb.

I am the least of the apostles; in fact, because I persecuted the church of God, I do not even deserve the name. But by God‘s favor I am what I am. This favor that God has given to me has not proven fruitless. Indeed, I have worked harder than all the others, not on my own, but through the grace of God.In any case, whether it be I or they, this is what we preach and this is what you believed.

Luke 5:1-11
One day, Jesus was standing by Lake Gennesaret, and the crowd pressed in on him to hear the word of God. He saw two boats moored by the side of the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets.Jesus stepped into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a short distance from the shore; then, remaining seated, he continued to teach the crowds from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Pull out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Rabbi, we’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing. But if you say so, I will lower the nets.”

Upon doing so, they caught such a great number of fish that their nets were at the breaking point.They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and together they filled the two boats until they both nearly sank.

After Simon saw what happened, he was filled with awe and fell down before Jesus, saying, “Leave me, Rabbi, for I am a sinner!”For Simon and his shipmates were astonished at the size of the catch they had made, as were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s partners.

Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you’ll fish among humankind.”And when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

*** Translation is from The Inclusive Bible, Sheed & Ward (March 16, 2009).

 

Posted by: smstrouse | February 8, 2019

Holy Shirt! No Religion in ‘The Good Place’?

SFSKX2L.jpgAccording to The Good Place, my mother was right.   Somebody really is keeping score. Mom used to tell me that God had a book and whenever I did something bad, he (it was always a ‘he’ back then) would put a black mark next to my name. Small wonder we get such forked up notions about God. 

If you haven’t yet seen the show, go watch it – now! Then you’ll get the “forked up” joke. I’m not going to give the story away, except for the premise that when we die, we go either to the good place or the bad place. Getting to the good place all depends on how many good deeds you’ve racked up in your lifetime. If you’re an exemplary human being, you’ll be greeted by the “Welcome! Everything Is Fine” sign and then by Ted Danson, who will introduce you to the delights of the Good Place. Trust me; it’s hysterical. 

But What About Grace???
Theologically speaking, it’s more problematic. Not that The Good Place tries to speakmaxresdefault theologically; there’s not even a higher power in evidence. Still, my Lutheran soul immediately picked upon on the discordance between the notion of points for good behavior and the idea of justification by grace, which says we get to the “good place” only through faith and reliance on God’s grace, not through good deeds. Martin Luther’s warnings are burned into my brain, (e.g. “If we esteem them too highly, good works can become the greatest idolatry.”)
What The Good Place does is wrestle with the question of what it means to be human. Instead of theology, it uses ethics and philosophy (trust me, it’s funny).

I thought about The Good Place when I saw the latest online rant about Gretta Vosper, the WKxYuGGyUnited Church of Canada pastor who identifies as an atheist. The headline:
Preacher who doesn’t believe in God is like Amazon manager who doesn’t believe in online shopping

Ha! Ha! Not. I actually wrote a post about this in 2016 Should the Atheist Pastor Be Defrocked? 

At the risk of eliciting my own snarky headlines, I agree with a lot of what Vosper says. She has stated, “I do not believe in a theistic, supernatural being called God.” Well, neither do I. I don’t identify as an atheist, although I might go as far as a-theist. A better label would be Christian panentheist. 

I’ve also been reading A Freethinker’s Gospel by Chris Highland, an avowed atheist whoUnknown was once a Presbyterian pastor. Again, there’s not much with which I disagree. The only difference really is that confronted with questions about traditional Christianity, Highland took a path into freethinking and I went toward a form of progressive Christianity. In essence, we’re pretty similar. Same with Vosper. More similar than a lot of forms of Christianity.

It’s OK to Ask Questions
Which brings me back to The Good Place, which is not religious in any way, yet explores what it means to 
 be human. It may not jibe with Lutheran theology of sola gratia, but it asks the right questions. And in today’s religious milieu, I believe that it’s more important to ask questions than to know all the answers ( as if we could anyway!) 

So, go ahead, watch The Good Place. Laugh. Also listen to The Good Place podcast (it’s really fun!). But maybe also reflect on the deeper questions of humanity.

Holy shirt! We’re all in this together, no matter what we believe or don’t believe. 

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Posted by: smstrouse | February 3, 2019

Offended by Jesus? Join the Crowd!

welcomeThey say you can’t go home again. Maybe that has some truth in it. Or at least sometimes going home can cause discomfort – in both your old hometown friends and family and yourself.

In 1996, it was the 100th anniversary of my home church.  As a daughter of the congregation, I was invited to preach at one of the services that anniversary year. Now I have to tell you, that my relationship with that church was not without its ups and downs. In fact, I had almost flunked Confirmation. After three years of classes, memorization, sermon notes, and tests, I was in danger of not being approved for Confirmation. The reason? We actually got report cards and were graded on memori-zation, sermon notes, tests, as well as attendance in class, Sunday school, church, and Luther League (Sunday night youth group).

I had gotten straight A’s in everything, except Luther League. Straight F’s, all because I was a very shy kid and all the other kids were from other schools, and I just refused to go (I could probably get an A in stubbornness). Eventually, after a month of extra classes, I was allowed to be Confirmed. I also have to tell you that for a 13-year-old, this was a shaming experience which stayed with me a long time and sensitized me to all the ways that the church can shame people, often without even realizing it.

OK, it’s 33 years later and I get to preach in that very same church. I actually started my sermon with this story. At the end of it, I said, “So, the moral is: never discount any child; she just might come back to be your pastor.”  It was meant to be humorous; people laughed. I think most who had been around during that pastor’s tenure recognized his strict ways. However, after the service, my brother came up to me and said, “About your Confirmation story: Mom was mortified.” And I got it. My mom had a way of seeing both the church and me. My story didn’t fit with her narrative. And I’m sure this discordance made her very uncomfortable. So, it is true. Often times you can’t go home again without offending somebody.

Jesus certainly found that out, didn’t he? The hometown crowd not only did not like whathometown-nazareth-sign-e1428950184677 he had to say, they actually dragged him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. Although it does seem that Jesus provoked them a bit. Maybe he was offended by their astonishment that the hometown kid, Joseph’s son, could make good. Because then he seems to purposefully poke at them by reminding them about the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian, both foreigners, both adherents of other religions.Hearing Jesus single out these two as recipients of God’s grace did not fit in with their narrative as God’s chosen and all others as outsiders. This discordance obviously made them very uncomfortable, hence their drastic response.  

So what is the epiphany for today? What revelation is manifested for us today? That we can’t go home again? I don’t think that was the point of the story. Although we could glean a number of points from it, not the least being that being a follower of Jesus can sometimes bring about challenge and discomfort to others. As Jesus said himself, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” And we begin Black History Month, we can hear Jesus echoed in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: “There comes a time when you must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but you must take it because your conscience tells you it is right.”

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There is another point in the gospel story that is often overlooked. And that is the religion of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. World Interfaith Harmony Week also began on Friday. It is an initiative of the United Nations and was  first proposed at the UN General Assembly in 2010 by King Abdullah of Jordan. From then on, the first week of February is observed as World Interfaith Harmony Week. I bring this up because the reality of other religions caused such discomfort and violence in Jesus’ day and causes discomfort and often violence still.

I have for many years been involved in interfaith activities. But I’ve also been involved in what I call the intrafaith conversation. What is intrafaith? The simplest way to explain it is that the prefix matters. Inter means “between” – as in interacting, doing things with other people or other groups. So interfaith is more than one religion getting together. Intra means acting within or inside one group. Intrafaith is just one religion examining itself in light of its interfaith experience. A good illustration of inter would be our country’s system of interstate highways that run across multiple states – as opposed to the highways that run only within one state’s intrastate system. Or intramural sports being played within just one school.

Let me share a story with you of how I became Interested in this. In the days after 9/11, many congregations wanted to learn more about other religions. I’d been involved in interfaith activities for some time, so was delighted when members at the church where I was serving as pastor at the time wanted to have a study of the world’s religions. They decided on Hinduism as their first venture. In light of the fact that we’d be looking at another tradition solely through our own Christian lenses, I asked if they would be open to inviting a Hindu guest to one of our sessions, someone who was willing to share her story as well as answer any questions. Their answer was an enthusiastic “yes” and 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.

However, after the session one of the participants asked if she could stay and 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 personal story. But she had a big concern. “If I accept the Hindu path as equal to Christianity,” she said, “I’m worried that I’m betraying Jesus.”

At the time, I reassured her that, given her firm foundation in Christianity, an explor-ation of other faiths would not endanger her soul. But afterwards, as I reflected on the incident, I realized that she had raised a challenging intrafaith issue for us today. 

How we, as Christians, relate to the religious diversity in which we live is no less challenging than it was for the people listening to Jesus. For them, the question, the challenge was: what does it mean to be a follower of YHWH in the midst of these people with beliefs different from ours? For us, it is: what does it mean to be a Christian in a multi-faith world?  I’ll tell you another story. I attended a funeral at a neighboring Episcopal church. I sat next to a friend from our interfaith women’s group. As the priest read the familiar passage from John’s gospel, I heard it through the ears of my friend 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 had preached on that same text many times, but hearing it this time it sounded rude, exclusionary, and offensive. It was a powerful epiphany, which led me actually to come to Berkeley to study interfaith theology, get my doctorate, and write a book and blog on the subject.  

I haven’t been thrown off of any cliffs, but I have been accused of abandoning my Christian faith – which I have not. In fact, meeting and listening to the stories of people of other religious traditions, forced me to examine my own beliefs and not just repeat them unquestioningly. And like many say in the interfaith movement, by doing so, my own faith has become stronger.

I was reading an article this week dealing with difficult parts of scripture: violent, misogynistic, condoning slavery, and other troubling passages. One of the things the author said applies to our topic today.

He quoted St. Augustine as saying something to the effect of “you should interpret every passage of the Bible in the light of the love of God.”  “If we read every passage through the eyes of love, it becomes easier to see when a passage represents the limitations or biases of the author — and not a declaration of the Divine Will.

“For example, when the Bible suggests that God condones slavery, we know that God is a God of love and justice — so clearly, those slavery-accepting passages represent the cultural bias of the human author, and not the word of God. The same goes for verses that suggest God is okay with violence, or genocide, or sexism, homophobia, etc. If a passage undermines God’s love and mercy, we can safely assume that the passage is telling us more about human imperfection than about divine perfection.”

Surely that’s what St. Paul was getting at in his incredibly beautiful chapter in I 875998c0bbb583ef036b9e167a250199Corinthians. Read so often at weddings, it wasn’t written for a couple beginning their married life, although it certainly does apply. He was writing to all the people in the church at Corinth. One of my favorite devotional writers, Joyce Rupp, has set an intention to memorize verses 4-5 during the month of February.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.

She says, “I’ll pause and allow the verses to become embedded in my consciousness. I hope to carry them into each day, so that what they espouse will become activated in my approach and attitude toward all beings.”

She adds, “Perhaps you might join me this month in this life-giving endeavor.” I think she’s on to something. When we lead with love, we’re less likely to want to throw someone off a cliff or under the bus, to discount them, or refuse to listen to them.

And finally, from Parker Palmer, the Quaker author and teacher: “The mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way – to love the world as God did and does. If we are able to love the world, that will be the best demonstration of the truth which the church has been given.”

Amen.

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Posted by: smstrouse | January 25, 2019

NPR Discovers the Religious Left

religious_leftI’ve had this bumper sticker on my car for maybe 10 years. I should say cars because I used to lease a new car every few years and now have settled on my beloved Honda CR-Z. So I have bought a number of these stickers, and have also given a number of them away.  I should buy them in bulk from CafePress!

I can’t tell you how many times I have been approached in parking lots by someone 2019-01-25 13.52.55 hdr saying, “I love your bumper sticker!” The most recent time, I was at our local recycling center. As I was separating my plastic film from the hard plastic, a woman called out that she liked my bumper sticker.
I said, “Thanks.”
She said, “I don’t know if we’re the same religion.”
I said, “It doesn’t matter.” 

We ended up talking, introducing ourselves, finding which organizations we both belonged to, what people we both know. She’s Jewish; I’m Lutheran. You might be surprised to know the commonalities we discovered. You might also be surprised to find that this is the so-called “secular” San Francisco Bay Area. 

A piece from National Public Radio today declared:
Provoked By Trump, The Religious Left Is Finding Its Voice

Good to know. But we’ve been out here for a while. And maybe we’ve been too quiet. More likely is the fact that it’s been hard to get the media to pay attention until recently. But that’s OK; they’re paying attention now.

I say get your bumper stickers and buttons and flaunt them proudly. Join the Religious Left Facebook page. Let everyone, especially the media, know that we have a voice and we’d love to talk to them. unknown

 

Posted by: smstrouse | December 29, 2018

It’s Not a War on Christmas; It’s a War on Children

1579px-'Flight_into_Egypt'_by_Henry_Ossawa_Tanner,_Cincinnati_Art_MuseumYesterday was the day known in the Church as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It’s not a day I’ve often observed, talked about, or preached on. The scripture text it’s based on is part of the gospel of Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus. It comes right after one of my favorite parts – the arrival of the Magi bearing wondrous gifts. But here’s the flip side of that happy story. When the Magi leave – and don’t go back to Herod to report on the whereabouts of this possible threat to his power – the king goes into a rage. He orders the death of all male children age two and under in and around the town of Bethlehem. But Jospeh learns of the murderous plan in a dream and is wise enough to pay attention. That night, the family flees to Egypt and remains there until the death of Herod. 

The thing is: I already struggle with the Christmas story. I’ve come a long way from complete rejection because of its non-historical basis. I moved through the stages of learning about the reasons Matthew and Luke created their accounts they way they did. They had their reasons for portraying the miraculous birth of Jesus in order to legitimize “their guy” as the real deal. I came to a place of appreciation for the story as a myth, that is a story that, while not historical fact, still contains a great truth. As Marcus Borg like to paraphrase Black Elk’s Indigenous wisdom: “I am not sure that it happened this way or not but I know that this story is true.” 

So I made peace with Christmas. See my post An Elephant, a Giraffe and a Zebra Walk into a Stable.

However, I’m still bothered by the attention that’s often given to details in the story – like how Mary really could have been a virgin and what that star over Bethlehem could have been. And the so-called flight into Egypt Matthew, wanting to show that Jesus is the new Moses and goes to great lengths to connect the Jesus story with prophecies from the Hebrew scriptures, writes: “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by God through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my Own.’

It’s so blatant that I’ve pretty much dismissed it, ignoring my own advice to find the truth in the story. But the point is that the birth of Jesus would have both religious and political implications. The news of Light coming into the world was no more good news for the rich and powerful in Jesus’ day than it is in ours. In fact, as the Magi discovered, the rich and powerful actually have a vested interest in destroying that Light. As one commentator wrote: “While politicians promise to shake things up and drain the so-called swamp, their words reveal more heat than light. The rich and powerful want to remain rich and powerful even if it means holding onto the status quo of widespread poverty, destruction of species and the eco-sphere, and the growing disparity of the rich and poor.”

48394637_113245603057785_1505732825792380928_oThe  crisis at our border is a grim illustration of what the Magi knew. Their odyssey does not have to be historical fact for it to be true. Herod lives. And even the youngest among us have reason to be afraid. Eight-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo and 7-year-old Jakelin Caal are among the innocents who have died at the hands of cruel Herod. 

In today’s version of the story, we need to pay attention to the overarching message of Christmas: the Light has come into the world and no darkness can overcome it. The Christmas story doesn’t stop with a sweet scene in a stable on a silent night. It zooms the birth of Jesus out into the political realm with a realism that we recognize all too well. I remember when I was a kid, I couldn’t understand why Jesus was called Prince of Peace. If he came to bring peace on earth, something had obviously gone wrong. But then I came to understand that the birth of Jesus wasn’t about there being a new Herod in town. The politics of Jesus aren’t the politics of the world. And the politics of Jesus will always be confrontational to the halls of wealth and power. We will always have to stand in opposition to the powers-that-be.

It’s no wonder that being a Christian for the first three centuries was so dangerous. Even the Christmas story itself, so beloved for its promise of “peace on earth,” was essentially a story of political resistance, proclaiming a radically different kind of Savior and a vision of peace on earth based not on power over others, but upon compassion and justice for all people – especially the most vulnerable among us.

The Slaughter of the Innocents reminds us to pay attention to the children – to Felipe and Jakelin and all the little ones in danger from illness, dehydration, and untold emotional distress. To all the children separated from their families, kept in cages or in centers far from home, to those waiting at the border, not knowing if they will receive sanctuary or not. To the ones suffering at border crossings everywhere.

They are the Holy Innocents. 

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Posted by: smstrouse | December 9, 2018

Practicing Peace at the Edge

LennonWallImagineGrace to you and peace from God, our Creator and Christ, our Wisdom.  Amen.

Grace to you – and peace.  The second candle on the Advent wreath is often called the Peace candle. You might also hear the second Sunday in Advent referred to as “the prophet’s day,” with our texts devoted to John the Baptist. The psalm that Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer, sings in Luke – which we said together a few minutes ago – bring the two together: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

What Is Peace?
The way of peace. We share “the peace” every Sunday. But what is peace? The simple answer is that it’s the opposite of war, the absence of conflict. And that’s certainly valid. In these days of unending warfare, we long for the kind of celebrations that broke out the end of WW II. And though the signing of the Paris Peace Accords ending the Vietnam War may have been marked more with fatigue and grief, peace was definitely welcome. It seems to be getting harder to achieve peaceful outcomes these days; one war just seems to bleed (literally) into another. We long for peace as an absence of war. But it seems to be a very elusive goal.

That’s true for other conflicts as well. We’ve just come through the Thanksgiving holiday when we’ve heard endless jokes about disruptive family gatherings. On The Late Show, Steven Colbert quipped, “Personally, I love Thanksgiving traditions: watching football, making pumpkin pie, and saying the magic phrase that sends your aunt storming out of the dining room to sit in her car.”

We laugh at these jokes because we can relate. Many of us have an aunt like Colbert’s. Or, in my case, an uncle, who could make me grit my teeth and keep quiet for the sake of keeping peace in the family. But that kind of peace isn’t really peace-ful; it just keeps the conflict below the surface. Or it serves to allow someone’s bad behavior to continue – at best, a mild annoyance; at worst, abuse and oppression. 

So again, peace is elusive. In a way, this is beginning to sound like what I said last week about hope. Everybody wants it, but what is real peace, and how do we get it?

After all, this is the season when we sing a lot about it.
“Hark! The herald angels sing, Peace on earth, and mercy mild . . .” 
O Little Town of Bethlehem: “Praises sing to God the King, and Peace to all the earth”Handel’s “Messiah” –“and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Prince of Peace? Really?
But you know, I remember that even when I was a child, hearing these words and looking at the world around me made we wonder if I was missing something. If Jesus had come to bring peace on earth, we’d have to seriously evaluate his job performance. That might sound irreverent, but this question of peace is an important one – not just for Advent and happy (or at least conflict-free) holiday times. But as Douglas Todd, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun wrote in a lovely Advent devotion a few years ago, “Peace can have an edge.” That phrase has stuck with me ever since. As well as his conclusion that “practicing peace is both an individual and communal discipline, a demanding one.”

Thinking communally, we might recall Rev. Alan Boesak, a leader in the struggle against apartheid in South African, who said: “Peace is more than the absence of war, it is the pursuit of active justice.”  And thinking individually, Mohandas Gandhi comes to mind. He said: “If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things inside yourself, not in another.”

Practicing peace, indeed. On both of these fronts I, for one, need a lot of practice. I need a presence in my life, in my heart that is a bearer of the kind of peace needed both within me and around me. As probably most of us know, it can be tricky to bring peace into our personal lives. We’re too harried, too anxious, too estranged, too un-centered. We don’t really feel the deep satisfaction that could be called peace.

Practicing Peace at the Edge
Advent calls us to the edge of our usual distracted state and urges us toward a better way.  As we proclaimed along with Zechariah, “the dawn from on high will break upon us,to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

But not a sugar-coated or false peace. We’re talking about shalom. When those of the Jewish faith say “Shalom” and Muslims say, “Salaam alaikum,” they are conveying a peace that is encompasses harmony, wholeness, completeness, and tranquility. In her book The Case for God, Karen Armstrong writes that peace is about wholeness. It is about coming home: to oneself, to the universe, to the richness of the holy. Peace is large enough to contain apparent contradictions, such as sorrow, hope and joy.

That was the kind of peace embodied by Jesus, the kind he offers to us as well. I’ve read somewhere that true peace is more like an improvisational jazz concert; a constant responsive blending of discord, mistakes, beauty, competition, cooperation, unpredictability and insight – all in the name of a larger harmony.  Maybe along with our beloved and sweet Christmas carols, we should also have some jazz to lead us into the way of peace. Peace with an edge, yet peace that leads us home.

It sounds contradictory. We seek the kind of peace that enables us to feel at home within ourselves, to feel whole, to be free to bask in the love of God that is there in our hearts. That’s a warm, comforting place to be. But at the same time, we seek the kind of peace that enables us to reach out into the world to do the things we can to bring peace and justice to others.

I’m leaving for San Diego this afternoon to participate tomorrow in an action at the Mexican border in support of migrant justice. I tell you this, not as a political statement (you may agree or disagree with my position on the matter). I tell you as a “peace with an edge” moment in my life. At the Parliament of the World’s Religions last month, I was listening to an address by Jim Wallis, the founder of the Sojourners community and magazine, which is committed to social justice and peace from a Christian perspective. He was speaking about the caravan moving up through Central America towards the US border, and he said that people of faith should be there to meet them in a visible show of Christian compassion. I applauded his speech along with everyone else. And I remembered that when the call to action came: tomorrow morning at 8:00, clergy and other religious leaders will gather at the offices of the American Friends Service Committee to be bused to the border.

To be perfectly honest, I thought of a good number of reasons why I shouldn’t go.: money, time, convenience, laziness (there’d be enough people there), discomfort.  But ultimately, I decided that if I could applaud Jim Wallace in the comfort of my chair in an auditorium, then I could go and be uncomfortable at the border. And also, to be perfectly honest, I knew in my heart that it was the right thing for me to do. It is, for me, peace with an edge. On the way of Christ: as we move inward to discover that which is within each of our hearts, we then move outward into the world, wherever that may take us.  

Now – Your Stories
You will have your own stories of what this looks like for you. And I invite you to ponder those stories during this hectic season. And ponder as well the ways that you have found to come home to the shalom that lives in your heart.  Finding that peace is no easy, one-size-fits-all practice. And if you’re like me, you’re able to sustain it for a time until the mind’s chatter interrupts again. It’s an on-going process of letting go and listening for the still, small voice.

For me, meditation and music are ways I’ve found to go more deeply into my heart place. You may have others.  In this Advent time, I find the light of the candles and the smell of incense to be helpful. Holy Communion is also a time of renewed mystical connection with Spirit and with other members of the body of Christ. Reading or listening to the insights of others as they work out their own jazz improvisations of life are also precious roadmaps along the way.

The way of peace is open to all.  But remember that the way has an edge. Jesus certainly knew that. His followers knew it. It didn’t take long for “Away in the Manger” to turn to “Crucify him!” But that does not mean that Jesus failed to live up to his identity as Prince of Peace. It just means that the peace he offers is deeper than the kind we usually get.

The way of Advent invites us to go deeper – deeper into hope, deeper into peace.  On this “prophet’s day,” as we remember John the Baptist and his father Zechariah, we proclaim with them the dawn from on high that is breaking upon us, giving light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace.

Amen

1

The psalm that Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer, sings in Luke 1 is one of the most beautiful psalms in the Bible. The Second Sunday of Advent is traditionally “the prophet’s day” with texts devoted to John the Baptist. The song’s theology, which rehearses fidelity of “the most high God of Israel” to the divine promises spoken in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Jesus. is perfect for Advent.

It is written . . .

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | December 2, 2018

Advent 1

little_blue_flickering_candle_by_emmaweasley-d5aq9loI have to say that most days I’m not optimistic about the state of the world. However, I always  have great hope for the state of the world. To anyone who doesn’t know about Advent, those two statements are diametrically opposed; one cancels out the other. But those who do know about Advent – and get its deeper meaning beyond opening up a little door in a calendar the month before Christmas to find a piece of chocolate – know a secret: amid darkness, hope goes deeper than optimism.    

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

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

Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains have already had their festival of lights, called Diwali. One of the major festivals of Hinduism, it spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. The 5-day celebration includes lights shining on houses, around outside doors and windows, and around temples and other buildings.

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This year, the 8-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah – commemorating the time when the wicks of the menorah burned for eight days even though there was only enough sacred oil for one day – begins tomorrow.

Of course, here in the northern hemisphere we’ve inherited many of our Christmas customs from northern Pagans, for whom the Winter Solstice (or Yule) is a major festival marking the longest night and shortest day of the year.

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

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

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But wouldn’t it be nice if hope were more clear-cut? It seems we can approach it, at best, only through metaphor. For example, according to poet Emily Dickinson, “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” She goes on to tell what this bird does (sings), how it reacts to hardship (it’s unabashed in the storm), where it can be found (everywhere), and what it asks for itself (nothing, not even a single crumb).

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

But like faith, hope can be elusive. How do you get it? How do you keep it? Well, to be honest, sometimes it’s simply a matter of faking it, as they say, until you make it. Living “as if” you have hope can actually open up the spiritual space for that “thing with feathers” to build its nest. Other times, it’s a matter of carrying hope for someone who’s not yet able or allowing someone to carry it for you.

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

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

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

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

I’m also partial to the poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi:

The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep!

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

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

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

I’ll close with this blessing by Jan Richardson, creator of a wonderful website called The Advent Door: Entering a Contemplative Christmas

Blessing for Waking

This blessing could pound on your door
in the middle of the night.

This blessing could bang on your window,
could tap dance in your hall,
could set a dog loose in your room.

It could hire a brass band
to play outside your house.

But what this blessing really wants
is not merely your waking but your company.

This blessing wants to sit alongside you
and keep vigil with you.

This blessing wishes to wait with you.

And so, though it is capable of causing a cacophony
that could raise the dead,

this blessing will simply lean toward you
and sing quietly in your ear a song to lull you
not into sleep but into waking.

It will tell you stories that hold you breathless till the end.

It will ask you questions you never considered and have you tell it what you saw in your dreaming.

This blessing will do all within its power
to entice you into awareness because it wants to be there,
to bear witness,
to see the look in your eyes on the day when your vigil is complete
and all your waiting has come to its joyous end.

I am not optimistic about the state of the world. However, I do have great hope. Wait with me and watch. Don’t go back to sleep. For the light – this little light and so many like it – shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never, ever overcome it.

Amen

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Posted by: smstrouse | November 23, 2018

I Ain’t Shopping Anymore

With apologies to the late, great Phil Ochs, here’s my annual anti-consumerism protest song. Watch the video if you don’t know the melody (or the original words).

“I Ain’t Shopping Anymore”

Oh, I shopped to the battle of the Cabbage Patch dolls
In the decade of the 80’s Christmas war.
When the toy store got them back in stock,
I joined the lines around the block.
But I ain’t shopping anymore.

For I’ve stomped my share of shoppers in a thousand different stores;
I was there at the crack of dawn.
I heard many sales clerks sighing; saw many more a-crying.
But I ain’t shopping anymore

(chorus)
It’s always the rich who lead us to the mall
Always the poor to fall
Now look at what we get – to our ears in credit debt
Tell me is it worth it all

For I stole a Beanie Baby from another mom’s hand;
And I fought for a Sony XBox score.
Yes I even shoved my mother and so many others.
But I ain’t shopping anymore.

For I shopped to the strains of “Silent Night”
In a season of peace and love for all.
But when Apple gadgets filled the land,
I fought to get them in my hands.
But I ain’t shopping anymore

(chorus)
It’s always the rich who lead us to the mall
Always the poor to fall
Now look at what we get – to our ears in credit debt
Tell me is it worth it all

For I rushed from the table after pumpkin pie,
To get ready for Black Friday’s mighty roar.
When I saw my Visa burning, I knew that I was learning
That I ain’t shopping anymore

Now the politicians tell us shopping makes our nation work;
Patriots will head out to the stores.
Call it “Sense” or call it “Treason;”
Call it “Wisdom,” call it “Reason,”
But I ain’t shopping any more.
No I ain’t shopping any more.

Posted by: smstrouse | November 19, 2018

Don’t Worry? A Sermon for Thanksgiving

shutterstock_496324180Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. You will either hate one and love the other, or be attentive to one and despise the other. You cannot give yourself God and money. That’s why I tell you not to worry about your livelihood, what you are to eat or drink or use for clothing. Isn’t life more than just food? Isn’t the body more than just clothing?

“Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow or reap; they gather nothing into barns, yet our God in heaven feeds them. Aren’t you more important than they? Which of you by worrying can add a moment to your lifespan? And why be anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t work; they don’t spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in full splendor was arrayed like one of these. If God can clothe in such splendor the grasses of the field, which bloom today and are thrown on the fire tomorrow, won’t God do so much more for you—you who have so little faith?

“Stop worrying then, over such questions as, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. Seek first God’s reign and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides. Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own.” – Matthew 6:24-34
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Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and Christ our Wisdom. Amen.

One thing that I really appreciated at the Parliament of the World’s Religions which I attended earlier this month was the attention and honor paid to the indigenous people who originally lived on the land on which we were meeting in Toronto. I made a promise to myself to do the same when I came home.  I learned that the first settlers of San Leandro came to the Bay Area between approximately 3500-2500 BCE and were members of the Jalquin Tribe. They were most likely the ancestors of the Ohlone Nation we know today, part of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area.I also learned that there was an important Ohlone settlement in San Leandro on what’s now 152nd Avenue. So, especially during this Thanksgiving week, I would like us to take just a moment to silently give thanks for the Ohlone people – past, present, and future – and acknowledge their presence on this land.

Now, speaking of Thanksgiving . . .  I had a real struggle with this gospel reading for Thanksgiving. It was one of those times when I would really have loved to be able to talk to Jesus – I mean face-to-face, up close and personal. Although I’m afraid that most of those times, what I’d have to say would be along the lines of “Huh?” or “Could you explain that?” Sometimes, my reaction to a saying or teaching of Jesus is even more visceral – like in this one: “Do not worry about your life.”

Don’t get me wrong; this is actually one of my favorite sayings of Jesus. I love the shutterstock_32150692imagery of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. But if I was given the chance to have a conversation about this with Jesus, I think it would go something like, “Are you kidding?!” – even though I know I’d be risking the admonition of “oh, you of little faith.” Still, risking that, I might say, “Look around Jesus. We’ve got plenty to worry about.  I don’t think it’s realistic to expect us to ignore all that.”

I have to admit, though, that Jesus lived in tough times, too.  Living in Judea under Roman occupation was no picnic. Poverty was rampant. Sickness and disease, mental illness, family strife – it’s all there in the pages of the Bible. 

So I don’t think Jesus was speaking from a place of ignorance or even denial. He doesn’t deny the reality of worries: “Don’t worry about tomorrow because tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” So he doesn’t have his head in the clouds; he’s a realist. So we can be too. We can be realistic about the things that worry us – as long as we don’t stay stuck there. This teaching from the Sermon on the Mount is about living in the world – with all its worries – as a person of faith.

I can imagine the people listening to Jesus and thinking about their own troubles and wondering if he was for real. Maybe they got to have that face-to-face conversation with him and got some clarity about how to put their worries in their proper place. I don’t know, though. Jesus seems to have been all about putting the teaching out there and letting his listeners work out the meaning for themselves. 

Which is right where we are.  So maybe it’s best if we start with the worries. Let’s start with family. If you have kids, worry is a given. My parents are both now gone, but I remember very clearly the worry my brothers and I experienced as we watched their ability to care for themselves decline while also facing the fact that they did not want to leave their home or lose any control over their lives. You may have your own story of a family situation that concerns you that you can’t help worrying about – and/or worries about your own health or job or financial situation.

As Christians, we also worry about the church. There’s no doubt about it, the church as we’ve known it in our lifetime is changing, some would say dying, others would say evolving into something new. In any event, it’s causing anxiety within congregations and denominations. We don’t know what the church of the future will look like. But even if we don’t worry about that, we still have to worry about what to do with the church of today. A conversation with Jesus could be very helpful right about now.

And then there’s our country. We have a lot to be worried about. No need to get into politics; those on both the red and blue divide are worried – I’d say even fearful. The stoking of that fear on both sides is itself worrisome.

Do I even need to mention wildfires? I looked up synonyms for worry: anguish, pain woe, distress, plague, torment, misery, consternation, dread, fright, horror. How about all of the above? We’re worried about the people of Faith Lutheran Church in Chico, Our Savior Lutheran and Paradise Lutheran Church in Paradise, as well as the health of our own lungs as we breathe in smoke and ash from this devastation.

Well, if you weren’t feeling anxious when you came in, your blood pressure has probably risen by now.  And this is supposed to be a Thanksgiving service!  

But don’t worry; it is. Paradoxically, it’s in the midst of great trial and tribulation that we have the potential to recognize most clearly the presence of God. Maybe this Thanksgiving we’ll have to go even more deeply into that holy place within us to find the kind of gratitude that enables us to give thanks for obvious blessings as well as for the ability to have faith that all will be well when all evidence is to the contrary.

I have so many stories from the Parliament, but the overarching feeling I had during the entire week was hope. Despite the fact that many of the issues taken up by speakers, panels, and workshops were about the many serious concerns shared by people of all religions from all over the world. There was the Climate Action Assembly, the Women’s Assembly, the Indigenous Assembly, the Justice Assembly, and the Countering War, Hate, and Violence Assembly. In no way was anyone denying the troubles of our world. And yet there was a spirit of joy, gratitude, excitement, and hope among 10,000 people.  

And here’s what I came away with: in order to do the work we need to do in the world, we must continually tend to our souls. There are many things over the course of a lifetime that can threaten to suck our spirits dry. But when we have a strong spiritual core, we are able to not only withstand the worries of the world, but also enjoy peace in the midst of them. In other words, our ability to take care of all of the stuff going on around us comes from the inside.

This isn’t anything new; it is the life of discipleship. But it does help to be reminded of it every now and again – especially at Thanksgiving. Jesus saying, “Do not worry” reminds us that the thing for which we can be most thankful is the presence of God in our hearts, which gives us our spiritual muscle.

This doesn’t mean that we can just sing “Don’t worry; be happy,” as if God is somehow going to swoop down and take care of it all. Try telling that to the people losing their homes, belongings, and lives in the wildfires.

No, that’s not what Jesus is saying.  Strive for the realm of God – which is not someplace or someday far away. It‘s here and now. Seek the presence of God within you; it is there, whether you recognize it or not. Exercise your spiritual muscles. Find those practices that feed your soul. If you’re having trouble finding one, talk to a trusted pastor or spiritual director. The possibility of finding a place of balance between trying to overcome the worries of the world and being overcome by them is within you. That’s also the place from which your genuine gratitude will come.

What I am thinking about this Thanksgiving is finding gratitude in the hard places – those worrisome places within me and around me. There were several firefighters on the plane from Chicago to Oakland last week – on their way to help fight the wildfires. I am grateful for all of them.

Another of the things I was most thankful for at the Parliament was the presence of young people. They even had their own plenary session and many workshops. At their planetary, I was in awe of the many ways young people are working for peace and justice in the world. And doing so from their own religious traditions.

For example, Habiba Dahir, working on women’s peace and security programs in the Horn of Africa.  And Frank Fredericks, founder of World Faith, a global movement to end religious violence, Jessica Bolduc, from the Batchewana First Nation in Ontario, Canada, Executive Director of the 4Rs Youth Movement, seeking to change relationships between young Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, dedicated to the idea that religion should be a bridge of cooperation rather than a divisive barrier. With them, I felt like I was truly in the realm of God. And I give thanks for them.

And I give thanks for all of you, who are living out your faith in the midst of very real worries. But do not worry; give thanks. What a radical statement that is! A radical statement of trust, faith in that still small voice that resides within each one of us, reminding us that we are not in this alone; we have spiritual strength beyond our understanding. Worry may indeed be real, but it is not the final answer.

Thanks, thanks, thanks, be to God.

Amen

 

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