Posted by: smstrouse | April 10, 2017

Ewoks, C3PO, and a Subversive Jesus

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I want to start off today with a little bit of levity because I think we have to find ways to laugh – or at least smile – in the midst of all the terrible things going on around us. If we are not to sink into despair or apathy, we have got to find ways to care for our souls –and humor is one way. After a long, hard day, I’m a big fan of kitten and puppy videos.     Watch Star Wars clip.

The scene with the Ewoks bowing down to C3P0 because they thought he was a god actually does fit in with Palm Sunday. Their chant (I consulted an Ewok dictionary, but couldn’t find a translation) might be compared to that of the crowd greeting Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem. We do know what that chant was: “Hosanna!”

But despite the fact that we sing “Hosanna” each and every Sunday, I wonder if we really know what we’re saying. We usually think of it as a word of praise, almost synonymous with “Alleluia” (except we can say it in Lent). But “hosanna” literally means “save us.” It’s a prayer, that in the context of Palm Sunday is a plea that came from people looking for deliverance from the boot heel of Rome, a plea to the messiah, God’s anointed one.

Our word of resistance today is “revelation,” the making known of something previously unknown. The Ewoks thought that a god had been revealed to them. And in a way, so did the people waving their palm branches at Jesus. A messiah who would be like the great King David, who would defeat their enemy and make their nation great again. “Save us!” they cried. “Hosanna! Blest is the one who comes in the name of God! Hosanna in the highest!” “Good God, come and save us!”

I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve been inclined to cry out this same prayer myself. As much as I try to limit my intake of the unending bad news from around the world and from our own government, still the infuriating, depressing, demoralizing news seeps in and settles into my body and soul. I would love someone to come and fix it all. I would love for God to appear and make it all better. Hosanna! Come and save us now!

Of course, we don’t live in the same kind of empire that existed in Jesus’ time. But we do live under a domination system every bit as dedicated to wielding power
and control. And Palm Sunday speaks as powerfully to us today as it did then by showing us a different approach, an alternative messiah, a way of resistance to the forces of any empire.

This way of looking at Palm Sunday is different from the way we used to. Ever since theUnknown publication of scholarship, like The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, we’ve understood the brilliance of the parade into Jerusalem. Jesus was, of course, quite a bit more aware of what he was doing than C3P0. His entry on the back of a donkey was a well-planned and well-staged piece of guerilla theater – in contrast to the show of military might parading into the other side of the city. Pilate with his chariot, warhorses, soldiers and weapons vs. Jesus on a donkey.

You may not be familiar with another comparison between Jesus and Rome. Whenever the Roman empire won a battle or conquered a new people, the emperor didn’t immediately send out a Tweet. Instead, messengers would run through the city crying, “Euangelion! Euangelion!” You might recognize that Greek word as it becamsus Christ, the Son of God.” In this story, the good news is about Jesus, not Caesar, who was referred to on coins and statues as e known in Christianity as “evangelism,” butroman-currency-2 it means “good news” or “gospel.” So, for instance, Mark’s gospel takes the Roman message of euangelion and turns it into a story about a different ruler. Mark 1:1 states, “The beginning of the euangelion (gospel) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In this story, the good news is about Jesus, not Caesar, who was referred to on coins and statues as Son of God.

Do you get how subversive the story of Jesus is? In the Palm Sunday parade, he’s revealed as messiah, God’s anointed – but not from a God who will come down from some heaven far away and rescue the people from their oppressors. Instead Jesus offered a way of godly resistance. A way of peace, a way of spiritual connection to the Divine within and around us, a way that involves self-emptying and setting aside of ego, and willingness to be “all in” for the cause of righteousness, justice, and liberation.

This way of looking at Palm Sunday – and at Christianity in general – might be a
revelation for many who have been brought up to believe in the God who will “save” us. That is, a strictly personal savior whose purpose in life was to die in order to take away our well-deserved punishment for all our various sins. Because Christianity became disconnected from its Jewish roots and from its context in the Roman empire, we inherited a tradition that elevated the divinity of Jesus to the extent that his humanity was almost forgotten. The God we thought was revealed in Jesus was the one who would take away the sin that had come into the world through Adam and Eve.

Today, we’re experiencing a reformation in which the teachings of Jesus are being brought back into the light. This Jesus is the one who shows us how to be subversive, how to resist the forces of empire, how to work for causes of righteousness, justice, and liberation. Not that everyone agrees with this Jesus. Pastors are being criticized for “bringing politics into the pulpit.” Good Christians brought up in American Christianity want their clergy to stick to matters of personal salvation. But, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.”

To be fair, there are also some on the historical Jesus side of things who are skeptical – if not downright dismissive – of any talk of spirituality or mysticism. This is equally wrong. We may not think of God as the “old man in the sky making decisions of life for this one and death for that one or keeping track of sins in a little black book (as my mother used to warn me). However, there is a Divine Presence that exists throughout the universe, that Jesus embodied, that we embody also to the extent we allow it to.

That Presence was with and in Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem to make his statement of resistance. That Presence is with and in us as well, as we make our stand against the domination system of our day.

Palm Sunday is a political statement. And it’s a spiritual statement. Our resistance is rooted in our spiritual tradition, in our sacred scriptures. And in the witness of martyrs throughout the ages – like Kaj Munk, a playwright and Lutheran pastor, arrested by the Gestapo on the night of January 4, 1944, a month after he had defied a Nazi ban and preached at the national cathedral in Copenhagen. His body was found in a roadside ditch the next morning. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Jean Donovan, St. Ita Ford, Sr. Maura Clarke, and St. Dorothy Kazel, the missionaries murdered by the military in El Salvador in 1980.

Like Sr. Dorothy Stang, sometimes called the Martyr of the Amazon. Sr. Dorothy spent nearly 40 years in Brazil as an advocate for indigenous people and the rainforest. Marlene DeNardo, part of that mission (and my spiritual director), described their venture as a complete self-emptying process – shades of the Philippians hymn.

Sr. Dorothy received hate mail and death threats for years. The mayor of the nearby town said, “We have to get rid of that woman if we are going to have peace.” The community center for women she founded was riddled with bullets. Once, the police arrested her for passing out “subversive” material. It was the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Finally, angered by her involvement in helping the poor gain legal access to land, wealthy loggers and ranchers engineered her assassination. But she was undeterred. “I know that they want to kill me,” she said, “but I will not go away. My place is here alongside these people who are constantly humiliated by the powerful.” Visiting her family and community in Ohio a few months before she was killed, she told one sister, “I just want to sink myself into God.”

On Feb. 12, 2005, as Sr. Dorothy walked along a dirt road deep in the heart of Brazil’s rainforest, two hired assassins blocked her way. They asked her, “Do you have a weapon?” “Yes,” she answered, showing them the Bible she carried for decades. She opened it and began to read aloud: “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are the peacemakers …” Then, she said, “God bless you, my sons.” At which point the two shot her six times and ran.

It could have ended there, but it didn’t. At her funeral two thousand people gathered and heard her community proclaim, “Today, we are not going to bury Dorothy. We are going to plant her.” The crowd responded with “Dorothy vive!” Dorothy lives!

Spiritual leader and peace activist, Father John Dear, who many say is the spiritual heir to the Berrigan brothers, said this about her: “Dorothy is rising in her people and in the land. She will rise in us, too, if we join her campaign. I urge you: Let Dorothy inspire you – her great spirit, her work for justice and peace, her service to the poorest, her defense of the earth. Especially her trust in God, her steadfast determination, her carrying on – no matter what. She will teach us how to do likewise, how to live in hope despite these despairing, deadly times.”

Sounds like resurrection to me.

I hope none of us will be called upon to make that ultimate sacrifice. But I believe that we are called upon to make a sacrifice – to practice the spiritual discipline of self-emptying, letting go of ego, doing what we can, and accepting the consequences. I saw a picture on Facebook yesterday of Fr. Daniel Berrigan in handcuffs with his quote, “If you’re going to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”

God is not coming to save us. That’s some very bad news for some. However God is here, and is always ready to empower us to be saviors. That’s the very good news of Palm Sunday. Even with the cross looming ahead.

Amen

 

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FIRST READING—ZECHARIAH 9:9-10
There is cause for rejoicing in Jerusalem. Triumphant and celebrating victory, a new ruler enters the city. There’s something unusual about this ruler, who does not come mounted on a white charger, riding high and looking out over the people. This ruler comes “humble and riding on a donkey.” But make no mistake about it, though a ruler of a different sort, this is the one who will initiate a disarmament program; bring peace for all nations, freedom for prisoners, and goodness and beauty for all.

 It is written . . .

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Look! Your ruler comes to you; triumphant and victorious,
humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
This ruler will cut off the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be banished.
This ruler shall command peace to the nations; stretching from sea to sea,
from the River to the ends of the earth.

SECOND READING—PHILIPPIANS 2:5-11
We can have the mind of Christ, but the Christ we celebrate is different from the rulers of the earth. Christ is no ruthless and domineering Caesar but a loving companion. Christ does not bully, tweet, name call, or bloviate. Christ rules from among us, embracing our mortality, feeling our pain, and rejoicing in our success. Power is not unilateral, whether divine or human, but relational. Christ saves us through solidarity not sovereignty.

 It is written . . .

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus:
Christ, though in the image of God,
did not deem equality with God
something to be clung to—
but instead became completely empty
and took on the image of oppressed humankind:
born into the human condition,
found in the likeness of human being.

Jesus was thus humbled—
obediently accepting death—even death on a cross!
Because of this God highly exalted Christ
and gave to Jesus the name above every other name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee must bend
in the heavens, on the earth and under the earth,
and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God:
Jesus Christ reigns supreme!

GOSPEL—MARK 11:1-11
The reading reflects the triumph of another kind of power. No Roman legion, but a humble teacher on a donkey, symbol of peace and reconciliation. Caught up in the moment, the crowd can’t fully understand this countercultural spectacle. They witness an understanding of a God who has no enemies, makes no threats, destroys no cities, and damns no unbelievers. Such an amazing approach to life – and God – is too much for them to imagine. Indeed, it’s impossible, and sadly many who witness Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem turn from adulation to abandonment, letting fear rather than love rule their hearts. 

It is written . . .

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent off two disciples with the instructions, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as soon as you enter it you will find tethered there a colt on which no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it back. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing that?’ say ‘The Rabbi needs it, but will send it back very soon.’”

So they went off, and finding a colt tethered out on the street near a gate, they untied it. Some of the bystanders said to them, “What do you mean by untying that colt?”
They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them take it. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks across its back, and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And everyone around Jesus, in front or in back of him cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God! Blessed is the coming reign of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!”

Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the Temple. He inspected everything there, but
since it was already late in the afternoon, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | April 8, 2017

45 Proclaims National Sexual Assault Awareness Month?!

7574f17a4aa1337f71f809c03b7e0411He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named has proclaimed April 2017 as National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. He apparently said with a straight face, “My Administration, including the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services, will do everything in its power to protect women, children, and men from sexual violence.” And he apparently saw no incongruity in just a few days later defending Bill O’Reilly against his accusers of sexual harassment.

In light of the avalanche of disheartening news coming out of Washington over the past few days, this bit of ludicrousness might not be on the top of your list of appalling things said or done by HWSNBN. And in no way do I want to appear to minimize the horrific implications of bombing Syria, the continuing campaign against immigrants and refugees, or any of the seemingly countless ways he is destroying our democracy. But I also don’t want to lose sight of the fact that this is the first time that a president who has been accused of committing sexual assault has issued such a proclamation.

Trevor Noah of The Daily Show got it. On Monday night’s show he thanked the president for following in President Obama’s footsteps and issuing the proclamation. And then continued: “You know how Trump can celebrate? By calling out his propaganda partner Bill O’Reilly at Fox News.” Right on! But it’s not going to happen. This is Noah’s imagined response to HWSNBN’s being asked if he wanted to be part of Sexual Assault Month: “I’m in, I’m in! When do I start?”  Funny? Yes. Not funny. Also yes.

National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month has a long history of advoca-ting against sexual violence. Begun in England in the late 1970s with “Take Back the Night” marches, the movement spread to other countries. In 1978.San Francisco and New York City held the first “Take Back the Night” events in the U.S. In the 1980s, the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault chose to observe a week in April. But by the 1990s, many groups had begun holding events throughout the month and on April 1, 2001 the U.S. first observed Sexual Assault Awareness Month nationally.

On the same day that HWSNBN defended O’Reilly, former Vice President Joe Biden hosted a call with hundreds of students on behalf of It’s On Us, the sexual assault awareness and prevention organization he started with former President Barack Obama in 2014. Biden has described the sexual assault epidemic on college campuses as his “greatest heartache.” So he called a virtual town meeting with thousands of college and high school students from around the country and asked them what he could do to help. Almost all of the students had the same response: Get men involved. And “It’s on Us” was born. As Biden said, “It’s on all of us. It’s on the Chrises and the Joes and the Kyles; everybody on campus, everyone in the country who sees this violence occurring has an obligation to intervene. If you do not intervene you are an accessory. If you do not intervene you are sanctioning what happens.”

Thank God for men like Joe Biden, Barak Obama, and all the men who do get it and do
step up. You all take some of the sting out of a president who proudly boasts of his assaults and defends other men who continue to use their positions and power to get away with it.1487370380895

But as we know, sometimes the language and behavior is so audacious, so reprehensible that it awakens a movement. Such a time is now. There are so many fronts to our resistance. But we must not grow weary. We must not let any of these issues slide past our notice. As Joe Biden said, “There is no justification here or anywhere in the world for a culture that allows the abuse of women and girls.”

Posted by: smstrouse | March 31, 2017

Preaching John without Blaming the Jews

Henning_StJohnPassionFor Christ’s sake, don’t malign the Jews this Holy Week and Easter.

On Good Friday, many of us will be reading the Passion According to John. And while some people know that this latest of the four gospels reflected the growing split between Judaism and the followers of Jesus, not all will understand the context.

The phrase “the Jews” appears nineteen times in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). We don’t have to look very far for evidence of the damage done by anti-Jewish rhetoric. Language matters. Repetition nineteen times only reinforces hateful stereotypes.

But we don’t have to look very far for help, either.

 

For example, in The Inclusive Bible (TIB), “the Jews” appears only six times, when the reference is to the title “King of the Jews.” In seven places, “Temple authorities” is used to convey the part played by Jewish leadership is the crucifixion of Jesus. In other places “the Jews” is omitted entirely. For example, in contrast to John 19:20 in the NRSV, which reads “Many of the Jews read this inscription,” TIB has “Many of the people read this inscription.” And in verse 21, where the NRSV reads: “the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews . . . ”, TIB has: The chief priests said to Pilate, “Don’t write ‘King of the Jews . . . ’”.

Then on Easter 2, the gospel reading will include John 20:19: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” The Inclusive Bible suggests that we change it to: “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Temple authorities . . .”

sermons-without-prejudiceAnother really great resource is a website: Sermons without Prejudice: How to Avoid Anti-Judaism from the Church’s Lectionary. Its stated purpose is “to counter this anti- Semitism by addressing the anti-Judaism that some New Testament readings may convey.” Authors Richard K. Taylor and David P. Efroymson give suggestions for lectionary texts on “Problem Passages and Their Resolution.”

UnknownAnd then there’s the book Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary by Ronald J Allen and Clark M. Williamson, in which they “explain the polemics in their first-century setting but criticize them historically and theologically. They also suggest ways that preachers can help their congregations move beyond these contentious themes to a greater sense of kinship and shared mission with Judaism.”

All of these scholars (and if you know of others, I’d be happy to hear about them)  have done us a great service. So there’s no excuse not to use care in our worship language.  If we didn’t do it before our current national climate became so toxic toward people of other religions – especially Islam and Judaism – we have an obligation to do it now.

Words do matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

trans-justice-weekendMarch 26, 2017
Jonah 1-4; Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus was a racist. Now there’s a good way to get a contentious conversation going! While most of us want to respond to criticism by saying, “But I’m not a racist!” some know how disingenuous that argument is. Same is true with Jesus. Most people don’t want to believe Jesus could possibly have said such a thing as “It isn’t right to throw the children’s food to the dogs.” While others are relieved to know that Jesus’ humanity included all the prejudices and assumptions about the “Other” that were part of his culture – just as ours does.

His experience of being challenged to change his way of thinking about and acting toward the foreign, non-Jewish Canaanites (or Syro-Phoenicians) was the same as the fictional Jonah’s encounter with the hated Assyrians. Sometimes it takes a shock to the system to force us to admit our bias. In Jonah’s case, it was three days in the belly of a fish. For Jesus it was a woman (and, as is often the case in the Bible, she was unnamed) who was warned and was given an explanation, nevertheless she persisted. And Jesus changed.

For most of us, our conversions to new ways of thinking are not so dramatic. But they’re nonetheless necessary. Oftentimes we’re not even aware that we need to have a change of perspective. Changing our thinking and acting in new ways towards those who used to be the “Other” takes resolve – which is why “resolution” is our word for today’s “way of resistance for Lent.” As part of our commitment to following Jesus, we resolve to identify and change our thinking on old prejudices and assumptions.

This is a courageous, but essential, part of discipleship. No less so for us than it was for those early followers. Identifying our Canaanites and Assyrians takes some serious soul-searching, when it would be so much easier to name the “Others” who are targeted by those – others. We’re not exempt from naming our biases.

Or our ignorance. As you know, this weekend has been designated as the National Week-end of Prayer for Transgender Justice. It was initially intended to be a time to pray for Gavin Grimm, the transgender student arguing for the right to use the restroom that matches his gender identity. But that changed on March 6, when the Supreme Court decided it would no longer hear the case in response to the executive branch’s decision to remove Title IX guidance clarifying protection for transgender students.

Reconciling Works, our Lutheran LGBTQ advocacy organization has said: “The Supreme Court will not hear Gavin’s case, but we ask Reconciling in Christ communities around the nation to not wait for the court to act. The current environment of intolerance toward trans-gender people, implicitly condoned by the top levels of government, directly impacts our transgender neighbors, friends, and family members. People of faith will not be silent. We stand with RiC communities across the country praying for transgender justice.”

Now it would be easy to rest on our laurels and remind ourselves that we were the calling congregation for Jay Wilson in 2008, when the T in LGBTQ was still pretty well under the radar. I remember Megan Rohrer coming to a church council meeting to give us a Transgender 101 course. I’m grateful for that and for all that Pastor Jay taught us in his time among us. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned is that there’s always more to learn. For example, according to Trans Student Educational Resources, the original LGBT has now been expanded to LGBTQQIAPP+: lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, aromantic, pansexual, and polysexual – often abbreviated to LGBTQ+ or simply replaced with “queer.” Many of us have had to change our bias about that word.

According to TSER, terms are always changing and the list will be updated as often as possible to keep up with the rapid proliferation of queer and trans language. So, while it’s imperative for us to be advocates for transgender justice, it also behooves us to be aware of the issues involved in “Transgender Lives Matter.” The same as it is with “Black Lives Matter,” “Muslim Lives Matter,” and “Refugee Lives Matter.” It’s not enough to take the liberal, politically correct position without making the resolution to personal confrontation and transformation – the spiritually correct position.

This is the way of resistance. As we know, the goal of empire is to build walls, create divisions, alienate one group from another, pit us against one another to make us subservient to its will. But the goal of discipleship is to break down walls, to cross boundaries, heal divisions, to bring even people of disparate views, opinions, and political persuasions together – in order to free us from bondage and help us create the Beloved Community.

Now how do we do that? We don’t live in a state with laws that exclude transgender people from restrooms which conform to their gender identity. In fact, as of March 1 CA law mandates that single-occupancy public bathrooms be gender-neutral. But there are still ways for us to be aware of how we can help break down walls other than in bathrooms.

Some of the suggestions in Reconciling Works toolkit include:

  • Asking for preferred pronouns when making event name-tags because we can’t assume a person’s pronouns based on name or gender expression

For example, as you may know, Pastor Megan’s preferred pronouns are they/them/ their. This is becoming fairly common among gender non-conforming people. I confess that I find it difficult to adapt and frequently misgender them. That doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do and I need to be resolved to making the effort to change my ways. 

  • Using the term “gender identity” rather than “sex” or “gender,” because not every-one who was assigned a certain sex at birth identifies as that later in life

I just learned about a practice that’s become popular in recent years– gender reveal parties. The idea is that the mom-to-be’s ultrasound result is given to a baker without anyone else seeing it. Then at the party, friends and relatives simultaneously bite into cupcakes filled with either pink or blue frosting, which informs everyone – including the parent(s)-to-be – of the baby’s gender. As you can imagine, there’s pushback about this from those who want us to move away from the gender binary and the stereotyping of gender roles. As one intersex writer imagined their mother’s reveal party: “The frosting oozes out and your sister-in-law is the first to see its color. Giddy with excitement, she trips over her tongue and announces, “It’s a… purple?” You almost don’t hear the collective befuddled gasp made by everyone in the room. Purple? Dang! It’s hard to imagine how confused an expectant parent in that situation might feel.”

  • Use language that is inclusive of gender non-conforming individuals. Try swapping out binary phrases like “women and men” and “brothers and sisters” with more inclusive phrases like “siblings in Christ” or “God’s beloved.” And we’ve already been doing this in our worship bulletins.

But we still have a lot to learn and do. I’m proud to say that our own Sierra Pacific Synod passed a resolution two years ago asking the 2016 Churchwide Assembly to instruct the ELCA Church Council to urge our church to use registration and other forms that:

  • Include options for transgender, non- binary and/or gender non-conforming people
  • When asking for personal information, to include asking for the person’s pronouns
  • When asking for a person’s honorific or title, to include a gender neutral option

These practices have already been adopted in our synod.

It may seem like we’ve strayed a long way from the tribalism and racism of Jonah and Jesus. But if part of our commitment to following Jesus is to resolve to identify and change our thinking on old prejudices and assumptions, it all hangs together.

On this day when we pray for Gavin Grimm and all transgender students, as well as for justice for all transgender people, we pray for all of us – that we will continue to be open to learning and growing in our understanding, our compassion, and our resolve to break down walls wherever we can and to resist the power of those who will keep trying to put them up.

When we follow the example of Jesus himself, who learned from a persistent Canaanite woman how to change his thinking, we know that we can do it too.

Amen

 

Jonah 1-4   Readers Theater
Adapted from http://www.welcomingresources.org/2-HeartsUnbound-Jonah

Far from either a factual account of a prophet’s mission or a fantasy worthy of Hollywood’s best computer graphics, this little book is a parable about God’s infinite and universal grace.  This ending of the tale brings out the full impact of its message that God’s forgiving grace extends far beyond all the boundaries most religious folk like us might wish to set.

AUTHOR: Like most books of the Bible, the Book of Jonah doesn’t identify its author, which is a shame because I wouldn’t mind a little credit for such a biting satire with such a gracious message. That’s history for you. Everyone knows Jonah – even though he’s just a fictional character – but no one knows me! I didn’t bother to date my book either. Who thought that a couple thousand years later folks like you would be reading it? Anyway, most scholars think I wrote sometime after the Exile. Whatever the exact date, the tale of Jonah speaks directly to Israel’s life after the Exile, when one of the driving questions was, “Why did the Exile happen?”

One reason was that they’d been too friendly with the Babylonians and now there were many mixed marriages. For some, the only solution was ethnic purity. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah relate how a priest (Ezra) and a governor (Nehemiah) declared that God was opposed to all intermarriage. But this wasn’t the only view. There were other voices – like mine, and the authors of both Ruth and Jonah – who understood God in a different way.

So I wrote my Jonah story in the midst of this debate about how to treat foreigners which was also a debate about how God regards foreigners. Most scholars consider my story to be historical fiction, sometimes it’s even referred to as satire or parody for its over-the-top style. I take that as a compliment. But that doesn’t mean it was any less “inspired” than other imaginative tales like, say, Jesus’ parables. Just like the parables, the truth of my tale doesn’t rest on the history it tells but on the insight it offers, the message about God that it bears. Now, let’s turn to the tale itself.

NARRATOR: In the first scene we hear that the word of God came to Jonah:
GOD:
“Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh right now. Raise a cry against it! Tell them that I know all about their crimes.”
JONAH: Now, I hope you’ll understand what I did. For millennia I’ve been called reluctant, rebellious, recalcitrant. But Nineveh is the capital city of our worst enemy! Other prophets are sent to warn the people of Israel; I’m the only prophet sent to an unchosen people. What would you have done?
NARRATOR: Jonah does go – but as fast and far as he can in the other direction. He boards a ship heading due west while Nineveh lies due east. But a fierce storm comes up, threatening to sink the ship. The sailors fearing for their lives, throw all the cargo over-board and implore their various gods to save them. Meanwhile Jonah is fast asleep.
AUTHOR: I mentioned my “over-the-top” style. Almost like a cartoon scene, I write t that “the storm threatened to break up the ship” – in Hebrew the word portrays the boat itself crying out as if to say, “Hey, guys, find another ship, I’m going to pieces!” And in the midst of this storm that no one could ignore, Jonah … is fast asleep?! Who does he think he is, sleeping through a storm on a boat – Jesus Christ?
NARRATOR: When the captain of the vessel finds Jonah asleep, he awakens him and tells him to start praying, too, in case maybe his god will save them. Meanwhile, the sailors, who often interpreted a stormy sea as the sign of an angry god, threw dice to determine who had angered the gods. Of course, the lot falls to Jonah.
JONAH: “Take me and throw me into the sea.”
NARRATOR: They don’t want to kill Jonah. They try to reach land. But when they realize there was no choice, they throw him overboard. Immediately the sea calms, which fills the sailors with even greater fear. They make the sort of vows we make when our lives have been saved from a great calamity: that is, they promise many things they’d forget by the time they reach port. As for Jonah, God doesn’t allow him to drown. Instead God sends a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and he remains in the fish’s belly for 3 days and 3 nights.”
AUTHOR: I have a love-hate relationship with that line. It’s simple, elegant, and helps the story turn an essential corner, but it’s otherwise entirely beside the point. It has no real significance at all! Yet it’s the one line that everyone from Sunday School kids to grow-nups knows: Jonah got swallowed by a fish. Really? Can a fish really swallow a man? What kind of fish is big enough for that? Or was it a whale? And for 3 days? Really? For literally 72 hours? How did he breathe? How did he hold up in the stomach acid? I guess I’m glad I didn’t have him scooped up by a submarine driven by extraterrestrials! For all the attention this gets – and for as much as it keeps people from noticing my real point – I wish I’d had him grab a piece of cargo and let him cling to that through the night.
NARRATOR: From the fish’s belly, Jonah prays. His prayer begins with a cry of distress, reaches a depth of sheer hopelessness, and then – even while he’s still in the fish’s belly – credits his rescue to God. So God speaks to the fish, which vomits Jonah out onto dry land.
AUTHOR: Not a pretty image, I know. But it’s a good prayer. And if the story ended there, Jonah would come across like a hero of the faith. But remember what the Narrator said, about the vows we’re all quick to make when our lives have just been saved from a great calamity, promising things we forget just as quickly? Jonah’s vow is like that.
NARRATOR: But not at first. Because God again speaks to Jonah, telling him to go preach a warning to the city of Nineveh. And this time Jonah goes.
JONAH: In the capitol city of my enemies, I walked through the streets like a fearless man. “40 days — count ‘em off — 40 days and this city will be destroyed.” Believe me, this was at least a message I could put my heart into.
NARRATOR: And the people repent, hoping that perhaps God would relent and spare their lives. And God…
AUTHOR: Wait a second! This is some of my best stuff. In case you were starting to take things too seriously, I’m reminding you here again that this is parody. This is not the way it ever happens. Only in this story. Only to make my point. So tell them…
KING: Well, we, the people of Nineveh, don’t just “believe,” we proclaim a fast. And everyone in our great city, from nobles to peasants, puts on sackcloth.
AUTHOR: It never happens like this. Read the prophets; they can’t pay people to believe. But here everyone believes. Everyone fasts. Everyone wears sackcloth. And it gets even better. Go on…
KING: When Jonah’s message reaches me, I take off my robe, replace it with sackcloth, and sit in ashes to show my complete humility. But I don’t stop there; I issue a royal decree. I make fasting the law of the land and declare that not even animals can be fed. I even order our livestock to be covered in sackcloth to join us in showing our repentance.
AUTHOR: See, it’s like a cartoon again. It’s way over the top. I’m shouting out as loud as possible between the lines: “Not meant to be taken literally. Something more is going on here. Wait for the punch line, it’s coming!”
KING: Finally, I command everyone – nobles and slaves alike, young and old, cattle and goats, dogs and cats – I declare that everyone should call on God with all their might. And I pronounce, “You must all renounce your sinful ways and the evil things you did. Who knows, maybe God will have a change of mind and relent!”
AUTHOR: Any of the prophets in Israel would trade places with Jonah in a heartbeat. People actually listening to your message? All of them? The king, too? This is rich.
JONAH: Me? I feel like a fool. I mean I saw this coming. I didn’t want to bring this message to those people precisely because of this possibility. They’re not supposed to repent! They’re not God’s chosen people! God could care less about the Ninevites. In fact, the angels have a hellfire and brimstone package all set, marked “special delivery” and addressed to Nineveh.
NARRATOR: But, God did see how the Ninevites repented, and God did relent. And the calamity that God had announced for Nineveh, God chose not to do it. But God’s decision to spare Nineveh left Jonah angry.
JONAH: “Please, YHWH! Isn’t this exactly what I said would happen? That’s why I fled. I knew you were a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness, relenting from violence. Every child of Israel knows that. Please take my life! I’d rather be dead than keep on living!”
AUTHOR: None of us one wants to identify with Jonah at this point in the story. He’s being petty and self-centered to a ridiculous extreme. But he’s a symbol here for Israel after the Exile – at least those who want to say God is for Israelites only. Indeed, he’s a symbol for us all, whenever we try to narrow God’s love down to the people we’re comfortable loving.
NARRATOR: The scene ends with God asking Jonah whether it’s right for him to be so angry. Jonah sulks off to the edge of the city and finds a place to sulk. God causes a plant to grow, a bush that rises quickly and offers shade to Jonah’s head –which pleases Jonah. But then God sends a worm to eat the plant and it withers. God sends a hot wind from the east, and a harsh sun, and before long Jonah was faint from the heat. And for the third time in four chapters, he declares that he wants to die.
JONAH: I’ve had it up to here. Sent to my enemies. Tossed overboard in a storm. Swallowed and vomited up – by a fish. Left in the lurch like a laughingstock when God decides to show mercy right after I announce God’s impending justice. And now, in the middle of my grand pout, even this little shade plant betrays me. So when God asks if it’s right for me to be angry about the plant, I can’t imagine what’s coming next. I just practically explode at God, “I have every right to be angry, to the point of death!”
GOD: “You’re sad about a plant that cost you no labor, that you didn’t make grow, that sprouted and perished in a night. Is it not right then, for me to feel sorrow about the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?’”
AUTHOR: And there’s the punch line! If Jonah would do anything to save the plant, how can he not see that God would do anything to save an entire city?
NARRATOR: Imagine how that sounded in a time when Ezra and Nehemiah were breaking up every inter-racial marriage and driving all the foreign women and their children out into the wilderness. It’s no wonder that the author of this story set it in a different time and told it as a parody. He used the different setting to protect himself from charges of being a traitor. And he used humor to catch his hearers off guard, to sneak in a word of truth before their defenses shot up. The message at the heart of this story isn’t about deciding who’s wicked today or who needs to be warned or who needs to repent. It’s about whose God might be too small. And that’s a message aimed at all of us in every time and place.

Matthew 15:21-28
There seems little doubt that Matthew fully intended the story of Jesus healing the daughter of a Canaanite woman in a foreign country as an expression of the universal love of God for all peoples. This important lesson touches us pointedly at a time when we too are all prone to divide the good from the bad, our race, our country, our tribe, our folk, our faith from all those others.

After leaving Gennesaret, Jesus went to the district of Tyre and Sidon. It happened that a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried out to Jesus, “Heir to the House of David, have pity on me! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But Jesus gave her no word of response. The disciples came up and repeatedly said to him, “Please get rid of her! She keeps shouting after us.”
Finally Jesus turned to the woman and said, “My mission is only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.”
She then prostrated herself before him with the plea, ‘Rabbi, help me!’
Jesus answered, “But it isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “True, Rabbi,” she said, “but even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.” Jesus then replied, “Woman, you have great faith! It will be done for you as you wish.”
At that very moment her daughter was healed.

 

Great article from Reuters by 

Since President Donald Trump’s election, monthly lectures on social justice at the 600-seat Gothic chapel of New York’s Union Theological Seminary have been filled to capacity with crowds three times what they usually draw.

In January, the 181-year-old Upper Manhattan graduate school, whose architecture evokes London’s Westminster Abbey, turned away about 1,000 people from a lecture on mass incarceration. In the nine years that Reverend Serene Jones has served as its president, she has never seen such crowds.

“The election of Trump has been a clarion call to progressives in the Protestant and Catholic churches in America to move out of a place of primarily professing progressive policies to really taking action,” she said.

Although not as powerful as the religious right, which has been credited with helping elect Republican presidents and boasts well-known leaders such as Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson, the “religious left” is now slowly coming together as a force in U.S. politics.

This disparate group, traditionally seen as lacking clout, has been propelled into political activism by Trump’s policies on immigration, healthcare and social welfare, according to clergy members, activists and academics. A key test will be how well it will be able to translate its mobilization into votes in the 2018 midterm congressional elections.

“It’s one of the dirty little secrets of American politics that there has been a religious left all along and it just hasn’t done a good job of organizing,” said J. Patrick Hornbeck II, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in New York.

“It has taken a crisis, or perceived crisis, like Trump’s election to cause folks on the religious left to really own their religion in the public square,” Hornbeck said.

Religious progressive activism has been part of American history. Religious leaders and their followers played key roles in campaigns to abolish slavery, promote civil rights and end the Vietnam War, among others. The latest upwelling of left-leaning religious activism has accompanied the dawn of the Trump presidency.

Some in the religious left are inspired by Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic leader who has been an outspoken critic of anti-immigrant policies and a champion of helping the needy.

Although support for the religious left is difficult to measure, leaders point to several examples, such as a surge of congregations offering to provide sanctuary to immigrants seeking asylum, churches urging Republicans to reconsider repealing the Obamacare health law and calls to preserve federal spending on foreign aid.

The number of churches volunteering to offer sanctuary to asylum seekers doubled to 800 in 45 of the 50 U.S. states after the election, said the Elkhart, Indiana-based Church World Service, a coalition of Christian denominations which helps refugees settle in the United States – and the number of new churches offering help has grown so quickly that the group has lost count.

“The religious community, the religious left is getting out, hitting the streets, taking action, raising their voices,” said Reverend Noel Anderson, its national grassroots coordinator.

In one well-publicized case, a Quaker church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on March 14 took in a Honduran woman who has been living illegally in the United States for 25 years and feared she would be targeted for deportation.

‘NEVER SEEN’ THIS
Leaders of Faith in Public Life, a progressive policy group, were astounded when 300 clergy members turned out at a January rally at the U.S. Senate attempting to block confirmation of Trump’s attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, because of his history of controversial statements on race.

“I’ve never seen hundreds of clergy turning up like that to oppose a Cabinet nominee,” said Reverend Jennifer Butler, the group’s chief executive.

The group on Wednesday convened a Capitol Hill rally of hundreds of pastors from as far away as Ohio, North Carolina and Texas to urge Congress to ensure that no people lose their health insurance as a result of a vote to repeal Obamacare.

Financial support is also picking up. Donations to the Christian activist group Sojourners have picked up by 30 percent since Trump’s election, the group said.

“It really took decades of activism for the religious right to become the force that it is today,” said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science department at Stonehill College, a Catholic school outside Boston.

But the power potential of the “religious left” is not negligible. The “Moral Mondays” movement, launched in 2013 by the North Carolina NAACP’s Reverend William Barber, is credited with contributing to last year’s election defeat of Republican Governor Pat McCrory by Democrat Roy Cooper.

The new political climate is also spurring new alliances, with churches, synagogues and mosques speaking out against the recent spike in bias incidents, including threats against mosques and Jewish community centers.

The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which encourages alliances between Jewish and Muslim women, has tripled its number of U.S. chapters to nearly 170 since November, said founder Sheryl Olitzky.

“This is not about partisanship, but about vulnerable populations who need protection, whether it’s the LGBT community, the refugee community, the undocumented community,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

More than 1,000 people have already signed up for the center’s annual Washington meeting on political activism, about three times as many as normal, Pesner said.

Leaders of the religious right who supported Trump say they see him delivering on his promises and welcomed plans to defund Planned Parenthood, whose healthcare services for women include abortion, through the proposed repeal of Obamacare.

“We have not seen any policy proposals that run counter to our faith,” said Lance Lemmonds, a spokesman for the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a nonprofit group based in Duluth, Georgia.

(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston; Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in New York; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou Jonathan Oatis)

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | March 24, 2017

From ‘Is God Dead?’ to ‘Is Truth Dead?’

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I was only sixteen when the iconic Time “Is God Dead? cover appeared on April 8, 1966. I wasn’t at all theologically adept then, but I do remember being intrigued. After all it was 1966 and “Question Authority” was becoming the mantra of my generation. And something obviously connected because I’m writing this as I’m attending the God Seminar sIMG_1833ponsored by Westar Institute.

Remember the Jesus Seminar? Here’s me dropping my bead into the box to vote on the question of whether “Is God Dead” has lost its freshness and radicality? And yes, it’s the same box and beads from the (in)famous Jesus Seminar.

 

I voted red on that question. But the question of the death of Truth is another story. Time editor Nancy Gibbs wrote in the new Times issue that just like many said they believed in God in 1966, many today “would say they believe in Truth, and yet we find ourselves having an intense debate over its role and power in the face of a President who treats it like a toy.”

Maybe this debate is even bigger than the one about God. My answer to the “God is dead” question would be “what’s your understanding of God?” We would do well to put to death some of our previous understandings. And it’s OK to have differing definitions, especially when we can have healthy conversations with one another about them.

But Truth? We’re not talking here about different claims of religious truth; we’re talking about facts. Not “alternative facts,” true facts. I know, that’s redundant, but some people today don’t seem to get that.

I hope there’s as much – or more – uproar about this issue of Time as there was about the 1966 one. I hope that members of the Truth Seminar forty years from now won’t even be talking or voting about this, that they’ll be laughing and remembering that short time when the country went crazy and declared Truth dead.

We’ve got to make that future a reality. We cannot allow Truth to be killed off.

alberteinstein1

 

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | March 18, 2017

When Empire Asks: What Is Truth?

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At his trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, Jesus said, “I was born and came into the world for one purpose – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who seeks the truth hears my voice.”
In response, Pilate asked,”Truth? What is truth?”

That’s the question before us now in this “post-truth” era.

Although it’s not a new phenomenon. As Hannah Arendt, trying to make sense of Hitler’s Germany, wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism:
Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda
is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends
               entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.       

TruthinessDefIn more recent times, we’ve seen a more playful attitude towards our political scene. In 2006, Merriam-Webster chose ‘truthiness’ – coined by comedian Stephen Colbert – as the word of the year.

But now, in the era of “alternative facts,” we’re not laughing. In 2016, ‘post-truth’ was chosen by the Oxford Engliscyv0o0exuaajypfh Dictionary as the word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

What can we do in the face of the willingness of an over-whelming number of people to abandon factual truth in favor of something that fits their own worldview or addresses their particular fears? A recent article in The Christian Century, Fascism can’t be stopped by fact-checking, advises that “Neo-fascism can only be ‘fact-checked’ by active resistance. It cannot be met halfway but must be opposed by people who are willing to take a courageous stand for an alternative political vision anchored in inclusion and justice.”

This doesn’t mean that we abandon trying to engage those with different views from ours in conversation – as difficult as it may be. But as people of faith, if we truly believe that the Divine rests in each and every one of us, we can dismiss no one from our care and concern.When it comes to talking with individuals about why they voted for #45, we may find it helpful to seek an understanding of their truth: the emotion and personal beliefs that informed their decision.

But when it comes to our elected leaders, it’s a different story. We must hold them to a higher standard – to truth. And when they do not meet that standard, then they will be ‘fact-checked’ by active resistance. When the empire strikes back by calling truth “fake news,” we must resist. And we must demand that the media call out those who propagate lies and ‘alternative facts.’

And we must hold ourselves to a commitment to truth:

  • If-you-could-just-fact-check-things-before-reposting-them-that-would-be-great-meme-35966accessing reliable news sources
  • fact-checking information, especially on social media sites (please, please, please use TruthorFiction.com or Snopes before you send around that post about schools handing out donuts with Muslim writing in icing, etc.)
  • calling out false information shared on social media

We must not allow post-truthiness to become normalized.
We must, like Jesus, bear witness to the truth.

Posted by: smstrouse | March 11, 2017

Resisting Muslim Ban 2.0

PosterMockupDo not be lulled into complacency by the success of protests against the travel ban issued against seven Muslim countries back in January. Nor by the actions of federal courts in blocking its implementation.

Muslim Ban 2.0 was issued this week to far less fanfare than the original. One concession is the removal of US ally, Iraq from the ban. But make no mistake, it’s still an attempt to keep members of one particular religion out – a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of our Constitution (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…).

The administration of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named may hope to avoid the backlash set off by the first order. Because 2.0 doesn’t apply to current visa holders, we probably won’t see the kind of demonstrations that took place at airports back in Janaury.

But challenges have already been filed by the ACLU, the National Immigration Law Center, and the states of Washington and Hawaii. We should watch for decisions coming down from these lawsuits to learn whether HWSNBN will be allowed to continue insinuating religious discrimination into our country’s immigration law.

While there is no mention of a Muslim registry in this new order, we can only expect that, if left unchecked, the Islamaphobic nature of the current administration will continue in that direction.

Stay informed. Use reliable news sources. Become acquainted with organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Get in touch with your local interfaith council to see how you can support the Muslim community in your area.

Remember, we’re all in this together. If one of us is oppressed, we are all oppressed.

 

Posted by: smstrouse | March 4, 2017

Avoiding Resistance Burn-Out

resitanceIf 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 are 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. 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.

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.

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  • 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 anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia. This doesn’t mean that I don’t care about all the other despicable actions being taken in other areas. I will 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.
  • safe_image-phpFind 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 in All 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.”
  • 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 does not 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.
  • Rely on your spiritual practice. This might be 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 siege of Sarajevo, Smailović, a former cellist in the Sarajevo Stringevstafiev-bosnia-cello Quartet, played in the midst of the ruins of the city. 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. And when you need a boost, watch this video. I’ve seen it many times and it inspires every time.

We don’t have the luxury of burning out.
We must keep the fire of resistance burning – together!

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Posted by: smstrouse | February 26, 2017

173066Metamorphosis into Christ Nature: A Sermon for the Transfiguration of Jesus

Just imagine being with Peter, James, and John coming down that mountain with Jesus. You’re probably thinking about the extraordinary thing you’ve just witnessed. Your friend Jesus had suddenly started to glow – literally. Then you saw him talking with Moses and Elijah, the two biggest names in Jewish tradition. Never mind they’re long dead. This was epic! And then, to top it off, the voice of God came from the clouds! Like the other disciples you fell down on the ground scared out of your wits, until Jesus came over and told you to get up. I imagine when he said, “Don’t be afraid,” you all thought to yourselves “Yeah, right.” But you did get up and headed down the mountain with Jesus, thinking, “Wait till I tell my friends about this!” Except Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone about this just yet.” Imagine keeping something like this under your hat.

It is hard to imagine being there. It’s hard enough for us to read about and try to figure out what that was all about. People have been arguing about that for millennia. The story of the transfiguration or metamorphosis of Jesus appears in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), so it would appear to be a pretty important story to those early writers. But it’s also a story that raises a lot of questions. What are we reading here? A fable, a myth, a theological metaphor? Eyewitness history?

Of course, some simply dismiss this story as bizarre fiction. They did that from the beginning. Tacitus, considered one of the greatest historians of the Roman empire, sneered at the “pernicious superstitions” of believers. Suetonius, in his Life of Nero, derided Christians as those “adhering to a novel and mischievous superstition.” What we see in the second reading is the author of 2 Peter (speaking as Peter) recounting the experience to rebut criticisms that the early believers followed “cleverly invented stories.”

So what really happened? No one knows for sure. But using the “criterion of embarrassment,” which says that if part of a story puts Jesus or the disciples in a bad light it’s not likely to have been either invented or airbrushed, there just might be some truth to this crazy tale. I mean Peter comes off as a dunce in the story. Unflattering details like this suggest that the gospel writers were writing history, even if the story, like so many stories in the Bible, is easier to describe than to explain.

Let me tell you what I think. I think something did happen, and Jesus was literally if briefly “metamorphosed” before their eyes. The disciples saw the human Jesus – itinerant rabbi, wisdom teacher, rabble-rouser, boundary-crosser – suddenly also take on his divine nature. He became Jesus the Christ; you could say he took on Christ Nature. But here’s the thing: I don’t believe that those two natures are mutually exclusive. Jesus didn’t cast off his humanity in order to put on the divine. Nor did he then take off his glitzy divinity clothes and put his ordinary human clothes back on. I think Jesus always had those two natures within him, and for a few shining moments, the disciples were able to get a glimpse of what the fullness of humanity looks like. Some say that this is an out-of-place post-resurrection appearance. But I don’t believe that it took dying and rising for Jesus to manifest his true nature.

Moreover, I don’t believe that Jesus was the only one with Christ Nature. I think we all have it. Now I don’t expect to start glowing like Jesus did any time soon, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have that potential within me. And so do you. The divine is within, and with it is the possibility of exuding your Christ Nature at any time. Try this: take your own name and put Christ after it (remember Christ was not Jesus’ last name!) Sounds blasphemous, doesn’t it? Yet when we take away the dualism of heaven/earth and human/divine, and we see Jesus as the epitome of what it is to be human – that is to carry within us the presence of the divine – then we begin to see ourselves as Christ bearers to the world. We don’t have to wait until we die to be transfigured, metamorphosed into insert your name Christ.

It may not happen often, but when it does, others can get a glimpse of what it means to be truly human. I say that it may not happen often – it may not happen ever happen – because this transformation takes a tremendously God-centered soul. Most of us are pretty far from the spiritual maturity of Jesus, and to get there requires the willingness to die to the self, the ego which we cherish so much.

I want to say something about this spiritual process. The word ‘transfiguration’ comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word ‘metamorphosis.’ We often think of metamorphosis in relation to the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. You’ve probably seen the pictures of the stages of the process: the egg, larva, cocoon, and the adult butterfly. I was at a retreat recently led by the International Association of Sufism. The annual retreat is called The 40 Days: Alchemy of Tranquility and this year’s theme was “Transformation Through Practice and Knowledge of Unity (Unity meaning oneness with the Divine).

One of the presenters was comparing the metamorphosis of the butterfly to our own spiritual transformation. And he said something I’d never heard before. He said that in the chrysalis stage, all that is inside the cocoon is goo. If you were to cut one open at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out. I thought this was a great metaphor for the spiritual journey! Feeling formless, like goo: all traces of the former life being dissolved, not knowing which way is up and which way is down, not able to see any hint of a future way of being, in other words, a complete mess. Caterpillar soup. I’ve been there!

When I got home from the retreat, I wanted to check this out. And it turns out that this information was only half right. According to Scientific American, the contents of the cocoon are not entirely an amorphous mess. There are highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs  in there. While the caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly – discs for its eyes, its wings, its legs and so on.

Once a caterpillar has disintegrated all of its tissues except for the imaginal discs, those discs use the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the rapid cell division required to form all the features of an adult butterfly. Jonia Mariechild, describes the process on her website Butterfly Mysteries:

“The caterpillars new cells are called ‘imaginal cells.’ They are so totally different from the caterpillar cells that its immune system thinks they’re enemies and gobbles them up! But these new cells continue to appear. More and more of them! Pretty soon, the caterpllar’s immune system can’t destroy them fast enough. More and more of the imaginal cells survive. And then an amazing thing happens! The tiny lonely imaginal cells start to clump together. They all resonate together at the same frequency, passing information from one to another. Then after a while, another amazing thing happens! The clumps of imaginal cells start to cluster together! A long string of 1836870clumping and clustering cells, all resonating at the same frequency, all passing information there inside the chrysalis. A wave of Good News travels throughout the system – lurches and heaves, but not yet a butterfly. Then at some point, the entire long string of imaginal cells suddenly realizes all together that it is Something Different from the caterpillar. Something New! Something Wonderful! And in that realization is the shout of the birth of the butterfly!” Wow! The wonder of nature!

But again, it’s a great metaphor for our own spiritual transformation. This imaginal stage is also called the imago, the image. Within the goo is the image of the butterfly. You might recognize that word, too, from the theological term ‘imago Dei,’ the image of God. The author of Genesis wrote that we were created in God’s image. Within our goo, we have the spiritual cells, which can make us into something new. Not goo, but spiritually mature human beings who know we have the very image of divinity within us.

Is this a lot of esoteric nonsense that has no practical application in daily life? Not for me. And I hope not for you. My hope is that each of us is in a process of transformation. Maybe you feel like you’re in the goo stage, but you trust that the imago is in there and it will work itself out. Maybe you feel like your new self is just about fully formed and you’re almost ready to burst forth. Maybe you still feel like a caterpillar, just chomping away on leaves to survive. At the retreat, one of the leaders explained about the name The 40 Days: Alchemy of Tranquility. He said that forty days didn’t mean that literally in forty days we’d experience whatever transformation we were looking for or what God was working in us. It could be forty minutes, forty years, or four hundred years. The point is to be open to the process through practice and knowledge of your oneness with the Divine).

And when you do, there will be those times when others will see glimpses of your Christ Nature. And like those imaginal cells lumping, clumping, and stringing together to make something new, we will come together for the good of the world. Transfiguration doesn’t have to be about someday in heaven. It can happen today. And as Jesus lived and worked and taught in the midst of empire, so can we.

We are in a time of national trial; of that there is no doubt. Many of us also have personal trials with which to contend. Many people will feel great despair at the enormity of the problems we face. But this is where the transfiguration of Jesus can give us the hope we need. The transfiguration was all about the human Jesus. And we human beings can relate to him and learn from his teaching and his example. The transfiguration was also all about the divine Jesus – not a separate entity from the human Jesus, but intertwined with his humanity, at one with God. When we catch this brief glimpse of the fullness of his being up there on the mountain, we see our own imago Dei. And we know that we are not powerless in our being in the world. We, too, are imbued with Christ Nature, that enables us to go down from the mountaintop, back into the world to do what needs to be done.

So what difference would it make if you were to acknowledge and embrace your Christ Nature? What difference would it make in our world if we were to acknowledge and embrace our Christ Nature?

9921760A big difference!
Be transformed. Transform the world.

Amen

 

 

Exodus 24:12-18
The story of the Transfiguration is a classic instance of a New Testament story imitating—and elaborating upon—a story from the Torah. In this case one of the key texts that serves as an intertextual stimulus and model for the New Testament is the story of Moses being called up the mountain to commune with God.

Then YHWH said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there, and I will give you the Law and the commandments, which I have inscribed on stone tablets, for you to teach them with.”

So Moses and Joshua, his attendant, went up the mountain of God, saying to the elders, “Wait here for us until we return. Aaron and Hur will be with you; if there is a dispute among you, turn to them.”

Then Moses went up the mountain to where the clouds engulfed it. The glory of YHWH then came to dwell on Mount Sinai. The cloud covered the mountain for six days; on the seventh day God called to Moses out of the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of YHWH looked like an all-consuming fire at the top of the mountain. Moses climbed the mountain until he disappeared into the cloud, and stayed there forty days and forty nights.

2 Peter 1:16-21
What we seem to have here is a snapshot from the middle of the 2nd century. Almost 100 years after the death of Peter we find an anonymous Christian leader invoking the authority of Peter to address the pressing pastoral challenges of his own time. This text counteracts the claim being made by some that the promise of Jesus’ return was invented by the apostles.

We did not cleverly devise fables when we taught you of the power and coming of our Savior Jesus Christ; we ourselves saw the majesty of our Savior. For Jesus was honored and glorified by our Creator God when the voice of the Majestic Glory spoke out, “This is my Own, whom I love, with whom I am well pleased.”

We heard this ourselves – this voice from heaven – when we were with Jesus on the holy mountain. Moreover, we have the prophetic word, which is even more certain. Depend on it for your own good as a light shining in the dark, until first light breaks and the morning star rises in your hearts. At the same time, you need to know that no prophecy of scripture ever occurred by one’s own interpretation. Prophecy never comes through an act of human will, but comes as people have spoken for God under the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 17:1-9
Jesus is transfigured. Moses and Elijah appear and then strangely disappear. Peter is perplexed. James and John are anonymous. God quotes Godself. The disciples are overcome with awe. Jesus tells them to say nothing about what has happened! Mystery and divine presence are pervasive.

Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain to be alone with them. And before their eyes, Jesus was transfigured – his face becoming as dazzling as the sun and his clothes as radiant as light. Suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. Then Peter said, “Rabbi, how good that we are here! With your permission I will erect three shelters here – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”

Peter was still speaking when suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them. Out of the cloud came a voice which said, “This is my Own, my Beloved, on whom my favor rests. Listen to him!”

When they heard this, the disciples fell to the ground, overcome with fear. Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up! Don’t be afraid.”

When they looked up, they did not see anyone but Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anyone about this until the Chosen One has risen from the dead.”

 

 

 

 

 

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