Posted by: smstrouse | September 30, 2017

“Zoom” Communion: Sacrament or Sacrilege?

online-communion-computer-elements-582x388

Back in July, I posted about our decision to experiment with online worship experiences through the video conferencing platform Zoom. We call it ZOOM Church (clever, huh?)

Over the summer we tried several different formats: liturgical, discussion, contemplative. After each one, we surveyed participants to see what they liked, found meaningful, etc. When our worship planning team reconvened in September to evaluate and plan for the fall, the question arose: what about Communion?

prefilled_communion_cups_with_wafers_123I’d actually already been thinking about that – how ironical it is that after years of persuading Lutherans that weekly Communion was right and good, we’d now go without for two weeks each month. But Communion online? Visions of people scurrying out to buy boxes of pre-packaged wafer and wine sets gave me pause.

But we decided to give it a go. Our email announcement explained:
Yes, there will be Communion during ZOOMChurch this week. Because we believe that the presence of God is not limited by time or space and that we are intimately interconnected with the Divine and one another, we can participate in the sacred Meal in this new way.
You are invited to have bread and wine/grape juice with you to be blessed during the liturgy.  Although there will be many parts that make up the Meal, there is still only one Body. 

Afterwards, I did a little research to see if anyone else was thinking along these lines. And I discovered that a United Methodist pastor had not only begun offering Holy Communion online in 2003, he had written a theological rationale for the practice! In Online Holy Communion: Theological Reflections Regarding The Internet and The Means of Grace,  Dr. Gregory S. Neal wrote:

The Sacrament of Holy Communion is the preeminent spiritual expression of the Church; regardless of its size, shape, place, date, name, denomination, or style, all Christian congregations are nevertheless part of the Universal Body of Christ as exemplified in the Eucharist. Thinking of the Church as being bound to a single local congregation or a particular group of people in worship, comes dangerously close to denying not just the doctrine of the “Communion of the Saints” but also the very idea of the “catholic Church” as understood and articulated by Protestant Christians. To put this simply: the worshiping community which I pastor, and within which I preside as celebrant at the Table of the Lord, is metaphysically interlinked with, and ontologically indistinguishable from, the faith-communities within which all other Christians partake of the blessed Sacrament … we are all part of the One Body of our One Lord Jesus Christ. If this is true — and, by faith, we do believe that it is so — then why is it any more difficult for the Holy Spirit to extend the Real Presence of Christ from multitudinous localized congregations to Christian believers who are joining, in faith, with such congregations by means of the internet? Put another way, if the Body of Christ is not limited by temporal or spatial limitations, why do we — in our human dogmatism — feel the need to limit the Body of Christ and the Means of Grace to just those who can be, physically, a part of a worshipping community? Are Christians only part of the Body of Christ when they are temporally and spatially present at Church? Of course not! Likewise, I believe that the Community is also present with a lone believer who is worshiping Christ and receiving the Means of Grace even by long-distance, over the internet. Temporal and spatial limitations may limit us, but they do not limit God or the Holy Spirit’s ability to convey Grace to a believer.

I think that’s what I said!

But Pastor Neal took a lot of heat for this. In 2013, the United Methodist Church called together theologians, bishops, church executives, and pastors to address the validity of online Communion. Their decision was to call a moratorium on the practice pending further study. Full Communion partners also weighed in, including the ELCA which gave a thumbs-down. (Read the report here)

So, I guess that’s where it stands right now – at least in official church-dom.

But what do you think? Online Holy Communion: sacrament or sacrilege?

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted by: smstrouse | August 5, 2017

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel: A Lesson for Donald Trump

0fa3263f31a6c0492032bf5a1e46637f.jpgThe story of Jacob wrestling with the angel happens to be one of my favorite Bible stories. So it was a no-brainer which text I’d pick to preach on this week. I’ve always thought of Jacob’s struggle and his ensuing limp as an archetypal story of transformation. So I began searching for commentaries from a Jungian point of view. I came across an article from the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies entitledJacob Wrestles the Angel: A Study in Psychoanalytic Midrashby Michael Abramsky. 

As I read the description of pre-transformation Jacob’s behavior as that of the “trickster,” I began to recognize this person. “When the shadow component dominates, these powers are used to manipulate, place obstacles in the paths of others, and are destructive to self and others. The trickster dominates Jacob. He is cerebral, clever, and goal directed. He is aware of the frailties of others. Whether he will use his power in a positive or negative way is still an open question.” 

Donald Trump is our Jacob! 

Looking further, I found “Decoding Donald Trump: The Triumph of Trickster Politics” by  Rosario Forlenza and Bjørn Thomassen. Consider these qualities:

  • The trickster is a figure of excess, especially of eating and drinking, and of sexual exploits.
  • The trickster is a breaker of taboos, a joker and prankster, the best of companions, but also a thief, a liar and an impostor.
  • In many storylines, the trickster is a vagrant who happens to stumble into a village, appearing as if out of the blue, just as a crisis has erupted. He tries to gain the confidence of villagers by telling tales and cracking jokes. He is an outsider without existential commitments.
  • He is also a mime, telling people whatever they would like to hear — all according to the occasion.
  • The trickster holds no real knowledge but practices a cunning intelligence.
  • The trickster manages to impose himself, not because of his real qualities, nor by enabling the people around him, but by blurring distinctions. Rather than making clear the difference between truth and lie, the trickster thrives in ambivalence.
  • While presenting himself as a solution to the crisis, he actually perpetuates insecurity by blurring boundaries and undermining the very sense of distinction and judgment.
  • The trickster is a demonic clown.

Sounds very familiar, right? But here’s the chilling prognosis:  “The sense of empowerment that tricksters manage to produce feels real enough for a while, but it evaporates as suddenly as the trickster entered the stage, and dissolves in nothingness. Before that happens, however, entire societies can drive themselves to destruction.”

The Jacob story is a classic example of transformation from trickster to magician – the archetype of awareness and insight, the ability to make positive and constructive life decisions. And – as Jacob discovered – it’s not an easy process. He limped away from his encounter. This is a threshold time, a rite of passage. It involves struggle, wrestling with who we are and what we are to become. Identity dissolves. Ambiguity reigns. But in the midst of this crisis is a new openness to a new identity. Jacob emerged a true leader with integrity and authenticity.

Could Donald Trump achieve the same result? Only if he either willingly enters into the struggle before he dissolves into nothingness or he is forced into it and is open to the gift that his downfall could be. As one who believes that no person is beyond redemption, this is my prayer for our current trickster – that he be confronted with himself at his own River Jabbok, that he enter into a wrestling match with his shadow self, and that he emerges, as Jacob did, a true leader. 

Will that ever happen? Who can say? Jacob (Cheater) became Israel (one who wrestled with God). No one could have predicted that change. But until such time as it does, the Resistance continues. We cannot allow the trickster to drive us to destruction. 

Posted by: smstrouse | July 28, 2017

Church on the Web: Innovation or Delusion?

Theology NightWe held our second “ZOOM Church” last Sunday (for background, see posts from 7/8 and 7/15). This was the second model we’ve tried in our summer experiment. Unlike the first one, which followed a liturgical form much like our usual Sunday service, this one was a discussion format. Nineteen people logged in, three of them from different parts of the country.

Anders Peterson, mission development pastor for Middle Circle, led the conversation on “Religion: Good or Bad?” After we took an on-line survey to answer that question, we began to unpack our answers. Interestingly, everyone answered that religion was good – even our “spiritual but not religious” members! But we all agreed that religion has the potential to be both good and bad – and the history to back that up. Some participants, expressing a little surprise at their own answers, wondered why, if there is value in religion, it has not been a  bigger part of their lives. 

We just barely scratched the surface of this subject and all its follow-up questions.  I know that Middle Circle plans to continue this venue on a regular basis. We’re still gathering evaluations to determine frequency, day/time, etc. It will be interesting also to see how the results compare between Middle Circle and First United. Not that First United is your typical Lutheran church, but it’s still too traditional for most Middle Circle folks. It remains to be seen which format – or some kind of combination – will appeal most to the “traditionalists.”

Response from outside the congregation are mixed. Some praise us for being innovational. Others look at me as if I’m delusional. To be honest, I don’t know if this is the wave of the future of the church. I have a lot of questions that can’t be answered until we’ve given this a good try. Right now, enthusiasm is high, but will it be sustained? How will it affect our in-person gatherings? Can we create authentic community with our far-flung members solely on the Internet? 

Next ZOOM Church is August 13 and will be a contemplative model. The final one will August 27; the format will be determined after the evaluations for the first three are in. After that, all I can say is: 4597292490

religious_leftThis bumper sticker has been on my car for years. I can’t tell you how many people have stopped me in parking lots and honked at me at stop lights to tell me they like my bumper sticker. Some even ask where I got it, which I’m happy to share. So get yours here! Last week, someone asked if there really are any of us out there. I felt frustrated because I know there are. And I wondered why it’s so hard for us to get ourselves together and be a united voice for progressive Christianity.

RNS-HEALTHCARE-PROTEST2-071317-768x512

But then things began to happen. In response to the so-called health care bill that the Republicans presented to the Senate, protesters descended upon Capital Hill on July 13. And the religious community was there. The Rev. William Barber (Disciples of Christ), the Rev. Jennifer Butler (Presbyterian), and the Rev. Traci Blackmon (United Church of Christ) not only were at the rally, they were arrested for their trouble. 

5967e9271a00003400dbeae0At the rally, Rev. Barber called others of faith to action.
We’re saying today it’s time for other clergy to come. It’s time for moral agents to step up. It’s time for us to go down to the house of power and challenge the way power is being used.

That same day, an article by Nancy Hightower (who calls herself a post-evangelical Christian) entitled “Progressive Christians Need To Take A Stand Against Pence And Trump: Have A Sunday Walkout” appeared in the Huffington Post. In response to the gaggle of evangelical leaders who prayed recently over HWSNBN, Hightower calls on progressive Christians to step up.
We progressive Christians need a stronger visual to combat the message that other white evangelicals keep pumping into the media. We need a visual that will capture the nation’s attention instead of offering up yet another essay, article, video, tweet, or cliche answer about prayer. We need an action that will shake Trump and Pence’s faith in their religious fanbase.

We need to have a Sunday Without Church, when progressive Christians across the nation from multiple denominations—Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, non-denominational, Lutheran, Catholic, etc.—march in the streets to show Trump that he and his administration do not represent God’s gospel of love, mercy, and justice. Or create a march on Washington D. C. and use the National Cathedral for a sit in.

We need to show America that the church is not a homogenous entity composed of white middle class Christians lead by white men, but rather that there is a gloriously diverse body of believers who love Jesus and social justice.

I believe that Barber, Butler, and Blackmon are an inspiration to us all. We should be fired up about heeding Rev. Barber’s call to action. And I love the idea of a Sunday walk-out and sit-in. 

Who’s with me?

 

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | July 16, 2017

God’s Ridiculously Extravagant Love

sembrador02A Sermon for Pentecost 5

God, let my heart be good soil.
You may be familiar with this hymn.
Let my heart be good soil; Open to the seed of Your word 
Let my heart be good soil; Where love can grow
And peace is understood . . .

It’s a good hymn. I especially like it because it recognizes when my heart is not the good, rich potting soil like I get at the garden center.
When my heart is hard, break the stone away; when my heart is cold, warm it with the day.

 I don’t know about you, but all too often – despite my best intentions – I can relate much better to the pavement, the rocky ground, and the thorn-choked underbrush. I know the message of the gospel; I know what I should do, how I should feel. I’m right there with Paul from last week’s Roman’s passage: “I don’t do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want is what I do.” The inner critic that lives inside of me, points her finger at me and mocks, “Bad soil! Bad soil!”

So while I love the message of the hymn, I’m grateful to know that in all probability, the original parable that Jesus told was not primarily about us and our inner soil. Many biblical scholars believe that the original parable was only the first part of our reading – the description of the sower and not the second part, the interpretation. Remember that the good folks who put together the lectionary left out some verses. Today we read Matthew 13:1-9, then jumped ahead to verses 18-23. There’s an 8-verse gap (sounds like Rosemary Wood’s 18-minute gap in White House tapes during the Watergate scandal).

But, while there was no sinister intention behind the omission of the 8 missing verses, addressing them quickly will, I think, help us get to the heart of what Jesus was trying to say. The 8 missing verses are all about the purpose of parables and Jesus’ instructions to his inner circle of disciples in how to interpret them.

It makes sense that the missing verses go along with the second part of our reading – the interpretation – as a later addition, included by the gospel writers as they applied this parable to their own situation where believers were struggling to hang on to their faith in the early church.

And there could be a whole sermon right there. Verses 10-23 may be a later addition, but certainly applicable to life as followers of Jesus –then and now. But that’s not the sermon today. Today, I want to go back to the original parable because I think we often jump too quickly away from it to get to the interpretation. So let’s go back and read that part.

A sower went out to sow. Some of the seed fell on the path, where birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where there was little soil. This seed sprouted up at once since the soil had no depth, but when the sun rose and scorched it, it withered away for lack of roots. Some fell among thorns, which grew up and choked it. Some landed on good soil and yielded a crop thirty, sixty, even a hundred times what was sown.

What’s your first impression of this method of farming? I’m not much of a gardener, certainly not a farmer, but doesn’t it seem like Jesus is describing a sower who is ridicu-lously generous with the seed, throwing it not only on good soil but on soil that even non-farmers like me can see weren’t good bets: thorny, dry, even on a beaten path. I mean, what are the chances the seed is going to take root there? Which makes this sower seem not simply generous but wasteful.

Seed wasn’t cheap in the ancient world, and everyone who listened to this parable would have recognized the sheer wastefulness, recklessness, even stupidity, of such an approach to farming. I can just imagine them standing around listening to Jesus. I’m picturing the farmers I have known or have seen out planting and harvesting. And I can almost hear their derisive laughs and comments as they gather at the feed store.

But I think Jesus would have joined in with their laughter. He knew he was being ridiculous. That was whole the point of telling parables. Like a Zen Buddhist master, who uses koans to provoke enlightenment, Jesus used parables. You’re probably familiar with some of the more famous ones:
Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand clapping?
Show me your original face before your mother and father were born.
If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

As silly as these may seem, they’re not meaningless statements or unanswerable questions. These paradoxical anecdotes, riddles, or questions are devices used in Zen practice to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to test a students’ progress in their practice. Teachers do expect students to present appropriate answers. If we were Zen Buddhists, we would be wrestling with such puzzles in order to unravel greater truths about the world and about ourselves.

As Christians, our Zen master (so to speak) is Jesus. As a wisdom teacher, he also used devices to help us understand greater truths about the world and about ourselves. But his primary teaching was about the nature of God, how he understood what the kingdom of God was all about, and how we fit into that kingdom. It’s so unfortunate that western Christianity became so bound by logical reasoning that we lost our ability to take full advantage of what Jesus offers us, for example, in The Parable of the Sower.

So let’s go back to the feed store. The farmers and Jesus are laughing about the poor guy who wasted all that good seed. But then, one of this group of farmers – who were actually a pretty enlightened bunch – quieted down and said, “But we know you’re not talking about us, are you Jesus? You’re talking about how God is and how God showers us with extravagant and abundant love.

Turing to his friends, he continued, “I don’t know about you, but most of the time I don’t feel this. Instead I feel like there’s never enough: not enough money, not enough clean water, or fresh air, or fuel, or security, or happiness, or whatever. We’ve got advertisers telling us that only their products can satisfy my needs and take away my inadequacies. Don’t even get me started on politicians – telling me only about what’s wrong and what I should be afraid about. When I listen to them, I get this profound sense of scarcity. They try to make me believe not only that I don’t have enough but ultimately I’m not enough.

“But here’s this crazy parable telling me that God isn’t worried about whether there will be enough seed or grace or love to go around. Now I know of course that God wants my heart to be good soil. But I have to admit, there are times when I’m more like dry, thorny, or beaten down soil. Yet God still keeps hurling a ridiculous amount of seed on me. I mean, according to this parable, God would scatter seed/love/mercy/grace even on a parking lot! Why, because there is enough! And because God believes we are enough. I am enough in God’s eyes.”

Powerful insight. Maybe our enlightened farmer would echo Jesus, “Let those who have ears to hear, listen!” God doesn’t hold back, loves us just as we are.

Loving us as we are is not, of course, the same as being content with where we are. In fact, precisely because of this extravagant love, we are invited into the abundant life of trust in the Divine Presence and into love of and service to our neighbor. Out of a profound sense of abundance and belovedness, we can stand against the fear and scarcity that drive prejudice, racism, greed, and violence.

Out of gratitude for the extravagance shown to us, we want to share what we have so all can have enough food and shelter. Precisely because we are so loved (even when our soil is rocky, dry, or depleted), we can continue to grow into the people we were created to be.

The fundamental, unifying element in this teaching of Jesus is that his vision and hope for us all spring from God’s unconditional, even wasteful love for and acceptance of us right here, right now, just as we are. There is enough. You are enough. God will never give up on you. Divine Love is unending. Period.

Let those who have ears to hear, listen!”

Amen

 

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Most of Jesus’ parables do not have an explanation along with it as this one does. The familiar parable of the sower and the seed describes varying types of spiritual growth and failure to grow. The second part presents a typical allegorical explanation of it. This way of explaining how scripture was be interpreted was popular in the later part of the 1st century and in the 2nd century. It may have been added to the original parable. It had but one intended meaning: God will bless the work of Jesus and the disciples abundantly, so they need not be discouraged. That speaks well to us when the Christian life is not easy. 

It is written . . .

Later that day, Jesus left the house and sat down by the lakeshore. Such great crowds gathered that he went and took a seat in a boat, while the crowd stood along the shore. He addressed them at length in parables:

“One day, a farmer went out sowing seeds. Some of the seed fell on the path, where birds came and ate it up. Some of the seed fell on rocky ground, where there was little soil. This seed sprouted up at once since the soil had no depth, but when the sun rose and scorched it, it withered away for lack of roots. Again, some of the seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. And some of it landed on good soil and yielded a crop thirty, sixty, even a hundred times what was sown. Let those who have ears to hear, listen!

“Now listen to the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the message about the realm of God without understanding it, the Evil One comes and snatches away what was sown in the heart. This is the seed sown along the path. Those who received the seed that fell on rocky ground are the ones who hear the word and at first welcome it with joy. But they have no roots, so they last only for a while. When some setback or persecution comes because of the message, they quickly fall away. Those who receive the message that fell among thorns are the ones who hear the word, but then cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke it off, and the message produces no fruit. But those who receive the seed that fell on rich soil are those who hear the message and understand it. They produce a crop that yields a hundred, or sixty, or thirty times what was sown.”

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | July 15, 2017

Zoom Church: Take One

Screen Shot 2017-07-09 at 6.16.07 PM (2)We had our first “Zoom Church” last Sunday – that is church using the video conferencing platform Zoom. Fifteen people logged on, four of them from other parts of the country. 

Our worship planning team did a lot of work – and practice runs – ahead of time to ensure that things would run as smoothly as possible. Yes, there are still bugs to work out. It’s amazing how much more there is to learn when you’re using video conferencing for more than just committee meetings. Like:

  • how to help participants log in and learn “Zoom etiquette”
  • planning liturgy and putting up a worship bulletin without detracting from the gallery of faces
  • adding music and videos
  • managing background noise and lighting
  • balancing congregational participation with “muting all” to keep down noise and confusion
  • sharing the peace virtually 
  • to use to not to use the “chat” feature 

We haven’t read all of the survey results yet, but from informal discussions it appears that our first attempt was a success. We loved being able to include friends who have either moved away from the area or were away on vacation. We were even able to have a musical offering from one of our community members who’s just moved up to Tacoma. Of course we loved not having to drive in Bay Area traffic (although we did miss having refreshment time!)

This Sunday, we’ll be back at Turk & Lyon for worship in person. So I’m sure we’ll get more feedback then, too. The next Zoom Church on July 23rd will be the second of our three trial formats. Pastor Anders Peterson and Middle Circle will take on leadership of a discussion around what it means to be a progressive Christian.  

Will this be the wave of the future? I don’t know. I’m so grateful to be in a congregation that’s willing to try new things, be patient with the results, fail early, try again – and be part of the evolution of the church in the 21st century. 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | July 8, 2017

Getting Ready for “Zoom Church”

The-Medium-is-The-Massage-Installation13All the way back in 1967, Marshall McLuhan wrote his classic book The Medium is The Massage. In 2015, Keith Anderson begins his book, The Digital Cathedral, with this McLuhan prophecy:

“The medium, or process, of our time – electric technology is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life.
 It is forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted. Everything is changing: you, your family, your education, your neighborhood, your job, your government, your relation to ‘the others.’ And they’re changing dramatically.”

Add to that list of institutions: the church. This Sunday, my congregation is going to take a bold leap into this ever-changing, ever-challenging digital age. We are going to have “Zoom Church.” 

What, you may well ask, is Zoom Church? Zoom is a video conferencing platform that we’ve been using this past year for church meetings. With members who live all over the Bay Area, Zoom has been a wonderful resource – much better than conference calls, almost as good as in-person (except everyone has to bring their own coffee and snacks!). When we were lamenting the miserable traffic jams we have to endure to get to church on Sunday and the difficulties of getting there every week, we wondered, “Why not use Zoom for church?” 

So we decided to try it out during July and August. Our worship planning team has been working on learning the bells and whistles of Zoom, how to add music, videos, and text. Today we did a practice run and tomorrow will be our debut.

We’re going to try three different formats over the summer. Tomorrow’s service will be the liturgical model, based on our usual order of service. The second one will be a discussion format, the third a contemplative one. A survey will go out to participants after each so we can evaluate how it’s working and what people find most meaningful.

Of course, we’ll still have our in-person church services on non-Zoom Sundays. We’re also going to offer a podcast for those who participate in a community service project in September. Instead of being in real-time, like Zoom, it can be accessed at any time.

Will these ideas work? We don’t know. Some may find the idea of a digital church to be way too far out. Others will think we haven’t gone far enough. But our theory is that the church today talks a lot about the need to change, to try new things, to go outside the proverbial box. So that’s what we’re going to do. 

Stay tuned – or better yet, tune in. We’re being fairly quiet about Zoom Church for now; we want to get as many of the bugs worked out as we can. But if you want to join in on July 9, July 23, or August 13, let me know – we’ll send you the link. 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | July 1, 2017

Revisiting the “Texts of Terror”

dcfc437727d7b7fe98dc10c9904c28e3I was in seminary when Phyllis Trible’s book Texts of Terror was released in 1984. Feminist theology was just beginning to seep into our awareness – at least on our Lutheran campus. Feminism was discussed among women in a dorm room, not in any of our classes. My eyes were quickly being opened to new ways to read the Bible – and one of those ways was to recognize the violence toward women inherent in patriarchy.

One of the “texts of terror” that Trible brought to our attention is the story of Hagar. I was reminded of the book because Hagar appeared in last week’s assigned scripture reading (Genesis 21:8-21), part of the dysfunctional Sarah and Abraham family saga. But the story started back in chapter 16. Sarah couldn’t have kids, so she gave Hagar, her Egyptian slave, to Abraham so Hagar could produce a child in her place. Does this sound like an ancient version of The Handmaid’s Tale? It should.

In the first place, Hagar was a slave. Then she was given to Abraham so she could be raped and forced to bear a child for him. She then undergoes abuse from Sarah – with the permission of Abraham – and runs away. God finds her and tells her to go back and submit to Sarah. But – don’t worry, Hagar; you will have a son named Ishmael and all will be well. Finally, because of Sarah’s jealousy, Abraham banishes Hagar and her son into the desert. But an angel appears to Hagar and saves her and her child from death.

So all’s well that ends well, right? Keep reading. Trible continues with the stories of the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-22); the rape, torture, murder, and dismemberment of an unnamed woman (Judges 19:1-30), and the sacrifice of the daughter of Jephthah (Judges 11:29-40). Texts of terror indeed.

Hagar is the only one of these women who appear in the lectionary cycle of readings. But this patriarchal blight of the use and misuse of women is embedded in our sacred texts. And it is incumbent upon us to recognize and understand these stories – and how they continue to contribute to the misogyny that still exists today.

Especially now. Like it or not, we have a president who gets away with bragging about grabbing women by the pussy and body-shaming women he doesn’t like. We have entertainment personalities like Bill Cosby getting away with abusing and raping women for decades. Female students complain about the rape culture on college campuses. Women clergy continue to share stories about inappropriate remarks and physical contact from men in churches. The texts of terror continue.

Those of us who are still in the church must take these biblical stories seriously. We must allow Hagar and Tamar and all the unnamed women speak. And we must stand up on their behalf – and on behalf of all the women who are still terrorized by a patriarchal system that has got to go.

Posted by: smstrouse | June 25, 2017

The Religious Left: No Peace But a Sword?

cfe78d7eb6424bf0cb36e91dd0dc6495--biblical-inspiration-postsSermon for Pentecost 3

My job, supposedly, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Although originally used to describe the role of journalists, it’s often been used to define the role of preachers. And there’s no doubt in my mind that this gospel reading today is definitely afflictive. Yes, there’s comfort in there, too. But seriously, who keeps listening after “Don’t suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword”?

And frankly, the reading from Genesis isn’t any better. Although I get it. It’s a story from our sacred scripture – not historical fact, probably written around the 6th century. Genesis is a history book in the sense that it was written to create a history for a people living in exile. But its actual purpose is as a theological book, describing the relationship between a people and their God.

But still, what are we to make of this story about Hagar and Ishmael? The backstory is back in chapter 16, where Hagar the Egyptian first appears. Sarah can’t have kids, so she gives Hagar, her slave-girl to Abraham so that Hagar could produce a child in her place. Does this sound like an ancient version of The Handmaid’s Tale? It should. If you’re not familiar with the Margaret Atwood novel or now the TV series, it’s about a dystopian future, in which women are forced to live as reproductive “handmaids” a la Hagar.

But let’s be clear. Hagar was a slave. I disagree here with The Inclusive Bible, which translates the Hebrew word for ‘slave’ as ‘attendant.’ Hagar was not a willing employee to begin with. Then she was given to Abraham so she could be raped and forced to bear a child for him. She then undergoes abuse from Sarah – with the permission of Abraham – and runs away. God finds her and tells her to go back and submit to Sarah. But – don’t worry, Hagar; you will have a son named Ishmael and all will be well. Is it any wonder that Phyllis Trible included Hagar’s story in her groundbreaking feminist book Texts of Terror? It’s a horrific story. The whole Abraham and Sarah narrative itself is a study in dysfunctional families.

The message of the whole Abraham/Sarah narrative, of course, is to tell us about the love and vision that God has for us, that despite our doubts and meddling and thinking we know best, God is able to take our stumbling efforts and make something good out of them. That’s the “comfort the afflicted” part.

But I’m not so sure I want to get there so fast. I think we’re too used to reading this “history” of ours through patriarchal, white, Judeo-Christian lenses. If we switch lenses to Hagar’s point of view – an African slave woman – we should begin to squirm. And when we recognize that the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael is foundational to Islam, perhaps we should switch to these other lenses more often. Although it may cause us discomfort – and rightly so. Because reading Islam’s version of the story takes us out of our position of privilege. And no matter how liberal or progressive we think we are, we always have more to learn – about others, about ourselves, in so many different areas. Especially now in our own dystopian political reality. But even in places where you’d think we’d know better.

It’s been interesting reading about some of the controversies around Pride this year. Lavern Cox complained recently: “As a black transgender woman, I have not always felt included in Pride, to be honest with you. The LGBTQ community has not always been the most welcoming to trans people and people of color.” Also in the recent news was the murder of a Muslim teenager by a Latino which sparked discussions about Islamaphobia among Latinos. One post on Twitter said: “Muslims from other backgrounds have begun to lash out at the Latino undocumented community to cope. This is not how we can move forward.”

And that last sentence is exactly right. This is not how we can move forward. It seems that the more diverse we become, the more we have to learn how to hear stories from a different perspective and see life through other eyes. We’ll never be truly welcoming if we don’t. And that’s a luxury we cannot afford.

There have been a lot of articles and blogs recently about the need for the Religious Left and Progressive Christianity to step up and, to get itself as well organized and effective as the Religious Right has been for so many years, to promote itself better as an alternative to fundamentalism. As protesters dressed as characters from The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrate against cuts to healthcare and reproductive rights for women, we can see that a dystopian future based on a literal reading of Genesis isn’t so far off the mark. So, yes, it’s time.

The big question is how do we do that? There are three things we have to be able to do. One: recognize that we’ll never have a unified position like the Religious Right does. That’s the beauty of who we are – and the challenge. Therefore, we have to do our own internal work of understanding the multitude of constituents under our umbrella. Not a simplistic and offen-sive “all lives matter, but “Black Lives Matter” and “Women’s Rights Matter” and “Immigrants Are Welcome Here” and “Celebrate Pride,” and all the other wonderfully diverse movements for rights and inclusion. Maybe it’s actually comforting to be afflicted by scripture, knowing that our discomfort will prod us even further in the way Jesus calls us.

Speaking of which – back to the gospel. We read last week that Jesus sent out the original disciples with instructions to proclaim that the realm of heaven has come near by healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons. I suggested that we might translate that language into something more useful for today. For instance: care for those who are suffering; raise the spirits of those who feel like death, who wish they were dead, or whose dreams have died; take away the shame from those considered unclean or unworthy; cast out the demons of oppression and injustice.

Now today we find out that there may be a cost for doing any of that. “Don’t suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I’ve come to turn a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, in-law against in-law. One’s enemies will be the members of one’s own household.”

So the second thing we have to be able to do is recognize that sometimes proclaiming the realm of heaven – that is, life right her and right now – won’t be popular. When I read Jesus words, I can’t help thinking about my cousin’s daughter “L”. After the election, her sister felt the need to get a license and carry a gun. L, who has two toddlers, was very clear that she would not allow anyone carrying a gun into her home. Her sister took offence at this and the relationship has deteriorated from there, affecting everyone else in the family as well.

Last week, things escalated even more at a birthday party for my cousin, L’s mom. Afterward she told me that she’s finally accepted that this rift may never be healed. “No peace but a sword.” Also, as she described to me the yelling and cursing she endured, she noted that her two brothers simply left the room. I’m not telling you this as a slam on them. After all, who likes conflict? The point, however, is that there will be times when we are called to stand up and speak up and leaving the room will not be an option. I’m proud of L for standing up for her beliefs, even when it has meant discord within the family.

If we’re going to speak from the Religious Left, we have to understand that there will be con-sequences. Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington DC, where we rested after the Women’s March, put on their sign for Trinity (and Pride) Sunday: “Thank the Holy Trinity for God’s Whole Diverse Creation – Happy and Blessed Pride!!! That got them onto the “Exposing the ELCA” website which says the congregation and the sign are shameful, tragic, and an apostasy (a renunciation of our Christian belief). No peace, but a sword. Get used to it.

The third thing we have to do is to speak our politics from our faith. In “Four Reasons Why the Resistance Needs the Christian Left,” Catherine Wallace argues: “The secular Left is too easily embarrassed by talk of spiritual yearnings and larger meanings in life. The Christian Left has a powerful, ancient language rooted in ancient teachings about compassion, social justice, public responsibility, and human moral equality.

“The Christian Left believes that compassion for others is the love of God flowing through us; human intelligence is the light of God shining through us. In our eyes, it is profoundly immoral—a direct offense against God and the image of God in other people—to scapegoat the vulnerable or to deny the actual consequences of legislation or executive orders. We have a powerful, accessible language in which to hold (our government) morally accountable. We can defend the moral heritage of the West in ways that cannot be easily dismissed as ‘partisan arguments’ defending ‘special interests.’”

So we’ve got to get over our shyness about speaking about spiritual matters, especially as they relate to our politics and our life in the public realm – which is the realm of heaven. There is no distinction. The realm of heaven has come near. It is among us. It is within you and me and all of us together.

We can be comforted in many ways by this. And we need to rely on that comfort as we go about the work of discipleship. Jesus said: “Don’t let people intimidate you. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, and nothing is hidden that will not be made known. Don’t be afraid of anything – you are more valuable than an entire flock of sparrows.”

When you give yourself over to the ways of God, it might feel like you are losing your life – your autonomy, your independence. But in reality, you are gaining your life – a real, true, fulfilled life of being in unity with all of creation, of heaven and earth. And the work will flow from this divine, unified presence.

So don’t be afraid. Don’t be shy. The time is now.

Amen

 

Genesis 21:8-21
In this story, Hagar is the vulnerable one, the one who has lost everything, the refugee, the mother desperate to save her child. Ishmael, the child God delivers, is revered in Islam and according to legend buried alongside Hagar in Mecca. This passage reminds us that God cares for Muslims as well as us and that God’s story of grace extends beyond our own tradition. It is written . . .

The child grew, and on theday of weaning, Sarah and Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah noticed the child that Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. She demanded of Abraham, “Send Hagar and her child away! I will not have this child of my slave share in Isaac’s inheritance.”

 

Abraham was greatly distressed by this because of his son Ishmael. But God said to Abraham, “Don’t be distressed about the child or about Hagar. Heed Sarah’s demands, for it is through Isaac that descendants will bear your name. As for the child of Hagar the Egyptian, I will make a great nation of him as well, since he is also your offspring.”

Early the next morning, Abraham took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar. Then, placing the child on her back, he sent her away. She wandered off into the desert of Beer-sheba. When the skin of water was empty, she set the child under a bush, and sat down opposite him about a bowshot away. She said to herself, “Do not let me see the child die!” And she began to wail and weep.

God heard the child crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven. “What is wrong, Hagar?” the angel asked. “Do not be afraid; for God has heard the child’s cry. Get up, lift up the boy and hold his hand; for I will make of him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went to it and filled the skin with water, and gave the child a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the desert and became a fine archer. He made his home in the desert of Paran, and his mother found a wife for him in Egypt.
Matthew 10:24-39
Jesus’ words express the conflicts that may occur when we follow God’s way. The paths of denial and witness are placed before us, and we must ask, “Where do we deny Christ?” and “What is the nature of our witness?” Following Jesus means “letting our lives speak” in our families, employment, lifestyle, and politics, and this may lead to conflict, to a sword and not peace. Yet, the way of Jesus calls us to seek healing with civility in our relationships – to promote justice, to support the vulnerable, to sacrifice for the greater good, to encourage morality among our leaders and in our nation’s policies.  It is written . . .

“A student is not superior to the teacher, nor a servant above the master. The student should be glad simply to become like the teacher, the servant like the master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of the household!

“Don’t let people intimidate you. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, and nothing is hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in darkness, speak in the light. What you hear in private, proclaim from the housetops.

“Do not fear those who can deprive the body of life but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.

“Are not the sparrows sold for pennies? Yet not a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Abba’s knowledge. As for you, every hair of your head has been counted. So don’t be afraid of anything – you are worth more value than an entire flock of sparrows.

“Whoever acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Abba in heaven. Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before God in heaven.

“Don’t suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to turn a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, in-law against in-law. One’s enemies will be the members of one’s own household.

“Those who love father or mother, daughter or son more than me are not worthy of me. Those who will not take up the cross – following in my footsteps – are not worthy of me.

“You who have found your life will lose it, and you who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

 

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | June 22, 2017

Resistance and the Religious Left by Gina Messina

Gina Messina-Dysert CGUFor the last forty years, the Christian Right has influenced the conversation in American politics. Where is the Religious Left and how are they impacting our nation’s moral agenda? It is an important question, and now, more than ever, we need a progressive religious viewpoint in the conversation.

We are living in an era where the morality of our society is at stake and the soul of our nation is being bought by billionaires who have an insatiable appetite for money, power, and control. With an alt-right movement growing and nationalism becoming the Trump Administration theme, we are in danger of losing our humanity.

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