Posted by: smstrouse | September 29, 2019

The Parable of the Great Income Divide

shutterstock_1465957463The Rich Man and Lazarus = Income Inequality
What a difference a week makes! Last week’s parable was so outrageous, yet at the same time bewildering, I just didn’t know what to do with it (if you missed it and are curious, you can read it here). Today’s parable is just the opposite. It’s also outrageous, but that’s because of the ridiculously exaggerated descriptions of the rich man (sometimes called Dives, which simply means ‘rich man’ in Latin) and the poor man (whom Jesus calls Lazarus, maybe playfully after his good friend?).

So, we see the rich man in his fine clothes eating the finest food at the best restaurant; and poor Lazarus, hungry and covered with sores, hoping to maybe get the take-out box the rich man was having wrapped up, and instead, having to contend with stray dogs licking his sores. You get the picture, right? If Jesus wanted to grab his audience’s attention in order to get his message across, I’d say he succeeded – even 2000 years later.

It’s all about our use of our wealthshutterstock_444159427
Not only does Jesus get our attention, he effectively gets his point across as well. This isn’t a description of the afterlife. It’s about our use of our wealth, a common theme throughout Luke’s gospel. And it’s perfectly clear that Jesus is on the side of the poor man and has only words of rebuke for the rich man. From the passage from the prophet Amos, it’s not hard to see where Jesus gets his ideas. Despite the fact that there are Christians today who buy into the prosperity gospel (that is, the belief that financial blessing is God’s will for them), it’s undeniable that concern for the poor is a core principle in both Judaism and Christianity.

It’s such a core principle that it’s kind of hard to find anything more to say about it. You may have heard the term ‘preferential option for the poor,’ which refers to the theme that runs throughout the Bible (the commands of God, the pronouncements of the prophets, the teachings of Jesus and others) about attending to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society. It’s pretty hard to miss the message. And I suspect that if asked, each of you – though you might not identify with the man in purple and fine linen – could give examples of giving from your wealth to those in need.

So what more is there to say? As you might recall, parables are always about what life is like in the realm of God in the here and now and that they often have multiple layers and meanings. So I went back for another look. And what intrigued me about this parable this time is this great chasm that Jesus describes as existing between the place of torment and the realm of the angels.

waterfalls-river-stream-gorgeNow I’m picturing this chasm as the dictionary defines it: a yawning fissure or deep cleft in the earth’s surface, originally used to describe a split in a land formation.

My first thought on reading this was the Niagara River Gorge. I spent 17 years in western New York, not far from Niagara Falls. So I know this chasm, 300-feet deep and 7 miles long along the US-Canadian border downstream of the Falls. At one point, there is a huge whirlpool in the river.

27809721799_95ebe16989_bTo get a closer look at it – and a great view of the Falls – you can take the Whirlpool Aero Car, an antique cable car suspended 200 feet above the river. In the 17 years I lived there, I never did that. In fact, I don’t think you could pay me to do that. But in my mind, that’s what I see when Father Abraham tells the rich man that a great chasm has been fixed that no one can cross.  

It’s about income inequality
But a chasm isn’t only a split in a land formation. It can be a deep divide that is either literal or figurative. So, while you might think an article entitled
The California Chasm would be about an earthquake fissure, you’d be wrong. It is about income inequality. The state of California is the wealthiest and most populous state, yet we also have the highest number of people who are homeless. We’re home to more super rich people than any-where else in the country, yet we also have the highest poverty rate – when the cost of living is factored in. Hence, the article’s subtitle: Inequality in One of the Most Unequal States in the Country. An article in yesterday’s New York Times calls it “one of the most extreme manifestations of economic inequality gripping the country.”


I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. Still, it’s astounding to see statistics, such as: CEOs, in 1965, made about 20 times more than the average worker in their companies. In 2016, that gap had risen to 271 times more income. The middle class appears to have fallen into the abyss.

It’s a real Dives and Lazarus situation. This parable wasn’t meant to describe the punishment that the rich would suffer in Hades; it was meant to motivate us to close the gap now, in this life. We live in a different world than in Jesus’ time. Our system of government is different; our economic system is different; the gap between rich and poor is caused by different factors. But the message is the same: close the gap.

Talking Heads3 copyAnother figurative chasm that I’ve become interested in is what’s been called the red/blue divide. Or as one dictionary gives as a current example, the chasm between Republicans and Democrats. Or as some say between progressives and conservatives.

According to some political scientists, one of the reasons for this polarization is this high level of inequality. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich wrote in an article called 10 Ways to Close the Inequality Gap, “When large numbers of Americans are working harder than ever but getting nowhere, and see most of the economic gains going to a small group at the top, they suspect the game is rigged. Some of these people can be persuaded that the culprit is big government; others, that the blame falls on the wealthy and big corporations. The result is fierce partisanship, fueled by anti-establishment populism on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.”  

But what can we do about it?
We’re all aware of this. We all know it, but we don’t know what to do about it. Maybe we  are even kind of relieved that Father Abraham appears to give us an out here: “this great chasm has been fixed and no one can cross over it.” But Jesus is not giving us an out. He’s telling us that we can bridge the divide.  

And some people and groups are already doing it. Hands Across the Hills is an initiative that began right after the 2016 presidential election. It brought together two very different groups of people. One was a group of liberals from a peace organization in Leverett, MA. The other was a group from Letcher County, KY, a conservative coal-mining community deep in the heart of Appalachia. The facilitator was Dr. Paula Green, founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Boston. You can watch a video of some of the process on their website and I highly recommend it. If nothing else, it’s an inspiration to see that dialogue, relationships, even friendships can be formed even in a country fractured by political and cultural divides. As Paula Green said,

What was astounding for us was we didn’t know what was going to transpire between us, and although we don’t agree politically,
we’ve come to love and care about each other a great deal. 

I found out just this week that the folks from Letcher County are going back to Leverett again in October to continue the bridging project that brought them all together in 2017. 

I’ve been very inspired by Hands Across the Hills and since June, I’ve been involved in an initiative to recreate this process in the Bay Area. The goal is not to try to get people to change their minds politically or get everyone to agree, but to learn again how to have civil discourse, respectful conversation in the midst of our disagreements.

Hearts across the divide poster draft 4 copy

Our project is called Hearts Across the Divide, and we’ve begun organizing the two groups. Not everyone thinks this is possible. Several friends have told me it’s too late. Others,  from both sides of the divide, have been critical of even thinking about talking to the other side. But I believe it’s work that needs to be done. It’s what the parable calls us to do.

I was at an interfaith conference at Stanford back in June, hosted by the United Religions Initiative. It was called Accelerating Peace. On one of the days, there was a conversation between Bishop Bill Swing, founder of URI and General James Mattis, Secretary of Defense until his resignation last December. In the Q&A time, General Mattis was asked this question: “What do you see as the greatest threats to peace or the greatest challenges to peace from the perspective that you’ve seen in the world in your time?” His answer:

Very simply, the lack of respect for one another, contempt for each other’s belief.
It’s a lack of willingness to listen to each other. I see it in all walks of life and those are the seeds for what is becoming a much more violent response – this lack of respect and I would even say alienation that you see in so many people today.  It’s as if we’ve forgotten how to be human beings with each other and I think it goes back to respect.

The call to cross the divide
Mattis’ words reinforced, in my mind, the call to cross the chasm. And the hope is that it will work when we realize that we are united in our humanity and treat one another accordingly. In Hands Across the Hills, the people from Letcher County worried that they would be ridiculed and mocked by northern liberals. As one woman said, “I was a little apprehensive — afraid it was another ‘save the dumb hillbillies’ project.”

But, as Paula Green recounts,

We had a surprisingly successful, profoundly challenging dialogue exchange on
all the hot-button issues, and discovered we had a lot of common ground.
Now, as friends, we are working on a range of common projects, including reaching out together with our dialogue process to another region of the country, collaborating on agriculture, working on gun control issues we agree on. Hands Across the Hills has melted away stereotypes so that we can see each other’s human face.

I think Jesus would be pleased.
Maybe this kind of exchange doesn’t directly close the income inequality gap. But frankly, I don’t know how to do that. It’s a huge problem with lots of moving parts. But what I can do – and so can all of us – is get involved at the grassroots, bridge the divide from the ground up.

I don’t know if our Hearts Across the Divide project will be successful. I do know what’s not working. I’ve had many conversations with people who have tried unsuccessfully to get those of other beliefs to change their minds. Conversations turn into shouting matches, as both sides dig in their heels. Facebook is rife with posts and counter-posts, going nowhere, changing no one. The chasm widens.   

It’s going to take something different. We’re going to have to be different. We’re going to have to go deeper. We’ll need the courage and commitment to confess our own contribu-tions to the divide, our own self-righteousness and failure to love all of God’s people. And then enter into the hard work of face-to-face, in-person relationship-building.

imagesI know; it’s almost as intimidating as taking the Whirlpool Aero Car over the Niagara River. It’s a challenge to confront our own prejudices and stereotyping, to learn new communication skills, to resist becoming defensive, to be open to possibilities we can’t foresee. But if we’ve learned anything from listening to Jesus, we know that in order to experience resurrection, new life, new hope, new possibilities – we have to give up our egos, our selves and be vulnerable to the process of emptying, of dying to self.  The way to bridge the chasm is the way of the cross.

Father Abraham counseled the rich man about the fate of his brothers, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

We are convinced that someone has risen from the dead. That chasm has been conquered.

And now Jesus calls us onward to conquer new ones. IMG_4673



Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint them-selves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore, they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

Luke 16:19-31
Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen who feasted sumptuously every day. At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. Lazarus died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he’s comforted here, and you’re in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

He said, ‘No, Father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”





Posted by: smstrouse | September 22, 2019

That Parable of Jesus’ I Just Love to Hate

Slide1-250x187Parables are supposed to evoke a response –
but this is ridiculous!

I’ve often said that I love the parables of Jesus. That’s because they’re supposed to be an experience – not just something you hear and then say, “Nice sermon, Jesus,” and go on your way. Parables are supposed to evoke a response, an insight, or a realization about what the realm of God is like and what our relationships and behavior would be in this new reality Jesus was always talking about.

But parables can be complicated. In one way, a parable can make us scratch our heads  because its meaning isn’t always clear. In fact, it can have layers of meaning. At the same time, it will try to get us out of our left brain, our logical, rational, thinking mode and into our right brain, where our thinking is more intuitive, imaginative, creative.

It’s a complicated enough process when we’re dealing with a parable like The Good Samaritan or The Prodigal Son. When we get one like today’s (see below), it’s like we’ve jumped into parable hyperspace.


I’ll tell you what, this parable has (to put it crassly) kicked my butt this week. I mean, really Jesus, what is this? There are two characters in this story and neither one is what we’d call an example of model behavior. And I don’t know about you, but when I read what the manager did going to each debtor and working out a payment plan, all I could think was, “Wait! This is Donald Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal.” And then when the master praises him for his deal-making, what are we supposed to think: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so when it’s gone, you can be welcomed into their eternal homes?” No! Just no! 

While I have often praised parables for (kind of) slapping us upside the head and getting us to think outside the box, this is outrageous. It is, in fact, the most outrageous parable Jesus ever told. After I read it several times and could get no glimmer of a message about the realm of God, I turned to biblical commentaries. Surely someone had figured out the secret of this frankly offensive story. But, I discovered, almost every article or book I consulted began with “This is a difficult parable” or words to that effect. Well, no duh! Then they went all over the map in their interpretations.

I hate this parable!
So, I spent the week being outraged. I hated this parable. I was mad at Jesus for using these two reprobates as characters in his story. I was tempted to preach on the Amos text. I complained (maybe whined is a better word) to my partner and to other pastors.
If a parable is supposed to be an experience that evokes a response – this one did its job! But if it’s also supposed to bring about an insight or revelation about our life in the realm of God, then it was obvious that further digging had to be done. I can’t tell you the last time I had my Greek New Testament out. But if we were going to find any good news in here, drastic measures had to be taken.

So, let me say right up front, there is good news here.
But we’re going to have to go deep into the mine in order to find the gold.

The first thing we have to do (or rather not do) is assume that the master is God. That would take us way down the wrong tunnel. The other assumption not to make is that the financial system here is capitalism; it’s not. There’s a lot that could be said about financial practices in those days that might explain the master’s praise for the manager. But we won’t go down that tunnel either.

The next thing we have to work through is the parable’s title. Sometimes it’s called The Dishonest Manager, sometimes The Unjust Steward, or The Unrighteous Steward. Sometimes it’s The Shrewd Manager, or The Prudent Steward. So, I wondered, which is it? Dishonest isn’t the same as prudent or shrewd, right? This is where the Greek New Testament came in. It turns out we need to pay attention to that very first line, which could be translated: “There was a rich man who had a manager who was accused of wasting his possessions.

Now this was interesting. The Greek for ‘accuse’ has the sense of ‘falsely accuse, slander, lie about.’ The word is diaballein. Our word diabolic comes from the same root. The great Accuser in the Greek Bible is the Devil, diabolos. Ah, ha! The manager may be innocent after all. And if he’s been falsely accused, but can’t prove it, he can show his boss what a shrewd operator he is and always has been. So I’m going with The Shrewd Manager – which already makes it a very different story from The Dishonest Manager.

What did Jesus say?
The next thing we have to do is recognize that there’s been more than one hand at work in this text. Biblical scholars don’t all agree on the exact divisions, but the consensus is that the original parable told by Jesus ends at verse 8a: “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”

That’s a pretty typical kind of “Twilight Zone” ending we expect from a parable. Think of the landlord in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, who pays all the workers the same, regardless of how many hours they’d worked. Or the Samaritan who becomes the example of a good neighbor. It’s the shocking nature of such characters or actions that makes us look beyond the story for its meaning. So “the master commending the manager for acting shrewdly” may strike us as bizarre, but it’s actually a good ending for a parable.

But we don’t throw away the rest of the passage, which is Luke’s interpretation of the parable. Luke’s gospel has an ongoing theme of rich and poor and our relationship to wealth, which he, no doubt, gleaned originally from Jesus’ teaching and adds here. Many sermons have been preached from this perspective – which is just fine. But I’m going to stick with just the original parable and try to get at what Jesus could possibly have been trying to do here.

shoppingThe art of the deal
OK, we’ve got the title and the original parable. Now, we get to the meat of the story. What is of concern to us here is not the truth of the accusations brought against the manager by unnamed characters, but what he’s going to do about the situation in which he finds himself. He’s in a crisis; how will he respond? We know how; he makes deals.

Some would explain that the master made the best of a bad situation by sharing in the generous act of his manager. Others say that what we have here is one cynical businessman applauding a fellow con artist. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The important part is the manager’s response to his crisis. His prudent action is more important than speculations about any of their motivations. The Greek here refers to sensible, thoughtful, prudent, wise actions, by which he was able to move himself from impending disaster to a place of honor. In this story, Jesus commends the manager’s shrewdness.

This brings us to the heart of it. In the realm of God, the antidote to crisis is shrewdness. The Greek word here means to act with wisdom, intelligence, and prudence. It also has the connotation of doing what’s in your own best interest. It’s the same word in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus concluded, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and put them into practice is like a wise person who builds their house on a rock” In his sermon, Jesus says it’s in our best interest to build our lives on his teachings, his wisdom.

There are different types of parables: riddles, example parables with object lessons. This one is a challenge parable. And in it, we are being challenged to look at the crises in which we find ourselves with prudence and wisdom.


What’s your crisis?
So what crises are we in? We could start on the national level. And here I’m going to add Luke’s commentary in verse 8b: “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

In a book entitled State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States—and the Nation, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez focuses on powerful conservative groups that have emerged since the 1970s and have built their power at the state level. He also discusses progressive organizations that have tried to counter them. But most of these arrived on the scene too late and never developed enough strength to mount an effective opposition. He said, “The history of progressive state networks…might best be characterized by repeated cycles of panic.” We’re in a crisis because “the children of this age are more shrewd than the children of light.”

Coming at this from the religious angle, a similar movement began in the 90s when the religious right organized a take-over of many local school boards – more than 2,000 of them, one group claims. Citizens for Excellence in Education is a conservative religious organization dedicated to restoring classroom prayer and public school Bible reading, banishing sex education, and stopping “the homosexual/lesbian invasion” in public education. Its founder has written of his decision one night in the late 80s to form a nationwide network to help conservative Christians take over school boards. In a San Francisco motel, he wrote the war manual of the movement, “How to Elect Christians to Public Office.” While I’m sure they would never describe themselves as children of this age rather than children of light, we progressive Christians have experienced the crisis of being unfairly identified with the religious right. Many have questioned why we’re not able to counter this better. Maybe Jesus is right: They’re just more shrewd than we are.


“Wise up!” – Jesus
Jesus commends the manager, not because he’s a scoundrel, but because he used his head and acted quickly and cleverly. Jesus is saying essentially, “Look, if this guy can act shrewdly to save his hide, shouldn’t you be able to act shrewdly to advance the realm of God?

Another statement Jesus made is recorded in Matthew’s gospel: “Look, I’m sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”


Be as wise or as shrewd as a serpent?! It’s unusual in the Bible seeing the snake as a purveyor of wisdom, but there it is. As we know from the second creation story in Genesis, the serpent was more crafty than any other creature God had made.

How interesting that Jesus should encourage us to be crafty as well. This verse always reminds me of a colleague back in Buffalo. We were both pastors in the city and our congregations were part of a joint all-day Vacation Bible School for kids. It was a low-cost program that included lunch, field trips, etc. So naturally we had to find money to fund it. My colleague described writing grant proposals to both secular and religious funding organizations. He said, “When I’m writing a grant to a secular organization, I tone down the religious language and emphasize the need for safe child care in the summer and the free lunches for low-income families. When I’m applying to a religious organization, it’s all about the Bible School. See, you have to be as wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove!”

Going back to the Greek again, ‘innocent’ here isn’t about being naive or guilt-less. It actually means guileless, without falsity, without mixture of vice or deceit. So here we have the way we are called to deal with any crisis, be it of national proportion or your own personal predicament. We maintain our innocence, that is, we stick to what we’ve learned from Jesus. We stay true to ourselves and to God. We also use our God-given shrewdness, the wisdom that Jesus himself embodied, to get smart in dealing with the powers-that-be in this world, which know all too well about craftiness. So we have to claim ours, as well.

This is the challenge . . .
that Jesus lays out in this parable. I don’t think he had any intention of presenting it as an easy thing. We’ve been reading all summer about his heading toward Jerusalem and his calling us to the way of the cross. The gospel in all of this is the wisdom that we need to do that is already ours. We already have everything we need to take up the challenge. Christ is our Wisdom. When crisis times hit us, we – like the shrewd manager – can dig down into the depths of our souls and find a way to deal. Maybe not always in the way we’d prefer, but a way.

It’s a tough parable – the most outrageous one Jesus ever told. Parables are supposed to evoke a response, an insight, or a realization in us about what the realm of God is like and what our relationships and behavior would be in this new reality Jesus was always talking about. Maybe it’s one we need to really take some time in pondering, allowing wisdom to bubble up in the midst of our crisis times – and then taking it a step further and figuring out how to apply that wisdom, in a shrewd way, to the situations in need of our attention.

That’s the challenge; that’s the invitation. That’s the deal.



Luke 16:1-13
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So, he summoned him and said, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your work, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’

“Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg.
I know what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’

“So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

The man answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’
The manager said, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’

Then he asked another, ‘How much do you owe?’
This one replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’
The manager said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’

“And the master commended his manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

“I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”




Posted by: smstrouse | September 16, 2019

A Sermon for ‘Show Tune Sunday’

shutterstock_1333895981 copy
Delivered at Grace Lutheran Church, San Francisco, September 15, 2019

When I learned that this was Show Tune Sunday, a medley of musical numbers started playing in my head. Now I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of older musicals, although I’ve seen a number of them – mostly dinner, theater, community theater, and school productions. The first show I ever saw on Broadway was Hair and the last one was Spamalot, so you see how my tastes run. But, as President Obama said (see below), “whether we want to admit it or not, we all have the lyrics to a few Broadway songs stuck in our heads.” So, for me, this week was a sentimental journey back through some of the songs that remain firmly planted in my head.

I watched the video again of the finale of the 10th anniversary performance of Les Mis, with seventeen Jean Valjeans from around the world singing “Do You hear the People Sing?” Always gives me goosebumps! Then I had to listen to “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line. And “At the Ballet.” It’s funny how that one has stuck in my head. I’m no ballerina, but Sheila’s song of longing amidst her dysfunctional family has always resonated with me.


A painting inside the Tây Ninh Holy See depicting the Three Saints signing a covenant between God and humanity. From left to right: Sun Yat-sen, Victor Hugo and Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm.

I’m with President Obama on this too: “Musicals carry us to a different time and place, but in the end, they also teach us a little bit of something about ourselves.”

And oftentimes they can teach us about our relationship with God. The themes of suffering, forgiveness, grace, and redemption are so powerful in Les Misérables; it’s no wonder that Victor Hugo is worshipped as part of the pantheon of gods in the Cao Dai religion of Viet Nam.


Martin Luther also had quite a lot to say
about the power of music:

  • As long as we live there is never enough singing.
  • Music is the art of the prophets and the gift of God.
  • My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.

And my favorite:

  • Anyone who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being and should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.

4455204223_9c8f7dd911_bJesus Christ Superstar
Luther wasn’t around in 1970 when the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, debuted. But I have to believe he would have liked it. I remember parts of the album being played in church during Holy Week services that year. It was quite the revolutionary thing. It went to Broadway the following year, with Jeff Fenholt (who died just this past week) as Jesus, Ben Vereen as Judas, and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene. It seemed like those songs were everywhere. People I know from the interfaith community have told me that they knew all the words to all the songs. It seems that Superstar transcended religious boundaries. That became true again when Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert was broadcast on Easter Sunday last year, with John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Alice Cooper.

Do you have a favorite song from Jesus Christ Superstar? I’m partial to Hosanna Hey Sanna Sanna Sanna Hosanna . . . Especially the part where Jesus responds to the religious authorities:
Why waste your breath moaning at the crowd?
Nothing can be done to stop the shouting.
If every tongue were stilled
The noise would still continue.
The rocks and stone themselves would start to sing

I can’t think of a better Palm Sunday song than that one to imagine the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem that day.

Hamilton and Superstar
Speaking of revolutionary things, has anyone here seen Hamilton? I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve been listening to the soundtrack. And I have to say that I’m struck by some of the similarities between Hamilton and Jesus Christ Superstar.

First of all, they’re both versions of stories that took place in history and they’re told from a particular point of view. As a pastor, watching the new John Legend version of Superstar, I had some disagreements with it. For one, I always get apoplectic when Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a repentant prostitute. This version also ended with a quasi-resurrection scene, which the original did not have. I wouldn’t want someone who knows nothing about the Jesus story to get it only from this version. Having said that, though, we wouldn’t want to take only Matthew’s version, or Luke’s, or Mark’s, or John’s – each of them with a particular slant.

I’m sure historians have the same kind of reactions with Hamilton, also a version with a point of view, which shouldn’t be taken as literal fact. If we learn anything from these two musicals is that when we take the multiple versions of the story together – even with their discrepancies and inconsistencies – we’re more likely to find important truths within.

As I listened to the Hamilton sound track, it occurred to me how chaotic the early days of the United States must have been. While we tend to look back at the Founding Fathers as a monolithic unit, all in agreement with each other and in how to create a new government, it was actually quite messy. Same with the Jesus movement. Christianity didn’t spring forth fully formed from the head of Jesus. There were many versions living side by side until the Council of Nicea voted on the winning version in the 4thcentury.

Hamilton and Jesus Christ Superstar both have antagonists who open the show. Both Aaron Burr and Judas Iscariot counsel moderation, being cautious. Judas says it would have been safer for everyone if Jesus stayed in Nazareth, and Aaron Burr explains why he doesn’t like taking risks. Both become intricately connected to the title character and both deeply regret the part they play in the title character’s eventual death.

You also have two flamboyant, arrogant, over-the-top kings: King George and King Herod – just picture Alice Cooper as Herod. And two romantic interests: Eliza Schuyler and Mary Magdalen, both loving their respective men, both suffering because of it.

Both musicals are obsessed with the concepts of legacy and historical memory. How will you be remembered after you’re dead? Pontius Pilate, Judas, and Aaron Burr all lament how they’re doomed to be remembered as men who killed a great leader.

The song at the end of Hamilton asks “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.”
Aaron Burr: “When you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame?”
Eliza: And when my time is up, Have I done enough?
Company: Will they tell my story? Will they tell your story?

At the end of Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas sings:
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ

Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar
Do you think you’re what they say you are?

It’s a great ending, but the question really is: who do we think Jesus was and/or is? Does his legacy have anything to offer anyone today? The gospel writers were the ones to tell the story. Can we read them, not as dusty old books, but as Mel Brooks described musicals as “blowing the dust off our souls”?

The Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin
Take today’s reading from Luke include the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. What could Jesus better address than the state of being lost? I got lost once when I was in kindergarten. I went home with a friend (which I wasn’t supposed to do) and couldn’t find my way back home. I was found crying on a sidewalk somewhere by a woman who I remember only from about the knees down: a blue skirt and shoes and she was carrying a shopping bag. She called my parents who came and got me – and I might say unlike God, who doesn’t punish the repentant sinner – sent me to my room. That woman was Jesus to me that day and the lost was found.

I went on to bigger and better mistakes in my life and lost my way any number of times. Other people incarnated the loving arm of God sweeping me back into the fold. Musically speaking, I think we have to go back to Les Mis. After Jean Valjean is released from prison, no one will give him shelter because he’s an ex-con. Desperate, he knocks on the door of the bishop, who takes him in and treats him with kindness. Valjean repays the bishop by stealing his silverware. When he’s arrested, the bishop covers for him, claiming the silverware was a gift. Valjean is is released and promises the bishop that he will become an honest man. His song, “What Have I Done?” both reflects his anguish and shame at what he’d become and his wonder at being offered such extraordinary grace:

One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I had a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

Yes, there is.  The lost was found and has become a new person.

We may not be in as desperate straits as Jean Valjean, but we can surely understand the feeling of being lost at times. When we’re in a new situation, whether voluntarily or involuntarily; when life becomes confusing and we’re unsure of the way forward; when our old ways of doing things or coping don’t work anymore; when we feel betrayed or abandoned by someone we trusted – there are all kinds of situations when we feel lost.

Take for instance, this poor woman in Iceland:


When we’re lost, we all need to know that someone is looking, that somebody cares. And some days we’re the lost sheep and some days we’re the shepherd. Some days we’re the lost coin; some days we’re the woman with the broom. This is the legacy of Jesus, this outrageous, extraordinarily generous love that does not die, no matter how we may try to kill it.

It’s the grand finale of the musical, that should have us on our feet, clapping and dancing and singing all the way out of the theater into the streets, where others can’t help noticing something different about us.

As I wrote this, I was remembering the finale of Spamalot. As confetti and streamers rained down on the audience, we stood swaying and singing along with cast “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Totally inappropriate for church!  But maybe just this little bit will work:

Always look on the bright side of life
If life seems jolly rotten,
There’s something you’ve forgotten!
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing,
When you’re feeling in the dumps,
Don’t be silly chumps,
Just purse your lips and whistle — that’s the thing!

Or, we could sing “Tomorrow” from Annie, remembering as President Obama said,

Musicals carry us to a different time and place, but in the end, they also teach us a little bit of something about ourselves.



Contemporary Reading                         by Barack Obama[1]

Now, as we’re about to see this evening, there’s nothing quite like the power and the passion of Broadway music. At its heart, it’s the power of a story-–of love and of heart-break; of joy and sorrow; singing witches, dancing ogres. Musicals carry us to a different time and place, but in the end, they also teach us a little bit of something about ourselves. It’s one of the few genres of music that can inspire the same passion in an eight-year-old that it can an 80-year-old–-and make them both want to get up and dance. It transcends musical tastes, from opera and classical to rock and hip-hop. And whether we want to admit it or not, we all have the lyrics to a few Broadway songs stuck in our heads.        

In many ways, the story of Broadway is also intertwined with the story of America. Some of the greatest singers and songwriters Broadway has ever known came to this country on a boat with nothing more than an idea in their head and a song in their heart. And they succeeded the same way that so many immigrants have succeeded-–through talent and hard work and sheer determination.

Over the years, musicals have also been at the forefront of our social consciousness, challenging stereotypes, shaping our opinions about race and religion, death and disease, power and politics.

But perhaps the most American part of this truly American art form is its optimism. Broadway music calls us to see the best in ourselves and in the world around us-–to believe that no matter how hopeless things may seem, the nice guy can still get the girl, the hero can still triumph over evil, and a brighter day can be waiting just around the bend.

As the great Mel Brooks once said, musicals “blow the dust off your soul.”



Gospel Reading                   Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”



Posted by: smstrouse | September 1, 2019

“Check Your Privilege” – Jesus

got-privilegeThese Are Not Ordinary Times
We’re now half-way through the long season after Pentecost. It’s also sometimes called Ordinary Time, but I’ve never been fond of that designation. “Ordinary” refers to the fact that there are no major holy days, like Christmas or Easter or distinctive seasons like Advent or Lent in this almost 6-month stretch. But it is distinctive in that it’s a season of attention to and growth in our discipleship. This year’s cycle of readings has been taking us through key passages in the Gospel according to Luke.

And frankly, it hasn’t been an easy journey. This business of following Jesus has some interesting twists and turns. Remember how in one story he calls to a prospective disciple, “Follow me.” But when the person says, “Let me first go and bury my father,” Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead.”And the time he says, “Do you think I’ve come to bring peace to the earth? No, not peace, but division!”

Then there are the parables, The Good Samaritan and The Rich Fool – these seemingly simple stories that take everyday situations and ordinary people and then turn them upside-down and us inside-out, challenging us to look at ourselves and our world through the lens of the realm of God – which is not always a comfortable thing to do.

So, I submit that this season is not ordinary at all. We hear the message of the gospel to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” and apply it to each new situation in our lives. Because, while the gospel stays the same, we don’t. Midway through this “After-Pentecost” season, perhaps it is a good time to take inventory of how we’re doing, how we’re taking in the values of the realm of God, and how we’re translating those values into our daily lives.

I find this particularly important this year. In the midst of division, increasingly dire social ills, and discouragement about how to fix them, it’s imperative for us to look at all of it through the lens of the realm of God. In doing so, we can find not only comfort, but also the challenge that Jesus has for us to continually learn and grow into our best selves.

The Dinner Party
So, here we are with today’s reading, in which we learn about a dinner party to which Jesus has been invited. In Luke’s gospel, this is the third time he’s on the guest list for an event hosted by a local religious leader. This tells us that Jesus had achieved some notoriety; he was on the A-list of people you wanted at your soiree. But it also becomes clear that another reason to invite him was to keep an eye on him.

The story of this dinner party has two parts. The first part is a warning against asserting privilege. The second part is about our responsibility to extend hospitality to those who can’t reciprocate. Both of these are certainly relevant to us today.Unknown

In today’s language, Jesus might have said to the guests, “You need to check your privilege at the door.” This might give us some idea of how offended his fellow guests would have been. “Check your privilege” has become a kind of a combative statement meaning “get-with-it” – get with the idea that society grants unearned rewards to people based on things like race, gender, class, sexuality, body type, physical ability, etc. Checking your privilege means acknowledging how these rewards benefit your life.

For example, when I was at First United in San Francisco, I was part of the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM) roster of clergy, even though I’m not LGBT. But because I was pastor of a congregation that had been expelled nine years previously for calling an out gay pastor, I was included. But at retreats and other gatherings, I was very aware of my privilege as a straight pastor. I didn’t have the same difficulties with synod candidacy committees, congregational call committees (although I could relate in some ways as a female pastor when that was still an issue for many congregations). So even though I was encouraged to participate in discussions, I did so very carefully. As I once explained to them, “I’m kind of like a man at a feminist convention.” Checking my privilege meant acknowledging how being straight benefits my life.

Now, no one likes being called out for unchecked privilege. Another example: I was recently called out by someone responding to our invitation to participate in civil discourse across the red/blue divide. The writer said, “I’m sorry, but this idea–to me–reeks of privilege. No one whose life is actually impacted by this stuff could even contemplate indulging in some kind of ‘listening’ session with (these) people.” I disagree with that assessment, but I did have to take a moment and make sure that I was not responding just out of defensive and anger (which I was), but also taking a serious inventory of my motives and how I communicated them.

As is the way of human beings, we’ve taken a good idea too far. These days, you’ll hear all kinds of people accusing others of basking in their unchecked privilege. So, although we seem to have created an Oppression Olympics, a competition to determine who has the least amount of privilege and we’ve even weaponized the word ‘privilege,’ it’s still important to examine how and where and why we’re the ones who naturally get a place of honor at the banquet table – and to be aware of who does not.

no-one-wins-at-the-oppression-olympicsA way to extricate ourselves from the combativeness of the Oppression Olympics and its companion “what-about-ism” is the concept of intersectionality, which refers to the ways in which various forms of discrimination linked to aspects of a person’s identity, overlap or intersect. For example, I have a friend who was struggling with the concept of white privilege. She is white; she’s also a lesbian. Her argument, actually a form of what-about-ism, was that she’d been oppressed, too, for being both female and gay. And she was right. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that she enjoys privileges people of color do not, especially LGBT people of color. The fact is that we can be privileged in one aspect of our identities and not in another. I’m happy to say that this approach is part of the ELCA’s new social statement: Faith, Sexism, and Justice. It can help us avoid these traps, while freeing us to live humbly and inclusively, as Jesus described in his advice to his dinner companions.

Dear Church 
I’ve been reading the book Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US by Lenny Duncan, an ELCA pastor. It’s a really goodshopping book. One of the things I like about it is that he calls it a love letter. He’s critical of the church, yet he’s in love with the church. He calls us out, but he also calls us in – into a bold new vision for the ELCA and the broader Christian community. He rejects the narrative of church decline and calls us all to be part of the church that rises up, dusts itself off, and takes on forces of this world that act against God, such as white supremacy, misogyny, nationalism, homophobia, and economic injustice. He urges us to follow on the path of Jesus to turn the values of the world upside down and inside out.

It’s no wonder the religious establishment was watching Jesus. We don’t how they reacted when hecalled them out. Maybe they laughed in discomfort, or shook their heads in disbelief, or questioned his sanity. Maybe they argued back. Maybe they agreed with him and promised to follow his advice from then on. We can’t know how they reacted.

All we can know is how we react to the story and its implications. I can tell you how I feel when called out: at first, defensive (“Yeah, well, what about my ______?) and angry; then maybe embarrassed, ashamed. If I’m able to be self-aware enough to take a breath and consider whether there’s any truth to the accusation, I just might be open to a transformational moment.

Right now, the church is all over that continuum. I read a lot of social media from church members who are exhibiting defensiveness, what-about-ism, and anger. Others are recognizing the part we’ve played in the oppression of others. For example:

  • Our ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted overwhelmingly to approve Faith, Sexism, and Justice, which, in part, names patriarchy and sexism as sins and calls the church to make a public statement of repentance and establish a day of confession and repentance for these sins.
  • In a “Declaration to People of African Descent,” the ELCA apologized for its historical complicity in slavery and its enduring legacy of racism in the United States and globally. The document was presented to the Rev. Lamont Wells, president of the African Descent Lutheran Association.
  • The Assembly also adopted a resolution to condemn white supremacy, calling all congregations to engage in a “study of the structures and rhetoric that empower and fuel racism and white supremacy and to take to heart the teaching of Scriptures, so we may all be better equipped to speak boldly about the equal dignity of all persons in the eyes of God.”

I like that last statement. I believe that was what Jesus was getting at in this story. Those other dinner guests had to interpret it for their time, and so do we. The question is whether or not we’ll actually follow through on these actions and resolutions. There is some skepticism about this, which I hope will be proven wrong. We’re hovering between the phase of embarrassment and shame for past sins and self-awareness of knowing the truth. It remains to be seen if this will be a transformational moment for the church.

For now we can each ask ourselves these questions:
Where in my life, church, community, and nation do I see evidence of people asserting their privileged status in ways that create injustice?
And going even deeper: how do I recognize my privilege?

In the second part of the story: Jesus tells his host that his future guest list should include those who would never be able to reciprocate. And he should invite people of all kinds, including those of lower social classes, those who are poor, those physically challenged, all of the marginalized.

This is the work order of the church!

The questions here are:
What other forms, beyond table fellowship, does hospitality take today?
Where in my life, church, community, and nation do I see people extending hospitality only to those who can reciprocate?
Who’s left out? What can I do to extend hospitality to them?

In Dear Church, Pastor Lenny Duncan writes: “You want to know why young people are pouring out of our churches and finding sustenance elsewhere? Because we claim to be a community founded on the incredible vision of the heavenly banquet, yet we don’t even have enough chairs for everyone to sit at the table. We love the hymn All Are Welcome, but it should come with an asterix and we know it.”

His words make me uncomfortable. They should make all of us uncomfortable. But he advises us to take a breath: “Let’s sit in that moment a bit longer, Church, and allow the discomfort to fuel our work.”

Nobody ever said discipleship was going to be easy. Back then, the authorities were watching Jesus, laying traps at every turn. It was a difficult time to be a disciple. Today, we do our work in the midst of division, increasingly dire social ills, and discouragement about how to fix them. As it has always been, but it bears repeating: it is imperative that we look at all of it through the lens of the realm of God. Because in doing so, we can find not only comfort, but also the challenge that Jesus has for us to continually learn and grow into our best selves. And together make our church its best self, too.




Luke 14:1, 7-14
Jesus’ words regarding banquet guests are also applicable to our time. Jesus calls us to mindfulness and humility. We are part of a larger whole in which others matter just as much as we do, and that includes (in God’s eyes) other nations. Those who are confident in God’s grace can advocate for their positions and affirm their value and place in the church and society without diminishing others.

It is written . . .

One sabbath, when Jesus came to eat a meal in the house of a leading Pharisee, the guests watched him closely. Jesus went on to address a parable to the guests, noticing how they were trying to get a place of honor at the table.

“When you’re invited to a wedding party, don’t sit in the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished has been invited. Otherwise the hosts might come and say to you, ‘Make room for this person,’ and you would have to proceed shamefully to the lowest place. What you should do is go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your hosts approach you, they’ll say, ‘My friend, come up higher.’ This will win you the esteem of the other guests. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Then Jesus said to the host, “Whenever you give a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends or colleagues or relatives or wealthy neighbors. They might invite you in return, and thus repay you. No, when you have a reception, invite those who are poor or have physical infirmities or are blind. You should be pleased that they can’t repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”



55e47db5ef1d040b256518971ef5e1db--africans-favorite-quotesThis African proverb might have been a better way to reassure the young Jeremiah that he wasn’t too small to be a prophet. When he says, “I don’t know how to speak; I’m too young,” God basically says, “Don’t say that. Just go where I send you and say what I command you.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d be reassured. OK, God does get a little more considerate of Jeremiah’s feelings of inadequacy: “Don’t be afraid; I’ll be with you.” Jeremiah goes – and does become one of the greatest prophets of Israel.

That doesn’t mean he had an easy time of it. The Old Testament prophets were primarily concerned with interpreting historical events of their time in light of God’s purposes. The  time in which Jeremiah lived was a time of political and religious upheaval. It had started about 300 years before his time.

In a nutshell: after the death of King Solomon around 930 BCE, the kingdom that his father, King David, had built, split into the Kingdoms_of_Israel_and_Judah_map_830.svgNorthern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrian empire in 722 BCE, and many of the people of Israel were taken into exile, never to return.

Jeremiah lived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which had narrowly escaped the Assyrian war machine. But freedom from foreign domination didn’t last. His prophecies came just before the fall of Judah to the Babylonian empire. So, most of Jeremiah’s work has to be seen in the context of the impending Babylonian invasion and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem and the temple around 586 BCE.

Now, you may be asking, “So what? What does this ancient history have to do with us now?” First, I’d remind us that just as the prophets of old spoke to and about the events of their day, so do prophets of today. Context is everything. Although we certainly can’t overlay a picture of the state of our world now onto Jeremiah’s world then. But we might find some wisdom for ourselves in his experiences and in his discernment of how God was speaking in those times. I think most of us would agree that ours is a time of political and religious, if not upheaval, certainly change. And God still calls prophets today to speak to and about the events of our day.

If that’s true, then the question is: who are the prophets today?

This answer to this has two parts. You know how as Lutherans we talk about saints with a capital ‘S’ and saints with a small ‘s’? We have the big-name saints, right, like St. Peter and St. Mary. And we also have all the rest of us – saints, not in the sense of being one of the superstars of faith, but of being both saint and sinner at the same time – named and claimed by God and made holy (saintly), even while we still are fallible human beings.

williamBarberDemocracyNowThere are big-name prophets out there today. I’d include the Rev. William Barber, who’s been building a broad-based grassroots movement now for several decades. His most recent initiative is the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Building on the work of another modern-day prophet, the program is a revival of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign spearheaded by the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rev. Barber began by auditing systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and our war economy since 1968, and then building state, local, non-partisan movements that are committed to shifting the moral narrative, building power, and challenging laws and policies that hurt the poor and threaten our democracy. One of the resolutions at our ELCA Churchwide Assembly to endorse the Poor People’s Campaign. While the Assembly didn’t adopt the resolution, they did approve a statement of support for the vision and goals of the Poor People’s Campaign that are in alignment with ELCA teachings.

There are others of these big prophetic voices. But what I really want to talk about are the small ones, the ones whose names we may or may not know, the ones who might even be you or me. Now, I can hear your thoughts of protestation from here. “Prophet? Nope, not me. I don’t know how to speak! I’m too young/old/shy/tired/busy/doubtful/ scared/uneducated/intimidated/inadequate.” – in other words, “I’m too small.” And those would all be perfectly understandable responses. Look at Jeremiah: “Not me, God. I don’t know how to speak! Besides, I’m too young!” We know how it turned out. All his protests aside, he realized he had something to say and he had to say it.

I recall a fellow seminary student in one of my first preaching classes. On our first day, the professor asked this question: why preach? You can imagine some of our highfalutin theological ruminations. But one student succinctly responded, “How can I not?”maggie_kuhn_portrait_of_maggie_kuhn_founder_of_the_9b5259-244x300

Sometimes, when a circumstance is thrust upon us, we just have to do or say something, even when we think we can’t. I was thinking this week about the late Maggie Kuhn, whose birthday was this past week. In 1970, she founded the Gray Panthers, still in existence as a force against ageism and other justice issues. What I always remember, though, is what she said about working for change:

Dare to stand before those you fear and speak your mind,
even if your voice shakes.

She might have said the same thing my fellow student did when asked why she had taken up the cause: “How can I not?”

 My spiritual director was talking a while back about the late Father Daniel Berrigan, famous for his anti-war protests, arrests and time in prison. She said that, despite his calm demeanor, he often suffered from anxiety before an action. What I did know is that Fr. Berrigan identified with the prophet Jeremiah. Like Jeremiah, he realized he had no choice. God called. How could he not act? He once said that he was motivated by “outraged love.”

I guess these are still big-name prophets. But it’s not hard to find the small ones, too. Like a woman named Bea, who came into a leadership training program designed to help low-income people learn to advocate for themselves and others. Bea was a single mom, a victim of domestic violence. Homeless, she lived on the streets with her child. She was eventually able to move into public housing, but couldn’t receive some services because state policy required a single mother to file for child support in order to be eligible. Bea refused, fearing that the man who had abused her and her child in the past would find them. But in this program, she began to feel inspired and empowered.

She learned about community organizing and ways of working toward systematic change. Soon, Bea found herself addressing City Council members in a meeting where they were discussing living wages for city contractors. She spoke eloquently about extending the living wage requirement to workers on city contracts. That night, City Council approved the measure. Empowered and encouraged, Bea now continues to speak out and is currently involved in a project addressing America’s wealth disparities. Before coming into her own, Bea might have responded to a call from God by saying, “Who me? Nope, no way. I don’t know how to speak! I’m too poor, too tired, too uneducated, too inadequate. In other words, “I’m too small.”

But she, like Jeremiah, learned:
Even though we think small, God thinks large.
We diminish ourselves, while God wants us to spread our wings.

Despite what you might know or think about spiritual author/speaker Marianne Williamson’s campaign for president, she does have something to say about this:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

I would add, “We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be prophetic?’ And I answer, “Who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world.” Jeremiah felt small. And he was called to a task bigger than himself. It’s no wonder he felt inadequate. The good news he discovered is that it wasn’t his task alone. It was God’s mission, and God would provide him with the words he would need to speak. And – most importantly – God promised to be with him in the midst of the struggle.

Of course, that didn’t make it any less of a struggle. Jeremiah’s message didn’t endear him to people. He was mocked and derided. He was deeply unpopular. Years later, he even tried to quit. He says in chapter 20, “I won’t mention God or speak in the name of YHWH anymore.” “But then,” he said, “it becomes like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. I grow weary holding it in; I cannot endure it.” So, in spite of the trouble he encountered, he couldn’t quit. The call of God was so strong that to deny it was to be consumed by fire from the inside. No matter what, he had to speak the word God gave him.

Jeremiah and other prophets reveal a part of life with God we’d probably rather not think about – the fact that God’s call might involve a risk, might even cost us things we hold dear. Jesus speaks of the same uncomfortable truth:

Those who find their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Jeremiah’s call and his subsequent ministry illustrate the risk of discipleship. But they also testify to the possibilities of such discipleship.

We think small, God thinks large. We diminish ourselves; God wants us to spread our wings. This applies to people, communities, as well as congregations and denominations. What dreams are being stifled by fear in these places? Where is our sense of limitation, of thinking small thwarting new possibilities? As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead states:

Limitations are the womb of possibility.

The ELCA made some bold decisions at Churchwide Assembly two weeks ago. It would not be a stretch to call them prophetic:

– A declaration of apology to our siblings of African descent, with a call for accountability.

– A resolution declaring us a sanctuary church body.

– Approved support for the World Council of Church’s Thursdays in Black awareness movement for a world without rape and violence.

– Voted to commemorate June 17 as a day of repentance, in honor and remembrance of the martyrdom of the Emanuel 9, victims of the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

– Approved a declaration for inter-religious commitment.

– Adopted a new social statement, “Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action” and its implementing resolutions

I’ve already seen pushback, complaints, and other negativity about some or all of these actions. I’ve been responding to some comments on Facebook about “Faith, Sexism, and Justice.” As one of the framers of some of the implementing resolutions, I get pretty passionate about it and the fact that seven women accomplished some significant additions to this statement. I wrote a blog post about it on Friday, and I’ll admit that my finger hesitated over the publish button as I posted to the ELCA page.

But then I remembered Jeremiah, and Maggie Kuhn, and Dan Berrigan, and Bea. And I remembered the mosquito in the African proverb and decided to create a buzz.

I can make a difference. You can make a difference. We can make a difference together. It’s called discipleship. In the tradition of the prophets and in the name of Jesus.



Jeremiah 1:4-10

Like many who experience such an encounter with God,Jeremiah at first demurred because of his youth. He doesn’t think he’s up to the task that God has called him to. We can relate! God responds to his fears, and ours, by saying: “I have been moving in your life from the very beginning. Your life is part of a larger story and I have imagined your vocation and your future.  I’ve brought situations into your life and created opportunities for your growth. Your calling is not accidental; it is part of my vision for my people and their spiritual welfare.” When Jeremiah says ‘yes’ to God, a whole world of possibilities emerges.  Our ‘yes’ too opens us to new and greater divine energies.

It is written . . .

Now the word of YHWH came to me and said:
“Before I formed you in the womb, I chose you. Before you were born, I dedicated you. I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

I said, “But Sovereign YHWH! I don’t know how to speak! I’m too young!”

But YHWH said, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’
 Now, go wherever I send you. And say whatever I command you.
 Do not fear anyone, for I am with you to protect you. It is YHWH who speaks.”

Then YHWH touched my mouth and said to me,
 “Look, I am putting my words in your mouth. This day I appoint you over nations and territories, to uproot and to tear down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Posted by: smstrouse | August 19, 2019

Jesus Brings Division?! Say What?!


divide-2-icon-2-256Do you think I am here to bring peace on earth? I tell you, the opposite is true: I’ve come to bring division. – Jesus

This text is why pastors, if they’re smart, go on sabbatical during August and avoid this gospel text. Here we have a version of Jesus that is glaringly inconsistent with what we’re used to. I mean, is this the same Jesus we sing about at Christmas as the ‘Prince of Peace’? The same Rabbi Jesus who taught about the unconditional love of God and the inclusivity of God’s realm? Who prayed in his farewell prayer: “that they may all be one”? Who is this Jesus who says, “Do you think I’m here to bring peace? No, just the opposite; I’ve come to bring division”? This just doesn’t track.


Although, if we know our gospel stories, we know the ministry of Jesus really has never been peaceful. Remember last week I talked about Jesus’ first act of public proclamation, when he stood up in the synagogue to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” That was all well and good, very inspiring. But after declaring what was, in effect, his mission statement, Jesus follows up with a biting criticism of the religious community. At which point, the crowd turns on him and tries to throw him off a cliff.

This text is unsettling. It’s challenging. And frankly, with the division we see in our country right now, it doesn’t seem very helpful. And in the church, it’s equally unhelpful. There is division in the body of Christ – which is nothing new, Jesus’ unity prayer not-withstanding. But it seems to be getting worse. Responses after some of the decisions of our ELCA Churchwide Assembly have been divided between those applauding these actions and those condemning them. And both sides claim to be doing so out of their understanding of what it means to be followers of Jesus. People on both sides claim to be prophetic in their positions. One person, making an amendment to the Inter-religious Policy Statement, said that he was “speaking truth to power.” I didn’t agree with his amendment; I wouldn’t have voted for it. But hearing that phrase, which is not often used for more conservative causes, was jarring; it made it clear that he believed that myside of the issue is the “power.”

UnknownI don’t think we’ll resolve this dilemma any time soon. A recently published book titled Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide is marketed to clergy who have members on both sides in their congregations and are struggling to manage, if not bridge, the divide. I read it; it’s not a quick and easy method of bringing people together and singing “Kumbaya.” It’s making a commitment to a process that includes preaching, but also to listening to one another, learning how to have respectful conversations despite political, theological, or any other differences.

In one way, the situation we’re in is helpful. We can relate to the people around Jesus. Luke has put together elements from collections of the sayings of Jesus, material from Mark and Matthew and other sources, but also recollections from the life experiences of the author himself, who knew all about families being divided because of their commit-ment to the way of Jesus. This text is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Division wasn’t – and isn’t – a requirement of discipleship; it’s just what was – and is – happening.

But in another sense, it’s not helpful. I used to like this text; I liked its unflinching honesty about the cost of discipleship. Yes, Jesus is the ‘Prince of Peace,’ but that doesn’t mean peace at any cost. Talking and teaching the way Jesus talked and taught not only caused division, it got him killed. So, it’s reasonable to expect that following Jesus could have very serious implications. His outburst was a call to wake up and smell the coffee. “You want to be a disciple? OK, but there will be risks involved.” By jolting them into awareness of the challenges inherent in a life of discipleship, Jesus also warns us not to take our discipleship too lightly.

But it used to be easier to say there are some things worth standing up for, some things worth dividing over. But now that we have divisions in households: father against son, son against father, mother against daughter, and divisions among friends, and even church members – it’s harder to be so clear. I’ll be honest. I knew that, when I was at First United, I was preaching to a solid blue congregation; it was easy to take strong, prophetic positions. But after I retired and started going to preach in other churches, I realized that I had entered the “purple zone” and I had to balance my commitment to preaching the gospel as I see it with being mindful of those who would disagree.

Another aspect of this divide is in how we see the future of the Church. Everyone has an opinion about the reasons for decline in membership, finances, and social influence. There’s no doubt that the Church is in a time of change – I guess that’s one thing we could all agree on. But what that change is or should be is quite a different matter.

But the fact is: the whole world is changing lightning fast. And people respond to change in different ways. There are those who respond to new circumstances with fear, anxiety and/or anger, who want things go back to the way they used to be. And there are those who respond with creativity and resilience, who are able to live with an undetermined future. And to be perfectly honest, depending on the day and the issue, I could be in either camp. Fear, anger, and conflict in the face of drastic change is unavoidable. And, according to Jesus, so is division.

Jesus challenges us in this gospel text to interpret our present time. And in light of our present time, I want to ask this question:

Accepting the givenness of division, how do we, in our communities, in our churches change together instead of being torn apart by conflict? Even where there are divisions, how can we be together in our differences?

I mentioned last week that I was at an interfaith event called Accelerating Peace at Stanford, hosted by the United Religions Initiative. On one of the days, there was a conversation between Bishop Bill Swing, founder of URI and General James Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense. In the Q&A time, General Mattis was asked this question:

“What do you see as the greatest threats to peace or the greatest challenges to peace from the perspective that you’ve seen in the world in your time?”

His answer: “Very simply, the lack of respect for one another, contempt for each other’s belief. It’s a lack of willingness to listen to each other. I see it in all walks of life and those are the seeds for what is becoming a much more violent response – this lack of respect and I would even say alienation that you see in so many people today.  It’s as if we’ve forgotten how to be human beings with each other and I think it goes back to respect.”


I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’m involved in an initiative called Hearts Across the Divide, which is modeled on Hands Across the Hills, a project that brought together two very disparate groups after the 2016 election. One was a group of liberals from a peace organization in Leverett, Massachusetts. The other was a group from Letcher County, Kentucky, a conservative coal-mining community deep in the heart of Appalachia. The facilitator was Dr. Paula Green, founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Boston.

Green has extensive international experience in peacebuilding and conflict resolution in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. She received an award from the Dalai Lama as an “Unsung Hero of Compassion,” among many others. After the 2016 election, focused her attention on restoring relations fractured by political and cultural divides. The project was a great success. I highly recommend watching the video of some of the process on their website

What was astounding for us [was] we didn’t know what was going to transpire between us, and although we don’t agree politically, we’ve come to love and care about each other a great deal. – Paula Green 

Our goal is to recreate this process, with Dr. Green’s help, in the Bay Area. Not to try to get people to change their minds politically or get everyone to agree, but to learn again how to have civil discourse in the midst of our disagreements. Not everyone thinks this is possible. Several friends have told me, “It’s too late.” Others – from both sides of the divide – have been critical of even thinking about talking to the other side. And according to Jesus’ words today, it sounds like we could just say, “Oh well, division is inevitable. Everyone back to your corners.”

But just as we always do, we have to look at this text within the whole message of the gospel. Yes, there will be divisions when we stand up for what we believe Jesus calls us to do. And yes, Jesus calls us to be one. How can that possibly work?

It can work when we realize that we are united in our humanity and treat one another accordingly. It’s too simplistic to demonize people we don’t agree with. I know that there are people who make assumptions about what I believe or think. I wrote to a music teacher to inquire about taking bass guitar lessons and didn’t tell him (yet) that I’m a pastor. I know what the assumptions usually are.

In Hands Across the Hills, the people from Letcher County worried that they would be  ridiculed and mocked by northern liberals.One woman said, “I was a little apprehensive — afraid it was another ‘save the dumb hillbillies’ project.”

Now, as friends, we are working on a range of common projects, including reaching out together with our dialogue process to another region of the country, collaborating on agriculture, working on gun control issues we agree on. Hands Across the Hills has melted away stereotypes so that we can see each other’s human face. –  Paula Green 

Division, is still a reality, but perhaps with human interaction, love and care, the battle lines can be softened just a bit. I think Jesus would be pleased.

I don’t know how and if our project will succeed. I do know that I’m often uncomfortable with the prospect of talking to the “other side.” I know that I couldn’t facilitate a group like this; my buttons will surely be pushed. But I’m convinced that we have to try.

I recently had a conversation with a young man who lives now in San Francisco, but who comes from the Midwest. His family includes people with whom he does not agree. He described trying to communicate with them on Facebook, laying out his position and expecting them to change their minds accordingly. It didn’t work. I believe it’s going to take going much deeper, in face-to-face, in-person relationship-building. It will take courage and commitment.

But isn’t this what the call to discipleship is? Being a follower of Jesus is serious business. If you’re looking for a nice, comfortable religion, where you can sit back and relax – this isn’t it. If you’re looking for a church that will provide you with spiritual nurture but won’t ask for your help in creating a better world – this isn’t it. If you think that being a Christian means you’ll always be happy and peaceful and contented and never have any more problems – nope. No more difficulties – nope. Maybe even conflict – yep. Maybe even division – yep. Maybe even peacemaking – yep.

Most of us, probably none of us, will be called upon to risk our lives for our faith – at least not in the same way as the 1st century martyrs or 20th century martyrs like King, Romero, and Bonhoeffer. But that doesn’t mean we’re not called to take risks of our own.

Where in your life are you perhaps hearing a call to boldness? Is Jesus beckoning you forward, saying, “What? You think that I have come to bring peace and make you comfortable? No, the opposite is true: I have come to make you squirm.”

The old saying of the purpose of the gospel is clichéd but true: that it is ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ And sometimes we’re both at the same time. Being a follower of Jesus is serious business. Thankfully, God takes us seriously and is with us in all our endeavors. May we always be prepared to interpret the signs of our present time and to step out in risk-taking faith.  Amen



LUKE 12: 49-56
This apocalyptic vision of conflict about presents us with a picture of what may have actually happened in the community for which Luke was writing in the second to last decade of the 1st century CE. Expelled from their synagogues and threatened with persecution by the Romans, it would have been natural for them to seek a deeper understanding of what was happening to them in the Jewish traditions about the end of time and the teachings of Jesus himself. No one can tell how much of these words were actually spoken by Jesus or created by Luke for his audience.

It is written . . .

Jesus said, “I have come to light a fire on the earth. How I wish the blaze were ignited already! There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!

“Do you think I am here to bring peace on earth? I tell you, the opposite is true: I’ve come to bring division. From now on a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three, father against son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Jesus said again to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say that rain is coming—and so it does. When the wind blows from the south, you say it’s going to be hot—and so it is. You hypocrites! If you can interpret the portents of earth and sky, why can’t you interpret the present time?”







Posted by: smstrouse | August 11, 2019

“I’m Sick of Your Thoughts & Prayers” – God

thoughts-and-prayers“I am fed up with your burnt offerings!
The blood nauseates me. Don’t bring any more of your useless offerings – your incense fills me with loathing. Your new moons and pilgrimages I despise with all my soul. When you open your hands in prayer, I turn my eyes away. You may heap prayer upon prayer, but I won’t hear them— your hands are covered with blood!” Thus said YHWH in the vision of Isaiah ben-Amoz concerning Judah and Jerusalem during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, rulers of Judah.

I’m sick of your thoughts and prayers!
Imagine the prophet Isaiah being around today, making the rounds of cable news shows – everything from Rachel Maddow to Fox and Friends. Imagine his posts on Facebook and Twitter:  Thus says YHWH, “I’m sick of your thoughts and prayers! More than 250 mass shootings in the first 220 days in your country this year alone. You may heap prayer upon prayer, but I’m not listening— your hands are covered with blood!”

It’s been a tough week. In a tough year. In a tough era. I’m finding it ever more difficult to watch or read the news. But I also don’t want to bury my head in the sand. Like many people I’ve spoken to lately, I feel a pall of despondency. The spirit of resistance, so strong two years ago has been flagging lately. Even reading the usually uplifting verse from the letter to the Hebrews – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” – doesn’t take away the weariness of these times. And even Jesus’ words, “Fear not, little flock,” doesn’t cut through the fear of what fresh hell the future may bring. ICE raids continue; children are locked in unsanitary cages; climate change continues to creep up on us, and innocent people are murdered by domestic terrorists.

It may not be pastorally correct to admit to such a crisis of spirit. But I am willing to bet that there are a lot of people in the same condition right now. And the words that Isaiah received as a message from God sure do resonate with me: I am fed up.


But I’m also a follower of Jesus, who stood in the tradition of the prophets, who actually quoted from Isaiah as his mission statement:  “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” So I felt the need to get to know Isaiah better, to understand the conditions under which he lived, to discover where he found his hope.

Because he obviously did have hope. He’s not just a doom and gloom kind of guy. We especially hear from him during Advent, with readings such as:

  • “they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
  • “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
  • “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

What exactly is a prophet?
What can we know about this complicated character? For one thing, we need to under-stand the role of prophets. We usually think of a prophet as someone who foretells the future, like Nostradamus or Jean Dixon. But that’s not the case with the biblical prophets.  Their job was not foretelling, but forth-telling or truth telling. Speaking truth to power is what we call it today.

Now I’ll admit that I didn’t always “get” these prophets, mostly because I didn’t under-stand their context.  I was like many people who, when trying to read the Bible straight through, and hitting the Old Testament books that contain the histories of all the kings and all the political entanglements, the rise and fall of empires, invasions, wars, occupations, and exiles, I skipped over them – except for the big names, like David and Solomon.


But those big names set the stage for what followed. Solomon’s reign is often called the golden age of ancient Israel and he’s credited for a lot of the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament. But the reality then, as is so often the case, is that the good life was good only for the 1%, for the elites. The downside of Solomon’s empire was forced labor, an overextended economy, a heavily taxed peasantry. His 700 wives and 300 concubines (can you imagine?!) were acquired in order to form political alliances with foreign nations. The center just could not hold. And subsequent rulers – with their invasions, wars, occupations, and exiles – were the result.

This history is the setting for the prophets. As one author declared about Isaiah:
“. . .  his greatness lies not only in his ethical teachings, but in his central involvement—and prophetic intervention–in the political events of his day.”

It may not be popular these days to (as they say) bring politics unto the pulpit, but that is exactly the nature of the prophetic call. Along with critique on the moral condition of the people and the faithfulness (or faithlessness) of the religious establishment, the prophets served as a system of checks and balances in a system of the total power of the monarch.

It was the prophets’ call – whether they liked it or not, because they knew the probable consequences – to assess how the economy was doing, how the poor were being treated, and register complaints against the system when it was not living up to the ideals it supposedly espoused. In the story of his call, Isaiah begins with “In the year that King Uzziah died,” setting the historical and political stage for his pronouncements.

He’s seen the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians. He knows the southern kingdom of Judah is now in danger; his writing reflects impending doom:
The earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken.
The earth staggers like a drunkard, it sways like a hut; its transgression lies heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again. 

maxresdefaultHe’s not optimistic. Judah will fall. He even names one of his sons Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. The poor kid’s name means “”Spoil quickly, plunder speedily” to prophesy how the Assyrians will pillage the land But Isaiah also has another son, Shear-jashub, which means “A remnant shall return.” Yes, Judah will suffer some collapse. But the collapse will not be total; a remnant will eventually return from exile.

Of course, the central message of the prophets is “repent.” What usually comes to mind is the cartoon of the wild-eyed, long hair guy in the robe, carrying a sign saying, “Repent, the end is near.” We usually think of repentance in terms of our individual piety. But that’s not the concern of the prophet. Isaiah is concerned with the behavior of the community. Just as Jesus is when he says, “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”

He doesn’t say that he is going to do all these things all by himself. He’s going to re-call the community to live in the ethos of the realm of God, so that our thoughts and prayers are in alignment with our actions: “sell what you own and give the money to the poor. Make purses for yourselves that don’t wear out, treasures that won’t fail you.” The personal is the political – and vice versa.

But what are we to do when we know that, as a community, we are not living in the ethos of the realm of God? When we can imagine God saying to us, “I am fed up with this!”
Isaiah prophesied exile. Jesus warned us to be ready. The implication is there that things aren’t going to go so well for those who are unprepared for his arrival. And what are we to do when we have been trying to be faithful and it feels like our efforts are in vain?

The great Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann declares that this is where proph-etic imagination comes in. “The imagination part is that the prophets can imagine the world other than the way that is in front of them. Prophetic alludes to the reality of God. What the prophets believe deeply is that God is a lively character, a real agent who acts in the world, who causes endings and who causes new beginnings.”

He says “it’s not surprising that the characteristic idiom of the prophets is that they speak in poetic rhetoric. They speak in language that on the one hand is porous and elusive and slippery, and on the other hand that can be dangerous and offensive and scandalous to people who live inside the regime.  So, when you read the royal history, you see these disrupters, these poetic voices that are dangerous and subversive, because they are voices that come fromoutside the system and that refuse to accept the system as normative.”


It makes me think of the old Simon and Garfunkle lyrics, “and the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, tenement halls.” And, in updated genres, the social issues addressed in hip hop and slam poetry. We can absolutely translate the imagination from the chaos of ancient times to our own.

So, how can we tap into prophetic imagination?

First, read the prophets. See how they lived and spoke truth to power in the political turmoil of their time.

Second, don’t deny your grief or anger, or even your despair. We stand in the footsteps of the Psalmist, who could write not only,
This is the day that God has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it,

 but also

I am weary with moaning; 
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with weeping. My eyes waste away because of grief;
they grow weak because of all my foes. 

Sometimes I think we should put on sackcloth and ashes and go out into the streets, not just to protest, but to mourn. Doing it collectively would help us be in solidarity, to admit to our terrible grief and fear. Of course, we don’t stay there all the time. The psalmist was a master of moving back and forth from, “How long, O God; how long? To “God is a strong-hold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” We would do well to take a page from the full gamut of human emotion contained in those poems and songs.

Third, we need to seek out, listen to, and tell stories about all the good work people are doing. I was at an interfaith conference called Accelerating Peace at Stanford, hosted by the United Religions Initiativewith representatives from all over the world. Most inspiring to me were a young man from Nigeria, where religiously motivated violence is an ongoing problem and a woman from Bosnia, who told of still on-going efforts to deal with the effects of the war in the 1990s. It would be easy to see only negatives in their stories, but in listening to them you can hear the resilience of the human spirit. I encourage you to go to and read the many stories of peace-building going on all around the world. There are stories like this everywhere, some of them right here in this congregation. Tell those stories; they will sustain us. Even if, at some point, you’re unable to carry on, you can remember that others continue to do the work. Give thanks for them.

Another thing is something that I advised my congregation not long after the election in 2016 and people were feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of issues confronting us. Pick one or two, whatever your capacity might be. Pick something you have passion about and get involved somehow. It could be financial support, volunteering, post card writing, daily prayer; there are all kinds of ways to participate. Use your imagination. And don’t give up, even when your spirits flag. As St. Paul said, “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

Finally, but most important of all, we maintain whatever spiritual practice sustains us best. For many, hopefully, it will be our time together on Sunday morning – singing, and praying together, receiving Holy food together. But it might also include being out in nature, gardening, meditating, doing art, listening to music. I have a friend for whom cooking is a spiritual practice.

Do whatever helps you to imagine the world other than what we see in front of us. Trust in  the reality of God, believe deeply – as all prophets do – that God is a lively character, a real agent who acts in the world, who causes endings and who causes new beginnings.

This is how we maintain our prophetic imagination.
This is how we uphold one another.
This is how we speak truth to power.
This is how we witness to the always in-breaking reign of God.

Jesus said, “Be ready. It could appear at any time.” And it does. Fear not.



Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Isaiah is without doubt the greatest of Israel’s prophets. He lived through one of the stormiest periods of Judean history (c.745-700 BCE). He was so highly regarded nearly two centuries later that the work of another group of anonymous prophesies were added to his and now appear in chapters 40-66. Although believed to belong to the royal court, he vehemently condemned the injustices of his time. In this passage he thundered against the ruling classes, presenting God’s claim for social justice over and above elaborate rituals and sacrifices.

It is written . . .

The vision of Isalah ben-Amoz concerning Judah and Jerusalem during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, rulers of Judah.

Hear the word of YHWH, you rulers of “Sodom”! Listen to the command of YHWH, you people of “Gomorrah”: These interminable sacrifices of yours: What are they to me?” says YHWH.

“I am fed up with burnt offerings of rams and the fat of calves! The blood of bulls, lambs, and goats nauseates me. When you came to present yourselves before me, who asked you to trample over my courts? Don’t bring any more of your useless offerings to me— their incense fills me with loathing. New moons, Sabbaths, assemblies— I cannot endure another festival of injustice! Your new moons and your pilgrimages I despise with all my soul. They are wearisome to me; I am tired of bearing them. When you open up your hands in prayer, I turn my eyes away from you. You may heap prayer upon prayer, but I won’t hear them— your hands are covered with blood! Wash! Clean yourselves! Get your injustice out of my sight! Cease to do evil and learn to do good! Search for justice and help the oppressed! Protect those who are orphaned and plead the case of those who are widowed!

“Come now! Let’s look at the choices before you,” says YHWH. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they can be white as snow. Though they are red as crimson, they can be like fleece. If you are willing to obey, you will eat the best that the land has to offer— But if you persist in rebellion the sword will consume you instead!” The mouth of YHWH has spoken.


Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old–and Sarah herself was barren–because he considered him faithful who had promised.Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth,for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had oppor-tunity to return.But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. There-fore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Luke 12:32-40
The early church believed in the return of Christ at some unknown but imminent time. This passage seems to fit into that tradition. We can find similar elements of it in different contexts in both Matthew and Mark. This reveals that a common tradition existed about the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection: to inaugurate God’s reign of love in human affairs and to return soon to accomplish this for all eternity.

It is written . . .

Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock, for it has pleased your Abba to give you the kindom. Sell what you own and give the money to poorer people. Make purses for yourselves that don’t wear out – treasures that won’t fail you, in heaven, that thieves can’t steal and moths can’t destroy. For wherever your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be.

“Be dressed and ready, and keep your lamps lit. Be like the household staff awaiting the owner’s return from a wedding, so that when the owner arrives and knocks, you’ll open the door without delay. It will go well with those staff members whom the owner finds awake upon returning.

“I tell you the absolute truth; the owner will put on an apron, seat them at a table and proceed to wait on them. Should the owner happen to come at midnight, or before sunrise, and find them prepared, it will go well with them.

“But understand this: no homeowner who knew when a thief was coming would have let the thief break in. So be on guard – the Promised One will come when least expected.”




Posted by: smstrouse | August 4, 2019

Marie Kondo, George Carlin, and Jesus on ‘Stuff”

ae6iszadc70ds6l7rx2nHave you been “Marie Kondo’d”?
Marie Kondo is the Japanese organizing consultant and author of the best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Her name has become a verb, as many people have taken to heart her advice to declutter their homes and offices. It’s not so much about throwing stuff out as keeping only those things that, as she says, “spark joy.”

Even our bishop has been hooked. In his last message in the synod’s newsletter, he talked about moving into this last year of his term as bishop. In his #1 item on the list of things he’s done already or planning to do, he says,  “My office has been ‘Marie Kondo’d’  in anticipation of needing to pack up and move out next year.”

I don’t know if the bishop (or other Marie Kondo fans) know that her philosophy is rooted in her Shinto spiritual tradition and that she credits her time as a miko or priestess in a Shinto shrine as background to her method. So, if she comes to your house to help you declutter, she’ll have you touch each item to see if it does spark joy. This joy is due to the fact that each thing has divine life. Even if you discard the item, she’ll tell you to offer it thanks for its service to you. She’ll enter your house by kneeling and bowing, based on the etiquette of worshipping at Shinto shrines. Everything within the house is holy, to be treated with reverence and respect.

What a lovely way of thinking about reorganizing your possessions – much nicer than simply calling 1-800-JUNK.

Or, how many of you remember the old George Carlin routine, “A Place for My Stuff” ?
It’s definitely more respectful than that.
All you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is – a place for your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff! Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore.


We laugh because he’s so right on. One in eleven Americans pays an average of $91.14 per month for space to store their stuff. As one article put it: “Self-storage: How warehouses for personal junk became a $38 billion industry.” Although it’s not just personal junk. When First United sold its building, we put a lot of things into storage. After a few years, we decided to clean it out. When we opened the pod, we were astonished at what we had decided was worth paying someone to keep for us: old Christmas decorations, coffee urns, assorted mismatched Communion ware, all kinds of stuff we’d never need.

But I do get it. Ever since I moved to Berkeley and downsized from a 3-bedroom house with attic, basement, and garage to a studio apartment, I’ve had an uneasy relationship with material possessions. I live in a much bigger place now, but the struggle is still there. Just last week, I gave away two dining room chairs that I just couldn’t find room for.  According to the Marie Kondo criteria, they did spark joy. They were part of a set of Amish-made oak furniture I’d bought for my first house. So, there was a pull between sentimental value and the need for more space. I have to admit that there was a momentary temptation to check out deals on storage units. Then I read the gospel and decided against building a bigger barn, so to speak.

00006920.jpg.htmlNow for those of you who have storage units, this is not an indictment or criticism. I’ll tell you why.  Marie Kondo might be all the rage. But she’s certainly not the first person to address our spiritual need to deal with our possessions. In the Parable of the Rich Fool, Jesus also tries to get us to examine our relationship with our material possessions. He doesn’t address the issue of inheritance law at all. But he does take it as an opportunity to tell a parable. And at first, it seems like a pretty straightforward message. The moral of the story is: don’t be greedy.

But I don’t necessarily see the parables of Jesus as mere morality tales. They can be that, on one level. But parables, especially as Jesus used them (and they were his most distinctive teaching method), were always meant to take us deeper. They’re supposed to knock us out of our usual way of thinking and challenge us to see the world in new, counter-intuitive ways. Jesus was always using stories about ordinary people and situations to convey his counter-cultural vision of the realm of God. So, when we hear a parable like this one, we always have to be asking, “how does this convey to me – in my time and place – what the realm of God is?”

That’s a question we each must ask ourselves. We don’t have to be Shinto to know that our personal relationship with money, wealth, and possessions is a spiritual issue. The Bible has about 2,350 Bible verses that talk about money – compared to 500 on faith and prayer and just 70 on sex. So, that should tell us something.

But it will be a much different one depending on your economic status. Giving away my chairs tugged at my heart strings, but I have plenty of other chairs. It would be a different matter if they were all the furniture I had and no resources with which to get any. We always have to allow a parable to marinate in the juices of our own individual situations, experiences, histories. For example, many people who lived during the Great Depression of the 1930s retained their frugal ways long after the depression ended. They continued to live by the mantra: “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” They were often mocked by those of succeeding generations who grew up in a throw-away society. How would each of them describe how the Parable of the Rich Fool applied to their vision of the realm of God? How would you describe how the parable applies to your vision of the realm of God?

The parable challenges us to wrestle with issues like over-consumption, greed, hoarding, anxiety about the future, our attempts to store up security for ourselves and our families. And there aren’t any quick and easy moralistic answers. The parable confronts us in the midst of the realities of each of our daily lives to consider how God is calling us to be. You might say that Jesus is inviting us into a dialogue – maybe even an argument – with the parable.


But, as challenging as that is, we can’t stop there. We go even deeper. We know that slavery existed in biblical times, right? But did you know that a person could become a slave, not only as a result of military conquest, but also because of financial indebted-ness. If you incurred a massive amount of debt you couldn’t repay, you could sell yourself into slavery to your debtor until your labor paid off the amount you owed.

If you were listening to Jesus tell this parable, you were probably aware that many of your fellow citizens were falling into slave debt. Hearing the farmer’s plan to relax, and eat, drink, and be merry, I suspect you might have had some strong feelings about the unfairness of the social order. Maybe you were even one of the slaves who had done the labor of gathering the harvest. And if you knew anything about the realm of God that Jesus was always going in about, you knew that the farmer’s plan was not compatible with the vision of a banquet to which all were invited, even those unable to repay the host. In the realm of God, there is no hoarding, especially when there are those in need.

Now the farmer had every right to build his barns, every right to enjoy his prosperity. But was he living the values of God’s realm? No.

Easy for me to say. Easy for us to say. Until we realize that we, as a nation, enjoy amazing prosperity. Even when we don’t think of ourselves as wealthy, we know that in comparison to other places, we are. My apartment – that I complain doesn’t have enough room – could house maybe ten refugee families. That sounds ridiculous until I remember the boy who told of such cramped conditions in border detention that there was no room to lie down to sleep.

So, we take the parable out of the realm of the personal and into the political. That’s a big no-no these days. I’ve been reading some of the posts coming in about our ELCA church-wide assembly that begins Monday. In reference to the proposed social statement on Faith, Sexism and Justice: A Lutheran Call to Action, I’ve seen comments that disparage social justice. One person called it a social experiment. The prophets, I believe, are rolling over in their graves.

I happened to read an interesting take on this parable in an article called (bear with me; it’s a long title) “The Living Parable of the Peasant: A Comparative Study of European/ North American Scholars & the Community in Solentiname, Nicaragua in Their Understandings of Four Lukan Parables.” What was interesting was reading the differences in perspective and interpretation of people from Europe and North America and those from Nicaragua. It reinforced for me the understanding of parables as not only a challenge to each person, but to each society to live into the vision of the realm of God.

How would you describe how the parable applies to our vision – as a community, as a nation – of the realm of God? Not that the realm of God is a political entity, but
our participation in God’s dominion demands that we carry the vision into every part of our lives.

I know that there are a number of social justice resolutions coming to our Churchwide Assembly this week, including gun violence, peacebuilding, creation care, the Poor People’s Campaign, migrants, immigrants and refugees, deportation, sanctuary, Palestine, income inequality, and gender identity. It should be interesting. My prayer is that as a church and as a nation we do not hoard our good will, or build bigger barns for our stuff, and ration out even God’s love and grace.

May we accept the challenge of the parable, seek those sparks of joy, and bask in the richness we have in the realm of God.



Luke 12:13-21
According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus always seemed to look for a teaching moment thrust at him by someone in the audience. Here a man having a quarrel with his brother asked him to be a judge between them about a family inheritance. Instead of doing what he was asked, Jesus told the parable of the farmer so satisfied with his wealth that he forgot how brief life can be. The point of the story is that God sees life from a totally different perspective. Do we share God’s point of view?

It is written . . .

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to give me my share of our inheritance.”Jesus replied, “Friend, who has set me up as your judge or arbiter?” Then he told the crowd, “Avoid greed in all its forms. Your life isn’t made more secure by what you own— even when you have more than you need.”

Jesus then told them a parable in these words: “There was a rich farmer who had a good harvest. ‘What will I do?’ the farmer mused. ‘I have no place to store my harvest. I know! I’ll pull down my grain bins and build larger ones. All my grain and goods will go there. Then I’ll say to myself: You have blessings in reserve for many years to come. Relax! Eat, drink and be merry!’“But God said to the farmer, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be required of you. To whom will all your accumulated wealth go?’“This is the way it works with people who accumulate riches for themselves, but are not rich in God.”




Posted by: smstrouse | July 28, 2019

Jesus, Prayer, and the Power of Yes

shutterstock_153904598Who taught you to pray?
Was it your mother or father? Grandmother or grandfather? A Sunday school teacher?

I remember learning a bedtime prayer at a pretty young age. You probably know the one:
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. 
If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Not everyone likes that version, thinking it too morbid and scary for children. So there are variations, like:
Angels watch me through the night, and wake me with the morning light and
Guard me Jesus through the night, and wake me with the morning light.

I don’t think I was particularly scared by the “If I should die before I wake” version. My angst came with next part. I was taught to say: God bless Mommy, and Daddy, and my brothers, and my grandmother, who lived with us, and also my uncle who lived with us for a while. When he got married and moved out, I was faced with the dilemma of whether or not to keep including him in my prayer. And if I did keep him in, then what about my new aunt? Should I include her, too? Being my inclusive self even at a young age, it didn’t seem fair then to exclude my other aunts, uncles, and cousins. And then what about my friends? Didn’t I want God to bless them, too? I could see that this bedtime prayer business could take all night. I think I resolved the problem by ending with “and all the people of the world,” just to be sure to cover all the bases. shutterstock_128789735

But I’ve Got Questions 
I think most of us run into questions about prayer at some time or another in our lives. I’ve been asked numerous times to lead a workshop or class or retreat on prayer. We’re all  looking for answers to our questions: am I doing it the right way; am I saying the right words; how do I know if God will answer, why didn’t God answer? These are common queries of human beings wondering how to fulfill our yearning to communicate with the Divine. The disciples of Jesus were searching for the the same things:  “Rabbi, teach us to pray.”

In a way, that wasn’t a strange request. They’re on the road to Jerusalem, and Jesus is teaching them along the way. Some of those lessons have been our readings these past few weeks. Now the disciples come to a teaching about prayer, which comes up because they see Jesus himself praying.

And here’s why that was a strange request. The disciples were people of faith, good Jews who had certainly been taught to pray. I attended a Torah study at a synagogue yesterday and everyone in the room (maybe 60 people) said the blessing for Torah study – in Hebrew – together. Which sent me scurrying back to my Hebrew lessons so I can participate next time. The disciples, like the 60-some people at Torah study, would surely have known how to pray.

But, like me, when they experienced someone else doing it, they said (in effect), “Wow, I want to pray like that! Can you show me how?” Evidently, Jesus was a really good pray-er. Which makes sense, right? If Jesus was the fullness of what a human being could be, including connection to the Divine, it would make sense that his prayers would be natural, intimate, on-going conversation. I’m sure he had no worries about right times, correct words, or best methods.

First, show me how to pray
Possibly what the disciples were looking for wasn’t so much the times, words, and methods of prayer, but some wisdom about how to practice their faith so they could have the same peace, strength, and divine connectivity that they saw in their teacher.

I went to a retreat some years ago. It was an annual gathering for clergy and we always invited someone to lead us in learning and discussing something relevant to our lives, something we could take back to our congregations. One year the topic was prayer. I don’t remember who the presenter was, but as the weekend came to a close, one of my colleagues said, “Did you notice that while he taught us all the different histories, and styles, and methods of prayer, we never actually prayed?”

She was right. It was as if the disciples had been given this teaching about prayer without first seeing and hearing Jesus doing it.

But what about when Jesus says . . ?
This understanding is helpful to me because the teaching by itself in this passage presents some difficulties:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you’ll find.”
“Knock, and the door will be opened to you.”
“Even if your friend whose door you bang on at midnight will not get up and give you anything just because you are his friend – will get up and give you whatever you need because of your persistence.”

Unfortunately, these words have often been interpreted to portray our relationship with God as being transactional. A transactional relationship is one in which the parties in it do things for each other with the expectation of reciprocation. In other words, it’s a deal. If you do this, then I will do that. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. If I want to buy a car, the car salesperson has the expectation that I will pay for it, and I have the expectation that the car will be in the condition it was advertised to be. It’s a transaction.

vending-machine-jesus-770x439_cGod is not a vending machine
But that’s not how God works. And when we think it is, then we see God as like a cosmic vending machine. We insert our prayers like coins and expect something in return. We expect to get what we asked for. The ultimate manifestation of this is in the preachers and teachers of the prosperity gospel, which says that the holier you are the more God will reward you with wealth. We might scoff at that, but we can believe in the vending machine God in other ways.

Debie Thomas, director of children’s and family ministries at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, calls this the gumball God. She wrote in an excellent (and honest) blog this week:2a5839bd508e44936e4ef02102a40d33
Like some of you, I was raised to believe in a gumball God. For years, I believed that fervent, persistent prayer heals diseases, prevents car accidents, feeds hungry children in faraway countries, fends off nightmares, prevents premature death, saves broken relationships, and ‘stops the bad guys.’

But then life rose up and kicked me in the butt. Diseases didn’t get better, car accidents happened, I had nightmares, babies starved, young people died, relationships disintegrated, and the bad guys thrived. When I asked other Christians to explain these discrepancies to me, I received two answers: 1) You need to pray harder, longer, and with more faith, or 2) God did answer your prayers; the answer was no.

Both of those answers broke my heart. No, worse than that: both of those answers hardened my heart. Over time, prayer — which used to be easy — became excruciatingly hard. These days when I sit down to pray, I have to do weary battle with one persistent question: “Why bother?

I think many people come to a similar place, even if just for a brief time.

There is good news! 
Debie Thomas continues:
There is only one promise in this entire Gospel lesson. Only one, and it is not the one I was raised to desire or expect. Jesus concludes his teaching on prayer with a striking sentence: “If you, with all your sins, know how to give your children good things, how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?”

What Jesus promises us in answer to our prayers is the Holy Spirit. That’s it.  That’s all. There is no other promise or guarantee. How the Church devolved from this to prosperity theology is beyond me, but here we are, here’s the actual promise: when we pray, when we persist in prayer, when we name our longings in prayer without fear or compromise, God will never fail to give us God’s own, abundant, indwelling and overflowing self as the Answer we actually need. When we contend in prayer, God will not withhold God’s loving, consoling, healing, transforming, and empowering Spirit from us.  When it comes to no-holds-barred, absolutely self-giving generosity, God’s answer to all of our prayers will always be Yes.

Maybe this “yes” is what the disciples sensed in Jesus when they watched him pray. Maybe the presence of the Spirit radiating through Jesus is what compelled them to go deeper in their own prayer lives.  

Whatever the “yes” was, it suffused Jesus’s whole being.  However the Spirit manifested herself in Jesus’s life, she was so beautiful and so compelling, the disciples wanted to experience her, too. So here’s the question for us: do we consider the “yes” of God’s Spirit a sufficient response to our prayers?  If God’s guaranteed answer to our petitions is God’s own self, can we live with that?

Oddly enough, this reminded me of the story of how John Lennon met Yoko Ono in 1966, at a London art gallery, where she was showing her avant garde works. One in particular captured Lennon’s imagination. It consisted of a white stepladder leading up to a steel-framed panel and a dangling magnifying glass. When you climbed the ladder and looked through the magnifying glass, you would find just one word “YES.”

There’s power in that word, so maybe that one word is indeed enough. Then we’re free to look at this passage and ask: what is it, as a whole, teaching the disciples – and us – about what it means to follow Jesus? The prayer he taught them helps us to pray as he did, not just in words but in deep connection with God, hearts open to “YES,” whatever that will be in our unfolding lives.



LUKE 11:1-13                                                                                                                                     Those who take a deeper look at the passage will note that “asking” is not primarily about us, but our relationship to God’s reign in our lives. Luke’s version of the Prayer of Jesus reminds us that we utterly depend on God’s graceful and forgiving presence for our spiritual and personal well-being. The faithful God calls us to live faithfully. God is giving us good gifts in each moment of experience. God weaves together our deepest needs and the needs of the world in such a way that our quest for wholeness enhances the lives of others. As we are aligned with Christ, we will know what to ask for, where to search, and how to knock.

It is written . . .

One day Jesus was praying, and when he had finished, one of the disciples asked, “Rabbi,
teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say,
‘Abba God, hallowed be your name!
May your reign come.
Give us today tomorrow’s bread.
Forgive us our sins, for we too forgive everyone who sins against us;                                                     and don’t let us be subjected to the test.’”

Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, a neighbor, and you go to your neighbor at midnight and say, ‘Lend me three loaves of bread, because friends of mine on a journey have come to me, and I have nothing to set before them.’ “Then your neighbor says, ‘Leave me alone. the door is already locked and the children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to look after your needs.’ I tell you, though your neighbor will not get up to give you the bread out of friendship, your persistence will make your neighbor get up and give you as much as you need.
“That’s why I tell you, keep asking and you’ll receive; keep looking and you’ll find; keep knocking and the door will be opened to you. For whoever asks, receives; whoever seeks, finds; whoever knocks, is admitted. What parents among you will give a snake to their child when the child asks for a fish, or a scorpion when the child asks for an egg? If you, with all your sins, know how to give your children good things, how much more will our heavenly Abba give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?”





Posted by: smstrouse | July 14, 2019

The Good Samaritan in the Red/Blue Divide


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Original Copies   Awfully Good

Most people probably know what an oxymoron is – even if they’re not familiar with the word. An oxymoron (from the Greek for ‘pointedly foolish’) is a word or phrase that contradicts itself (see above lists). 

Good Samaritan Is an Oxymoron
If you were a Judean in the time of Jesus, you could have had an addition to the list – Good Samaritan. Those two words would not have naturally gone together. Using the term would have been pointedly foolish. Jews hated Samaritans; Samaritans hated Jews. They came from the same ethnic roots, but had religious disagreements about some of their history and some of their practices. If you’d been there when Jesus told this parable, you would have been shocked beyond words. Not only shocked, but offended – but also hopefully challenged to seriously reflect on what he was trying to say.


Unfortunately, we’ve lost the punch of many of the parables. We’ve heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan so many times; our eyes glaze over as we hear the opening words: “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” We know how the story goes. We usually read it as an example parable, that is as an object lesson. We’re used to seeing hospitals, counseling centers, and other places that offer compassionate care with the name Good Samaritan. There are even Good Samaritan laws that give legal protection to those who provide emergency care. The moral of the story is simple: be like the Samaritan. Give compassionate care to your neighbor, which means everyone.

But what if Jesus is challenging us to go deeper?
If we can imagine ourselves back in the time of Jesus for a moment and put ourselves in hearing distance, we might be able to recover the outrageousness of this foolish oxymoron: good (?!) Samaritan. In The Power of Parable, biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan calls this story a challenge parable “because it challenges us (or is supposed to challenge us) to step back and reflect on the world and on God in new, counter-intuitive ways,” to think, to discuss, to argue, and to decide upon meaning as present application.” He posits that Luke popped the parable (which is unique to Luke) into the middle of another story – the question of who is my neighbor (not unique to Luke) – in order to make it into an example parable. Which works. It’s a good story and a good object lesson.

But take the parable out of the story that surrounds it, and we get a different perspective, perhaps the one that Jesus originally intended. We can try to imagine being back in Judea and feeling outraged over the casting of a Samaritan as the hero of the story. I suspect that as 21st century people, we’re not really feeling it. If Crossan is right, we have to stay right here in the 21st century and consider how this story might apply to us today. So I started to wonder what in our world today might get us riled up. What is our oxymoron?

What immediately came to my mind was Civil Discourse. shutterstock_517209829 copy

It didn’t used to be so. The simple definition of civil discourse is engagement in conversation that enhances understanding and enable us to live peacefully together in civil society. It is not just polite conversation; it’s conversation with a serious purpose. It’s the ability to engage in debate, to argue and disagree. But it’s not a free-for-all; civil discourse  looks to find shared opportunity, not conflict. It requires the respect of all participants for one another. It’s a conversation that helps us discover creative solutions instead of becoming paralyzed by our disagreements. Sounds good, right? But most people today would agree that we have lost the ability to do this, hence the oxymoron: civil (?!) discourse.

At the interfaith conference I attended two weeks ago, one of the speakers was former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. He was asked this question: what do you see as the greatest threats to peace or the greatest challenges to peace that you’ve seen in the world in your time?

General Maddis replied:
Very simply, the lack of respect for one another. It’s contempt for each other’s belief. It’s a  lack of willingness to listen to each other. I see it in all walks of life and I think those are the seeds for what is becoming a much more violent response – this lack of respect and I would even say alienation that you see in so many people today. It’s as if we’ve forgotten how to be human beings with each other and I think it goes back to respect.

In the days after the election in 2016, there was a lot of talk about how a large segment of our country has felt alienated, their cares and concerns not heard or addressed. There was a flurry of talk about how we need to get better about listening to these voices, showing respect even to those with whom we disagree. And while there are some programs that have been going on in various places around the country, it’s not been a major initiative. Not even in the church. Lines have been drawn and even those wanting to cross the divide know the risks involved.

It’s often called the red/blue divide, but it’s more complex than that. Not everyone fits into neatly defined categories like liberal/conservative or progressive/traditional. Even deeply red states have some blue areas, and blue states have their red. Many congregations today are known as “purple zones” because they include both red and blue members.

If we were to imagine Jesus telling the parable today, and his goal was to challenge us, even rile us up a bit, make us squirm, and get us to think about and debate and come up with creative new ways to live in our world today, what would he say? I can imagine him telling the Parable of the Good Democrat or the Good Republican. Or how about the Parable of the Trump Supporter? Or the Hillary Voter? I guess the title would depend which news channel he was on that day, who his audience would be. The purpose of either version would be to propel us into thinking long and hard about our prejudices, presumptions, and other ways we stereotype those with whom we disagree.

Reimagining the Parable: Hearts Across the Divide
Dr. Paula Green, who founded the Karuna Center for Peacebulding in Amherst, MA, took up the challenge after the 2016 election. She and other residents of Leverett, MA, an9bd2d9_35378c9bd9a54716a8cb734c232853d2~mv2 overwhelmingly liberal college town, formed Hands Across the Hills, an organization dedicated to bridging partisan divides through structured dialogue. Their 
hope was to find more that united us as a nation than what divides us. In October 2017, a group of more than a dozen from Leverett met with a group of eleven from Letcher County, KY – a conservative coal-mining community deep in the heart of Appalachia. You can watch a video about this remarkable story here

As Green said:
We saw immediately that people were splitting into enemy camps, and those enemy camps were demonizing each other. Because that’s been my work internationally, I recognized the danger signs of so much dehumanization happening in the country. I wanted to step in, and this provided me with the perfect vehicle to do that.

she-likes-itI’ve been interested in this kind of conversation for a long time, even before the election. My book is called The INTRAfaith Conversation, which is a guide for Christians of differing beliefs around interfaith matters to talk safely and respectfully together. It seems that the political conversation is a very similar process. And God seems to keep throwing things – like this parable – at me to push me out of my comfort zone and get with the program.

For example, I was at the first Women’s March in Washington. The day after the march, I was outside the hotel waiting for the airport shuttle when I was joined by a woman and her adult son. They asked if I’d been there for the march. I said yes. They said they’d been there for the inauguration. They asked where I was from. I said Berkeley. They were from Arizona. You would think there would have been a tense silence after that. But there wasn’t. We actually had a very good conversation – about politics, no less – and left each other at our respective terminals being very grateful for the civility we were able to maintain. Did I end up agreeing with some of the things they said? No way. Same for them. But we listened. Respectfully. I think General Maddis would have approved.

I also have a dear friend who is my political opposite. We weren’t sure that our friendship would survive. But it has. We’ve been able to talk, listen, try to understand, even agree to disagree. It’s an unusual relationship, to be sure. But we met in an interfaith setting, and somehow a shared spirituality is able to transcend political disagreement.

Then another interfaith friend invited me to help bring Paula Green to the Bay Area. We’ve launched a project for this fall called Hearts Across the Divide. As Paula predicted, it is much easier to recruit the “liberal” participants, at least those who are willing to enter into this kind of challenge. The reason for this difficulty – and I know this is true from listening to my friend – is that those on the “conservative” side are wary of speaking up for fear of being verbally attacked. Or stereotyped. At the start of Hands Across the Hills, one person from Letcher County worried that the people from Leverett would think they were all “dumb hillbillies.” Although the Leverett contingent — mostly academics, counselors, and nonprofit consultants — worried that they’d be seen as snobby “elites.”

But they did it. It worked. An article entitled “Can Red and Blue America Ever See Eye to Eye? She’s Betting On It” reported:
The results from that weekend, and another between the two groups in the spring of 2018, exceeded even Green’s expectations about the transformative power of compassion – especially in an America that seems more polarized now than at any time in its history.

Can we do the same kind of thing here? We shall see. Stay tuned.

I’m convinced that we’re on the right track. If Jesus tried to open the eyes of the people of his day and look at those they despised as fellow human beings, beloved children of God, capable of kindness and self-sacrifice – I have to wonder who Jesus is trying to get me to see with new eyes. I have to wonder what Jesus is calling the church to do to break down barriers and reclaim civil discourse.

I’ve been reading a new book called Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-UnknownBlue Divide. And I keep noticing how everything I hear and read on this subject – from Paula Green and James Maddis to this book – is about listening, showing respect, and developing relationships. How astounding that a church that claims to be Christian, a nation that includes people of every religious tradition would have to be taught how to do this. But here we are.

If we read the story of the Good Samaritan as a challenge parable (and you’ll know you do if you’re feeling uncomfortable or resistant just at the idea of having a conversation with your political opposite), then we have to decide if we will take up the challenge. It won’t be easy. I don’t for one second believe that every Jew and Samaritan immediately became best friends just because Jesus told that parable. Change comes hard and it often takes a little (or big) push to get us to open our eyes to new possibilities and new hope. That’s what Jesus tries to do.

This isn’t a political sermon, but it is. Living in the polis – which simply means a body of citizens, a community – we are bound to one another. How we live together, how we relate to one another, how we care for one another – even those we don’t agree with or even like – is of concern to us all. As the body of Christ, we should certainly understand that. 

In this day, at this time, as followers of Jesus, the call seems clear: breaking down barriers, peace-building, listening, respect, compassion, relationship – even with the Samaritans (or fill in your own blank here _____________________________).

Lists of oxymorons like jumbo shrimp, liquid gas, and original copies may still be pointedly foolish. But un-civil discourse is no laughing matter. We need to take civil discourse off the list, for Christ’s sake.



Luke 10:25-37
An expert on the Law stood up to put Jesus to the test and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit everlasting life?”

Jesus answered, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
The expert on the Law replied:
“You must love the Most High God
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your strength
and with all your mind,
and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus said, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you’ll live.”
But the expert on the Law, seeking self-justification, pressed Jesus further: “And just who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “There was a traveler going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, who fell prey to robbers. The traveler was beaten, stripped naked, and left half-dead.  A priest happened to be going down the same road; the priest saw the traveler lying beside the road, but passed by on the other side.  Likewise there was a Levite who came the same way; this one, too, saw the afflicted traveler and passed by on the other side.

“But a Samaritan, who was taking the same road, also came upon the traveler and, filled with compassion, approached the traveler and dressed the wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then the Samaritan put the wounded person on a donkey, went straight to an inn and there took care of the injured one. The next day the Samaritan took out two silver pieces and gave them to the innkeeper with the request, ‘Look after this person, and if there is any further expense, I’ll repay you on the way back.’

“Which of these three, in your opinion, was the neighbor to the traveler who fell in with the robbers?”
The answer came, “The one who showed compassion.”
Jesus replied, “Then go and do the same.”

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