Posted by: smstrouse | July 14, 2019

The Good Samaritan in the Red/Blue Divide

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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.

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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.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T
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.

 

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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.”

Posted by: smstrouse | July 1, 2019

There Is No Theology of Religiously Motivated Violence

_50564773_samaritanssingingSermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Two Disciples and the Roots of Religiously Motivated Violence
Oh, those evil Samaritans! Can you imagine not welcoming Jesus to your town! But it figures; those Samaritans are just beyond the pale. They think that their religion is the true religion of Israel, that they kept their worship pure during the exile – unlike we who had to make accommodations in Babylonia. And how ridiculous that they reject Jerusalem as God’s chosen place for worship. They believe that Mount Gerizim is the chosen place. Sure, Mount Gerizim was the original Holy Place of Israel from the time that Joshua brought us into Canaan. But how could anyone in their right mind not know that Jerusalem is now THE Holy Place?

That’s the background for the response of James and John when they heard that Samaritan villagers had rejected Jesus because he was heading for the rival city of Jerusalem. “Jesus, look at those filthy Samaritans. How about we command fire to come down from heaven and blast them to kingdom come?”

shutterstock_1388277902This isn’t the first example of religiously motivated violence (or the threat of it) in the Bible. But it is a fine example of what Jesus thought of the idea. Luke doesn’t tell us what he said, only that he turned and rebuked the two disciples. But we can imagine the look on his face. Think about how someone looked at you when they turned and basically told you off. Or think about yourself, when someone got your ire up and you turned to tell them just what you thought.  I imagine that was “the look” Jesus had on his face.

Unfortunately, this rebuke did not take hold as a model for how to respond to religious differences and we can name many examples of violence committed in the name of religion through the millennia. But we don’t have to look very far into our own recent history. I was at an interfaith conference this past week at Stanford University, sponsored by the United Religions Initiative. I met a young woman from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although she was born after the Bosnian War of the early 1990s, she talked a lot about the repercussions still affecting her country. That conflict involved Christians and Muslims. Currently, Buddhist extremists are persecuting the Muslim minority Rohingyans in Myanmar. Another man I met at the conference was from Nigeria, talked about the ongoing conflict there between Christians and Muslims. Sometimes we fight among ourselves. My friend Father Gerry O’Rourke, former president of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, did a lot of work in Northern Ireland to end violence between Protestants and Catholics. Certainly, cultural differences were and are at play in most of these conflicts. Religion and culture are often intertwined.

What we might think is a strictly religious practice, may be cultural. For example, a Muslim woman I met at the conference talked about some of the cultural origins of women wearing the hijab, which were not always about subjection of women. She described the Berber women of northern Africa as strong family and community leaders. So we do need to be aware of the cultural aspects of our so-called religious differences. Religion and politics are also often intertwined. That was certainly true in the Bosnian War, where national allegiance was aligned with religion.

But sometimes it’s purely religious belief. Even among Lutherans. We may not kill each other, but some of the vitriol among Lutheran groups can get quite ugly. Depending on who you ask (ELCA Lutherans, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Wisconsin Synod, and the two new denominations formed after the ELCA’s decision for full inclusion of LGBTQ clergy in 2008: The North American Lutheran Church and Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ) you can find out who really are the “true” followers of Martin Luther.

A Theology of the Cross

Cross-Flickr-Claudio-UngariBut the real question is who are the “true” followers of Jesus. We could also talk about the true followers of the Buddha and of Mohammed, but that would be for another day. We have the words of Jesus before us today, showing us what the way of discipleship looks like. Early on in this green season of growth in discipleship, we get a pretty difficult teaching. After coming through the beautiful season of Easter and the glorious day of Pentecost, we’re thrown into the wayback machine and taken back to the days not too long before Jesus was crucified. His face was set toward Jerusalem. It’s after Easter, but we’re thrown back to the cross.

Luke isn’t going to let us devolve into a theology of glory. I mistyped here “theology of gory,” but that is correct; there is no theology of religiously motivated violence. If you’re tempted to think there is, see Jesus turn and look at you with “that look.” We may scoff at the conflict about which worship place was the correct one: Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem. But we might ponder what issues we fight amount today that people centered from now will look back and wonder what that was all about. For example, I look in on an online Lutheran forum where most of the participants are ELCA and LC-MS. And I’m amazed to read the ongoing, adamant opposition to the ordination of women.

FaithWomen Can’t Do What?!
As you know, I’ve been ordained now for 30 years. I actually graduated from seminary two years before that and had to wait two years for a call to open up. It was right at merger time (ALC/LCA/AELC) and there wasn’t a lot of movement; pastors were sitting tight until they knew who their new bishop would be and whether they’d choose not stay put or move on. The blessing of those two years is that I got to do pulpit supply in many congregations. I also led worship services in a lot of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. I tell you all this because I can’t count the number of times someone would say to me as they were shaking my hand after church, “I never thought I’d like a woman pastor, but I like you.”

GraceI’d always say thank you, but I also always wondered what they’d thought I was going to do. I get it; it was a cultural thing for most of them. But the truth was and is that I preach the same gospel. As St. Paul declared to the Corinthians, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” The theology of the cross.


An “Afflict the Comfortable” Teaching
Which is what Jesus was talking about when he responded to the would-be disciples they met in the next village. This is his answer to the question that perhaps James and John had: “Well, if we’re not supposed to blow up our enemies, then how are we to live?” The answer is a difficult one to hear. If the gospel is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, this is an “afflict the comfortable” gospel teaching.

1. Prepare to be homeless
2. Leave behind family responsibilities
3. The realm of God is Job One.

The first two are very difficult to hear. They cut across our expectations of what it means to live a good and responsible lifestyle. It’s hard to get into Jesus’ head at this point. He’s going to Jerusalem, seat of religious and political power. He’s going, even though he knows that those powers – in an unlikely alliance – will not tolerate him much longer. He knows what happens to people who keep upsetting the apple cart (or the temple tables); they get themselves crucified. He has been homeless. He has left his family behind. Preaching and teaching the realm of God has been Job One.

So maybe he lost a little patience with those who didn’t quite grasp what was surely about to happen. His answer was a heavy dose of reality. Do I see it as a teaching of literally what we’re all supposed to do? No. Not literally. But definitely as a way of being in the world. As I said, I just spent three days at an interfaith conference on peace-building. I have been involved in many such events. And I always attend them as a Christian. My beliefs do not get watered down into some kind of mushy Kumbaya religion. Nor do anyone else’s. We are there are Christians, Muslims, Jews, Bah’ai, Sikh, Pagan, etc., etc. As a Christian, and a Lutheran one at that, I come in with the theology of the cross. That is to say that I come with the view that we are called to enter into the pain and suffering of the world, making sacrifices of self, of ego, of cultural prejudices, of misinformation, of privilege, of selfrighteousness, of living only in our own little enclave of culture and/or religion.

As one author described it:
One of the strengths of a theology of the cross is that it takes the risk of entering into the struggles and pain of society. It does not attempt to gloss over or ignore the world, as the Luddite and neo-liberal options do. Nor does it try to force society into a different framework so that ready-made solutions can be applied, as the return to the golden era of religion tries to do. Instead, a theology of the cross calls us, as church, to face these realities and enter into the realities of life. It is on these front lines, these places where life is lived, that the Christian is called to be.

Becoming Homeless
So what are the implications of a theology of the cross today? First, it needs to be homeless. I don’t mean every congregation should sell their building and set up on a street corner.
. . . it involves the church entering into the realities, the battlefields of life, rather than observing safely from the sidelines. A theology of the cross calls us to leave the safety of church buildings, and comforting dogmas, and our comfortable middle class mentality, and enter into the struggles of this world. It means that instead of waiting for others to adapt to our lifestyles and customs, on our terms, and where we have ready made solutions, that we will leave our comfortable pews and management plans to listen to the cries of the victims of those experiencing the cross in this world. It means going beyond looking at the marginalized in society with sympathy for the problems they got themselves in because of their sins, and instead see the sin of our attempts to be gods over them, controlling and dictating what charity they should have from us.

In other words, for us, leaving our comfort zones is a way of becoming homeless for the sake of the gospel.

Leaving Family Responsibilities Behind
Leaving family responsibilities behind in this 21st century could be deciding to treat members of other religious families with as much respect as we treat our own. In Christ there is no Samaritan nor Jew, Christian nor Muslim, Sikh nor Pagan. This might be a challenge for us, as we’ve been taught for so long that Jesus is the only way. A good place to start would be a new book, Holy Envy, by Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, professor, author and theologian. The title comes from her own experiences with different faiths. She concludes: “The only clear line I draw these days is this: when my religion gets in the way of loving my neighbor, I will choose my neighbor.” In a moment she-likes-itof shameless self-promotion, I can also recommend my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters?

We have a learning curve in understanding how to be faithful Christians in the midst of our religiously diverse world. But if we are to be a part of ending religiously motivated violence and hate speech, it is a necessary part of our calling.

Job One
The realm of God is Job One. The realm of God in the 21st century is Job One. Nobody, least of all Jesus, said it would be easy. Nobody also said it wouldn’t be rewarding. “Follow me,” Jesus says to each of us each and every day.
A hurting world awaits our response.

Amen

 

Luke 9:51–62
Already bound for Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus decided to take the mountain route through Samaria rather than usual route to the east down the Jordan valley. As with many political and ethnic rivalries still, this enmity took on religious overtones. By Jesus’ time, this hostility had lasted more than 700 years since Israel’s ten northern tribes had been conquered by the Assyrians. Two of Jesus’ more hot-tempered disciples immediately gave full expression to the traditional attitude toward the Samaritans who refused them entrance to their village. Does this not sound familiar in our day?

It is written . .

As the time approached when he was to be taken from this world, Jesus firmly resolved to proceed toward Jerusalem and sent messengers on ahead. They entered a Samaritan town to make preparations for him, but the Samaritans wouldn’t welcome Jesus because his destination was Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Rabbi, do you want us to call down fire from heaven and destroy them?” But Jesus turned and reprimanded them.

Then they set off for another town. As they were making their way along, they met a fellow traveler who said to Jesus, “I’ll follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus replied, “Foxes have lairs, the birds of the sky have nests, but the Chosen One has nowhere to rest.”
To another traveler Jesus said, “Follow me.”
The traveler replied, “Let me bury my father first.”
Jesus said in return, “Let the dead bury their dead; you go and proclaim the reign of God everywhere.”
Yet another traveler approached Jesus in this way: “I’ll be your follower, Rabbi, but first let me say goodbye to my people at home.”
Jesus answered, “Whoever puts a hand to the plow but keeps looking back is unfit for the reign of God.”

 

Posted by: smstrouse | June 23, 2019

Exorcizing Our National Demons

Screen-Shot-2013-12-12-at-22.47.22Why Do We Love Horror Stories?

When I was a kid, my mom and I used to like to watch horror movies on late night TV – the scarier the better. The only problem was that, when I was growing up, our house had a coal furnace and before we went to bed, someone had to go down in the cellar and “fix the fire” for the night. Because my dad often worked at night, the job usually fell to my mom. So down into the cellar she’d go. After opening the door to the furnace, she would have to walk all the way back to the coal bin. The scary part was that to get there, she had to walk, in a very dark passageway, past two smaller, empty bins. You can imagine how jumpy she would be. Even though she’d tell herself that there was nothing to be afraid of, those shadowy recesses could really fire up the imagination. 

My favorite horror movie is still the 1980 version of Stephen King’s The Shining. I still get creeped out when I’m alone in a hotel corridor waiting for an elevator. Why do we watch these things? What is it about the supernatural that fascinates us and causes us to submit to being scared out of our wits?

The Bible?!

Yes, the Bible is partly to blame. Stories like the one in Luke today surely gave rise to movies like The Exorcist, another oldie, but definitely a classic of the genre. Here in Luke 8:26-39 we have the story of a man who was possessed by a demon. And it’s not the only story like it; supposedly Jesus had also cast out evil spirits from some of the women following him, most notably seven demons from Mary Magdalene. It’s as graphic as a scene from The Exorcist. So even those of you who would never read a horror novel or watch a horror movie are confronted with this scary sight. Maybe because it’s in the Bible we don’t react in the same way that we would to a scene in a movie.

It’s more likely that our modern sensibilities are discomforted by the demon language. We know so much more about mental illness and other disorders that could cause a man to be naked, homeless, and violently shouting. We know that what ancient people called demonic would be called by different names today. So we tend to jump ahead to the healing part of the story. After all, this is a story about Jesus. We know what happens. Jesus cures the man. Happy ending. No worries going down into the coal bin after this.

But before we get to the healing, I think we should spend a little more time with this poor soul being tormented by this demon because I think we have more in common with him than we might suppose. If we take away the sensationalism of demonic possession á la The Exorcist, and if we leave for the time being the reality of mental illness, we are still left with the fact that most people are haunted by something.

What’s Haunting You? Us?

Have you ever done something and someone asked you, “What possessed you to do that?!” Or, speaking about someone struggling with an addiction or PTSD: “He’s got his own demons to battle.” Each of us is haunted by our own personal demons – those things that get in the way and cause us to behave in ways that we’d rather not think about. As even St. Paul admitted, “I don’t do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

So we try to confine our demons to the farthest recesses of our consciousness. But that doesn’t stop them from impacting our lives. Most of us wouldn’t call the stuff that haunts us demons; these days we’re more likely to call it baggage. Rather than referring to demons that haunt us, we talk about the baggage we haul around, or baggage we need to unpack, or baggage we need to leave behind so we can move on. But there’s some stuff that some of us carry around that is so disturbing, or so paralyzing, or so frightening that the metaphor of baggage just doesn’t quite capture and if the truth be told this stuff functions more like the demons of old.

Take Omar Mateen, the man who carried out the deadly assault in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. We just passed the third anniversary of the attack which killed 49 people and wounded 53 others. The shooter was killed also, and it’s very easy to demonize him, to discount his humanity – when what we’re seeing is the result of his failure to overcome his demons – which evidently were Legion. We may never know the whole story, but it seems that he was a man tortured by hatred and inner conflicts about his religion, his culture, and his sexuality. There’s no excuse for what he did. But by bringing his demons to light, we are also forced to see some of the ones that still haunt us and impact us daily. Put his demons together with the specter of homophobia and you have a truly evil brew.

As a nation, we continue to be haunted by our inability to stop gun violence. This past week was the premier of the movie ‘Emanuel,’ a documentary produced by Viola Davis and Stephen Curry on the fourth anniversary of the mass shooting by a white supremacist at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. Put the  demon of gun violence together with the specter of racism and you  get another intractable national demon. Researchers are at a loss to explain the reasons behind mass shootings. There’s no template; rarely can a single cause explain any one atrocity. They are Legion. 

This man with all his demons is not only myself with all my baggage and you with all yours, he is us collectively. When I see him in my minds eye, it’s not hard to picture one of our many homeless neighbors. He’s the one we cross the street to avoid or we give a wide berth, because as much as we might feel compassion, we also know that mental illness can cause some people to do pretty scary things. Homelessness is another of the communal problems that continue to bedevil us. Mental illness is just one of the Legion of reasons for someone to become homeless, but it’s a big one. The lack of mental health care is to blame for those living among the tombs of their lives. Our failure as a nation to exorcize these and more national of our demons is a stain on our collective conscience.

It IS Political

I suppose some might say that I’m getting too much into politics, that church is no place to talk about our social ills. But here’s the thing: this story is strange for a reason other than the scary naked guy. At least one detail in the story is odd: Jesus could not have gone by boat to the shore of the Gerasenes because it was 30 miles inland. Didn’t Luke know that? How could he have made such an obvious mistake? Maybe it wasn’t a mistake. Perhaps Luke was hoping that his readers would get the connection between supernatural  powers and the forces of evil that have their origins in the human world.

According to the historian Josephus, in 66 CE a Romans legion overran the town of Gerasa and slaughtered its people as part of its campaign against the Jewish rebels in the First Jewish War. Luke’s readers would surely have recognized what the demons’ name Legion represented, making the connection between demonic possession and brutal military occupation. In the exorcism, Jesus reveals his power not only over the demons but also over the empires of this world. As biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan writes: An individual is, of course, being healed, but the symbolism is also hard to miss or ignore. The demon is both one and many; is named Legion, that fact and sign of Roman power; is consigned to swine, that most impure of Judaism’s impure animals; and is cast into the sea, that dream of every Jewish resister.

But we don’t get quite the happy ending we’re looking for. Even after Jesus expels the demons, all the people ask him to leave. It is a universal truth that many people will prefer bondage to empire to the freedom of God’s reign. The prophet Isaiah had written it centuries before: YHWH said,
I held out my hands to a rebellious people, who went the way of all flesh by following their own whims; a people who continually provoke me to my face, offering sacrifices in gardens, burning incense on brick altars, lounging in tombs, and keeping nightlong vigils in secret, eating the flesh of swine, with a broth made of unclean meat.

Neither this kind of political expediency nor following God’s reign is about partisan politics. Our word politics is derived from polis, the affairs of the city, as in metropolitan. We, as much as the Gerasenes, live between the oppressive powers of this world and the freedom of God’s reign. We can choose to accept the freedom that Jesus offered to the bedeviled man, but doing so may mean forfeiting our place in the empire and the security it offers. So even though they saw the evidence of the power of liberation, the Gerasenes told Jesus to take his revolutionary actions elsewhere. We may be tempted to do the same. But when we do this, we side against healing and wholeness and with oppression.

Choosing Healing and Wholeness

If we choose to side with healing and wholeness, then we must begin with ourselves. Just as we name our own personal issues and baggage and acknowledge that we need to be liberated and restored, we also acknowledge that our city, our nation collectively needs restoration to a spirit of health and wholeness.  And as citizens of this polis, we have a responsibility to bring our spiritual health and wholeness to bear on the culture in which we live – not for the purpose of creating a Christian nation, but one which has care and concern for all of God’s people, which means all of the people.

So what do we do? 

We, of course, pray. Although here’s been a lot of criticism recently, directed at people – especially politicians – who respond to our national tragedies by saying “our thoughts and prayers are with you.” And I get their point; there’s a saying in the Jewish tradition that says, “If one prays for something and does not do what is within their power to bring the prayer into being, it is no prayer.” People want action. So does God. 

But as a Lutheran, I’m a firm believer in the both/and. It’s not a question of either prayer or action. We are called to both. As individuals, as congregations, as communities, as a nation. As followers of Jesus, we look to him for direction. So what did Jesus do? He asked the demon its name. The first step is to name it, to look at it in all its ugliness and destructive power. It took a lot of courage for Jesus to face up to that kind of horror and to call it out. We might think that we don’t have that kind of fortitude. But we do. We have the same source of strength, compassion, justice and courage that Jesus did. The question is: do we dare to call upon it?

Do we dare to call out the demons of gun violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamaphobia, and every other kind of ism and phobia? And do we dare to bring to bear the healing power of God into our world? I don’t know how Jesus actually healed the man with the demon. All I know is that he dared to cross a boundary and go to a place not his own – the country of the Gerasenes was Gentile territory. Then he dared to call out whatever it was that was holding this man captive, keeping him from being the person God had created him to be. Then he sent him back to his community to a life of health, wholeness, and praise of God’s love and power.

I don’t know how I – or you – can heal the hurts of our nation. But I do know that I – and you – can do as Jesus did: cross boundaries; go to people in need wherever they are; meet everyone – even the stinky, naked, homeless, ranting ones – with compassion; call out abuses; name the demons. And trust that the same Divine spirit that enabled Jesus to restore a man back to his community will empower us. And will, in the process, bring healing to bear.

If those who have suffered under the Legion of injustices are to have any justice, may we see this as a wake-up call to confront our demons – all our demons. And may we turn to the One who offers abundant life to us all – each and every one.

Amen

 

Luke 8:26-39

They came to the region of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. Jesus was stepping from the boat when he was met by a man of the city who was possessed by demons. He had not worn clothes for a long time, and was homeless, living among the tombs instead. 

Seeing Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Only Begotten of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me” – for Jesus was ordering the unclean spirit to come out of the man. This spirit had seized him many times in the past, so that he needed to be restrained with chains and shackles and kept under guard – but every time, he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into deserted places.

Jesus asked, “What is your name?” 

“Legion,” it replied, because many demons had entered him. And they pleaded with Jesus not to order them to depart into the abyss. 

A large herd of pigs was feeding nearby on the hillside. The demons pleaded with Jesus to allow them to enter the swine, and he gave them permission. The demons left the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the hillside into the lake and drowned. 

When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off to tell the story in town and throughout the countryside.The local residents came out to see what happened. As they approached Jesus, they also saw the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had witnessed it told the others how the one who’d been possessed had been made whole. Panic over-came the whole population of the region of the Gerasenes, and they asked Jesus to leave them. When Jesus had gotten into the boat to leave, the man who had been healed asked to go with him. But Jesus said,”No, go back home, and tell everyone what God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the region what Jesus had done.

Posted by: smstrouse | June 17, 2019

It’s Trinity Sunday; Let’s Dance!

contentHow Do You Explain the Trinity?
At the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City 2015, I was preparing to present a workshop on interfaith dialogue. The workshop was scheduled for Monday.  On Sunday evening, I discovered that somehow my workshop had been deleted from the Monday schedule on the Parliament app.

Panic ensued.  I ran down to the make-shift Parliament office in the Salt Palace. It was Sunday evening; no one was there. I hunted down one of the volunteers to help. A very personable young man put in a call to somewhere for someone to call back. In the meantime, all we could do was wait. So, of course, we talked. I found out that he was Hindu, a student at a local college. He‘d volunteered at the Parliament as part of his world religions course. He asked about my workshop, which I explained was about intrafaith dialogue, conversation among Christians about the implications of interfaith encounters on our beliefs. He was intrigued. “So,” he said, “since you’re a Christian, I have a question?” “Uh, oh, here it comes.” And sure enough, he said, “How do you explain the Trinity?”

It’s not uncommon for the Trinity to come up in interfaith settings. Another time, I happened to sit next to a young Muslim man at a dinner and he also wanted me to explain – between the salad course and entree – how this three-in-one-ness of God is not  polytheism and therefore complete heresy. And the questions don’t come only from outside the Christian tradition. When I talk about my understanding of God as the Holy One and of all of creation as part of this One, I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked, “Why don’t you just become Unitarian?” Or “How can you still believe in that?”

Getting in the Zone
Well, today’s the day when we’re supposed to talk about the Trinity. Actually, any talk of a holy trinity today might be more about Curry/Thompson/Durant trinity of the Golden State Warriors than about Father/Son/Holy Spirit (yes, I know the Warriors didn’t win the championship, but they’re still out heroes!). Acmaxresdefaulttually these three basketball superstars might give us a new and better way to look at an old dusty church doctrine. Well, not just these three. Probably most of us are familiar with the term “in the zone.” If you play any sports, maybe you’ve felt that state of consciousness where you are totally focused, nothing exists but you and your performance and you’re playing at your absolute best. It’s more than just concentration; it’s almost a spiritual experience. 

And not just for athletes. Back in 1990, a professor of psychology wrote a bestselling book called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified flow as a highly focused mental state, in which you’re “completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Sounds just like being “in the zone,” right? As a reviewer wrote: “You’ve heard about how a musician loses herself in her music, how a painter becomes one with the process of painting. In work, sport, conversation or hobby, you experience the suspension of time, the freedom of complete absorption in activity. This is ‘flow,’ an experience that is at once demanding and rewarding – one of the most enjoyable and valuable experiences a person can have.” 

Did you catch the spiritual reference in there? A painter becomes one with the process of painting; a musician becomes one with the music. But how could this oneness possibly have anything to do with the Trinity?

Mention the doctrine of the Trinity to most people and eyes begin to glaze over. But I’m not going to talk about Trinity in the usual way. For too long we’ve been held hostage by western Christianity’s definition of God that really is based on outdated Greek philosophy.

Ice/Water/Steam or the Divine Dance?
Now the early church fathers who decided all this (and they were all men) were asking the same questions we ask today: who or what is God and how do Jesus and the Holy Spirit fit in? Without going into detail, they used Aristotle’s philosophy to explain how there could still be just one God, even with these other characters in play. That’s where you get language like “being of one substance with the Father” – pure Aristotle – logical thinking that led into countless explanations of how three could really be one.486ab305a4b08944b6fc358b9d8c9618

Which led to other religions like Islam – not buying our ice/water/steam displays – to call us polytheists. Which also led many Christians to leave the church because they could no longer believe “six impossible things before breakfast,” as Alice in Wonderland told the Mad Hatter.

But not all early Christians went in this direction. There are other ways of understanding that have been around from the beginning. For instance, the Cappadocian Fathers of 4th century Turkey came to this conclusion: Whatever is going on in God is a flow, a radical relatedness, a perfect communion between Three — a circle dance of love. And God is not just a dancer; God is the dance itself.”

And here’s a description of some of the ancient Greek Fathers: they “depict the Trinity as a Round Dance: an event that has continued for six thousand years, and six times six thousand, and beyond the time when humans first knew time. An infinite current of love streams without ceasing, to and fro, to and fro, to and fro: gliding from the Father to the Son, and back to the Father, in one timeless happening. This circular current of trinitarian love continues night and day…. The orderly and rhythmic process of subatomic particles spinning round and round at immense speed echoes its dynamism.”

234x200_inflightThese metaphors of circle and dance and current of love might seem strange to our western ears, but I believe that our emerging awareness of eastern Christianity and other eastern religions is leading us into a better spirituality than we’ve had before. Millennia before the publication of Flow, practitioners of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Sufism were following disciplines to overcome the duality of self and object. We’re just catching up. Father Richard Rohr, author of The Divine Dance, is all over this idea of flow. “This God is the very one whom we have named ‘Trinity’ — the flow who flows through every-thing, without exception, and who has done so since the beginning. Thus, everything is holy for those who have learned how to see. The implications of this spiritual paradigm shift, this Trinitarian Revolution, are staggering: every bit of ambition for humanity and the earth, for wholeness and holiness, is the eternally – flowing life of the Trinitarian God.”

The Law of Three
Now you might be thinking that we’re still trying to force God into a 3-part box. Why hang onto Trinity at all? Why not just become Unitarian? But Unitarianism itself came about as a rejection of the Aristotelian definition of Trinity. And we’re not even going there anymore. In a stunning work called The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, Cynthia Bourgeault, busts open our silly attempts at defining God, at the same time reclaiming Trinity for a new spiritual age. She suggests that the principle of three is actually the operating principle of the universe (present in many religions).

It even appeared once in an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation! The Enterprise was caught in a time loop (as so often was wont to happen) and they kept repeating the same day over and over again, each day ending with the Enterprise being rammed by another starship and exploding. Of course the next time around, no one remembered any of this. Except that they began to have experiences of déjà vu, and finally figured out that they were in a time loop. But they didn’t know how to get out of it, what mistake they were making each and every time. Commander Data, the android member of the crew suggested that they implant a clue in his positronic brain, so that he would be able to remember something the next time around. 

Next time around, the number three began appearing all over the place. In a poker game, CommanderRikerwhen the cards are dealt, they’re all threes That was followed by a hand where all the players had three of a kind. When the crew runs a diagnostic in engineering, the results come up all threes. So they know that the number three is significant, but they don’t know why. Until the moment comes again when the captain has to make the decision which plan to follow to avoid the collision: Commander Data’s or Lt. Riker’s. In every sequence, he’d chosen Data’s. But this time, suddenly Data sees the three command pips on Lt. Riker’s uniform and realizes that they have to go with his plan. They do; it works; they get out of the time loop and safely clear the oncoming ship. There you have it: the Law of Three.  

Now that’s just a TV show.  But if, as Cynthia Bourgeault suggests, the principle of three is actually the operating principle of the universe, then I think it’s a fine example. But going beyond science fiction, Bourgeault believes that the Law of Three has the effect of undercutting all of our dualistic thinking (light/dark; heaven/earth; human/divine; male/female, etc.) that holds us back from being fully human.

The Law of Three and Political Discourse
How to explain this Law of Three? Let’s take a very current example, again from Richard Rohr: “Our politics have devolved into divisiveness and partisanship. You feel passionate about your party and your issues. Your co-worker or neighbor backs the other political party with equal passion. And everything stops right there. Someone takes position A, and someone else opposes them in Position B; they exist in rivalry and antagonism, world without end. (Sounds familiar, right?)

“This is precisely what we’d expect in a binary system — a place of ‘two-ness’ in opposition. At best, when we’re finished yelling at each other, we might try to compromise and form some kind of synthesis position out of our dueling dualisms. But, if three-ness captures the essence of the cosmos more than two-ness, it means that we can hold our position with complete integrity while awaiting an unexpected third force to arrive and surprise us all out of our neat little boxes.”

This isn’t some mere compromise or synthesis of opposition, but something genuinely new arriving on the scene. The first and second forces don’t suddenly find themselves invalidated in the face of something newer and shinier. Instead, the third force gives everyone a valuable role to play in the creation of something genuinely new — a fourth possibility that becomes the place for our collective creativity to come out and play. 

The energy is not in any precise definition of the three persons of the Trinity as much as in the relationship among the Three. This is where all the power for creative renewal is at work: the loving relationship among them; the infinite love among them; the dance itself. In other words, it’s an entirely relational universe. When we try to stop this flow moving through, with, and in us, that’s when we fall into the state of sin, which is truly a state of being more than just behavior. So what we want is to get with the flow, which is all about creativity, growth, transformation, connection with the Divine and all that is. Richard Rohr, “Trinity and the Law of Three

Practice, Practice, Practice!
Sounds good, right? But how do we get into this flow? Well, it’s like the answer to the question of how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice! Steph Curry doesn’t get in the zone without picking up the ball and shooting over and over and over. The artist and musician put hard work into their craft before they experience that kind of transcendence. It’s the same with spirituality. Although (and this is important) you are already in the flow, you are already part of the divine dance. You don’t have to earn your place. But the more awake and alert you are to Divine Presence, the more you’ll feel “in the zone.”

So then, what practice? If you don’t already have a spiritual practice, the first thing is to set the intention to open your heart and mind to it. Then seek the practice that fits you best. I have found Sufi heart meditation to be most helpful for me. I’ve tried other things, but this is the practice that works best for me. But, although I love sitting in silence in my meditation group, I find that it takes a lot more discipline to do it at home by myself. I need to continually set my intention and then follow through. 

Whatever you choose (breath prayer, simply finding quiet time, listening to meditative music), believe me, I know these things don’t come easily or naturally to most of us. That’s why intention and practice are so important. 

Although remember, it’s not just about the head knowledge. Reading about flow can be helpful, but ultimately it’s all about experiencing it. This exploration of a new way of understanding Trinity isn’t just esoteric theological wordplay. It has implications for us today as we ourselves search for ways of understanding who and what God is.

shutterstock_597878558Times are changing. The church is changing. How we define God – or don’t define God would be more like it – is changing. Personally, I like the idea of a divine circle dance much better than an image of a triangle. As Rohr says. “Clearly our triune God is a riot of expression, transcending and including any possible labels. 

I don’t think we’ll actually be doing any dancing today, or maybe you will feel like kicking up your heels a bit. After all, it is Father’s Day and Juneteenth  In any event, open up your hearts to the Law of Three, get in the zone and go with the flow. And join the dance of Trinity.

Amen

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Posted by: smstrouse | June 2, 2019

Finding Unity Across the Political Divide

hqdefaultA sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter 

First: watch “One” –  a music video by Billy Jonas

By now you’ve probably guessed that
the theme
of the day is: |
One!

“That all may be One” is the prayer that the writer of John’s gospel has put on the lips of Jesus on the night before his arrest. Since this gospel was written some 60 years after Jesus died, we don’t have a verbatim transcript of an actual prayer. Most scholars agree that Chapter 17, which is the full text of the prayer, cannot be attributed to the historical Jesus. It’s part of the long section of John, from chapter 14-17, often called the Farewell Discourse, in which Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends. Found only in John, this long speech contains such familiar passages as:

  • Let not your hearts be troubled. In God’s house there are many dwelling places.
  • Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
  • Let not your hearts be troubled; do not be afraid.
  • This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

And as we anticipate the Pentecost celebration next Sunday . . .

  • The Holy Spirit that God will send in my name will instruct you in everything and remind you of all that I told you.

So while these may not be actual words of Jesus, they do reflect an experience of Jesus that had left a powerful impression on members of John’s community.

Preeminent John scholar Raymond Brown provides a way of broadening out their experience in a way that can speak to new generations:
Chapter 17 has been compared to a personal message that a dead man has recorded and left behind him for those whom he loved. But the comparison limps for such a message would soon become dated. Rather, in the intention of the writer, we have Jesus speaking in the familiar accents of his earthly career but reinterpreted (by the working of the Spirit) so that what he says is always a living message.

That message is summed up in the closing prayer:
that all may be made One in perfect unity.rs=w-400,h-400

Maybe we’ve lost some of the majestic poetry of this prayer over the years as we’ve taken the words as a literal speech instead of as a witness to the boundless relationship between Divinity and Humanity. That all may be One: God in Jesus; Jesus in each of us; each of us in God and in one another. Perfect in unity.

That’s a pretty big mystical vision. And I don’t know about you, but it’s a vision that boggles my mind – mostly because of how far from the reality of the vision we appear to be. Divisions abound, even among those who profess to be followers of Jesus. Broaden the scope and it gets even more fractured: divisions among denominations, among religions, among nations, among tribes, among cultures, among families. This prayer seems to be a rather naïve wish for something that is just not realistic, given human nature and the very real differences among us.

Unless. Unless there’s more to being One than what we might think. Even if the writer of the gospel was speaking only about followers of Jesus, the soaring grandeur of the prayer should remind us of the opening verses of John which cast the birth of Jesus in cosmic terms as the Logos, the Word that existed from the beginning of time. That reminder should give us a clue that we’re dealing with things beyond our understanding or the limited scope of our imaginations.

As the song declares: in the “new, new mathwe’re already One; One + One + One = One! And not just Christians, either:
One likes Jesus, one likes Judah, one: Yogananda; Allah; Goddess; the Buddha.
One says “Wait, how do you pick a path?”
One solution: “NEW New Math!”

Everyone counts!

The song is so up-beat; we might miss its radical nature. This being One includes being lumped in with people who are nothing like each other: “One got cake, one got the batter, one in the gutter, one up the ladder.”And people whose politics are in complete opposition: “One hangin’ with the Hitler youth; one marchin’ Martin Luther’s truth.” Yet somehow we are One.

I’m already One with the fundamentalist Christian who believes I’m going to hell. I’m One with Mitch McConnell and Bernie Sanders and all their supporters. I’m One with refugees crossing the southern border and I’m One with members of ISIS in Syria. 

That should make us want to start doing subtraction! But this Oneness that Jesus is talking about is not about agreeing with everyone about everything. It’s not even about liking everyone. But it is about loving everyone. As if that makes it any easier! If you aren’t squirming in your seat by now, you’re probably not listening. As C. S. Lewis said,
I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.

Accepting our Oneness with everyone – and loving them – is a very tall order. How in the world can we do it? Maybe this prayer asks us, first of all, to become aware of our innate Oneness, and then learn how to live into that unity, with the very necessary help of the Holy Spirit. Because it can be done.

ImprobPairsI think about a film series called Improbable Pairs, which tells the stories of two pairs of people who have made peace with each other against extraordinary odds. Improbable Pairs 1 is about an Israeli father, whose son was killed by Palestinians and a Palestinian man, whose four brothers were killed by the Israeli military. Together they formed the Parents’ Circle, a group of over 600 Israeli and Palestinian families, all of whom have lost an immediate family member in the ongoing conflict. Through education, public media, and public meetings, they promote their message that sustainable peace is possible only through a process of reconciliation.

Improbable Pairs 2 is about a white South African Air Force officer, Neville Clarence, RandNHandshakewho was blinded in a car bombing during the apartheid era and Aboobaker Ismail, an African National Congress Special Operations Officer. Watching Neville Clarence being led into the room to grasp the hand of the man who had planned and ordered the attack that had blinded him, and hearing Aboobaker Ismail speak of their coming together as “a meeting of the hearts” is proof positive that our innate Oneness can be realized and acted on.

I think about two speakers at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a former white supremacist skinhead and the son of a man gunned down in a Sikh temple, who have also formed an unlikely alliance, teaming up to preach a message of peace. Another “improbable pair” living out Jesus’ prayer for all of us.

Then I think about my friend Don Frew, who is a Wiccan elder. You’d think that the odds of his getting along with an evangelical Christian would be impossible, but you’d be wrong. Don and conservative evangelical Christian, Brooks Alexander have been doing a program together at various conferences called Wiccan/ Christian Dialogue: A 25-year Interfaith Friendship (although it’s more like 30+ years now!). I’ve seen the two of them in action, and in no way could you ever say that they agree on everything. But as Don says: Sharing similarities allows us to find the common ground to build friendships. But we won’t achieve peace until we share and accept our differences. Only then will we be true to our commitment to accept all faiths, even in their conservative, exclusivist manifestations.

We are living in an era of divisiveness.

Many lament our seeming inability to have civil discourse anymore. How are we then to live out of this Oneness that Jesus reminds us of and this love that Jesus requires of us?

In last week’s gospel, we heard Jesus tell the disciples that help would soon be on the way: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of everything I’ve told you.” We know that Spirit is among us; at least we confess that we do. But can we see the Spirit working even in these trying times?

I recently saw an article with the intriguing title “5 Ways to Talk about the News with People Who Disagree with You.” It turned out to be tips from the founders of two media organizations (one who identifies as conservative, the other progressive), who found that they were able to speak across large political divides and decided to help others do the same. That article then led me to a program called Living Room Conversations, which helps people of differing opinions and beliefs actually form groups and engage in healthy, respectful – dare I say loving – conversation.

9bd2d9_3faf93667fdf4d4e82b52eea3da11ac4~mv2_d_3024_4032_s_4_2Wow, I thought. There is hope! And the Spirit continued to open up new pathways. Another interfaith friend turned me on to Paula Green Founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. Green had gotten to work right after the 2016 election. Hands Across the Hills was formed with the goal of getting people together, face to face with others of different political persuasion. In the fall of 2017 and spring of 2018, two small groups, liberal voters from Massachusetts and conservative voters in Eastern Kentucky coal country, met for two weekends of dialogue and cultural exchange in each other’s towns.

The relationships continued. Green reported going back again to KY. She said, “I was back again in August, and we had a circle with all our Kentucky friends, and in that dialogue circle, they said, ‘We want to come back.’ So something very profound and transformative has happened for all of us.” A member of the KY contingent said, “We didn’t want to let them leave. We wanted to keep them.”

So it is possible. On June 11, I’ll be on a conference call with Paula Green to explore the possibility on creating a similar project here. I don’t know how it will go. There are a lot of barriers, and there’s a lot of work to make something like that happen. But I also know that there’s a Spirit of Oneness at work in the world. And I can rely on Her.

“That we maybe One” We already are; we just have to act like it. And God knows we need a Helper, a Comforter, an Advocate to enable us to even think about doing it. Next week is Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples, which would enable them to come out from behind locked doors and carry on the message that Jesus prayed so hard about. But we don’t have to wait. The Spirit is as near as our breath. We are as connected with Divinity as branches are to a vine.

We are witnesses to the boundless relationship of Divinity and Humanity: God in Jesus; Jesus in each of us; each of us in God and in one another. Perfect in unity. A great big mysterious, mystical vision of which we are each a necessary part.  Amen

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John 17:20-26

Jesus said,

I do not pray for them alone.
I pray also for those
who will believe in me through their message
that all may be One,
as you, Abba, are in me and I in you;
I pray that they may be One in us,
so that the world may believe that you sent me.

I have given them the glory you gave me
that they may be One, as we are One—
I in them, you in me –
that they may be made perfect in unity.
Then the world will know that you sent me
and that you loved them as you loved me.

Abba, I ask that those you gave me
may be here with me.
so they can see this glory of mine
which is your gift to me,
because of the love you had for me
before the foundation of the world.

Righteous One, the world hasn’t known you,
but I have; and these people know
that you sent me.
To them I have revealed your Name,
and I will continue to reveal it so that the
love you have for me may live in them,
just as I may live in them.”

 

 

 

A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Grace to you and peace, from God our Creator and Christ our Wisdom.shutterstock_174244187

The Funk

Well, we’re almost through the fifty days of the Easter season.The lilies have died. I’d bet that most, if not all, of our chocolate rabbits are gone. Maybe you could find a jellybean or two if you looked between the sofa cushions. But doesn’t the joy and bright hope of Easter morning seem like a long time ago? I’ve been trying to keep the spirit going. But frankly, it’s been tough. I wrote a blog post Thursday called I Read the News Today, Oh Boy.

See, I was already in a funk when I woke up that morning. Even after waking up, I was still affected by a dream I’d had. The late Jeremy Taylor taught that dreams always come in the service of healing and wholeness. That’s good to know because my dreams can be weird. Often they’re the typical anxiety type. But others are more disturbing and/or puzzling. Thankfully, I’m in a dream work group where we try to work out what might be going on in that scary place called my unconscious. Nevertheless, I often wake up with a dream hangover that affects my mood sometimes for the rest of the day. Thursday was one of those days.

But I got up, poured my coffee, determined to make the best of it. Then I started reading the paper. Yikes! And I thought my dreams were scary. I don’t have to tell you what’s in the news. You’re probably just as upset as I am about the state of the world. I don’t know about you, but I often feel the temptation of fear and hopelessness.

Peace When the World is Falling Apart

Frankly, at first glance the scripture readings for today don’t seem to give much relief. As much as I’ve been taken with the readings from Revelation, I found John’s vision of a new Jerusalem just too good to ever be true. All nations walking in the light of God; all the rulers of the earth bringing their treasures for the good of everyone; no one doing loathsome things or telling lies; a river of life-giving water; a tree of life producing leaves for the healing of the nations. Oh, that it could be so! And when Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Do not let your hearts be troubled; do not let them be afraid,” I wonder: how and where do we find this peace when it feels like the world is falling apart?

This might be disconcerting, coming from a preacher. I mean, we’re supposed to have this spiritual stuff down. But I take comfort in knowing Jesus’ disciples had the same questions.

The thing about peace for them was that they lived under the Pax Romana (Roman Peace). But that was peace acquired and maintained through war. One Roman Emperor claimed that Rome brought “peace through strength.” It’s hard to point the finger only at Rome, though.This philosophy was around before and after the Romans. It’s the way of the world to seek peace by defeating our enemies.

The followers of Jesus knew what life under Pax Romana was. The practice of crucifixion to keep the peace and the destruction of Jerusalem to put down the Jewish rebellion was fresh in their minds. Knowing this historical context, we can see that this peace that Jesus offers – that is not like Pax Romana – was serious business. This is Pax Christi, the peace of Christ. We offer it to one another each and every Sunday, not as just a friendly handshake or hug, but as a way to connect with one another and with Christ on a very deep level.

This is not “peace through strength” but through love. But make no mistake; this love isn’t sentimental, pie in the sky. This peace isn’t “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” conflict avoidance. This peace is radically subversive. This kind of peace is risky. We know that because many of Jesus’ disciples were killed. They didn’t buy into the peace of the world. They subverted it with nonviolence. And that subversion cost them their lives.

Pax Americana

UnknownFollowing Jesus is not always easy. Even when it’s not your life at stake, it might be your freedom, your wealth, your reputation, your comfort level. Last week, there was a call out from a church in Tucson to come and join them in supporting humanitarian aid volunteer Scott Daniel Warren at his trial. His crime? Leaving water, food, clothing, and medicine for migrants crossing the desert. Warren has previously testified that his actions were part of a sincerely-held religious belief that all life is sacred, and that he was compelled to provide aid to migrants, as well as search for their remains, as a volunteer with an organization called No More Deaths. If convicted, he could receive a sentence of up to 20 years.

This is life under Pax Americana, where we have been engaged in wars for almost 20 years. If you have kids or grandkids 18 or younger, they’ve never known a time when we have not been at war.

This is Memorial Day weekend, when we honor those who have fallen in service to their country. And that’s a good and right thing to do. But we should also honor those we often forget: the veterans who commit suicide (an average of 20 every day); those living on the streets with PTSD, alcohol and drug addictions; the veterans of divorce and family break-ups due to mental stress; those struggling to receive the health care they deserve from the government that sent them to war. We pay a heavy price (emotionally, physically, spiritually, morally, as well as financially) to be peacekeepers in the world.

Pax Americana is the historical context in which we live and in which we hear Jesus say, “The kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace.“ And again I wonder: how and where do we find this peace when it feels like the world is falling apart?

The Practice

I started out by telling you I wrote a blog post entitled I Read the News Today, Oh Boy. It was actually a sequel to a video I made for VirtualGrace called A Mantra for Bad Days & Hard Times. The video was more about adopting a spiritual practice for those days when you’re just not feelin’ it, you’re cranky and crabby, and you’ve got stuff that you just don’t want to do. I developed this mantra that I originally learned from a Buddhist teacher, but I adapted to fit my own spiritual beliefs and needs. So here it is: astronomy-galaxy-landscape-2055740-1

May I be happy and healthy

May I be grateful

May I be transformed

Loving and compassionate

Open to your Spirit

Mindful of your Presence

May I be an instrument of your Peace

A word of explanation: by happy, I don’t mean happy (ha! ha!). I mean it more in the sense of being content with my life. But happy has better alliteration with healthy.

As a practice, I go through the sequence a number of times. As I do, I pay attention to the one(s) I’m not doing so great with at that moment. For example, I might not feel very content with my life that day. Or I might not be feeling well, physically or emotionally.

At that point, I’d stop and check in with myself, reflect on why that was the case. Or I might not feel very loving and compassionate. As I reflect on that, I might realize that I’m not being very loving and compassionate to myself. And so on. (If you’re interested, the video is on virtualgrace.org.).

So that was Monday.


Prayers for the Resistance

Love_Gratitude_Resist_(31391486811)On Thursday, I was getting ready to go to my Pilates session, which I definitely did not feel like doing, let along walking almost a mile to the studio. But on my way, I remembered my own advice from the video. Turned out the walk was just the right length of time to go through the mantra, stopping after each phrase to reflect on where I was with that particular prayer. This time, though, I added more to my own personal check-in. I wanted also to pray for spiritual stamina in our trying political situation.

So, “May I be happy and healthy” became a prayer for keeping up my strength and stamina for the on-going work of resistance. Because it does get tiring. In a recent article in Forbes magazine, a life coach who is also a grief counselor said that he’s noticed some of his clients expressing sadness, anger, and depression because of world events. So, my Pilates session, once dreaded, now became a way to prepare for battle. The dream work session that evening would be an emotional girding of loins. I do truly believe that we have to be strong in our center to be affective in our actions in the world.

Then, “May I be grateful” reminded me of all the people out on the front lines doing a lot of hard work, like Scott Daniel Warren and all the volunteers at No More Deaths. We don’t often see them in the news. But they’re out there and we need to search them out and support them as best we can. Being grateful for them helped me to know that, even though under-reported, the forces of light are at work.

“May I be transformed” stirred up thoughts of some of the issues that tend to bring me down, messages from the past that try to discourage me. I think we all have these to some degree. The goal here is to be open to the possibility of healing and wholeness, in spite of whatever life may have thrown at us. As we are transformed, we have the power to transform the world.

“Loving and compassionate” spoke to my need to feel these things for my own self. I am very hard on myself. I would never treat another person the way my inner critic treats me. So this prayer is directed inward as much as it is directed outward. It is the combination of both that creates peace in the world – if only in the space that I occupy at any given time.

Then, “Open to your Spirit; Mindful of your Presence” is a check-in of my spiritual self. It’s like the first prayer for being happy and healthy, the need to be physically and emotionally strong. Awareness of my connectedness to Presence is what keeps me strong in spirit. I do believe that the Holy One is always present in me and around me. It’s my own willfulness and spiritual shortsightedness that keeps me from living fully in that awareness. Bringing it to consciousness jolts me out of my despair into a place of hope and determination.

Finally, “May I be an instrument of your Peace” is a prayer for effectiveness. What should I be doing? How can I best serve? How can I help to change this suffering world? I found this contemporary version of the prayer attributed to St. Francis.

Remind us, Rabboni, to be instruments of your peace.

Let us show love where there is hatred; pardon where there is injury;

union where there is discord; trust where there is doubt;

hope where there is despair; your light where there is darkness;

joy where there is sadness. May we seek rather to console than to be consoled;

to understand than to understood; to love than to be loved.

For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are forgiven;

and it is in dying that we live. Amen

 

This is how I tap into the peace Jesus was talking about – peace that nothing else in the world can give. You might have your own practice, which I would be very happy to hear about. I offer this mantra, not as the be-all-and-end-all of spiritual exercises, but in the hope that you will remember this wondrous gift left to us by Jesus the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by life and it feels like the world is falling apart. Peace that, as St. Paul said, passes all understanding, and is ours for the asking.

May we be open and responsive to the invitation. Amen

frieden

 

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

The angel then carried me away in the spirit to the top of a very high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for God almighty and the Lamb were themselves the temple. There was no sun or moon: God’s glory was its light, and the Lamb was its lamp. The nations will walk by the city’s light, and the rulers of the earth will bring their treasures. The city’s gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does loathsome things or tells lies. Only those whose names are written in the book of life of the Lamb will enter.

The angel then showed me the river of life-giving water, clear as crystal, which issued from the throne of God and of the Lamb, and flowed down the middle of the streets. On either side of the river grew the trees of life which produce fruit twelve times a year, once each month; their leaves serve as medicine to heal the nations. There will no longer be any curse.

The throne of the almighty and of the Lamb will be there, and God’s subjects will serve faithfully. They will see the most high face to face, and bear God’s name on their foreheads. Night will be no more. They will need no light from lamps or the sun, for our God will give them light, and they will reign forever.

John 14: 23-29

Jesus answered, “Those who love me will be true to my Word, and Abba God will love them; and we will come to them and make our dwelling place with them. Those who don’t love me don’t keep my words. Yet the message you hear is not mine; it comes from Abba God who sent me.

This much have I said to you while still with you;

but the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit

whom Abba God will send in my name,

will instruct you in everything

and she will remind you of all that I told you.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; but the kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace. Don’t let your hearts be distressed; don’t be fearful.

You have heard me say,

‘I am going away but I will return.’

If you really loved me,

you would rejoice because I am going to Abba God,

for Abba is greater than I.

I tell you this now, before it happens, so that when it happens you will believe.

 

Posted by: smstrouse | May 5, 2019

Revelation: Part 2

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

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

Arch_of_Titus_Menorah_22Last week I took a detour from the gospel of the day into the strange world of The Book of Revelation. I admit, I’ve become intrigued with this book ever since hearing Elaine Pagels talk about her book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.

Last week I talked about Pagel’s description of Revelation as a wartime book, a coded account of events happening at the time John was writing. Militant Jews in Jerusalem had waged an all-out war against the Roman occupation and their defeat resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. I said that we might imagine John as an old man who had lived through the war, during which Jerusalem was decimated and the Temple leveled. He may have seen the sacred objects of the Temple desecrated and plundered. The above picture from the inside wall of the Arch of Titus in Rome shows a triumphal procession with spoils from the Temple.

 

He may have read the Jewish historian, Josephus, who was there when Jerusalem was captured and the Temple burned:
The countryside like the City was a pitiful sight; for where once there had been a lovely vista of woods and parks there was nothing but desert and stumps of trees. No one, not even a foreigner, who had seen the Old Judea and the glorious suburbs of the City, and now set eyes on her present desolation, could have helped sighing and groaning at so terrible a change; for every trace of beauty had been blotted out by war, and nobody who had known it in the past and came upon it suddenly would have recognized the place: when he was already there he would still have been looking for the City.

Meanwhile, the building of the Colosseum was underway in Rome, funded by the spoils640px-Colosseum_in_Rome,_Italy_-_April_2007 taken from the sack of the Temple. An estimated 100,000 Jewish prisoners had also been brought back as slaves to work in the quarries and on the construction of the massive stone amphitheater, where gladiators -usually slaves, prisoners of war or condemned criminals – fought to the death, vicious cries and curses were heard from the audience around the Roman Colosseum. One contest after another was staged in the course of a single day. When the ground became too soaked with blood, it was covered over with a fresh layer of sand and the show went on.

A friend, recently visiting Rome, wrote on her Facebook page: “I walk past the Coliseum on my way to various shops. it is quite literally at the end of this street and every time I do I shake my head. A monument to the worst in human nature. The amphitheater for murder as a spectator sport. Chilling. NO inclination to get closer.”

Such was the reality of life under the empire. And Revelation paints a vivid picture of that time. Remember too that Christianity was not originally a religion separate from Judaism. John of Patmos was a Jew; Simon Peter and the other disciples were Jews; Paul was a Pharisee. The destruction of the Temple was as much of a disaster for these early Christians as for those Jews who were not followers of Jesus.  As the threat of persecution by the Romans began to arise against the followers of Jesus, they seized on John’s message, as a way of hope for deliverance from evil. And while we may not be 1st century people or read Revelation as a predictor of future events, we still can find a revolutionary message that speaks to our own times.

We still deal with powers and principalities, life and death issues, and apocalyptic scenarios. I was visiting a former member in a nursing home recently and talking about Revelation (I had sent him a DVD of Elaine Pagels), and he immediately brought up the subject of North Korea and the very real alarm at the posturing of ‪Kim Jong-un and the threat of more nuclear missile tests. In fact, his actual question was, “Is the Apocalypse about to happen?” Even if we don’t believe that it’s God waging a cosmic battle against a terrible dragon, we know that – as poet Marianne Moore described poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them – there are very real toads in our garden.

My response was that, while I am alarmed at the posturing of ‪Kim Jong-un (and other world leaders), my apocalyptic angst runs more to fear about the environment, about climate change. He was quite taken aback when I told him that Revelationhad been written as a book of hope. And we talked about how John’s vision could possibly relate to us today in our apocalyptic nightmares.

In light of that conversation, I went back to Revelation to find hope for our beautiful blue-green planet. And I found it in John’s Second Vision (In the Throne Room of Heaven): Then I heard the voice of every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and in the sea. Everything in all creation sang aloud.

earth-day-1439492_960_720We’ve been hearing apocalyptic warnings about the environment for decades now. I remember the first Earth Day in 1970. Inspired by the anti-Viet Nam war movement, 20 million Americans from coast-to-coast demonstrated for a healthy, sustainable world. The idea was the brainchild of then-Senator Gaylord Nelson, Democrat from Wisconsin, who was appalled by the massive oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969. He believed that if the energy of the anti-war movement could be combined with growing awareness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. He announced a national teach-in on the environment and enlisted Pete McCloskey, then a Republican member of the House of Representatives (CA).

It’s rather startling to look back now and see that kind of political cooperation, but it happened. And that first Earth Day led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

Unfortunately, religious communities have been slow in responding, although that is changing. Oh, we’ve given lip service to stewardship of the earth, but for way too long our human arrogance has held sway – and even our theology has supported our beliefs of superiority, entitlement and dominance over creation.  But that’s not correct.

The whole Earth is filled with God’s glory. All things reveal the Divine presence. When we talk about salvation, we’re talking about the whole world, all creatures and living things in, on, above and under it. All creation is singing, and it reminds us that we are part of the divine story that encompasses the universe – or universes, or however we can get our minds around the vastness of the cosmos.

As we listen to the singing, we become more deeply immersed in an understanding of God and of ourselves and of all creation as interconnected and interdependent. As we join in the singing of all creation, we acknowledge our place in the great web of life. We acknowledge that our faith demands our action on behalf of healing the world. We can look upon climate change with dismay, on the latest oil spill with horror, on the melting of the polar ice caps with alarm – as we should.

But not with fear. That’s how most have read The Book of Revelation – with revulsion andNo Fear Sign 3D Rendering fear. But even if we read Revelation as a text about 1st century events, it still offers insight into our reality today. We do deal with frightening scenarios: environmental, political, and societal. These realities have to be acknowledged. We can’t simply bury our heads in the sand, although sometimes that is the temptation. That’s not to say that some times – for our own mental health – we need to disconnect from 24-hour news programs and unending social media commentary. But it doesn’t mean that we disconnect from the problems of world. In fact, we care for our physical, emotional, and spiritual health so we can do the things we’re called to do for the transformation of the world.

 

That, after all, is the message of Easter: the hope of new life, new possibilities, even in the midst of seeming impossibilities, of death, of hopelessness, and despair. I speak to many people who are feeling despair over environmental, political, and societal troubles. We are a people in need of hope. That was my 5-word Easter message from Revelation last week (actually 7 words):  In the Midst of Fear: Radical Hope.

Maybe we felt a boost on Easter Sunday, a glimmer of light shining into the tomb of our current woes. But it’s so easy to fall back into fear and hopelessness. We peek out from our tombs for one bright moment and then crawl back in as we listen to or read the news. But believe it or not, this bizarre Book of Revelation offers us a way out, an exodus, a transformational resurrection experience.

The reality is that we always live with both a threatening and inviting future – even just leaving the house and getting into our car, never mind global apocalypse. But in all things, we have a choice. The choice is to live in fear – or in hope. Yes, there are very real threats and disasters – real toads in the garden. But there are also very real opportunities for us –  encounters, revelations, and invitations by the One to whom we sing, the One who  – leads us forward into life-transforming adventures. As St. Paul (who had his own experience of surprising transformation) said: “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

So the choice for faithful followers of Jesus is neither to throw up our hands and give in to despair nor to take refuge in a pie-in-the-sky faith that assuages us by promising peace in the afterlife. No, we live, as John of Patmos and those early followers did, in the real world – the world that God created and loves so much. And we do our part in working with the Divine spirit of wholeness and healing, participating in the healing of the world, as each of us is called to do – knowing that we’re not working alone.

Obviously, we can’t do it alone. But thankfully we can remember and celebrate the fact that we are part of a great and beautiful web of every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and in the sea, which enables us, with all of creation, to sing.

So my 5-word Easter message for this week is: Alleluia! Let all creation sing!

And so we shall.

Amen

noosphere-earth

Revelation 5:11-14
The whole Earth is filled with God’s glory, all things reveal divinity, and salvation relates to the non-human as well as the human world. Our personal transformation is part of a larger divine process that seeks to birth new creation. Our non-human companions matter – eternally – as receivers and givers of divine inspiration. If the heavens did not give glory to God and the birds of the air sing praises to their creator, it is unlikely that we would be recipients of divine guidance.

It is written . . .
Then in my vision, I heard the voices of many angels who surrounded the throne, together with the living creatures and the elders. They were numberless, thousands and tens of thousands, and they all cried out:
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
to receive power and wealth,
wisdom and strength,
honor and glory and praise!”

Then I heard the voice of every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and in the sea. Everything in all creation sang aloud:
“To the One seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor, glory and dominion
forever and ever!”

The four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell on their faces and worshiped.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | April 28, 2019

In the Midst of Fear: Radical Hope

 

shutterstock_261955472

 

So I asked the congregation this morning, “If I ask you to tell me what you know or think about The Book of Revelation, what would you say?”

“Yikes!” was the first answer to come back.
That about sums up the rest of the responses.

 

My answers were a little more detailed:

  • It’s a scary book.
  • Martin Luther didn’t even think it should be included in the Bible.
  • It’s used to predict the ‘end times.’
  • It doesn’t have any stories, moral teaching. It only has visions, dreams and nightmares.
  • It doesn’t have any relevance for us today

And yet, all through the seven weeks of Easter, our second reading will be from – The Book of Revelation. And frankly, looking ahead, these passages don’t sound all that scary. In fact, they seem to be pretty appropriate for the Easter season.

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come . . .

Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! – sound familiar?

Salvation belongs to our God . . . Blessing and glory and wisdom
 and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! – more liturgy.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth . . . I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven. And I heard a loud voice saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more . . . See, I am making all things new.”

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

Granted, the seven passages chosen for Easter are from the very beginning and the very end of the book. Today’s selection is from the Prologue; the next two weeks’ are from John’s Second Vision: In the Throne Room of Heaven. So far, so good. But then we skip way ahead for the last half of the season to chapters 21 and 22: Visions of a New Heaven and New Earth and of the New Jerusalem.

Dragon-and-woman-revelation-luther-bibelIn between is the scary stuff: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a dragon, plagues, bowls of wrath and the Battle of Armageddon, not to mention a whole lot of very weird imagery. I was at a seminar a while back with religious historian Elaine Pagels, and someone in the audience asked in all seriousness whether studies have been done to determine if John of Patmos had been on some kind of hallucinogenic drug.

Her response was that there are those who think that he was. But she’s not one of them. Her scholarship leads her, and many others, to believe that The Book of Revelation is not a hallucinatory prophecy, but rather a coded account of events happening at the time John was writing. It’s a war-time book. Militant Jews in Jerusalem had waged an all-out war against Rome’s occupation, and they had lost – badly. Their defeat had resulted in the desecration of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE.

We might imagine John, as he remembered  the war, the decimation of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the desecration and plundering of sacred objects from the Temple. He may have seen the thousands of Jews killed and thousands of others carried to Rome as slaves. So he wrote his condemnation of Rome. Although, fearing reprisals, he wrote it in code, which his Jewish readers could understand.

Pagels writes:
Just as the poet Marianne Moore says that poems are ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them,’ John’s visions and monsters are meant to embody actual beings and events.

The Book of Revelation is like one of those old political cartoons where Labor might be ashutterstock_484781506 pair of overalls and a hammer, and Capital a bag of money in a tuxedo and top hat, and Justice a woman in flowing robes. When John says  ‘the beast I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth,’ people would get it. His imagery would have reminded them of the visions in the Book of Daniel, written maybe 200 years earlier, in which Daniel envisioned four beasts, representing four successive empires, each worse than the last, that would conquer Israel, until finally God would end all oppression and bring about the heavenly realm.

John is portraying Rome as the worst empire of all. When he says that the beast’s seven heads are ‘seven kings,’ he’s probably referring to the Roman emperors who ruled since the time of Augustus. And 666, the “number of the beast,” almost certainly refers (by way of Gematria, the Jewish numerological system) to Emperor Nero. Even John’s vision of a great mountain exploding is a reference to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. Revelation is a vivid picture of the present, not a prophecy of the future.

Well, all this is very interesting (at least to Bible geeks like me), but we still have to wonder what it has to do with us. We could accept it simply as an interesting piece of historical writing and leave it at that. Except – John was instructed to write what he saw and send it to seven churches. Remember, this book is teeming with symbolism, especially numerical ones. Seven is the symbolic number for wholeness or completeness – like the seven days of Creation. So even though seven specific congregations are named, the letters are meant to symbolize a message to the entire Church.

This message from the 1st century is also a message for today. Elaine Pagels agrees: Shortly after John wrote the Book of Revelation, Christians fearing persecution from the Romans seized on his message, seeing it as a way of deliverance from evil. For the past 2000 years, Christians have been reading Revelation as if it applies to conflicts and struggles in their own time.

So, if we pay attention to the original context and interpret it properly, we too can find a message of hope in the midst of evil.

I saw an article in New Scientist magazine with the intriguing title, “Books Expose the Rise of Emotionless Zombies.” It turned out not to be about a zombie apocalypse, rather a study that shows that our books indicate that English speakers are becoming less emotional. Researchers calculated the frequency of words associated with six major emotions – anger, disgust, fear, sadness, surprise and joy in the 5 million English-language books digitized by Google Books. They found the use of emotionally charged words had declined over the 20th century – but there was a relative upswing of fear-related words since 1980.

When I read this, I wondered whether this is part of the reason for the shift within Christianity away from being perceived as a fear-based religion, what some have called ‘religious behavior modification,’ with the threat of eternal punishment backing it up – toward an emphasis on our search for meaning in this conflicted world and a connection to a Divine Presence that is more about love than judgment.

 

shutterstock_763039882Think about it. We’ve been a fear-based society for a long time. It certainly didn’t start with the attacks of 9/11 (some of us remember air raid drills during the Cold War).  But it’s sure embedded in us now. Not only are we in a state of endless war, we also have a war on terror and a war on drugs. We hear in the media about ‘the war on Christmas, ‘the war on the family.’ Political stalemate, governmental gridlock, budget cuts.  Global warming – how apocalyptic can you get?!

If that’s not scary enough, we’re bombarded with a plethora of illnesses, conditions and syndromes that we just might need a new prescription to combat. But wait, the possible side effects are even more frightening. Fear is all around. John of Patmos is speaking to usin this poetic language of ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’ And the message is the same; it is the message of Easter. Hope in the midst of suffering. Reassurance that there’s a bigger power at work in the universe than us or our troubles.

There are so many ways that John describes God and the work of Christ; it will take the whole Easter season to unpack some of it. For today, I found myself intrigued with the symbols of the Alpha and the Omega, which evoke a sense of the Being who is beyond and within all being.alpha_pic

Two other descriptions, ‘the one who was’ and ‘the one who is to come,’ evoke a sense of time and timelessness. In the beginning and in the end: God. In the midst of life: God. This is a promise of engagement, of relationship. This is not an aloof and uninvolved God. This is not an absent God who exists beyond us and with no interest in us. God is the one who was, who is and who is to come. Christ is the faithful witness, the revelation of God’s character.

The good news from Revelation is that God’s saving activity is everlasting and universal. God is at work resurrecting our lives ‘yesterday, today, and tomorrow.’ God is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end – so far beyond what we can understand, yet we have seen in Jesus the nature of God, the extraordinary love of God. I think about Mary Magdalene and Peter and the others who experienced revelation on the first Easter, who came to believe that fear, confusion and death did not have the last word. I think about the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to whom Christ was revealed in the breaking of bread. I think of Thomas, who experienced his own revelation, even in the midst of his doubts and all the disciples’ fear. I think of the mystical revelation of the risen Christ to Paul on the road to Damascus. 

And I think of my own revelations, of times that I’ve seen the transformation of someone’s life or attitude or spirit – from impossibility to possibility. And I remember those revelations in my own life. I suppose I come to my appreciation for the Book of Revelation from my early seminary days. My first New Testament professor had just published a book called Revelation for Today: Images of Hope, and I was steeped in his interpretation of the book, not as a nightmarish prophecy, but as a word of hope for suffering people. I’m grateful now to scholars like Elaine Pagels and others, who are also making this strange book maybe a little more accessible and less intimidating to us. 

Especially as we are confronted with the very real toads in our garden: yesterday another attack on a place of worship. No religion is exempt from religiously motivated violence: a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA and now one in Poway, CA; 2 mosques in New Zealand; 3 Christian churches in Sri Lanka. Last week I asked if you would be able to sum up the message of Easter in five words. I came up with “Easter opens up your story.”  But a close second was “Be not afraid. Possibilities abound!” Today my five words are really seven: In the Midst of Fear: Radical Hope.

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A powerful symbol of resurrection is the fire poppy, which grows in areas that have been burned over by wildfires. Their seeds lie dormant for years, until they receive the signal to begin germination. For fire poppies, the signal comes from the smoke from the fire.

In no way does the appearance of this rare flower diminish the horror and destruction of the fire, but the beautiful bloom rising up from the ashes reminds us that new life can come about. In the Midst of Fear: Radical Hope.

And perhaps these Greek letters, that might seem obscure and irrelevant to our own spiritual journeys, can also be a sign for us of the boundless, endless, timeless, Alpha and Omega, A to Z.  They remind us that we live within this inscrutable mystery, this fathomless wonder that loves you and me – and our world.  It is a revelation. It is our hope.

Amen

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Revelation 1:4-8

From John,
To the seven churches in the province of Asia:
Grace and peace to you, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come, from the seven spirits before the throne and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the Firstborn from the dead, sovereign of the rulers of the earth.

To Christ—who loves us, and who has freed us from our sins by the shedding of blood, and who has made us to be a kindom of priests to serve our God and Creator—to Jesus Christ be glory and power forever and ever! Amen.

Look! Christ is coming on the clouds for every eye to see, even those who pierced Jesus, and all the peoples of the earth will mourn over Christ. So be it! Amen.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says our God, “who is, who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | April 6, 2019

There’s Nothing Scarce About Jesus

2019-04-06 21.29.16

A Sermon for Lent 5

24 years ago, 1995 was the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women in the ELCA and it predecessor bodies. A grand celebration was held in Minneapolis and the theme of the gathering was Breaking Open the Jar. The reference was to the alabaster jar of perfume used by a woman to anoint the feet of Jesus. Each attendee received a jar like this one. I still have mine, even as we prepare for the 50th anniversary next year. 

The story of the woman anointing the feet of Jesus is a well known, if sometimes confusing and intriguing one. All four gospels have a version of it, although the details vary. In Matthew and Mark, the incident takes place in the home of Simon the leper; the woman is unnamed; she anoints Jesus’ head with the oil instead of his feet. The disciples complain about the waste of the costly oil.

In Luke’s gospel, the setting is the home of a Pharisee named Simon. The woman is called a “sinful woman” (there is no mention of her sin, but tradition has called her a prostitute). She kisses Jesus’ feet, washes them with her tears and dries them with her hair before anointing his feet with the oil. The one who complains in this version is the Pharisee who criticizes Jesus for interacting with such a person. 

In John’s version, the event takes place in the Bethany home of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha, and Mary. Mary of Bethany (not to be confused with Mary Magdalene) is the one who opens up a pound of pure nard.

What Is Nard?
It was expensive stuff. Nard, actually spikenard, is an oil extracted from the root of aSPIKENARD plant that grows in the Himalayas. This exotic perfume, with its strong, distinctive fragrance, was highly valued in ancient cultures; it symbolized the very best – in the way that “Tiffany diamond” does to us. If you smelled the aroma of spikenard, you knew that you were experiencing the best there was. 

We might wonder how Mary came to possess such an exotic and valuable thing, worth about a year’s salary. Some speculate that this may have been Mary’s dowry. After all, in the Song of Solomon, spikenard is mentioned in reference to the love between bride and groom. The presence of spikenard represented their passion for each other and their desire to have only the best define their love.

But here, she anoints Jesus’ feet with the oil, wiping them with her hair. Judas is the complainer in this version, and the writer of John gives added details of what his problem was. Matthew, Mark, and John have Jesus responding to the criticism, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

There’s Nothing Scarce About Jesus
Before we go any further, we have to take Jesus’ statement out of circulation as a justification for not helping the poor. This story isn’t about giving money to the poor. There are plenty of other stories about that to counter any argument that Jesus didn’t advocate doing so. This is about the anointing of Jesus in an extravagant act of love.

I was visiting with Father Gerry O’Rourke on Friday. Father Gerry is one of the founders of United Religions Initiative, the San Francisco Interfaith Council, and the Interfaith Center at the Presidio. In my opinion, at the age of 94, he’s the godfather of interfaith relations in the Bay Area. I was recording my interview with him for a website called Virtual Grace. He got onto the subject of scarcity, how so often in the church today we operate out of a sense of scarcity. As he said in his wonderful Irish brogue, “There’s nothing scarce about Jesus.”

Well, Mary obviously got that. She recognized the generosity of love that Jesus held for her; she in return poured out her devotion to him.  And neither the original disciples nor we should begrudge her act of devotion, emotion, sensuality – and the foreshadowing of his death, because nard was also used to prepare a body for burial.

We have to recognize what a stunning act this was. In the culture of that time and place, it was taboo for a man to be touched by a woman not his wife. And loose hair on a woman was considered too sensual to be seen by men in Galilean culture (just as it is in some places today).

Jesus had transcended his culture. He didn’t have a problem with being touched by women, or seeing them with their hair down. He didn’t have a problem with talking to a woman at the well or having women as friends and disciples. Remember the Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet in this version of the story is the same one who sat at his feet to listen and to learn.

The Patriarchy Strikes Back
But history does have a way of layering over some of the extraordinary nature of this event. After Jesus died, the radical inclusivity he manifested toward women became more restrictive. Mary Magdalene came to be portrayed as a prostitute, as did the unnamed “sinner” in Luke. Women’s bodies, women’s ways were declared sinful.

Consider these writings from some of the patriarchs of the early Church:
From Saint Clement of Alexandria: “For women, the very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.”

From Tertullian, the father of Latin Christianity: “Woman is a temple built over a sewer.”

From Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo: “Woman was merely man’s helpmate, a function which pertains to her alone. She is not the image of God but as far as man is concerned, he is by himself the image of God.”

And from our own Martin Luther: “The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.”

It’s no wonder so many women have found remaining in the Church untenable.

anointing-his-feet-2In Remembrance of Her
This woman in this story stands as a reminder of the innate goodness of women’s bodies. And in her ministrations to Jesus, she reminds us of the innate goodness of all bodies. In Mark, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

What she has done.

With tears, of all things: such a sign of weakness; who doesn’t fear breaking down and exhibiting such vulnerability?

With her hair: I remember a friend being told by her bishop when she was called to her first congregation that she should get her long hair cut short and permed.

With her hands, providing ministry in a tactile way: hard to do today with our fears of being accused of having boundary issues.

With her respect for Jesus: recognizing that his body was about to be dis-respected, brutalized and destroyed.

With her extravagant generosity: anointing Jesus with a whole pound of nard. But she obviously thought it was worth it for this man who had given so much of himself to others.

No More Dualism!
Mary debunks the hierarchical, dualistic view of reality that we inherited from Greek philosophy and Church patriarchs, in which, for example, the rational mind is valued over the intuitive, spirit is valued over matter, the human is valued over nature, man is valued over woman – and the soul is valued over the body. And Jesus concurs.

Jesus has a body. Jesus is a body. Jesus is a human being, with aches and pains, joys and sorrows. I’m sure after all his teachings and travels, as he prepared to go into Jerusalem to certain death, being recognized as a human body and treated lovingly was just what he needed.

Not more arguments from the Pharisees or questions from the disciples. Simple bodily care. Maybe he remembered Mary’s gift to him when he got up from the dinner table, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.

The Word Was Made Flesh
What does all this mean for us? We should now go around touching each other, crying on one another’s feet? I don’t think so. Boundaries are important. But as we move closer to Good Friday, the humanity of Jesus looms larger. Although we’d like to jump quickly over to Easter and get past the ultimate human reality of death, Good Friday will not let us forget the ubiquitous presence of suffering as part of the human condition. And Mary will not let us forget how to love ourselves and others in the midst of it all.

To deny the physicality of our humanness it to deny the physicality of the Word made flesh. It is also an invitation to unhealthy distortions. Watching again the movie Spotlight, about the uncovering of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of priests’ sexual misconduct in Boston, I couldn’t help thinking that a system that continues to promote the hierarchical dualism of spirit over physical, celibacy over marriage, and men over women, that implies a lesser state – if not shamefulness – in sexuality, will produce dysfunction and the misuse of the God-given gift of sexuality.

The problem is not homosexuality. The problem is our distortion of human sexuality. And until this underlying foundation is dismantled, no manner of punishment of individuals will change the fact that human beings need to be whole. That is, we need to be at home in our physical selves, as well as our spiritual selves.

I’m not just picking on the Catholic Church here, either – although I think they need it. But remember, we’ve got Martin Luther’s legacy to deal with too. We’re not perfect. We’re all products of a culture which if often confused about its physical self. We think we’re not worthy if we don’t look like the airbrushed models in magazines. We have a national obsession with cosmetic surgery. Then there was the controversy over Facebook’s removal of pictures of women breastfeeding their babies. Protestors rightly pointed out the numerous pictures of near-naked models, actors, etc. that did pass the morality test.

We are a mixed-up bunch. But let’s not use Jesus as an excuse. He’s profoundly appreciative of Mary – or whoever the woman was – and her care for his weary body. And let us not forget that “Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Bodies are important. The Word was made flesh and dwelled among us. Yes, the body of Jesus will die. As will ours. But that is no reason not to live in the fullness of our humanity for the time we have – as Jesus did. As Mary did. As Mary teaches us.

Amen

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John 12:1-8
The story of the woman with the alabaster jar is so powerful that it is told in all four gospels. In a demonstration of the kind of servant-leadership that Jesus kept trying to get the disciples to understand, she takes a jar of perfume – which cost at least year’s wages – and pours it over Jesus’ head. In John’s version, she washes Jesus’ feet with it and dries them with her hair – a dramatic and startling act of submission and hospitality, and John’s Jesus acknowledges this. Mark has Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

It is written . . .

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

11138473204_38a0b69bfd_bA Sermon for Lent 4

Parables are curious things
That’s what I said last week when we read the Parable of the Unproductive Fig Tree. I also said that the parables of Jesus can become boring. We’ve become so familiar with them that we stop listening. So today, when you heard the beginning of the story, you might have been tempted to tune out, thinking, “Oh, Parable of the Prodigal Son, got it. Now what all do I have to do when I get home?” But mainly, I said, the real purpose of the parables of Jesus is to provoke us. If we’re not challenged or moved out of our comfort zone, the parable has not done its job. 

To be perfectly honest, the Parable of the Prodigal Son does indeed provoke me. In my opinion, the father is a foolish enabler. I mean, didn’t he ever hear of tough love? And I’m not so sure that the younger son ever really did repent. He realized he could eat better back home than in the pigpen, so he rehearses a good line for dad, who he already knows to be a pushover, and off he goes on his self-serving way.

OK, maybe it’s because I’m the eldest child in my family of origin, but I identify with the elder brother: hardworking, responsible, always trying to do the right thing. Frankly, the whole scenario with the father gushing over the wastrel younger son pushes a whole lot of my buttons. It’s just not fair.

Over the years, I’ve read commentaries and heard sermons praising the father for his generous, unconditional love and forgiveness, applauding the younger son for coming to his senses and humbly crawling back home, and chastising the older brother. Then we’re asked to think about which brother we identify with, presumably not the resentful, churlish one. Needless to say, I have always been provoked.

The Elder Daughter
I remember during my long-ago internship year arguing with my supervisor about his51qbX-DtJLL sermon, which went on and on criticizing the older brother. At the next meeting of my support committee, I was griping about it. And the next Sunday a wonderful elderly woman (whose name I wish I could remember) brought me an article from a journal called Daughters of Sarah, a Christian feminist journal.

The article was called The Parable of the Elder Daughter and it talked about the experience of many women as the caregivers of the family, who were expected to put aside any personal ambition in favor of supporting others.

Although feminist theology / biblical studies had been around for a while, they had not gotten too far yet into seminary curricula or congregational preaching. So I was absolutely delighted to discover this way of looking at the parable. The article not only validated me and my experience, it also taught me to not stop at the surface of the parable, at what seems to be the obvious. It said that it’s not only OK to be provoked by the parable, but one should be annoyed enough to dig more deeply into it.

Coming Home
So now when I read this story, I see two siblings. They could be brothers or sisters; it doesn’t matter because the point of the parable is not who Dad or Mom loved best. It’s about coming home, about being at home. And by ‘home,’ I don’t mean a geographical place, but a spiritual  one in which we are at home with ourselves and in harmony with the One who created us. In this story it’s the father, but it could just as easily be the mother – or both parents.

We were created to be in right relationship with God. But instead of abiding in the unconditional love, peace, and fulfillment of that relationship, we become alienated –not only from God, but also from our true nature. Often, instead of living out of the golden core of Divine love planted within us, we allow the layers of wounding experiences, negative messages, mistakes, shame, failures, and all kinds of things alienate us from our true selves. Often, instead of being centered in Divine Love and seeking after Divine Wisdom, we follow our egos into ventures that promise wealth, security, fame – none of these bad in their own right. But by investing solely in our accomplishments, we become alienated from the true center of our being.

images-1The younger child became an alien by leaving home, by leaving behind a relationship of such generosity that we can hardly imagine it. We tend to compare the extravagance of God to our human parents and it’s too much. You know, one definition of ‘prodigal’ is one who spends or gives lavishly and foolishly. so in this sense, it’s the father who is the prodigal. It’s God who lavishes love on us – even when we think we’re undeserving or beyond redemption. Maybe the kid didn’t really repent. Maybe his motives weren’t entirely pure. Maybe he would break his father’s heart again some day. But it didn’t matter. There was way more than enough love to welcome him home that day.

And what of the older sibling?
He was alienated, too, even though he stayed home. He believed that his worth was tiedimages-2 to what he did. As long as he took care of his father’s business, he could justify his existence. But imagine if for some reason he became unable to continue to be productive, how would he have reacted? Probably the same way we do when we place all of our worth in what we do. By clinging to his belief that he had to be the responsible one, that if he didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done right, he alienated himself from his inheritance of unconditional love and acceptance based, not on his productivity, but simply on his belovedness. By staying away from the party and refusing to be reconciled with his brother, he remained alienated from his true self.

But this is not an either/or story. We can be both of these brothers at different times in our lives, when we turn away from God until we feel the longing to go back home, into the welcoming embrace of Holy Love. I love the way that Bishop John Shelby Spong describes life as prodigals who have returned home:
We are resurrected when we learn that God is present –when we live fully, love wastefully and become all that we are capable of being.

The parable doesn’t tell us if either one of them learned this or became this. The point Jesus was trying to make was not about them, but about us.

As we move through this Lenten season and ever closer to the celebration of Easter, the parable asks us in what ways we feel alienated: from loved ones, from life, from what’s going on around us, from God, from our true selves as unconditionally loved. It asks how might we have contributed to our alienation? What decisions that we’ve made might be reconsidered? What attitudes could be reevaluated?

shutterstock_1321306Our alienation is part of our human condition, our sinfulness, if you will. This is why Lent is a time of repentance, that is, of turning back to God, our Source of Life, Love, and Being. Our Lenten journey through the wilderness is about finding our way home again. Our spiritual practices are meant to help draw us into the center, past the layers of experiences and the needs of the ego. If they are not helping, perhaps we need to try something else. Without living from the center of Divine Grace within us, how could we ever learn how to live fully and become all that we are capable of being – let alone love wastefully?

In the parable, it is the father who does all of the saving action – embracing, welcoming, preparing a celebration. Writer Frederick Buechner writes in Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale that parables like The Prodigal Son can be viewed as comedy:
I think that these parables can be read as jokes about God in the sense that what they are essentially about is the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people.

Well, thank God for that. I know I can be impossible at times, how about you? And I am grateful for the times that God has done the impossible with me and for the times I’ve seen the impossible happen in the lives of others.

So, as we live out our own versions of the Parable of the Prodigal, as we journey through the wilderness of Lent on into the celebration of Easter, may we feel the outlandish, extravagant, unconditional love that comes to us, not only from the outside through Word and Sacrament, but also from within as out Source of Life and Love and Being works in and through us for the healing and wholeness of ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and our world. Amen. 

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Luke 15: 11-32
Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said, ‘Father, give me my share of my inheritance.’ So the father divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son took all he had and went to a distant land where he squandered his property in dissolute living. When everything was gone, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him out to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything.

When he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will go to my father and say, “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. The  son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring out the finest robe for him. And put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then kill get the fatted calf. Let us eat and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 

“Now his elder son was out in the field; and when he came home, he heard music and dancing. He asked one of the servants what was going on. He was told, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he said, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

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