Posted by: smstrouse | June 12, 2017

Why Should We Join the Dance of Trinity?

234x200_inflightWhy don’t you just become Unitarians? I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked that question. When I talk about my understanding of God as the Holy One and of all of creation as part of this One, it’s almost inevitable that someone will ask about the Trinity. How can you still believe in that? It’s especially problematic for Muslims who view the whole three-in-one-ness of God as complete heresy. So why are we still celebrating Trinity Sunday?

Any talk of a holy trinity today might be more about Durant, Curry, and Green, the Big 3 of the Golden State Warriors than about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But actually these three basketball superstars might give us a new and better way to look at an old dusty church doctrine. Well, not just Durant, Curry, and Green. 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’re 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.    Caddyshack clip

But not just for athletes. Back in 1990, a professor of psychology published 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 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 and eyes begin to glaze over. But I’m not going to talk about Trinity in the same old way. For too long we’ve been held hostage by western Christianity’s definition of God that’s based on outdated Greek philosophy. 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 explana-tions of how three could really be one. Which led to other religions like Islam – not buying our ice/water/ steam displays – to call us polytheists. Which led countless Christians to leave the church because they could no longer believe “six impossible things before breakfast.”

But not all early Christians went in this direction. There are other ways of believing 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 with-out 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.”

The 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 everything, 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.”

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) and undercuts all of our dualistic thinking (light/dark; heaven/earth; human/divine; male/female, etc.) that holds us back from being fully human.

How to explain this Law of Three? Let’s take a very current example. “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. 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 com-promise 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 some-thing 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 isn’t 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 between them; the infinite love between 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 a behavior.

So we want to get with the flow, which is all about creativity, growth, transformation, connection with the Divine and all that is. Sounds good, right? But how do we get into flow?

It’s like the answer to the question of how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Kevin Durant doesn’t get in the zone without picking up the ball and shooting 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’re already in the flow, you’re 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.”

What practice? First of all, setting the intention to open your heart and mind. Then, seeking the practice that fits you best. Last week I talked about breath prayer. Or simply the practice quieting the mind in meditation. Finding quiet time. Listening to meditative music. Believe me, I know these things do not come easily or naturally to most of us. That’s why intention and practice are key. I also suggest taking a look at Richard Rohr’s blog about this: 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 under-standing 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.

Times 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. And I’m glad to see the hymn that Orion chose for the hymn of the day because it’s been in my head all week. I hope that as we sing it, we’ll begin to get in the zone, get with the flow and join the dance of Trinity.


Genesis 1:1-2:4a
The Genesis reading doesn’t directly address the issue of the Trinity, although it does suggest a complexity in God, with the phrase, “Let us make humankind in our image….male and female [God] created them.” God is alive, many-faceted, and as wondrously complex as God’s creation. This is “our” creation story, our poetry, and needs to be told in light of our understanding of other creation stories and the universe story of today’s scientists.

 Video   In The Beginning Part 1: Creation

2 Corinthians 13:11-13
The passages represents an early attempts at articulating the Trinity, the wondrous incarnational presence of God. This is not the “threeness” misunderstood by Islam’s founders, as separate beings, and thus idolatrous representations of the One God. Instead, it is a unity of the spirit in which, despite the grandeur and infinity of God, the apophatic and “hidden” God, God is one in the Spirit and one in Christ. God’s moral nature is unified.

It is written . . .
And now, dear friends, I must say goodbye. Mend your ways. Encourage one another. Live on harmony and peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints send greetings to you. The grace of our Savior Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all!

Matthew 28:16-20
Trinity Sunday may be an “era piece,” but it may also be a day to celebrate a God who is still creating, who speaks in diverse ways, whose creativity and redemption embraces all creation, and who challenges us to go beyond all divisive and exclusive theologies to affirm the wonders of God’s creative love.

It is written . . .
The Eleven made their way to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had summoned them. At the sight of the risen Christ they fell down in homage, though some doubted what they were seeing. Jesus came forward and addressed them in these words:
“All authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth. Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of Abba God (the Father) and of the Only Begotten (Son) and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And know that I am with you always, even until the end of the world.”






Posted by: smstrouse | May 28, 2017

Jesus’ Mystical Prayer

opte_internet“ . . . that they may be one, even as we are one,” Jesus prayed. This verse comes near the end of the longest prayer of Jesus in any of the gospels, the so-called “Farewell Prayer.” I wonder if you can remember a time when you were saying good-bye and you were leaving final instructions to your kids or the house sitter – and you wanted to really make sure they under-stood about the plant watering schedule or the garbage pick-up day. You may have repeated yourself, right? “Are you sure you have our emergency number” or “Did I tell you not to over water the fichus?” If you’ve been on the receiving end of these instructions, you may have been rolling your eyes by this time and wishing they’d just get going. That wasn’t the case with the disciples and Jesus. In this account written by the author of John’s gospel, we may not have the actual words of Jesus. But I believe that as we read it through their eyes, we can hear the final farewell message with its repetition of the most important thing to remember about Jesus.

The prayer continues: “Abba, I’m not praying just for these disciples. I’m also praying for those who’ll believe in me through them (that’s us!) – that all may be one, as you’re in me and I’m in you; I pray that they may be one in us. I’ve given them the glory you gave me so they may be one, as we are one – I in them, you in me – that they may become perfect in unity.” I think we get the message! Jesus wants there to be unity among us.

But what is this unity? In The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, John Shelby Spong clarifies: “The desired outcome is not ecclesiastical unity, (that is to say the unity of the church), which is how this prayer has been interpreted by the church. That interpretation, that usage is always in the service of institutional power. Nor is it content or doctrinal unity, as various councils of the church have so often implied and sought to impose. It is not a unity imposed on any basis from outside the service of any agenda. No, the unity of which this prayer speaks is the oneness of the human with the divine that has been the constant theme of this gospel. It is the unity of the vine with the branches. It is a mystical experience of oneness – not a oneness in which individuality is lost, but a oneness in which individuality is affirmed, security is surrendered and new being is entered.”

In other words: the way in which Jesus’ followers understood Jesus is as opening up all of humanity up to a new understanding of what it means to be human. A way of being in the world that understands our origins in the One and our existence as One. And frankly, this radical expression of our humanity as being One with the divine, or seeing divinity in humanity changes everything. But most importantly, it changes the way in which we relate to God. God is no longer expressed as some far off distant supernatural being, but rather as an intimate, integral being, in which we live and move and have our being.

I’ll be honest. I never got this message from John’s gospel before. I always took this oneness as the call to cooperation among different Christian denominations or finding agreement among church members. John’s gospel, in general, was a mystery to me. I liked some of the more esoteric aspects of it – like the opening “In the beginning was the Word.” But when I thought I had to take stories like the raising of Lazarus literally, I had major problems with John. I would have agreed with Fred Plumer’s review of Bishop Spong’s book. Plumer, the executive director of wrote: “Over the years I’ve wondered if Christianity would have been better off if the Gospel of John had not been made part of the canon. Ever since the 4th century, this Gospel has been used to support some of the most exclusive and divisive religious creeds in history. In my opinion it has had far too much influence on the development of modern Christianity.”

But his mind was changed by Spong who wrote: “My study has convinced me, first, that the gospel of John is a deeply Jewish book, and second, that by reading it through the lens of Jewish mysticism, our generation is given new doors for understanding this gospel.”

I was thinking about the Interspritual Wisdom event that we had back in 2010 featuring teachers from the Spiritual Paths Institute. It was unfortunate that the Christian member of the faculty was unavailable that weekend and we had to scramble to find a replacement. I say it was unfortunate because Christianity isn’t well known for its mystical tradition. That’s becoming less true. There has been a resurgence of interest in this part of our tradition. For instance, Julian of Norwich who in the 14th century referred to God as Mother as well as Father because she saw us as coming forth from the essence of the ONE who is the Source of all things. Even Jacob Boehme, the 16th century Lutheran wrote: “You must realize that earth unfolds its properties and powers in union with Heaven above; there is one Heart, one Being, one Will, one God, all in all.”

This was after all, the core experience of Jesus. He knew that he and his Abba were One. His whole life: divine/human, reclusive/public, teaching/listening was predicated on there being a unity – union between himself and the very Source of Life. As Julian says, our longings for God are at the heart of our being. Deep within us are holy, natural longings for oneness, primal sacred drives for union. We may live in tragic exile from these longings, or we may have spent a whole lifetime not knowing how to truly satisfy them, but they are there at the heart of our being, waiting to be born anew.

Now if you really want to delve into articulating this yearning for unity, ask the Sufis.
There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled.
There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled.
You feel it, don’t you?
You feel the separation from the Beloved.
Invite the Beloved to fill you up, embrace the fire.
Remind those who tell you otherwise that
Love comes to you of its own accord,
and the yearning for it cannot be learned in any school.     Rumi

Ending this separation is a major theme and primary goal of Sufi practice. Again from Rumi: “In real existence there is only unity.” And “In things spiritual, there is no partition, no number, no individuals. How sweet is the oneness – unearth the treasure of Unity.”

I believe that every religious tradition offers us all a gift. As one who’s been dipping her toes into Sufi practice, I know that their gift is the acknowledgement of our longing for union with the Divine and the practice that offers a way to experience it. Actually the Gospel of Mary leads us in this direction. Cynthia Bourgeault (our missing Christian presenter) sees a much more Eastern influence in Mary, less attention to sin and more to divine unity. So this is in our tradition, too.

So I rejoiced when I read Bishop Spong’s conclusion that “the call of Christ is not into religion but a new mystical oneness.” Maybe we’re all moving toward being “spiritual but not religious.” Or maybe our religion is returning to its roots. Maybe our religion should be primarily about encouraging us in our spiritual practice, in our quest for fulfillment of our basic human longing for unity.

Not that this negates other aspects of life as a disciple. Rather, following the example of Jesus, awareness of this unity becomes the basis for everything else: for an ethic of compassion and justice, for solidarity with all of creation, for worship and praise, for every aspect of our lives in the world. This is what Jesus prayed for us.

Now the question becomes: how will we be church if our primary goal is to guide our practice of seeking union with the Divine? What supports that goal? What hinders it? I’ll be honest here; I don’t have answers. But it’s something I think about. I’ve been reading a lot about the Sufi practice of sohbet or spiritual conversation. Kabir Helminski: “Sohbet is not sermon or lecture, but discourse, storytelling, encounter, and spiritual courtship. It is how God’s lovers share and intensify their love.”

I’ve been wondering how I might be a better facilitator of such conversations – and if others are feeling the same longing and desire for such esoteric explorations. Maybe not. I’ve been channeling John Lennon:
You might say I’m a mystic. But I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join me. And the world will be as one.

Jesus prayed, “ . . . that they may be one, even as we are one.”

May this be our prayer as well.


Acts 1:6-14

The disciples had to grow up and the Jesus movement had to flourish on its own. As Jesus “ascends” to the heavens, the disciples quite naturally gaze upward, but are then told to focus on this earth rather than heaven. Their work is here in this world. Jesus’ earthly ministry inspires their future ministries. Christ’s resurrection inspires them to commit themselves to healing the good earth. But, before they go forth to transform the world, they immerse themselves in prayer. Prayer orients us toward God’s vision and enables our actions to be grounded in divine wisdom and power.  It is written . . .

While meeting together they asked, “Has the time come, Rabbi? Are you going to restore sovereignty to Israel?”
Jesus replied, “It’s not for you to know times or dates that Abba God has decided. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”
Having said this, Jesus was lifted up in a cloud before their eyes and taken from their sight. They were still gazing up into the heavens when two messengers dressed in white stood beside them. “You Galileans, why are you standing here looking up at the skies?” they asked. “Jesus, who has been taken from you – this same Jesus will return, in the same way you watched him go into heaven.”
The apostles returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, a mere Sabbath’s walk away. Entering the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying—Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James ben-Alphaeus; Simon, a member of the Zealot sect; and Judah ben-Jacob. Also in their company were some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary, and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. With one mind, they devoted themselves to constant prayer.
The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene 9:2-7
The text resumes (4 pages are missing from the manuscript) in the middle of an account of the rise of the soul to God. Mary recounts the Savior’s revelation about the soul’s encounters with four Powers, which seek to keep it bound to the world below. In this portion, the second power, Desire, address the soul, which replies and then ascends to the next level.   It is written . . .
And Desire said, “I did not see you go down, yet now I see you go up. So why do you lie since you belong to me?”
The soul answered, “I saw you. You did not see me nor did you know me. You mistook the garment I wore for my true self. And you did not recognize me.”
After it had said these things, it left rejoicing greatly.

John 17:1-11
Jesus prays for our protection and well-being as individuals and communities. Studies have indicated that prayer is good medicine. In an interdependent universe, our intercessions may create a positive field around those for whom we pray, allowing positive energies to emerge in their lives and opening the door to a greater influx of divine activity. If God’s presence in the world is always contextual and relational, then our prayers help create open systems that more permeable to God’s visions.  It is written . . .

After Jesus said this, he looked up to heaven and said, “Abba, the hour has come! Glorify your Only Begotten that I may glorify you, through the authority you’ve given me over all humankind, by bestowing eternal life on all those you gave me.

And this is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and the one you have sent, Jesus, the Messiah. I have given you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. Now, Abba, glorify me with your own glory, the glory I had with you before the world began. I have manifested your Name to those you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me; and now they have kept your word.

Now they know that everything you’ve entrusted to me does indeed come from you. I entrusted to them the message you entrusted to me, and they received it. They know that I really came from you; they believe it was you who sent me. And it’s for them that I pray—not for the world, but for these you’ve given me – for they are really yours, just as all that belongs to me is yours, and all that belongs to you is mine. It is in them that I have been glorified. I am in the world no more, but while I am coming to you, they are still in the world. Abba, holy God, protect those whom you have given me with your Name – the Name that you gave me – that they may be one, even as we are one.

Posted by: smstrouse | May 13, 2017

I’m with Her on Mothers Day

10274166_10203021373468572_6063021794519708667_nI would never call my mother a feminist. The closest she ever came was when she called my father a male chauvinist pig. It wasn’t something that I – nor, I’m sure, my father – never expected to come out of her mouth. She’d been the good, subservient 1950s wife.

It wasn’t until after her death that I learned what a strong young woman she’d been. And I had to admit that it was her strength that enabled her to survive a difficult marriage and life in a patriarchal culture. I also had to acknowledge that I had inherited that strength – albeit along with some other less desirable traits. But years of therapy have enabled me to (mostly) separate the wheat from the chaff and I can honor Mildred “Millie” Esther (Ludy) Strouse  on Mothers Day.

I also honor other strong women, such as:517ojHaEqSL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobbyflat,800x800,070,f.u1


Sally Yates

Elizabeth Waren
The National Co-Chairs of the Women’s March on Washington:  Tamika D. Mallory, Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour, Bob Bland . . .

and all the women around the world who marched


Happy Mothers Day!


Posted by: smstrouse | May 9, 2017

Organ Farewell

image002On Sunday, we bid farewell to our beautiful pipe organ  in a glorious celebration of music and musical talent. First United installed the Woodberry & Harris organ in the chapel at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary after we sold our building in 2007. But now, as PLTS prepares to move to a new location, we have to find a new home for this lovely instrument. PLTS will leave the campus at the top of Marin Avenue on May 27, so we held our Sunday service in the Chapel of the Cross.

Click here for the story of how First United acquired the organ in 1995 from a church on Catalina Island: Easter IV and PLTS organ exit May 7 2017

Pastor Jeff Johnson, First United’s pastor at the time, and organist/music director Orion0636396-R1-029-13 Pitts shared stories of traveling to Catalina to dismantle and carefully pack the organ, load it onto a barge to take it to the mainland, then drive it to San Francisco to be installed in the church at 30th and Geary. Here are some pictures of it taken at my installation in 2005.




Pastor Kathryn Gulbranson, assistant to Bishop Mark Holmerud of the Sierra Pacific Synod, was our guest preacher. And council president Tamara Alliston wrote this beautiful prayer:

We pray a prayer of blessing for this organ and most especially those who play it;
for the songs and the musicians who write and sing them;
for the spaces that have and will continue to house it – and the communities that enjoy it;
for the people who will listen to it and whose spirits and voices rise to its music;
for those who assemble and disassemble, store, move, repair, and maintain it;
for the moments and lives that will be more beautiful for its sound;
May the inspiration that it has given us be carried forward with our blessings into its future –
and may FULC be woven into its music as a rich and integral part of its story.

Posted by: smstrouse | May 5, 2017

Opposing #45’s Executive Order on Religious Liberty

I wrote this blog post 5 years ago in response to “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” That scheme was dumb enough, but now it’s back in the form of an executive order. I opposed it then and I still oppose it now.

“Pulpit Freedom” Is Redundant, People

It makes me want to scream!  ‘Pulpit Freedom’ – really?!  As Dorothy Parker would say, “What fresh hell is this?”

The Alliance Defending Freedom has declared October 7th to be ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday.’  Their web site declares: “The future of religious freedom depends on a free pulpit to communicate fundamental, biblical principles to congregations across America.”  Those ‘biblical principles’ include ‘the sanctity of life, and marriage and family,’ so you see where they’re coming from.

The whole scheme was actually devised to challenge the IRS’  prohibition of churches making political endorsements, claiming that it violates the First Amendment.  They’re hoping that by  making this so-called stand on the 7th, recording their sermons and sending them to the IRS, the IRS will remove their tax exempt status.  This will then allow them to challenge the law in court. And so, as a pastor, I am invited to “join a growing movement of bold pastors preaching biblical Truth about candidates and elections from their pulpits on October 7, 2012.”

One blogger’s response to this news was: “Bring it on. Every time one of these fundie grifters pulls a stunt like this, a new atheist gets his wings.”  As much as I cringe when I read responses like this, I totally get it.  If this is the defining picture of Christianity, let me out as well.

But it’s not!  As a pastor, I already have ‘pulpit freedom.’  That freedom is the gospel. That freedom is solid and current biblical scholarship.  That freedom is preaching an interpretation of that scholarship for life in the 21st century.  That freedom is knowing that the people who hear and read my words have the ability to take in the gospel and apply it to their own lives, including making decisions about who they will vote for.  I do not need to hold their hands as they go into the voting booth.

And I do not need to worry about my ‘pulpit freedom; I already have it.  The term is redundant.  This claim that “the future of religious freedom depends on a free pulpit to communicate fundamental, biblical principles to congregations across America” is simply a scam. They want to give their right-wing religion and their right-wing politics  more power. In the process, they just may force the hand of the IRS and cause all churches to pay the price of their folly.  There are many people who would rejoice at the news of churches losing tax exempt status. But if, as government-funded social programs are being cut, and churches are expected to pick up the slack, then they had better recognize that and continue to give us a break!

So – on October 7th, I will be exercising my freedom and preaching on the day we honor St. Francis, patron saint of animals and the environment, known for his compassion for the poor and vulnerable.  That’s the gospel I know; that’s the freedom I know. And even though I believe that the gospel St. Francis lived would have us lean toward one presidential candidate over another, I will leave that decision up to each individual’s conscience.

That is freedom.

Posted by: smstrouse | May 1, 2017

The Long and Winding Road to Emmaus

shutterstock_543908923“We were hoping.” There’s a lot of feeling packed into those three little words. Hoping: that powerful state that lives in the hearts of those who long for something better. We can be fueled for a long time on hope. Hope is what makes life worth living. But the disciples on the road to Emmaus had said, “We were hoping.” That longing is in the past; hope is now gone.

How many times have we been there? In that emotional void that comes after feeling so optimistic about the future, but now facing the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams. After being certain that things will work out for the best, but now trying to adjust to the realization that they won’t. It’s an unpleasant place to be, as Cleopas and his companion discovered. “We were hoping that Jesus was the one who would set us free.” Maybe they’d been on the road into Jerusalem when Jesus had ridden in on that donkey; maybe they’d even waved palm branches in wild enthusiasm and unbridled hope. Now here they were, trudging out of Jerusalem, away from hope, into what? What can fill the void expressed in “We were hoping”?

The simplistic answer is: Easter. In these weeks of the Easter season, we have the stories of the resurrected, living Jesus appearing to devastated disciples and transforming their despair into renewed hope in possibilities not even previously imagined. In “Bible time” the void doesn’t last very long. Jesus dies, but three days later, he lives. The joy of the travelers on the road to Emmaus came on the very same night of that first Easter day.

These are wonderful stories, but we know that our time in the void between disappointment and renewed hope is hardly ever that short. We have to sit with the pain and discomfort of “we were hoping” for as long as it takes to reach the other side – and there’s no formula or proscribed time frame for the process. Or we could say that we walk on the road to Emmaus for as long as it takes us to get to where our eyes are opened and our hearts are warmed.

Now I’ve been to Emmaus. I once actually lived just down the road from the town in PA named after the one near Jerusalem. Wherever that one really is. Unlike Emmaus, PA no one is quite sure. There are at least four towns in Israel that claim to be the site of the Easter night story, but none of them can make a definitive and unchallenged claim – which once led the late biblical scholar Marcus Borg to conclude that Emmaus is both nowhere and every-where. Emmaus is nowhere precisely because Emmaus is everywhere. So, surprise: it’s a metaphor! The road to Emmaus is the one on which we all walk in the space in-between.

The actual road may or may not have been seven miles, but seven is one of those biblical numbers that tell us that there’s more going on here than factual history. In reality the road may feel more like 70 or even 700 miles. I heard something similar at the Sufi retreat I attended in January. It was called “40 Days: the Alchemy of Tranquility.” Again, 40 is one of those biblical numbers. Like 7, it implies sacredness, a perfect timing. But as the retreat leader explained, the length of the “40 days” might be 4 minutes or 40 years. It’s the process that is important, as well as our openness to what will happen within us on the journey.

I was back at Gettysburg Seminary last week for my 30th reunion. Maybe that’s why one of my fellow classmates came to mind. In the spring of my senior year, my neighbor down the hall from me in student housing, expressed her anger about the upcoming Easter holiday. Her mother had died just a month earlier and she was still grieving. She didn’t want to jump into the celebration of resurrection; she was still on the road to Emmaus. She might have said, “I had hoped to have my mother around for many more years.” Acknowledging in this way her experience of the space in-between didn’t take away her belief in resurrection; it simply named her experience.

I’m thinking today about the people who have gathered today for Jane’s memorial service. Even if you never met Jarie or Jane, you can imagine the heartbreak of her illness and death at such a young age. Jarie might have said today, “We had hoped for a long and happy life together.” His road to Emmaus will be a long and difficult one.

And it’s not just about death either. These two stories are not meant to take anything away from your stories, my stories, our stories – of the roads to Emmaus on which we’ve all walked. “We had hoped . . .” You can fill in the blank with hopes concerning your life, your family, for this church, for our country.

We had hoped that by now racism would no longer be an issue in our society. We had hoped humanity would have finally come together in resolve to heal our planet. We had hoped that misogyny would not be tolerated in the halls of power. We had hoped . . . for so much. But then our hopes were crushed. And here we are – as Willie Nelson sang – “on the road again.”

So now what? There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of good news here other than this is just a fact of life. Except there’s more to the story. It ends in Emmaus, but something happens along the way. The risen Christ shows up – not in a big show of power and glory, but in companionship on the journey, in listening to the travelers speak of their shattered hope, in allowing them to name their loss.

This is what we can do as we accompany others on their Emmaus road. Accompany and listen. And we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable in naming our own losses and allowing others to accompany and listen to us. No matter where we are in processing disappointment and loss, we are all on the road together.

Which brings me to the heart of the matter. We are all on the road together, but there is more than even our collective presence. We are also together as the presence of Christ in and to one another. This presence is finally manifested to Cleopas and company in the breaking of the bread, and readers of Luke’s gospel have seen from the beginning the allusion to the Communion meal. Glimpses of new hope, tiny sparks of life in broken hearts, the shimmer-ing of promises of an open future – are somehow made known in this ritual of eating bread and drinking wine. Refreshment and strength for the on-going journey.

At a recent event hosted by the Jesus Seminar, one of the speakers had a different view. He wondered whether it was time for the Christian church to give up on Communion. My friend sitting next to me said she heard me gasp. Although I definitely got where he was coming from. He had two points. First was that the theology of participating in a blood sacrifice is untenable to progressive Christians. Which is true, but that’s not the only theological under-standing out there. We just have to do a better job of letting people know that this is a meal of love, not a reenactment of a ritual killing.

His second point was that the Communion table has been a barrier for some people to be fully included in the life of the church. We’ve put up rules and roadblocks to determine who can and cannot partake. Again I had to respectfully disagree that this was the way it has to be.

No matter how you believe Christ is present, in Holy Communion we enter into a mystery. This mystery is a space in which the limits of the road fall away and for just a moment we might experience just a glimpse of new hope, just a tiny spark of life, just the shimmer of a promise. Each Sunday when we say “We are the body of Christ” and “The Spirit of Christ is in us,” we are acknowledging this wonder. It’s the time of our greatest solidarity as a community – as we come together both to confess our losses and broken dreams and to receive nourishment to go out and make a better world.

That’s Easter. It’s not usually a quick and easy resolution, rather a slow and steady walk on the road to Emmaus on which we will find that the spirit of Christ is indeed with us – even when we’re not feeling it or recognizing it. The journey from “We were hoping” to “Christ is risen” may be seven miles or seventy. But it doesn’t matter. The process of resurrection is always happening, the road to transformation is always ongoing. We may not know where that original Emmaus was, but that doesn’t matter either. Emmaus is nowhere, and that means that Emmaus is everywhere. In your heart and mine. And we are going there together.


LUKE 24:13-35
Life is Eucharistic. Christ comes to us in formal celebrations of communion. Christ also comes to us whenever we share meals with open hearts. Christ comes in the hungry stomachs of the poor and our hungers for healing. We will discover Christ in walking with those who hunger for grace. We will find our own wholeness as we invite Christ to be our companion on the daily journeys of life.


It is written . . .


That same day, two of the disciples were making their way to a village called Emmaus— which was about seven miles from Jerusalem – discussing all that had happened as they went. While they were discussing these things, Jesus approached and began to walk along with them, though they were kept from recognizing Jesus, who asked them, “What are you two discussing as you go your way?”

They stopped and looked sad. One of them, Cleopas by name, asked, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened these past few days?”
Jesus said to them, “What things?”

“About Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet powerful in word and deed in the eyes of God and all the people – how our chief priests and leaders delivered him up to be condemned to death and crucified him. We were hoping that he was the One who would set Israel free. Besides all this, today – the third day since these things happened – some women of our group have just brought us some astonishing news. They were at the tomb before dawn and didn’t find the body; they returned and informed us that they had seen a vision of angels, who declared that Jesus was alive. Some of our number went to the tomb and found it to be just as the women said, but they didn’t find Jesus.”
Then Jesus said to them, “What little sense you have! How slow you are to believe all that the prophets have announced! Didn’t the Messiah have to undergo all this to enter into glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted for them every passage of scripture which referred to the Messiah. By now they were near the village they were going to, and Jesus appeared to be going further. But they said eagerly, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening—the day is practically over.” So the savior went in and stayed with them. After sitting down with them to eat, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, then broke the bread and began to distribute it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus, who immediately vanished from their sight.


They said to one another, “Weren’t our hearts burning inside us as this one talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?” They got up immediately and returned to Jerusalem, where they found the Eleven and the rest of the company assembled. They were greeted with, “Christ has risen! It’s true! Jesus has appeared to Simon!” Then the travelers recounted what had happened on the road, and how they had come to know Jesus in the breaking of the bread.


Posted by: smstrouse | April 10, 2017

Ewoks, C3PO, and a Subversive Jesus


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds like resurrection to me.

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

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



shutterstock_601451237 copy

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

 It is written . . .

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

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

 It is written . . .

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

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

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

It is written . . .

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

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

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







Posted by: smstrouse | April 8, 2017

45 Proclaims National Sexual Assault Awareness Month?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: smstrouse | March 31, 2017

Preaching John without Blaming the Jews

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Words do matter.









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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the suggestions in Reconciling Works toolkit include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These practices have already been adopted in our synod.

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

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

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



Jonah 1-4   Readers Theater
Adapted from

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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