Posted by: smstrouse | April 28, 2019

In the Midst of Fear: Radical Hope




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.


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.










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.




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. 


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.’”

Posted by: smstrouse | March 26, 2019

Lent Is About Giving a Fig

UnknownA classic tough-guy movie scenario goes something like this. One macho type says to the other, “Is that a threat?” The other one, swaggering and hitching up his pants, replies with a menacing glare, “No, that’s a promise.” shutterstock_1020688099

Today’s gospel could be said to contain both a threat and a promise. Although I’m not so sure that we don’t usually heard the promise as a threat, too. Jesus starts out by dismissing the kind of theology that says that God inflicts suffering on people as a judgment for their sinfulness.

We know that theology. Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to good people. Job’s friends seek comfort in this idea when they see loss after loss piled upon their friend. There must be something you have done to deserve this,they insist. Repent of your sin.But Job maintains that he is innocent. God is silent through much of the book of Job, and when God finally shows up, we hear nothing to explain why Job suffers. God’s response to Job’s friends? I paraphrase: “Shut up you idiots!”

central_mpls_081809_02Jesus likewise shows little patience for pious speculation on the suffering of others. Although, as we know, in some Christian quarters, that kind of thinking is still around. Remember how after the 9/11 attacks, Jerry Falwell quickly blamed LGBT people and feminists for bringing judgment upon us? Televangelist John Hagee  claimed that Hurricane Katrina was the result of New Orleans’ toleration of homosexuality. And who could forget the tornados that ripped through Minneapolis on August 19, 2009 as the ELCA was debating the controversial statement on human sexuality? When news that the steeple of the church hosting the assembly had been damaged, of course, the ELCA was to blame. A Baptist minister said on the news that evening, “The tornado . . . was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA: turn from the approval of sin.”

Funny how these judgments are always about sexuality. Doesn’t God have any warnings for us about war, or gun violence, or economic disparity? But Jesus dismisses all of this kind of judgmental blaming:“Do you think the people who were killed by the falling tower in Siloam were more guilty than anyone else? Certainly not!” Oh, whew! We’re all off the hook.

Except then he says, “You’ll all come to the same end unless you change your ways.” Uh oh, definitely a threat implied there. But then, he goes back into “promise” mode. In the parable of the fig tree, he offers hope to those who haven’t been living up to God’s expectations. But then again, the twist: If it doesn’t bear fruit next year, then cut it down.” Uh oh again. We’ve got a real mixed bag here of threat and promise.

Well, it is Lent. We’re supposed to be thinking about sin and repentance. But I’m afraid that oftentimes the promise part of what Jesus says is overshadowed by the threat. It’s like when you have an employee evaluation and hear nine nice things about yourself and one criticism. What do you remember most and carry with you? The one criticism, right? I think it might be the same with threat and promise.

That’s why I’d like to spend a little more time with this fig tree parable. Parables are curious things. They’re stories that are intended to make us think. Jesus often used parables to get a point across. The problem with parables (the challenge) is that the point is not always obvious. Actually, when it seems to be obvious, we’ve probably missed the point. Another problem is that we’ve become so familiar with the biblical parables that we stop listening: “Oh, right, Parable of the Good Samaritan, got it.”

I think parables are kind of like the koans of Zen Buddhism. As you may know, a koan is a paradoxical statement or question, like a riddle or puzzle, used in meditation. The point of the koan is to exhaust the analytical mind in order to open it up to a more intuitive way of understanding. How else could you even begin to approach statements like “What is the sound of one hand clapping” or “Show me your Original Face, the face you had before your parents were born.”

In the same kind of way, the parables of Jesus are meant to provoke. As John Dominic Crossan said, “If an audience kept complete silence during a challenge parable from Jesus and if an audience filed past him afterward saying, ‘Lovely parable, this morning, Rabbi,’ Jesus would have failed utterly.” 

So let’s see if we can provoke anything in us with this fig tree. It turns out that fig trees Unknown-1are pretty interesting. They’ve been around since ancient times, and from what I’ve read, they’re pretty adaptable plants. They can grow in dry and sunny areas, with deep and fresh soil, but also in rocky areas and places with nutritionally poor soil. Another kind of fun fact about fig trees is that they require pollination by a particular species of wasps to produce seeds.

As metaphors go, there’s some good stuff here. Our faith is able to thrive in the good times, in places conducive to nurturing hope and trust. But it can also grow quite well in the rocky times. In places where there’s little spiritual nutrition, we’re able to put our roots down deep to find what we need.

8344566087_c07a1951fc_bBut those wasps. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like wasps. They sting; they’re to be avoided. Except, for the fig tree they’re necessary for regeneration. Then I was reminded of the time a spiritual director encouraged me to see difficult people as gifts from God who could teach me about compassion and other spiritual gifts.  Hmm. Could these people and even situations that sting be like those wasps? I admit that I didn’t like hearing that advice any more than hearing that wasps are beneficial to the web of life. But there it is. Gifts from God.  Every one of them.

Another reason I’m fascinated with this story is that Jesus wasn’t saying anything particularly shocking about the fig tree. We know that in nature things that are useless eventually die out. Take for example blue whales (another fun fact). Blue whales used to have teeth. But they don’t anymore. In their evolution from land to sea mammals, they’ve developed something called baleen combs in the front of their mouths, which filter the plankton, krill and small fish they gulp in with the water.

So the owner of the vineyard was simply expressing the truth of evolutionary biology. He wasn’t seeking to punish the plant; he was simply acknowledging that the tree wasn’t fulfilling its purpose.

What that says to me is that we each need to consider why God has put us here.  In a book called The Evidential Power of Beauty, Thomas Dubay elaborates on this. It’s a bit philosophical, but bear with me:

Form is the deep root of a being’s actuality, which gives it its basic whatness. It is the actualizing principle of a thing, the mysterious taproot that makes that thing to be what it is, and thus why it is different from every other kind of being. The inner form . . . of a palm tree makes it different from an oak, a corn stalk, indeed, a squirrel—even though all are made of atoms.

In other words, you have a basic and unique whatness?

Do you know what that is? And can you say how are you making use of the gifts that God has given only to you? There are no easy, cookie-cutter answers to that question; it’s a matter of discernment – that applies to congregations as well as individuals.

Another lesson from the parable is that the fig tree took nutrients from the soil but didn’t give anything back, and nothing that only takes can ultimately survive. So it is with us. More than the usual moral sins that are hauled out to accuse others, maybe a bigger sin is failing to strive to give back and make the world a better place. I was at an event recently where two people who have had very serious challenges in their lives spoke eloquently about how they had been called upon to do things they hadn’t anticipated, yet these challenges have turned out to be extremely life-affirming.

After their talk, I had a long conversation with a young man sitting next to me. He had been very moved by the two speakers and now was questioning his own “whatness.” He was on a very successful career track, which he enjoyed. However, he had been feeling drawn to doing something completely different – perhaps not as lucrative, but something that would be more about giving back. .Although he never mentioned God or used any kind of overtly spiritual language, he seemed to be moving into the realization of something more. I would describe it as a Divine lure going on within him. You could say that he’s like the fig tree, perhaps not failing to produce fruit, but being drawn to produce fruit of a different kind.

Now, to be perfectly honest, the process of discernment can be long and it can be unsettling. Having been through a few of these myself, I think maybe that’s what Jesus was referring to with the fertilizer. And the pruning (not mentioned in this text, but elsewhere). It can be painful; sometimes it can stink, but it’s often what leads to growth – that’s just how spiritual growth works.

This may sound just as harsh as the threats we infer from Jesus in the gospel. But now we come to the gospel of the second chance. The fig tree should have flowered within the three years, but it didn’t. Nevertheless it was given a second chance. As are we. Even a third, a fourth and so on. Our baptismal promise is that each new day, we rise anew, past sins forgiven, with a new day in which to live out our basic whatness, as first of all beloved children of a loving God.

Yes, we sin. Lent is about sin and repentance. But not in the sense of some kind of Divine behavior modification program with punishments and rewards. Rather it’s about turning and returning to our source of life. And in the process of being faithful and loving disciples, in following the beckoning of a holy lure, in opening ourselves to being pruned and fertilized, in bearing fruit in service to the world, the Divine whatness that is all around us grows and thrives.

As a symbol of the hardy fig tree and of our own discipleship, I’ve brought figs today. I’ll pass them around and I hope you’ll take one as a remembrance of the promise – not the threat – of your evolving spiritual journey and of all the good fruit you will continue to bear for the sake of the world.




GOSPEL   Luke 13:1-9
The parable of the fig tree is at one and the same time lit by grace and close packed with warnings. It teaches that uselessness invites disaster. It has been claimed that the whole process of evolution in this world is to produce useful things, and that what is useful will go on from strength to strength, while what is useless will be eliminated. The most searching question we can be asked is, “Of what use were you in this world?”

It is written . . .

On the same occasion, there were people present who told Jesus about some Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their own sacrifices.

Jesus replied, “Do you think these Galileans were the greatest sinners in Galilee just because they suffered this? Not at all! I tell you, you will all come to the same end unless you change your ways. Or take those eighteen who were killed by a falling tower in Siloam. Do you think they were more guilty than anyone else who has lived in Jerusalem? Certainly not! I tell you, you will all come to the same end unless you change your ways.”

Jesus told this parable: “There was a fig tree growing in a vineyard. The owner came out looking for fruit on it, but didn’t find any. The owner said to the vine dresser, ‘Look here! for three years now I have come out in search of fruit on this fig tree and have found none. Cut it down. Why should it clutter up the ground?’

“In reply, the vine dresser said, ‘Please leave it one more year while I dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine; if not, then let it be cut down.’ ”



Posted by: smstrouse | March 16, 2019

Holy Heartbreak under Holy Wings

broken-154245_960_720A Sermon for Lent 2
The saying goes that preachers should speak with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I guess today’s version of that might be “with Kindle version of the Bible in one hand and iPhone news app in the other.” Same idea, updated for today’s technology. Same dilemma: what do we, as followers of Jesus, have to say about the state of our world and what can we do about it?

Last week, I began with the words “Holy chaos!” as we entered the introspective season of Lent in the midst of political and societal upheaval. Today, I begin with the words “Holy heartbreak.” Another mass shooting at a house of prayer. Fifty dead at last count, with more in critical condition, and a community left in shock, grief, and fear. 

Paraphrasing today’s gospel, “The fox, indeed, is in the henhouse.” As Jesus rightly understood, there are violent forces loose in the world, some of it concentrated in seats 28354466876_703961c187_bof power. He knew that by continuing to speak truth to power, he was poking at the bear, knowing that the bear would eventually strike back. Unlike the foolish woman who crossed a barrier in a zoo to take a selfie with a jaguar and was shocked when the animal took a swipe at her, Jesus was fully aware of what he was doing – and the consequences. He has now “set his face for Jerusalem,” the center of political and religious power. When a friendly Pharisee tries to warn him off, saying, “Herod is going to kill you,” Jesus isn’t surprised. He is intentionally crossing the line, not to take a selfie, but a self-less approach to confronting the powers-that-be.

His response to the Pharisee is curious: “Go tell that fox.” I’m not a keeper of chickens, so I’m trusting the wisdom of a colleague who tells me that a fox won’t kill just one chicken because it’s hungry. It will attack the entire flock, leaving behind dead, injured, and traumatized birds.Comparing the ruler of Judea to a fox would, in effect, be calling him a predator, a killer, a sower of chaos and trauma. Herod thought his troubles were over with the elimination of that rabble-rouser, John the Baptist. But now, here comes Jesus. And not only was Jesus not running away from Herod’s hate, fear-mongering and murderous violence, he was very clearly rejecting this way of governing, this way of being.

The fox is in our henhouse; of that there is no doubt. When people believe the lie that one race, color, religion, status, gender, ability, or whatever is better than another and stir up hatred in others, when they use social media to foment actions of verbal abuse and physical violence, they have joined the cult of Herod. The people of Christchurch, New Zealand are dealing with their devastated henhouse, as are we, because we really are all in this together.

53224173_10157234634578713_8070610274966568960_nJesus offers us a different way. After his exposure of Herod as a fox, he paints another word picture: “O Jerusalem. How I have wanted to gather you together like a mother hen collects her brood under her wings – and you were not willing.” The  heartbreak in his words is palpable.

When I heard the news from Christchurch, my heart broke. I have no doubt that God’s heart broke as well. To be honest, I wanted to literally crawl under those holy wings and hide, to be held and comforted. Who wouldn’t be willing to have a safe shelter from the raging of Herod? But while those wings do offer shelter and comfort, they do not guarantee our protection from the fox, nor do they take away our responsibility to grow and move out into the world to be mother hen to others. Remember from last week: our calling to be little Christs to one another? Funny to think about being a mother hen. We usually talk about someone being a mother hen when they’re overly protective, fussy, even interfering – not something we aspire to be. Yet here’s Jesus with this rather unusual way of describing himself.

It’s a charming image, but really, wouldn’t you expect Jesus to come up with something a little more – tough?  Wouldn’t other images of God from the Old Testament, like an eagle, a lion, a shield, a rock, a mighty fortress have been more reassuring to the people of Jerusalem looking for a champion or a messiah?

Instead we get Jesus as a chicken. But he didn’t just pull that out of thin air. In this image, he reminded his hearers of passages from the prophets, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah; and from I Kings and Deuteronomy; and from the Psalms which speak about God as a mother and as a protective bird. The image of Israel finding shelter under God’s ‘wings’ occurs frequently in the Old Testament, so this cry of anguish from Jesus would have been startlingly familiar to those who heard it.

We lost some of the power of that imagery somewhere along the way. I remember how revolutionary it was when the book Biblical Affirmations of Woman came out in 1979. I think I wore that book out, discovering the positive biblical references about women. The ordination of women in the Lutheran church had been happening only since 1970, and by the time I hit seminary in 1982, it was still unusual to lift up female imagery for God. In fact, I remember quite clearly the woman in a former congregation who, in her resistance to any imagery beyond God the Father, warned me, “And don’t give me that line about Jesus being a mother hen, either!”

Around that same time in the 90s, there was a women’s theological conference called reImagining500-1“Re-imaging.” It’s sometimes referred to a “Re-Imagining,” but it doesn’t matter because use of either word stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy.  The objections were primarily the insistence that the words for God, Christ and the church were so settled that invocations of ‘Sophia’ or any feminine imagery for God was at the least beyond the pale and at the worst downright heretical.

One critic wrote: “Sadly, the Re-Imaging movement is not an innocent, feminist adaptation of the Christian message to modern times. It is an assault on the foundations of Christianity in order to displace it with neo-paganism. Official statements were, not surprisingly, filled with blasphemy and irreverence as these misguided women gloried in their own sexuality and vain wisdom in their attempt to make a goddess in their own image.” 

We’ve come a long way since then. How appropriate that this gospel reading appears in the middle of Women’s History Month?!

If we take this picture of the mother hen and sit with it an icon for our Lenten reflection, we may come to new insights and understandings of ourselves and of this God who broods over us. That’s brooding in the Genesis 1 sense of the Spirit of God (sometimes translated ‘moving’ or ‘hovering,’ but often-times ‘brooding’ over the primordial waters of chaos. Are you comforted by a mothering God not just moving over you, not just hovering nearby, but brooding over you? Leaning near, listening, watching, thinking about you; covering, protecting, providing and guiding – a mother hen, in the best sense of the phrase?

I wrote in a blog once about being a chick for Jesus, even though I don’t usually like being referred to as a chick. But if it means that I take this mother hen business seriously, then that’s what I want to be. And before the guys start to feel left out, let me explain that this gender-bending image of the man Jesus as Lady Wisdom, Sophia means that being a chick isn’t gender-specific. More important is the question: what does it mean to be a chick for Jesus? Your answers may be quite different as you reflect upon this icon. For me, it means:

  • That I see the Divine One as both fiercely tender and protective of who I am and the person I am becoming under these holy wings;
  • That I have a ‘mother hen’ who not only adores me, but also challenges me to do what is right and true and challenging to the foxy maneuvering of the powers-that-be;
  • That I strive to live under the guidance of Wisdom, not as a structure of rules, but as a way of being; both following in the way of Jesus of Nazareth and being open to the Christpower within me;
  • Most of all (and maybe this is just because it’s what I need right now), it’s feeling the enveloping warmth, pulsing heartbeat, womb-like peace of this place beneath God’s breast.

I would add: when a tragedy like Christchurch happens, our need to be that place for project-24178-united_for_christchurch_mosque_shootings_LG-Banner-NZ-R2B-700x525others becomes even more obvious. This weekend it means being in solidarity with the Muslim community. I can’t help thinking about how many of the speakers at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in November remembered those killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue just days before and spoke against the bigotry that had caused it. Christians, Muslims, and those of other religions came together to offer support and protection to synagogues in their communities. This weekend, Christians, Jews, and others are doing the same for our Muslim siblings.

In 2015, when at least eight predominantly African-American churches in the South were damaged by fire – probably arson – acoalition of Muslim groups launched an online fundraiser to help them rebuild. On their crowdfunding page, it said, “It’s Ramadan, and we are experiencing firsthand the beauty and sanctity of our mosques during this holy month. All houses of worship are sanctuaries, a place where all should feel safe.”

We should all feel a holy heart break at those words. The fox is, indeed, in the henhouse. But go tell that fox that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Tell him that his ways of death and destruction are limited. And we will not be stopped by his murderous threats and actions. In fact, we will be emboldened – from our secure place beneath the holy wings of Jesus – to challenge his power, to confront those who believe his lies, and to care for those harmed by his unholy intentions.

In closing, I offer this prayer from blogger Tammerie Day . . .

Our Mothering Hen
who art brooding over us
hallowed be thy sheltering wings.
Forgive our unwillingness to
come into your embrace.
And gather us in, reluctance and all.
Free us from fear of foxes
and the sharp bite of anything that separates us from you.
Open our eyes
to the plenty around us.
Open our hearts
that our plenty be shared.
Lead us not into contention
but into the dance of connection.
For thine is the grace that wakes us each new day
And thine is the mercy that puts our souls at ease
And thine is the love that sets our hearts alight.
For ever and ever, amen.


Luke 13:31-35
Just then, some Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “You need to get out of town, and fast. Herod is trying to kill you.”
Jesus replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘Today and tomorrow, I will be casting out demons and healing people, and on the third day I will each my goal.’ Even with all that, I will need to continue on my journey today, tomorrow, and day after that, since no prophet can be allowed to die anywhere except Jerusalem.’

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird collects her babies under her wings – yet you refuse me! So take note: your house will be left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!'”


Posted by: smstrouse | March 2, 2019

The Transfiguration and Caterpillar Soup

999077070_ca7263a22c_bJust imagine that you were with Peter, and James, and John coming down from that mountain with Jesus. I would imagine that you would be pondering the extraordinary thing that you just witnessed up on the mountaintop. Your friend Jesus suddenly started to glow – literally. And then you saw him talking with Moses and Elijah, the two biggest names in Jewish history – never mind that they’re long dead.

And then to top it off, out of the clouds came the voice of God. And you all fell down on the ground scared out of your wits until Jesus came over and told you to get up. I imagine when he said, “Don’t be afraid.” you thought to yourself, “Yeah right.”

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to imagine being there. I mean it’s hard enough to read about it and try to figure out what that was all about. And people have been arguing about that for millennia. The story of the Transfiguration or the meta-morphosis of Jesus appears in all three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. So it would appear to be a pretty important story to those early writers. But it’s also a story that raises a lot of questions. What are we reading here? Is this a fable, a myth, a theological metaphor? Is it eyewitness history? Of course some simply dismiss the story as bizarre fiction.

They did just that from the beginning. Tacitus, considered one of the greatest historians of the Roman Empire, sneered at the pernicious superstitions of Christians and Suetonius in his Life of Nero derided believers as adhering to a novel and mischievous superstition. When we read the second letter of Peter, we can hear the early Church responding this derision: “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we told you of the power and coming of Christ Jesus; we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. We heard God’s voice come from heaven, while we were on the holy mountain.”

So what really happened? No one knows for sure. But using the criterion of Alexandr_Ivanov_015embarrassment – which says that if part of the story puts Jesus or the disciples in a bad light – it’s not likely to have been either invented or airbrushed. So there just might be some truth to this wild tale. I mean Peter does come off as a dunce in the story. Unflattering details like this suggests that the gospel writers were writing history even if the story – like so many stories in the Bible is easier to describe than to explain.

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

Moreover I don’t believe that Jesus was the only one with Christ nature. I think we all have it.  Yikes! That sounds like heresy, doesn’t it?  Or, at the very least, foolishness. But the fact is that some segments of Christianity have always recognized that the fundamental work of human beings is the spiritual practice of becoming a Christ.

Transfiguration_of_JesusIn Eastern Christianity, transfiguration is a mystery central to spiritual practice. Maximus the Confessor of Constantinople wrote in the 7thcentury that we live to realize and actualize Christhood. That is why human beings exist.

We in the West are not without our own understanding of it. Martin Luther asserted that we are “little Christs” to one another.  C.S. Lewis, author of Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia, expanded on this:  “Christ became human in order to spread to other human beings the same kind of life. Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.” And St. Francis saw Christ present in all of creation and in all people. He himself endeavored to live his life in imitation of Christ so that he could, likewise, manifest the presence of Christ to others.

So this idea of Christ nature is not as farfetched as it first might seem. Now I don’t really expect any of us to start glowing like Jesus did anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have that potential within us. The Divine is within, and with it is a possibility of exuding your Christ nature at any time. When we take away the dualism of heaven/earth, human/divine and we see Jesus as the epitome of what it is to be human, that is to carry within us the presence of the Divine, then we begin to see ourselves as Christ bearers to the world. We don’t have to wait until we die to be transfigured, metamorphosed into little Christs.

Now I want to say something about this process. The word ‘transfiguration’ comes from the Greek word ‘metamorphosis.’ We probably usually think of this in relation to the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. You’ve probably all seen the pictures of the stages of the process: the egg, the larvae, the cocoon, and the adult butterfly. I was at a retreat recently led by the International Association of Sufism. The theme was transformation through practice and knowledge of unity – unity meaning oneness with the Divine. And one of the presenters was comparing the metamorphosis of the butterfly to our own spiritual transformation.

He said something I’d never heard before. He said in the chrysalis stage, all that is insideChrysalis(Pupa)_of_a_Common_Crow_Butterfly_(Euploea_core) the cocoon is goo. If you were to cut one open at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out. I thought that this was a great metaphor for the spiritual journey – feeling formless like goo – all traces of the former life being dissolved, not knowing which way is up and which way is down, not able to see any hint of a future way of being. In other words a complete mess. Caterpillar soup. I’ve been there.

When I got home from the retreat I wanted to check this out and it turns out that this information was only half right. According to Scientific Americanthe contents of the cocoon are not entirely an amorphous mess. There are highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs in there. While the caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts that it’s going to need as a mature butterfly. Discs for its eyes, its wings, its legs and so on. Once a caterpillar has disintegrated all of its tissues except for these discs, those discs use the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the rapid cell division required to form all the features of an adult butterfly.

Jonia Mariechild describes the process in Butterfly Mysteries:
The caterpillars new cells, called imaginal cells, are so totally different from the caterpillar cells that its immune system thinks they’re enemies and gobbles them up. But these new cells continue to appear, more and more of them. Pretty soon the caterpillar’s immune system can’t destroy them fast enough. More and more of these cells survive and then an amazing thing happens. The tiny lonely imaginal cells start to clump together and they all resonate together at the same frequency passing information from one to another. Then after a while another amazing thing happens. The clumps of imaginal cells start cluster together – a long string of clumping and clustering cells all resonating at the same frequency, all passing information there inside the chrysalis. A wave of good news travels around the system – lurches and heaves  . . . but not yet a butterfly. Then at some point the entire long string of imaginal cells suddenly realizes all together that it is something different from the caterpillar. Something new, some-thing wonderful. In that realization is the shout of the birth of a butterfly.

37373668271_4180e72e3f_bAgain, what a great metaphor for our own spiritual transformation. This imaginal stage is also called the Imago, the image. Within the goo is the image of the butterfly. You might recognize that word from the theological term Imago Dei – the image of God. The author of Genesis wrote that we were created in God’s image, the Imago Dei. Within our goo, we have the spiritual cells which can make us into something new.  Not goo but spiritually mature human beings who know that we have the very image of divinity within us.

Now is this just a lot of nonsense that has no practical application in daily life? Not  for me and I hope not for you. My hope is that each of us is in the process of transformation. Or maybe you feel like you’re in the goo stage; you trust that the Imago is in there and it will work itself out. Or maybe you feel like your new self is just about fully formed and you’re almost ready to burst forth. Or maybe you still feel like a caterpillar just chomping away on leaves just to survive. Wherever you are in the process, the point is to be open to it through practice and knowledge of your Oneness with the Divine. And when you do there will be those times when others will see glimpses of your Christ nature. And like those imaginal cells lumping clumping and stringing together to make something new, we will come together for the good of the world.

Transfiguration isn’t just about someday in heaven. It can happen today. As Jesus lived, worked, and taught in the midst of Empire, so can we. We’re in a time of national trial; of that there is no doubt. No doubt many of us also are contending with personal trials. And many people feel great despair of the enormity of the problems we face. But this is where the Transfiguration of Jesus can give us the hope we need.

Transfiguration was all about the human Jesus, and we human beings can relate to him and learn from his teaching an example. Transfiguration was also all about the Divine Jesus, not a separate entity from the human Jesus, but intertwined with his humanity, at one with God. When we catch this brief glimpse of the fullness of his being up there on the mountain, we see our own Imago Dei and we know that we’re not powerless in our being in the world. We too are imbued with Christ nature that enables us to go down from the mountaintop, back into the world to do what needs to be done.

So what difference would it make in your life if you were to acknowledge and embrace your Christ nature? And what difference would it make in our world if we all were to acknowledge and embrace our Christ nature?

A big difference. Be transformed. Then – go. Transform the world.





Posted by: smstrouse | February 24, 2019

Forgiveness is D#%m Hard Work

A Sermon for Epiphany 7

We’re going to do something different today. Our first reading from Genesis is just a snippet from the saga of Joseph. We never get to read the whole story in church because it’s a long one: chapters 37-48. But it’s an important story, foundational to Jewish and Christian history. So – I’m going to give you a fairly brief synopsis, then when we get to the section assigned for today, our lector will take over. Then, I’ll come back in to finish up with Joseph and bridge immediately into the gospel text, which is another selection from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. OK? So, here we go. 

Joseph and That Technicolor Coat
UnknownJoseph was the son of Jacob and Rachel. Jacob, patriarch of the Hebrew people (remember when we talk about “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” That Jacob), had twelve sons and at least one daughter, by his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and by their slaves Bilhah and Zilpah. The twelve sons would become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Now Joseph, who was born in his father’s old age, was Jacob’s favorite. One day Jacob Susan_Govatos_Josephs_Dreams_smpresented him with a beautiful long coat of many colors, which caused envy among his brothers. Then, when Joseph was seventeen years old he had two dreams. In the first dream, as Joseph and his brothers gathered bundles of grain, their bundles bowed down to his. In the second dream, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bowed down to Joseph. These dreams further angered the brothers. One day, Jacob told Joseph to go out to his brothers, where they were tending their sheep. Seizing their chance, the brothers threw Joseph into a pit. A short while later they spotted an Arab caravan passing the scene, and they sold Joseph to the traders. They put goat’s blood on Joseph’s coat and showed it to Jacob, who therefore believed Joseph was dead.

Way Down in Egypt Land
Joseph was eventually taken to Egypt, where he was sold to Potiphar,the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. He later became head of Potiphar’s estate. However, Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, which he refused. Angered by his running away from her, she made a false accusation of rape, and Potiphar had Joseph thrown into prison.

The warden put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners. Soon after, Pharaoh’s chief 61BBYVZ8N3Lcupbearer and chief baker, who had offended the Pharaoh, were thrown into the prison. While there, they both had dreams, which Joseph interpreted: the chief cupbearer would be reinstated in his position, but the baker would be hanged. Joseph asked the cupbearer to ask Pharaoh for his release from prison, but the cupbearer, once back in his position, forgot all about Joseph. Two more years went until  Pharaoh himself had two troubling dreams. In the first, seven thin and bony cows were eating up seven fat, beautiful cows. In the second, seven withered ears of grain were swallowing up seven good ears.

Pharaoh’s advisers were unable to interpret these dreams. Then the cupbearer finally remembered Joseph, and Joseph was summoned. He interpreted the dream as meaning that there would be seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine, and he advised the Pharaoh to begin storing up surplus grain. Impressed by Joseph’s wisdom, Pharaoh appointed Joseph as his prime minister, second only to himself, and put him in charge of getting ready for the years of famine.

Meanwhile, Back in Canaan
The famine had already begun back in Canaan, where Joseph’s family lived.  Hearing that there was grain in Egypt, Joseph’s brothers went there to buy food from the prime minister, not realizing that he was their very own brother. Joseph decided to use this opportunity to see whether his brothers were truly sorry that they had sold him. He made a plan that would test his brothers’ determination to save their youngest brother Benjamin from the elaborate plot that he set up. The brothers passed the test, and Joseph finally revealed his identity to his brothers.

And this is where today’s reading picks up . . .
Joseph said to his brothers, “It is I – Joseph! Is my father really still alive?” The brothers could not answer, so dumbfounded were they.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” When they had come closer he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Please don’t rebuke yourselves for having sold me here. God sent me here ahead of you so I could save your lives. There has been famine in the land for two years, and for the next five years there will be no tilling and no harvesting. But God sent me ahead of you to guarantee that you will have descendants on earth, and to keep you alive as a great body of survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God! God has made me Pharaoh’s chief counselor, the head of his household and governor of all Egypt. Hurry back to our father and  give him this message from Joseph: ‘God has made me governor of all Egypt. Come to me here at once! Do not delay. You will live with me in the territory of Goshen: you, your children, your grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all your possessions. I will provide for you here – for the next five years will be years of famine –so that you and your children and all that you own will be spared from destitution.'”
Then he kissed his brothers and weeping over them, and then he and his brothers talked. (Genesis 45:3-11, 15)

The End
Following this reunion, Jacob and his family settled in Egypt. This series of events serves as the backdrop for Israel’s ultimate enslavement in Egypt and the subsequent Exodus.

Luke 6:27-38
Now with this back story in mind, we read the gospel, the continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain:
“To you who hear me I say: love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. When they slap you on one cheek, turn and give them the other; when they take your coat let them have your shirt as well. Give to all who beg from you. When someone takes what is yours, don’t demand it back.

Do to others what you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. If you do good only to those who do good to you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ do as much. If you lend to those who you expect to repay you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to other ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. Love your enemies and do good to them. Lend without expecting repayment, and your reward will be great. You’ll rightly be called children of the Most High, since God is good even to the ungrateful and the wicked.

Be compassionate, as your loving God is compassionate. Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: a full measure – packed down, shaken together, and running over – will be poured into your lap. For the amount you measure out will be the amount you’ll be given back.” 

The Gospel of Christ???
Oh, boy! There is so much packed into that sermon; we could take it line by line and get a Unknown-2long sermon and discussion out of each one. These are some hard sayings. I can’t count the number of conversations in my church in San Francisco around the exhortation to “give to everyone who begs from you.” A friend told me about a Facebook friend who posted her philosophy of life: “I don’t care who they are, what race, religion, sexual orientation, rich or poor; if they’re nice to me, then I’ll be nice to them.” That’s probably more in line with how most of us operate than Jesus’ “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Or as I saw this week: “Tweet unto others as you as you want them to tweet you.”

Thing 1
Maybe the first thing to say about these teachings is that they’re largely ignored. They’re either dismissed as totally naïve and impossible to live by or agreed to in principle, but forgotten as soon as they bump into a real-life situation.

Thing 2
The second thing to say about this part of the Sermon on the Plain is that it’s a dangerous text, one which has often been misused in the past, especially by the church. It became a word preached to slaves in order to keep them in their place. It’s been used to send victims of domestic violence back to their abusers. But Jesus did not intend his words to be weaponized against the oppressed. He did put it out there as a vision of the ethics of the realm of God, the reality in which we live, and move, and have our being in the here and now. And no doubt he knew very well how impossible his words would sound, both to his followers then and to us now.

Now, since this gospel is paired with the Joseph story in Genesis, it seems natural to focus in on the part where Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to do good to those who harm us, and to forgive. Maybe Jesus was remembering the story of his ancestor as he said those words. In any event, he seems to be telling us: do what Joseph did.

It’s About Forgiveness
Unknown-3These are all sensitive subjects. Take forgiveness. As author Sue Monk Kidd wrote: “People, in general, would rather die than forgive. It’s that hard.” I always wonder about the process that Joseph must have gone through in order to be able to forgive his brothers. What went on between the lines of the story? He was 17 when he was sold into slavery and 30 when he became prime minister to Pharaoh. We know that forgiveness is often, maybe usually, a process. Even those who immediately grant forgiveness have to still do the hard work that will come.

In 2006, a gunman entered a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, PA and shot 10 young Amish girls, killing five and then killing himself. People around the world were astonished that the Amish immediately expressed forgiveness toward the killer and his family. There was also the perception (totally mistaken) that granting forgiveness meant they were able to quickly get over the tragedy. But a year after the shootings, Jonas Beiler of the Family Resource and Counseling Center reported that members of the community suffered from nightmares, some were still startled by the sound of a helicopter overhead. Survivors, including some of the older boys who were let go by the killer, wondered if somehow they could have stopped the massacre. Some of the schoolchildren suffered from emotional instabilities, which therapists working in the community expected to go on for several years. But, Beiler said, that because the Amish could express forgiveness, they were better able to concentrate on the work of their own healing.

And right there, I believe, is the key to these teachings. They’re not meant to be easy. We are meant to be challenged by them. We have to wrestle with them and work at them. Ten years after the Nickel Mines shootings, Aaron Esh Jr, now 23, still struggles with the memories. He says that despite the Amish’s legendary powers of forgiveness, it’s a struggle to stay constant. “You have to fight the bitter thoughts,” he said. Another mother of one of the girls killed that day said, “It’s not a once and done thing. It is a lifelong process.”

So, how do we work on our own processes, especially in those places where bitter thoughts reside?

How Does Forgiveness Happen?
First of all, it’s not something that anyone else can make you do, either by quoting Jesus to you or trying to make you feel guilty. To be forgiven and to forgive are always gifts of grace that come from some place beyond ourselves. It is your process. Nor can anyone else tell someone who has suffered evil at the hands of others that God is bringing something good out of it. No one else could say to Joseph, “God has brought you here.” He had to discover it for himself. If it is going to happen at all, victims have to discover for themselves that God has somehow created something new out of their suffering, that out of their survival God’s grace can even provide something that someone else will need.

We can learn from Joseph that his decision to not keep score against his brothers created the possibility of a new future for himself and his family. Otherwise they would all still be controlled by and captive to the past. Can we begin to, at the very least, be open to the possibility of giving up the scorecard? Is there anything good that has come out of a situation of suffering at the hands of another?

I was asked once whether, if given the chance, I’d go back and change my life so that times of suffering did not occur. I thought really hard about it. What a blessing that would be. No painful memories, no residual fears or hang-ups. But I finally decided that, no, I wouldn’t change my past in any way. Distressful as it may have been, it is part of who I am, has contributed to my resilience, and has enabled me to have more empathy for others going through similar situations. So I can agree with commentator Barbara Brown Taylor who said, “When Joseph looked at his life, he didn’t see himself as a victim. He did not see a series of senseless tragedies. He saw a lighted path.”

I doubt very much that Joseph saw that lighted path as he lay at the bottom of the pit or in the traders’ caravan. Perhaps we can remember his outcome and hold out hope when our process is still in the pit, so to speak.

Perhaps we can hear these hard teachings of Jesus, not as imperatives, but as a promise forgivenessthat God will be with us in the process of forgiveness, all along the way – from a faint glimmer of a possibility that forgiveness could happen, to openness to the spirit of healing working within us, to the desire to let go of the person or persons who hurt us (for our sake, not theirs), and maybe (but not necessarily) to reconciliation.

The promise is that all through the process, we can breathe in the “deep, joyous generosity of God,” and allow our lives be transformed – opening our hearts and minds and lives to the healing purposes at work in each beloved child of God, in me, and in you.






Posted by: smstrouse | February 17, 2019

A Bad News / Good News Sermon

ok9Defense lawyer says to her client: “I have good news and bad news.”
Client says: ”What’s the bad news?”
The lawyer says, “Your blood matches the DNA found at the murder scene.”
“Oh, no!” cries the client. “What’s the good news?”
“Well,” the lawyer says, “Your cholesterol is way down.”

Teenager says to his father: I have a good news and bad news.
Father:  Give me the good news first.
Teenager: The airbags work really well in your new Mercedes.

Husband: “I have good news and bad news”
Wife: “Tell me the bad news first.”
Husband: “The washing machine broke.”
Wife: “Oh, no. What’s the good news?”
Husband: “The dogs are clean.”

Who doesn’t love a good news/bad news joke? I know that neither of the writers of the books of Jeremiah and Luke intended to make a joke. But I couldn’t help seeing the good news/bad news theme in both passages today.

Jeremiah 17: 5-10 (see below)
The good news is first: blessed are you who trust in God, you’ll be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. You won’t fear when heat comes. You won’t be anxious in times of drought. The bad news is: woe to you who trust in mere mortals whose hearts turn away from God. You’ll be like a shrub in the desert. You’ll live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.Michelangelo,_profeti,_Jeremiah_02

That’s definitely not funny. Nor was it meant to be. It’s not for nothing that a long lamentation or complaint or list of woes is called a jeremiad. The prophet Jeremiah preached to the Hebrew people during a time of great national crisis. The Babylonians were on the move and coming their way. As we know now, they would conquer Judah and take their best and brightest into exile. Jeremiah is often (rightly) seen as a prophet of doom and gloom. But as we can see by the good news part of his prophecy, there are blessings to be had even among the woes.  

Then There’s Jesus (Luke 6: 17-26)
First the good news:”Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry now, you who weep now. Blessed are you when you are hated, excluded, and reviled. You will be rewarded.”

Then the bad: “Woe to you who are full now; you’ll go hungry. Woe to you laughing now; you’ll be in mourning. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you; you’ll be known as a false prophet.”

Our epiphany revelation about Jesus this week should be that following him has consequences. There’s an edge in this part of the teaching that maybe we’re not used to hearing.  We like to focus on the good news, the comforting news.

This Is Not Matthew’s Beatitudes!
The good news part of Jesus’s sermon should remind us of another version of the same sermon. In Matthew’s gospel, we find another list of blessings, often called the Beatitudes (from the Latin ’beatitudo,’ meaning “blessedness”). But you might also recognize some differences. Matthew’s version has Jesus preaching on a mountain (Sermon on the Mount). Luke’s version, often called the Sermon on the Plain, says “he stood with them on a level place.”

UnknownThen there are fewer blessings in Luke (four, compared to Matthew’s nine). There’s nothing about the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, or the peacemakers. And two of the ones that remain have some major differences: Luke’s ‘poor’ become Matthew’s ‘poor in spirit’ and to Luke’s ‘blessed are you who hunger, Matthew adds ‘for righteousness.’ We’ve moved from a spiritualized ethic in Matthew to a more practical one in Luke. Luke’s version also moves from speaking about ‘them’ to addressing ‘you’ (us). We’ve moved from abstract ideas to concrete practice, from theory to real life.

And, perhaps most notably, there’s the addition in Luke of four woes to those who refuse to hear and embrace these teachings – very reminiscent of the warnings we heard from Jeremiah. It’s also reminiscent of what we heard not all that long ago, back in Advent, when Mary sang the Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”: The mighty, who may be winning now, will be brought low. The oppressed will be lifted up; the empty will be filled. Those who are full will taste what it feels like to be empty. In other words, there are ‘woes,’ there are consequences to living in opposition to God’s intentions.

We don’t get to read this version that often in church. We read Matthew’s Beatitudes every year on All Saints Sunday. But Luke’s sermon comes around in the lectionary just once every three years on the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany. Depending when Easter is, which determines when Lent begins, and therefore Epiphany ends, Epiphany 6 doesn’t come around that often. Easter is late this year, so Epiphany lasts seven whole Sundays, as opposed to just four Sundays three years ago. So I would venture a guess that most people not only are more familiar with the Beatitudes, but prefer that version of Jesus’ sermon to Luke’s.

Jesus on the Level
My first recollection of the Beatitudes is that they were pasted into a back cover of a Bible under the heading “For Those in Need of Comfort.” 
But I’ve never seen a similar thing for Luke, under the heading “For Those in Need of Challenge.” But here we are on Epiphany 6 with Jesus speaking to the crowd on a level place. Might we also hear Jesus speaking to us – on the level?

We could see the blessings and woes as an either/or situation. Either you live right or you don’t. Either you’re blessed or you’re cursed. But the reality is not so cut and dried. I don’t consider myself to be rich, do you? Except we are rich, compared to most people in the world. I’m never hungry, not really. In fact, we’re so full so much of the time that many of us have health issues from our over-consumption.

We do weep, some of us more often than others. And we take that seriously. But we also love to be entertained, to distract us from the overwhelming tragedies of the world. Yemen, Syria, and Somalia are far-away places; let’s change the channel and watch “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

We rarely have people saying seriously bad stuff about us, especially on account of Jesus. We’re respectable, comfortable, nice people. Except when we do speak out in a prophetic way, letting loose a jeremiad against those who exploit the poor, the hungry, the oppressed – when our desire to make a stand for justice outweighs our need to be liked.

We’re All in This Together
logoThe reality is that we are complicated creatures. Martin Luther said it best when he described us as simultaneously both saint and sinner. In thinking about that paradox, I was
reminded of the challenge we have these days with privilege: white privilege, male privilege, middle class privilege, straight privilege, able-bodied privilege. It has become commonplace to get into all kinds of tussles about who’s using their privilege and when.

But here’s the thing. I know that I enjoy certain kinds of privilege – as a white, middle-class, able-bodied person. I also know that I’ve experienced the other side of the coin as a woman; I obviously don’t enjoy male privilege. We could each name where we have privilege and where we don’t. That’s why many are calling for intersectionality, which says that all oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and can’t be dealt with separately from one another.

In other words, we’re all in this together – in both the blessings and the woes of life. We all have some form of brokenness in our lives. Sometimes that brokenness is visible, oftentimes it’s invisible, but it’s there nonetheless. Yet even in the midst of our brokenness, God calls us into a way of transformation – both for ourselves and for our communities and our world. It’s called resurrection life.

I Corinthians 15: 12-20
Paul, in his plea to the Corinthians to remember the resurrection, reminds us where we need to put our trust as well. Living as we do in the paradoxical way of being both saint and sinner, we have to rely on the life-giving power that’s beyond our own efforts and will power. Resurrection isn’t just about eternal life when we die; it’s also about the promise of new life, new possibilities in the midst of seemingly impossible problems. As we confront our own brokenness, sinfulness, the ways we’re caught in systems from which we cannot break free (our woes) – we also open ourselves up to the blessings.

In this very challenging manifestation of the person and work of Jesus in the world, we are called to follow in the way of resurrection and blessing. The call to discipleship demands a response. Depending on how you look at it, the way of Jesus can be a good news/bad news story: the good news is that God loves you. The bad news is now you have to do something about it for the sake of the world.

Hmm, that doesn’t sound right. Let’s turn it around. Jesus has bad news and good news: the bad news is that you’re a sinner and you can’t free yourself and you live in a world of woes. The good news is that you are beloved and perfectly OK because God has made it so. Now go, and do something for the sake of the world.

Jesus has come to us “on the level” to tell us that the good news wins. Resurrection wins. Love wins – for our sake and for our prophetic work and witness in the world.




Jeremiah 17:5-10
YHWH says: 
   Cursed are those who trust in human ways 
      who rely on things of the flesh, 
      whose hearts turn away from YHWH.
   They are like stunted vegetation in the desert, 
      with no hope in the future. 
   It stands in stony wastes in the desert,      
       an uninhabited land of salt.

   Blessed are those who put their trust in God, 
      with God for their hope.
   They are like a tree planted by the river, 
      that thrusts its roots toward the stream. 
  When the heat comes it feels no heat; 
       its leaves stay green.
   It is untroubled in a year of drought, 
      and never ceases to bear fruit.

   The human heart is more deceitful 
      than anything else,
      and desperately sick – who can understand it?
   I , YHWH, search into the heart, I probe the mind, 
       to give to each person
       what their actions and conduct deserve.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Tell me, if we proclaim that Christ was raised from the dead, how is it that some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then all of our preaching has been meaningless – and everything you’ve believed has been just as meaningless. Indeed, we are shown to be false witnesses of God, for we solemnly swore that God raised Christ from the dead – which did not happen if in fact the dead are not raised. Because if the dead are not raised, then Christ is not raised, and if Christ is not raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in are the deadest of the dead. If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are the most pitiful of the human race. But as it is, Christ has in fact been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Luke 6:17-26
Coming down the mountain with them, Jesus stopped in a level area where there were a great number of disciples. A large crowd of people was with them from Jerusalem and all over Judea, to as far north as the coast of Tyre and Sidon – people who had come to hear Jesus and be healed of their diseases, and even freed from unclean spirits. Indeed, the whole crowd was trying to touch Jesus, because power was coming out of him and healing them all.

Looking at the disciples, Jesus said: 
“You who are poor are blessed, for the reign of God is yours. 
You who hunger now are blessed, for you’ll be filled. 
You who weep now are blessed, for you’ll laugh.
You are blessed when people hate you, when they scorn and insult you and spurn your name as evil because of the Chosen One. On the day they do so, rejoice and be glad: your reward will be great in heaven; for their ancestors treated the prophets the same way

But woe to you rich, for you are now receiving your comfort in full.
Woe to you who are full, for you’ll go hungry. 
Woe to you who laugh now, for you’ll weep in your grief.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in the same way.”


Texts are from The Inclusive Bible

Posted by: smstrouse | February 10, 2019

Mystic Fishing: Church in the 21st Century

3518252658_dcda301c80_bSermon for Epiphany 5

Sigh. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that what was good news in the 1stcentury has turned into a source of angst for the 21st.  “Don’t be afraid. From now on you’ll be catching people.” Well, as Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that workin’ for you?”

I remember discussing this text with a group of pastors in western New York back in the early 1990s. Those of us who were in city churches were of the opinion that the fish being caught by the churches experiencing growth were in reality being scooped out of our congregations and transferred to aquariums out in the suburbs. It was a pretty depressing conversation.

But then we discovered the Church Growth Movement. We attended workshops and seminars, bought books and videos, followed church growth gurus who promised to teach us how to reach out (mainly) to younger members of our community. Back then it was Generation X, those born after the Baby Boomers. These experts told us that if we followed their instructions to the letter, our churches would grow. We had one such expert visit my church in Buffalo and promise that our little congregation – in a Northeast rustbelt city – would go from 50 people on Sunday to 500. I overheard one of our older members mutter, “But I don’t want 500 people.”

Now, don’t misunderstand me: I’m all in favor of doing outreach to those searching for a way to explore their spirituality and to those with no church home. However, as a veteran of the church growth movement of the 90s, I know the pitfalls of easy characterizations and easy solutions. We actually bought a program called Blueprint for Church Growth. We received a big binder of step-by-step instructions – and a church growth consultant!

Looking back, the idea was ludicrous. We were a mainline church in a city itself in decline. But even more ludicrous was the advice of our “expert” consultant. He took one look at our building, sitting on the corner in the middle of two lovely lawns with large shade trees, and declared that we needed to rip out the trees and the lawns and put in parking lots. Rule #1 of church growth: you have to have a parking lot.

Needless to say, we did not tear up the lawns. They provided play space for our pre-Positively_no_trees,_Leesport_PAschool and summer program. They were places of hospitality for neighborhood gatherings, such as the annual National Night Out. The trees provided shade and beauty, as well as nesting places for birds. We were a green space in a city neighbor-hood. Should we really have “paved Paradise and put up a parking lot?”

I’m happy to report that the congregation is still there, some 25 years after our venture into church growth. It’s still small, but they’ve partnered with a suburban congregation and are doing vibrant, creative ministry together. When I returned for their 90th anniversary celebration in 2013, one of the things I enjoyed most was the picnic held out on the back lawn under that big beautiful tree.

Despite my obvious feelings about the experience, I learned an important lesson: there are no one-size-fits-all answers to the questions of how to catch fish for Jesus.  So when I see articles, books, videos, seminars, etc. with titles like “How to Effectively Reach Millennials” and “Simple Ways Your Church Can Reach and Keep Millennials,” I don’t take the bait. But it doesn’t mean I don’t care.

1549523927422You may or may not have heard of a relatively new ministry in our synod called Middle Circle. It was started by Pastor Anders Peterson as a way to reach people (mostly millennials, his own age group) who were not likely to connect to an existing church. It’s a ministry partially funded by my previous congregation, First United, San Francisco. First United was interested in reaching out to people who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious,’ in hopes of attracting them to a progressive form of Christianity that would appeal to them more than a more traditional church.

We learned a lot in the process. One: “spiritual but not religious” is not a homogeneous population. They’re all over the map. Some don’t even like the word ‘spiritual,’ although they do all want a community where they can explore life’s meaning and values. So it’s definitely not a one-size-fits all operation. But I will say that Pastor Anders has been catching a lot of fish in his Middle Circle net. It doesn’t look at all like a traditional church, but maybe that’s a clue for us as we navigate the waters of the 21stcentury church.

Another thing we learned (to our dismay) is that, for most of that group, even the uber-progressive, outside-the-the-box congregation we considered ourselves to be is too traditional. Let me tell you, attracting people to the church these days is hard. As if you didn’t know. As if any mainline church doesn’t know, even the bigger ones.

A lot of the ways we learned to fish in the past just don’t work any longer. So the story of Simon and the other fishermen working all night and catching nothing is more like our experience than letting down the nets and catching so many fish that our nets – or our buildings – can’t hold them all.

Now, I am aware that I’m supposed to be bringing you good news – and all I’ve probably done so far is make you depressed about the future of the church. So it’s time to get to the good news. Bruce Epperly, a United Church of Christ pastor and blogger wrote a surprisingly positive post about this week’s readings. Although it shouldn’t be surprising; it is the season of Epiphany after all. He wrote:
Get ready for a wild ride! Strap on your seat belts and put on your helmet! We’re entering the amazing realm of the Twilight Zone, Narnia, and Hogwarts, an enchanted world, wild and wonderful, with mysticism and miracle, signs and wonders, where God shows up and turns our world upside down. Where God asks, and then empowers us to be more than we can imagine!

 Wow! Is he reading the same story? But knowing Epperly’s writing, I’d expect him to find a deeper spirituality here and not simply a how-to manual of church growth.  Listen to what he says about Isaiah:


Dome of Hagia Sophia

Isaiah’s mystical experience in the Temple awakens us to the possibility that there may be “thin places” everywhere, as the Celtic Christians say. Places where the veil between heaven and earth is pierced and we see life as it is – Infinite. Where God’s grandeur abounds and angels guide our paths. Out of nowhere, God shows up – a theophany that rocks Isaiah’s world. The doors of his perception open and he experiences the majesty and wildness of the world – the mysterious, fascinating, and tremendous. Isaiah receives God’s transforming and healing touch and a blessing beyond belief. He is anointed by fire, and then given a task.

Then he asks:When we hear these words, “Whom shall I send” what will our response be? Surely God calls us each moment of the day with nudges, intuitions, insights, and encounters.

Then he goes on to I Corinthians, saying:
Like Isaiah, Paul’s mystical encounter with the Living Christ turned his world upside down and gave him the vocation of ministry with the Gentiles. This passage gives us confidence in God’s power in the world and invites us to consider our own calling. No one is bereft of God’s grace or power to embody God’s vision and be God’s represent-atives in the word.

And then to the gospel:
Not expecting anything, and disappointed over an unsuccessful night’s fishing, Peter is welcomed into a world of wonders. Jesus calls him to go further and despite his doubts, Peter follows Jesus’ advice and receives “more than he can ask or imagine.”

Peter’s experience mirrors the experience of many pastors and congregations. We have Unknownworked hard and sought to be faithful and yet our congregation shrinks in size, budgets are tight, and the demographics are against us. We have tried all the latest church growth programs and the downward trend continues. And yet, God offers one more thing – launch out into the deep, go toward the horizon, awaken to new possibilities. Don’t give up, be faithful and join your imagination with faithful action that goes beyond church survival to healing the world.

Now we see that – as we’ve known all along – God is in charge here. And there are epiphanies still to come. The possibility is always there for you, for me to have God show up and rock our world – and our church.

And while an epiphany can happen any time and quite unexpectedly, it certainly does not hurt for us to open up space in our souls, to develop our spiritual muscles, to be ready for when a ‘thin place’ opens up and gives us a glimpse into Infinity. 

And this isn’t just about a personal encounter with Divine Presence. This is also about re-creating, re-forming the Church with Holy Imagination and Creativity. It’s about launching out into the deep, awakening to new possibilities. No store-bought, cookie-cutter program will do it. It will take creativity and imagination, along with faithful action that will lead us out of despair or survival mode to renewing the Church and healing the world.

Remember how impossible Peter thought another fishing expedition would be that night: “We’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing.”
Yet he knew something was up; he knew enough about Jesus to say, “OK, if you say so, I’ll lower the nets.” Maybe he didn’t have any expectations; maybe he couldn’t even imagine what might happen. But he did it; he lowered the nets. Like Isaiah, he said, in effect, “Here am I. Send me!”

So, if anybody tells you they have all the answers to the mystery of being the Church in the 21st century, for only $19.95, I think we would do well to remember this prayer from Evening Prayer:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Christ our Savior.



Isaiah 6:1-8
In the year of the death of Uzziah, ruler of Judah, I saw YHWH sitting on a high and lofty judgment seat, in a robe whose train filled the temple.Seraphs were stationed above, each of them had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.

They would cry out to one another, “Holy! Holy! Holy! is YHWH Omnipotent! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”The doorposts and thresholds quaked at the sound of their shouting, and the Temple kept filling with smoke.

Then I said: “Woe is me, I am doomed! I have unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips! And my eyes have seen the Ruler, YHWH Omnipotent!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding an ember, which it had taken with tongs from the altar.The seraph touched my mouth with the ember. “See,” it said, “now that this has touched your lips, your corruption is removed and your sin is pardoned.”

Then I heard the voice of the Holy One saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”

“Here I am,” I said, send me!”

1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Sisters, brothers, siblings: I want to remind you of the Gospel I preached to you, which you received and in which you stand firm. You are being saved at this very moment by it, if you hold fast to it as I preached it to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain.

I handed on to you, first of all, what I myself received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried, and in accordance with the scriptures, rose on the third day; that he was seen by Peter, then by the Twelve.After that, he was seen by more than five hundred sisters, brothers, siblings at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.Next he was seen by James, then by all the apostles.Last of all, he was seen by me, as one yanked from the womb.

I am the least of the apostles; in fact, because I persecuted the church of God, I do not even deserve the name. But by God‘s favor I am what I am. This favor that God has given to me has not proven fruitless. Indeed, I have worked harder than all the others, not on my own, but through the grace of God.In any case, whether it be I or they, this is what we preach and this is what you believed.

Luke 5:1-11
One day, Jesus was standing by Lake Gennesaret, and the crowd pressed in on him to hear the word of God. He saw two boats moored by the side of the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets.Jesus stepped into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a short distance from the shore; then, remaining seated, he continued to teach the crowds from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Pull out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Rabbi, we’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing. But if you say so, I will lower the nets.”

Upon doing so, they caught such a great number of fish that their nets were at the breaking point.They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and together they filled the two boats until they both nearly sank.

After Simon saw what happened, he was filled with awe and fell down before Jesus, saying, “Leave me, Rabbi, for I am a sinner!”For Simon and his shipmates were astonished at the size of the catch they had made, as were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s partners.

Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you’ll fish among humankind.”And when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

*** Translation is from The Inclusive Bible, Sheed & Ward (March 16, 2009).


Posted by: smstrouse | February 8, 2019

Holy Shirt! No Religion in ‘The Good Place’?

SFSKX2L.jpgAccording to The Good Place, my mother was right.   Somebody really is keeping score. Mom used to tell me that God had a book and whenever I did something bad, he (it was always a ‘he’ back then) would put a black mark next to my name. Small wonder we get such forked up notions about God. 

If you haven’t yet seen the show, go watch it – now! Then you’ll get the “forked up” joke. I’m not going to give the story away, except for the premise that when we die, we go either to the good place or the bad place. Getting to the good place all depends on how many good deeds you’ve racked up in your lifetime. If you’re an exemplary human being, you’ll be greeted by the “Welcome! Everything Is Fine” sign and then by Ted Danson, who will introduce you to the delights of the Good Place. Trust me; it’s hysterical. 

But What About Grace???
Theologically speaking, it’s more problematic. Not that The Good Place tries to speakmaxresdefault theologically; there’s not even a higher power in evidence. Still, my Lutheran soul immediately picked upon on the discordance between the notion of points for good behavior and the idea of justification by grace, which says we get to the “good place” only through faith and reliance on God’s grace, not through good deeds. Martin Luther’s warnings are burned into my brain, (e.g. “If we esteem them too highly, good works can become the greatest idolatry.”)
What The Good Place does is wrestle with the question of what it means to be human. Instead of theology, it uses ethics and philosophy (trust me, it’s funny).

I thought about The Good Place when I saw the latest online rant about Gretta Vosper, the WKxYuGGyUnited Church of Canada pastor who identifies as an atheist. The headline:
Preacher who doesn’t believe in God is like Amazon manager who doesn’t believe in online shopping

Ha! Ha! Not. I actually wrote a post about this in 2016 Should the Atheist Pastor Be Defrocked? 

At the risk of eliciting my own snarky headlines, I agree with a lot of what Vosper says. She has stated, “I do not believe in a theistic, supernatural being called God.” Well, neither do I. I don’t identify as an atheist, although I might go as far as a-theist. A better label would be Christian panentheist. 

I’ve also been reading A Freethinker’s Gospel by Chris Highland, an avowed atheist whoUnknown was once a Presbyterian pastor. Again, there’s not much with which I disagree. The only difference really is that confronted with questions about traditional Christianity, Highland took a path into freethinking and I went toward a form of progressive Christianity. In essence, we’re pretty similar. Same with Vosper. More similar than a lot of forms of Christianity.

It’s OK to Ask Questions
Which brings me back to The Good Place, which is not religious in any way, yet explores what it means to 
 be human. It may not jibe with Lutheran theology of sola gratia, but it asks the right questions. And in today’s religious milieu, I believe that it’s more important to ask questions than to know all the answers ( as if we could anyway!) 

So, go ahead, watch The Good Place. Laugh. Also listen to The Good Place podcast (it’s really fun!). But maybe also reflect on the deeper questions of humanity.

Holy shirt! We’re all in this together, no matter what we believe or don’t believe. 


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