Posted by: smstrouse | November 25, 2016

Don’t Agonize; Organize!


Everyone who is anyone was there: the mayor, the police chief, the fire chief, members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, out-going and in-coming state senators, the Honorable Nancy Pelosi, as well as leaders and members of every religious tradition – including us! Once again, First United Lutheran Church and Middle Circle occupied a table at the San Francisco Interfaith Council‘s annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast.

This year the theme was “The Soul of the City: Faith and Social Justice in San Francisco” (who knew how timely that theme was going to be?!).

1620819_1280x720For the sold-out crowd of 500 in the ballroom of the Kabuki Hotel it was like a social justice revival meeting. Bishop Marc Andrus, who had recently returned from Standing Rock and the Marrakech Climate Change Conference, got us up out of our seats to join in a chant of “We’re still in” as he recited a litany of issues which will continue to command our attention.

Nancy Pelosi preached it: “We are gathered here at a sad time in our country . . . a time that we have to have our faith and courage from the heart.” And channeling the late African-American activist,  Florynce Kennedy, she gave us our rallying cry, “Don’t agonize. Organize.”

She described a time in the House of representatives when someone made a disparaging remark about “San Francisco values.” Pelosi responded with  “San Francisco Values??? YES!!!” quoting the Prayer of St. Francis, patron saint of our city.

Michael Pappas, executive director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, reminded us of the words Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed to a crowd staging a protest outside of the Santa Rita Prison on December 14th 1967: “There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without Justice!”

martin-luther-king-jr-2Then he also reminded us: “those prophetic words came, not from a politician, but from a pastor, not from a government official, but from a charismatic and courageous faith leader. Dr. King, in every speech, in every sermon, reminded his listeners that his courage to speak truth to power was rooted, not in himself, but inspired by his God and that timeless tradition of fearless people of faith who have led every civil rights and social justice movement in history.”


And then he addressed the civic officials gathered there: “To our civic leaders let me say this… In the wake of over a year and a half of contentious national campaigning, with its unprecedented, painful and divisive rhetoric, and in these post-election days, when basic human and civil rights have never been more threatened and at risk, we the leaders in San Francisco’s communities of faith, intend and pledge to exert our moral authority, reclaim our prophetic voice and fearlessly stand at the forefront of the movement to protect, advocate for and advance human rights, social justice and equality for all!

“Many months back, when we selected this year’s breakfast theme of social justice, I must confess, I never imagined the profound challenge before us, nor the time-sensitive call for unity, to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable residents of our City and nation. On behalf of our rich constituency of over 800 congregations, their respective judicatories, religiously founded educational and healthcare institutions, as well as the faith-based social service agencies that provide the social safety net for our most vulnerable residents, we pledge to you this morning, that we will neither shrink from, nor abdicate the critical role we are being called to play at this fragile time in our nation’s history.”

Between this event and the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service yesterday, I’m feeling more energized and hopeful than I’ve been since the election. We are the people with San Francisco values. And our rallying cry will be “Don’t agonize. Organize!”2016-11-24-11-09-37




Posted by: smstrouse | November 22, 2016

The Divine Commonwealth of Christ


This is a difficult day on which to preach. There were at least three things feeding into my reflections this week. First, it’s the last Sunday of the church year, the day traditionally known as the Feast of Christ the King, but here at First United known as Christ Anointed. Second, it’s the third Sunday in our Season of Remembrance, as we widen the circle out to honor those throughout the world who are victims of violence and oppression. And third, it is the second Sunday after the election apocalypse.

All of these do actually do fit together because they all have to do with how we want to be governed and how we are governed. Of course we don’t have a king; that was the reason for the War of Independence after all. And within the church, many of us have problems with the ‘king’ language for other reasons. Some have changed the name of the day to the Reign of Christ to eliminate the gender issue. But you still have the feudal language that implies a hierarchical order of power. But don’t take it from me. Let’s watch a short documentary about the problem with kings.

726f37831b7109adf1e144f242c7e868Watch Monty Python’s “The Annoying Peasant”

 Arthur’s Britain wasn’t the only place where having a king was problematic. The reading from Jeremiah is also a rant against a king, probably Zedekiah, the last of great King David’s dynasty. It was Zedekiah’s actions that had brought about invasion, siege, destruction, and finally exile to Babylon, so his popularity rating was zilch. I imagine the prophet Samuel laughing from the Great Beyond. Because although Samuel had long ago anointed Israel’s first king, Saul and later David and Solomon, he’d tried to talk the people out of their desire to have a king at all. He warned them:
“He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots for him to ride in luxury. He’ll take your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and give them to his friends. He’ll tax your harvests to support his extensive bureaucracy. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you’ll cry in desperation because of this king you want so much.” And so it was.

But what’s really important about this warning is that is an expression of the class tension (shades of Monty Python) between prophet and ruler. Remember: the prophets of ancient Israel were not predictors of the future or foretellers of Jesus; they were critics of the government, thorns in the side of kings, emperors, and other officials of both church and state. Which is still the role of prophets today.

Which brings me back again to this dilemma over Christ the King and its companion, the Kingdom of God because language really does matter in the face of oppressive regimes. “Basileia tou Theou”(Greek for Kingdom of God) was the main preaching point of Jesus’ teaching: the kingdom of God is like this; the kingdom of God has come near; the kingdom of God is within you. But “basileia” is being interpreted in some interesting ways these days: reign, realm, even regime of God. Many New Testament scholars, including the Jesus Seminar are calling it the “empire of God” – the rationale being that Jesus’ major agenda addresses his major antagonist, the “empire of Rome.”

Others aren’t so enamored. Process theologian John Cobb, who describes the “basiliea theou” as a counter-culture based on the values that were rejected by the political, economic, and religious establishments of Jesus’ day, prefers to call it the “divine commonwealth.” And the Inclusive Bible that we use calls it the kin-dom of God.

As much as I can appreciate the rationale behind “empire of God,” I have a hard time translating that to Christ the Emperor. I’m much more attracted to “kin-dom” or Cobb’s “divine commonwealth” because they get us away from limited feudal or empire language and broaden out into a more cosmic, interconnected vision – like that of the “divine milieu” of early 20th century scientist-priest Teillhard de Chardin. In this “divine milieu” Christ is described at various times as the Total Christ, the Cosmic Christ, the Whole Christ, the Universal Christ or the Mystical Body of Christ.

For Teillhard, Christ is not just Jesus of Nazareth risen from the dead, but rather a huge, continually evolving Being as big as the universe. In this colossal, almost unimaginable Being each of us lives and develops in consciousness, like living cells in a huge organism. With the help of all the human sciences as well as the scriptures, Teillhard shows how we – the cells and members of the Body of Christ – can participate in and nurture the life of the Total Christ. He also shows, thanks to the continuing discoveries of science, how we can begin to glimpse where that great Being is headed and how we can help promote its fulfillment. In a spirituality like this, the power of God is not a coercive power like that of a king. But it is a persuasive power that beckons us forward into the way of the Total Christ, whose task it is to transform this fragmented world, through love.

If that sounds too far out for you, remember that even in a spirituality of the divine milieu, the cosmos includes all the mundane, down-to-earth stuff we wrestle with each day, including the work of peace and justice. We never sit back and expect God to come and fix things for us. In the words of Theresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which Christ blesses the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are Christ’s body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

You may still prefer the king and kingdom language. It is, after all, the familiar and that is perfectly OK. My intention is to open up some other ways of thinking about it because it really does have implications for how we see our governing bodies today and our role as people of faith in support of and in opposition to those bodies.

Which brings us to our focus for the Season of Remembrance. We are remembering the oppressed of the world, both living and dead, who have suffered and continue to suffer under policies of governing bodies that deny any or all of their basic human rights. Today has been designated as the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, for the 87 people murdered this year alone. We light a candle for them. And for the people of Aleppo. Tonight we join with communities around the world in “A Light for Aleppo, A Light for All: Offering a light in the darkness, to show those who face daily conflict and starvation that the world is spreading out beacons of vigilance and hope.”

As our concerns grow that some members of our communities may be denied some or all of their rights by our government, we remember. Which then brings us back around to the call to be prophetic witnesses. The words of the prophets are still being written on subway walls and tenement halls, as Simon and Garfunkel sang 50 years ago. But now also on Twitter feeds, email blasts, and Facebook walls. And they are calling on us to join our voices, to join forces. For example, the latest message from Faithful America is: “Every church that is faithful to Jesus Christ must now become a sanctuary for those coping with violence and degradation.” 

How do we do that? I spoke last night at an early Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the Pacific Institute. It was packed; in fact they’d had to turn people away who had RSVP’d too late. Muslims, Jews, Christians of assorted denominations, and a smattering of Buddhists joined together both in expressing gratitude for being together and in resolve to continue working together for peace and justice. This past week, in Washington, DC, interfaith leaders met at the Nation’s Mosque to pray and to send a strong statement of interfaith solidarity with the Muslim community. At an anti-Semitism conference in New York, Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League said, “If Muslim Americans will be forced to register their identities, then that is the day that this proud Jew will register as a Muslim.”

I sent an email yesterday to the leaders of the other congregations who meet in this space, as well as Middle Circle, to see if there might be a way that we can show our solidarity. There seems to be support for that, so we’re looking for ways to embody it. Your suggestions are welcome.

 What can we take away with us today from all this? We take our grief. Our mourning for the dead and for the oppressed does not end. Our mourning for our country’s decent into dangerous political waters does not end.

But we can also take with us an awareness of the hugeness of the divine milieu in which we live. This vast universe that is the body of Christ is alive and we are part of it, growing and evolving in awareness and faith. And while such an immense reality may seem to big to include our concerns, our own individual concerns or the struggles of immigrants or the conflicts within nations, the truth is that in the body of God or the commonwealth of God or the kin-dom of God, each cell matters, each person matters, each hope, fear, dream, joy matters. This is the message we take with us on this final Sunday of the church year. So go out as prophetic witnesses to the peace and justice of the kin-dom, knowing that you are loved by a Love unbounded by space and time or by titles and political systems. Bigger than any king or queen or president, power or principality. This is the reality to which we cling and from which we will take action.



Jeremiah 23:1-6
In every age political and religious leaders have often created difficulties for those for whom they had responsibility. This text makes abundantly clear that ancient Israel was no exception. It is likely that these oracles were pronounced against the advisers of King Zedekiah of Judah (597-586 BCE). Placed on the throne as a vassal of the Babylonians, he was the last of the Davidic dynasty to reign. His rebellion against his overlords brought about the invasion of the kingdom, the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and the exile of the king and the nation’s leading citizens to Babylon.

 It is written . . .

“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep in my pasture!” declares YHWH. “Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who are tending my people: You have scattered my flock and driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds, declares YHWH. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have dispersed them, and will bring them back to their own pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will also raise up shepherds who will look after them and pasture them. They will no longer be afraid or terrified nor will any by missing, declares YHWH.

Behold, the days are coming, declares YHWH,
when I will raise up for the house of David
a righteous branch,
who will reign as a true ruler and act wisely,
and do what is just and right in the land.
In those days, Judah will be saved,
and Israel will dwell securely.
This is the Name on which they will call:
‘YHWH, Our Justice.’”

Second Reading from America, America by Saadi Youssef (translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa)

We are not hostages, America
and your soldiers are not God’s soldiers…

We are the poor ones, ours is the earth of the drowned gods,
the gods of bulls
the gods of fires
the gods of sorrows that intertwine clay and blood in a song…

We are the poor, ours is the god of the poor
who emerges out of farmers’ ribs
and bright,
and raises heads up high…

America, we are the dead.
Let your soldiers come.
Whoever kills a man, let him resurrect him.
We are the drowned ones, dear lady.
We are the drowned.
Let the water come.

Luke 1:68-79
Known to Christian tradition as The Benedictus, this psalm may well have had Jewish origins long before the birth of Jesus. It is composed of a series of familiar Old Testament phrases taken chiefly from the Psalms. It became an early Christian hymn and was incorporated into Luke’s Gospel as part of the poetic narrative of the Messiah’s birth.

Zechariah’s words portray a similar theme as Jeremiah’s. The Savior to come will guide us in the ways of peace. The new order will be characterized by grace, healing, and mercy.

 It is written . . .

“Blessed are you, the Most High God of Israel-
for you have visited and redeemed your people.
You have raised up a mighty savior for us
of the house of David,
as you promised through the mouths of your holy ones,
the prophets of ancient times:
salvation from our enemies
and from the hands of all our foes.
You have shown mercy to our ancestors
by remembering the holy Covenant
you made with them,
the oath you swore to Sarah and Abraham,
granting that we,
delivered from the hands of our enemies,
might serve you without fear,
in holiness and justice,
in your presence all our days.
And you, my child, will be called
the prophet of the Most High,
for you’ll go before our God
to prepare the way for the Promised One,
giving the people the knowledge of salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
Such is the tender mercy of our God,
who from on high
will bring the Rising Sun to visit us,
to give light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace.”


Posted by: smstrouse | November 19, 2016

Feeding the Activist Soul

s-l300In the wake of the presidential election, I am convinced of two things.

#1: It will take commitment to actions that will resist any and all attempts to undermine the rights and dignity of all people and of the whole creation. I am grateful for all the organizations that are mobilizing people of faith. One example is Faithful America, whose mission is “organizing the faithful to challenge such extremism and renew the church’s prophetic role in building a more free and just society.” Another is Sojourners, which has just published “10 Commitments of Resistance in the Trump Era.” There are many others. I find hope among the weeds of despair in being part of a movement of faithful resistance.

#2: It will be impossible for me to carry out #1 without a spiritual practice to keep me centered. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all recommendation for everyone to follow. But I can share what’s keeping me sane right now.

From the Buddhists, I learned to create my own loving kindness meditation. Mmetta1y version is:
May I be happy and healthy.
May I be grateful.
May I be transformed.
Loving and compassionate
Open to your Spirit
Mindful of your Presence
May I be an instrument of your Peace.

As I repeat the meditation, I reflect on which one or two aspects is out of alignment at this time. Often, this will open up my awareness of feelings or concerns that I wasn’t paying attention to. I can then spend extra time in prayer or conversation with Presence about that. I have always found being an instrument of peace much easier after this practice. Plus you don’t need a special place or position to do it. In the car, walking down the street, lying in bed: it’s all good.

From the Sufis I’ve been learning to listen to my heart (trying to anyway). With each out breath of “la ilaha” and in breath of “illallah” or “there is nothing” and “but You,” I feel the peace and calm of simply being. This was the mediation that was most calming for me last week.

monk-in-heart-cave-meditatingFrom my pagan sisters and brothers, I am learning how to better listen to nature, to feel rooted to the earth under my feet while my arms reach up into the sky. It’s not always easy in the midst of the city, but not impossible.

From my own Christian tradition, I find strength in the community, my congregation when we gather for worship. The singing, the prayers, the concerns for one another and for our world lift my spirit. The commitment of the whole gives strength to me as an individual (and I hope to each of us) to be resilient in the face of adversity.

We face extremely challenging times ahead. But I am convinced that as people of faith, we are up to the challenge. The light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.




Posted by: smstrouse | November 14, 2016

A Young Person’s Response to the Election

This letter was received in time for our worship service yesterday. The writer is a young woman in her second year of college here in California. We watched her grow up in the congregation and take on leadership both in helping to lead worship, but also in mentoring other young people. I can’t begin to express how proud I am of her.
Here is her letter:

Dear First United,

There are so many thoughts and feelings that I have following this election.

Watching the coverage of the election and slowly watching the states place their votes with Trump will be a moment that I’ll never forget. Everyone was so confident that Clinton would win. How could we be so wrong with our predictions?

This election was shocking. It proved that white supremacy is alive today. In California, we get stuck in a bubble. We forget that most of the country does not think as we do. This election was an important eye-opener for us, and hopefully we can gain something from it.

As we were gathered around watching the election, something stuck out for me. One of my friends, who does identify as a conservative Republican, was becoming increasingly anxious during the coverage. This is a man who refused to vote for either candidate, because he could not vote for someone that he did not believe in. As we were watching the election though, he was becoming more and more distraught. This was because he realized, for the first time, how much he really did not want Trump to win. Here he was, rooting for a woman that he hated, because the other candidate’s win was too unbearable to believe in. I realized something in this moment. When did I start thinking of the world as Democrats vs. Republicans? This is the hate that Trump has been preaching; the us vs. them ideology. He played off the fears of the country. And now I am afraid of what the future might hold for those that are deemed as “different.” I realized that in the coming years, it will be important for us to work together to create a safe America, where everyone feels welcome.

Following this election, it has become obvious that not everyone is welcome in America. As a women, I have seen the impact that this election has had on the gender that I identify with. The other day, a girl in my class said that she did not vote for Hillary because a woman could not be president. A girl in California who is pursuing her higher education degree believes this. It is also important to note that this was during a Women Writer’s course.

Also, when Hillary gave her concession speech she said, “To the little girls out there, never doubt that you are valuable, and powerful, and deserve every opportunity to pursue and achieve your own dreams”. How often do you see a white man coming out and telling white boys that they can be anything they want to be? You don’t. Because white boys already know this. Girls still have to be reminded that they can do whatever they want, because they do not know that. Apparently, women can do anything they want, as long as it does not interfere with the patriarchy.

Currently, most people in America are fearful for the next few years. My campus has created safe places where students can come and talk about their feelings concerning the election. Growing up in a white middle-class family has made these conversations challenging for me. Sitting in a class where my peers express their concerns for their illegal immigrant families has opened my eyes. I personally do not have to deal with those same fears. Even Latinos, Muslims, Asians, etc. that are American citizens, are still having to face persecution:

  1. I pray for the group of boys that took off a girl’s hijab at Plano East Senior High.
  2. I pray for the students in DeWitt, Michigan that formed a physical wall around the school blocking Latino students from entering.
  3. I pray for street vendor that yelled, “hey guys, at least it will be legal to grab p****” and high-fived a group of men on the street who were laughing.
  4. I pray for the Muslim family that woke up to a sign outside their house that said, “you can leave now.” This was in the Bay Area.
  5. I pray for all the instances that have gone undocumented, and for all the people that are now fearful for their safety.

I feel a disconnect with what is going on in America. As a white heterosexual Christian, I do not have to worry about these same oppressions. However, that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be a part of it. I want to be actively engaged in the current conversations. I believe in civil disobedience. I believe in the ability to express our First Amendment right by peaceful protests.

We, as Americans, have been complacent for too long. The current generation never lived through the Civil Rights Movement, the AIDS epidemic, the Vietnam protests, women’s suffrage, etc.   It is time that we struggle and fight for something that we believe in.

To those that believe that Trump will be unable to create his laws or build a wall, look at the incidents that I have written above. There is already a wall in America. It is important for us to ban together and tear down this wall.

It is fine to mourn. I have been in mourning and using this time to sort through and understand my feelings. Writing this letter became a great way for me to purge/be mindful of my own feelings. However, we cannot become complacent to what is going on in the world. Finish mourning, and use that drive to fuel your hopes and desires for America.

To the young people, get off social media. What laws have ever actually been passed because of it? Nothing. Laws are changed by going to court, protesting, and writing to our elected officials. Not by stating an opinion online to your friends, most of whom have the same opinion as you anyway. We need to change the mind of others, and that is done through education. My hope is that I can go out and enact change, hopefully with you by my side.

I do feel like the government failed me. However, I am a Political Science Major for a reason. I have faith in America and in a government that wants to help its people. And I want to be a part of that.

My hope is that the president-elect, and those coming into power, will not use hate to create new laws. I hope that the country will stay open-minded and that we will help Trump be successful in his presidency. If something happens that we do not agree with, it is our duty as citizens to stand up and enact change.

Although this feels like 10 steps in the wrong direction, hopefully we can use this to take 30 steps forward.

Thank you,


Posted by: smstrouse | November 14, 2016

A Spirituality of Resistance


Season of Remembrance 2       November 13, 2016
2 Kings 2:1-12; John 15:12-17; and an excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison

On Tuesday night, while watching election returns, I was also keeping an eye on my Facebook feed. As the results became more and more ominous, posts from friends and colleagues became more and more desolate. The one that hit me the hardest, because it put into words exactly what I was feeling, was from a colleague in New York City. Pastor Heidi Neumark, who you may know from her books and other writing  wrote, “I feel like I did watching the towers come down, sitting there watching a disaster of devastating proportions and not being able to do a thing about it.”

I’d already been thinking that this felt like 9/11. In some ways, it’s worse. Knowing that almost half the people of my country abandoned the values that I hold near and dear as an American is a devastating blow. On 9/11/2001, we came together in our grief (of course, that would be turned later into an excuse for war), but for a time, we were united in mourn-ing the loss of life that day. But on 11/8/2016, our disunity – already pronounced – erupted into gaping wounds that no one knows (or maybe wants to know) how to heal.

This past week has been difficult, to put it mildly. We’ve been like walking wounded. On Wednesday, I was depressed. By Thursday, I was angry and just generally grouchy about everything. Although I did remark several times that I’m glad I live here in the Bay Area, where it’s safe to commiserate with one another. I’ve been offering support to my cousin back in an ultra-conservative part of PA. Yet even here there have been reports of violence and harassment. As The SF Chronicle headline read: “Election ruptures civility here in America’s bastion of inclusivity.”

And now it’s Sunday. We’ve come together to grieve and to try to see a way forward. I’m still processing all of this myself, so I’m not going to insult you with pious admonitions to just have faith and all will be well. Though that may ultimately be true, there’s more to it than simply sitting back, hoping and expecting that God will take care of it.

As I said, by Thursday I was experiencing a chaotic mix of emotions, as I expect you were too – swinging all the way from wanting to withdraw from anything to do with politics to being ready to join the protest lines, from sitting quietly with my grief to feeling the urge to get out there and do something. Mostly though I was just grouchy about everything. By that evening, I hadn’t accomplished everything I needed to do for the week, which made me even more grouchy. I was tempted to skip my meditation group scheduled for that night, but I also knew that it was probably what I should do. So I went. Thank goodness.

If you’ve seen the announcement in Keeping in Touch for Sufi heart-based meditation, that’s what I do. While it’s a Sufi practice, it’s totally compatible with our own tradition. We don’t have time here to go into in more detail, but you’re always welcome to ask me about it. My point is, that as we seek a way forward with appropriate action, our decisions must come from the heart, from the center of our being where the Ground of our Being resides. While going into meditation or silence or any other spiritual practice might appear to be withdrawal from the world, it is not. It is preparation for engagement with the world.

I entered meditation Thursday evening wondering how I could tame the chaos. I left with a sense of calm I hadn’t felt since before Tuesday. And I was reminded again that our peace comes from within and our spiritual practice will sustain us. Now being here together is a spiritual practice, but this is just one hour a week. I encourage you (if you don’t have one already) to seek out a practice that will sustain you for all the hours of the week. It doesn’t have to be meditation; it could be music or art or any number of things. I’m always happy to talk with you more about that too. I’m sharing my feelings and experience of this week, not as an example of piety, but because I am firmly convinced that it is from that spiritual center that we will be able to work through our grief as well as work for justice and peace.

Balance is a word that has been coming to mind a lot this week: balancing the call to go more deeply into the heart of my being in order to connect with the Divine with the call to immediate action in the face of threats to members of our community. This is the balance we need to find.

The grief over our fractured nation is so profound; it cannot nor should not be rushed through or glossed over, as painful as it is. It’s like a death. To speak now of healing is premature. I find it almost prophetic that the readings Kate chose for today are so à propos. All of them take place just before a death: Elijah is about to be taken into heaven; Jesus is about to be crucified; Dietrich Bonhoeffer will soon be hung for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Their friends are left to grieve. On this second Sunday in the Season of Remembrance, our emphasis is on friends and members of the community who have died. We remember and honor all of them today. But on this post-election Sunday, it is also incumbent upon us to grieve for our community itself, our nation.

At the same time, we’re looking for ways to mobilize our indignation into right action. You may have noticed that we’re recording this sermon. That’s because a call went out this week from a group called Faithful America to pastors all over the country asking us to “speak bravely and prophetically about what our faith requires of us in this moment of crisis. We need to make sure those sermons are heard not just by those in the pews, but by everyone who is fearful and wondering if it’s safe to speak up.”

There is a flyer with information about Faithful America and another with an option for you to be part of the movement in a petition that reads: As a follower of Jesus, I will join with my sisters and brothers in resisting any and all attacks by the Trump administration on the most vulnerable among us. Following the examples of the saints and martyrs, and guided by prayer and discernment, I am prepared if necessary to risk my own safety and well being for the sake of others. 

 Can you hear the echo of the words from John’s gospel: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”? You shouldn’t sign this petition without weighing what Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship.” It’s not just about Jesus laying down his life for us; it’s about us taking up a cross and following. This is serious business.

 Another call that has gone out this week is #safetypin, which was actually inspired by a movement in the United Kingdom. Following the “Brexit” vote, many people in the UK began wearing a safety pin to show their solidarity with refugees and immigrants – “so that without a word, people may see your safety pin and know that you’re a friendly face, that they are ‘safe’ with you.”

Now I have to tell you that not everyone supports this idea. And I agree with critique that it could be an easy, feel-good thing to do with no real intention behind it. And I agree with the questions being raised, such as just how much is one ready to risk? And should there be training for this? These are good questions and should be taken into account. I, for one, am willing to wear the pin. I liken it to the yellow star worn by non-Jewish people in France and the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation as a sign of solidarity. I pledge to stand with and for persons of all races, ages, ethnicities, gender identities, economic status, physical and mental abilities. There are pins here for anyone who wants one. But I strongly discourage wearing it because it’s the “in” thing to do. And I strongly encourage all of us to take any of these actions only with a solid spiritual foundation.

This is serious. Read the examples in the Chron and ask yourself what you would do:

  • A woman on BART, speaking on the phone in Assyrian, was confronted by another woman, who called her “an ugly, mean, evil little pig who might get deported.”
  • A woman at a gas station in Napa witnessed a man walk up to an Asian-American woman and say, over and over again, “We won. Now get the f— out of my country”
  • A SF woman wrote on Facebook that a white man shoved her and then drew a knife on her. She says he called her the n-word “very aggressively for several minutes.”

I’ve never been a big fan of the battle imagery in the passage from Ephesians, but it does seem to apply today: “Draw your strength from Christ and from the strength of that mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can stand firm against the tactics of the Devil. You must put on the armor of God if you are to resist on the evil day, and having done everything you can, to hold your ground.”

Don’t be distracted by the “Devil” or the “evil day” language. But know that evil does exist, not only in the hearts of people who would go against God’s will of peace, compassion, and justice for all people and all creation – but also in the systems that propagate racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all manner of mayhem.

Like it or not, we are part of those systems and must have a good measure of humility in our condemnation of others. At the same time, we must work to transform hearts (including our own) and to transform systems in the hard work of discipleship.

The time for a positive Christian response to hatred and bigotry is now. I can’t believe it was just two short weeks ago, on Reformation Sunday, that I talked about the Confessing Church in Germany, those pastors and congregations who were willing – unlike many – to go against the Nazi regime. It’s not hyperbole to say that parallels have been drawn. Please do read the article in KIT called “Time for Healing. And Resistance” by Jim Wallace from Sojourners. There is a movement growing. We will not allow others who call themselves Christian to hijack Jesus any longer.

This is not a call to be afraid. It is a call to be faithful. We, as a congregation, will continue to be committed to this work. I pray that we will have the courage and commitment to stand united – First United – on the forefront of spiritual and political transformation, here in San Francisco, in all the other communities in which we live and work, in our nation, and in our world; to pay the cost of discipleship gladly for Christ’s sake.


First Reading   2 Kings 2:1-12
The transition of prophetic power is marked by the change of the mantel of prophecy. The symbol of the mantel and crossing signals transition carry the passage. Amidst all this transition the role of service remains. 

When Yhwh was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here. Yhwh is sending me to Bethel.”

“As Yhwh live, and you live,” said Elisha, “I will not leave you.”

So they departed together for Bethel.
The disciples of the prophets in Bethel approached Elisha, asking, “Do you know that Yhwh is going to Elijah from you today?”
“Yes, I know,” Elisha replied, “now be silent.”
Then Elijah spoke, “Stay here, Elisha. Yhwh is sending me to Jericho.”
And Elisha replied, “As Yhwh lives, and as you live, I will not leave you.”

So they went to Jericho. The disciples of prophets in Jericho approached Elisha, asking, “Do you know that Yhwh is going to take Elijah from you today?”
“Yes, I know,” he said, “now be silent.”
Then Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here. Yhwh is sending me to the Jordan.”
“As Yhwh lives and as you live,” said Elisha, “I will not leave you.”

So the two of them walked on. Fifty disciples of prophets stood off at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha stopped at the Jordan. Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry land. Once across, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”
Elisha replied, “Let me inherit two-thirds of your spirit,” he said.
“You ask a difficult thing,” Elijah said. “If you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours – otherwise not.”

As they were walking along and chatting with each other, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirl-wind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and cavalry of Israel!” And Elisha saw nothing more. Then he took hold of his clothes and tore them apart.

Second Reading
An excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison
Christmas Eve 1943

To Renate and Eberhard Bethge,
I should like to say something to help you in the time of separation that lies ahead. There is no need to say how hard any such separation is for us; but as I’ve now been separated for nine months from all the people that I’m devoted to, I have some experiences that I should like to pass on to you. So far, Eberhard and I have exchanged all the experiences that have been important to us, and this has been a great help to us; now you, Renate, will have some part in this. You must try to forget your ‘uncle’ and think more of your husband’s friend.
First: nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute: we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to maintain our former communion with each other even at the cost of pain.
Secondly: the dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh but as a precious gift in themselves. We must take care not to wallow in our memories or hand ourselves over to them, just as we do not gaze all the time at a valuable present, but only at special time, and apart from these keep it simply as a hidden treasure that is ours for certain. In this way the past gives us lasting joy and strength.
Thirdly: times of separation are not a total loss or unprofitable for our companionship, or at any rate they need not be so. In spite of all the difficulties that they bring, they can be the means of strengthening fellowship quite remarkably.

Fourthly: I’ve learnt here especially that the facts can always be mastered, and that difficulties are magnified out of all proportion simply by fear and anxiety. From the moment we wake until we fall asleep we must commend other people wholly and unreservedly to God and leave them in his hands, and transform our anxiety for them into prayers on their behalf:

With sorrow and with grief…
God will not be distracted.


Gospel reading   John 15:12-17
Love opens the floodgates of divine energy to flow from us to others. Laying down our lives for each other, then, is not a sacrifice but an expansion and growing of our authentic selfhood. Our willing-ness to go beyond self-interest opens us to the larger selfhood of Christ, whose love identifies with all creation. This is the foundation of peace, in which our self-concern is identified with the well-being of larger and larger circles of reality.

This is my commandment:
love one another as I have loved you.
There is no greater love
than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
And you are my friends,
if you do what I command you.
I no longer speak of you as subordinates,
because a subordinate doesn’t know a superior’s business.
Instead I call you friends,
because I have made known to you
everything I have learned from Abba God.
It was not you who chose me;
it was I who chose you
to go forth and bear fruit.
Your fruit must endure,
so that whatever you ask of Abba God in my name
God will give you.
This command I give you:
that you love one another.


Posted by: smstrouse | November 11, 2016

Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time

aslan-lion-3-the-chronicles-of-narnia-wallpaper“And now who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you could save the (world)?”

As much as I once loved C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I now have problems with it. One is its atonement theology: the necessity of a sacrifice to redeem the sinner. The other is its portrayal of the evil as a female (the White Witch).

However – it’s the story that comes to me in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election results. I truly believe that evil has (apparently) triumphed. I’m not saying that those who voted for He Who Shall  Not Be Named (HWSNBN) are evil.

What I name as evil are the actions of those who have taken advantage of that anger and used it in a grab for power that will actually be harmful to those looking for a champion.

What I name as evil is the intentional roiling up of racism and xenophobia and making it acceptable to express in all its ugliness.

What I name as evil is the way that sexism – both blatant and subtle – undermined a candidate, purely because our entrenched patriarchy made it possible.

What I name as evil is lying with impunity, following the methodology of Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

aslanI mourn the triumph of evil. I feel like Susan of The Chronicles of Narnia who, here with Lucy, mourns the binding and the death of Aslan. Over half of our nation is in mourning and we can’t ignore that or try to rush through it. Nor can we spout simplistic platitudes about coming together to heal the division. No, we must mourn a death.


The White Witch has won (I am painfully aware of the implications of the strong, powerful women being cast as a witch; it’s not hard to see how that progresses to bitch, etc. But that’s a subject for another post).

My point here is that the WW thinks that Aslan is dead and she has won. My slight revision of her taunt (“And now who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you could save the (world)?” sounds a lot like some of the vitriol I’ve been hearing from triumphant supporters of HWSNBN.

But as readers of the book know, the story doesn’t end there. Aslan returns to life. Now don’t be stopped by the substitutionary atonement theology or even by bodily resurrection of a messiah figure. There is truth here for us.

“But what does it all mean,” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.
“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

If we look far back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, we will know that there is a force greater than whatever evil we may unleash. This is no simplistic platitude. It does not deny the reality of evil, nor the hard work of overcoming it. It does not promise easy answers or quick solutions. We have only to look to the atrocities of the  Holocaust and other ethnic cleansing in our own time to know that the arc of justice is long. But what we must remember is that it does bend toward justice.

Indeed, we have our work cut out for us. But we do not do it only through our own feeble efforts. There is a magic deeper still that goes back into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned. Call it what you will – God, Spirit, Universe, Tao, Divine Milieu, Wisdom, Cosmic Christ  – it is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble. And it lives!aslan-roar-1140x532



Posted by: smstrouse | November 5, 2016

Vote Faithfully!


These are difficult and challenging times for our local communities, our country, and the world. Divisive and heated rhetoric dominate the public dialogue. More and more people are withdrawing from engagement in the political process out of a growing sense of cynicism and mistrust. Now, more than ever, your voice and your efforts are needed. As people of faith, we can play a unique role in this election cycle by empowering every voice in our congregations and offering a hope-filled vision of the future for all people.   – from the Vote Faithfully toolkit 

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America , the United Church of Christ, and The Episcopal Church have joined together in observing the Sunday before Election Day as “Vot14729194_10154661062009513_907259908628772441_ne Faithfully Sunday.”

Whether you’re a member of one of these churches or another church or no church at all . . .


As we remember the words of Jesus:
The Spirit of God is upon me
because the Most High has anointed me
to bring Good News to those who are poor.
God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive,
recovery of sight to those who are blind,
and release to those in prison. – Luke 4:18
As we reflect on candidate’s attitudes and positions on:
the environment
the economy
prison reform
human rights . . .









Posted by: smstrouse | October 30, 2016

You Say You Want a Reformation . . .



A Sermon for Reformation Sunday
October 30, 2016

“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable” is a quote attributed to, among others, President James Garfield, who seems to be following up on the words of Jesus in John’s gospel: “If you live according to my teaching, you’ll know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

I’m sure many of us have found Garfield’s additional commentary to be true. Sometimes the truth hurts or is a huge challenge to our usual way of being. Gloria Steinem’s version, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off,” is another common response to being confronted with a different reality than the one we thought was true. Why else do we sometimes wonder whether it’s best to tell a friend or loved one the truth about something we know will be very hard to hear? Or will make them angry – maybe with us?

But this wasn’t the case with Martin Luther. He wouldn’t have agreed with either Steinem or Garfield – at least not when he had his so-called “Tower Experience.” He wrote about it later and you have the full text of his account at the bottom of thunknownis document. The story in a nutshell is that while studying Romans 1:17 (our second reading) in his study in the tower of the monastery in Wittenberg where he lived as an Augustinian monk, Luther had one of those light bulb moments. You know how that goes; a light goes on in your head and you suddenly see something in a way that you never had before and you suddenly get it, whatever “it” is. A revelation. An epiphany! An “ah hah!” moment. A blinding flash of insight that reveals – the truth.

And for Luther, that truth did set him free and it did not tick him off or make him miser-able. In fact, he’d been angry and miserable before this revelation: “I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.”

His big “ah! hah!” moment was when he was set free from a way of thinking about God that was unhealthy, destructive, and wrong. Now, he could have done what many people do and stop there. Many who abandon the idea of a wrathful, vengeful, punishing deity who needs to be appeased abandon any idea of God at all. To be fair, who can blame them? A lot of terrible things have been done in the name of this idea of God.

But Luther didn’t go there. What he discovered in Romans1:17 was freedom. “All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.”

On Reformation Sunday we don’t usually think about Luther having a spiritual awakening. We tend to focus on the shift from a belief that one’s good deeds could get you into heaven to a doctrine of justification by faith through grace. In the 16th century that was a big deal; the Church was selling indulgences so people could help loved ones get out of Purgatory more quickly. The title of Luther’s list of 95 theses was actually “A Disputation on the Power of Indulgences.”

But thing are different today. In 1999, The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which essentially ended the 500-year-old conflict at the root of the Reformaiton. And tomorrow, in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church will hold an historic joint commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden.

So – times have changed. And reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics and agreement on a doctrine is something to be celebrated. But I wouldn’t like our commemoration of the Reformation to stop there. I would like us to savor that moment of spiritual awaken-ing that caused Martin Luther to discover that his idea of who and what God was no longer made sense. And I would like us to celebrate his magnificent and joyful new awareness of the true nature of the Divine.

It’s a moment and an awareness that many of us have experienced and that, by the grace of God and our efforts, many more will experience. I often quote the late Marcus Borg, who liked to say in response to someone who said they didn’t believe in God, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” When the person would describe a version of Luther’s wrathful, vengeful, punishing deity who needs to be appeased, Borg would say, “I don’t believe in that God either.” And then would begin a conversation on the true nature of God – loving, compassionate, luring us into wholeness, calling us into works of peace and justice – the God that had Luther joyfully running through the Scriptures and finding more proof of what he’d discovered: “the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.”

 This was no mere intellectual exercise. Why else would he write, “I exalted this sweetest word of mine, ‘the justice of God,’ with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase was for me the very gate of paradise.” This was a liberating spiritual awakening. A re-formation of a man’s relationship with the holy truth of Divine Love.

a-new-reformation-300x163Today, many thinkers, writers, theologians are claiming that we are in the midst of a new reformation. There are at least 3 new lists of theses (which are simply items for discussion). The late Phyllis Tickle often talked about the fact that about every 500 years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. And I believe she’s right. We’re going through our religious “stuff” – doctrines, language, practices, etc. – and making decisions about what should stay, what should go, and what might still be a treasure if we just cleaned it up a little bit. The process is messy; discussions about what stays, what goes, what gets transformed are chaotic, unsettling.

Even our image or concept of who or what God is up for discussion. Not that this is some-thing new. It wasn’t even new to Luther. In ancient times, the idea of God being more than a tribal deity, one among many other tribal deities, was re-formed to a belief in one God. The idea that God is comprised of persons, including Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, was a re-formation brought about by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In recent times, we’ve had to re-examine what we think we know about God in light of what people of other religions think they know about God. Those who have declared themselves to be atheists present us with the challenge of defining what we mean when we claim to believe in a deity. Science does this also. And this is all good. We are free to wonder and question and explore.

And this is in direct line with Reformation history. We have not simply called 1-800- GOT JUNK and thrown away all of our tradition. However, we do take seriously the notion of “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” (“the church is always to be reformed”). That phrase is thrown about a lot, especially on Reformation Sunday. And it’s a great rallying cry for keeping the church up-to-date with current needs. But it doesn’t come from Luther, as many think. In fact, it isn’t from the 16th century at all. It was coined by 20th century Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth. And it’s important to understand Barth’s context.

karl_barth_briefmarkeBefore World War II, Barth was a strong critic of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. He also criticized the many churches that went along with the Nazis, for not fulfilling their prophetic role in society. In 1917, a group of these Nazi Protestants coopted the 400th anniversary of the Reformation, in an event that endorsed German nationalism, emphasizing that Germany had a preferred place in the Protestant tradition, and legitimizing anti-Semitism. They used Luther’s admonishment to respect secular authority to justify their positions. When Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, Barth was involved in the drafting of the Barmen Declaration opposing these churches. So “Ecclesia semper reform-anda est” is not simply a call for change for change’s sake. It is a call to look around at our own cultural context (Barth is often quoted as saying that one should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other) and to be the church with integrity. This is the tradition in which we stand. As Luther famously said, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

In today’s cultural context, we find ourselves taking our stand in the midst of a great number of people disaffected with the church, with clergy, and with God (or at least God as God has been defined in the past). We also find ourselves among a great number of people who imagine the Divine differently from the way we do.

We can respond to this in one of two ways. We can wring our hands and lament the good old days when churches were full and we could hold a real old-time Reformation service where we bashed Catholics and sang “A Mighty Fortress” like it was our national anthem.

Or we can enter into the spirit of “semper reformanda” with the freedom granted by the gospel. And with joyful hearts, knowing as Luther discovered in that transformational tower experience, that God is gracious and good, compassionate and healing, freeing – and challenging us to bring peace and justice and healing to the world

So let’s not talk about the God we don’t believe in. Let us share the good news of the Divine Presence in which we do live and move and have our being. There’s a Reformation going on. Here we stand. Amen



Jeremiah 31:31-34
We read this text on Reformation Sunday because the great theological insight of Martin Luther which triggered the Reformation is that God’s gracious generosity permits forgiveness and reconciliation, even for those who do not merit such grace. God’s announcement of ‘forgiving and forgetting’ in Jeremiah is made into a deep theological claim by Luther that has become a defining affirmation for all the truth of the Gospel.

 It is written . . .
“Behold, the days are coming,” says YHWH, “when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them up out of the land of Egypt—a covenant they broke, though I was their spouse,” says YHWH.

“But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my law in their minds and in their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they need to teach one another, or remind one another to listen to YHWH. All of them, high and low alike, will listen to me,” says YHWH, “for I will forgive their misdeeds and will remember their sins no more.”

Romans 1:16-17
. . . in that same year, 1519, I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God” . . . I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God . . . . I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant . . . I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.
(the full text of Martin Lutehr’s “Tower Experience” is below)


It is written . . .
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is itself the very power of God, effecting the deliverance of everyone who has faith – to the Jew first, but also to the Greek. For in that gospel, God’s justice is revealed – a justice which arises from faith and has faith as its result. As it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”


John 8:31-36
Since this passage constructs freedom in terms of being in a relationship marked by liberation from sin and death, it challenges us to examine the current state of our personal and social relationships. What relationships in our lives are liberative and life-affirming for us and for others? What relationships do we participate in that sustain the oppressing bondage of sin and result in death and destruction on personal, social, and even environmental levels? What can we do to transform destructive relationships in our lives and in our world into relationships that liberate instead of oppress?


It is written . . .
Jesus said to those who believed in him, ‘If you live according to my teaching, you are really my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’

They answered, ‘We are descendants of Sarah and Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be set free”?’

Jesus answered them, ‘The truth of the matter is, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not always remain part of a household; an heir, however, is a member of that house forever. So if the Heir – the Only Begotten – makes you free, you will be free indeed.”


Martin Luther: The Tower Experience, 1519
An Excerpt From: Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545) by Dr. Martin Luther, 1483-1546 Translated by Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB from the “Vorrede zu Band I der Opera Latina der Wittenberger Ausgabe. 1545” in vol. 4 of _Luthers Werke in Auswahl_, ed. Otto Clemen, 6th ed., (Berlin: de Gruyter. 1967). pp. 421-428.

Meanwhile in that same year, 1519, I had begun interpreting the Psalms once again. I felt confident that I was now more experienced, since I had dealt in university courses with St. Paul’s Letters to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the Letter to the Hebrews. I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.


But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. Afterward I read Augustine’s “On the Spirit and the Letter,” in which I found what I had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted “the justice of God” in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although Augustine had said it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God imputes justice to us, still it pleased me that he taught the justice of God by which we are justified.
(c)1983 by Saint Anselm Abbey. This translation may be used freely with proper attribution. You may distribute, copy or print this text, providing you retain the author and copyright statements.






Posted by: smstrouse | October 29, 2016

My Back Pages

images-1Bob Dylan has finally announced that he will accept the Nobel Prize for literature. Maybe it should also be an acknowledgment of the spirituality of his music. Before “spiritual but not religious” became a thing, Dylan said,
Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw the Light”—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.

I can be as left-brained, systematically theological as can be. But oftentimes it is the poetry of artists like Dylan that speaks to my soul. “Blowin’ in the Wind” was not just a political anthem for my generation; it was a profession of spiritual belief.

But Dylan isn’t the only artist who does this for me. Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be” is a fine anthem, although I am partial to the version by 10,000 Maniacs and David Byrne.

Then there are the songs that were written purely as secular songs, but I have derived much spiritual meaning from them. For example, Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt’s duet,  I Don’t Know Much But I Know I Love You, Michael Bolton’s (I know, but listen to the lyrics) When I’m Back on My Feet Again, Bruce Springsteen’s Hungry Heart, and The Beatles’ In My Life.

There are lots more. Leonard Cohen lyrics are trying to get a word in here. Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, and so many others fill my back pages.

I’m sure there are many contemporary songs that tap into that spiritual space. I’d love to hear your favorites.



Posted by: smstrouse | October 22, 2016

Tribute (no, not obituary) to John Shelby Spong

10435394_738971892823266_204175467777320157_nMany of you know that John Shelby Spong had a stroke back on September 10th. Thankfully, he’s expected to make a good recovery. According to Bishop Spong’s Facebook page, “at minimum, the expectation is for almost 90% physical and 95%+ cognitive recovery”.

For many years I’ve been receiving weekly columns written by Bishop Spong. Along with his books and lectures, these have been  a source of immeasurable value in my own continuing exploration of what it means to be a progressive Christian. (You too can subscribe here)

While Bishop Spong continues to recuperate from his stroke, the task of writing some of
these columns has been given to guest authors. Last week, I was 41oaa1ffy3l-_sx386_bo1204203200_pleased to see that Fred Plumer, the Acting Executive Director of, was the featured writer.  You can read his entire essay when you subscribe, but I’ll share a taste of it here. Fred echoes much of my own story of moving away from the Christological paradigm I had been taught, then wandering in the wilderness and wrestling with my beliefs and unbeliefs, and finally coming into the Promised Land of a Christianity that makes much more sense – while also including the awareness of Mystery. If you’ve never read his book Christpower, co-authored withLucy Newton Boswell Negus, I recommend it to you.

Here’s the excerpt from Fred Plumer:
When I graduated from Seminary and few years before this incident, I had already dissolved my belief in the old paradigm of Jesus dying for our sins. Between the fact that I had attended a liberal seminary and my very early relationship with the Jesus Seminar, I really had little or no Christology left. As a pastor, I talked about the man, Jesus, who gave us many moral, ethical and spiritual lessons about how to live our lives. I knew he was a Jew and a Galilean, which was a minority of a minority. Yes, he was a special man and he had laid out a fairly simple way to live in harmony with self, with others, and with Abba, even in the most difficult times. But, like the great line in the famous musical, Jesus Christ Super Star, “he was just a man.”

But over the years Bishop Spong started filling in the blanks for me that gave both life and purpose to the Jesus I had studied for ten years at that point. Although I did not realize it at the time, I had a pretty one dimensional and no colors in my portrait of Jesus. I now realize what Bishop Spong provided for me is something like “a paint by the numbers” portrait of Jesus. As I read each of Jack’s books, I would fill in more of the painting, year after year. I read lots of other books, of course. I would guess in that twenty-five year period, I read three to four hundred books or more, many of which were helpful and some were great.

But it has been Bishop Spong’s books that gave my “portrait” color, depth, and life.

I really couldn’t have said it any better.

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