Sunday, September 16, 2018

Sermon for Holy Cross Day 2018

Sermon for Holy Cross Day

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

1 Corinthians 1:18-24

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,   and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.


When Helena, the mother of Constantine, searched for the remnants of the True Cross around the year 320, she didn’t have Google Maps or Waze or any other modern technology to assist her. Instead, the story goes that she spoke to an old man living near a Jerusalem trash dump. This man said he knew many Christians, and that they had told him exactly where the crucifixion happened. And indeed, when she went to the place the man showed her, she did find three wooden crosses, one even bearing the name “Jesus.”

Walking the Via Dolorosa, Good Friday 2018
But still, Helena wasn’t certain, so she employed an earlier technology, one of the best and surest: She prayed! And God revealed to her in a vision that this was certainly the True Cross of Christ.

And then, because there was no Facebook, the people of Jerusalem lit fires of celebration on the mountaintops. As the message spread, so did the fires, and soon the peaks of all the mountains from Jerusalem to Athens were aflame, proclaiming the good news: The True Cross of Christ had been found! For this reason, here in Palestine it is still a tradition to light fireworks on Holy Cross Day. In fact, the day holds so much significance that in many Orthodox families, sons born on Holy Cross Day are named “Saliba”, which means “cross”.

The Cross of Christ is central to our faith, to our theology, and to our spirituality. It has often been said there can be no Christianity without the cross. For this reason, small fragments of the cross Helena discovered can be found in churches and private collections across the world. People naturally grasp on to this tangible evidence of the event that changed history. The problem is, if you gathered all these tiny wooden pieces from around the globe, many thousands of crosses could be assembled!

Anglicans and Lutherans walk the Via Dolorosa together on Good Friday 2018
And so, as the church today celebrates Holy Cross Day more than 1,700 years after Helena found that piece of wood, just around the corner from where we sit, we must really ask the question:

What is our relationship to the Cross?
Do we put our trust in something we can grasp and easily fit into our pockets?
Or do we put our trust in the True Cross of Christ?

Now, to be fair, it’s difficult to define what we mean by the “true cross.”

Last Sunday, as I was walking here to Redeemer Church, I passed through the Holy Sepulcher courtyard and saw a man carrying not one, but three large wooden crosses on his back. One might have thought this was a very spiritual man! But of course, I knew this man was carrying the crosses to the 1st Station of the Via Dolorosa, where he would sell tourists the opportunity to carry one for around 400 shekels.

Now, it’s true that walking the Via Dolorosa carrying one of these life-size crosses can be a meaningful experience for pilgrims. People come from around the world to carry these pieces of wood, which feel in some way closer to the “true cross” Jesus carried. But the sight of this man, starting his day of work hiring out crosses, reminded me that even in the Holy City, the cross can be a business. Sometimes it’s entertainment. It’s often decoration for our necks or our homes. The cross has even become a tool of the empire.

All this is true because we have not always carried the cross as Christ did, with humility and in solidarity with the suffering people of the world.

“Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said—but Christians have engaged in some very strange interpretations of that invitation. For example, Christian crusaders fought proudly and viciously here in the Holy Land under the sign of the cross. In the same city where Our Lord suffered with and for all the oppressed, our fellow Christians turned the cross into a symbol of imperialism and conquest. In their hands—or I should say, in our hands—this sign of salvation and new life became a certain sign of death and destruction. As I said in another sermon recently, we love to sing “They will know we are Christians by our love”, but we should never forget that across history, many people have known us by our swords.

This morning we heard the second reading for Holy Cross Day, from the 1st chapter of 1 Corinthians, which tells us:

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”   

Unfortunately, these verses have often been interpreted by preachers to mean that we alone, as believers, have the ability to understand the cross, while others remain in confusion. We alone possess truth and certainty, while others stumble. But we must be careful not to condemn those who do not share our faith, because the truth is that the cross always frustrates human understanding. Of course, we stumble over the idea that a tool of state torture could be our path to salvation. Of course, we desire wisdom and power over others, and scoff at the idea that vulnerability and sacrifice could be the path to healing and wholeness. This holy foolishness has never been easily accepted or lived.

And so, over the past two thousand years, the Cross of Christ has been twisted and corrupted, used and abused. This is true not only for the Crusades, but also for the Holocaust, and slavery, and the patriarchy, and the occupation of Palestine—among other horrors. Our history proves we are much better at building crosses than we are at carrying them.

For this reason, one might ask the question: Given our foolish history, what need is there for the cross today? The church has taken bold steps to disavow many harmful theologies and doctrines which no longer serve us well. Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the Doctrine of Discovery have all now been relegated to the rubbish bin of Christian history. Should we then also disavow the cross? Maybe the question is not can we, but should we have Christianity without it?

If we are talking about the cross of imperialism, the cross of colonialism, the cross of military conquest and occupation, the cross of white supremacy and patriarchy, then the answer is a resounding YES! These false crosses we strongly disavow. There must be a Christianity without these cross-shaped lies. Christians individually, and the church as an institution, must boldly and publicly lay down these and all other false crosses which have so often defined us.

The church, and the world, have no need of these crosses. But I believe the True Cross still has meaning and significance for us. We need the True Cross of Christ today because innocent people still suffer at the hands of the state. People are still killed for speaking truth to power. Black men are lynched. Women are raped. Palestinians are denied right of movement and right of return. Refugees are left to drown in the oceans that separate them from life and liberation. For these reasons and many others, it is still a holy scandal that the Son of God chose to suffer with us and for us. It is still Good News to the poor, to the oppressed, to the voiceless, and to the sinner, to hear that Jesus, Son of God, fully human and fully divine, in great love emptied himself in order to save this broken world. Amen!

And so, in spite of its complicated history, the cross is still relevant today because it chafes against everything we’ve been taught to seek and to desire. The cross is not merely a logo for a social club called “the church.” The cross is not a flag that we wave to prove we have it all figured out, while other religions have it all wrong.

Rather, rightly understood, the cross is the symbol of our dependence on God. It speaks radical love over political power. It is our salvation and our hope, a simple piece of wood revealing just how far God the Creator is willing to go to lead us home—and how far we are asked to go, that our neighbor would know the same love, liberation, and wholeness.

I want to tell you a story shared with me recently by Bishop Emeritus Munib Younan of the ELCJHL. Some years ago, when His Holiness Pope John Paul II visited Jerusalem, Bishop Younan was invited to visit the Haram al-Sharif with him and other religious leaders. After they greeted and welcomed Pope John, the bishop walked out of Al Aqsa Mosque wearing his clergy collar and cross. There he encountered an extremist Muslim man who shouted, “This is a Muslim place! Take that cross off now!”

But one of the guards, who was also a Muslim, reprimanded him, saying, “Keep quiet! He is our bishop.”

Just a few minutes later, as Bishop Younan walked through Bab al Sinsli, he encountered an Israeli settler woman and her three children on the street. She saw the cross and spat in his direction. The shopkeepers who witnessed it were all urging him to do something, maybe even spit back at the woman. But as he tells it, Bishop Younan merely prayed: “Father, forgive her, for she does not know what she is doing.”

Soon after, the bishop arrived at the office of the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah. He told him of the visit with the Pope, and also shared what he had experienced on the way. Patriarch Sabbah said, “Munib, we must always be ready as Christians to bear both the glory and the humiliation of the cross. This is an integral part of what it means to be a Christian.”

Now, even as I share this story, I do worry that it could encourage certain prejudices against Muslims, or against Arabs in general, or against Jewish settlers. Some may hear this story and take it as confirmation that our religion is superior, or think I’m encouraging Christians once again to carry the cross as a sign of our group’s exclusive victory over all others.

But this is not the message I want to impart today.

Rather, I hope only to remind you—and myself—that carrying the cross of Christ always comes with a price. It will always be scandalous to take up a tool of state power and violence and claim it as the symbol of love and liberation. It will always be risky to be vulnerable, to be open, to tell the truth about ourselves, about God, and about the world. And yet, this is the meaning of that piece of wood Helena discovered, which the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built to honor.

The True Cross can’t fit into our pockets, and can’t be rented for the afternoon. It can never be sewn onto a flag or claimed by one political party. 

The True Cross is love. It is radical solidarity. It is risking criticism and even humiliation for the sake of the other. It is speaking truth to power. This is the cross our Lord carried for us—and this is the cross we, his followers, are called and empowered to carry today. The world needs exactly this at this moment in history: followers of Jesus who will lay down false crosses and pick up the True Cross of Christ. The world needs Christians who will light fires on the mountaintops to proclaim the Good News of God’s love for every nation, for every race, for every gender, for every sinner.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Speak out for Jerusalem's Augusta Victoria Hospital!

Augusta Victoria Hospital Needs Your Help

Media reports say the Trump Administration will not continue to fund the Lutheran World Federation-operated Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem.

Please call the White House hotline (202-456-1111) or write a comment in their comments submissions area to urge them to ensure there is no interruption of assistance for children and others in need of treatment for cancer and additional life-threatening diseases.

For more background information: Briefing Paper on Augusta Victoria Hospital

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Bishop Azar welcomes 2018-2019 YAGM to Jerusalem

On Sunday 2 September, Bishop Ibrahim Azar joined the English-speaking and Arabic-speaking congregations in the Redeemer chapel for a joint service and the commissioning of the 2018-2019 ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission. His Sunday sermon is below. Enjoy! 


Message for Sunday 2 September 2018
Bishop Ibrahim Azar

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

2018-2019 YAGM Commissioning

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Today it is a joy to have both the Arabic and English-speaking congregations of Redeemer joining together to worship. This is a visible sign that although we have different languages and different cultures, we are one Church, sharing one faith, one baptism, and one salvation through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God for this time together! Amen.

It is also a pleasure this morning to welcome visitors from around the world, as well as our new ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission. You are most welcome here in Jerusalem, Palestine. We welcome you here in our churches, in our homes, and in our schools, and we look forward to getting to know you better. I understand each of you will give a brief introduction after I speak, and we are grateful for the chance to hear a bit about who you are.

Our church, the ELCJHL, has been welcoming young adult volunteers from the United States (and other countries) for many years now, and we are always grateful to have you. It’s always good to be reminded, however, of what this relationship is. You do not come among us to save us or to fix our problems. Nor do you come among us as tourists or guests! Instead, we receive you as siblings in Christ. We welcome you to walk hand in hand with us. We hope you will rejoice when we rejoice and weep when we weep. (Romans 12:15) We invite you to experience our lives as Palestinian Christians living under occupation, to hear our stories, and likewise to share your stories with us.

But above all, we receive you as partners in the one mission we share as the global church. In the reading today from 1 Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul gives thanks for the early Christians, and encourages them to continue the work of the church. And what is that work?

In Paul’s words, the church is called to maintain faith, and love, and steadfastness of hope in Jesus Christ, in spite of persecution. Even when the world stands us against us, nevertheless we are to become imitators of our Lord. In fact, our lives should so closely resemble the life of Jesus that we don’t even have to tell people we are Christians! In fact, this is what he praises the Thessalonians for doing, saying:

“For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.” (1 Thessalonians 1:8)

It seems the church in Thessalonica was so faithful they didn’t need to advertise it—the story of their faith was known even far away!

So what does this look like today? How will they know we are Christians? Of course, they will know we are Christians by our love! We love because Christ first loved us!

But Jesus also spoke truth to power. He confronted the empire and suffered humiliation and death because of it. For this reason, becoming imitators of Christ means boldly working for peace based on justice for all people. It also often means suffering ridicule or opposition as a result. And yet, when we commit to imitating this life of Christ together, then we don’t even need to speak of the Gospel. We don’t have to be excellent preachers or even bishops, for the Good News of Jesus, crucified and risen, will be known by the work of our hands, the paths we walk, and the relationships we create.

Therefore, to our volunteers who have just arrived among us—and to the visitors with us today—welcome. As Paul said, 

“We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers.” And our prayer is that our whole lives will be bold witnesses to the love of God in Christ Jesus—here in Palestine and Israel, and in your home countries, and wherever the Lord leads us next.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Dressed to Slay: Sermon for Sunday 26 August 2018

Sermon for Sunday 26 August 2018
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
St. George, as depicted by artist Rebecca Coffey
This summer, my dear friend Stacy gave me an amazing gift: the icon featured on the front cover of your bulletin this morning. Stacy knows I have a “thing” for St. George the Dragonslayer, patron saint of Palestine (I even have him tattooed on my arm) but she thought he could use a little updating. For this reason, she commissioned an artist to create an image of George—as a woman.
This new George (or Georgette?) is both feminine and strong. She appears to be multi-racial. 
Her hair looks a little like Princess Leia from Star Wars (the artist confirmed that was a tiny bit intentional).
And of course, as a warrior, she’s wearing armor. The dragon looks fierce, and has her surrounded, but George’s look says “whatever”. She dressed and ready to slay some dragons!
“Do you like it?” Stacy asked when I saw it.
“Like it? I may get her tattooed on my other arm!”  I told her.
It’s a little strange, I suppose, that I’m such a fan of a warrior saint, considering I’m essentially a pacifist! And yet there’s something about the image of one man (or woman), bravely slaying a mighty dragon, that gives me courage when I need it. In fact, George (and now Georgette) is who I often picture when I read these words, written to the early church:
From Ephesians chapter 6:
“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Tradition holds that these instructions are an excerpt of a letter written by the Apostle Paul while in prison and sent to the church at Ephesus. However, newer scholarship suggests it was written a bit later, by a disciple of Paul, and was actually sent to many different churches. In fact, some believe that the beginning of the letter, which starts “To the church at Ephesus” was originally left with a blank space, so it could be filled in with the name of any city! In other words, these wardrobe instructions were for all Christians. Paul (or his disciple) tells the early church:
“The Way of Jesus is not easy. Some will oppose us. Some will even persecute us. It will feel like a battle! But if we are wearing the whole armor of God, we can stand firm and proclaim the Gospel of peace.
It’s a great message, right? And pretty clear. What could go wrong?”
St John (Crusader) Chapel
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Ballenger Smith
26 August 2018
Except that, unfortunately, Christians have a long history of getting this so, so wrong. If we really did clothe ourselves in truth and peace, faith and righteousness, we should be amazing peacemakers and peacekeepers, and the world truly would know us by our love. (John 13:35) And yet, right now we are sitting in St. John Crusader Chapel. We usually leave the “crusader” part off our name these days, and for good reason. Memories are long here in Jerusalem, and more than once I’ve had conversations with Muslim shopkeepers in which the crusades are mentioned as if they happened last year. We might like to forget, but once the world knew Christians mostly by our swords.
And it’s not like the church got it wrong just that once. The author of Ephesians says clearly “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh”, but again and again, we’ve chosen to define ourselves in opposition to other humans. We’ve been against the Jews, against the Turks, and against heretics of every kind. We’ve been in battle against witches, feminists, pagans, and liberals. Sometimes we even battle each other! Catholics persecuted Protestants, Lutherans persecuted Anabaptists, Evangelicals still warn against the dreaded “liturgical” churches, and Christians behave so badly in Jerusalem that a Muslim family must hold the key to the Church of the Resurrection.
It’s like we don’t know who we are if we don’t know who we’re against.
Of course, this is a human problem, not exclusively a Christian one. I just returned from two months in the United States, where these days it seems everyone is ready for a fight. People have put on the armor of self-righteousness, and picked up the weapons of cynicism, isolation, division, and judgment. Battle lines have been drawn right through neighborhoods sometimes, where long-time neighbors and friends have become enemies over politics, and especially over opinions about the current president—all of it encouraged and instigated by social media, television loudmouths and even, dare I say, the president himself.
It’s all so sad, really, because of course there is a battle that needs to be waged, but it’s not against each other. The United States (and, I would say, the world) is being held hostage by the empire, and by the powers and principalities that have always been working against the Gospel of love.
Again, from Ephesians chapter 6: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” As followers of Jesus, crucified and risen, we are called to join the fight, and to stand firm: but never to stand in opposition to other people!
We stand firm against greed, hatred, prejudice, and division.
We stand firm against violence, apathy, and lies.
We stand firm against occupation, apartheid, and anti-Semitism.
We stand firm against these and every other spiritual force which threatens to kidnap our fellow humans away from the love of God!
So yes, there is a battle to be fought. And we should be dressed appropriately. But notice that the whole armor of God as described in Ephesians is meant primarily for defense. Breastplates, belts, shoes, shields, and helmets are not weapons! We clothe ourselves in truth, faith, salvation, peace, and righteousness so that we can stand strong, not so that we can take others down.
In fact, the only part of the “whole armor of God” that may be used for offense is the “sword of the Spirit”, which is the word of God. To be clear, this is not a license to use the Bible as a weapon—too many have already been hurt by such behavior. No, in this case the “word of God” refers to the Gospel itself. The only weapon we need in the fight for the world—and for our own souls—is the Good News that in Christ Jesus the Creator has already defeated the ultimate enemy, which is sin and death.
Friends, this proclamation is how we will slay all the dragons!
Indeed, this is how the occupation will end. This is how fascism will be stopped in its tracks. This is how racism, greed, war, and sexual violence will be defeated:
Not through bloodshed but through the blood of the lamb,
Not through violence but through vulnerability and truth,
Not through the defeat of the Other, but when we seek the flourishing and well-being of every single human,
Not by winning every argument, but by boldly proclaiming the Gospel of peace.  
This is not the way the world fights. Love is not usually the weapon of choice. But dressed in this whole armor of God, we can withstand the evils from within us and from without, for the sake of God and our neighbor.
At the beginning of this month, I was in Minnesota to preach at a church with 10,000 members. I was to preach five times over three days, and I admit I was pretty nervous about it. That number was hard to ignore—10,000! That’s about a thousand times more people than we can even fit in this chapel!

In light of this fact, I stressed a bit not only about what to say, but about what to wear.  A little funny, I suppose, since I essentially wear the same thing all the time. But I wondered what to wear with the clergy collar: Pants? Skirt? Suit? And what about shoes? I had brought my “nice” shoes – the ones that I save for special occasions. They even have a little heel, which makes me a few inches taller. I thought: 10,000 people probably deserve a heel.

I put on these fancy shoes and was just about to leave the hotel when I realized: This feels…wrong. I went back to the room and slipped on my trusty Birkenstock sandals. 10,000 people would just have to see my toes.

After the 3rd service (or was it the 4th?) I was excited to see that two of our former Young Adults in Global Mission were there. Samantha and Tyler served here in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and it was a joy to see them again. After some big hugs, Tyler pointed to my feet and said: “I love that you’re wearing your sandals! Pastor Carrie, keeping it real, Jerusalem style.”

Of course, that made me smile! Tyler gets it! As Paul wrote to the early church, Christians are to wear on their feet whatever makes them ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace. For me, they were my sandals—the shoes I wear every day. The shoes I wear to walk these streets. The shoes that make me feel like myself. And walking in truth is what makes us ready to proclaim the Gospel in word and in deed.

So what does your armor look like, saints?
What shoes will you wear this year?

Remember that you don’t have to wear the armor others have provided.
You don’t have to put on the cynicism and judgment of the world, or walk in the shoes of the oppressor, for in your baptism, you have already put on Christ. You are clothed in righteousness, and armed with the truth that you are a Child of God, marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit, forever.

Therefore, be brave. Be bold. Be not afraid! This love will slay every dragon.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Summer Home Assignment in the USA!

Dear friends, 
Every two years, ELCA missionaries travel from their international assignments to the US to visit sponsoring congregations. This is the end of my 4th year serving in Jerusalem as pastor of the English-speaking congregation at Redeemer Lutheran, and therefore my second home assignment! 
I recently traveled to Massachusetts and Connecticut for a quick visit, and to preach/speak at the New England Synod Assembly. That means (sadly) that I won't be on the East Coast this summer.
I'm sorry I can't make it to every sponsoring congregation on this trip. Our country is BIG and the summer includes limited Sundays! If I'm not in your area this time around, please stay in touch. I've recently done a few Skype sessions with church mission groups from here in Jerusalem. I know we can find a way to connect!

Below is my preaching/speaking schedule, as it now stands. I'll update as I'm able. I hope to see many of you in these great churches! 

June 22-July 6: Columbus, Ohio
July 6-August 6: In the Chicago area
July 23-27: Summer Missionary Conference in Woodstock, Illinois
August 11-22: In the Oklahoma City area

July 15: 2 churches in Mt Prospect, Il 
July 22: Bethany Lutheran, Crystal Lake, Il
July 28 & 29: Midvale Lutheran, Madison WI
July 31: Our Savior's, Arlington Heights, Il
August 4,5,6: Lord of Life, Maple Grove, MN
August 12: Salem, Stillwater, OK
August 15: St Christopher Episcopal, Midwest City, OK
August 19: Bethany, Dallas, TX

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Pentecost & Confirmation at Redeemer Jerusalem


On Sunday, 20 May 2018 the English-speaking congregation witnessed the Affirmation of Baptism of three young members. (Photos by Ben Gray/ELCJHL)

For the past school year, Teodor, Jonas, and Sylvia have met with Pastor Carrie for lessons on the Bible, the Small Catechism, and discipleship. On Pentecost, these three amazing 9th graders stood before the congregation and gave powerful faith testimonies.

Jonas, from Norway, spoke about 1 Corinthians 16:13-14. He talked about how he would need to be strong and courageous in life, especially when he moves back to Norway and must leave his friends. With God's help, he knows he can be strong! We were especially impressed that he quoted Bishop Michael Curry's sermon from the Royal Wedding, which had happened just he day before!

Jonas Haraldstad Landsverk

Teo (Jonas' twin brother), spoke on Matthew 5:38-42. He gave a very detailed interpretation of this portion of the Sermon on the Mount. He says that he thinks the world would be very different if everyone tried to follow Jesus' teachings. He especially thinks things could change here in Israel and Palestine if people could choose love over revenge. Amen, Teo!

Teo Haraldstad Landsverk

Sylvia (the daughter of ELCA missionaries Ben and Adrainne Gray) spoke about Matthew 25:31-40. She related a story of visiting a homeless community in Atlanta, before she moved to Jerusalem. She noticed how often the people who have the least to give, give the most. She says she has also noticed this among the Palestinian people she has come to know here--even though they are going through a terrible time, they show great hospitality and generosity to others.

Sylvia Gray

What an uplifting day it was! We all felt very inspired. We were also thrilled to welcome to worship the president of the African Descent Lutheran Association, Pastor Lamont Wells, and Bishop Emeritus Munib Younan.

The Rev. Lamont Wells, Bishop Emeritus Munib Younan, Pr. Carrie Smith, Deacon Adrainne Gray

Please join us in giving thanks to God for Jonas, Teo, and Sylvia, and praying that their faith in Christ would continue to grow!

BONUS: This was a new song we sang in worship on Sunday. It was written by the director of the Oslo, Norway Gospel Choir (a little nod to the home country of two of the confirmands!)
It may be a new favorite for us in Jerusalem. Enjoy!

Monday, May 14, 2018

"Last words": Sermon for Sunday 13 May 2018

Sermon for Sunday 13 May 2018
7th Sunday of Easter
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I’d like to say a few words about Iva.

Iva was the oldest member of the first church I served as pastor, in northern Illinois, and she was notorious for never mincing words. She said exactly what she thought—which, I suppose, is a privilege you earn if you’ve lived for an entire century on this earth.
As an example, on her 98th birthday, Iva’s friends from the church quilting group arranged a party around her bed at home, complete with cake, ice cream, and chicken salad (which was her favorite). It was a lovely gesture, a real show of love from her friends. But Iva just couldn’t pass up the chance to comment, while staring into her coffee cup, “Well I guess you just can’t get good coffee around here anymore.”

On another day, shortly after she had entered hospice care, I took communion to her house. Iva’s hearing was pretty terrible, so as I entered the front door I called out loudly, ‘”Iva, how ya doin’ today?” And she yelled back at me from her bed, “Pastor, I’m just bitchin’!”

The thing was, Iva was ready to go, and she told me so often. She had outlived several husbands, several children, and a beloved grandchild. I would ask how to pray for her, and she would say “Please just pray the Lord takes me home tomorrow.”

So when Iva’s daughter phoned me to say the end was near, and I should hurry quickly to the house, I smiled a little. I thought, “Finally, Iva’s prayers are being answered.” When I entered the house, I found the family gathered quietly around her bed. We held hands, and I led us in prayer. But when I finished with a solemn “Amen”,  Iva suddenly opened her eyes, looked straight at me and said, “Oops, Pastor, I guess it was a false alarm!”

These were not Iva’s last words—I wasn’t there to witness those. But I remember them, because these words, spoken near the end of a long life, reveal so much about who she was. She was colorful. She was honest. She was strong. She was a little bit ornery! And she was faithful, to the end.

People love to record and remember last words, especially the last words of famous people. We are curious to know that Harriet Tubman sang “Swing low, sweet chariot” as she lay dying. We are interested to know that Winston Churchill declared, “I’m bored with it all!” and that Groucho Marx had to get in one last joke, quipping from his deathbed, “This is no way to live!” We love to know these (possibly true) bits of trivia, because last words are believed to reveal something deep and true about a person.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we get the chance to eavesdrop on some of Jesus’ last words—and in fact they do reveal something deep and true. They reveal much about who he is, and about what it means to follow him.

The verses we heard this morning from the 17th chapter of John are part of Jesus’ farewell speech to the disciples, which took place at the Last Supper.

In front of the Holy Sepulcher church,
a man dressed as Jesus takes a moment to pray
(He's known around here as "Detroit Jesus"!)
Photo by Carrie Smith
After he had washed their feet,
After he gave them a new commandment to love one another;
And after he promised that an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, would soon come to be with them forever,
Then Jesus lifted his eyes up to heaven, and he prayed for them.
Yes, hear the Good News: Jesus prayed for us!

It feels good to be prayed for, doesn’t it?

I will never forget how, during the fall of 2015 (the terrible months often called the “stabbing intifada”), a pastor from Ferguson, Missouri, visited us here at Redeemer. He was here on a much-needed sabbatical after the terrible police violence and subsequent protests in his city. He came to be refreshed in the Holy Land, but instead found himself moved by the plight of the Palestinian people.

When he returned home, he shared what he had seen and heard with his congregation. And shortly thereafter, I received a large color photo in the mail. It was a picture of the members of this pastor’s congregation, all of them holding big paper letters which spelled out: “God’s Peace, from Zion, Ferguson Missouri”.

I tell you, it brought me to tears immediately. It meant so much to know people who had themselves known so much suffering and turmoil were standing in solidarity with us, and with our Palestinian neighbors and friends. It meant so much to know they were praying for us, and with us, for God’s kingdom of peace, justice, reconciliation, and love.

Yes, it feels good to be prayed for.

In recent days, many of us here in Jerusalem have received messages from friends and family, promising that they are praying for us. It feels good, and it matters—not because we believe that God only listens to prayers that are prayed by a great number of people,
Or because we believe God only reads Facebook memes shared by the greatest number of people.

It matters when we are prayed for, because it helps to know we are not alone.
It matters because it helps to know that other parts of the Body are paying attention to this part, which is hurting right now.

It matters because the prayers of others give us strength and courage. They give us sumud, or steadfastness.

The prayers of friends and loved ones help us to become like the rghteous named in today’s Psalm: “They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.” Yes, like trees planted by the water, we shall not be moved! Amen!

Dear siblings in Christ, hear the Good News again: Some of Jesus’ last words happened to be a prayer for us! And in today’s reading we learn that he prays not that things would be easy for us, but that his disciples would always be strong.

Jesus prays that we would be one, because we are better together.
Jesus prays that we would have joy, and that our joy would be complete.
And he prays that although the world hates us for who we are (and for whose we are), we would be protected by God the Father.

Jesus prayed:
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”

Hear that again:
Jesus acknowledges that the world often hates us and what we stand for…but he does not pray for us to be taken out of the world. He prays that we would be protected while in the world. That we would be safe. That we would be strengthened to continue on the path he has set before us—which is a path straight through the world. 

Straight through the city. Often, it is a path straight into conflict, into difficult conversations, into challenging relationships.
It is often a path straight to the cross. 

But, thanks be to God, our Risen Lord has shown us that his is also the path to life, and to love, and to joy. Thanks be to God! Amen!

Oh, it feels good to be prayed for.
It feels good to know that Jesus, who sits at the right hand of God the Father, is praying for us even now!
And this prayer of Jesus feels especially good at this moment.
Sometimes, we it can seem we are alone—alone in praying for peace. Alone in standing for justice. Alone in hoping beyond hope. Alone in standing steadfast for truth, for reconciliation, for a world where all can live free.

But we are not alone. We are never alone!

Next week, when we gather again as the church, we will celebrate how the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, fell upon the disciples, filling them with the gift of tongues, but also with the gift of peace and the assurance of God’s presence.
In the meantime, between now and next Sunday, things may get a little rough in Jerusalem.
Today is Jerusalem Day, and some very nasty words will likely be shouted and chanted at our neighbors here in the Old City and in East Jerusalem.
Tomorrow is the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, and we expect some false words will be said…words like “eternal” and “capital”.
And Tuesday is Nakba Day. As always, some false words will be published that day: Words like “there is no nakba” and “there has never been a Palestine.”

But dear siblings in Christ, today I want you to hear these words:
Jesus, crucified, risen, and ascended, is now seated at the right hand of the Father. He is praying for us.

And he always has the last word.
Not politicians. Not missiles. Not bullets. Not terrorists. Not the wall. Not oppression, or occupation, or apathy, or the grinding sameness of the “way things have always been.”

Jesus, our friend, our brother, our Savior, always has the last word. And what a gift it is to know that some of his last words were a prayer on our behalf.

Thanks be to God, for we know that because he is Risen, love has the last word!
Life has the last word!
Truth has the last word!
Joy has the last word!
Strengthened by Jesus’ prayers, and by his faithful presence with us, we can and will face whatever is to come.

We shall not be moved! Amen!