Monday, January 14, 2019

"Hello my name is...." Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord 2019

Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord
Sunday 13 January 2019

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

“Hello my name is…”

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

A few weeks ago, my neighbor and I walked out the doors of our apartments at the same time, nearly bumping in to each other in our shared garden. “Hi, Melanie!” I said. She responded with, “Hi!”

And then, in her very lovely British accent (which I will not attempt to copy) she said, “I am soooo sorry. I just realized I’ve been calling you by the wrong name for months!”

Now this was very confusing to me, as I was certain she had called me “Carrie” on more than one occasion.

“I’m so very sorry, I hope you’re not offended.” she continued. “All this time I’ve been calling you Carrie, and then I saw your name in print the other day and realized your name is actually CAAA-rrie!”

Now this made me laugh out loud! Believe it or not, I’ve had this exact conversation several times before (nearly always with Europeans) and each time I have to explain that yes, my name is spelled “Carrie” but because I come from the American Midwest, it’s just pronounced “Kerry”. Where I’m from, we say “Merry Christmas” and we also get “married”, not MAAA-ried. We don’t “CAAA-rry” things home from the store—we just carry them.

And yes, my name is also just pronounced—Carrie. 

So no, I wasn’t offended, I told Melanie. She had been saying my name right all along. In fact, some might argue that I’m the one who’s been getting it wrong, my whole life!
As we parted ways, I realized not only was I not offended, I was smiling. It felt good that my neighbor cared enough to say my name correctly. It felt good, because names matter. It matters what we are called.

In today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 3, a voice from heaven—the voice of God—has something to say about Jesus. And it matters what Jesus is called in that moment.  

As it is written, Jesus was in the Jordan River being baptized by John,

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

This name—Beloved Son—matters immensely. It mattered to John! And it mattered to the others gathered at the Jordan that day who must have heard the same heavenly voice.

It matters that Jesus was called Beloved Son at his baptism, because this was a critical moment in Jesus’ life. He was about to start his public teaching ministry. In fact, being baptized by John was Jesus’ first public act—before he gave the Sermon on the Mount, before he turned the water into wine in Cana, before he healed anyone, and before he went obediently to the cross, he stepped into the Jordan and was baptized by his cousin John.

Seeing this public act from our post-Easter, post-Pentecost understanding of baptism, we might say that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. Being sinless, he had no sins to wash away! Being the Body himself, he had no need to be engrafted into the One Holy and Apostolic Church, which is the Body of Christ on earth today!

And yet…Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, as a sign of his obedience to God and his commitment to the tradition of the prophets who came before him. His baptism showed John, and the crowd—and us—who he is.

In other words, Jesus was baptized not so that he would be made whole and holy, but so that in our baptisms, we could be made whole and holy. For as the voice of heaven declared, he is God’s Beloved Son. He is not only a prophet, not only a teacher, not only a healer. He is both human and divine, the One we’ve been waiting for, our Savior and our Redeemer. Amen!

It matters what Jesus was called at that critical moment, when he was poised to begin his ministry of teaching and healing, feeding the hungry and raising the dead. It matters because the crowds—and maybe even Jesus himself—needed to know who he really was before the seeds of the Gospel of love could be planted, and grow, and take root in the lives of the people.

In this way, although there are important differences, Jesus’ baptism and our own are similar. At our baptisms, we hear God calling us by name, bestowing on us our true identity as beloved children—and then, we too are sent out to scatter the seeds of the Gospel—the seeds of justice, love, mercy, reconciliation, and true peace.

Jesus heard the voice from heaven calling him Beloved Son just as he was poised to begin his ministry in the Galilee. Today, we also are gathered at a critical juncture in the church year. Today, the Baptism of Our Lord, is the official end of the Christmas season in the church calendar (although of course in Jerusalem we have one more Christmas to come, when the Armenians celebrate on January 19!)

Christmas is over for now, and next Sunday begins what we call “ordinary time”. It’s not that nothing extraordinary happens in February, it just means there are no feasts or festivals on the Sundays between now and Lent! During this “ordinary” time, we will be hearing about Jesus’ ministry of feeding, healing, and raising the dead. We’ll be challenged and convicted by his teachings. And therefore, it matters what Jesus is called. This is not just any man teaching us to forgive, to love our neighbor and to pray for our enemies. This is not just any prophet who sends us out to seek justice, and build peace, and create community with those who are different from us. This Jesus is God’s Beloved Son, with whom God is well pleased. Amen!

As I said, next week is the beginning of “ordinary” time. But actually, I get to start the ordinary season doing something quite extra-ordinary:

Next Sunday, I get to baptize Jesus in the Jordan!

It’s true! Well, sort of…

You see, after church next week, the German, Arabic, and English-speaking congregations of Redeemer will join together for a trip to the Jordan River baptismal site. With Pastor Fursan and Propst Schmidt we’ll have a short liturgy there to remember our own baptisms and our shared commitment to seeking God’s justice, love, and mercy for all people.

And then, we will step into the Jordan, and baby Emory, daughter of Allyson and John—who just happened to play the part of Baby Jesus in our church’s Christmas pageant in December—will be baptized. How many people get to say they baptized Jesus in the Jordan? I mean, aside from John the Baptist… Nothing ordinary about that, I would say! 

After Baby Emory is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, she will hear these words:

“Emory, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

In that moment, called by name not only by me, but by God, Emory will know her true identity. No matter what else anyone calls her – daughter, student, friend, maybe partner or parent someday—she will know that she is first and foremost a Beloved Child of God, saved and sent through Water and the Word. She won’t remember the day or the river, because she’s only 6 months old! But Allyson and John will. Those of us gathered here today, and those who will gather at the Jordan next Sunday, will not always be Emory’s church community. But our job, as Christ’s global church, is to call her by name. Our job is to remind the Emorys of the world who they are, and who loves them, and to welcome them into our shared mission to manifest the Gospel of love in the world today.

It matters what we are called.

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities for the differently abled, once wrote:

In one of our communities, there is a man called Pierre who has a mental handicap. One day someone asked him, “Do you like praying?” He answered, “Yes.” He was asked what he did when he prayed. He answered, “I listen.” And what does God say to you?” He says, “You are my beloved son.”

I’m sure there were those who called Pierre many other things due to his differences. 

But thanks be to God—and I’m sure, thanks be to the community which nurtured him—he knew who he was. He knew he could trust God’s voice calling him beloved, calling him worthy, calling him saved by grace through faith, apart from works, apart from accomplishments, apart from abilities.

Dear siblings in Christ, I’m sure you have been called by many names in your life. Some of them are welcomed. But if you are Palestinian, you may have been called an invented people. If you are a woman, your voice may have been called insignificant. If you are differently abled, or differently colored, or differently oriented, or differently educated, you may have been called names that are much, much, worse.

Hear me when I say today that through water and the Word, you have been called by name. Your name is God’s beloved. And God always, always, pronounces your name correctly!

As it is written in Isaiah chapter 43:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

On this day, the last before ordinary time, I pray that you hear God calling your name, which is extraordinary. I pray you know that through the cross of Christ, you always have a home in God’s house. You are beautifully and wonderfully made! Because you are beloved, you can confidently be who God created you to be. With God’s help, you can live out your baptismal covenant, standing with the poor and the voiceless and working for justice and peace in all the world—from Jerusalem to California, from Ohio to wherever God takes you next. You, child of God, can live and love boldly for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Let it be so now, according to God’s will. Amen.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

"I see you": Sermon for Epiphany of Our Lord 2019

Sermon for Sunday 6 January 2019
Epiphany of Our Lord

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie N. Ballenger

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

20th century German theologian and priest Karl Rahner wrote this prayer to the mysterious and hidden God he longed to know more deeply:

O God,
“You must adapt Your word to my smallness, so that I can enter into this tiny dwelling of my finiteness—the only dwelling in which I can live—without destroying it. If you should speak such an “abbreviated” word, which would not say everything but only something simple which I could grasp, then I could breathe freely again. You must make your own some human word, for that is the only kind I can comprehend. Don’t tell me everything that You are; don’t tell me of Your Infinity—just say that You love me, just tell me of Your Goodness to me.”

Fr. Rahner’s prayer speaks to our human longing to know the unknowable; our shared desire to grasp that which remains always just out of reach. How can we ever comprehend the Creator of the universe? How can we ever fully know the Ground of all Being, or have any hold on the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end?
By contrast, Holy Scripture says God knows us intimately and completely. As it is written:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.” (Psalm 139)

Of course, books, blogs, and podcasts abound for those who are seeking a closer relationship with God. Especially at the start of the New Year, you have probably been advertised many recommendations of how you, too, can achieve closeness and intimacy with God in 2019—if only you breathe more deeply, pray more effectively, seek God more diligently. To be fair, breathing, praying, and seeking are not terrible spiritual practices. But any time someone says in my presence,  “Have you found Jesus?” I always want to respond, “I didn’t know he was lost!”

Dear siblings in Christ, God is, in many ways, unknowable. Some of who the Creator is will always remain hidden from us, until that day when we join the saints at the heavenly banquet and finally see God face to face.

However: It’s Christmastime, and today is Epiphany. Today we celebrate that God who is greater, God who is first and last, God who is more than we can comprehend, did in fact come near to us—and is nearer now than when we first believed. 
(Romans 13:11, and “Amazing Grace”)

Theologian Elisabeth A. Johnson writes in her book “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God”:

“At the heart of the Christian faith is the almost unbelievable idea that the infinitely incomprehensible holy mystery of God does not remain forever remote but draws near in radical proximity to the world.” (Johnson, “Quest for the Living God” p. 39)

Yes, Jesus is Emmanuel. Jesus is God with us. This is what we have been celebrating for the last twelve days (and will continue to celebrate in Jerusalem until January 19!) While it may seem that the God of the universe is hidden behind theological words and concepts such a creation, grace, resurrection, ascension, or salvation, Christmas and Epiphany are the time when we remember God loves us enough to transcend words and concepts, and to come radically near to us…as a baby.

Maybe this is why we love Christmas so much. Theologically speaking, Holy Week and Easter are far more important to our faith. After all, other religions also feature miraculous births as part of their origin stories. The Virgin Birth doesn’t so much set apart Christianity from other religions as place it among accepted mythologies of its day. The radical love shown on the cross, and the victory over death shown by the empty tomb, are far more scandalous, far more noteworthy.

And yet, Christmas and the Incarnation are critical to our faith, because finally here is something we can comprehend. Here is a situation we can understand. Here is a mother, and a father, and most importantly: a newborn baby.

There’s not much that is mysterious about a baby, after all.

Babies make themselves known. They cannot and will not be ignored! Have you ever tried to ignore a baby—say, on a transcontinental flight, when the baby is sitting just behind your head? Impossible.

Babies are in your face. They are loud, and they are adorable. They are messy, and they are perfect. They are vulnerable, and they are totally demanding of your attention.
Above all, when babies are present with you—they are fully present. They are WITH YOU…like it or not.

This kind of immediate, in-your-face presence is probably not what the Magi from the East were expecting to find when they arrived in Bethlehem. To be fair, we don’t know exactly what they expected, but it seems they expected a king, since their first stop was at Herod’s palace.

I imagine they expected a throne and a crown.
I imagine they expected an army and a kingdom to guard and protect.
I imagine they expected a king who was a bit…Aloof. Stand-offish. Other.

I’m sure they didn’t expect God manifest in a manger.
Or salvation manifest in a stable,
Or a baby, ruling the world through love and mercy rather than by power and might.

On this day which we call the Epiphany of Our Lord, we honor and celebrate the manifestation of our living God as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem. We honor the wise strangers who came to see him. We honor the star, which shown in the night and guided them to the light of god’s love. We honor God, who spoke to the magi in a dream—although they were Gentiles and foreigners and had no reason to listen—and warned them to return home by a different road.

And on this day of Epiphany, we remember that the baby in the manger is not the end of the story. 

God is manifest as Christ in the manger and as Christ on the roads of Galilee. 
God is manifest as Christ on the cross and the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. 

The Epiphany of Our Lord didn’t happen on just the one night when the Magi followed the star to where it stopped. The Epiphany of Our Lord, the manifestation of God’s love in the world, continues to this day. Every day is Epiphany…when our eyes and hearts are open to see Christ manifest in the Other.

Not long ago, I was walking through the Christian Quarter with my arms full of grocery bags, and I stopped to catch my breath in the chairs set, as always, in front of the “Humble Shop in the Name of Pope Francis.” Surprisingly, the chairs—which are usually occupied by not-so-humble smoking and pontificating men—were empty.
I sat with relief and dropped some bags, but the load was heavy enough that a few still hung from my fingertips and balanced on my lap.

Just then, a little girl of no more than seven came bouncing toward me down the street. She wore a plaid skirt and pigtails and held, in front of her face, a cone of pink cotton candy bigger than her head. School was out, sweets had been acquired, and she was HAPPY.

My first thought was “OH MY GOODNESS I NEED A PICTURE TO PUT ON SOCIAL MEDIA” and my second thought was “Ugh. My hands are full.”

I wasn’t even sure where my phone and its camera were hiding among the heaving jumble of grocery bags in my lap, so instead of taking a picture, I just smiled at the girl.

Her joyful bouncing propelled her to just past where I sat, when she abruptly stopped. She turned quickly on her heel to look at me.

With the pink cotton candy partly stuck to her face, and her mouth wide open, she stared at me with something like amusement. Or was it confusion and curiosity? I wondered what it was that caught her attention. Was it the clergy collar, or the silly number of grocery bags by my feet, or the fact that I was sitting where I wasn’t supposed to be?

In any case, it seemed appropriate to say “Marhaba!”
“Marhabteen!” she said back.
“Is that tasty?” I continued in Arabic.
“Oh yes! I just got it after school! It’s COTTON CANDY,” she replied.

Now she was smiling at me, as well as staring at my ridiculous grocery bags, almost as if she were thinking “I wish I could do something about this situation, but my hands are full right now.” 

(“I know the feeling!” I thought.)

A few more pleasantries (my Arabic can only take me so far, even with a 7-year old) and then with a little wave, she bounced away from me and down the street.

I stood up with the groceries re-positioned and set out toward home. I was smiling now, too, but still mourning the loss of the photo of this encounter. If only my hands hadn’t been full!

But then I thought—what if my hands had been empty? Would I have sat down to really see the street, and the people walking on it? Would I have talked to the girl with the cotton candy, or would she have become yet another piece of Jerusalem to consume—like the little plastic baby Jesuses and the postcards they sell at the “Humble Shop in the Name of Pope Francis”?

A local friend once said to me, “Everyone prays for the peace of Jerusalem, but what they really want is a piece of Jerusalem.” This speaks to a painful truth about Jerusalem, but I wonder if it also speaks to the truth of how we approach life in general.

All too often, the people in our day are just part of the scenery. Our lives are busy, our hands are full, and our encounters with others become just one more moment to manage, to capture, to post, to consume.

When we approach life like that, when we approach people like that, we can miss the daily Epiphanies in life. We can miss the manifestations of God’s love that come unexpectedly, in the most mundane places—like on our commute home. Or at the grocery store. Or on the streets of Jerusalem, or Chicago, or wherever you’re from.

Or even in a manger, in a cave, in  no-account town like Bethlehem.

And so on this Day of Epiphany, as we honor the wise travelers who came to see Jesus, I want to say to the girl with the face full of cotton candy and joy:

I see you.
I see Christ in you!
And thank you for seeing me, too.

Let us close with a new year prayer from African-American theologian Howard Thurman:

Grant that I may pass through the coming year with a faithful heart. There will be much to test me and make weak my strength before the year ends.
In my confusion I shall often say the word that is not true and do the thing of which I am ashamed. There will be errors in the mind and great inaccuracies of judgment.
In seeking the light,
I shall again and again find myself
walking in the darkness.
I shall mistake my light for Your light
and I shall drink from the responsibility of the choice I make...
Though my days be marked with failures, stumblings, fallings, let my spirit be free so that You may take it and redeem my moments in all the ways my needs reveal.
Give me the quiet assurance of Your Love and Presence. Grant that I may pass through the coming year with a faithful heart. Amen.”

Monday, December 24, 2018

Mary's midwife, catching the miracle: Sermon for Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2018

Dar Annadwa, Bethlehem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who is born here in Bethlehem this night. Amen.

A warm welcome to our honored guests and to our visitors from around the world! And a very special thank you to Pastor Munther Isaac and the local congregation of Christmas Lutheran Church for your hospitality. It is an honor and a privilege to be sharing a Christmas message of hope and joy with you tonight. 

A few days ago, it was announced that our neighbors down the street at Church of the Nativity have found a very modern way to deal with an age-old problem: they’re launching a phone app to manage the visiting crowds.
Now, it may sound strange to use an app to visit the birthplace of Our Lord, but if you’ve ever stood in that long line, waiting sometimes hours for your two minutes near the manger, then you understand the desire for such an innovation. There’s almost always a huge crowd gathered at Nativity Church, as Christians come from all over the world to kneel and pray at the spot where true peace was born, and where God’s love came to live among us.

But when it feels the entire world is packed into that tiny manger room with you, it can be a challenge to get into the Christmas spirit. In fact, it can be a challenge to move or even to breathe! Surrounded by so many other visitors, we might forget that the cave where Jesus was born was not a public space two thousand years ago. It was an intimate and sacred space, as all birthing rooms are.

Our brother Martin Luther imagined what that holy night and sacred space was like in his Christmas sermon from 1521, writing:

“There (Mary) is without any preparation, without either light or fire, alone in the darkness, without any one offering her service as is customary for women to do at such times. Everything is in commotion in the inn, there is a swarming of guests from all parts of the country, no one thinks of this poor woman.”

The young virgin Mary, giving birth alone in the dark, is a poetic notion, I suppose. But while I am certain there was no need for a phone app to deal with crowds lining up to enter her birthing room, neither do I think Mary was alone that night. Joseph was certainly nearby.

And because they had been in Bethlehem a few days already—and because Scripture tells us Joseph had family here—when the time came for the Christ Child to be born, there was most certainly someone else with them. 

And that someone was probably a midwife.

For sure, Mary’s midwife is not a standard piece of the nativity sets we use to decorate our homes during the Christmas season, but she does often appear in Ancient Orthodox and Byzantine icons of the event. Tradition names her Salome, and you can find her depicted in the corner or background of the manger scene. Sometimes she’s seen preparing something for Mary, sometimes she’s just observing quietly, and sometimes she’s giving the Baby Jesus his first bath!

While it’s true that Luke doesn’t mention the presence of a midwife in his account of the nativity, it’s not so hard to imagine that Mary invited one of the women of Bethlehem to be with her that night. It makes sense that there was another trusted person there—someone skilled in the practice of watching and waiting, of encouraging and comforting, and of catching in her hands the miracle that is every newborn baby.

Dear siblings in Christ, on this holy night in Bethlehem two thousand years later, we are the ones invited into sacred space. Like Salome, we have been invited into the birthing room with Mary!

To be clear, we are not doing the work of birthing the Savior and His light into the world. That is the work of God (with Mary playing a special part, of course!)

But neither are we invited into the birthing room as mere spectators. As we hear again the ancient story of Our Lord and Savior Jesus’ birth, we have the great privilege to accompany Mary through the night. We light candles and pray, and sing against the darkness of our human sinfulness, until the Light of the world is born, and the Dawn from on high breaks upon us. Like midwives—who are sometimes called “babycatchers”—our hands and hearts are open this night, ready to “catch” the miracle of God’s love, made flesh and living among us.

And then what? 

Anyone who has been present for the birth of a baby knows the experience changes you forever. Whether you are the parent or grandparent, the doctor or midwife, or a trusted sibling or friend invited into the birthing room, witnessing the moment when a new life enters the world transforms you. You are forever an integral part of that child’s story, as he or she is to your story.

And how much more transforming it is when that new life, that new baby, is the One who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace! 

What do you suppose life was like for Mary’s midwife Salome after the holy night when not only she, but the whole world, was changed forever? Did she continue to catch other babies? Did she become a preacher and teacher of the Gospel? What is life possibly like after you’ve stood near the manger, held the hand of Our Lord’s mother, and perhaps even given the Messiah his first bath?

Surely, hands which have held the Savior of the world will be active in caring for the vulnerable and the voiceless, building a just society based on dignity for all people.

Ears which have heard the Messiah’s first cry will be specially tuned to the cries of the poor and the refugee, the oppressed and the occupied.

Eyes which have seen the infant face of Emmanuel, God-with-us, will surely look upon neighbors, strangers, and even enemies as children of God worthy of love and mercy.

And a voice which has said with tenderness and joy, “Welcome to the world, little Child; welcome to the world, my Lord and Savior” will surely be lifted again, speaking against every form of injustice, prejudice, and hatred.

Of course, I’m imagining the post-nativity life of Mary’ midwife, but I’m also thinking about those of us gathered here tonight.

We who have come near to the manger, to see the One who has come near to us, have also been transformed. Our hands, too, have held a miracle. Our eyes and ears have witnessed something holy and beautiful this night. And now, like Salome, we have the privilege and the power to share that miracle of love with the world!

In fact, if all of us who are “babycatchers” this Christmas night,

If all whose hands and hearts have held the miracle of God’s love born among us,

If all whose voices have been raised to sing “He rules the world with truth and grace”,

would raise our voices together in joy on the day after Christmas,

we could even sing down the wall that surrounds this city, the city of Jesus’ birth.

Dear Christian friends, rejoice! Do not be afraid! For unto us is born this day a Savior, whose name is Jesus. He is the Babe in the manger. He is also the crucified and risen One. He is ascended into heaven, and he is coming again soon, to judge the world with righteousness. What a privilege and a joy it is that we—like Mary and Joseph, like the shepherds, and like Mary’s midwife Salome—have been invited to be integral parts of Jesus’ story and the story of God’s love for the world. 

Me, Rev. Mitri Raheb, Bishop Emeritus Munib Younan, Rev. Munther Isaac
Christmas Eve 2018 in Bethlehem

As you leave this holy and sacred space tonight, I pray you will go and tell it on the mountain, that Peace is born! Justice is born! Love is born!
Thanks be to God, Jesus the Messiah, is born!

Merry Christmas! 
Kul sane wa intou salmeen!
Frohe Weihnachten!

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

Sunday, December 9, 2018

"Let every heart prepare him room" Sermon for 2 Advent

Sermon for Sunday 9 December 2018
2 Advent

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.

One evening about a week ago, I went to bed feeling very excited about the next day. It wasn’t because of what was on my schedule, but because of what was not on my schedule. My calendar for the next day showed only one appointment. Just one thing, all day! It was like a little Christmas miracle – or, more accurately, an Advent miracle. I drifted off to sleep imagining those hours and hours of unscheduled time: time to prepare upcoming Advent and Christmas Eve sermons, time to plan worship, time to get a little ahead of the Christmas rush.

And then….you can probably imagine what happened. My unscheduled Advent Miracle was somehow taken over. Forgotten errands, surprise visitors, and internet interruptions all conspired against my hopes for writing time, until soon the day was ended. There had been no time to write, no time to plan, no time even to stand up from my desk. I went to bed that night feeling a bit anxious, knowing Christmas was one day closer, and I was not at all prepared.

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” proclaims the prophet John. John himself is the one who was foretold, the voice crying out in the wilderness, the one who by his preaching prepared the way for Jesus’ life and ministry—but these words are meant for us, not for him. “Prepare the way,” preaches John. The Lord is coming. Things are about to change! And we have work to do before He gets here. But what does that look like?

We know what it looks like to prepare for Christmas with family and friends. There’s baking and cooking, cleaning and shopping. For those of us living far from home, there are travel arrangements to make. For students, there are end of semester papers to write and exams to take.

But this holiday busyness isn’t the preparation John’s talking about.

Scripture tells us John went all over the region preaching a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins. That doesn’t sound much like decking the halls, does it? Preparing for the Lord’s coming, according to John, is not about adding ornaments to make the world look prettier, or hanging lights to make our lives look less broken. Rather, we prepare be the way by removing obstacles that stand in the way of receiving Jesus and his message—especially the ones in our hearts.

At our Tuesday morning prayer service here at Redeemer, one of the worshipers was surprised to see “Joy to the World” located in the Advent section of our Lutheran hymnal. “Isn’t this a Christmas song?” she asked.

True, it is usually sung at Christmas. But I suspect “Joy to the World” made its way into the Advent section of our hymnal because of one line in the first verse:
(Sing it with me, and see if you can recognize the Advent bit…)

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And Heaven and nature sing…

“Let every heart prepare Him room…” What does a heart prepared for Jesus look like? What does it look like to make room for Jesus?

I know there’s a lot of stuff in my heart that has to go.

One of those things that needs to be cleared out is judgment of others. To be honest, living in Jerusalem has not helped in this regard. I find that walking through the Holy City cultivates really unholy things in my heart. I’m constantly judging others, trying to put them in the right place. What religion are you? What language do you speak? Do we share the same political views? Are you a tourist, and if so, are you going to walk slowly in front of me the whole way to work, or might you move out of the way soon?

Another thing that could go so that my heart can prepare room for Jesus is despair over the state of the world. I’m not sure, really, that humanity is any worse today than it has been in past centuries. There has always been war. There has always been hatred. There has always been greed and indifference and oppression. But wow, today we are confronted with it constantly. Our brokenness is on full view, live streamed and tweeted so we don’t miss a single awful moment. Often, my broken heart takes a turn and becomes a cynical one, a self-concerned and self-protecting one, maybe even a fearful one.

And yet: “Do not be afraid” says Jesus. “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”

So, what does it look like to prepare the way? What does it look like to prepare Him room in our hearts?

It looks like repentance. It means naming and acknowledging the stuff that lives in our hearts, the stuff that is not from God but is from our own fear and self-interest. John preached a baptism of repentance and forgiveness to prepare the way, because we can’t really hear or receive the Good News that in Christ, our sins are forgiven, if we have not acknowledged that we need forgiveness. We can’t receive the Good News that by our baptisms, we have eternal life—if we still think we will live forever by our own willpower. We can’t receive the Good News that every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; if we have not confessed the ways we admire and even worship the mighty, the crooked, and the rough in the world.

For this reason, each week (or nearly each week) we begin our Sunday liturgy with a prayer of confession. Before we sing, before we pray, before we hear the Scripture and (hopefully) hear a sermon that proclaims Jesus, crucified and risen, confess our sins. We begin with a moment of honesty about our brokenness—both the brokenness of the world, and of our hearts and lives. In this way, we prepare room in our hearts to hear the Good News that in Christ we are made whole.

Of course, it’s one thing to join in a corporate prayer of confession at the beginning of a worship service. It’s another thing to truly repent, to really face our individual need to be forgiven. It’s not always easy to forgive – but it can be even harder to be forgiven.

Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote,

 “In forgiving we are still in control, “I forgive you.” But to be forgiven by you means first of all I have to say ,“I’m sorry. There is something that I didn’t do for you.” That is hard and puts me in a vulnerable position, in a dependent position. I have handed you over for suffering…Somehow I have failed you.  I am sorry I failed you. I am sorry that I was the kind of mother, or father, or friend, or brother, or sister, or neighbor, whatever that I wanted to be. Can you forgive me? It is not just asking the individual. It is having the ability to say, “God, can you forgive me?” Can I be open to forgiveness? Then your heart can move from the hardened heart to a heart of flesh.”  

One week about a decade ago, when I was an intern pastor in Chicago, I was asked to give the sermon while my supervising pastor was out of town. I was very excited, as it was one of the first times I had preached. I spent the whole week preparing—reading commentaries, translating from the Greek, consulting with fellow seminarians, even memorizing the entire Gospel text.

When Sunday morning rolled around, I got up early and prepared my kids for church, too. They were about 8 and 10 years old, and not always easy to get out the door. But this morning, I was on it. We got in the car and started the long drive from Chicago’s south side to the north side, where the church was located.

Traffic was not too bad, and I was feeling pretty proud of myself, so as a treat for the kids I stopped at Dunkin Donuts. Why not? It would take a few minutes, but I was prepared for the day.

I had just pulled away from the drive-thru window when my phone rang. It was the church.

“Carrie, you all right?”
“Yep!” I said, cheerfully. “Just down the road. Stopped for donuts.”
“Um, ok” said the voice on the other end. “We were just wondering, since it’s about time for the sermon to start. Should we sing another hymn?”

And then I realized: In all my preparation, I had forgotten to set my clock ahead. It was time to “Spring Forward”. The Sunday service was well under way, and I was eating a donut.

I hung up the phone and drove as quickly (and safely) as possible to the church. I felt terrible. The closer I got to the church, the more my stomach hurt. I was prepared for disappointed looks and harsh words and wondered if this might even mean I would fail my internship.

But as I walked into the worship space and stepped sheepishly into the pulpit, prepared for hearing condemnation, the congregation just said “Good morning, Carrie! How were the donuts?” There were smiles and laughter all around. And many month of teasing…

Love was born there that day.
Grace was born.
Forgiveness was born.
Jesus was born in the church and in my heart that day… and his love was so much more than I was prepared for.

Let us pray:
We praise and thank you, Creator God, for you have not left us alone. Each year you come to us, Emmanuel, God with us in a manger. Each time you come to us in the broken bread and the cup we share. In time or out of time, you will be revealed, and we shall see you face to face. Prepare our hearts to receive you. Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

"What do you expect?" Sermon for 1 Advent

“What do you expect?”
Sermon for 1 Advent 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.

One morning here at Redeemer church, our church receptionist called my office from the front desk to say, “Assisseh, there is a woman here who needs some help. Can you come?”

So I put aside my sermon writing for a moment and went out to greet the unexpected visitor. I started to introduce myself, but as soon as the words left my lips, she launched into her own introduction, which was fast and loud and would have filled several pages had it been written down.

She was from Argentina. She was very happy to be in Jerusalem. It was her first time in the Holy Land. She loved Jesus—very much. She wanted to arrange a Catholic Mass at Redeemer Church for her large group of pilgrims.

And, she was quite eager to add, her priest, Fr. Gustavo, is a personal friend of Pope Francis.

And with that, she stopped to take a breath, and looked at me with bright-eyed anticipation. I could tell she expected that last comment would seal the deal.
“That’s great!” I replied. “Of course, you can have a church service here.”

“ know this is a Lutheran Church, right?”

As these words sunk in, I watched her face fall and her eyes fill up with tears.
“Lutheran? Oh no!”

“But the priests at the Holy Sepulcher yelled at me and said to get out! No reservation, no Mass. Only the Greeks were nice to me, and they said to come here!”

And then her next words came out with little sobs: “Lutheran! Now what will I do?”

I looked at our receptionist, and then back to the crying woman.
“Come with me,” I said.

I took her arm and accompanied her out of the church, around the corner, and down the Via Dolorosa, until we reached the (not-Lutheran) Ecce Homo Convent.

 “Can you help my new friend to schedule a Catholic Mass here?” I asked their front desk receptionist.

Of course, she was more than happy to help, and was immediately busy making arrangements. Our visitor from Argentina was already talking a mile a minute about her group, and about the priests at the Holy Sepulcher, and of course about Fr. Gustavo—who, you may have heard, is a personal friend of Pope Francis.  

I stepped outside the Convent, but when I was almost out of earshot, I heard the woman exclaim,

“You know, I asked God to send me an angel, but I didn’t expect a Lutheran one!” 

Dear friends, today marks the beginning of Advent, the season of expectation. Each year the church takes this 4-week journey together, waiting in hope for Christmas as well as for the second coming of Christ Jesus, the Living Lord. During these weeks before Christmas we sing songs of expectation, and light candles in expectation, and pray prayers of expectation. We decorate trees and hang lights and prepare food in expectation.

Which all begs the question: What do we expect?

Be alert, says Jesus. Be on guard.
But for what?
What are we expecting? Do we expect anything at all?

Some days, it feels we can’t expect much.

I admit that my expectations of elected leaders are pretty low these days. It feels like a good day, for example, when the president of my home country doesn’t say (or tweet) something overtly racist or sexist or xenophobic.

The same could be said about my expectations for the peace process here in Palestine and Israel. At the St. Andrew’s Day celebration at the Scottish Church Thursday evening, I spoke with a diplomat who painted a picture of impending doom for the two-state solution—which, to be fair, is not really news. In recent months, however, people seem to say the word “Oslo” with a wistfulness as if Norway itself had ceased to exist. The days when a viable Palestinian state was something to be expected in our lifetime now seem like a dream.

On the other hand, what we probably can expect, based on recent weather patterns, is extreme cold or extreme snow or extreme heat (and probably all of the above) during the next year, as our planet continues to show symptoms of the disease of climate change—even as many continue to ignore the signs.

And here we are, beginning the season of expectation.

As we decorate the trees, light the candles, and sing the songs of Advent, are we just going through the motions, or do we truly expect something of ourselves, of the world, of God?

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells the disciples exactly what to expect. First, he says, we can expect some turmoil:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25-26)

But then—Jesus says we can expect something else:

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:27)

In other words: yes, the world is a mess—and Jesus is coming again soon.
Yes, humans continue to worship empire and seek power over others—and the kingdom of love, peace, and dignity is near.
Yes, creation itself is wounded by human greed and excess—and the redemption of the world, and of all our messes, is on its way.

What can we expect? We can expect that Jesus,
the Son of Man,
Prince of Peace,
Our Morningstar,
Will not leave us abandoned,
Will not let the story end this way.
Jesus is coming soon! 
And Love, says Jesus, is what you can expect. AMEN!

I really want to believe this. And most days I do! I mean, I wouldn’t be a pastor of the church if the hope of redemption and love and peace for all people and all of the cosmos didn’t live in my heart.

But it is tough sometimes, isn’t it? It’s much more reasonable to expect that things will remain the same, that people will continue to be terrible, that the wall will continue to stand, that justice will never be born—in Palestine, or anywhere else.

And yet, Jesus says: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” 

Scripture tell us Jesus is coming! The Kingdom is coming! God’s peace and justice, redemption and reconciliation are on the way! 

But just how do we believe it, how do we trust it, how do we keep expecting love when the world gives us every reason to expect otherwise?

The short parable Jesus shares in today’s Gospel lesson gives us a hint. Jesus says:

“Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

Of course, the cynic in me wants to say: 
You know, sprouting leaves are signs of spring, not summer. 

In fact, sometimes sprouts are only signs that there’s another snowstorm, or rainstorm, or a terrible springtime cold on the way. We know from experience that when you see those first leaves growing, it can still be a long, long way to summer!

And still, says Jesus, look for the sprouts. Look for the green things. Look for signs of life. Then draw near to the places and the people who are themselves signs of the coming kingdom of God.

Dear friends, this is what Advent is about. It’s an intentional time of noticing the trees, of paying attention to the sprouts. Even though in our part of the world this church season comes during the rainy season, still the church spends these four weeks drawing near to God and to the seeds of life and love God has planted in our midst.

We do this, because sometimes waiting joyfully and expecting hopefully comes easy.

And often it doesn’t. 

The world has a way of clouding our vision, of convincing us that the manger will remain empty, and the stone will remain at the entrance to the tomb, and the long dark night will never end.

And that’s why we need Advent!
We need to gather as a community,
And share food,
And sing hymns,
And hear the words of the prophets,
And light candles against the night.
We need to pray.

And we need to practice—practice seeing the trees.
Practice noticing the sprouts.
We need to practice expectation—so that the rest of the year, in every season, in times of joy and times of sorrow, we will remember that we can joyfully expect Jesus to be born again in our hearts, and can confidently expect the Kingdom of God to be born fully into our broken world.

Let us pray:
Advent Prayer

In our secret yearnings
we wait for your coming,
and in our grinding despair
we doubt that you will.
And in this privileged place
we are surrounded by witnesses who yearn more than do we
and by those who despair more deeply than do we.
Look upon your church and its pastors
in this season of hope
which runs so quickly to fatigue
and in this season of yearning
which becomes so easily quarrelsome.
Give us the grace and the impatience
to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes,
to the edges of our fingertips.
We do not want our several worlds to end.
Come in your power
and come in your weakness
in any case
and make all things new.

― Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann