Monday, December 15, 2014

Sermon for 3rd Sunday in Advent ("Joy Sunday") -- 14 December 2014

Sermon for Sunday, 14 December
3rd Sunday in Advent

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

Luke 1:47-55; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

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

Yesterday, a pastor friend from the United States posted on Facebook a picture of her Advent wreath. It features three purple candles and one pink, in keeping with the tradition of many churches. However, tied around the pink candle in her wreath is a black ribbon. “Because it’s just this kind of Advent for me” she wrote, adding the hashtags #Icantbreathe and #blacklivesmatter. The pink candle represents Gaudete Sunday, or “Joy Sunday”, as this 3rd Sunday in Advent is often called. And the black ribbon represents my friend’s pain and sorrow at the intense racial unrest in the United States right now after the killing of several unarmed black men at the hands of police. For her, this Advent’s “Joy Sunday” is conflicted, a paradox: How is it possible to rejoice, given the current reality in her community? 

Photo by The Rev. Angie Shannon

We too may feel the paradox of Gaudete Sunday, as well as of our upcoming Christmas celebrations. How can we celebrate, when so many of us are here to serve those most affected by the occupation, and the wall, and the conflict in Gaza? How are we to sing for joy, when so many of us are far from home and from family? We may not be tying black ribbons on our Advent candles, but we know what it means to hold in tension both Joy for what is, and Longing for what is yet to come. We rejoice because Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is coming soon. And we long for the day when God’s kingdom of peace, justice, reconciliation, and wholeness will be fully realized in Palestine and Israel, and in every place. O Come, O come, Emmanuel! Come and set your people free!

Technically, we don’t recognize Gaudete Sunday on our church calendar. As you can see, we have four blue candles in our Advent wreath here at Redeemer, in keeping with a recent liturgical movement meant to emphasize a “hopeful blue” rather than a “penitential purple”. Since we have “hopeful blue” all four weeks, we don’t switch to a “joyful pink” on the 3rd Sunday. I’ve been asked several times the last few weeks about why exactly we are blue when the Germans (and the Finns, and the Norwegians) are decorated in purple. I honestly don’t know who makes such decisions, but if I were to guess, I’d say it was an American. Americans, after all, seem to value positivity over almost anything else. We love to say things like, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” In other words, make the best out of what you’ve been given. Be blue, not purple! Purple is just too…heavy.

I asked some of my Palestinian co-workers here in the church if there is a comparable “lemons and lemonade” phrase in Arabic. They thought and thought. They even conferred with friends. Finally, it was determined that there really isn’t anything similar in Arabic. “But,” said my coworker Yacoub, “what we do often say is that God is always giving nuts to the man with no teeth.”

Not quite the same! But this is perhaps more honest than some cheerful nonsense about lemonade that no one wants to hear. Sometimes, it does feel like God is always giving nuts to the people with no teeth. Sometimes, it feels like we can’t catch a break, or that nothing will ever change. And while we want to believe that the arc of the moral universe may be long but is bending towards justice, the reality of what we see around us can make such sentiments seem, well….sentimental.

Thankfully, whether we’re blue, purple, or pink on this 3rd Sunday of Advent, as people of faith our rejoicing is not the same as having a positive attitude or overcoming our difficulties “with a smile and a song.” Our joy springs from faith and hope, not from optimism. If we look again to Mary’s song (which Anne-Marieke sang so beautifully for us today) we hear how Mary rejoices, not in what she knows about her life, but in what she knows about God. In spite of the overwhelming evidence that her life is falling apart—unexpected pregnancy, no husband, strange visions of angels– Mary sings because she knows God to be faithful.  

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Have you noticed that Mary sings in the past tense about what God is about to do through the baby she is carrying? “He has scattered the proud…brought down the powerful…lifted up the lowly…filled the hungry and sent away the rich.” Last time I checked, the powerful were still on their thrones, and the rich were still getting richer. Last time I checked, the wall was still standing. Last time I checked, people were still getting killed because of their race, or religion, or gender. But Mary, the one we call “Theotokos”, the God-bearer, insists “the Mighty One has done great things for me.”

Making sense of this forward-thinking past tense requires some mental gymnastics for the hearer, but perhaps we understand it more than we realize. This way of thinking is what we do all the time as Christians. We rejoice, not only because God did something amazing a long time ago in Bethlehem, but because that singular event is still happening today. God is come near. Jesus is born. The kingdom is come. And while we still wait to experience the completion of God’s good work in the world, we believe it is not only going to happen but has already happened. The virgin has conceived and has borne a son, and this means God’s peace, justice, and reconciliation have already defeated all evil, hatred, and violence. The wall has been brought down. The checkpoints have been opened. The peoples of this land have been reconciled—already, and not yet. This is why we can sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is come”—during Advent, while Mary is still pregnant!

Dear friends, on this Gaudete Sunday—or the 3rd Sunday in Advent, or the Sunday of the Christmas play, or whatever we wish to call it—we are joyful. We rejoice in blue, because our hope is in the Lord. We rejoice in purple, because weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning. We rejoice in pink, because Mary said “yes” to God, and shows us what it means to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.”

We rejoice at all times, and in all places, because as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “the one who has called you is faithful.”

The one who has called us to this place, and to this community, at this time, is faithful. Can you say it with me? “The one who called us is faithful.”

An unmarried teen has become Theotokos, the God-bearer.
The one who called us is faithful.
God, who was once far off, has come near.
The one who called us is faithful.
The baby was born in Bethlehem.
The one who called us is faithful.
Five loaves and two fish fed five thousand people.
The one who called us is faithful.
The blind man can see, and the leper has been restored to health.
The one who called us is faithful.
The tomb is empty!
The one who called us is faithful.
We came to this new place and found community.
The one who has called us is faithful.
We have enough children at Redeemer to put on a Christmas play!
The one who called us is faithful.
Laila June has been born!
The one who called us is faithful.
The Mighty One has indeed done great things for us! With Mary and all the saints, let us now rejoice in song, singing our hymn of the day, “Joy to the World.” 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent: 7 December 2014

Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent
7 December 2014

The Rev. Carrie Smith

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

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

It’s been a quiet week in Jerusalem. For most of us gathered here today, this has been a week of fewer security alerts and less disruption of daily life. Our Muslim neighbors have enjoyed several weeks now of unrestricted access to Al Aqsa, which has meant quieter Fridays and calmer evenings in general. Also, it’s Advent, and Christmastime activities are in full swing, and therefore it’s tempting to hear these opening verses of Isaiah 40 as a pronouncement that the storm has passed, the struggle is finished, and peace has come at last. Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God. You’ve served your term, Jerusalem—you’ve paid more than you ever owed for your sins. Everything is fine. Nothing to see here.

But then, we know the truth. We know the anger and fear underlying the violence of the past months have not just disappeared. We know the surface calm of the past week can barely hide the under-the-table, backdoor, and sometimes very open efforts to further separate people from their homes, from their land, and the peoples of Jerusalem from each other. Any comfort we enjoy from the quiet and calm is certain to be fleeting, a salve on an infected wound, a false front and fresh coat of paint on a house teetering on collapse.   

If I sound a little dark and gloomy this morning, it’s because my heart has been stirred up this week, not only by the ongoing conflict here in Jerusalem, but also by the storm brewing in my home country, the United States. It’s been interesting to observe from afar the news of angry protests across the US after the deaths of the unarmed Eric, Michael, and Tamir (only 12 years old) at the hands of police. “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe!” are common rallying cries for the growing protests. I watch the uprising across the ocean, and I think of my Palestinian sisters and brothers here, who have been singing the same melody for years: “Don’t shoot! I can’t cross the checkpoint. I can’t get to work. I can’t get to the doctor. I can’t get to my holy sites to pray. I can’t see past this wall. I can’t imagine my future.  I can’t breathe.”

And then this morning, “Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.”

The confusing thing about Advent is that while we are busy making our homes warm and comfortable, cooking traditional comforting foods, and singing familiar comforting songs, the message of Scripture for the church season has nothing to do with comfort at all. This is a time of discomfort. Advent is a time for reflection, confession, and preparation. The discomfort comes from acknowledging, together, that although God has already come among us as Emmanuel, God with us, the kingdom has not been realized in full. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem 2,015 years ago means peace has been born between God and God’s people. But we don’t have to look far to recognize that peace has yet to be born among the people of Jerusalem, or Ferguson, or New York. It’s still Advent. The baby has yet to be born. We are still in the wilderness. There’s still work to do. 

There’s a highway to be built.

Isaiah 40, verse 3: A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Biblical commentaries all tell us that this entire dialogue at the beginning of Isaiah 40 is a conversation taking place in the heavens. This is a script meant for God and the heavenly choir of angels, and we are overhearing the divine voices at the center of creation, discussing the preparations necessary for the coming of the Lord.  

While this is most certainly the correct interpretation of this passage, I’m having a hard time leaving this text in the heavenly realm. When I read of a voice crying out “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!” – and then when I look around at the wilderness we’re living in today – I wonder if we might be included in this conversation. God may be speaking to us through this Scripture. We just might be the heavenly choir, God’s messengers, who have some work to do to prepare the way of the Lord.

Valleys need lifting. Mountains need lowering. Uneven ground needs leveling. Rough patches need smoothing.

Black men and boys in my home country need even ground to travel through middle school, high school, and college. They need a level playing field for employment, and buying a home, and, frankly, just living to adulthood.

Palestinians in this country need checkpoints opened, villages and families reunited, documents processed, and walls taken down. They need a clear path to the future.

While some of us have been traveling well-lit, smoothly-paved, 4-lane highways, so many of our neighbors are just looking for safe passage through the wilderness of life.
It can be tempting to survey the situation our neighbors face and determine, “I guess this is the way it will always be. Jesus is the only one who can fix this. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!” It’s especially easy to do this when you’re an outsider or newcomer, as most of us are. After all, we can still get through the checkpoints, with the right passport. And we can always go home.

In a similar way, white America views the urgency and desperation of the “I can’t breathe” demonstrations and they are saying, “But I don’t understand! The air is fine!” 

But as we heard in today’s Gospel lesson, when John the Baptizer came announcing the coming of the Lord, he preached a message of repentance and confession of sins. “And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” This, my sisters and brothers, is what we, the powerful and privileged, are being called to this Advent season. We have heard the voice in the wilderness, crying out “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” We have heard the voices of our neighbors, crying “I can’t breathe” and “Tear down this wall.” And now, it’s time to repent, to receive forgiveness—and to get to work—because Jesus, the one we’ve been waiting for, is on his way. Jesus, prince of peace, friend of the poor, liberator and reconciler, is coming soon. Preparing the way for his coming, and the coming of his kingdom, means preparing safe passage for every beloved child of God’s creation.

Here in Jerusalem, we are often greeted in Arabic with the phrase “Ahlan wa Sahlan”, which means, in essence, “welcome!” But literally translated, this phrase means something like “family” (ahlan) and “a level place, suitable for farming” (sahlan). In other words, when someone greets us with “Ahlan wa Sahlan”, they are saying “You are now family, and this level ground I enjoy is for you to enjoy, too.”  

You are family, and this level ground is for you, too. My sisters and brothers, our Christian witness is that the birth of Jesus, the one we call Emmanuel, God with us, made us all part of God’s family. When God became flesh and dwelt among us, the mountains were made low and the valleys were raised, creating a straight and level pathway between God and God’s people. “You are now family, and this level ground is for you, too.” In Christ, God has said “Ahlan wa sahlan” to the whole world. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ. This is our Advent hope and our Christmas joy.

 And this is what our neighbors on the other side of the wall—and on the other side of the ocean—need to hear from us today: You are family, and this level ground is yours, too. My privilege, my power, my fertile soil, my ease of access, are yours, too. I will not leave you in the wilderness.

“Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Prepare the royal highway, the king of kings is near! Love is on its way. Jesus, Emmanuel, is coming to us in the wilderness of Jerusalem, and at the checkpoints of the West Bank, and on the streets of Cleveland and New York and Chicago. In every place where the cry for justice, peace, and reconciliation is met with the Good News that God’s kingdom is for all people, we see the glory of the Lord revealed. Come, Lord Jesus.  Ahlan wa sahlan. Amen.

Let us pray: Creator God, We praise you for your love in coming to us, unworthy though we are. Give us grace to accept the Christ who comes in your name, and the courage to be Christ for others. Amen.  

Monday, December 1, 2014

Sermon for 1st Sunday of Advent: 30 November 2014

Sermon Sunday, 30 November 2014
The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

1st Sunday of Advent
"O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down..."

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

This is the first Sunday of Advent, and so we begin a season of anticipation and preparation. In the church, in our homes, and in our hearts, we are making space for Emmanuel, God-With-Us. As the days are getting shorter and the nights longer, more than ever we need the light of Christ to shine in the darkness. Like the Israelites in today’s Isaiah reading, who longed for a sign that God was still on their side, we also long to know God’s unmistakable presence with us today. We want to see Jesus! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come! 

It may be difficult for others to imagine how God could ever seem far away when you live in Jerusalem, the holy city. After all, people come here from around the world to feel closer to God. As early as the 4th Century, Paulinus of Nola wrote, “No other sentiment draws people to Jerusalem than the desire to see and touch the places where Christ was physically present … and to say 'We have gone into his tabernacle, and have worshipped in the places where his feet have stood.'" Indeed, if ever there was a place that should feel awash in the presence of the divine, this is it.

But too often, God shows up in this place chiefly in political rhetoric or on newspaper opinion pages. God’s name is invoked both as justification for violence and as the root of all that is wrong in the Middle East. It can seem at times that God is only “with us” in Jerusalem as the star player in a dangerous game of “whose city is it anyway?”

There are other reasons, too, why God may seem distant or out of reach. We’re entering a new church year today, and to be honest, the last year is one we might be glad to bid farewell. This year has brought us the tragedy in Gaza and its ongoing aftermath; Christians persecuted across the Middle East; the devastating losses and continuing threat of ebola in Africa; and the increased violence and fear here in Jerusalem. These are just a few good reasons why we might join the prophet Isaiah in crying, “Where are you, God? O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

Although the prophets warned “Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord!”, it’s tempting to imagine how a good display of divine fireworks might be just the thing to disrupt the conflict machine in this city.  

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! O that you would part the sea, or speak to us from a burning bush, or send a whale to swallow up the many self-appointed prophets in this place. O that you would send us a choir of angels and a star to guide our way.

O that you would just show up, God, the way you used to!

Henri Nouwen echoed this sentiment, writing:  

"I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me and others of God's saving power...Our temptation is to be distracted by them...When I have no eyes for the small signs of God's presence--the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends--I will always remain tempted to despair. The small child of Bethlehem, the unknown man of Nazareth, the rejected preacher, the naked man on the cross, he asks for my full attention. The work of our salvation takes place in the midst of a world that continues to shout, scream, and overwhelm us with its claims and promises."

It might be true that things in this city—and in the world—would be clearer if God revealed God’s self in a more dramatic fashion today. In a world that prefers grand parades, spectacular fireworks, and displays of great power, our Christian witness is odd! We proclaim something quite scandalous, in fact: We proclaim that God, the creator of all things, is with us as a defenseless baby. God is with us as an ignored prophet. God is with us as a convicted criminal. Furthermore, we believe God didn’t just act in the world once, a long time ago, but is still coming to us today—not only in the manger, but in our hearts, and in the bread and wine, and in our neighbor. Behold, God is doing a new thing: God is with us!

It’s a shame, really, that we save hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” for just these four short weeks in Advent. After all, “O Come Emmanuel” –come, God-with-us – could be the theme song for the whole of the Christian life! As we heard in the Gospel according to Mark today, we are always to keep the Advent spirit of preparation and anticipation. We are to keep awake and watchful for the coming of the Lord, for Jesus said: “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

We are always to be on the lookout for the coming of Christ—whether he is coming in the clouds in great glory and power on the last day, or whether he is being born in our hearts, every day. So when we arrange and display the manger scenes in our homes, complete with Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and wise men and all the other important characters, we aren’t just remembering an event that happened 2,000 years ago. And when the youngest members of Redeemer present the Christmas Pageant in a few weeks, they won’t be reenacting a fairy tale.

Rather, whenever we tell the story, or set up our crèche scenes, or visit the sites of those long ago events, we are preparing ourselves to encounter God-with-us again. Whenever we contemplate the humble place where the divine came to us in the flesh, we attune our hearts and minds to see him born again. Awake and alert, we are ready!

Awake and alert, we see how Christ comes as the forgotten families in Gaza with no roof, no electricity, no food, and no future.

Awake and alert, we see how Christ comes as your neighbor who couldn’t access critical medical care because he was stuck at the checkpoint.

Awake and alert, we see how Christ comes as the children of this city, caught in the crossfire between extremists of every kind.

Awake and alert, we see how Emmanuel, God-with-us, comes to us, again and again, as the outcast, the refugee, the child, the accused, and the condemned.

And so, as we begin these four weeks of Advent, anticipating and preparing for Christmas, here in Jerusalem we are not waiting for the next act of violence. We’re not waiting for the next words of hate. We’re not waiting for the next shoe to drop.

We wait, we hope, we pray, and we sing, preparing our hearts to receive again the God of the parted sea, and of the burning bush, and of the giant fish, who was revealed to us as the God of the manger, and of the cross, and of the empty tomb. O come, O come Emmanuel! Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

Let us pray.
God of hope, when Christ your Son appears – whether today, or on the last day – may he not find us asleep or idle, but active in his service and ready. Amen. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sermon for Sunday, 16 November 2014
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Pastor Carrie Smith

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

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

Hear again the second reading, from First Thessalonians chapter 5:

5Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.3When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
6So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.


This is the second week in a row we’ve heard a Scripture reading including the direction to “keep awake” -- last week from Jesus, and this week from Paul. This is most interesting to me, considering I’ve lived in Jerusalem for three months, and it feels like I’ve been awake the whole time. For three months—but especially for the last three weeks—I’ve been running from balcony to balcony, and from window to window, at the sound of every gunshot, firecracker, and siren. For three months, I’ve been hurrying to get a good look, to try and determine if the latest boom is the sound of celebration or liberation. 

West Jerusalem sunset,
taken from our balcony
Photo by Robert Smith

All of this running amok through my apartment has left me a bit emotionally exhausted, to be honest. The other day as I was walking home through the Christian Quarter, one of the shopkeepers grabbed my arm and asked, “Sister, what’s wrong? You look tired.”

"I haven’t been sleeping well,” I told him.

“Tsk tsk tsk” he shook his head. “You can’t let this disturb your sleep. You’ll get used to it! In this city, we learned that lesson a long time ago.”

“You’ll get used to it.” I had his words ringing in my ears the following night, and this time, after three months, I stayed on my couch and continued knitting, rather than jumping up to engage in my futile assessment of the latest display of firepower. Later that night, I made extra efforts not to run from my bed to the balcony when I heard a boom or a blast.

“Don’t let this disturb your sleep,” my friend wisely said. 

East Jerusalem, with fires of protest
Taken from the same balcony,
nearly simultaneously
Photo by Robert Smith

But then there are these words from Paul:

“So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.” 

To sleep or not to sleep, that is the question! What’s the difference between “getting used to it” and sleeping through the next intifada—or through the second coming of Christ? What’s the difference between “keeping awake” and “worrying yourself sick?”

The Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians is a bit challenging for us to interpret in our context. In Jerusalem today, the night often brings drama, and danger, and even death. It’s not so easy for us to associate the night with the false sense of peace and security Paul warns against.

On the other hand, I’ve just been here three months, and already I can understand the allure of drawing the curtains, pulling up the covers, and going to sleep. I can only imagine what it’s like for those who have lived here for many years, or for their entire lives.

At the beginning of this passage from 1st Thessalonians, Paul lays out the situation clearly: We don’t know when Jesus is coming.

Here in Jerusalem, we still don’t know when Jesus is coming.

We also don’t know if we will get through the checkpoint today.

We don’t know when peace will reign, in this city, or in the world.

We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know!

And this is difficult to accept. It’s especially difficult to accept the “not knowing”, when the view from the balcony is of a problem so complex it feels like Jesus may be the only one who could fix it.

Our shared faith proclaims that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. The kingdom is coming. Peace and justice will one day reign.

Until then, Paul says “Keep awake.” But this isn’t an invitation to anxiety—for Philippians 4:6 admonishes believers to “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” I think it’s pretty clear that if losing sleep worrying and watching for signs (either from my balcony or in the newspaper headlines) was an effective plan, Jesus would be here many times over. Trust me, I’ve been putting in my best effort!

But neither are we to stick our heads in the sand, hide under the covers, draw the curtains, or build walls to keep out reality and the light of day. Paul says we are to keep awake! 

Keep awake, but not because it’s our responsibility to set the schedule for Jesus’ return. 

Keep awake, but not because we fear the night. Keep awake, sisters and brothers, because we are children of the day and of the light.

I remember well some very long nights sixteen years ago, walking a newborn Caleb up and down our tiny apartment hallway in St. Paul, Minnesota. In those long dark hours of the night, when I was so weary I could hardly stand up, much less hold the baby up, things started to seem strange. I watched more broadcasts than I care to admit of an end-times preacher from Gravette, Arkansas. I was singing Christmas carols to the baby, and it was the middle of October. And I will never forget how one night, as I walked past our city apartment window for the 3,000th time with the baby in arms, there, under the window, was a huge deer, staring up right at me. And he seemed to be thinking the same thing I was: “You don’t belong here!”

In those long dark nights, things seemed downright hopeless. This kid will NEVER sleep on his own, I thought. He will never grow up, and I will never sleep again!  

And then, as the next morning dawned, with a cup of coffee in my hand and a smiling baby in my arms – I thought motherhood was the most wonderful thing in the world and my baby was the most wonderful baby in the world and wasn’t the world just LOVELY?!

We are children of the day, and of the light. We are children of the resurrection and the life.

Still, the night and the darkness can be terribly long and exhausting.

It’s difficult to stay awake when the darkness is so deep and the nights are so long.

It’s difficult to keep hoping when the situation seems hopeless. It difficult to keep working for peace, and justice, and human rights, and housing, and a proper education, and a better future for our children, when every week seems to bring something new: Gaza. Ebola. ISIS. Global warming. Economic disaster. The so-called “auto intifada”. House demolitions.

It’s tough not to be scared of what happens next.

It’s tough not to be scared of each other.

Or of God.

Sometimes, drawing the curtains, covering our heads, and taking a nap seems safer than being in the light.

But Paul says: You don’t belong to that darkness.

I don’t see this text as being anti-sleep or pro-worry, but rather anti-fear. Paul is preaching against the fear that makes us seek solace in the darkness. He is preaching against the fear which makes us shut out the world, hide from the news, and accept things as they are.
He is especially preaching against the fear of God and God’s wrath.

Sisters and brothers, we are not children of darkness. We are children of the light and of the day. We are children of the Morningstar, Jesus, who after his death on the cross was liberated from the dark of the tomb and brought light to the whole world. Because of his resurrection, we know death and darkness do not have the last word. Because of the resurrection, we know God’s wrath has been swallowed up forever, and we have been gifted the righteousness of Christ himself.

Therefore, we anticipate the Lord’s coming, but we do not fear it.

This excerpt from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians ends with this verse:

“Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

Let me tell you, preachers love “therefores.” We love to see a “therefore”, because it clues us in to the actual point of the text.

And in this case, while Paul has many things to say here, they all point to this critical message for all believers: Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up.

Yes, Jesus is coming soon. The day of the Lord, and the day of judgment, will come. Until then, there will be many dark nights.

But Paul assures us God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.

And therefore—therefore!--encourage one another and build up each other.

Therefore, because you need not fear the dark, or death, or the tomb, or God, you need not fear each other.

Therefore, there’s no need to protect privilege or power or turf.

Therefore, there’s no need to bury your talents because you’re afraid you’ll use them up.

You are children of the day and of the light. Therefore, live boldly. Take risks, in speech and in action, for the sake of Christ, and for the sake of each other.

Let us pray: Holy God, help us to follow the light of Christ and live the truth of the Gospel. Help us to speak and act boldly and without fear, in the confidence that we have been born again as sons and daughters of light. May we be your witnesses before all the world.  Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. AMEN 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, 9 November 2014: Matthew 25:1-13

Sermon for Sunday, 9 November 2014
Matthew 25:1-13
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

Matthew 25:1-13

25“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

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

Today, the 9th of November 2014, 8,000 lighted helium balloons will be released into the skies above Berlin. Since Friday, these balloons have been silently marking theboundary where, 25 years ago, the Berlin wall once divided East from West Berlin, East from West Germany, and East Germans from West Germans. 

For the past few weeks in this city (but especially this weekend) we have been painfully aware of the deep divisions among us: East and West Jerusalem. West Bank and Israel proper. Arab and Jew. Palestinian and Israeli. Refugee and citizen. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, secular. This side of the wall, and that side of the wall. 

And then we come to church this morning, and we have to hear a parable which once again divides people into categories. Just what we needed this week!

Five bridesmaids are wise, and five are foolish. Five have brought enough resources, and five are lacking. Five are welcomed into the wedding party, and five are left out in the dark. We, the listeners, are also left in the dark, wondering: Am I a wise or foolish bridesmaid? Will I be welcomed into the wedding party? How can I be sure I won’t be left on the wrong side of the door?

This is a tough parable, friends. It may be especially hard for us to hear the Good News from a story of division, in this place, and in these times.

But Jesus says, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Keep awake! Be ready, for I’m coming soon! This is not complicated. This message is clear, even if the parable is not. Jesus is coming soon, and even when the wait is long, we are to stay awake and watchful.

And yet, countless sermons have been preached in which “Keep awake” has somehow transformed into “Be on the right side.” Be sure you’re like those wise bridesmaids, not the foolish ones! Be sure to bring enough oil. Stockpile it if you have to! Except it might not be oil you need. It might be correct theology, or political affiliation, or church membership.

In this interpretation of the parable, the oil you need to ensure your entrance to the party might even be something you forget you possess most of the time.

My walk to work on Friday morning.
Approaching the second checkpoint.
Photo by Carrie Smith
On Friday morning, I entered the Old City through Damascus Gate. Barricades stood in front of more barricades, which reinforced checkpoints, which were monitored by gun-toting Israeli soldiers.
Palestinian men and women were lined up, several people deep, waiting to enter the city for prayer, for shopping, and for business. One young man was pulled to the side, questioned about his papers, with M-16s providing incentive for the right answer. News cameras lined the sidewalk, ready to capture anything newsworthy.

And then I walked up to the checkpoint, and it was as if a red carpet were rolled out for my entrance. The waters parted. Guns were lowered. I even received smiles and a “Have a nice day” in English.

And just like that, I’m in the Old City! Thanks be to God!

After all, no one wants to be left outside the gate! No one wants to miss the party! No one wants to be a foolish bridesmaid. Thanks be to God, I brought enough oil.

Thanks be to God for my white skin, my American accent, and the black shirt and white collar which put me solidly in the “wise bridesmaid” section. I had enough oil, and some to spare.

The others—the ones outside the gate—lacked the resources I had in abundance.

Is this really what Jesus intends for his parable to teach the faithful—that the kingdom of heaven is full of wise and privileged bridesmaids, just like me? That the goal is to be sure you’re in the group with enough resources to last the wait?

Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Charities and championed the cause of the poor in the 20th Century, famously said, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” I must say, I believe that our problems with this Gospel text stem from our acceptance of this parable’s filthy, rotten outcome.

“Now the kingdom of heaven is like this,” begins Jesus. And that makes perfect sense to us, because we’re used to the reality that when the gates are open, only some are allowed through. We’re accustomed to the idea that when the party starts, some will be left out in the dark. We know that the goal is to be sure we’re in the wise, prepared, favored, blessed, fully documented and officially recognized group of bridesmaids when the bridegroom opens that door.

The reality of our human condition makes it nearly impossible to hear this parable in any other way except as a warning to the foolish (the other guys) and a pat on the back to the wise (us and our friends). Starting from this vantage point, we then take this parable and allegorize it to death, assigning meaning to every conceivable detail: If Jesus is the bridegroom, and the wedding party is heaven, then the oil in the lamps must be faith, and the lamps themselves are our good works, but then who is the bride? And wait, why is it midnight? And maybe the foolish virgins aren’t foolish for not bringing the oil, but for going out to and buy some at midnight? Maybe Jesus is saying they should have been willing to hang out in the dark and wait for him?

And there we go again, blaming the ones with the fewest resources.

You see, no matter how we spin it, we always imagine that this parable describes the kingdom of heaven. The hardest thing of all to understand is that the kingdom ushered in by Jesus turns our current reality completely upside down.

Hear this parable again, brothers and sisters:

Ten bridesmaids were waiting for the bridegroom. All ten of them fell asleep. All ten of them fell asleep! But only five bridesmaids entered the party. The other five couldn’t get in, because they were out trying to find oil for their lamps. And now, the wedding party is divided. The party is incomplete.

And Jesus says: “Keep awake!” Pay attention, for I’m about to do something new!

We assume that the five who entered the party are blessed, or happy, or examples to follow.  

Yes, five bridesmaids got into the party. But now, because the other five are desperately seeking oil for their lamps, there are empty seats at the wedding banquet. There are voices absent from the choir. There are cousins missing from the family photo. The joy of the celebration is incomplete, because the wedding party is half missing.

Who among us can imagine planning a wedding, in which it would be just fine if half the wedding party couldn’t make it?

When I enter Jerusalem and walk safely to work, but young Palestinian men cannot, our joy is incomplete.

When Berlin was divided, and families were separated for 28 years, our joy was incomplete.   

When the wall separates the West Bank from Israel proper, our joy is incomplete.

Muslim men under 35, praying outside Damascus Gate on Friday,
because they were not allowed in the Old City.
Photo by Robert Smith
When our Jewish neighbors can enter to pray at the place they call the Temple Mount, but Muslims are barred from Al Aqsa—and I can walk anywhere I want—our joy is incomplete.

When our human divisions reign, our joy is incomplete, for we are still waiting for the coming of the kingdom of God.

Sisters and brothers, instead of hearing this parable as Jesus’ vision of a coming kingdom where the current reality persists, and where we are all still divided, I urge you to hear Jesus pronouncing his imminent arrival, over and against a rather blunt and accurate description of our life in the meantime.

Hear the parable of the divided bridesmaids as a familiar tale of life in Berlin, in Jerusalem, in our home countries—where some are in, some are out, but in the end, all lose out. “Now the kingdom of heaven will be like this” says Jesus. “I am coming soon, and all these divisions will be no more.”

After all, “Be on the right side” is no kind of Good News for us today.

The Good News for us is that Jesus is coming soon. This Good News is that a joyful marriage feast is being prepared for you, and me, and all our brothers and sisters. There is no longer Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free there. Thanks be to God, there will be no mourning, no more crying and no more pain, for the first things have passed away.

There is no wall there.

There is just the table; and all of the weddings attendants, both wise and foolish; and the love of God we have in Christ Jesus, that was the cause for the celebration in the first place.

Jesus says, I am coming soon, so keep awake! In the meantime, keep awake, take stock of your oil, share the light. In the meantime, keep awake to the needs of your neighbors. Keep awake to the call of God. Keep awake to the cause of justice. Keep awake to opportunities to make peace.
Keep awake, so that when the door opens, all will be in the light.

And then the table will be filled. All the wedding attendants will be present at the celebration. Justice will flow like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Sermon for All Saints Sunday 2014

Sermon for All Saints Sunday
2 November 2014

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

For photos of this All Saints Service: 

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

On Friday afternoon, the German, Arabic and English congregations here at Redeemer Lutheran gathered in the main sanctuary for the annual Reformation Day service. It was a good crowd, in spite of the weather and the turmoil in the city. I’m also learning to appreciate these joint services as “holy chaos”!

My favorite part of the afternoon was the prayers of intercession. Clergy and lay people from around the world gathered to pray in Swedish, Dutch, Danish, English, Arabic, German, Finnish, and Norwegian. Did I understand much of it? No…but God did!

Even though it was Reformation Day, seeing that diverse group praying around the microphone made me think of the first reading for today, All Saints Sunday, from Revelation chapter 7:

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 

This is, of course, an image of heaven, and of the great communion of saints gathered around the throne of God. However, a “great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” could also be a description of our little worshipping community on Sunday mornings! Here at Redeemer we are often joined by visitors from all over the world. We love to hear from our visitors at the end of the service, to know where they came from and why they are here (visitors, there is your fair warning!) Just hearing the list of countries gives us a glimpse of what it will be like at that heavenly feast, when all nations and tribes will be gathered around the throne. It is a wonderful, weekly reminder that the communion we share in Christ transcends distance, language, race, and culture.

And on All Saints Day we celebrate that this communion also transcends death, for we are united with all the saints through the waters of baptism.

A few days ago, I was sitting and praying in the Chapel of the Apparition, around the corner at the Holy Sepulcher Church. One of the blessings of living in Jerusalem is the opportunity not just to walk through holy places (as I did in my first visits here) but to have the opportunity to really get to know some of them. Since my office is located so close to the Holy Sepulcher, this is the spot I’ve been trying to get to know first. I sat for a long time in this particular chapel, watching people come and go. At one point, I looked more carefully at the altar. I was sitting a ways away, so I couldn’t be absolutely sure that I was seeing it correctly, but then decided I was: I saw that the base of the altar is stone, and carved in the stone are many faces. These are not stylized icons or perfect chiseled statue faces, but just regular people’s images, forming the basis of the table itself.

At first, I thought this was a little creepy, to be honest! But then I saw what a beautiful representation it is of the communion of saints. And how perfect that it be the basis of the communion table! For when we come to the table each Sunday, as the body of Christ in this place and in this time, we are joined there by the rest of our beloved community—those who are across the ocean, and those who have crossed the Jordan.
Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann put it this way:

“The Eucharist is communion with the whole Church. It is the supreme revelation of the communion of the saints, of the unity and interdependence of all the members of the Body of Christ. …It is given to me, personally, in order to transform me into a member of Christ, to unite me with all those who receive him, to reveal the Church as a fellowship of love.”

Apart from funerals, All Saints is the one day in the church year we devote to contemplating such mysteries. As such, I’ve been thinking about how the oddness of our little community of faith here in Jerusalem is also a blessing. We are a temporary community – some here for a day, some for a year, some for decades. We are a diverse community – the church stationary says “Lutheran”, but on any given day we are also Catholic, Mennonite, Disciples, Presbyterian, Methodist, Franciscan, or simple “Christian.” We are both home (as in “Jerusalem, my happy home) and far from home.

These realities of our existence here can often be a challenge. But they are also a blessing! For although we still see as through a glass darkly, the gift of this community is experiencing firsthand that the unity we share in baptism is not formed by genetics, or shared memories, or a common culture. Rather, we have the blessing of living out the heavenly truth that the communion of saints transcends all our earthly divisions, and remains undivided even in death.

Hear again the prayer of the day, written by Thomas Cranmer:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

As a knitter, I can’t resist this image! It calls to mind Psalm 139, of course, which says “For you have created my inmost parts, you have knit me together in my mother’s womb.” But I also think of that glorious moment when I’m starting a new project, and I sit with just the yarn and the needles and a pattern. By itself, the yarn isn’t worth much, except as amusement for the neighbor’s cat. But the appeal of knitting is how that plain ball of yarn magically, bit by bit, becomes something beautiful to see and useful to wear. Stitch by stitch, ever so slowly, the garment starts to take shape, until you bind off the yarn and have a scarf, a sweater, a pair of mittens.

When it’s done, most people will then look at the finished product and will see “scarf” or “mitten.” But a knitter will look at someone’s scarf and see 10,000 individual stitches. A knitter knows that each stitch is interwoven and connected to the other, holding together the fabric. Drop one stitch, and things sort of all apart. Cut the thread, and all is unraveled.

On All Saints, we remember all the stitches in the beautiful fabric that is the church. We remember the ones at the beginning, and the ones newly added (like Mark and Susanne Brown’s new granddaughter). We remember those whom we never met (like the saints of old) and the ones we knew well (like our grandparents, parents, and friends.)

On this day, we remember that each of them remains with us—part of the fabric of our lives:

We remember Isaac and Rebecca, Abraham and Sarah.
We remember Mary and Martha, Stephen and all the martyrs.
We remember Luther and Katie and all the Reformers.
I remember my Grandma Goldie, Robert’s dad and brother, and all the saints I have buried in my years as a pastor.

And we remember your beloved saints, each of them, for whom we lit candles this morning. We remember, and we thank God for them. In a few moments, we will come to the table, knowing that soon and very soon, we will all be joined again at the heavenly feast. Until then, we take courage and strength from the witness of their lives. 
Until then, we are nourished by the presence of the risen Christ, in, with and under the bread and the wine.

Until then, we have each other, a community knit together in love, through Christ our Lord.

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