Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, August 31, 2014
12th Sunday after Pentecost

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

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

Tuesday, August 26th was National Dog Day in the United States. I can’t blame you if you missed it, what with all the ice bucket, rice bucket, and rubble bucket challenges in your Facebook feed this past week. And then, later that evening, a truce between Israel and Gaza took effect, thanks be to God! I hesitate to call this current state of being “peace”, but as one Redeemer worshipper said, “No one is actively dying in a bombing today in Gaza, and I’ll take that for now.” Amen!

Clearly, there was a lot going on this week to take your attention away from the veritable Facebook flood of adorable dog photos. I will admit, however, that I noticed them. I noticed because apparently 95% of my friends in the States own dogs (and cameras). I also noticed because I didn’t have a photo of my own to share. You see, one of the consequences of moving here to serve in Jerusalem was that we had to find new homes for the animals in our family.

Charlie the dog, in my former church office
Photo by Carrie Smith
Charlie, our dog, is in a really, really good home. He has three kids to love him, and a little dog friend named Lucy to keep him busy. He lives in our old neighborhood, and gets to walk in his familiar places. I am utterly confident that we made the right choice in not bringing him with us. Still, the day that we dropped Charlie off at his new home was one of the most difficult parts of this move for me. I’m not ashamed to say I shed many tears over it.

As many of you know firsthand, international moving requires much planning and often much sacrifice. At one point in our relocation process, a friend said to me something like “Gee, Carrie…when Jesus said ‘Take up your cross and follow me’, he really meant it, didn’t he?”

At the time, that sentiment felt exactly right. Selling our home and saying goodbye to church and friends and animals felt like a huge burden. But I was remembering this comment as I watched those cute dog pictures flood Facebook this week, showing up right alongside the horrific photos coming out of Gaza. Giving up my dog was really, really difficult. Was it my cross to bear? Hardly.

But we need to be clear about saying that neither is digging out of the rubble of our destroyed home the cross we are to bear. Or learning to live without legs after surviving an air strike. Or enduring a chronic illness. Or being the parent of a child with a disability.

All of these situations are difficult. All of them are examples of real human suffering. But these also are not the cross Jesus asks us to carry.

Illness, pain, grief and war cannot be the crosses Christians are asked to bear, because frankly, I can’t believe in a God who would deal out disease or disability or war from a deck of cards in order to give us the opportunity to learn self-denial or to increase our faith. On the cross, Jesus shows his love for and solidarity with all who suffer. But suffering, in and of itself, is not the cross he asks disciples to take up.

No—rather, “taking up the cross” refers to a conscious decision, as a follower of Jesus Christ, to surrender status, ego, comfort, and even life itself, for the sake of others, and thus for the sake of God’s kingdom.  

I can’t emphasize enough the voluntary nature of cross-bearing. As a pastor, I’ve often heard people describe a medical diagnosis, a job loss, or even a particularly annoying co-worker as “the cross I must bear.” While it might be accurate to describe these situations as burdens, as trials, and even as opportunities for spiritual growth, these are not rightly compared to the cross of discipleship. Again, it gets down to what we believe about the God we serve and the Christ we follow. As Jesus prepared the disciples for the next step on the journey, the entrance into Jerusalem, he told them the truth. He told them that as a result of his radical message of grace, he and any followers would soon face suffering, and public humiliation, and possibly death. He did not say to them: “Andrew, here’s your cross. And Philip, here’s yours. Peter, yours is especially big, because after all, you’re the rock. You can handle it.”

What Jesus did say was, “I’m going to Jerusalem. Things are going to get tough—really tough. I want you to come with me. But if you want to join me, you’re going to have to leave some stuff behind, because what you’ll be carrying is heavy. This will require all of your heart, your mind, and your strength. Even so, do not be afraid, for what you will find in the end is life, and life abundantly.”

Jesus voluntarily took upon his shoulders the cross, the ruling authorities’ ultimate tool of public disgrace and violence, and made it his identifying mark. He transformed the cross from a symbol of death and institutional power into a symbol of life and liberation. His invitation to the disciples, and to us, is to join him in this subversive effort. He asks us to consider: In the context in which I find myself today, where do I see powers and principalities working against God’s kingdom and the Gospel of love? What is the symbol of that domination, and upon whom do I see it inflicted? Once we’ve discovered these answers, we can finally answer the question: What, therefore, is Jesus asking me to take up and carry for the sake of my neighbor?

Electing to take up the cross and follow means choosing an alternate way of being in the world. By choosing the kingdom over comfort, solidarity over status, and the other over the self, we necessarily lose some things—and find others.

One of the things we lose is respectability. I remember having a conversation with church members about whether we would allow same-gender marriages in the building. This was at a time when neither the church nor my country had made any formal decisions on the topic. The church council boldly moved forward in faith, saying they would allow such unions, at the pastor’s discretion. However, just before ending the meeting, someone was sure to say, “Just so long as we don’t fly a rainbow flag over the church, Pastor.”

I had no plans to display anything but a cross over the building, I assure you! But it did make me think: Flying a rainbow flag over the church would certainly have sent a message. It would have branded us as the “gay church.” It would have gotten us talked about, maybe even laughed at. It might have cost us members or money. But then...what do you suppose it was like when Jesus’ followers started wearing the cross after his crucifixion? Crosses weren’t always considered essential pieces of jewelry. They didn’t always adorn the tops of buildings as beacons of respectability and tradition. They were once merely symbols of humiliation, public disgrace, and death—a bit like a rainbow flag, depending on where you live.

Another thing we lose when we take up the cross and follow is the option of remaining invisible. I’ve been thinking about that desire to remain invisible (or at least unnoticed) as I walk through this city as a female clergyperson. One would think, considering the variety of religious attire worn around Jerusalem, that my simple black shirt and white collar could blend in. But female clergy are still uncommon here, and so I’ve been called both “Father” and “Sister”, have been whispered about as I walk by, and have even had someone say to my face, “What ARE you?” I’m not sure where in the world I would necessarily blend in, but oh, it feels good to go home at the end of the day and change into something utterly unremarkable.

(Vicar of Dibley. You should watch it,)

The sight of Jesus, the great healer and teacher, rumored to be King of the Jews, carrying the instrument of his own execution through these same streets of Jerusalem, gathered a curious and mocking crowd. There was no way to make that journey anonymously. In the same way, when we take up the cross and follow, we must be prepared to lose the option of anonymity, invisibility, and conformity. When we name the reality of racism and are ridiculed; or speak and act against the occupation and become targets of retribution; then can we understand the scandal and spectacle of the cross.

“If any want to become my disciples, let them take up their cross and follow me.” The cross was, and is, a heavy burden to carry, and discipleship is costly. But on that walk with Jesus to Golgotha, we may find that with each step, we’re a bit lighter, as we shed the extra baggage of our own self-preservation and self-focus. 

Golgotha today.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith

One step forward: Off falls the worry about what people will think.

Turn the corner: There goes my fear of rejection.

Another few steps forward: Now I’ve lost the anger and hatred I’ve been harboring against my neighbor.

Nearly there now: And oops, there go my concerns about my career and my social standing that have been holding me back from speaking truth to power.

Every step toward peace with justice for the oppressed; every move toward honor and respect for the neighbor; and every day that we choose to take up the cross and follow Jesus, means losing one more piece of the junk that’s been weighing us down, until the cross that at first seemed so heavy and so humiliating to carry becomes part of who we are – Christ followers. Dead to sin, but alive in Christ. Baptized into his death, and now a new creation. Lost, but now found. 

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it. Amen. 

Let us pray:
Look with mercy, gracious God, upon people everywhere who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Rouse us from our complacency and help us eliminate cruelty wherever it is found. Strengthen those who seek equality for all. Grant that everyone may enjoy a fair share of the abundance of the earth; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(ELW p. 79)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, August 24, 2014
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
English-speaking congregation

Pastor Carrie Smith

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

Here again, we have a Gospel text which finds itself in a collision with this week’s news headlines.

In Matthew 16, verse 18, Jesus says, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Jesus says, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Jesus says, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Jesus says, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

And my hairdresser, Samer (a graduate of the ELCJHL’s Martin Luther School) tells me his Orthodox congregation here in Jerusalem is very tiny, and getting smaller all the time. Most of his relatives have left Palestine for the U.S. “It’s too hard to find a future here,” Samer says.

Jesus built his church upon a rock, but the very foundations of that church in the Middle East are being threatened today.

Where I come from, the biggest threats to the Christian church are thought to be Sunday morning soccer, televised American football games scheduled to start before services are over, and dramatically decreasing attention spans for people of all ages. It’s humbling (and terrifying) to read of the treatment of Christians in Iraq and Syria, coming from a context where Christians think they’re being persecuted if a shopkeeper wishes them “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” 

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
Still, Jesus did say, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Sitting here in this beautiful space, surrounded by 12th century stones, it would be easy enough for us to hear these words and say (in spite of the headlines), “That’s right! Jesus built it, and it can never be destroyed!” Just look around this city! Everywhere we see buildings from the 6th, the 5th, the 4th centuries. We can visit (and even touch) stones that could (possibly) have been touched or walked upon by Jesus himself. At the Holy Sepulcher, at St. George’s, at St. Anne’s, or here at Redeemer Church, being in the presence of such ancient stones makes it easy to sing: “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and We Shall Not Be Moved!” Amen!

But then we open the newspaper and read, “Christian presence in the Middle East becoming shadow of its former self”, and it’s hard to feel quite so mighty and invincible.

First, let’s get this straight: I do have faith that the church of Jesus Christ will not be destroyed. I believe the gates of Hades—otherwise known as hatred, violence, evil, and death—will never ultimately prevail against it.  But I think the powers and principalities of this world will give their very best effort.

And it certainly feels like the gates of Hades have opened up on Christians in the Middle East today. This is a real crisis, playing out in real places among real people, and so far, the world is doing little to help. It’s especially disheartening to see how little our institutional churches are saying or doing for their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, in the places where Christianity had its beginnings.

But then, it’s tough to start pointing fingers and complaining about how little “the church” is doing, because we are the church, assembled here today, aren’t we? We are the church, the faithful, gathered as one to pray, to hear the Word, and to share bread and wine. We are the church that Jesus promised to build. We are the church, founded on the rock of faith, against which the gates of Hades will not prevail.

But what can we do, in the face of such threats against our sisters and brothers in Christ? What can this tiny handful of us here at Redeemer—a few expats and a few permanent residents, some of us here for only a few months, and some of us who have already lived through so much—possibly do against the mighty threats facing the church in the Middle East?

I believe the most important thing we can do is exactly what Peter did: Boldly testify, in word and in deed, who we know Jesus to be.

Now, I’m not talking about reciting the historic creeds, and I’m not looking to have us stand on a Jerusalem corner in our white robe and sandals to testify to the crowds (like “Detroit Jesus” who hangs out at the Holy Sepulcher). If we do that, someone might diagnose us with “Jerusalem Syndrome” and take us over to Augusta Victoria for a check-up!

No, what I’m talking about is considering, as a community, how we today answer the question posed to the disciples in today’s Gospel lesson. How are we a living witness to who Jesus is?  

And of course, that must begin with: What is your testimony? Who do you say Jesus is?

Today, at the end of the service, we will bless students and teachers, from preschool age all the way to graduate school. Among the teachers and students who will receive a blessing are our Sunday school teachers and children. Christian education is a vital part of the work that we do, but not because we want to indoctrinate our kids or feed them all the right answers. It’s vital because we need to nurture our children with prayer, and with Bible stories, and with love, so that one day they will be able to offer their own testimony. We want to raise young people who have not only experienced the history of the church here in Jerusalem, but who have also known the love of God in Christ Jesus for themselves, and therefore can proclaim, in word and in deed, “This is who I know Jesus to be!”

So it begins with each Christian, following Peter’s example, answering Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”

“On this rock, I will build my church,” promised Jesus. But Jesus promised to build a church, not a group of individual testifiers, or an association of like-minded people. The church is a community, together testifying to the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ. The church is the center of God’s kingdom on earth, Jesus’ plan for how the missio dei will continue after his ascension. We are, together, one body, the Body of Christ, and a living witness that overcomes the power of death and despair.

Sisters and brothers of Redeemer: United with all believers, we are the church that Jesus built. So, what does our witness as a church tell the world about who Jesus is? What is our witness?

When AugustaVictoria sends doctors and nurses to Gaza, when the Lutheran World Federationsends a team into Iraq--and when we are bold enough to say "We will not forget our brothers and sisters, wherever they are"--we tell the world that Jesus stood in solidarity with all who suffer, when he suffered death on a cross.

When the World Council of Churches sends Ecumenical Accompaniers to be witnesses at checkpoints, we tell the world that Jesus spoke truth to power by challenging the ruling empire.

When the ELCA and ELCJHL provide support for schools for children in the West Bank, we tell the world that Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.”

When we here in Jerusalem build relationships with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, we tell the world that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the great reconciler and healer of the nations.

And when RedeemerLutheran gathers as a community, to pray, to sing, and to share the bread and wine—even (and perhaps especially) in the midst of violence and conflict—we tell the world that Jesus is our morning star, raised from the dead, and alive with us today.

Sisters and brothers, Jesus built his church on a rock, the rock of Peter’s faithful witness. The church continues to stand today, because of the witness of saints of centuries past. It will continue to stand tomorrow, because of your faithful witness. Sin and death will do their best to destroy it, but the church will prevail. These are words of hope, for us, and for all Christians in the Middle East.

Let us pray:
Eternal God, amid all the turmoil and changes of the world your love is steadfast and your strength never fails. In this time of danger and trouble for our sisters and brothers in Christ, be to them, and to us, a sure guardian and rock of defense. Guide leaders of all nations, and of all churches, with your wisdom. Comfort those in distress, and grant us all the courage and hope to face the future, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The things we get used to

Last night was my first experience of a rocket siren in Jerusalem. Having read reports of the breakdown of the Gaza truce talks before bed, I knew exactly what it was when I heard it. We jumped out of bed, rushed downstairs to get the kids, and assembled in our mamad (a bomb shelter with reinforced concrete walls, required in every Israeli apartment built after about 1992—a privilege most of my Palestinian friends do not share). On normal days, our mamad houses our home computer, spare folding chairs, and two hanging racks of clothes. 

Our bomb shelter/office/closet
Photo by Robert Smith

Weird? Yes. But having lived in the U.S.’s tornado alley most of my life, it didn’t feel all that different from the scramble to get underground when the tornado sirens wail. I also found that the things I said to the kids (and the rationale I used to stay calm) weren’t much different, either:

“Guys, it’s probably nothing. Chances are it’s far away from here. Just a precaution. Did you bring a blanket? We’ll be back in bed soon.”

We were indeed back in bed soon (although sleep didn’t come until long after). The rocket landed in an open area of Jerusalem, causing no apparent damage.

Not so lucky were the 11 Gazans killed overnight, including the wife and infant daughter of a Hamas military chief. Also killed were three children (Farah Raafat Alawah, Muyasera Raafat Alawah, and Mustafa Rafat Alawah) when the Israelis struck a refugee camp near Rafah. Their bodies were pulled out from under the rubble around 6:30 a.m.

So, my walk into church this morning took a little longer than usual. I mentioned to one of my colleagues in the office that I had had a hard time sleeping. “Ah,” he chuckled, “You’ll have to get used to these things!”
You’ll have to get used to it. Indeed, while last evening seemed to signal several giant leaps backward on any sort of path toward a peaceful solution in Gaza, this is far from the first time. And this morning the everyday signs of the occupation continue on, almost unnoticed.

In Nablus this morning, four residential structures were demolished. This follows the demolition of 3 homes earlier in the week in a Jerusalem neighborhood (for lack of permits) and the destruction and sealing off of homes in Hebron on the same day. The Hebron homes belonged to family members of those purportedly responsible for the killing of 3 Israeli teens earlier this summer. (American friends, imagine this: Your son/nephew/grandson has committed a heinous crime. And now your home will be destroyed by the government.) 

The Old City of Jerusalem,
normally bustling with tourists,
now often with shops shuttered and quiet.
Photo by Carrie Smith.
You’ll have to get used to it. This morning in the Old City, most shops were still shuttered at 10 a.m. It’s not a holiday, it’s just that there are no tourists. My friend Rami, who runs a jewelry shop in the Christian Quarter, says they are doing only 5% of usual business. The Gaza conflict is keeping everyone away. “We 
cannot save even one shekel.” At the money changer nearby, the owner’s son was providing unplanned help behind the desk. He rents cars at the airport, but the manager told him to stay home. No tourists, no car rentals. (Note to tourists: Shopkeepers who call out to you to see their goods are not being rude—they are working! They’re trying to feed their children, trying to keep the family business open, trying to stay in Jerusalem, the home of their ancestors. So please, stop it with the dismissive looks and nasty words.)

You’ll have to get used to it. The other day, I was lamenting to a Palestinian friend how my country, and my president, have been unable (or unwilling) to do anything to positively affect the situation here. His response was, “Look—we are resisting occupation. And yes, we need the help of the world to do it. But you, too, are occupied. You are occupied mentally. You are occupied by the media and by economic interests. 
This occupation is even harder to resist.”

I’ve been thinking about my friend Ali’s words as I’ve been studying the lectionary texts for this week, especially the second reading, from Romans chapter 12:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, 
to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, 
which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, 
but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, 
so that you may discern what is the will of God—
what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The separation wall and sniper tower in Bethlehem
Photo by Carrie Smith

“You’ll have to get used it.”
“You, too, are occupied.”
 “Do not be conformed to this world.”  

The Apostle Paul seems to be crying out: “DON’T get used to it! Do not be conformed! Resist!”

Paul appeals to us as believers to resist the pull of conformity, the allure of empire, and our nearly irresistible addiction to power and privilege and the status quo. As followers of Christ, we are to resist occupation (by anyone or anything) and instead be transformed by the “renewing of our minds”—a transformation and renewal which happens through prayer, through Scripture, and especially through offering our entire bodies in worship and in service to God.

So today, as tired as my body is, I’m contemplating how my whole transformed, non-conforming self refuses to get used to these things:

·         Dead children pulled out of rubble
·         Checkpoints, walls, and sniper towers

·         Illegal occupation
·         Rocket sirens in Israel, “warning knocks” in Gaza, and “live shooter drills” in U.S. schools
·         Tear gas used on unarmed citizens (in Palestine or in Ferguson, Missouri)
·         Boys being taught special strategies to stay alive, based on the color of their skin (In Palestine, or in Ferguson, Missouri)

What occupies you? What are you resisting? 
How is your whole body offered as a “living sacrifice” and in “spiritual worship”? 

Schoolchildren marching in support of Palestine,
near the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
August 20, 2014
Photo by Carrie Smith

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, August 17, 2014

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

One of the ways I was involved in my suburban Chicago community was serving as an appointed member of the county’s mental health board. This board had the task of distributing about $12 million dollars of annual tax revenue to meet the needs of citizens with mental illness, addiction, or developmental disabilities. When I was nominated, I frankly thought it would be a good thing to add to my resume, and might be a way to learn about the community in which I lived. Within a month, I was vice president. And three months after that, the president suddenly resigned, making me acting president. (Here’s a tip—beware of people who convince you to take the vice-presidential spot because it’s the “easiest job!” and “You hardly ever have to do anything!”)

So I arrived at one of my first meetings as the new Acting President of the Board to see about 100 people gathered in the conference room.  They were all seated together, some with children and teenagers next to them. And they all looked angry.

I called the meeting to order a little nervously, and asked, as usual, for public comment. Thus began a stream of angry citizens coming to the microphone, one by one, each one angrier than the next. Some read prepared letters. Some were crying. Some were accompanied by their children. Emotions were so high that I had a hard time understanding what they were saying or just what the situation was. Looking around at my fellow board members, they appeared just as befuddled.

Finally, I was able to stop the next person at the mic and ask: “Can you explain for me, clearly, what your concerns are?”

And so she explained: Without warning, the monthly county epilepsy clinic had been cancelled, leaving all of these families without vital treatment for their epileptic children. The rumor was that we, the McHenry County Mental Health Board, had cut funding and were refusing to pay the epilepsy doctor.

And then I understood: These parents were fighting for their children. Suddenly, the letters and tears and emotional stories made sense. These mothers and fathers were demanding to be heard, refusing to back down, and it was clear they would populate the public comment microphone until they got an answer—and treatment—for their children.

Well, the good news was that I (and the mental health board) had nothing to do with the closing of the epilepsy clinic. The even better news was that we, as the Board, did have the power to help solve the issue and reinstate services to these parents and their children.

The details of that difficult meeting and the negotiations afterward are now lost to memory. But what has stuck with me are the faces and voices of those parents at the microphone. Out of love for their children, and in desperation to help them, these mothers and fathers were insistent, audacious, and in-your-face—much like the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel text.

The Gospel tells us the Canaanite woman’s daughter was tormented by a demon. It’s unclear what that meant in 1st Century Palestine. What we today call epilepsy, autism, bipolar disorder, or addiction, may have been attributed in that context to demon possession. As in other biblical accounts of miraculous healings, we don’t know what the ailment really was. But what we do know is that this mother was insistent, audacious, and in-Jesus’-face, because she was desperate to have her daughter healed.
This is, in the end, a healing story. But it’s not a simple one! Hear again verses 22 and 23:

Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting,
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But he did not answer her at all.

This mother called out in her great need, and Jesus did not answer her at all. Unfortunately, I heard this story often from that public comment microphone: There’s a three month wait for an appointment with a psychiatrist. There’s no in-patient mental health facility for children in the entire county. The closest bed in a rehab center is 3 hours away. The insurance company refuses to pay for a new wheelchair. Services for children with autism end when the child turns 22.

In the Gospel text for today, this was the Canaanite woman’s chance for public comment, and she didn’t need a microphone. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!” She shouted at Jesus, to the point where his disciples had to say, “Seriously, Jesus, send her away, because she’s getting on our nerves!”

Jesus hasn’t responded, and his disciples are busy trying to ignore her. So why doesn’t she walk away? Why doesn’t she just turn around and go home? What makes her stay, and persist, and even argue with Jesus until he changes his mind?  

In a word: LOVE. 
Jesus and the Canaanite Woman
by Sadao Watanabe

Love for her daughter is what drives the Canaanite woman. Love, and an unwavering belief that there must be an answer. There must be healing. There must be room for her daughter within the arms of Jesus’ grace and mercy.

And, finally, Jesus does respond. First, with words we can hardly imagine coming out of Jesus’ mouth: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” And then, with words of grace and mercy we expect: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

And her daughter was healed instantly.

The Canaanite woman’s faith was so great that she pursued healing even when Jesus seemed reluctant to give it. A change happened—some would say it was a change in Jesus’ heart, some say it was a change in his mission—but the most important change happened for the girl, who was freed from the demons that had tormented her.

It’s all too easy to recognize the Canaanite woman in our midst today. Who is it who reaches out and demands our attention? Who is it who shouts out to the world, “I am here! See me! Hear me! Have mercy!”

In my home country this week, it is the young black men of Ferguson, Missouri (and across the nation) who are shouting: “Please don’t shoot!”

In every country, people with depression, addiction, and other mental health struggles are pleading to be seen, and heard, and shown mercy (as well as proper treatment and care.)

And here in our context, it is the people of Gaza (and the West Bank, and East Jerusalem) who are calling out to those in power to stop the bombing, stop the killing, and finally stop the occupation.

Will their cries be ignored? Will they receive a few crumbs from the table? Or will they, too, finally receive not just acknowledgement, but healing and mercy and a place at the table?

Today’s Gospel lesson, then, in which the persistent faith of the Canaanite woman convinced Jesus to heal her daughter, can inspire us to be open to those whose stories would change our hearts, our minds, and even our mission.

But I want you to consider something else, before we wrap up this confusing healing story too neatly in a package and go home.

First: If, when reading a biblical text, I find myself too easily identifying with the role of Jesus in the story, it’s a good idea to go back and start again.

And second: If the only thing I’ve heard in a Gospel text is a lesson on how to change my behavior, then I haven’t really heard the Good News.

So consider this for a moment: A fellow pastor recently wrote on this text, wondering if the Canaanite woman, bold enough to challenge Jesus, could be a little like God.

Which made me think: If she’s God, then perhaps we’re not Jesus, but rather the daughter.

Perhaps we are the demon-tormented daughters. After all, we are in desperate need of healing—from illness, from despair, from pride, from unchecked privilege, from sin of every kind.

Read in this way, the Canaanite woman becomes our loving parent, audaciously and persistently speaking out on our behalf, breaking down barriers, making a place even for us in the community, and at the table, and within the reach of Jesus’ healing touch.

This is the voice of God the Creator, opening Jesus’ own eyes and heart, and expanding his understanding of his mission and ministry.

How do you hear the Good News in this healing story today? Are you the one whose heart has been opened by the cry of the Canaanite woman? Have you been the parent at the microphone, whose great faith and great love will not be deterred? Or are you the one in need of healing, wondering if Jesus’ reach extends even to you?

Wherever you find yourself in this story today, hear again the Good News: God’s great love for the world is audacious, persistent, and big enough for all.  Grace and mercy, healing and wholeness are yours today, through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

August 14, 2014: Mary, Mother of Our Lord

August 14, 2014: Mary, Mother of Our Lord

46And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

(Luke 1:46-55, NRSV)

On my first trip to the Holy Land three years ago, we arrived in Tel Aviv, drove through Jerusalem, and then on to Bethlehem, where our theological conference was to take place. After dropping off our bags at the Lutheran guest house, my spouse asked: “OK, what do you want to see first?” I didn’t even have to think about it. “The Milk Grotto”, was my instant reply.

Sure, we were in the village of Jesus’ birth. And yes, I wanted to see Manger Square and join the centuries of pilgrims who have visited the spot in the basement of the Church of the Nativity where Jesus is said to have been born.

But I had heard of another place, around the corner and down a side street from the Nativity Church, where both Christians and Muslims pray. It’s called the Milk Grotto. The story goes that this is the spot where Mary and Joseph and little Jesus rested as they were fleeing to Egypt. They stopped so Mary could nurse Jesus, and in doing so, a drop of the milk spilled on the ground, turning the stone of the cave a milky white.

It’s still one of my favorite places, partly because of its quiet and peace in the midst of the touring crowds. (Actually, both Bethlehem and Jerusalem could use more of those crowds of tourists these days…)

I also love to visit the Milk Grotto because I have a special devotion to Mary, Mother of Our Lord. It’s sad to think that this can be a controversial statement to make as a Lutheran Christian! Never mind the fact that Martin Luther himself had a devotion to Mary. I keep hearing the voice of my grandmother in my head, who had been taught that saints, icons, and “that Mary stuff” was “too Catholic”. Of course, we heard about Mary during Advent, and even saw her on Christmas Eve (and perhaps on Good Friday, at the foot of the cross), but at other times she was a minor character in a show whose beginning, middle, and end was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Don’t get me wrong—I love Jesus! The love he showed for the world on the cross is why I am not shy about calling him Lord and Savior.
A pilgrim contemplating an image of Mary and Jesus,
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith

But I can also be inspired by the life of this young woman, who said “yes” to God when many others would say “no way.” My heart can be opened to have compassion for immigrants and non-traditional families when I remember Mary and Joseph, traveling to Bethlehem and finding no room in the inn. Human bodies become holy temples when I contemplate how a young woman was the one God chose to be Theotokos, the “God-bearer” (and, by the way, the “Christ-nurser”!) And I can find strength to face whatever comes, when I see Mary at the foot of the cross, facing the most unimaginable pain, the loss of her child.

Above all, it is the Magnificat, Mary’s powerful, prophetic song in Luke chapter 1, which inspires and activates my faith. She sings of a God of both might and mercy, who practices a preferential option for the poor, the voiceless, and the forgotten of the world. This is the God I know, too. And this is the kind of world-changing love we have seen in the cross of Christ.

Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Almighty God, in choosing the virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son, you made known your gracious regard for the poor, the lowly, and the despised. Grant us grace to receive your word in humility, and so to be made one with your Son, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

(Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Prayer of the Day for August 14, 2014)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sermon on Psalm 85 for Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, August 10, 2014
The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

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

I don’t mind telling you that I was unreasonably excited to see such a colorful and familiar Gospel text on the lectionary calendar for this, my first Sunday with you as pastor. What’s not to like about Matthew chapter 14, after all? Here we have Jesus on the mountain, praying by himself while the disciples’ boat is being tossed about in the storm; and then there’s Jesus walking on water; not to mention Peter’s disturbing lack of faith and that dramatic moment when Jesus lifts him out of the sea to save him from drowning. These are rich images, full of possibility for preaching! Potential homerun material, in fact, just perfect for a first sermon in a new congregation.  

However, in spite of the richness of this familiar Matthew text, it’s the psalm which has grabbed my attention and my imagination this week. Hear again the appointed verses from Psalm 85, beginning with verse 8:

8Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
9Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
10Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
12The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
13Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

“God will speak peace to his people.”

The psalmist proclaims this so confidently! “Of course, peace is coming”, he seems to be saying. I’ve been in Jerusalem just six short days, but it doesn’t take long in this place to realize the word “peace” cannot and should not be thrown around casually. I would guess that many of you, when you moved here, heard a version of one of these phrases from friends or family:

“That’s great that you’re going over there, you can bring peace to the Middle East.”

Or…“We just need to pray for peace in our hearts first.”

Or…“You know, peace will come only when Jesus comes back”

Or, my personal favorite, a Facebook gem shared with me just the other day:

“I just think the Muslims and the Jews should sit down and talk it out in a Christian way.”

Of course, everyone wants peace—for Jerusalem, for Palestine, for Israel, for the entire region. But for whom? On whose terms? And at what cost? And what about justice?

Peace is no simple matter.

Still, the psalmist insists, with confidence: “God will speak peace to God’s people.” It may help to remember that this psalm is a song sung from the other side, post-exile, from a place and time where peace now reigns, but the memory of struggle and oppression remains. The psalmist is confident that peace will come because, for him and his community, it already has.
However, for those of us today who are living in this particular place and in the midst of this nasty conflict, these words may seem a hollow promise, or at best a rosy-eyed vision of the future. Like me, you may be more drawn to the first seven verses of this psalm (which the lectionary compilers conveniently left out for today).

Verses 1-7 of psalm 85 read like this:

1Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
2You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin. Selah
3You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.
4Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.
5Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
6Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?
7Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.

Here, now, are words with which we may more easily identify! Where the final verses of this psalm are sung in thanksgiving for a peace already won, these first seven verses could be written from the middle of the struggle. These are the words of the father in Gaza, surveying his family’s destroyed house and neighborhood. These are the words of the Christian refugees, streaming out of Iraq. These are the words of the parents watching their children wracked by the Ebola virus.

The psalmist cries out with them (and with us), reminding God of God’s own identity and nature and history: 

“Hey, God! Don’t you remember? You saved us! Don’t you remember, God? You’re the one who’s slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! Don’t you remember? You helped us before. You forgave us before.

How long can this go on? Surely, 30 days in Gaza is enough; surely 60 years of occupation is enough; surely 400 lost children are enough…show us your love, your salvation, your peace…”

Psalm 85, then, is a song of both praise and lament, of both thanksgiving and of pleading. In this way, the entirety of Psalm 85 very well captures the both/and, now and not yet situation in which we as Christians in Jerusalem find ourselves today. We of this congregation are here largely by choice, many of us precisely because of the presence of this enduring conflict. And, at the same time, we live in confident hope that peace will indeed reign, in this land and in the world, through the love of God we have seen in Christ Jesus. We share this hope because each of us, like Peter, has been lifted out of the water and given new life, and peace with God, through baptism into Christ.

Therefore, this morning we confidently sing with the psalmist: “God will speak peace to God’s people—righteousness and peace will kiss each other!”

And the peace for which we pray and trust hope? It’s not just a wish for a less awful tomorrow (I’m pretty sure the politicians have that covered.)

When we gather to pray for peace (as we did on Friday evening), we pray, with confidence and with a living hope, for the peace that only God can give.

We pray not just for the absence of rockets, but for the presence of gardens and trees, schools repaired, and houses rebuilt.

We pray not just for checkpoints opened, but for doors of opportunity flung open wide.

We pray not just for a fragile truce or a momentary ceasefire, but for families reunited, neighbors reconciled, and a fractured land healed.

We pray—and we trust—that God will speak peace to all of God’s people. Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

But trusting God is hard. Having faith when you’re in the middle of a storm—or the middle of the sea—is hard work. Just ask Peter!

Like Peter, we don’t know exactly how we’re getting to the other side, or how we will withstand the storm. All we know is that God has called us here. Like Peter, we only know that Jesus has asked us to get out of the boat and to follow.

And thanks be to God, when we need courage for the walk, Jesus invites us not only to step out of the boat, but to step up to the table. Jesus invites us to the place where steadfast love and faithfulness do meet, where righteousness and peace do kiss each other. The presence of Christ in the bread and the wine, broken and shared here—and in Ramallah, in Gaza City, in Crystal Lake, Illinois, and in your home countries and home churches far away—gives us the strength and confidence to remain on the path to peace. Come, one and all, and receive the One in whose name we gather, our Lord Jesus Christ, prince of peace. Amen.  

Jerusalem evening, Saturday, August 9, 2014. Photo by Carrie Smith.