Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, 28 September 2014

Sermon for Sunday, 28 September 2014
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
English-speaking congregation

Pastor Carrie Smith

16th Sunday after Pentecost
Conclusion of the World Week for Peace

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

This morning, at the conclusion of the World Council of Church’s Week of Prayer for Peace, we encounter Jesus being a disturber of the peace. At the beginning of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus enters the temple to preach and teach, where he was immediately challenged by the chief priests and elders. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they demanded. In other words: “Who do you think you are?”

A view of the temple mount area today
Photo by Carrie Smith
This may seem a swift and harsh rebuff, but to be fair, this wasn’t the first thing Jesus had done to earn the attention of the temple authorities. The day before, Jesus had entered Jerusalem with a fanfare usually afforded only to kings, including a noisy crowd going before him and behind him, shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!”

Once inside the city, Jesus entered the temple and drove out the merchants, turned over the tables of the moneychangers, and generally disrupted what was considered business as usual. And there again, he was met with public admirers, this time children crying out to him (inside the temple, no less!): “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Having caused enough trouble for one day, Jesus spent the night outside the city, in Bethany. But the next morning, upon returning to Jerusalem, he created more drama when he publicly cursed and withered a fig tree…for not providing him breakfast. In the presence of his astonished disciples he scolded the tree for its behavior: “You say you’re a fig tree—so show me! Give me some figs! If you aren’t going to grow figs, then don’t hang around promising you can feed people.” And just like that, the fig tree was no more.

I imagine the news of that little breakfast show spread through the Jerusalem streets faster than you could say “hummus and falafel.”

So by the time Jesus reached the temple to teach on his second day here in the city, he had drawn not only the attention but also the ire of the chief priests and elders. They didn’t quite know what to do with this visitor who seemed to claim authority even over fig trees, but they definitely wanted him gone. So they tried to trip him up with a question: “By whose authority are you doing these things?” In other words: We don’t want to deal with what you’re actually saying and doing, so please say something that shuts this whole thing down. Something like, you know, “I’m the Son of God!” Because then we can write you off as crazy and idolatrous, run you out of town, and move on.

The adoring crowds, the rebuke of the moneychangers, and the cursing of the fig tree all led up to this moment in the temple, in which Jesus and the chief priests faced off regarding who possesses the authority to preach, and teach, and act in God’s name. Many scholars believe this authority issue to be the tipping point, which guarantees Jesus’ journey will end at the cross.

We’re no strangers to authority issues ourselves, of course. Last Sunday, our church communications director posted a photo on Facebook, showing the Bishop and other church elders laying on hands to pray for me during my installation service. Almost immediately, a man from Germany posted a comment to the ELCJHLFacebook page:

“There’s only one word for this: heresy!”

I had to look at it a few times to realize what he meant, but it was pretty clear: He is opposed to the ordination of women.

He’s entitled to his opinion, of course, but this seemed like a nasty little jab on an otherwise lovely day, so my dear spouse deleted the comment.

A few moments later, the guy was back again, writing:

“This is heresy, even if you don’t want to hear it!”

This time, our communications coordinator, Danae, deleted his comment.

But, again, for the third time in less than five minutes, the same man posted, “Apostasy from the una sancta!” (Translation: By installing a woman as pastor, Redeemer and the ELCJHL have strayed from the one holy catholic and apostolic church.)

This entire online interaction was hilarious, if you think about it. Accusing Lutherans of heresy and bucking church authority, 497 years after Luther’s posting of the 95 theses in Wittenberg, is a little like organizing a protest against the planned placement of the pyramids in Giza. It’s a little late for that. The cat’s already out of the bag. Yep, we’re heretics! We teach the priesthood of all believers, grace through faith apart from works, sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, and yes, for many Lutherans, women’s ordination. Ecclesia semper reformanda est. Here I stand, I can do no other!

Our Facebook friend was concerned with the same authority issues that brought Jesus and the chief priests face to face in the temple: Who gives you the authority to do these things, especially in the name of God? By whose authority does this woman call herself a pastor? By whose authority does this gathering of people call itself a church? By whose authority do we preach grace, share bread, and pray for the sick? By whose authority do any of us speak against injustice or advocate for change?

These are questions we might well consider at the conclusion of this World Week of Prayerfor Peace in Palestine and Israel. Last Saturday, clergy and representatives of churches gathered under the shadow of the wall in Bethlehem. Because the focus this year was on political prisoners, we heard from parents of those currently imprisoned, from those recently freed, from church leaders, and from local children. We prayed for freedom, for justice, and for peace. And all the while, the wall loomed before us, an unavoidable symbol of years of conflict, years of separation, years of pain on both sides, silently posing the same question we heard in the Gospel lesson today: “By whose authority do you do these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Who do we think we are, to pray for peace, to speak for justice, and to hope for a better future for Palestinians and Israelis together?

The answer should be a simple one: We are Christians, called to be the Body of Christ in the world. We pray and hope and work and advocate and keep the faith because we believe good has authority over evil, love has authority over hate, light has authority over darkness, and life has authority over death.

But it isn’t always that simple, is it? Wherever the Gospel of love is preached, powers and principalities will challenge it mightily. And whenever we’re questioned about the source of our authority to pray, to preach, or to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, it can be tempting to try and justify ourselves. We may want to drop names, pull out our resumes, or call upon external power structures to provide backing for our actions.

But notice that in the Gospel lesson for today, when challenged as to the source of his authority, Jesus did not call upon his knowledge of the prophets. He didn’t list the signs, wonders, and miracles he had performed over the last three years of his ministry. He didn’t point to the large crowds who welcomed him or the faithful disciples who followed him into town.

Instead, standing firm, he submitted to his opponents another challenge. Jesus’ question to the elders, and their response to it, revealed that in spite of their righteous indignation, their fear of public opinion held more authority over them than God. In typical Jesus fashion, he turned the tables on them: Who were they, to question him?

The truth is, we’re all a bit like those elders in the temple that day. We’re all more like the second son than the first in Jesus’ parable, confessing faith in God with our mouths but giving authority to other influences when it comes to actually living out that faith. At one time or another, we’ve all been like strict vegetarians…who also happen to eat cheeseburgers.

So our authority to pray, to speak, or to act in the name of Christ never comes from our own righteousness. We never seek validation from exit polls or election results; from perfect theology or a fat bank account; from great armies or hordes of admirers; for we will always be hypocrites, both saint and sinner, simul justus et peccatur. Our permission to act as the Body of Christ in the world can only ever come from our identity as children of God, baptized into Christ’s death and raised with him to new life.

Which, in fact, gets to God’s Good News for us today, which is this: The only authority issue that matters for us is Christ’s authority over sin and death. For we belong to Christ, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

The cross of Christ reveals once and for all that true authority comes from vulnerability and care for the other. The cross alone is what authorizes us to gather for prayer, work for peace, and hope for a better future.  Jesus Christ’s great act of self-emptying love is the source of our strength and the wellspring of our hope. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:
O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(ELW page 76)

Monday, September 22, 2014

For you I wait all the day long...

On Saturday evening, I gathered with other clergy and representatives of churches in Bethlehem, in the shadow of the wall separating Israel from the West Bank.

We were there for the official start of the World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel, an initiative of the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum of the World Council of Churches. The theme for this year’s World Week of Peace is “Let My People Go”, focusing on the prisoners of the ongoing conflict between Palestine and Israel.

I’ve sat with only a few prisoners in my work as pastor. The most memorable was a church member held on murder charges for the death of his mother. Dave sat in a small county jail for more than three years waiting for trial. Because the jail was designed for short-term holding, therefore lacking proper outdoor facilities for exercise, my parishioner didn’t see the light of day or breathe fresh air for the entire 3.5 years. After his conviction, in spite of our church’s request that his mental health and complete lack of previous violent history be taken into consideration, he was committed to a high security prison. He was nearly beaten to death by his roommate a few months later.

The experience of walking with this church member through the U.S. justice system opened my eyes to the inhumane treatment of prisoners. My eyes were opened again on Saturday, as I heard the devastating stories of just a few of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners currently held in Israeli prisons. I was lucky enough to be sitting next to my friend Muna (co-moderator of PIEF, the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum) who translated some of the speeches for me.

First, some facts and figures (from the World Council of Churches publication, “PalestinianPrisoners: A Question of Conscience”, 2014):

* 750,000 Palestinians arrested since 1967

* 50,000 arrested since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada

* 2,000 cases of torture in 2008 alone

* More than 600 complaints of torture and ill-treatment 
submitted against ISA interrogators since 2001

*Not one criminal investigation initiated

* Between March 2002 and October 2002,
 15,000 Palestinians arrested in mass arrest campaigns

These numbers are hard to comprehend. But faces help—just as getting to know Dave put a face on the word “prisoner” for me years ago.

This man was in prison for 30 years for “resisting the occupation.” He mentioned that there were 6 other former prisoners with us that night, and between them they had served more than 140 years behind bars.

This woman’s son (who grew up with my friend Muna in Jerusalem), is serving 3 consecutive life sentences for “resistance.” He didn’t kill anyone. He didn’t bomb anything. He resisted an illegal occupation—and he will sit in prison for the rest of his life. 

These children are growing up in prison—the virtual prison created by the wall behind them. They live with constant surveillance, inadequate education, checkpoints, and restricted travel. They cannot travel to Jerusalem (about 4 miles away) without a special permit, rarely granted. For Palestinian Christians, this means they cannot attend services at the Holy Sepulcher on Easter, for example. Ironic, to be growing up in the village where Jesus was born, but not be allowed to see the place where he died and was raised, just down the road. (This reality reminds me of the kids I met on Chicago’s south side, who had never visited one of Chicago’s renowned museums, seen “the Bean” or the Sears Tower, or been to Navy Pier. They might as well have grown up in another world.)

The song these children of Palestine are singing talks about a bird, and how lucky it is to be able to fly freely over the wall…..because all they want to do is fly.

It’s amazing how the Scriptures speak to me in such different ways while living in this context. For example, as a preacher in Chicagoland, there were weeks when I hardly gave the psalm a second read. After all, the poor psalm is the first to get cut from the liturgy when there’s a baptism (or a blessing, or a Scout recognition, or a long Hymn of the Day, or a football game starting at noon). But these days, the psalms often speak to me more clearly than the other appointed texts.

Here’s the text for this week, Psalm 25, verses 1-9:

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
   do not let me be put to shame;
   do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
   let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
   teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
   for you are the God of my salvation;
   for you I wait all day long.

Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
   for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
   according to your steadfast love remember me,
   for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

Good and upright is the Lord;
   therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
   and teaches the humble his way.

Sitting in the shadow of the wall, this psalm sounds familiar. This sounds like the song of the political prisoner who longs for justice and freedom. This is the song of a mother, searching her heart for what she did wrong that her son would be forever incarcerated. This is the song of children, never seen as full of potential, but only as potential terrorists. This is the song of a people who have been waiting “all day long” for things to change--to live free from shame, free from oppression, free from the walls that surround them--and who, in spite of it all, still put their trust in God.

What can you do for Palestinian prisoners? You can learn more about the conflict than you hear on the nightly news. You can call your elected officials and ask that your tax dollars not be spent to fund the occupation. You can come to visit the Holy Land, to see for yourselves. And you can pray--especially this week, September 21-27, the World Week for Peace.

Here’s a good list of resources to begin: Resources  

And here is a prayer, from the leaders of the Jerusalem churches:

 Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies. Hebrews 13:3
With these words we pray together for those who are in prison all over the world, those easily forgotten. We pray especially for the political prisoners of Palestine and Israel. We pray for the sick among them and those who cannot handle the hardship of a prison cell, for the children and women who are mistreated behind bars. We also remember those left behind, the families who are bereaved as their beloved ones are sent to prison. We pray for inner transformation for those who committed crimes, and in need of conversion. We pray for hearts and minds that are haunted by hatred and fear, that we will soon find peace and reconciliation in souls and in the societies.
This region aches with so much troubles of the body and soul, both presently and in history. In Palestine and Israel today many lack freedom and too many are behind bars. For too long injustice, violence and fear have shaped this region. We pray and ask for human treatment and justice for all, as we are all children of God.
At last we pray for a just peace settlement and reconciliation, a peace where there will be no more political prisoners behind bars and where harmony will prevail in the hearts of all the peoples of this region. We pray for God’s mercy, for freedom for those in shackles and for peace in our time.
As we observe this week with our brothers and sisters from churches all over the world we pray:
Do not hold against us the sins of past generations;may your mercy come quickly to meet us,
for we are in desperate need.
Help us, God our Savior,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us and forgive our sins
for your name’s sake.
Why should the nations say,
Where is their God?”
Before our eyes, make known among the nations
that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants.
May the groans of the prisoners come before you;
with your strong arm preserve those condemned to die.
Psalm 79, 8-11
Palestinian church leaders in Jerusalem share this prayer with their brothers and sisters for World Week for Peace in Palestine Israel 2014. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, 7 September 2014

Sermon for Sunday, 7 September 2014
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
13th Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

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

On Thursday evening, a number of Redeemer community members gathered on a hill near Bethlehem, at a reception for the new rector of Tantur Ecumenical Institute, Father Russ. It was my first time at Tantur, and what struck me immediately was the incredible religious diversity in the room, especially Christian diversity. There were Jews and Muslims present (and perhaps representatives of other faiths) but the majority of those in attendance were Christians of various creeds and cultures.  Several times throughout the evening, I found myself standing in a circle of people who could only have been assembled for the beginning of a not-so-funny joke:

Two Lutherans, a Mennonite, and an Anglican are eating empanadas and sushi, when a Catholic priest walks up and…


An Orthodox patriarch, a theology professor and a Nazarene pastor gather at the dessert table when suddenly…

I even had one of those awkward moments, mentioned in a previous sermon, in which a Catholic sister walked straight up to me, pointed at my clergy collar, and said, “So…what are you?”

(In this case, the conversation ended with a big smile and an invitation to visit CaritasBaby Hospital in Bethlehem. All’s well that ends well!)

It was indeed an impressive collection of people, something of which Fr. Russ can be proud as he begins his ministry in Jerusalem. But of course, as lovely as diversity can be, it’s never without its challenges. Just underneath all the collegiality and friendly talk, and hiding behind the drinks and appetizers, lurks the reality that our theological, cultural, and political differences all too often come between us as people of faith. In his opening remarks, Fr. Russ reflected on his own history of believing that his church possessed the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He also shared this poem, by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, called “From the Place Where We Are Right”:

From the Place Where We Are Right
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood

The image the poet paints—of the hard place where our need to be right means nothing else can grow—is one we can recognize all around us. We can easily cite examples of how being “right” in this context has resulted not only in the lack of flourishing and growth, but the loss of life itself. We can point to politicians and heads of state, to religious groups and others in power, calling them out for refusing to hear another perspective, refusing to show mercy, and therefore refusing to allow even a glimmer of hope to grow.

This city, and this land, is full of hard and stony places where the desire to be right supersedes the desire to be a community.

But then, pointing fingers at political or interfaith conflict allows us to ignore how the very same sins appear within the Christian community.

Case in point: The Holy Sepulcher.

It was almost comical—and a bit sad—to sit in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to pray and meditate on this week’s Gospel text. There I was, sitting just outside the tomb, the place where Jesus’ body was laid to rest, where he was raised, and where the first faithful saw him alive after the resurrection. This, of all places, could be the glue that holds all Christians together. This, of all places, could be the sacred ground where differences fade away, and we come together to proclaim the mystery of faith in a unified voice: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” 

Ah, but you know the truth! The truth is that inside the walls of the holiest site in

Christendom plays out a centuries-long drama. Holy men of various holy orders work tirelessly to retain possession of each holy corner. In fact, the most infamous sign of this age-old conflict is outside the church, leaning up against the stone walls—the ladder to the Armenian coffee room, which has been in place since at least 1757, and will remain until such time as all five church bodies can agree. I’m not holding my breath.

Clearly, the Bible is not a foolproof handbook for community life, and Christians do not always get it right. Priests and patriarchs argue over control of holy sites. Churches close rather than open their doors to a changing neighborhood. Clergy abuse of power happens, in congregations of every size. Congregations split over issues as big as homosexuality and as small as Sunday service times or the color of the carpet. In spite of the checklist Jesus offers his disciples in Matthew chapter 18, the reality is that the Body of Christ is not always a healthy body.

And all of this happens in spite of the fact that these six verses from Matthew chapter 18 are frequently lifted up as the definitive guide for creating church constitutions or forming new ministries. To be fair: it’s not a bad place to start! Did someone hurt you? Talk to them directly (no triangles or talking behind peoples’ backs). Is there still a problem? Include a few trusted people in the conversation, to get a different perspective on the issue. Is there still no resolution? Gather the wisdom of the entire community. If, after all this, there is still a conflict, then let it go.

Direct communication, seeking wise counsel, and gathering the support of the community: This is not only good advice, but a godly practice! Dealing with conflict in the Matthew 18 way is about intentionally seeing the image of God in the other, and diligently seeking reconciliation rather than retribution.

What gets us in trouble, though, is verse 17:

An art installation by a student at Dar Al-Kalima University
College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem,
representing the fragmenting of her community
Jesus said: “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” 

Never mind that Jesus himself had a habit of eating with tax collectors and making friends with Gentiles! Sadly, this verse has been used to justify the casting out of church members with different political views, unmarried pregnant women, divorced people, and gay children. It’s been used by church bodies to insist on their absolute possession of truth, and therefore the rights to property, people, power, and the claim to theological purity.

But when the words of God start to be used to cast out rather than to cast nets, then we have to ask ourselves “Is this what Jesus intended?” As the writer Anne Lamott wrote, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

It may be helpful if we notice that these six verses are part of a sermon prompted by one simple question. At the beginning of chapter 18, the disciples ask Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Who is the greatest? Jesus responds to this question by inviting a child to stand in the midst of them, saying, “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” And then the sermon continues with the teaching on how to avoid temptation, the parable of the lost sheep, and this passage about dealing with conflict. Each of these teachings emphasizes humility and confession. Each of these teachings emphasizes care and concern for the other. And each teaching is given in answer to the question: “Who is the greatest? Who is right?”

Who is right? This is the question that keeps ladders leaning on buildings for centuries. This is the question that keeps people from apologizing and destroys friendships. This is the question that has created the multitude of Christian denominations represented in our pews today!

And this is the question that grieves God’s heart. For if we read just a bit further in Matthew chapter 18—past the checklist for dealing with conflict, past verse 17 and its seeming endorsement of excommunication—then we get to these words from Jesus:

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Wherever believers gather in his name, Jesus is there, too. Being the greatest, being right, being pure, or being in full agreement are never to be the center of the church. Wherever the faithful gather, Jesus is among them. This is the Good News we cling to, when our differences threaten to divide us. This is the Good News we need, when our need to be right becomes more important than our need to be a community. It is Christ alone who makes this fragile communion called “the church” possible!

Redeemer Lutheran is a wonderful example of this truth. We can’t even pretend we are a community based on anything but Christ! We do not make jokes about Jello or coffee or the green hymnal. We don’t know or enjoy the same hymns. We worship in English, but our hearts pray in many different languages. We come with varying denominational commitments (or none at all). We are baptized as infants, as children, and as adults. And we come to the table for the first time as infants, and as children, and as adults!

With so many differences—differences that have given birth to entirely new denominations—one might wonder how Redeemer has managed to exist. But when we gather on Sunday morning, or Wednesday evening, in Jesus’ name, we know that he is here, too.   Christ in, with, and among us, makes us a community. As the American Catholic activist Dorothy Day said, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
In Christ, we are a community. What a gift! And yes, what a challenge.

We won’t always get it right. We won’t always agree. We will even hurt each other. But we trust in the sure and certain promises of Jesus Christ, who said “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We give thanks for his presence among us, and pray that we can continue to be a place where, in spite of our differences, all can flourish and grow through the love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Bells of (Sleeping) Mary

Today was a great example of how an average morning in Jerusalem can quickly transform into a learning opportunity (and spiritual experience!)

I was up at 6 a.m. with the kids as usual, but even after two cups of coffee was lamenting that I had work to do in the church office today. (You know it's Friday when you think, at 8:30 a.m., "I need a nap!") Finally, about 9 a.m., Robert and I started to make our way into the Old City.

We made it through Damascus Gate, and were just about to Redeemer Church, when the church bells at the Holy Sepulcher started to ring. Still looking for a good reason to stay out of the office, I decided to follow the sound of the bells--and a few religious sisters--into the Sepulcher courtyard.

Things looked pretty quiet, but I noticed a policeman and a police barrier set up, along with a special rug laid out on the stone steps. Our church colleague, Yacoub, called us over to stand with him. "This is for Mary" he said. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch was arriving soon, to bring the special icon of Mary from her tomb at Gethsemane, to her house near the Holy Sepulcher. The icon has been housed at the tomb to honor her dormition, or "falling asleep."

Now, chances are that if I asked a Lutheran "What happened to Mary after Jesus was resurrected?", the response would be "I haven't really thought about it!" But if you are a Roman Catholic or an Orthodox Christian, then you have heard of many traditions about Mary's life in the post-resurrection years. Some say she stayed in Jerusalem with John. During that time, it is said she preached to the apostles, who hung around the town for about ten years. Some say she went to Turkey. There is even a community that believes she escaped (with Jesus!) to India and lived out her years there.

Whatever she was busy doing for those years after the resurrection of her son, both Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that Mary did not just die, but was taken up into heaven.The Catholic teaching has been that this happened before death, when Mary was "assumed" into heaven, body and soul. For the Orthodox, the belief is that she died a natural death, and was held in heaven by Jesus at that time. After three days, when the apostles came miraculously from all around the world to visit her tomb, they found that it was empty. Therefore it is believed that her body was also taken up into heaven at that time.

(NOTE: I'm in no way an Orthodox theologian! I hope my Orthodox friends can chime in here and correct any way in which I may be misrepresenting or simplifying this teaching.)

In Jerusalem, there are many special traditions that take place around the time of the Dormition of Mary. This morning, as I followed the sound of the bells, I happened upon the end of this holy time. (Note: our Catholic sisters and brothers celebrated the Assumption of Mary on August 15. Our Orthodox neighbors here celebrate the Dormition of Mary on August 25.)

From the website of the Russian Orthodox Church: 
"In honor of these events, an ancient tradition has taken hold in Jerusalem of repeating this procession of the cross with the shroud of the Theotokos, which bears a two-sided icon with a silver oklad [covering frame]. This Shroud is kept throughout the year in Gethsemane directly across from the Church of the Resurrection of Christ. And only during the Dormition period does this miracle-working Shroud pass into a special canopy at the Sepulcher of the Mother of God. Believers venerate it as they pass through the canopy on their knees. From August 25 through September 5, the staircase of the Church of the Dormition, which consists of 48 steps, is covered in candles. This is a remarkable scene. The Apodosis of the Dormition is also the time when worshipers bid farewell to the Shroud. Once again a multitude of nuns gather from all over Jerusalem, who lead the procession. Here one can see representatives of all the monasteries of the Holy Land: Greek, Romanian and Russian nuns. All are united in love for the Most-Holy Theotokos. The procession of the cross continues for over an hour. His Holiness Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem and All Palestine and his clergymen bless the Christians as they pass through the street. The procession ends in the courtyard before the Church of the Resurrection of Christ under the Paschal peal of bells from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher."

The bells lasted for at least an hour. Because I stumbled into the courtyard at just the right time, I found myself at the front of the crowd, just behind the police barrier. I decided to stay and wait for the procession of the Patriarch and the icon of Mary. It's hard to describe the experience--so I'll let the pictures and video do the talking. Enjoy! 

Sisters going into the church to pray
People brought herbs to offer for the Virgin

Entrance to Mary's house
Another early arrival to the courtyard

A strange juxtaposition of the soldiers and their guns,
alongside the faithful with their herbs for the Virgin Mary

This security officer seems overwhelmed by the crowds

The crowds kept growing
Children were out of school to attend this holy day

This crowd was coming from Gethsemane to the Holy Sepulcher
The Orthodox really know how to do a procession! Everyone gets involved.

This boy was lost in prayer, and in the fragrance of the herbs
The sisters carved out a space in the crowd for this elderly sister to sit

Some found places to watch the procession from above

Many dignitaries led the procession

In the video below, you can just make out the Patriarch in the middle, cradling the icon of Mary in his arms, around which he has wrapped colorful ribbons. This was the highlight of the morning, the moment everyone was waiting for. I wish I could have gotten closer--but then, so did everyone else!

Today the universe dances with joy at your glorious memorial,
And cries out to you, O Mother of God:
"Rejoice, O Virgin, pride of Christians!"
(Kontakion, Tone 4)

Monday, September 1, 2014

Knit Purl Read Write Dance Sing Create

After a month in our new home, I count it as a good sign that I've finally found a few moments to knit. After several weeks when all I could do was fall into bed at the end of the day, I now have a bit of energy to put into creating something.

Of course, knitting, at least the way I do it, is not truly a creative enterprise. I don't write the patterns. I rarely make changes to the original design, except in the way of mistakes. But there is something about knitting that feels like resistance--a way of saying to the world, "You may try to wear me down, but I MADE something today. These 2 inches of shawl did not exist yesterday! I was here!"

Knitted shawl, in progress
This ability to see progress at the end of the day, and to make something from nothing, has been especially important to me in my life as pastor, when it can feel that my praying, planning, and preaching are just so many words up against the powers and principalities of the world. I know I'm not the only one who can sometimes feel this sense of futility. Our new neighbors work for UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) and have just moved in next door from South Sudan. They shared how saddened they are at the continuing internal conflict there. "We arrived there just after independence, and there was so much hope. Now, we wonder if our work made any difference at all."

Still, we keep on. I'm reminded of another favorite quote from my beloved Dorothy Day: “People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”

Our Palestinian neighbors and colleagues can teach us a thing or two about resilience and resistance. In his new book, "Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes", Pastor Mitri Raheb talks about the importance of creativity and the arts as acts of resistance:

“We need a new generation that can express ‘the hopes and fears of all the years’ through painting, dance, theater, and music,” he says. “Giving the subaltern a voice to speak but also a face, a song, and a movement is the essence and product of creative resistance” (page 122).

You can read about one beacon of hope in this effort to nurture such a voice just down the road, in Bethlehem. The school is expanding to now offer Bachelor's degrees in the arts:

Or, watch this excellent welcome video about the Dar al Kalima School, a ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land