Friday, October 31, 2014

Sermon for Reformation Day 2014

 Sermon for Reformation Day 2014
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Joint German/English/Arabic Service

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

To see photos of this joint service: 

ELCJHL Smug Mug Page

Philippians 2:12-13

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

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

One day last week, I escaped from my office here at Redeemer to spend some time in prayer, around the corner at the Holy Sepulcher (Church of the Resurrection). Even with all the tourists and the nearly constant flurry of activity there, it still feels like holy ground. If I can find a spot to sit out of the way of the crowds, one of my favorite things to do there is to just watch people. Young and old, from near and far—and though they may not have entered a church back home for years—pilgrims are still coming to Jerusalem to touch stones, to light candles, and to be as close as possible to events that happened more than 2,000 years ago. This is a visible sign of the enduring power of the cross of Christ and his resurrection.

On this particular day, however, I was doing more than praying and watching people. I was also thinking about this sermon. Sitting just steps away from the tomb of Christ—the site of the radical event that re-formed the whole world—I was contemplating what I should say on this, my first Reformation Day in Jerusalem. How do we understand “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda” (the church is always to be reformed) in this place where changes turn holy sites into battlegrounds, where buildings and traditions are carefully preserved, and where even ladders shall not be moved?

Was ist das? What does this mean? How are we to be a reforming church in this time and place?

In the style of Martin Luther, the Apostle Paul might reply:

We are to fear and love God, working out our own salvation, for it is God who is at work in us.

This is most certainly true.

These are the words Paul wrote to the church in Philippi: “Therefore…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Theologians and preachers in the Reformation tradition have pondered these two brief verses for nearly 500 years. Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Bonhoeffer (among others) have all tried to make sense of what Paul means for believers to “work out their own salvation”, when Scripture has revealed that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone. As heirs of that tradition, we boldly proclaim the Good News that it is God in Christ Jesus who declares us saved, apart from any good works. Here we stand, we can do no other!

And Paul says, “Now quit standing there, and go work it out.”

I doubt the Apostle Paul meant for these verses to be so problematic for future generations of Christians. In fact, we know he wrote these words from prison, not to start a debate, but in order to comfort and strengthen the church in Philippi. He wrote to them as a pastor, thanking them for their faithfulness to his ministry, but also reviving their spirits in his absence, in a time when they faced opposition and persecution. “Work out your own salvation” may seem at odds with “for it is God who is at work in you”, but remember, this is the same letter in which Paul writes “For we put no confidence in the flesh”, and then a few verses later, “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

“Work out your own salvation—for it is God who is at work in you.” There is much that could be said here about the proper relationship between law and gospel, between faith and works. In fact, Luther (who was a famously prolific writer) probably already said most of it! But when the words of Scripture remain in the realm of theological debate and church history, they are of little use to us today. It’s when we let them speak to us and to our situation that they become living words, carrying the Good News to those who desperately need to hear it.

And God knows we need to hear some Good News today.

All around there is so much darkness, so much pain, and so much conflict. Here in Jerusalem, it seems every day brings news of another child killed, another home demolished, another rock thrown, another political maneuver, another step further away from a just and lasting peace. Across the Middle East, our fellow Christians are persecuted, harassed, and killed. Epidemics of diseases like ebola, but also of poverty, of extremism, and of violence, threaten God’s children everywhere.

More than ever, the world needs the gospel of love.

More than ever, the world needs the light of Christ.

And more than ever, the world needs the church to work out its own salvation through radical peace-making, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

We need pastors and church leaders who will speak boldly and prophetically for peace with justice for all God’s people.

We need congregations who will resist the pull to become merely social activity centers, and who will instead be catalysts for transformation in their communities.

We need young people who will raise their voices to prophesy a better future – and institutional structures which will allow them to speak.

This is a lot to ask, isn’t it? Our Lutheran ears may start to tingle, afraid of slipping into the perils of works righteousness. True, the task before us is huge, and the darkness can seem overwhelming. But we have not been given a spirit of fear! We do not face the enemies of the gospel as ones who are afraid. Paul’s phrase “fear and trembling” never implies we are “weak in the knees”, but rather that we humbly stand in awe of the precious gift of grace we have received. For while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. While we were lost in sin, we were given a new birth through the waters of baptism. And although we did nothing to earn such a gift, we have been reconciled with God our Creator, through the radical self-emptying love of Christ Jesus.

Therefore, we, the church, will answer the Apostle Paul’s call to work out our salvation in confidence, because we know that it is God who has been and continues to be at work in us.

It is God who was and is at work in this church. 

It was God at work when the Lutherans first came to Jerusalem and established hospitals and schools.

It is God at work when children from Gaza are able to receive medical treatment at Augusta Victoria Hospital, funded through proceeds earned by volunteers harvesting the Mt. of Olives’ 800 olive trees.

It is God at work when young adults come from the United States to spend a year volunteering at ELCJHL schools and ministries.

It is God at work when our Lutheran schools educate Christian and Muslim children side by side, raising a generation who knows how to work and play together.

It is God at work when Palestinian youth have the opportunity to preserve their culture—and express the next generation’s interpretation of it—through art, music, and dance at Dar al Kalima University in Bethlehem.

It is God at work when Lutherans, Presbyterians, Mennonites, UCCers, Catholics, Orthodox and others come together to pray and sing on Reformation Day—a festival that in many places is little more than an exclusive “Lutheran Pride Day.”

On this Reformation Day, I give thanks for our shared Lutheran heritage, with its clear and uncompromising message of grace. I give thanks for the many ways that the Lutheran church in this place has worked out the gift of that salvation through its hospitals, schools, congregations, and other ministries. I give thanks especially for the reforming spirit which makes it possible for me, a woman, to stand before you today as a called and ordained pastor of the church.

And it is this reforming spirit which I hear coming to us as a living word and a challenge for the church today. For immediately after the Apostle Paul encourages the church to work out its own salvation in the confidence of God’s grace, he writes this in Philippians chapter 2, verse 14:

“Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.”

My sisters and brothers in Christ, the world needs us to shine like stars. In this time of darkness and conflict, the church must provide the light of hope. The world needs the church as a whole, giving respect to our differences of theology and practice, to nevertheless be one bold and prophetic voice for peace, justice, and reconciliation. We do this best when drawing our strength of voice not from perfect agreement, but from the mighty fortress of God’s word, the firm foundation of Christ’s love, and the communion of the Holy Spirit we have received in baptism. Nearly 500 years after Luther, this reformation of the heart, and reclamation of our voice, is one powerful way we can work out our salvation for the sake of our neighbors.

And now, united as one by the Holy Spirit, and in the confidence that God is already at work in us, we are sent from this place to work out our salvation. You, the church of Jesus Christ, are shining stars in this dark and broken world. Let your light shine. Amen. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sunday morning: Love Among Equals

Damascus Gate, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
Mission personnel sent by the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) are well-versed in the theology of accompaniment. We know that we are to walk with our companions, wherever we are sent, seeking to offer our gifts and talents in our mutual mission - - and to be ready to also receive the gifts of those to whom we are sent.

Accompaniment is a lofty idea, but one which feels almost common sense when you’re sitting in a room in Chicago with other brand-new missionaries, eager to go out and “change the world” in the name of Jesus.

It’s quite another thing to experience it on the way to church on a Sunday morning.

Yesterday, I set out for church at about 7:50 a.m., just in time to hear the church bells at the Holy Sepulcher (Church of the Resurrection) ringing at 8 a.m. as I walked into the Old City. After nearly 3 months of walking the same paths through various gates, I’m starting to know some of the shopkeepers. I always get big smiles when I try out my fledgling Arabic skills (“Sabah il khair! Good morning! Keef halek? How are you?”) Often these brief dialogues in Arabic turn into 15 minutes detours as we speak in English about the occupation, the lack of tourism traffic, where I’m from in the States, and where to buy the best falafel. 

On this Sunday, however, I was trying to avoid such a delay. I had spent all of Saturday harvesting olives for the Lutheran World Federation (harvesting olives on the Mt. of Olives! Seriously!) and my entire body was telling me to go back to bed instead of church. 

As luck would have it, one of the regulars on my route was sitting outside his shop already. As I approached, he called out “Good morning! I insist to give you a water. Please, go inside and open the fridge to get a small water.”

Experience has taught me this is an offer one cannot refuse. I thanked the shopkeeper and went inside to get the water. Of course, this wasn’t the end of the conversation.

“Have you seen my painting? It is hand-done.” Soon, we are looking at Victor’s hand-painted tiles, plates, and plaques. Most are so dusty that the true colors are muted. Victor’s shop is tiny and easy to miss, and Victor himself could easily be classified as elderly.

“This is for you. I want you to have it.” 

Victor handed me a tile on which was printed (not hand-painted), “Jerusalem.” I had actually owned one exactly like it, which shattered  (ironically) on our move to Jerusalem.

“You don’t have to do this, Victor! Really!”

“What?” he said. “We are not friends?”

The tile went into my purse.

When I was finally able to continue on to church (15 minutes later) I was thinking how I really needed to hurry now. I rounded the corner and saw Abdullah, a homeless man who greets me with a smile and the same brief conversation in Arabic every day. (He’s actually the one who has taught me my most useful Arabic phrases!) 

As I walked toward him, I thought to myself: “Aha! I’m going to give Abdullah this cold bottle of water. I don’t need it, and I’ll be happy to give him something.”

Preparing for my big feel-good moment of the morning, I crossed over to the side of the street where he was sitting and flashed a big smile. “Sabah il khair, Abdullah!”

“Sabah il nur!” he replied. And then, just like that, he was pressing a pack of peppermints into my hand.

“A gift for you, habibti,” he said. 

Thunder completely stolen! My plan was ruined! I thanked him, but then stretched out my hand with the cold bottle of water.  “For you,” I said.

He looked up at me sadly, and in an instant I realized what I had done. Just like that, his generous gift of love had become a transaction. He gives me peppermints, I give him water. My discomfort with a homeless Muslim offering me a gift on my way to church had caused me to attempt to even the playing field.

Abdullah said, “No, I have water,” and gestured to an empty bottle lying on the street next to him. “No, please, take it,” I insisted, two more times. Then, per Arab culture, because I had offered three times, he was obliged to receive the water.

I walked on to church, trying to feel good and generous, but with this dialogue weighing heavily upon me. When I reached the church, I saw three older members of the Arabic-speaking congregation sitting outside the doors of the main sanctuary. The time change had happened the night before in Jerusalem (but 3 days before in the West Bank) and it was clear to me that these folks had gotten confused about when worship was happening.

“Sabah il khair!” I said. Abu Emil replied “Sabah il nur!” and then chattered on in Arabic for a few more minutes. He followed me down the street and then hovered over me as I fumbled for my keys and opened the door near my office. We both stepped inside.

“Shukran!” the old man said with a smile, and simultaneously pressed a candy into my hand. It was 8:10 a.m., and I had so far received four gifts on the way to Sunday worship.

What is accompaniment? What does it mean to let go of our need to be the givers, and learn to be receivers? How can we honestly acknowledge the privilege, education, and resources we bring with us to the mission field (wherever that may be) and at the same time respect and receive what our neighbors have to offer and to teach us?

“If there is no friendship with them [the poor] and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love exists only among equals.”

― Gustavo Gutiérrez, "A Theology of Liberation" 

Olive trees on the Lutheran World Federation Campus, Mt. of Olives
Photo by Carrie Smith

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, 19 October 2014

Sermon for Sunday, 19 October 2014
19th Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

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

My family’s move from Illinois to Jerusalem was not actually our first cross-cultural experience. Years ago, when Robert graduated from seminary, we moved 1,000 miles (or 1700 kilometers) from St. Paul, Minnesota to Waco, Texas. Even though St. Paul and Waco are both cities in the same United States of America, they are about as far apart culturally as they are in distance. I learned this the hard way when I visited a church group for moms of young children shortly after we arrived.

While the kids were happily playing together, the conversation among the mothers turned to the issue of television and videos, and what we allowed our children to watch. In a nice effort to include me in the discussion, one of the mothers turned and asked me, “So, do you let your boys watch Disney movies?”

Now, when I was growing up, my grandparents lived very near Disneyland in California, and my dad actually played in the Disneyland All-American Marching Band in the 60’s. I have a real fondness in my heart for all things Disney. But I gathered there was a correct answer to her question, and that probably wasn’t it. I wanted desperately to make friends in this new place, so this is what I said:

“Do I let my kids watch Disney movies? Well, of course they’ve seen a few, but I’m being careful about the ones with princesses. I don’t want my boys learning that all women need is to be saved by a handsome prince.”

That…wasn’t the answer she was looking for. After a few awkward moments of silence (and confused looks passed around by the other mothers in the room), the one who asked the question said, “Um, no…I meant do you let your kids watch Disney movies, considering how the Disney corporation offers health insurance to same-gender couples? We boycott Disney because of it.”

We didn’t ever make it to a second playdate, after that awkward start.

Is it ok to watch Disney movies, or not? This is the sort of test Jesus was faced with when confronted by the Pharisees. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” It wasn’t just a friendly topic of conversation, no matter how much they first tried to flatter him before asking. This was a question designed to trick Jesus into incriminating himself, either as a pawn of the state or an inciter of riots. The Pharisees wanted to put Jesus on the spot, forcing him to say something that would make him either a traitor or a heretic, and therefore discrediting everything else he had to say.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Jesus, knowing they were up to no good, responded: “Why are you putting me to the test? Show me the coin used to pay the taxes.” So they brought him a denarius. “Whose head is on this coin, and whose title?” “The emperor’s” replied the Pharisees. And Jesus said: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are God’s.”

This brief answer sent the Pharisees away amazed. It has also become one of Jesus’ most well-known and oft-quoted teachings. We often see it appearing as just the first half of the phrase, in a more familiar translation: “Render unto Caesar…” Those few words alone are thrown around as the tagline for a variety of differing viewpoints on the proper relationship between church and state, and of Christians to secular authority.

Martin Luther, writing around the time of the Great Peasants’ Revolt of 1525, insisted that “render unto Caesar” proves Jesus wants us to cooperate with governmental authority, and definitely to pay our taxes. He writes: “Thus one must also bear the authority of the ruler. If he abuses it, I am not therefore to bear him a grudge, nor take revenge of and punish him with my hands. One must obey him solely for God's sake, for he stands in God's stead. Let them impose taxes as intolerable as they may: one must obey them and, suffer everything patiently, for God's sake.”

India’s Mohandas Gandhi, on the other hand, saw it differently, writing: “Jesus' whole preaching and practice point unmistakably to noncooperation, which necessarily includes nonpayment of taxes.” It may be interesting to remember that Gandhi led the Indian people in resisting the British-imposed salt tax in 1930.

And the 20th Century champion of the poor, American Dorothy Day, suggests another way to deal with the issue: “The less you have of Caesar's, the less you have to render to Caesar.”  

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” So does Jesus want us to pay taxes, or not? Should we cooperate with secular authority or resist it? Should we opt out of the system entirely, thereby owing nothing to Caesar? Which parts of our lives belong to the empire, and which belong to God? And how do we tell the difference?

Many sermons have been preached on the finer application of these points. Dissertations have been written, and doctorates earned. Political systems have been established. Wars have even been waged over disagreements about the proper roles of church and state.

And it would be nice if your preacher could end the debate once and for all in this sermon! But I must admit that when I encounter this text, and even when I consult the many gifted theologians and preachers who have struggled with it before me, I remain unconvinced that there is but one faithful way to interpret this teaching. In fact, I don't hear this Gospel reading as being chiefly about church/state issues. Rather, what I hear from Jesus is an invitation to the hard work of discipleship.

What I hear is Jesus resisting the opportunity to either denounce or endorse moral certitudes, and instead inviting the faithful to work it out for themselves. Like the Pharisees, who walked away amazed (and hopefully, thinking) we are invited to struggle with the question of our allegiances to God and Caesar; to that which bears the empire’s image and that which bears God’s image.

What shall I render unto Caesar, and what shall I render unto the Lord? How do I live out my faith in this context? How are my relationships with my neighbors, with government, with institutions, and with money, informed by the Sermon on the Mount; and by the cross; and by the resurrection? Jesus invites each of us to be theologians, daily discerning what it means to follow in the way of the cross.

A friend in Chicago wrote recently that a Wal-Mart store is moving into her neighborhood. Chicago has famously protested the invasion of this big box superstore, because of how it has killed small family businesses in other cities. My friend has always joined in these protests. But now, she sees that she lives in what is called a “food desert”. She and her neighbors must regularly shop for food at the drug store, or eat exclusively at fast food restaurants. Wal-Mart would at least bring fresh meat and produce, as well as jobs to her struggling neighborhood. So she asks: Is it lawful to shop at Wal-Mart, or not?

Another friend, a pastor, has always been a vocal opponent of the death penalty. But last week there was a tragedy in his community involving the abuse and death of a child. He wrote asking for prayers for the family of the child—but also for himself, for he confessed to questioning his stance on the death penalty, in light of these terrible circumstances. So he asks: Is it right for a Christian to support the death penalty, or not?

My son Caleb, with students
from the Lutheran School of Hope in Ramallah
Photo by Carrie Smith
Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Lutheran School of Hope in Ramallah, a ministry of the ELCJHL. It was my second visit, but this time I took my sons Caleb and Zion to be guest speakers in the 10th grade English class. We were there to be English-language conversation partners, but of course, we ended up learning at least as much as the students did. At one point, we asked about what these high schoolers liked to do after school. Shopping was a popular answer, of course. But where do you shop? “Well, the truth is, there’s not too much to shop for these days.” “Why?” “Because we’re boycotting all Israeli products.” To be clear, the ELCA and ELCJHL do not promote boycott or divestment. And yet, in this Lutheran high school class I met a student whose father has been in prison for “resistance” since 2003, and a 15 year old boy who still possesses no papers because one parent is from Jerusalem, and the other from Ramallah. So I must ask: Is it right to support boycotts, or not?

What shall I render to Caesar, and what shall I render to the Lord? Christian discipleship means living in the tension between these two kingdoms. It means never having easy answers, but doing the hard work of spiritual discernment. And I will admit: This doesn’t always feel like Good News! It would be much cleaner if we had a public service announcement from Jesus, with a list of candidates to endorse. It would be great to have a phone app to tell us where to eat, where to live, or where to shop, so that we would always appropriately render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.

(edited to note: A church member informed me after service that there is indeed an app for that! Check out

But instead, what we have is an invitation from Jesus to read Scripture, to read our hearts, and then to walk with him—all the way to the cross. We are invited to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are invited to live in the tension and the mess of life.

And we are invited to trust in the love of God we have seen in Christ Jesus, who walked this way before us. We are assured that though we may get it wrong – though we may get caught with graven images in our pockets, or be accused of inciting riots – that we have already received God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness, through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Let us pray:

A prayer of Catherine of Siena:

Power of the eternal Father, help me. Wisdom of the Son, enlighten the eye of my understanding. Tender mercy of the Holy Spirit, unite my heart to yourself. Eternal God, restore health to the sick and life to the dead. Give us a voice, your own voice, to cry out to you for mercy for the world. You, light, give us light. You, wisdom, give us wisdom. You, supreme strength, strengthen us.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, 12 October 2014

Sermon for 12 October 2014

18th Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

A few days ago, I found myself at a table with three Catholic priests from New York, a religious sister from Ireland, and another from China. As I stepped out of the church to head home for dinner, they caught me and invited me to sit for coffee. It’s not an altogether unusual experience in Jerusalem to find one’s self at a table with strangers who quickly become friends.

Our conversation started as most do around here: “Why are you here? Are you a tourist or a student? Where are you staying? How long will you stay? Is it your first trip here?” This time, however, my new friends’ responses took the discussion down an unexpected path. It turns out that all three of these brothers had been in New York City on September 11, 2001. One was teaching a college world religions class when he saw the plane hit the first building. One had been in the second tower fifteen minutes before it was hit. And the other had been at breakfast that sunny morning with fellow Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, chaplain to the New York City Fire Department. Fr. Mychal raced from breakfast directly to the towers when he heard the news, and ended up being the first death recorded on that terrible day.

As my new friends shared their very personal experiences of that day in New York, here in Jerusalem the late afternoon Muslim call to prayer began to be sounded out above us. Even after only two months of living here, this has become such a part of my daily environment that I barely even notice it. 

But the sound was jarring enough to interrupt our conversation. In that moment, the memories of a day thirteen years ago, in a city far away, were colliding with our present reality. In 2001 in New York City, Americans felt absolutely certain about who their enemies were.  Differences in race, religion, and politics melted away, as the people of my country were united in nearly unanimous fear and hatred of the “other”. Sharing our memories and feelings of that day of sorrow can easily transport us back to that place, where we again attempt to take hold of the same certainty about who’s in, who’s out, who’s with us and who is against us.

The call to prayer suddenly accompanying our table conversation was a not-so-subtle reminder that people can never be so easily classified as “enemy” or “friend.” In fact, at that particular outdoor cafe—owned by a Muslim family—the one who was appearing as “enemy” in our remembrances was now the host of our meal together.
“You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” In some contexts, five Catholics and a female Lutheran pastor would never be found at a table together! Sadly, I remember presiding at a large Lutheran-Catholic funeral in my suburban Chicago church, in which a local Catholic priest attended for the purpose of ensuring none of his congregants came forward for communion. He sat in the back, arms crossed, and glared at them if they made a move towards our Lutheran table. Some, members of the family of the deceased, came to the table anyway. Many others sat back down in silence.

Our neighbor's sukkah
Photo by Carrie Smith
“You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Over the last week, tables of abundance have been set in the homes (and sukkot) of our neighbors in the presence of an enemy. The “enemy” in question is no person, or even a group of people, but rather the ongoing conflict between Arab and Israeli, Palestine and Israel. My neighbor’s sukkah developed from a few beams of wood covered in blankets, to a rather cozy-looking shelter complete with party lights, hanging foil decorations, and many good food smells wafting in the direction of our apartment. Only a few days before, our Muslim neighbors were also feasting for Eid al Adha. Animals were slaughtered and prepared in special dishes, and families made special efforts to visit the tables of all possible relatives during the days of the feast.

Children with balloons for the Eid
Photo by Carrie Smith
The feasts of these two religions took on special importance this year, after a summer of bloodshed, fear, anxiety, and distrust of the “other”. Muslims desperately needed a feast, as their summer Eid celebration was effectively cancelled because of the conflict. And Jews, too, need to gather at tables of abundance, signs of God’s enduring goodness even in the presence of rockets, bombs, checkpoints, and walls – all enemies of a true and lasting peace.

“You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Here in Jerusalem, we come to church having walked through every kind of valley, some of them very dark indeed. Along the way, we’ve been conditioned to see enemies around every corner. In fact, living here can feel like being a recurring contestant on a game show called “Who’s my enemy this time?” or “Which of these things is not like the other?” Where does he stand politically? Is she Muslim, Christian, or Jew? What neighborhood does he live in? Do they work for a competing organization?

We are all too often hyper-focused on identification of “the enemy”. After all, if God sets a table for us in the presence of our enemies, the implication is that God has provided nothing at all for the other guys. And this…makes perfect sense to us. Of course, not everyone can be invited. Of course, God’s favor only rests on those with whom we agree.

 It’s for this reason that the parable in today’s Gospel lesson, though disturbing, also resonates with us in a powerful way. Yes, it seems unfair for the king to throw someone out for not wearing a wedding robe (especially when guests were hauled in off the street!) But then again, someone has to end up in the outer darkness. Someone needs to experience weeping and gnashing of teeth. Give any one of us a few minutes, and we’d be able to make a list of exactly who we think Jesus may have been talking about. Our struggle with God’s abundant hospitality and open invitation to the table often makes us our own worst enemy.

“You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” One of the great privileges of being a pastor is the opportunity to share communion with those nearing the end of life. Last fall, I sat vigil at a hospice-care facility with a church member and her husband, whose brain cancer was in its final stages. Bruce was beyond ready to experience what God had in store next, but at only 59 years old, his body was strong. As a result, the last leg of his journey took much, much longer than the doctors, nurses, and family had hoped.

On Bruce’s last day, family and close friends gathered at his bedside to share communion. Bruce hadn’t received anything by mouth for many days, but he was adamant in wanting to participate. It was his wife who lovingly placed the tiniest wine-soaked crumb of bread on his tongue. Family members and friends then passed the bread and wine to each other around the bed, surrounding Bruce in the presence of Christ.

The power of that moment is a testament to how the feast of grace, mercy and forgiveness we receive through the Body and Blood of Christ is more than a snack break in the middle of a great and mighty battle. This feast of love renders the enemy powerless. The presence of the crucified and risen Christ in, with, and under the bread and the wine that day, conquered Bruce’s brain tumor once and for all. The tumor didn’t disappear, but it no longer held the last word. 

A typical Palestinian feast of salads (mezze)
Photo by Carrie Smith

“You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. ”

It is indeed a great comfort to know that in the midst of conflict and chaos, terror and turmoil, sickness and sorrow, God always sets before us this table of abundant love and grace. Psalm 23 reminds us that God’s got our back, whether our enemy has a face, or comes disguised as cancer, debt, depression, addiction, or the powers and principalities of the system. God, the good shepherd, leads us through the olive grove, brings refreshing October rain, guides us through difficult conversations, and comforts weary bodies and hearts. 

God sets a table before us, inviting us to put down our weapons and to pull up a chair. The feast is now ready. All are welcome.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sunsets, rain, and finishing what I've started

For it was you who formed my inward parts;

   you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well. 

Psalm 139 

A few days ago, this was the view from my balcony in Jerusalem just before sunset: 

No filter, no special camera, and I don't even care about the construction cranes in the middle of the shot! This is just God's own beauty, pouring through the heavens. I almost missed this gorgeous moment, because I had a Skype appointment with our tax accountant and should have been staring at a computer screen. At the last second, I wondered if the WiFi would still pick up on the balcony for my call. So thankful that it did! How wonderful are your works, O God!

It's actually been raining here in Jerusalem the last few days, which just adds to my general sense of gratitude this weekend. In fact, a little moisture and temperatures a few degrees cooler seem to have put everyone in slightly better moods. (It also washed some of the bird droppings off the aforementioned balcony.) Thanks be to God! 

It was a little hard to get in the spirit, considering I'm still wearing sandals every day, but this was my week of planning for Advent and Christmas worship. I wonder if I'll ever stop having those moments when I'm reading Scripture (or choosing hymns) and suddenly it occurs to me: "O Little Town of Bethlehem--wait, I was there for coffee yesterday..." 

This weekend I finally finished the knitting project I started while delayed in Oklahoma due to the conflict in Gaza. It was supposed to be a "wrap", and turned into something more like a "very fat scarf", but I like it anyway! 

Of course, one of the best parts of finishing a knitting project is the thrill of starting a new one. This one will be a gift for a friend who is fighting ovarian cancer. I understand teal is the color for Ovarian Cancer Awareness...I hope she likes it! 

Every week, every day in fact, is both an adventure and a challenge here in Jerusalem. Giving thanks for God's wonderful works -- sunsets, rain, good work to do, and a little time for leisure. Enough and to spare. 

Thanks be to God -- alhamdulillah -- الحمد لله

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Jerusalem October

October has always been my most favorite month of the year. In the American midwest, October means changing leaves, crisp cool weather, sweaters, candy corn, harvest festivals, apple cider donuts, (overpriced) pumpkin spice coffees, Halloween, birthday! What's not to like? When we were preparing to move to Jerusalem, I was a little embarrassed to discover I had nearly as many autumn and Halloween knick-knacks as I did for Christmas. I even found a sack of brand new ones I had purchased last November, from the 90% off aisle at Walgreens! Like I said...I love October.

Last year, this is what autumn looked like at my house in Illinois:

"I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers."
From Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Photo by Carrie Smith
Beautiful, right?

"Autumn" in Jerusalem, on the other hand, feels like someone just turned the volume down on summer a little bit. I especially miss seeing the leaves of the trees changing color! But instead of focusing on what I'm missing this October, I thought I might need to practice seeing things differently. We may not have leaves that change colors, but Jerusalem is a very colorful place indeed! Here are some colors of this beautiful, eclectic, and vibrant city in which I live:

Blue door knocker
Brown bread

Red embroidery

Purple-red Pomegranates

Green bumper sticker
Gray cat, Blue sky
Black dresses, colorful headscarves

Graffiti in red, white, and blue

Gray stone sabeel arches 
Yellow & Purple flowers  

Pink sunrise