Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, 16 November 2014

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

Pastor Carrie Smith

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then there are these words from Paul:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or of God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 9, 2014

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

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

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

Matthew 25:1-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hear this parable again, brothers and sisters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no wall there.

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

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

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

Monday, November 3, 2014

Sermon for All Saints Sunday 2014

Sermon for All Saints Sunday
2 November 2014

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

For photos of this All Saints Service: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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