Monday, December 15, 2014

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

Sermon for Sunday, 14 December
3rd Sunday in Advent

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

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

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

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

Photo by The Rev. Angie Shannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent: 7 December 2014

Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent
7 December 2014

The Rev. Carrie Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a highway to be built.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 1, 2014

Sermon for 1st Sunday of Advent: 30 November 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henri Nouwen echoed this sentiment, writing:  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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