Monday, January 26, 2015

Sermon for Christian Unity Sunday: 25 January 2015

Sermon for 25 January 2015

(now with edits, as preached on 27 January for the ecumenical Jerusalem Week of Prayer Service)

John 4:1-42 (The Samaritan Woman at the Well)

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

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

A few days ago, as I was busily preparing for this service, I was interrupted by a surprise visitor in the church office. This is pretty common, but unlike most other church visitors, this one was neither Lutheran nor Christian nor overtly religious at all. The man introduced himself as a PhD student in anthropology from Colombia. He is writing about peace and conflict resolution, and had just arrived in Jerusalem from a visit to Northern Ireland.

This visitor shared with me that up to now, he has been studying conflict resolution from a strictly secular viewpoint. But a surprising thing has happened in the course of his research. He has been working with a particular indigenous community in Colombia, which has the distinction of holding a successful peace treaty with FARC, the notorious guerilla group which terrorizes so much of the region. In his studies, he is seeking to understand what made this unlikely peace possible. He asked them: Why did it work for their community and not others? What was the catalyst for change? Again and again, the people answered him, “The Gospel. We learned about Jesus.” It seems that missionaries from the north had arrived in the 1940s, and the people saw this as the turning point in how they learned to deal with conflict, division, and threats from the outside.  

The idea that the Gospel of Jesus could inspire a peace treaty was a shocking and somewhat unbelievable answer for this analytical, secular PhD student. Confused, he set out to talk with Christian clergy in a variety of conflicted settings. He is on a quest to learn what it is about Jesus and his message that could be such a catalyst for peace and reconciliation. He asked me: Was Jesus a pacifist? Does the Gospel lay out specific instructions for resolving conflict? What is it about the teachings of Jesus that made peace possible for this little community in Colombia, and is it transferrable to other communities and contexts?

These are tough questions, and I felt uncomfortable speaking for all of Christendom, much less trying to put words in the mouths of indigenous Christian people half a world away.

But what I did do was tell him the story of the woman at the well. I talked about how in the Gospels Jesus again and again transgresses boundaries and barriers between people, in this case by talking not only to a woman, but a Samaritan woman. I told him how in this story Jesus not only asks for a drink, but continues below the surface to a deeper well of conversation, in which truths are revealed (“I have no husband”) and a new path forward is shared (“The hour is coming…when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth”). This meeting of Jew and Samaritan, male and female, which by social standards never should have happened, becomes transformative—not just for the Samaritan woman, but for her entire community, as she becomes an apostle and evangelist, sharing the Good News of what she has seen and heard.  

After hearing the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, my new friend suddenly smiled. “Aha! This reminds me of a story I heard in Colombia,” he said. “The leader of the indigenous community said they had never actually seen the guerillas, only their bullets coming out of the trees, so they had no idea what they looked like. The people wondered if they breathed fire. They imagined they had tails, and maybe even horns on their heads. But when they decided to work towards peace, and he finally saw the ones in the jungle who had been sending the bullets, he was very surprised. When he went back to the village, he shared the news that the guerillas had two legs, just like them.” 

Once the people saw that the “monsters” in the jungle looked like their own brothers and sisters, the conversation about living in peace could begin. 

Jerusalem, HaNeviim Street
Photo by Carrie Smith
Is there something magic in the message of Jesus that makes peace treaties simple to achieve and conflict resolution a piece of cake? Clearly not. Here in Jerusalem, it’s easy to see how knowing the Prince of Peace doesn’t mean we Christians possess the answers to ending human divisions.  In a divided city, even the church is divided. East and West, Catholic and Orthodox, Protestant and Evangelical, local and missionary, male and female—even without mentioning the greater reality of the political conflict in this place, it’s plain to see that “One Bread, One Body” is a song of hope and longing, not a statement of reality. In fact, it is somewhat ironic that I stand here today, as a called and ordained female pastor of a schism church, to preach on Christian unity. As a woman and a Lutheran, it could be said that I represent all by myself several of the reasons the church has divided over the centuries. 

It’s clear that the message of Jesus alone doesn’t provide a recipe for peace or an easy answer to the problems of human division, violence, and hate. But what we see in the Gospels is Jesus’ insistence, again and again, on defying convention, breaking social barriers, and loving the “other.” We see Jesus sharing the Gospel of love with all, with no regard to social, religious, or ethnic boundaries. He defies even the advice of his own disciples when he eats with sinners and tax collectors, preaches to scribes and Pharisees, and offers new life and living water both to a man of privilege like Nicodemus, and an outsider like the Samaritan woman at the well. It is Jesus’ audacious, boundless, persistent movement beyond and through human-made barriers which inspires Christians to continue the difficult work of building peace, seeking justice, and fostering reconciliation. It is Jesus’ consistent movement toward the other which inspires us to see people instead of bullets, and neighbors instead of enemies. We continue on the path because we believe the transformational love of Jesus, working in and through the church, is what ultimately will heal all that is broken and divided in the world.

The story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well is good inspiration for us this week, as we gather to pray for Christian unity and an end to the divisions within the church of Christ. We look to the transformational conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman as an example of what can happen when we dare to step into someone else’s space, to speak another’s language, and to hear another’s truth—a bit like what we are doing during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This is a great start indeed.

But then, I’m uncomfortable hearing this Scripture as merely a “pat on the back” to those of us who are making efforts to attend each other’s churches this week. In fact, I’m always a bit nervous when I read a Scripture text and my interpretation means I see myself in the role of Jesus. Why do you suppose this particular scene from Jesus’ life was chosen for the Week of Prayer? If this text comes to us only to serve as a model for doing ecumenical work, then it’s far too easy to see ourselves and “our church” as Jesus, and to see those “other” churches—you know, the “wrong ones”—as the outsider, the Samaritan woman Jesus so graciously accepts, loves, and transforms. 

Soon, we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves. Soon, we’re expecting our ecumenical partners to undergo a transformation. You know…to be more like us.

No…I’m pretty sure that if we are to see ourselves in this text at all, we are the disciples who are out getting food. We’re the followers of Jesus who are so busy making sure we get a proper lunch that we miss an opportunity to receive the living water. Safe inside our churches, our traditions, our hymnbooks, our interpretation of Scripture, we miss transformative moments, when Jesus shows up unexpectedly, offering new life from the well of God’s grace and mercy.  

During this Week of Prayer for Christian unity, this text convicts and challenges us. It is a reminder that while we are busy maintaining boundaries and traditions and doctrinal purity, Jesus is at the well, offering hope and life to all who will hear. Jesus is at the well at high noon, having heated conversations and transforming lives. Jesus calls us back to this living water, back to the Word, and back to our shared identity as children of God, in spite of our differences.

For those of us living in this diverse and multi-religious city, and who worship in diverse and multi-cultural congregations, the idea of transcending boundaries and embracing the “other” is Good News warmly welcomed and received. But for others, perhaps especially those whose religious and ethnic traditions have been ignored, challenged or persecuted, this may sound like a threat. In any case, many of us may be asking:

Why do we need to work and pray for Christian unity?

Do we do it because it makes Jesus happy?

Will we have to compromise our principles?

Does unity mean we have to all be the same? 
If so, whose liturgy, whose interpretation, whose traditions will win?

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, we don’t pray for unity so all differences will disappear. We pray and confess and seek unity in the Body of Christ because the world needs the Gospel more than we need our walls. We pray for unity because energy spent on protecting boundaries is energy not spent proclaiming the Good News of God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy. We confess our complacency and our acceptance of disunity because energy spent defending ecclesiastical territory means energy not spent seeking human rights and dignity for our neighbors of all religions.

Greeting Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal,
and Propst Wolfgang Schmidt of Redeemer Church for Greek Orthodox Christmas

We seek unity in the Body of Christ because maintaining proper, respectable and appropriate distance from each other means we may not hear a living word that we ourselves need. For it just might be that the word of hope, the bread of life, and the living water we need today is being preached, and shared, and offered up in the church down the street, in a language we don’t know, at a well we’ve never visited. 

And so we humbly pray for unity in our diversity, that all may hear—and that we may hear for ourselves--that Jesus truly is the Savior of the world.

Let us pray…this is a prayer written by my American Catholic brother in Christ, Thomas Merton: 

O God, we are one with you.
You have made us one with you.
You have taught us that if we are open to one another,
you dwell in us.
Help us to preserve this openness
and to fight for it with all our hearts.

Help us to realize that there can be no understanding
where there is mutual rejection.
O God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, completely,
we accept you, and we thank you, and we adore you,
and we love you with our whole being,
because our being is in your being,
our spirit is rooted in your spirit.

Fill us then with love,
and let us be bound together with love as we go our diverse ways,
united in this one spirit which makes you present in the world,
and makes you witness to the ultimate reality that is love.
Love has overcome.
Love is victorious.

~ written by Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Sermon for Sunday, 11 January 2015: Baptism of Our Lord

Sermon for Sunday, 11 January 2015
Baptism of Our Lord: Mark 1:4-11

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

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

Early this week I had the unexpected opportunity to visit the Evangelical Lutheran Church at Bethany Beyond the Jordan—the ELCJHL’s newest church, built at the site of Jesus’ baptism by John. This was a last minute trip, made possible only because the official ELCA representative to the international board could not attend. I was thrilled to see the church for the first time (although perhaps less than thrilled at the thought of a three day board meeting!) I was also certain that such a visit would mean this week’s sermon would write itself. That turned out not to be true—but it was indeed powerful to be standing at the Jordan River, in this week when the church remembers Jesus’ baptism in those very waters.

The board members gathered in Amman on Sunday evening, and then our first day began with a tour of the entire historic baptism site. We saw ruins of chapels and monasteries. 

We saw streams of water, tall rushes and tangled bushes – the wilderness where John the baptizer appeared. We saw rolling hills and deep valleys, and tried to imagine the hundreds of hermit cells which used to inhabit the hillsides. 

Finally, we made our way to the Jordan itself, where dozens of Russian pilgrims on the Israeli-controlled side were bathing in the greenish-brown waters. Armed guards stood watch on both sides, ready to stop anyone who approached the border, which happens to be the middle of the river. 

Dressed as we were for a board meeting, not a baptism, most of us stood a safe distance away and observed. But one member of the board, Ennio, ventured closer, stooping down to collect some of the murky water into an old Coke bottle. Next, I watched as he scooped up some dirt into an empty can which said, “Mixed Nuts.” “What are you doing?” I asked. “This is for my sister, who is sick with cancer,” he said. “I try to bring her water from all the holy places I visit. Who knows if it helps, but she appreciates it.”

Back at the church, we settled in for the board meeting. First item on the agenda: Create a Vision and Mission Statement.

If you have ever served on a board or a church council before, you know the agony this task can be! There’s little that is more frustrating than creating a concise, meaningful, marketable (and theologically accurate!) vision and mission statement…by committee. Having just experienced a sacred site, however, and being that many of us were pastors and even bishops, it seemed that this time, it should be easy. We just had to put down on paper what made this place and this event in the life of Jesus so special. Ready, set, go…. Silence.

Come on, this is the baptismal site of Jesus! Five historic churches over many centuries were built to mark the spot. Bedouin have carried the oral history of this place for thousands of years. Today, because of the generosity of King Abdullah in gifting the land, there are seven modern churches being built there. People still come from around the world to be baptized, or to remember their baptisms, in these waters. And, as I had earlier observed, this place is so special that people literally want to take it home with them, bottles of Jordan River water and boxes of Jordanian earth traveling across the world to those who are sick, or dying, or soon to be baptized.

The members of the board all agreed this place is important, and historic, and sacred, and worth visiting. But what we weren’t clear about was: why? Why do we care about the baptism of Jesus?

To be fair, the baptism of Jesus is a little difficult to explain. When John appeared in the wilderness, he came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He also said that although he was baptizing with water, one who was greater would come and baptize with the Holy Spirit. So why, then, did Jesus need to be baptized? Why did the one who was without sin need to be washed clean?

Some have said Jesus was simply showing solidarity with us. He was just giving us a good example to follow, avoiding the whole “Do as I say, not as I do” discussion. Others have said he was washed to be refreshed for his upcoming years of ministry and controversy. Still others have said this baptism is the moment when Jesus was “adopted” as God’s Son. (These folks, it should be noted, were declared heretics numerous times, including at the First Council of Nicea in the year 325 A.D.)

But if Jesus’ baptism wasn’t required, and it didn’t make him sinless or magically turn him into God’s Son, then what’s the deal?

The important action in the story takes place in verses 10 and 11:

‘And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”’ 

It wasn’t required for him. And it didn’t change Jesus’ essential nature. But when Jesus was baptized in the waters of the Jordan by John, something truly amazing happened: the heavens were torn apart. The Holy Spirit came down like a dove. A voice sounded out from heaven –the voice of the Father – naming Jesus as Beloved Son. This was the moment when plain water became something much more; when a simple bath in the river became a meeting place for the divine.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, this is what we experience in our own baptisms, too. Whether we come to the water as infants or as believers; whether we are sprinkled in a birdbath or dunked in a swimming pool; in baptism it is the meeting of water with the Word which turns an ordinary thing into a holy and sacred event. In baptism, the heavens are torn open, so that ordinary sinners receive new life in Christ. It’s not that the water of the Jordan itself is so special. It’s that the meeting of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the waters that day makes holy all waters—and, indeed, all creation.

Bishop Maximus of Turin put it this way (in the 5th C.):

“Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water. For when the Savior is washed, all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. Christ is the first to be baptized, then, so that Christians will follow after him with confidence.”

It turns out, a divine encounter is what the international board members experienced this week, too. We came for a board meeting, and ended up meeting God--in the desert, in the wilderness, and in the green and murky waters of the Jordan.  We met Christ in the breaking of the bread, in the strengthening of friendships, and even around the boardroom table. It turns out our tour guide was right when he told us, standing at the baptismal site, nearly 422 meters below sea level: “This is the lowest place on earth, but it’s actually the closest to God.”

Slowly but surely, as we reflected on what we had seen and experienced, the phrases started to appear before us, giving voice to the holiness of this place and this event:

The beginning of Christianity…
The center of our faith…
The source of baptism…
Renewal and commitment…
You can see the whole story of our faith from here…

Finally, it was finished. A vision statement for this new church, for better or for worse:

“Being a meeting point at the source of baptism, deepening the experience of God's love for humanity."

In the end, what became clear is that what makes the baptismal site so special is not what happened to Jesus in the river, but what happened there for all creation. Jesus in the water, the Spirit moving over the water, and the Father’s voice sounding out above the waters sanctified and made holy every place and every person. When we remember Jesus’ baptism, we remember that our faith is tangible, earthy, and material. We believe that God comes to us in the midst of dust, wind, desert, bugs, camel hair, honey, and wilderness.  We meet God in water, in bread, and in wine. We meet God in a crying baby lying in a manger. We meet God in the sweat, blood, and tears of the cross. We meet God in our neighbor, and even in our enemy. Nothing, and nowhere, is beyond God’s reach. Nothing, and no one, is too ordinary for God’s presence.

This is the Good News of Jesus’ baptism, and the Good News of our baptismal identities. The challenge is in living this Good News in our daily lives. Knowing that God has made holy all of creation through the baptism of Jesus, how do we respond to the crisis facing Syrian refugees and the children of Gaza in this cold winter weather? Knowing that no human being is beyond God’s love, how do we speak about the terrible situation in Paris this week, or the mounting horror in Nigeria? All creation being holy, and all humanity being beloved, it is not so easy to turn our backs, take sides, or stay silent. Our baptisms call us to much, much more.

My ordinary friends, sisters and brothers in Christ, hear the Good News: in baptism you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. You are God’s beloved children. Amen.