Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent: On Spiritual Warfare

Sermon for 1st Sunday in Lent

22 February 2015

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

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

“Friends in Christ, today with the whole church we enter the time of remembering Jesus' passover from death to life, and our life in Christ is renewed.

We begin this holy season by acknowledging our need for repentance and for God's mercy. We are created to experience joy in communion with God, to love one another, and to live in harmony with creation. But our sinful rebellion separates us from God, our neighbors, and creation, so that we do not enjoy the life our creator intended.

As disciples of Jesus, we are called to a discipline that contends against evil and resists whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor.”  

Thus begins the invitation to Lent traditionally read on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of this season of repentance and prayer, fasting, and giving. Just a few days ago, Christians gathered to receive ashen crosses on their foreheads, physical signs of their commitment to a forty day season of discipline. Maybe you’ve decided to avoid coffee or chocolate. Maybe you’ve closed your Facebook account, or are writing a thank you note to someone every day. Maybe you’ve decided to follow one of Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount in a radical way (giving to everyone who asks, for example). There are many ways to observe this season, but the idea is to follow Jesus into the wilderness for a time of spiritual discipline. Just as Jesus encountered temptation and struggled against Satan while there, so we also are called to “contend against evil and resist whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor.” An earlier edition of the “Lutheran Book of Worship” put it this way: “Repentance, fasting, prayer, and works of love—the discipline of Lent—help us to wage our spiritual warfare.”

The idea of Lent as a time of “spiritual warfare” goes back to the Middle Ages, and is especially suited to this first Sunday in Lent, when we hear of Jesus struggling with Satan in the wilderness and overcoming every temptation. I must admit, however, I’ve never been too comfortable with either the phrase or the idea of “spiritual warfare.” When I was a teenager in Oklahoma, someone gave me a book that was part of a very popular series of teen Christian fiction. Set in modern times, these books graphically depicted “spiritual warfare” as a fight against very real demons. The demons in these books were creatures you could see, and they sat in trees, peered around corners, and lurked in movie theaters, bars and other places that might be harmful to a young Christian’s modesty, purity, and faith. I remember being so affected by these books, that for a while I fully expected to see one of these demons, one of these “powers and principalities”, popping out at me, perhaps from behind the “forbidden aisle” at the video rental store.
As an adult, however, I saw that the reality of evil in the world is much scarier. I saw that there are indeed powers of evil at work against God, but they look very different. Instead of demons in trees and lurking around corners, I started seeing fundamentalism, oppression, racism, religious persecution, and powers and principalities at work even through unjust government policies. Even more terrifying, I recognized the internal forces working against God and God’s kingdom which could be found within any of us: greed, self-importance, lack of compassion, grudges, hatred, and narrow-mindedness, to name a few.

In a way, I would prefer a fight with those fictional, physical, creaturely demons from the novels! They were easier to contend with. It was comforting to think I would know one when I saw one. It was nice to think that evil existed “out there.”

But in reality, it’s not so easy to identify the real demons. It’s not so easy to point and shoot, especially in light of the words of Jesus, who challenges us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and turn the other cheek. It’s not so easy to draw lines between good and evil, when we recognize the temptations to abuse of power, greed, hatred and hypocrisy which lie inside each of us.

Lent. The cross. The desert. Contending against evil. Spiritual warfare. These were the words in my ears and the images in my mind at the conclusion of Redeemer’s noon Ash Wednesday service. I hurried away after the service with Robert and Bishop Younan to the Coptic Orthodox Church for a memorial service for the twenty-oneEgyptian Christians killed in Libya last week. As we entered the church courtyard, we walked under a huge banner featuring the images of all twenty-one men, kneeling in their orange jumpsuits, with their killers behind them. Even though I had already seen this image on the internet, it was truly a shocking sight to behold on such a grand scale. 

Robert whispered to me that this was the new iconography. We were seeing the first holy images of twenty-one new martyrs of the faith.

After being greeted with coffee, we were seated with Bishop Younan near the front of the church to hear messages of condolence offered by local clergy. I must admit, I was prepared to hear some messages of defiance and righteous anger. Newly marked with a cross-shaped sign of my own mortality, and with the images of men killed for being marked with that same cross displayed all around me, I expected (and might have even welcomed) some talk of battle. A part of me wanted to join in contending against the forces of evil which had caused such a tragedy, and which seem to be flourishing in our world today.

And then, I noticed I was sitting between a Muslim man and woman. Looking around a bit more, I saw that seated with the patriarchs and archbishops and bishops were representatives of the Waqf, the Muslim authority responsible for governing the holy sites of Islam here in Jerusalem. I started to wondered how this event was going to go.

But as the speeches began, I didn’t hear angry diatribes or calls for revenge. This was indeed described as a time for spiritual warfare, but not against Muslims or even against the hooded executioners shown on that huge banner. What I heard was a passionate call to contend against our true enemies-- the demons of hatred, terror, fundamentalism, extremism, and violence. Again and again, the religious leaders of Jerusalem called on Christians and Muslims alike to fight against the forces which defy God, and to do so with the power of love, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. They called on people of faith to follow the path of Christ, who teaches us even to love those who persecute us. The message was clear: We are in a battle, but we need to be clear about who (or what) we are fighting against—and what the cross tells us about how to engage in that fight.

All we have to do is turn on the news to see how sin and evil persist in the world, both within us and without. As baptized members of the Body of Christ and citizens of God’s kingdom, we are called to actively resist and deny all that opposes the kingdom. In this way, the entire Christian life is one of spiritual warfare. After all, Lent isn’t really forty days to be lived in a completely different way from the rest of the year. It’s more like a booster shot of discipleship, a time to intensify our commitment to the Gospel of love, and to be strengthened for whatever lies ahead.

At this point, you may be wondering how giving up Facebook or your morning cup of coffee can be called “spiritual warfare.” It’s hard to imagine how our small Lenten disciplines can fight against terrorism, for example.

But then, there we go, confusing our enemy again. When we turn our spiritual warfare into a holy war against our neighbor, then we are no better than the terrorists. 

Our struggle is not with our neighbor, but with the hatred we have for our neighbor. 
Our struggle is not with Islam, but with human division and misunderstanding. 
Our mortal combat is not with ISIS, but with the fear such groups intend to instill in our hearts and in our communities. 
Our Lenten disciplines themselves may be no match for the evils of the world, but when our hearts are free from distractions, the power of Christ’s love becomes a Christian's greatest strength. This is the spiritual warfare to which we are called. Confident in the grace of God we have in the cross of Christ, we are extremists for love, mercy, and forgiveness, for the sake of the whole world.

Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Repent and believe in the good news! The fight against extremism, against terror, against occupation, against hatred, against every evil that starts in the human heart, begins when we repent and turn away from all that opposes the kingdom of God.

This includes turning away from things which distract us from love of God and love of neighbor—like an unhealthy obsession with Facebook, or chocolate, or coffee.

This also includes turning away from the urge to return evil for evil, and from the temptation to punish an entire religion for the actions of a few.

It includes turning away from all who would intend to divide us, infect us with fear, or make us ashamed of our faith.

We turn away from these and all other forces which defy God, and we turn towards Jesus, in whom we believe the kingdom has come near.

For we believe goodness is stronger than evil, and love always conquers hate.

We believe the lives of martyrs will never be in vain, if we refuse to let hate infect our lives, our communities, and our hearts.

We believe that on the cross, Jesus has conquered sin and death once and for all, so wherever our journey leads--even if it means we give our own lives--the hope of resurrection is always before us.

One last thought for today. As I was preparing for the sermon this week, I “accidentally” read the wrong verses from 1 Peter. Our lectionary includes only verses 18-22, but I had been meditating on the passage beginning at verse 13.

It’s funny how these “accidents” work, though, because these extra verses were exactly what I needed to hear this week. As we enter this season of Lent, and as we are faced nearly every day with images of terror from those who want to goad us into fighting a different kind of religious war, consider these words from the 1 Peter chapter 3:

“Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Reflection for Ash Wednesday
18 February 2015
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

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

Photo by Danae Hudson
It’s an odd ritual, and yet we do it every Ash Wednesday: we hear these words from Jesus about not showing our piety before others, and then we immediately have black crosses smudged on our foreheads and go on to work, to the bus, or to the grocery store. While we may not receive rewards for doing this, we most certainly receive strange looks.

But on this day, in this particular week, when we wear the mark of Christ on our heads, we remember how twenty-one Christians recently lost their heads for no other reason than that they were baptized members of the Body of Christ.

For this reason, the simple liturgical act of being marked with the cross today takes on a deeper significance. Most of us in this room have never needed to keep our faith a secret, and have never truly experienced religious persecution. But whether or not we, in our contexts, are in mortal danger for wearing the cross of Christ on our bodies, our hearts are in solidarity today with those twenty-one men who lost their lives for the same cross. God grant them rest eternal, and may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard the hearts and minds of their loved ones in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Of course, it now must be clearly stated that to think of the cross we are about to receive as some kind of flag of solidarity or symbol of triumph would be entirely missing the point of the day and of the church season to come. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” says Jesus. The ashes we wear on Ash Wednesday are not signs that we are especially good or holy. They don’t show solidarity with the persecuted or resistance to the rise of secularism or prove any political point whatsoever. These ashes are ashes, nothing more, and when we wear them, we are “outed” not as people of extraordinary faith, but as people of completely ordinary mortality. We are dust, and to dust we shall return.

The funny thing is, facing this simple truth about ourselves can feel as frightening as any external terror or threat.

I heard a radio news story the other day about a proposal in the United States to sell food that has gone past its expiration date (or food that simply doesn’t appear fresh anymore) to the underprivileged. This was conceived as a way of dealing with both the immense amount of waste in American culture, and the increasing problem of malnutrition among the poor and the working poor. The innovator of this new program said, in short: “The idea is that if we make this expired and bruised produce cheaper than fast food, poor people will buy it, we won’t have to throw it out, and everybody wins.”

Now, there is much I’d like to say about this news story. In fact, there’s far too much to say about this proposed “solution” to poverty and what it reveals about how we view the value of other human beings, but today, it’s the foundation of this story that has my attention. This is a story about an American culture problem, but deep down it also reveals a universal human nature problem.

What this story illustrates is our human aversion to brokenness and our fear of mortality.

We are so afraid of imperfection, we won’t even eat a bruised banana.

We are so afraid of decay, scientists have created a bio-engineered apple which will not turn brown after being cut.

We are so afraid of things that are not fresh, and we so value the imperishable, that we will refuse to eat food that has passed its official, corporately stamped, arbitrarily chosen expiration date—but will happily pass it on to others, whose mortality is apparently less concerning.

And so it is quite the scandal that on Ash Wednesday Christians wear our imperfections, our bruises, our faults, our sins, and our mortality on our very bodies. 

This is the day we get real with ourselves. On this one day a year, we wear our expiration dates on our foreheads.

Someone has even said Ash Wednesday is the day all Christians celebrate their funerals in advance.

Isn’t that a lovely thought! 

This could all seem very depressing indeed, if it weren’t for the presence of God’s imperishable grace, love and mercy amidst the dust, decay, and death of this perishable world. American Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton even makes the case that Ash Wednesday isn’t a sorrowful day at all, but rather a joyful one. A feast, in fact! He said Ash Wednesday is a joyous feast because it is on this day that we let go of the false promises of the world, the false hopes of immortality, the false trust in these frail bodies, the false sense that perfection and achievement and beauty are what will make our lives worthwhile, and instead rest completely and totally on the goodness and love of God which we have seen in Christ Jesus and the cross.

Thomas Merton writes:

“In laying upon us the light cross of ashes, the Church desires to take off our shoulders all other heavy burdens—the crushing load of worry and guilt, the dead weight of our own self-love. We should not take upon ourselves a “burden” of penance and stagger into Lent as if we were Atlas, carrying the whole world on his shoulders. . . Penance is conceived by the Church less as a burden than as a liberation. It is only a burden to those who take it up unwillingly. Love makes it light and happy. And that is another reason why Ash Wednesday is filled with the lightness of love.”

I must admit, it’s a new concept for me to think of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent as being “light and happy”. We’re accustomed to thinking of this as a “heavy” time, a time of solemnity and restriction: No Alleluias during the liturgy. No desserts at Wednesday night church fellowship. No meat on Fridays, depending on your tradition. No coffee, no chocolate, no Facebook…depending on your personal piety.

But seen in this new light, Lent can be a journey to freedom rather than a forty day sentence to serve. As Merton points out, this can be forty days of shedding our reliance on our own abilities, and forty days of increasing our need for God’s grace and love. This can be forty days of liberation from dysfunction, and forty days of getting into right relationship with God, with our neighbors, with our own bodies.

Today can begin forty days of giving thanks that we are dust, but that dust is not all there is. After all, it was dust, imbued with the breath of God, which brought you, and everyone you know and love, into being. This same dust was made holy when Jesus, the Son of God, walked with us, experiencing all our joys and sorrows. It was from the dust and dirt of the tomb that Jesus was raised, conquering death once and for all. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. But because God so loved the world—dust and all—this is not a message of gloom and doom, but rather Good News of light, love, and liberation.

We are dust. God is love. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Sermon for Sunday, 8 February 2015 (5th Sunday after Epiphany)

Sermon for Sunday, 8 February 2015
5th Sunday after Epiphany

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith


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

Living in Jerusalem can make the world feel very small.

Carrie with Diane's Aunt Gayle
Photo by Carrie Smith
Last week I welcomed a church group from the United States to Redeemer Church, a group which happened to include the aunt of my high school best friend. It was wonderful to be with someone who’s known me since I was thirteen years old—not an everyday experience when you’re living far away from family! It was fun to have our Oklahoma and Jerusalem worlds collide here, thirty years later, but then…things got even weirder. 

Someone in the group said “Did you say your parents live in Lubbock, Texas? We’re from Lubbock!” And then another woman asked, “Can I have a picture with you? My brother is friends with your dad!”  It’s a small, small world indeed!

There are many stories like this in Jerusalem, of course. Living in a city considered sacred to several of the world’s religions means we’re likely to run into a few familiar faces now and then. It doesn’t help that much of world politics seems to be in perpetual orbit around what happens in this city. It can seem we truly are living in the center of the universe, the navel of the world, the axis mundi

Most of the time, this “small world” reality feels good. It’s bit like being a celebrity—except that instead of being the celebrity, we’re living in one!

But there are others ways—less positive ways—in which the world feels small.

Most days, the “world” equals my side of the city, my neighborhood, my grocery store, the gate I like to use, the checkpoint I think will be fastest, the languages I speak.

Most days, the “world” equals my list of tasks to accomplish, my favorite falafel stand, my plans for dinner, my colleagues, my sending organization, my opinion on the conflict.

And for others, our neighbors, the world is even smaller, reduced to my side of the wall, the roads I’m allowed to travel, the territories I’m allowed to inhabit, the sites I’m able to visit.

Living in this place that feels like the center of the universe does not guarantee us a bigger view of the world, but rather often means we have a much, much smaller one. In fact, the realities of life here can make it tempting to want to keep our head down, our eyes averted, our hearts protected, and our worlds small, as a way to guard against the relentless human drama of conflict, hate, and violence.

But now and again, something changes our focus, correcting our voluntary near-sightedness. It happened for me again last week as I chatted with that same group of church visitors. As usual, this group wanted to know what it was like to be a pastor here, and even more, what it’s like to be a Christian. But then they asked those questions we all likely dread: “Is peace possible? What can we do? Who should we trust? What’s the solution?”

Six months into this life in Jerusalem, and I know enough to know these are questions I can’t answer. I honestly didn’t know what to say in the short two minutes that remained before these folks went back to their lives and their churches in Oklahoma and Texas. I stood thinking for a few moments too long, but even in my silence, something on my face must have conveyed my sadness and frustration. Something in my silence must have revealed the hopelessness that lurks in the corners of this place because just then, from the back pew, the local Arab Christian tour guide stood to speak. She said, “Can I give you some advice? Pray. Pray, and put your hope in the Lord. It’s easy to grow a hard heart in this place. It’s easy to lose sight of God.”

“It’s easy to lose sight of God.” That’s a strange thought, isn’t it, as we are gathered today in this place, so close to the holy sites of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam? It’s easy to lose sight of God. How can that be, when God seems to part of every tour, every conversation, and every facet of the conflict here? How can we lose sight of God, when God is the foundation of our very lives?

Dear sisters and brothers, whether we live in the holy city or our home city, the reality is that our worlds are often very small indeed, and we do lose sight of God. It’s not that God is not in the little things, but that those little things become our god. Every once in a while, we need something or someone to avert our eyes away from our own worries, our own tasks, our own tiny piece of the puzzle and see the world as the Creator sees it. Every once in a while, we need the big picture.

View of Jerusalem from my balcony
Photo by Carrie Smith

This is the gift Psalm 147 offers us today. With the words of this hymn, the psalmist helps us see the world from a God’s-eye view. Amidst the hustle and bustle of life in a conflicted city, and in the face of the world’s news of disease, extremism, and disaster, this psalm is a view of the sunset from my 3rd floor balcony in Musrara; it’s the view of the Dome of the Rock from the Mt of Olives. The psalmist gives us a view of the ocean and clouds from the airplane window, and invites us to sing:

“Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.”

Hear again the words of this psalm:

2The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
3He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.

As I look out at you today, I see people who spend their days and nights working to minister to the outcasts, to heal the broken and to bind up the wounds left by conflict and war. Your hearts and hands are the heart and hands of Christ in this place—and yet, the big picture view offered by Psalm 147 reminds us that it is not all in your hands. I probably don’t need to remind you that this job is bigger than you. But so is our God, and it is God who will ultimately bring home all who have been cast out, who will heal all that is broken, and will bring us lasting peace.

4He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names.

Friends, God’s “big picture view” does not mean we have a God who is aloof and distant. God the Creator has named every star in the sky; in baptism, God calls every one of us beloved; God even knows the number and name of every cat in every alley in Jerusalem! Amen! Most importantly, through our Lord Jesus Christ’s suffering on the cross we have seen that God’s heart breaks over each of 504 children killed in Gaza, and every kidnapped Nigerian girl, and over every victim of violence and terror in every part of the world.

5Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.
6The Lord lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground.

The conflict in this place (and indeed, the current situation across the world) encourages us to see the world as sharply divided into right and wrong, just and unjust, righteous and unrighteous. Faced with shocking examples of violence and equally violent and dehumanizing policies, we can find ourselves attracted to positions of certainty. I think it’s important to recognize that we are not immune to the lures of extremism. Psalm 147 reminds us that while our understanding both of war and its resolution is limited, God’s understanding is beyond measure—and it is God alone who will cast the wicked to the ground. Our call is to be extremists for love.

7Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre.
8He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills.
9He gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.

The last few days of weather in Jerusalem have given us plenty of reasons to sing with thanksgiving and to make music to our God! Words cannot adequately capture the warmth of the sun, the beauty of the early-blooming flowers, and the brightness of the smiles on nearly everyone’s face. Even the promise of snow in the forecast this week (or, as I have heard it described, a “wintry mix!”) cannot dampen our spirits. Days like these are like miniature psalms in themselves, inviting us to sing along with joy over God’s creation. Praise the Lord!

Finally, hear again these words of Psalm 147:

10His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
11but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.

Sisters and brothers, this invitation to see the big picture is not an appeal to complacency. This is not a call to “let go and let God” – for we know that in Christ we are raised to new life in order to love and serve our neighbor, as when Simon’s mother in law was restored to health to minister to Jesus and his disciples. Seeking a “God’s eye view” of the world—and of this city—does not release us from our duty to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God; nor does it negate our baptismal call to proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.

However, this psalm and the view it offers us is a gift, in that it reminds us how God’s love for us is not based on our might, our intelligence, our effectiveness, or our efficiency. God is not reserving judgment on your worth based on whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved on your watch. From the view of Psalm 147 we see that God the Creator takes delight in those who fear him. We see that we please God when we make our home in the love, kindness, mercy, and beauty of God. And we know that however big the world’s problems seem, and however small we might feel, God is bigger. We know that good is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, and life is stronger than death!

Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God!
Praise the Lord for sunshine! 
Praise the Lord for strength and health! 
Praise the Lord for safe travels! 
Praise the Lord for meaningful work! 
Praise the Lord for the promise of peace with justice! 
Praise the Lord for the cross and for the resurrection! 
Praise the Lord for the Holy Spirit in this place and with these people!  
Praise the Lord that although our vision is limited, God sees the big picture! 

Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. Amen.