Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday: 31 May 2015

Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday: 31 May 2015

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

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

About a year ago, I fell prey to an online advertisement, a “limited time offer” from a genealogy website. For just $99, I could send a saliva sample to this company, and in return I would receive a DNA analysis telling me all about my ancestors—and therefore all about myself.  

Now, normally I wouldn’t pay any attention to such things, but this particular ad flashed across my screen around the time I learned I’d be moving to Jerusalem, far from family and friends, to serve as pastor. Maybe that’s what gave me a longing to be connected to my roots—or maybe it was just a really good internet ad—because I signed up on the spot for not one, but two, $99 “limited time” offers. Soon, I was making my poor husband spit into a tiny vial so we could ship off our DNA samples and find out who we really are. 

And you know what we found out? Not much. The unbearable whiteness of my being was confirmed (half English, half Scandinavian) which was pretty much the story my family had always told me. The only hint of mystery was a note at the bottom of the report which said that I, Carrie Smith, am a tiny bit “Middle Eastern” (whatever that means!). I think the phrase used was “a trace amount.” A trace amount! So sometime long ago, one of my relatives may have been right here in Jerusalem before I ever dreamed of being pastor of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer.

My $99 and that little vial of spit revealed I am half English and half Scandinavian. I also have type O- blood and a family history of diabetes. But what does this really say about me? Are these the things that are important to my kids, to my friends, to my family, to the people who love me?

After all, if you asked me to talk about someone I love, I would never start with her DNA analysis.  I would never begin by explaining her genes or her cholesterol level or her blood type. I probably wouldn’t hand you her family tree or her passport number, either.

Instead, if you ask me to talk about someone I love, I’m going to tell you about our relationship. I’m going to tell you about the trouble we got into and the adventures we had together. I’ll tell the story about how we met and another one about what makes her such a great friend. When we talk about people we love, we don’t explain them, we praise them.

So it’s a very peculiar thing that on Holy Trinity Sunday we preachers so often stand up and give a DNA analysis of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. On this one day a year we are invited to worship the God of love, specifically because She is one-in-three and three-in-one. This one day a year—even though our liturgy proclaims the Trinity in countless ways every single Sunday—we are invited to contemplate and celebrate our God who relates to us as three persons with one distinct essence. It is our duty and our joy to sing praises to the One whose love for the world is so great it must be expressed in at least three different ways.

 But instead, with object lessons and parables, three-leaf clovers or apples or science experiments, we try to “church-splain” the unexplainable. As a friend said to me the other day, “The irony is how the preacher explains and explains and explains, and then the sermon always ends with, ‘But really, it’s a mystery, and we can’t understand it anyway. Amen.’”

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Feast of the Holy Trinity doesn’t have to be an explanation, it can be a proclamation!

After all, at Christmas, we don’t explain the incarnation. We celebrate Christmas! We proclaim that Jesus was born to Mary in Bethlehem (just down the road) bringing the love of God near to all.

At Easter, we don’t explain the resurrection. We celebrate Easter! We proclaim that Jesus walked out of the tomb (just around the corner) and appeared to his disciples, saying “My peace I give to you!”

On Holy Trinity Sunday, we are likewise invited not to explain, but to celebrate and proclaim the love of God for the world—a love which we know through Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Given our inclination to explain the goodness and love of God (not only on Holy Trinity Sunday, but actually every day of the year), it’s very appropriate that we heard the story of Nicodemus this morning. It’s appropriate, not just because it’s one of the few places in Scripture which mentions all three persons of the Trinity in quick succession, but also because Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus is an experience to which we can easily relate.

Remember how when Nicodemus comes to Jesus (by the cover of night), he begins by explaining what he thinks he knows already:

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

In other words, Nicodemus approaches the Son of God and says: “You know, Jesus, I don’t care what my friends say, you’re a pretty good guy! In fact, I think you might be sent from God! I might even tell my people about it when I get home.”

Way to go, Nicodemus, explaining Jesus to Jesus!

But of course, just when Nicodemus was feeling so good about his theological framework, his worldview, and his understanding of his relationship to God, Jesus changes the game. Jesus reveals something completely new to Nicodemus, saying: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

To which Nicodemus replies: “Wait, what? How can anyone be born after having grown old?”

Again, slowly, shway shway, Jesus says a bit more -- about how what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the spirit is Spirit…

But again, Nicodemus just cannot process. He’s so accustomed to understanding, so used to being able to explain, so comfortable with his paradigm, that this new teacher standing in front of him speaking of Spirit and being born again is just too much.  So he asks again, “How can these things be?”

How can these things be? This is why the story of Nicodemus is perfect for Holy Trinity Sunday. We also want to understand. We also want to know. We would very much like a diagram and a flow chart and a DNA analysis of God.

In fact, in our desire to know how exactly God works, we even come from afar to see and smell and touch the holy sites here in the Holy land. We come for archaeological tours and historical facts and for proof. We spend a lot of money to travel here, in the hopes that we might better understand the history of God’s people, the life of Jesus, and the work of the Spirit today.

It may not be by the cover of night, but just like Nicodemus, we come as close as we can to the divine seeking knowledge and understanding and an explanation.

Meanwhile, God is loving us.

We are standing at a historical site, soaking in information,. And meanwhile, God the Father is loving us—providing the earth beneath our feet, the foundation of our lives, and the very ground of our being.

We are trying to make sense of the complex political situation here in the holy land—reading books and listening to lectures, hearing stories from what we think are “both sides of the issue.” And meanwhile, God the Son is loving us. While we seek fair and balanced solutions, Jesus, our brother, is walking children to school in Hebron at gunpoint. Jesus, Prince of Peace is accompanying our Palestinian neighbors through military checkpoints. Jesus, crucified and risen, and is having chemo alongside the cancer patients at Augusta Victoria Hospital.

And when we, like Nicodemus, feel certain we’ve seen it all, experienced it all, and we understand exactly how God works, then God the Holy Spirit is loving us. When we least expect it, in places we would never guess, and whether we like it or not, the Spirit of the Living God is surprising us, inspiring us, convicting us, and moving us from a place of certainty to a place of openness to the work of God in the world. The God of love—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is always revealing to us, in every way possible, the peace, justice, and reconciliation which is God’s design for the world.

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, there is no explanation for God’s love for us. There is no explanation for the suffering of the cross. There is no explanation for the joy of the empty tomb. There is no explanation for the gift of the Holy Spirit. There is only love---the love of the Father for the Son, the love of the Son for the oppressed and the suffering, and the love of the Spirit, our Advocate, who never leaves us orphaned.

All praise and glory be to you, O God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in whose honor we sing: 

 "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God all mighty, early in the morning our songs arise to Thee. Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty. God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity."  

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday: 24 May 2015

Sermon for Day of Pentecost
24 May 2015

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

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

I am currently finishing up my second semester of Arabic language lessons (the “Advanced Beginner” level), which means lately I’ve been praying a lot for the gift of tongues. “Shway, shway” say my Palestinian friends, but seriously, if God would see fit to grace me with the gift of tongues about now, I would welcome it. Bring on the divided tongues of fire. Bring on the sound of violent rushing wind. Bring on the instant Arabic fluency. In fact, we have a big test in class on Tuesday evening, so I’m holding out hope that today is the day. I’m counting on you to sing loud this morning! Come, Holy Spirit! Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me! Amen!

Fun at Arabic class!
Polis Institute, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
Today is indeed the Day of Pentecost, and it’s a special privilege to be celebrating the feast of the Holy Spirit in the place where the big event actually happened. It’s thrilling to be in Jerusalem and hear the account of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which began the movement which took the Good News of Jesus Christ from this city to the rest of the world. As I was preparing for worship and preaching this week, however, it struck me how different the Pentecost story sounds in this particular context: Redeemer Lutheran Church, Jerusalem, 2015.

In more homogenous contexts, Pentecost is the Sunday when preachers uncover the Norwegian and Spanish and German and Japanese speakers in the congregation and invite them to share their linguistic gifts during a prayer or a reading. In white North American churches, this is the day that the drums are dusted off and worshippers might consider clapping during the sending hymn! Once a year, in honor of that moment long ago when the faithful received the gift of tongues, many congregations put on their Pentecost finery and practice what it means to be a church for all people in all places.

Here at Redeemer, our situation is a little different. We already pray and sing in multiple languages. At Christmas, we heard “Silent Night” sung in Zulu. During communion, our “Sanctus” is sung in Spanish, and we pray the Lord’s Prayer in our mother tongues. Most of our Sunday School speaks Dutch! The gift of tongues is alive and well in our little congregation, on Pentecost and every other Sunday of the year.

Pentecost can also be an opportunity to remind a congregation of its place within the global church and to lift up its connection to believers in other countries. Therefore, on Pentecost it’s common to pray for missionaries and for partner churches. We pray for our sisters and brothers in Christ in other lands, and for those who have not yet heard the Good News. We sing songs from other cultures, and we remember that people from every place under heaven heard the Good News in their own languages on the Day of Pentecost.  

But here at Redeemer Lutheran in Jerusalem in 2015, we’re well aware of being a global church. Gathered again in Jerusalem from Finland, Sweden, Kenya, Germany, Canada, the United States, and many other places on map, we don’t need Pentecost Sunday to remind us of the diversity of the followers of Jesus Christ. And because people come and go frequently from our midst—we must say “farewell” to the Stayton family today, even as we say “hello” to our many visitors—we are constantly reminded that we are part of the One Body of Christ. One bread, one body. One Lord, one baptism. What a gift it is to be a part of a global faith community such as this.

So then, what does it mean to celebrate Pentecost in the city of Pentecost?

On this day, in this place, in this community, how do we receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the gift of tongues?  

We are not poor in cultural diversity. We are not lacking in languages.

But…we may be at a loss for words.

I’m at a loss for words when I see a ten year old Palestinian boy shot in the face by an IDF soldier, now in danger of losing his eye.

I’m at a loss for words when the government unveils a plan to enforce separate bus systems for Palestinians and Israelis—and equally at a loss when it is cancelled not because it’s wrong, but because it’s “bad publicity.”

I’m at a loss for words when I hear of new settlements being approved, more olive trees chopped down, more young Palestinians running their cars into crowds, more politicians advocating extremism, more Christians leaving the Holy Land for good.

A popular aphorism told around here says if you visit Israel and Palestine for two weeks, you go home and write a book. If you stay for three months, you go home and write an article. If you’re here longer than that, then you just don’t know what to say.
I suspect those of you who are living and working here in Jerusalem and the West Bank may agree with that assessment.

But even if you’ve been in Jerusalem no longer than a day, here on a visit or a pilgrimage, you too may be at a loss for words. How does one communicate to others the situation here? How do we share the beauty of the holy sites, the ugliness of the Wall, the hope and strength and resistance of our sisters and brothers, and the seemingly intractable problems and institutionalized injustice keeping the people of this land from experiencing peace?

Words fail us. We don’t know where to begin. We’re not sure of the syntax, the grammar, or the vocabulary to speak of truth, justice, peace, and equal rights for all people. Here in the Holy Land, and back home in our own contexts, we want to be witnesses for Jesus Christ and his Gospel of love, but we find ourselves stuck. Silent. Confused. At a loss for words.

When the disciples gathered in Jerusalem more than two thousand years ago, all together in one place, they too were confused. They too wondered what the Lord would have them say or do in their situation. Remember, the crucified and risen Jesus had just ascended into heaven, leaving them only with the instruction to stay in Jerusalem and “wait there for the promise of the Father.” After all they had seen, after all they had witnessed on the road, at the cross, and at the empty tomb, they were alone. What could they do? What could they say? Who would give them the words?

And it was into that room full of faithful confusion that the Holy Spirit made her spectacular entrance. A sound like a rushing wind brought the breath of God to people gasping to keep hope alive. Tongues of fire fell on disciples whose only qualifications were open hearts and a desire to be faithful.

Pentecost, He Qi
“And all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability…

Through the Holy Spirit the Father gifted the disciples with power to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that all may hear. Through the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, every believer is empowered to be an instrument of peace, a broker of justice, and a minister of reconciliation. By the power of the Holy Spirit, each of you gathered here today is uniquely gifted to share the Good News, wherever you call home, and wherever the Spirit sends you. Amen!

In our usual celebrations of Pentecost, this is the Good News we most often proclaim. The wind, the fire, the gift of tongues, our mission to the ends of the earth—these are the gifts of the Holy Spirit about which we pray, sing, and dance…at least once a year.
Thanks be to God, the church has received the gift of tongues. But even so, sometimes we find ourselves at a loss for words. Sometimes, more often than we would like, we find ourselves without a voice even to pray, much less preach or sing or speak truth to power.

And in those moments when we feel the weakest, when we don’t know even how to pray, this is when we truly know the power of the Holy Spirit and the Good News of Pentecost.

When we are at the funeral of a friend or a beloved relative, and we haven’t the strength left to sing the hymns, by the power of the Holy Spirit our sisters and brothers sing the Gospel of love for us, surrounding us in the songs of faith and filling us with hope.

When the weight of the world is upon us and we can’t seem to catch a breath much less share the Good News with others, by the power of the Holy Spirit we experience the Gospel of love through the smile of a shopkeeper, the kindness of a stranger, the support of a friend, or the words of Holy Scripture.

"The Body of Christ, given for you"
Photo from a worship service at Capron Lutheran Church
 Capron, Illinois, USA 2009
When our faith has been shaken, and we can’t imagine the words which could make a difference in the presence of the Wall, the Occupation, religious extremism, or the persistence of racism and sexism and violence even among the people of God, then by the power of the Holy Spirit we hear the Gospel of love in the words, “This is the body of Christ, given for you. This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, sometimes we forget that the most precious gift, the most astonishing work of the Spirit, in fact the fire that sustains the Church across the world today is not only our ability to speak in tongues, but also the gift of ears to hear the Gospel on the lips of others.

For after the rushing wind, after the tongues of fire, and after the disciples started speaking in tongues, then it was the crowd who received the gift of Pentecost:

“The crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” They said, “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

The story of Pentecost, then, comes to us today as a reminder that when we’re confused;

when it feels like Jesus has left us alone in the room;

when we feel underqualified and overwhelmed;

when the world’s injustices and the evils of our own human sinfulness put us at a loss for words;

even then we are not left orphaned.

Even then, we will not lose hope.

Even then, it is Pentecost.

For by the power of the Holy Spirit the church has received the gift of tongues, and now each of us can hear the Good News on the lips of our neighbors, our friends, and even strangers. 

Come, Holy Spirit, Come. Open our ears to hear. Open our mouths to speak. Open our hearts to be filled with your grace. Amen.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter: 17 May 2015

Sermon the 7th Sunday of Easter
17 May 2015

Psalm 1

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

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

 1Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

2but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.

3They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

4The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

6for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

This psalm conveys a simple message: The way of the Lord leads to happiness, but the way of the wicked will perish.

It’s a simple message, but one which can seem very easy to refute. After all, some of it seems to describe an alternate universe. Do the good guys really always prosper? It seems to me the guy (or girl) with the most money and most connections has a better chance at winning, everything from elections to the better table at the restaurant. Does the way of the wicked always perish? The guy with the sword always fares better than the one who loses his head. And last time I watched the news, a certain amount of wickedness seemed not be perilous at all, but actually celebrated.

“The LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” Earlier this week, when I saw the first news reports that Nepal had suffered another devastating earthquake, I went down the hallway to the office of our bishop. I’m not sure why I felt the need to tell him right away – what could he do about it? – but it seemed important. Maybe he would have something to say which could make such a tragedy make sense. Maybe he, being a bishop, could help me understand how people who were still digging out of the rubble deserved another disaster. But when I entered his office, Bishop was sitting at his desk, shoulders heavy with other troubles—the illness of good friend Tawfiq Nasser, for one. When I told him about the earthquake, he just sighed and said, “This week, we only get bad news.”

Some weeks, it’s just difficult to read Psalm 1 with a straight face. We want to believe, of course, that if we follow the righteous path, if we turn away from the wicked, if we pray and believe and give to the poor and forgive our neighbors, that we will be happy, and we will prosper. We will not suffer earthquakes, or cancer, or persecution. The Lord will watch over our paths, and we will not perish.

And then another earthquake hits already desperate people, and the young Tawfiq dies of cancer in the very hospital where he has overseen the healing of so many others, and our Palestinian neighbors are still waiting after 67 years to return to their homes and villages.

Still, we would like to believe that Psalm 1, being the first psalm in the book, is the prescription for happiness. Being righteous equals being happy. Being wicked equals being…not happy. Isn’t that right?

We’re always hoping for that secret formula.

Some years ago, when I was trying to find ways to make a little money as a stay-at-home mom, I got involved with one of those work-from-home pyramid “businesses.” I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time, of course. It was pitched to me by someone I trusted (my midwife) and because I had just recently put the life of my baby into her hands, I figured she was telling me the truth. I trusted her when she said if we used these products, and if we sold them to friends, and if we were faithful to the business model, not only would we be happy and healthy (and wealthy), we would be godly.

You see, the especially tricky part of this particular home business was that it was couched in religious language. The company made a point of selling to people of faith who would be drawn in by the promise of getting “back to nature” and supporting healthy families. Its motto might as well have been “Happy are those who use these essential oils and sell them to their neighbors, for the Lord will watch over their bank accounts.”

What I found out, eventually, was that this little scheme did not make us happy, and in fact it mostly made our family and friends annoyed with us. It also made me embarrassed when I saw it for what it was—a false path, no better than other so-called easy routes to health, wealth, and happiness.

In our human sinfulness, we’re always looking for the one true path, the secret formula, the shortcut, the perfect diet, the best investments, and the no-fail recipe, which is how it’s possible that we are not only taken in by shady schemes and snake oil salesmen, but we can even misread the Bible.

When we read the Bible as a divine prescription for success, then we can become fundamentalists, devoted to the following of rules more than we are devoted to loving God. Alternately, having experienced a bit of the pain of life already, we may disregard the messages of Scripture like the one this psalm offers (“choose the path of the righteous, listen to God’s word”) because we don’t want to be thought a fool. What has the righteous path ever earned me, anyway?

But this psalm offers no multi-level business plan, and the Word of God is no program for success. Instead of a prescription for happiness, this psalm gives us a description of life rooted in the way of God – a way which offers no guarantees for worldly prosperity, but which promises us life, and life abundant.

Today is the 7th Sunday of Easter, and the Ascension of Jesus was just a few days ago. Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit is just around the corner. By now, we have gotten used to our Easter “Alleluias”. By now, we are feeling quite comfortable with the empty tomb and the resurrection news. By the seventh Sunday of Easter, we’ve mostly stopped shouting the Easter proclamation:

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

At Eastertime, it’s easy to get comfortable with the joy of the Christian message. Indeed, it’s good to bask in the glory of the empty tomb and in the gift of eternal life with God we’ve received because of the resurrection. But as Christians, we must remember that no matter what time of year it is, we’re never far from Good Friday. 

And the witness of Jesus on Good Friday shows us that the way of love, the way of love of God and love of neighbor, leads not to comfort, but to the cross. The way of Jesus leads us not to wealth, but to witness. The way of the righteous leads us not to prosperity, but to sacrifice.

This is hardly a winning sales pitch! But this truth is no deterrent to the godly path. For we know that though the way of Jesus may lead to the cross, it also leads to life. We know that though the way of the righteous may lead to persecution, or unpopularity, or struggle, it also leads ultimately to peace, and justice, and reconciliation, not only for us, but for the whole world.

There are always those who will use violence or extremism to amplify their message and to draw others to their wicked path. There will always be opportunities to follow the way of exclusion, of isolation, or of the dehumanization of others for quick experiences of wealth or power. But happy are those who know that the Word of God, the law of love, is more powerful than the messages of hatred which crowd the airways and compete for our attention. Happy are we when love, grace, mercy and forgiveness are the soundtrack of our lives.

For “they are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.”

Yes, there is a way in which this could be read as “prosperity Gospel”, and some have done it (and preached it) with very little shame. There are those who still read this (and the rest of Scripture) to mean that if you do the right things, believe the right way, and follow the right path, you will yield fruit (or money, or cars, or many children.) Not only is this a tragically bad interpretation of God’s Word, but sadly when those who expect prosperity encounter trials and tribulations, they will blame God. They will blame God, and they will leave the church, and they will be left in the hands of those who are more than happy to welcome them onto a different path.

But those who meditate on Word of God, who keep the law of love on their lips and at their fingertips, embody the beautiful Arabic concept of “sumud.” Sumud is translated to something like “steadfastness in the face of oppression.” Sumud is what you have when your roots go deep into the soil. It is the kind of strength that comes, not from being the tallest or the strongest or the fastest growing, but from being close to the source of water and of life. The “way of the righteous” in Psalm 1 offers us sumud.
For our Palestinian neighbors, sumud is what has helped them not only endure and resist but flourish and live during these 67 years after the Nakba. 

For African-Americans in my home country, the United States, sumud is what gave them strength for the long struggle for civil rights. We hear it especially in one of the most famous songs of the era: “Fighting for our freedom, we shall not be moved. Fighting for our freedom, we shall not be moved. Just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved!”

Sisters and brothers, there are days and weeks (and years) when the promises of God are difficult to hear, much less to believe. There are times when the darkness seems to overwhelm the light of Christ, and the righteous path is not easy to see, but the way of the wicked seems to prosper.

But on these days, especially on these days, God gives us sumud--through water and the Word, through song, through bread and wine, and through the community of faith that is the church. The witness of our Lord Jesus Christ reveals that the path of the wicked , the extremist, the terrorist, the racist, will not stand. God will never allow evil to have the last word, just as Easter morning showed us that death never has the last word. The path of the wicked will not stand, because God’s love is greater. Love always wins. And happy are we when we delight in this truth. Amen. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ascension Day Reflection: 14 May 2015


Church of the Ascension, Mt. of Olives
Augusta Victoria Hospital Campus

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith

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

Lutheran Church of the Ascension
Mt of Olives, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
On Ascension Day, I really feel a kinship with those disciples who stood staring into the sky, watching Jesus as he disappeared out of their sight. I can very well imagine the confusion they must have felt, after faithfully following Jesus all the way out as far as Bethany, only to see him lift his hands and be carried off on a cloud. Honestly, the disciples had already endured the passion of the cross, the darkness of the three days, and the shock and surprise of Easter morning. They had already experienced his confusing post-resurrection appearances —walking through locked doors, allowing people to feel his hands and his side, and making himself known in the breaking of bread, for example.

And now, just as they were getting used to the new reality, in which Jesus could walk out of the tomb and walk with them once again—he was gone. Just when they thought they understood the world, things changed once again.

I especially resonate with this confusion now that I am living in Jerusalem. Just when I think I know how to get somewhere, the bus numbers change, or the roads are closed for a festival or a protest. Just when I’ve learned where to buy that cheese I particularly like, the store closes. Just when I think I understand the ongoing conflict between the peoples in the holy land, I hear another story, or meet a new friend, or experience one more new piece of the puzzle. Just when I think I understand Jerusalem, everything changes.

For forty days, we’ve been getting used to the news of the resurrection, proclaiming “Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!” So it’s understandable that we, like the disciples, may feel confused about the Ascension. We may wonder what the big deal is about this festival (besides the fact that this one includes baptisms, bratwursts, and beer!) Why would we celebrate the absence of the one we proclaim as our crucified and risen Lord and Savior?

But it turns out that what we celebrate on Ascension Day is not the absence of Jesus from the earth, but the presence of Jesus in us. We celebrate that now Jesus is free from the bounds of time and space, so he is able to be everywhere at once. At the communion table we receive his presence in the bread and the wine. On Pentecost we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. And on this day, we celebrate that Christ is present through us, his disciples, the ones who are called the Church.

Jesus is ascended into heaven, and yes, this is a big change. But because everything has changed, because Jesus is not here, the Church can be here. Because the body of Jesus has been carried up on a cloud, we can be the Body of Christ in every place. For, as Jesus said, “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

After all, if we are always looking up into the sky, we aren’t seeing the rest of God’s creation. If we’re always trying to see Jesus where he was last, we aren’t seeing him in our neighbor. If we’re always stuck here on the mountain, watching for his return, we aren’t seeing the places in the world which still need the Good News of the cross and of the resurrection. Ironically, as long as we are staring after Jesus, the church can’t be the church.

And so on this Day of Ascension, our confusion makes way for our joy, and we will not stay on the mountain staring into the skies. We will not mourn his absence. We will rejoice that Jesus is no longer here, because now he is everywhere—through us, his holy church, and through the mission we share. Amen.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Sermon for 6th Sunday of Easter, 10 May 2015

Sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter
10 May 2015

The Rev. Carrie Smith

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

Where I lived last...our home in Crystal Lake, Illinois
Photo by Carrie Smith
Where is home?

This is the question Bishop Cindy, my supervisor from the Chicago church offices (and our guest preacher last Sunday) asked me the other day. It probably wasn’t meant to be a deep, probing question, but as many of us in this room know, the answer can be complicated. Is “home” where you were born, or where your parents live, where you lived last, where your children were born, or where you own a house? Is home where the heart is, or where your roots are, or where you happen to live right now?

Where is home? If you are a missionary, foreign aid worker, volunteer, or student, you’ve had to answer this question more times than you can count. Your answer may even change over time! It took me a long time (and a helpful seminary classroom exercise) to stop trying to define home as one of the many cities where I spent a few a years as a kid. After relating my history of frequent family moves the seminary chaplain said “Aha! You’re a nomad.” Finally, this made sense! I realized “nomad” felt more honest than choosing an identity as a Nebraskan, an Oklahoman, a Texan, an Iowan, a Minnesotan, a Missourian (is that even how you would say it?) or a Chicagoan. I feel most at home somewhere between here and there – wherever “there” is.
Where I live now...Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith

The question of where “home” is becomes more complicated in this context, where our friends and coworkers have very different experiences of belonging. Home, for many of our neighbors, has been taken away. Home is where other people live right now. My address may be a refugee camp, but “home” is the village I’ve never seen (but which lives on in the hearts of my parents and grandparents.) For many Palestinians, “home” is where the settlers are.

On the other hand, for some in this context, having a secure “home” which honors my culture, my religion, and my ethnicity (after centuries of persecution and wandering) is the reason for building walls, carrying guns, and protecting perceived land rights and privilege. For many Israelis, “home” is a right earned through suffering.

Indeed, the concept of “home” in this particular land and this particular city is more intense than perhaps anywhere else in the world. Two peoples, three religions, and countless colonial presences have wanted to call this “Jerusalem, my happy home.”

Where is home?

Though difficult to define on the best of days, most would agree “home” actually has nothing to do with an address – it’s a sense of belonging. “Where do you belong?” is really what people want to know.

In today’s Gospel reading, we heard how on the night in which he was betrayed, just before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus described for his disciples where they would belong from now on. For the disciples, who had walked away from jobs and families to follow Jesus, “home” was no longer the boat or the fishing village they left behind.  “Home” had become the houses of those who showed them hospitality and the road they walked with their teacher. Having given up everything for the sake of his message of love, “home” was wherever Jesus was.

But things were about to change. He had tried to tell them. He said as plainly as he could that he would soon be leaving, but their love for him kept them from hearing it. 

So at the table that night, Jesus said,
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

“Abide in my love.”

“Abide” is one of those words we only seem to use in church, isn’t it? How often do we ask “Where do you abide?” We would never say, “I abide in my abode.” Although, if you happen to live in Arizona, I suppose you could say, “I abide in my adobe abode.”

A more relatable English version of John 15 might be this translation from “The Message”, which puts it this way, “I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love.”

Make yourselves at home in my love. You belong with me.

Jesus’ message to his disciples is whether you’ve lived your entire life within one square mile (as my grandmother did) or if you’ve lost track of how many addresses you’ve had; whether you own the whole building or can barely pay the rent, your forever home is in the love of God we have seen in Christ Jesus. In Jesus’ love we find rest. In the cross of Jesus we find security. In the empty tomb we find joy. We abide in his abode. 

We belong to God! Amen!

Of course, this heavenly home doesn’t negate our need for an earthly abode. Belonging to Jesus doesn’t take away the need for refugees, orphans, and the homeless to have justice and a place to call home in the here-and-now. However, knowing that Jesus has made a home for us in his love does invite us to consider all the other structures and institutions which we have built up in the search for security, love, and identity.  

We’ve felt certain of the foundations of class, culture, and education we have beneath our feet. We’ve built up walls of power and privilege. We’ve reinforced glass (and stained glass) ceilings. Occasionally, we redecorate things a bit in response to the changing times, but rarely do we question the stability of these structures themselves.
We often see survivors standing outside the ruins of their fire-ravaged house or the bare foundations left behind after a tornado and saying to the camera, “Yes, the house is gone, but the most important thing is we have each other.” Deep down, we also know this to be true. We know that “home” is more than the address on our driver’s license or the roof over our heads, but it sometimes takes a big change for us to stand back and consider where and to whom we belong.

For the people of my home country, the United States, that big change has been happening since August, as structures of racism and institutional violence have been exposed repeatedly, and people are faced with questions of who exactly is at “home” in the “land of the free”.

For the students and teachers at my seminary in Chicago, that big change took place this week, at the refectory bulletin board.

This week, the community message board in my seminary’s cafeteria carried messages like “Thursday the 23rd Internship Assignment Party” and “Celebrate that you are awesome and worthy of God’s love” and, since it’s still the Easter season, even a joyful “Alleluia!”

And there, in the center, someone had written the words, “Black power!” 

Community message board at Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago
Photo by Kwame Pitts
Except that someone else had crossed out “black” and had written “white” above it.
So now, the community message board says “Alleluia! White Power.”

You can imagine the storm that erupted when students saw this message in their lunchroom. Social media has made it possible to watch the ensuing drama unfold from afar, which I have been doing, with both shock and sadness. Some want to find out who wrote the word “White” and to deal with that person alone. Some want an investigation into who wrote “black power” in the first place, and why. Some are dismissing the whole thing as nonsense. Some are so hurt and angry that they see this as the start of a movement within the walls of the seminary—a movement which already goes by hashtag #EracismSeminary.

What I see (granted, from afar) is a community – my community—which thought it was standing on a firm foundation, but has just experienced an earthquake. I see future pastors questioning the stability of classroom walls and church steeples—places where they had found safety, security, and identity. I see faithful Christians, white and black, taking a step back to consider their address: Is this my home? Is this the community of love Jesus was talking about? Do I belong here?

It was at the cross that the disciples experienced that same feeling of being homeless, orphaned, and not belonging. Jesus knew it was coming. He knew they would be lost. He knew they would be looking for shelter, looking for comfort, looking for belonging. So at the table that night, just before his arrest, he gave them a new address and a new zip code. He gave them a place to belong, saying:

 “Make yourselves at home in my love. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends.”

With those few words, Jesus gave us, his disciples, a place to belong, and that place is the community of love where the commandment of love is lived out.

Sometimes we call that home the church. And much of the time, the witness of the church is just that—in a world where violence and exclusion and power-over-others seem to rule the day, the church provides a powerful alternative witness. We bear witness to the self-emptying love of Jesus, who laid down his life for his friends. Much of the time, this is exactly the kind of home the church provides for the lost, for the oppressed, for the voiceless, for the hurting and grieving, for you and for me.

But sometimes, even the church needs to change its address. If our church address includes racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or hate of any kind, then not only are we disregarding the Father’s commandments, we are not bearing fruit. We are not loving as we have been loved, and our joy is not complete. If the house of God is not a house for all, then it is a home for no one.

Sisters and brothers, hear again the Good News: We belong to Christ! Our home is in his love for us, and therefore our commandment—and our joy—is to love as we have been loved. For “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” In the church, in our homes, in this land and in your homeland, Jesus sends us now to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. Confident that we have a forever home in his love for us, we are free to lay down our lives for our friends—until all have found their home in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.