Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sermon for 26 July 2015: John 6:1-21

Sermon for Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Rev. Carrie B. Smith


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

The walk to work through the hot Jerusalem streets was brutal this week. Not only was it hot, but the streets were also packed with people, especially at and near Damascus Gate. The Eid al-Fitr holiday meant that many folks who usually don’t have permits to visit Jerusalem or the sea had special permission from the Israeli government—and they used them. It was hard to imagine there were any folks left in Bethlehem or Ramallah, based on the crowds here in the Old City! I can only imagine what the beaches were like! I was still thinking (or, rather, feeling grumpy) about this situation when I arrived here to the church. My church colleague, Basaam, greeted me with his usual cheerful smile and “Sabah il khair!”

In my halting Arabic, I said hello and then something about how hot it was and how crowded the streets were. “Haram!” I said.

And then Basaam told me about his day. He told me about waiting in line for three hours (from 6 to 9 am) to get through the Bethlehem checkpoint every day since the end of Ramadan. Three hours of waiting with his West Bank neighbors for their chance to see more of this land we call holy. Three hours of standing in the heat under the watchful eye of soldiers with machine guns, boredom and frustration periodically interrupted by crying babies, shouting, tear gas, and people climbing over the fences above his head.

After all of this, instead of visiting the sea with his neighbors, Basaam then gets to sit at our church reception desk and answer tourists’ questions a thousand times a day. Questions like: “Where is the bathroom?” and “Is this the Holy Sepulcher?”

And, though he didn’t say it, I’m sure the highlight of his day is listening to an American pastor complain about the inconvenience of the heat and the crowded streets on her fifteen minute “commute” to work.

As usual, when I hear stories like this from my Palestinian colleagues, I am humbled. Who do I think I am, to complain about my walk to the church? Who do I think I am, to complain about people enjoying a rare chance to visit their holy places, when I’m free to visit them any day I want?

And then, after I was humbled, I was sad and angry—for my friend, and for his neighbors. And I wished, once again, that I could do something. I wished I could do something about the checkpoints, and the wall, and the occupation, and the whole darn mess.

Furthermore, I wished Jesus would do something about it. My friend needs a miracle, Jesus!

Since this is the week we hear about two of Jesus’ most famous miracles—the feeding of the 5,000 and his walking on water—I wonder what exactly we want Jesus to do. What miracle does my friend need? What could Jesus multiply today, instead of bread and fish?

Maybe we can ask Jesus to multiply permits to Jerusalem for our Palestinian neighbors, so they don’t all come on the same week.

No, wait – how about multiplying the checkpoints, so the lines are shorter? And maybe multiplying the soldiers who check the permits, so the wait times are less?

No, wait – how about multiplying the peace talks and dialogues and conferences and position statements from churches, so we can all feel like we are making a difference?

Is this what Jesus would multiply? Is this the miracle my friend Basaam needs?

One of the unfortunate (and unexpected) side effects of living and working in this land called holy is our lowered expectations of miracles. It’s difficult to maintain a faith in the miraculous multiplication of bread when the only thing multiplying seems to be illegal settlements. It’s difficult to maintain a faith in Jesus’ ability to walk on water when our fellow Christians must walk through cattle chutes to get to work. Visitors and pilgrims often say that being in this place forever changes the way you read the Bible—and I agree! But unfortunately, it’s not just that being here adds a soundtrack and some visuals to familiar Bible stories. It’s that our expectations of the miraculous get a little messed up. When everything around us shouts scarcity—not enough land for two peoples and three religions, not enough goodwill to make peace, not enough international pressure for leaders to make a change—then even crumbs seem like a feast. Even more permits or faster lines at the checkpoint seem like a miracle. 

I was at a conference in the West Bank a few months ago where we were doing some work on community organizing and peace-building. The conference itself felt somewhat miraculous, in that it included both local and international Christians as well as Israeli and American Jewish scholars and activists. Much good and honest work and conversation was happening, as we focused on real, concrete behaviors and actions towards peace.

One of the internationals, when it was her time to speak, said her goal was to learn a few interfaith dialogue skills to use for the next conference. 

But then, one of the Palestinian Christians spoke up and testified: “As a person of faith, I do believe in incremental change. I even believe in transformational change. But I also must maintain my faith in miraculous change. I believe miracles can still happen—and I hope it’s before the next conference.”

Communion bread, baked for Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Photo (and bread) by Carrie Smith
This is the kind of faith statement which comes from a deep hunger, a hunger which will not be satisfied with crumbs. This kind of hunger will not be satisfied by another conference. It can only be satisfied by a miracle, the kind of miracle which we have through our Lord Jesus Christ.

As people of faith it’s important to be honest about our hunger. We’re not hungry for better media coverage or more humane policies—we’re hungry for peace. Our neighbors and colleagues aren’t hungry for better treatment at the checkpoints—they’re hungry for freedom of movement and the removal of the wall. People in the United States aren’t hungry for a flag to be removed or new gun laws to be enacted—they are hungry for an end to racism and for a radical culture shift away from violence.

Maybe these things seem impossible. Maybe it seems foolish to expect such miracles.

But then again, it is foolish to expect God would be born among us, to a young girl in Bethlehem.

It is foolish to expect our sins could be forgiven and the world could be redeemed through an instrument of torture, which is now a sign of victory over death.

It is foolish to think that when the women went to the tomb that first day of the week, they found Jesus alive. Not just a little bit alive. Not seemed to be alive. But alive! Abundantly alive!

And it was foolish to think that five loaves and two fish could feed five thousand people. But we know that when the meal was over, not one person was still hungry—and there were twelve baskets leftover.

Perhaps it is foolish to expect such an abundant miracle in this place, in this conflict, in this world.  But we are fools for Christ! And while our Gospel text for today seems to be about miraculously multiplying bread and miraculously walkable water, the real miracle is Jesus himself. The real miracle, the Good News, is that Jesus stood on the water and said to his disciples: “It is I; do not be afraid.” With those few words he revealed himself to be the great “I AM”, the King of Creation, the Prince of Peace, the One we’ve been waiting for—but so much greater than we expected. His radical love, mercy, and forgiveness is the miracle for which the world hungers.

And Jesus’ presence, in, with and among us, is why, sisters and brothers, even in this political situation where most see scarcity, we can surely testify that miracles do abound.  

It’s a miracle when we experience an abundance of mercy, love, and forgiveness, for example when my colleague Basaam saw fit to forgive my privilege and my ignorance as I complained about my so-called commute in the morning.

It’s a miracle when we see an abundance of risk on behalf of the neighbor—for example this Friday, when 800 people—Christians, Muslims, and Jews, organized by Rabbis for Human Rights—showed up to march in protest of the planned demolition of thevillage of Susiya. This morning, I saw that the Israeli government “miraculously” found Ottoman era documents proving private ownership of the land—which cancels the demolition order. A miracle indeed.

Dear sisters and brothers, I still believe in miracles. I believe—for my friend Basaam, for all the peoples of this land, for myself. I believe in the power of the abundant and transformational love of Jesus. I believe, and I must testify, because I have seen it for myself.

Posters hanging in the SOS Childrens' Village in Rafah 
I must testify that while Jesus doesn’t multiply permits or checkpoints to make this rotten system easier to bear, he does multiply our discomfort with the status quo.

I must testify that while Jesus isn’t in the business of multiplying conferences or public statements or church position papers, he is in the business of opening eyes and hearts, multiplying our understanding and love for our neighbors (sometimes through conferences, public statements, and church position papers…)

And what about bread? Does Jesus still multiply bread? Yes! “Give us today our daily bread” we pray, but dear sisters and brothers, know that while Jesus provides abundantly for our daily needs, he is at the same time increasing our hunger. Every day, Jesus increases our hunger for justice and peace so that one day, inshallah one day soon, what we will see processing through the streets of the city are not caskets for the dead but rather baskets of bread.

This is the miracle we expect. This is the miracle we are hungry for: baskets overflowing with the bread of peace, and equality, and mutual respect in this land called holy, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Then, will all the people say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sermon for 19 July 2015: On taking selfies at Golgotha and a compassionate God

Sermon for Sunday, 19 July 2015

8th Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


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

Friday was my first day home from a week-long vacation in Sweden. (Many thanks to the Rev. Belva Brown Jordan, the Rev. Jeff von Wald, and Rachel Leslie, for leading worship last week and allowing me the much-needed time away with my family!)

As I got ready for work Friday morning, once again donning a black dress, black tights, and black shoes before walking out into the Jerusalem heat, I couldn’t help but sing to myself “I’m back in the collar again, oh I’m back in the collar again…” (at least, until my spouse begged me to stop!)

After a week of rest, I should have been ready to take on the world, or at least my little corner of it. But as can often happen after a vacation, even though I was wearing the uniform, I found it difficult to get back into “work mode.” After a few frustrating hours in the church office, I decided to walk around the corner to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for prayer. I thought maybe a little time at the cross and the empty tomb could give me the attitude adjustment I needed.

But when I arrived at the church, a great crowd was already there. Tour groups with matching shirts and tour guides with flags waving. Muslims, taking the chance to visit the sites of Jerusalem on their Eid holiday. And of course priests, monitoring the crowd’s behavior. I watched as one brother kicked out three visitors just for wearing shorts and tank tops too near the tomb.

Golgotha, Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Photo by Carrie Smith
I maneuvered my way through the crowd until I found a spot to sit, and there I prayed. I read Scripture. I meditated on the Gospel text for today, about the disciples and Jesus trying to get away by themselves. At least…I tried to do those things. But the crowds kept coming! Men, women, and children from around the world, lighting candles, genuflecting, pushing and shoving each other past the site where Our Lord Jesus took his last breath. When the umpteenth person in a row took a smiling selfie in front of Golgotha, I must confess that what I was feeling for the crowd was not Christian love. Finally, I stood up to go home, hoping to find my rest and focus somewhere far from the crowd.

And it was on that walk from the cross and the crowds to the comfort of my air-conditioned home that this week’s Gospel text came into sharp focus. The disciples gathered around Jesus were weary from their travels. They needed physical and spiritual nourishment if they were to continue on the mission to which they were called. Jesus could see their weariness himself, so he said, “Come away with me.” Together, they got in the boat and traveled to a deserted place by themselves

…except that when they got to the other side, they weren’t by themselves. While the disciples were sailing across the water, the crowd had hurried to the other shore on foot. So much for their plans for a little rest and relaxation! But after all, this turn of events should not have been much of a surprise. The apostles surely knew by now that wherever Jesus is, the sorrows of the world are never far behind. Wherever Jesus is, the sick and the suffering and the oppressed are there, too. Wherever Jesus is, there are people—people who need healing, mercy, forgiveness and love.

It’s true, the presence of the crowd was not on the agenda for the apostles’ weekend retreat. Nevertheless, Scripture says Jesus saw them and had compassion for them. He had compassion for the people, for he saw they were like “sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus, the Good Shepherd, full of mercy and compassion, began to teach, and to heal, and to love the great crowd of needy people on the shore.

Walking home from the Holy Sepulcher Church on Friday, still thinking uncharitable thoughts about the crowd at the church, I suddenly felt like one of those apostles on the boat with Jesus. Can you just imagine how annoyed they must have been when they saw the crowd on the shore? These were real people, after all. Real people with real aching feet and a real desire to have some “R & R”. These days, we might file a complaint with the human resources department about not getting our promised vacation! Finally, we’re getting a day off, and now look—there goes Jesus, talking to the crowd. There goes Jesus, teaching another parable. There goes Jesus, healing another broken heart and another broken body. There goes Jesus, giving new hope and new life to folks the world has written off.

Should it have been any surprise to the apostles that a crowd would meet them on the shore?

Should it have been any surprise to me that if I went to the foot of the cross, I would find a crowd already there? Or, as it turns out, that I needed just as much compassion and healing as they did?

Should it have been any surprise to realize I was part of the same crowd, desperate to see Jesus?

And there goes Jesus, forgiving even me.

Thanks be to God, Jesus is not put off by our bad attitudes. Jesus is never bored of hearing the same prayers. Jesus never tires of forgiving us, even when we must confess the same sins again and again. For we know that he has said “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” and again, “I will not leave you orphaned” and again, “Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” 

Sisters and brothers, we are weak, but he is strong. We lack compassion for others, but he loves us all the way to the cross. Though we may be weary of the world, weary of our neighbors, weary even of ourselves, Jesus the Good Shepherd is never weary of us.

Oh, but we give Jesus so many reasons to be weary of us. Every day seems to bring some fresh horror, inflicted by humans on other humans: Nine souls killed in church for the color of their skin. Four Marines murdered by a man with radical views of a different variety. Churches are burned, black women die in police custody, and a Palestinian village is slated to be demolished any day now, leaving dozens of families homeless. Even after a week of vacation, I am weary of such news—weary of the endless cycle of violence and hatred and human sin, which presses in on us like a great crowd, never leaving us alone, never giving us rest. I’m weary of our collective unwillingness to do anything different. Some have called this “compassion fatigue”—the burn-out many pastors, caregivers, or aid workers experience from seeing human suffering day after day. Those of you who are living and working here in Jerusalem and the West Bank know all too well what that feels like.

Perhaps it’s easy to imagine, then, how Jesus could have compassion fatigue for the world and the pain we inflict on each other.   

And yet we read that when he came ashore,

Although the disciples were tired,

Although it wasn’t on the agenda,

Although the people had followed him from village to village, not even giving him time to eat,

Even then, Jesus saw the crowd and he did have compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.
A shepherd in Bethlehem,
with Notre Dame Jerusalem Global Gateway student Kelly McGee

And in a little while we will sing, “The king of love my shepherd is, his goodness faileth never.” This opening line to my favorite hymn is a beautiful reminder of just how good our Good Shepherd is. He is everything we are not! When we are weak, he is strong. When we despair, he is our hope. When we find it difficult to love, his radical love expands our hearts. When we make war, he is our peace. When I have failed, and failed, and failed again to love my neighbor as myself, failed to have compassion for my sister or brother, still Jesus sees me, sees you, sees the crowd and all its sorrows, and he has compassion for us. Even from the cross, Our Lord Jesus had compassion for the world, saying, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” The king of love our shepherd is, his goodness faileth never, thanks be to God!

In Jesus Christ, we have come to know that our God is a compassionate God! Of course this is the opposite of the god we hear about on the news and even from some preachers. The god whose gospel gets proclaimed most often these days is one who would command people to kill, a god who would advocate building walls and shooting rockets, a god who would smite a nation for legalizing same sex marriage or taking down a flag.

Dear brothers and sisters, we know that this is not our god! Our God is the king of love. Our God is the Prince of peace. Our God is the hope of the hopeless and the voice of the voiceless. Our God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Our God is the Good Shepherd, who has compassion on the crowds.

We have come to know this God through the Son, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. He is the one who has broken down the dividing wall, and made us one people. He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. Jesus is healing and wholeness. Jesus is peace.

And this means that if we follow Jesus, we can expect that the crowds are coming, too. Where Jesus is, those who need him are never far behind. Where Jesus is, there is work to be done. Where Jesus is, there are people – people we might like to avoid. People who wear us out. People who need mercy, love, compassion, and forgiveness.

People who take selfies at Golgotha, for example.

People like you and me.

Come away with me, says Jesus. Come, and find rest. Come, and be healed.

Come, and together we will heal the world. Amen. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost: 5 July 2015

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 5 July 2015

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

(A farewell sermon for the ELCA's Young Adult in Global Mission volunteers and Mennonite Central Committee volunteers) 

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

Pastor Carrie and baby brother, Carl, ca. 1977
My brother is nearly five years younger than I am, so I remember well the day he was brought home from the hospital. I remember how I had begged for a sibling – a little brother specifically – and the photo in our family album of me holding baby Carl for the first time, with a big grin and my toes curled up from excitement, shows just how thrilled I was to meet him.

And then he started crying. And crying. And crying! It wasn’t long before I was telling my mom and dad to take him back. “I changed my mind. I don’t want a brother. This isn’t what I was expecting!”

A number of years ago, I was visiting a friend in her home in Louisiana. She wanted me to meet a new friend from church, a friend she told me was named George Takimoto. I tried to hide my surprise when I was introduced to George Takimoto – who turned out to be a woman, and not the least bit Japanese. She wasn’t who I was expecting!

In the same way, when folks heard Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue, it was not at all what they were expecting. They came out to see the small town boy who had made a name for himself as a preacher and healer, but what they heard was very confusing. “Wait, is this the same Jesus? Isn’t this Mary’s son? Where did he get these ideas? Who does he think he is?” In fact, the text says they were more than surprised at what he had to say—they “took offense.” Jesus and the Gospel message were a scandal even in his hometown.

This is a very interesting Gospel text to consider today, as we prepare to say farewell and Godspeed to Julie and Jeff, Joanna and Jessy, Kanika, Michael, Sheldon, Amy and Clare—our coworkers in the kingdom, who have faithfully served with the Young Adults in Global Mission program and the Mennonite Central Committee. Soon, friends, you will return home, and people will have many expectations of you. They will expect you to be holier now, having lived near Jesus. They will expect that you are now an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They’ll expect you to have two minute answer to easy questions like: “So, how did you like Israel?” and “So, do you think there can be peace over there?

 And don’t be surprised if you—like every missionary, seminarian, or pastor—are expected to offer the prayer at every meal for the rest of your life. (I’m only half kidding about this!)

Of course, family, friends, and your home churches will also expect you to share stories of your time in the Holy Land. They will want to see pictures of holy sites and archaeological digs. They will want to hear how you walked where Jesus walked and prayed where the saints prayed. They will want to see you, their loved one, standing in historic churches, surrounded by ancient stones.

However, many will not expect to hear about the living stones of Israel and Palestine. They will not expect to hear that being Christian in the Holy Land is less about appreciation of church history and more about the challenge of keeping the faith today. They will not expect to hear how living the Good News of Jesus in his homeland is less about re-discovering “that old time religion” and more about resisting systems of oppression, breaking down walls, and working for a better future for all the peoples of this land.

This probably isn’t the Jesus they are expecting.

The truth is, this may not be the Jesus you were expecting, either, when you arrived in this place. Even those of us who have known Jesus a long time (like his old neighbors in Nazareth) are often surprised by the impact of Jesus’ message on our lives. After all, we didn’t expect forgiveness. We didn’t expect grace. We didn’t expect the cross, and we certainly didn’t expect the empty tomb. We didn’t expect love to triumph over sin and death. And yet, this unexpected turn of events is the amazing grace, the blessed assurance, and the solid rock on which we have built our lives! Thanks be to God!

The impact of Jesus and his Gospel of love is always so much greater than we expect. The scandal of the cross and the unexpected power of the resurrection continue to challenge, convict, and inspire us, whether we’re in the Holy Land or in our hometowns. Dear friends in Christ, you’ve no doubt seen things you never wanted to see during your time here—occupation, oppression, division, deceit—the ugliest parts of our sinful human nature. 

But I know you’ve also seen how the Gospel of love overcomes even separation walls and razor wire. You have seen faithful people resisting the powerful pull of cynicism and hatred, and choosing instead the life-giving path of forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation. You have encountered Jesus in places where no map, no historical marker, and no Holy Land handbook suggested it was possible—in our Muslim and Jewish neighbors, in our enemies, and in each other.

You have not only seen the holy site of Jesus’ crucifixion, you’ve seen the suffering of the cross as lived by the people on the other side of the wall and on the other side of town.

You have not only seen the holy site of Jesus’ resurrection, you’ve seen how the hope of peace and justice and equality keeps rising from the tomb, again and again, like the sun rising over the separation wall during our Mt. of Olives Easter sunrise service.

This challenging, scandalous, unexpected Good News is the message Jesus now empowers you to carry home. In Mark chapter 6 we read that after his message was rejected in his hometown, Jesus called together the twelve and began to send them out two by two. He told them to travel lightly, and to rely only on the hospitality of those who would receive him. And he gave them some critical advice: "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them."

The Good News, however good it is, however creatively you tell it, however many pictures you share, will not always be well received. It will not always be understood or even heard. And people may very well say: “Wait, is this the same Kanika? Isn’t this the Gulliksen kid? Who authorized Jessy to speak like that?”

Who do we think we are, to say such things? Who gives us the authority to proclaim God’s peace, justice, love and mercy over against a gospel of security, maintenance of the status quo, protection of privilege, and fear of the Other?

Who authorizes us to preach and teach and live such scandalous ideas? None other than Jesus our brother, crucified and risen. By virtue of our baptisms, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are authorized to share the scandalous love of God which we know through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. You don’t need to be a Bible expert to share the love of God. And you don’t need to be a Middle East expert to speak against injustice or to be an advocate for peace! We don’t need degrees, or denominational backing, or bread, or a bag, or money in our belts—we need only good sandals for the long journey, and a staff to propel us forward when we are weary.

Most of all, as you return home carrying this message that others may not be expecting, know that you are not responsible for how it is received. You are only responsible for how you carry the message. (This is a word of grace these days, when we see so many churches up in arms over what their neighbors and fellow Christians believe or don’t believe!) Let me say it again: You are only responsible for how you carry the message. Therefore, go out in love, and speak in love, and act in love, and when the message is not received, or when others interpret the message differently, do not be dismayed. Do not be discouraged. Shake the dust off your feet and move on.

This reminds me of the best advice I ever received in seminary. While it was intended for pastors being sent out to their first churches, it’s actually excellent advice for the Christian life in general. Here it is, the top 3 things every pastor (or every Christian) must do:

#1. Love the people
#2: Love the people
#3: Love the people

Dear sisters and brothers, love the people, wherever you are, whoever they are. Just as you came here to love the people of Palestine and Israel, so now wherever you find yourself on the next leg of your journey, let the scandal of God’s love for the world be your witness. It’s not what the world expects, but it is exactly what the world needs.

And let the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.