Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sermon for Sunday, 23 August 2015 on Ephesians 6:10-20: "Onward, Christian Soldiers"

Sermon for Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


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

Some years ago I had the unhappy task of planning a funeral for a church member who had died far too young. Only in her early sixties, Paula had been ill for some time, but doctors never could determine the cause of her breathing difficulties. Up to her very last days it was clear that neither she, nor her husband—nor I—were ready to see her go. She had too much living left to do.

In the days after she died, her husband and I began to make plans for the funeral service. Many of the decisions had already been made by Paula: There would definitely be communion. There would be her favorite Bible readings. There would be pie and macaroni salad at the lunch.

And then, her husband told me, we would proceed out of the church and to the cemetery singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

This request caught me completely off guard. First of all, I didn’t see how this battle song fit with the personality of my beloved parishioner, who had a deep love of angel figurines and country d├ęcor and was one of the gentlest human beings I have ever known. Secondly, I was feeling pretty angry at God that this lovely woman’s battle with an unknown lung disease had not been victorious.

Thirdly, “Onward Christian Soldiers” does not appear in our current Lutheran hymnal.

My first line of defense was to plead this point. “I simply don’t know how we would make this happen, considering we don’t have the music,” I said.

Her husband produced copies of the sheet music to my office that very afternoon.

So we did it—we read her favorite Scripture verse, and I mentioned her love of angels in my sermon, and we had pie and macaroni salad, and then we marched out of the church. First came the cross, then me, then Paula’s casket, and then a battalion of her friends singing “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war! With the cross of Jesus, going on before.”

As beloved as this hymn is for Americans of a certain age, I confess that up to now I have never understood the appeal. Its military images have always seemed to clash with the “God is love” message I grew up hearing in church. I understand very well why the new hymnal committee decided to say “onward and outward” to “Onward, Christian Soldiers”.

The same can be said about today’s assigned scripture text from chapter six of Ephesians, about putting on the “full armor of God.” Again, I know this is a beloved text, one that is familiar to folks both inside and outside the church. But all the talk of swords, shields, helmets, breastplates, and warfare never seemed to have much relevance to my modern life.  

That is, until I lived in Jerusalem.  

IDF soldiers in front of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
In this context, we’re confronted daily with the trappings of military power and might. We see weapons of steel and bullets of rubber and helmets of Kevlar around every corner. Rockets and bulldozers, knives and bombs are part of everyday conversation. Given this daily reality, we don’t need to have Paul’s letter to the Ephesians re-told using a sports analogy. We don’t need a skilled preacher to gently explain our human addiction to weapons, vengeance, violence, and power over others.  

Here in Jerusalem—and in Syria, and in Gaza, and in Ferguson, Missouri—the military images of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians are definitely relevant today, because they could be ripped from the headlines. 

When we wake to such headlines every day, and when many of us are here to do jobs which place us at the military checkpoints, in hospital rooms, or in the rubble of last summer’s war, we may feel that we are at war, too—albeit as soldiers for justice and peace. 

Today, at the beginning of a new season of work for many of us, Paul’s exhortation to “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power” seems a bit like a much-needed pep talk for the weary troops. “Put on the whole armor of God,” writes Paul, “so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” These words resonate, because we know we need to draw on a strength greater than our own to engage in this struggle for peace, justice, and human rights.

But if we’re honest, these words may also resonate with us because of that last part…that “wiles of the devil” part. Like it or not, there is a part of us that enjoys being on the “right side”. There’s a part of us that’s pretty sure we know who the devil is, and what color uniform he’s wearing. Sure, we love Jesus, but some days we would gladly march to the drumbeat of “Onward Christian Soldiers” and take down our opponents…all for the cause of peace and justice, of course.

And that’s why we need the rest of Paul’s letter. This letter to the Ephesians was written to a church struggling to survive as a minority community, suffering under oppression and persecution from the outside, but also battling divisions from within. Everywhere they turned, the Christians in Ephesus saw enemies. Though our context is different, Paul’s advice to them is the word of God we need to hear today. Paul writes:

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh. These are difficult words to accept when we see our neighbors burned, shot, imprisoned, and humiliated.

Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh. These words may seem foolish in a world where ISIS is expanding its influence, where bulldozers are paving the way for an extension of the wall, and where the best news story of the week is a terror attack stopped just in time.

Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh. We may see the enemy as being ISIS, or the IDF, or Hamas, or Iran, or the American justice system. But the truth is that our cosmic struggle is against this present darkness which covers not only the Middle East, but the world, and feeds us the lie that some children are more precious than others, that some skin is more beautiful than others, that some voices are more to be heard than others, that some humans are more human than others. 

Dear friends in Christ, dehumanization is the number one enemy we face in this world, because in order to fight with weapons of steel, words of poison, or walls of concrete and razor wire, we must first turn the person in front of us into a monster.  

Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the sin of denying the image of God in our neighbor. More than ever, Christians today need to hear this truth about the true enemy of freedom, peace, and justice. We need to hear it, and we need to confess it, because all around us are those who want us to believe that others are solely responsible for the evil and suffering in the world. 

This, in spite of the fact that Christians have also taken up the sword and the bomb against our neighbors, and have enslaved our brothers and sisters. We have killed and persecuted people of other faiths, other colors, and other national identities. We have even killed each other over different understandings of baptism! Christians cannot pretend that we are exclusively the people of peace, while others have a violent religion, for we are just as guilty of dehumanizing the other for the sake of eliminating them.

Instead of joining in the battle cry against whoever has been branded “the devil” this week, Christians today must stand firm in the biblical conviction that every single person is made in the image of God. “For in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27) And Jesus said, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matt. 6:26) And again, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) and even “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44)

Instead of taking up arms against those who are different, as followers of Jesus we are called to honor and respect the image of God even in people who deny it in us. This is how we resist extremists who behead elderly antiquities professors. This is how we resist those who turn the struggle for justice into an anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic tirade. This is how we resist the temptation to win the struggle for human rights at the expense of our humanity. We will not be motivated by hate. In the face of extremist perversions of religion and extreme acts of violence, we will be extremists for love. We will stand firm in the Lord.

Of course, this kind of war strategy is radically different from what we see around us every day. When we stand firm in the love of God for all people, we may be called weak or foolish. With so many around us tempting us with weapons of steel and the armor of privilege, we may not feel strong enough, bold enough, or faithful enough to take up the cross instead of the sword.

But we don’t have to look very far to find fellow troops, standing firm with us.

We only have to look as far as the Cremisan Valley, to the priests and people of faith who are standing firm in the path of bulldozers, boldly celebrating the Eucharist while nearby 1,500 year old olive trees are uprooted to extend the Israeli separation wall.

We can look to the sheriff’s office in Waller County, Texas, where pastors and activists have been holding a prayer vigil for over a month, standing firm for justice for Sandra Bland who died while in police custody…standing firm even when the authorities cut down the trees providing the protestors shade from the heat.

And we can look to South Africa, where this week the authors of the Kairos document celebrated its contribution to the end of apartheid in that country, while standing firm alongside Palestinian partners in the hope that the same kind of transformation can and will happen here in Palestine and Israel.

Dear friends in Christ, in a time when divisions seem greater than ever and nearly everyone wants to draw a line in the sand, build walls on borders, and fight to the death for doctrinal purity or cultural superiority, we are soldiers in the battle for our shared humanity. With the saints of this and every age, we are one in the struggle to affirm the image of God in ourselves, in our neighbor, and even in our enemies. 

Thanks be to God, we are not in this struggle alone. 
Thanks be to God, we are strong in the Lord, an army of love, standing firm on the foundation of Jesus Christ who on the cross has already won for the victory for us—and for the whole world.  

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Sermon for 16 August 2015: 12th Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Sunday, 16 August 2015: 12th Sunday after Pentecost

Pastor Carrie Smith


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

This morning’s Gospel lesson ends with these words from Jesus: “…whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

The altar prepared for holy communion
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
However, if we read just two verses further, past the assigned reading of the day, we hear this:

(Jesus) said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

This teaching is difficult! Amen! The disciples have finally said what most of us have been thinking for the past five weeks of this “Jesus is bread” focus in the lectionary—this stuff is hard to understand, Jesus! Amen?

But which part? The fact that this bread is Jesus’ flesh, or that we are invited to eat it? Is it the promise that eating it will bring us eternal life, or that eating it means Jesus will live in us? Which is the difficult part?

If you have been raised in the church hearing these texts, and if you have been coming to the table since you were a child and have heard the words “This is my body given for you” always accompanied by a snack, then perhaps it doesn’t seem so terribly difficult. But the idea that eating and drinking the flesh of the Messiah is a central component of our worship and our life of faith is actually a scandal. It shocked the Jews who heard Jesus say it in the synagogue. It shocked even the disciples who knew him and his way of speaking well. And it can be a stumbling block today for interfaith conversation and understanding, not to mention evangelism. There’s no way around the awkward fact that our Lord said, “This is my body – now eat me.”

Kids of Redeemer Church having fun (and eating the leftover communion bread)
in the pastor's office
Photo by Carrie Smith
This teaching is indeed difficult, and many find it hard to accept, which is why it is so amazing to observe children not just talking about it, but experiencing it. In the Lutheran church, children receiving communion is a fairly new practice, and is still not accepted in some churches. However, any lingering concerns I had about the appropriateness of children at the table were erased on the day my three year old told me in the car after church, “Mom, guess what! My blood is the same as Jesus’ blood!” When I asked for clarification, he said with a proud grin, “I drank Jesus’ blood this morning, so now it’s in me!” This wasn’t a difficult teaching for him at three years old—it was Good News. His blood was Jesus’ blood now, and he seemed to sit three inches taller in his car seat because of it.

And Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

And there was the story I heard from a pastor in a neighboring church, who told me how she had been greeting people after Sunday services when a little girl excitedly came up to talk to her. “Pastor, pastor, I have a secret!” she whispered. “What is it?” my friend asked. She leaned in closer and said, “I have Jesus in my pocket!” Then she proudly pulled the communion wafer out of her pocket to wave it in her face, before carefully placing it back in the pocket and running off to play with friends. The words that rolled off the pastor’s tongue a hundred times that morning—“This is the body of Christ, given for you”—were received as very Good News for one little girl.

And Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”

What kind of bread does your congregation serve?
Drawing by a Redeemer child
Photo by Carrie Smith
Yes, this teaching is difficult. It is also Good News! It is strange. And it is also a gift!  Sometimes children receive gifts much more readily than adults (wasn’t it Jesus who said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it”?) At the table we receive again and again a gift we cannot fully understand—God’s amazing promise that by eating and drinking, Jesus himself will live in us and we will live in him, and whoever eats this bread will live forever.  

It is such a beautiful sign of God’s love for us, that we receive God’s promises in, with, and under food. After all, we can never escape our stomachs. Humans will always be obsessed with eating and drinking—what and when, where and how much. We love food tours and food blogs. Our best memories are often made around a dinner table. We mark our days by meal times, and the passing of years by patterns of feasting and fasting.

And of course, there are the diets. Just this week there was another heavily promoted news story about a new nutrition theory. This latest report reveals that one of our favorite food dogmas (that belief that a low carb diet is the answer to weight loss and health) may be misguided after all. Forget about banning bread and potatoes, now the doctors are saying you can eat whatever you want (including bread!) as long as you eat less of it and also exercise. This does seem sensible. But as I heard this message pitched on yet another radio broadcast and read about it on yet another webpage, I wondered just how long it will be before this becomes our new gospel of food. It was hard not hear the reporter sounding a bit like Jesus: “This is the bread of youth, of health, and of skinny jeans – now eat it.”

Sisters and brothers, hear again the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” This is the Good News—much better news than any diet will ever be. It’s understandable that when the Jews heard Jesus saying such things in the synagogue, they got stuck on the “flesh and blood” part. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they asked. After all, consuming blood was against Jewish law!

And the disciples certainly had it right when they said, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” There’s a reason churches are still arguing about the details of who, what, where, and when we celebrate Holy Communion.

But we miss the point when we focus on the strangeness of eating flesh or the shock of drinking blood. The most difficult part of this teaching, the part of the Good News which is truly scandalous, is one little word:

Not “bread”.
Not “flesh.
Not “blood.”

The tiny word that makes this table an altar, and which transforms simple bread and wine into a feast of love, is “my.”

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
The flesh we encounter at Holy Communion isn’t just anybody, it’s Jesus’ body. This body is God-with-us. This body came from heaven to walk with us. This body touched sinners and outcasts with acceptance and love. This body carried a cross to Golgotha. This body felt the pain and humiliation of public crucifixion and death. This body was laid in a borrowed tomb. This body, Jesus’ body, was emptied of divine power for the sake of love, and for the sake of the world.

The bread Jesus gave for the life of the world is his flesh, and herein lies the difficult teaching—not that bread becomes flesh, or wine becomes blood, but that when we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. At the table, we eat and drink of a love so profound, so deep, and so complete, that it lives forever in us, the church, the Body of Christ in the world today.

When we consume this bread and wine, we are in turn consumed by Jesus’ love. It’s easy to understand how this kind of diet has implications, not only for our health, but for how we live our lives. With this kind of self-emptying, sacrificial love coursing through our veins, filling our bellies, and moving in and out of our lungs, we might tend to move through the world a little differently.

Fueled by Jesus’ self-emptying love even for us sinners, we no longer live trying to cheat death, but we live in defiance of death’s power over us.

Nourished by Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the Other, we live not in pursuit of our own beauty and perfection, but with a passion to honor the beauty and image of God in our neighbor.

Most of all, strengthened by bread which is flesh—Jesus’ crucified and risen flesh—we are freed from fear. In, with, and under the bread and the wine, we have received, we have tasted, we have chewed on, we have digested, we have consumed, and we are consumed by the most perfect love of our Lord Jesus Christ—and we know that perfect love casts out fear.

Empowered by this kind of love, what powers and principalities can ever harm us?
What words can ever scar us?
What sins can ever destroy us?
What threat can ever deter us?
What terror can ever disturb us?

Therefore, sisters and brothers, I invite you today to the table. Receive the gift of God’s love. Eat the bread of teaching and the wine of wisdom, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Be filled, be nourished, be strengthened for the work to which you are called.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sermon for 9 August 2015, 11th Sunday after Pentecost: "Enough"

Sermon for 9 August 2015, 11th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 19:4-8, John 6:35, 41-51


The Rev. Carrie B. Smith


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

Hear again the first reading of the day, from 1 Kings chapter 19:

4 [Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

I saw Elijah around nearly every corner this week in Jerusalem. Everywhere I looked there were people lying under trees, napping in any few inches of shade, exhausted from the never-ending heat. Just walking through the streets to and from the church under the blazing sun made me weary, almost as weary as Elijah, who cried to the Lord “This is enough!” and decided lying under a tree and waiting for death would be preferable to taking one more step.

I might be exaggerating a little—but not much! Even lifelong Jerusalemites seemed overcome by the heat this week. On the positive side, I did learn a few things. First, if you say “Boy, it’s hot today” in Jerusalem, someone is bound to reply “Yes, but it’s worse in Jericho.” And second, I learned it’s often best just not to mention the heat at all. In this way, summer here reminds me of winter in Minnesota (or, I imagine, Sweden or Finland). During winter in Minnesota, there’s simply no need to mention how cold it is. Of course you’re cold! So is everyone else. 

There is another good reason, besides the heat, that we may relate to Elijah this morning. After all, Elijah wasn’t just finding shade under that broom tree. He wasn’t just weary from a long day’s walk. He was under that broom tree and refusing to take another step because he was already facing the threat of death.

You may remember the story of Elijah’s dramatic confrontation with King Ahab. The king had been convinced by his wife, Jezebel, to worship Baal instead of Yahweh. Elijah, in a rather dramatic stunt, proved the mightiness of the one true God over Baal, by calling down a fire that burned an animal sacrifice which had even been drenched three times with water. Having made his point that “our God is bigger than your gods”, Elijah then killed all the prophets of Baal.

Of course when King Ahab told his wife Jezebel all that Elijah had done, she was far from happy.

“Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”

At the risk of death, Elijah challenged authority and spoke truth to power. He faithfully defended the name of God against false gods—just one voice against four hundred fifty prophets of Baal. And now, he was facing death again. And so it was that weary, alone, and afraid for his life, Elijah sat down under that solitary broom and decided he just couldn’t go any further. It was enough.

For this reason Elijah was on my mind this week—not only because of the weather, but because of a new death threat made against Christians in general and churches specifically here in the land of Jesus’ birth. This threat comes from the leader of a right wing Jewish group, the same group responsible for burning the Church of theMultiplication at Tabgha. The threat promises the torching of all churches, and the leader said he himself was prepared to spend 50 years in prison for doing so.

Elijah was also on my mind yesterday morning when the news broke that Saad Dawabsheh, the father of baby Ali who burned to death in last week’s settler arson attack, had died of his injuries—and that the mother’s burns are so severe she could be next.

Christian religious leaders meet with relatives of Ali and Saad Dawabsheh
this week in Duma (Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah, Bishop Munib Younan,
Archbishop Atallah Hanna)
Photo from Jerusalem Interchurch Centre
Dear sisters and brothers, I don’t need to tell you that people of faith can become weary. Even Elijah, prophet of the one true God, who could call down fire and defeat the prophets of Baal, came to a day when he was simply too tired to fight the threats against him and too exhausted to continue the journey set before him.

Therefore I am not ashamed to say that these violent threats and the horrific deaths of a toddler and his father make me want to join Elijah’s sit-in under that solitary broom tree, calling out to God, “It is enough, Lord!” It is more than enough. One toddler’s funeral is more than enough. One church burnt is more than enough. One rocket, one bomb, one war in Gaza, one more generation raised under occupation, is more than enough. 

But, thanks be to God, we know that Elijah’s sit-in didn’t last very long. His labor strike never got off the ground, and his nap of despair had barely started before an angel of the Lord appeared with water and cake and woke him up with one simple instruction:

“Elijah, Get up, and eat! Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Elijah may have been weary. He may have given up. But God did not give up on him, and in his moment of despair Elijah’s received exactly what he needed to get up from under that tree.

As we gather this morning with the weight of this week’s news upon us, and with the sadness of yet another community farewell on our hearts, you may very well be weary. You may be wondering, like Elijah, how in the world you can continue to fight the good fight. You may be feeling overwhelmed by the daily challenges of living and working in this land, not to mention these recent threats against even our holy places of worship.

A Palestinian young man carries a load of
bread down a street in the Old City
of Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
But thanks be to God, this morning we have heard the Good News, and we know that the one true God never leaves us abandoned or in despair. Our God never leaves us without hope. Just as an angel of the Lord appeared by his tree and brought Elijah food and water, so God comes near to us in these difficult times. Our God is a good God, who hears us when we cry, and provides us with the bread we need for the journey.

You may have noticed that this morning’s Gospel lesson begins with the same verse that ended last week’s lesson: Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” In case you missed it, Jesus = bread! On this fourth Sunday in a row in which Jesus is revealed as the bread of life, maybe by now we’re getting the message. Jesus = bread. Jesus’ teaching, Jesus’ healing, Jesus’ self-emptying love for the world which took him all the way to the cross—and which rolled the stone away from the tomb—is the bread we need today, and every day. Jesus is enough!

Jesus is enough to rouse us from sleep and despair. Jesus is enough to save us from sin and death. Jesus is enough to sustain us on our journey of faith, just as the angel’s offering of cake and water was enough to sustain Elijah for forty days, and just as manna was enough to sustain the Israelites for forty years. The Good News we need today is this: Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are enough, for as he said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Amen!

It may seem impossible that bread and water were enough to sustain Elijah for forty days and forty nights. It may also seem impossible that the love of one man, Jesus, could be enough to give life to even one sinner, let alone the world. But this impossibly Good News, this unlikely story, this unexpected feast of love, is enough and more. The cross is more than enough grace. The empty tomb is more than enough joy. The Holy Spirit is more than enough power. And the bread of life we are about to receive at the table along with the words “This is my body, given for you”, is more than enough strength for the journey.

Jesus is enough for us to stand up even against threats of arson and death. Even before this latest threat, flyers appearing to represent ISIS were dropped in the Beit Hanina neighborhood. The flyers called for the savage killing of Jerusalem Christians before Eid. Many were afraid. Others said it was foolishness, people just pretending to be ISIS. Others predicted it was a scheme to divide the community, planted by the government.  

But in the face of this menacing threat, I appreciated the words of His Beatitude Michel Sabbah, Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem, who said: (translated and paraphrased from Arabic)

“If they are ISIS, we stay in our land. If they are pretending to be ISIS, we stay in our land. What’s the difference? We Christians will not be afraid.”

Dear sisters and brothers, in this time of increasing tension, when so many want to inspire fear, incite hatred, and weaken our resolve, and when some would like nothing more than for Christians to sit down under a tree and give in, we need more than ever to draw on the source of our strength. We will not despair. We will not be afraid. We will not give up. For we have Jesus, our bread from heaven, and he is more than enough to keep us on the path of peace, justice, and reconciliation. Amen.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Sermon for Sunday, 2 August 2015: 10th Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Sunday, 2 August 2015
10th Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


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

Jesus said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

The brownies that never endure for long in my household
...baked by my son, Caleb
These are powerful words to hear in this community, where so much feels temporary and nothing seems to endure for long.  Once again this morning we must say farewell and godspeed to a friend, Trena, just one week after sending off our intern Rachel and her family, and one week before saying goodbye to a church council member, Dan. These farewells are always difficult, even when we know they’re coming.

I’m often asked by clergy friends what the toughest part of ministry is in this context. I imagine they’re expecting a reply about the complex interfaith and political environment in Jerusalem, but I always say the toughest part of ministry here is figuring out who the congregation is! The Redeemer Lutheran Church of this week is never the Redeemer Lutheran Church of next week. We are a temporary community of faith, but at the same time we are a community which endures across time and miles. Whether you’re here for a week or a year or longer, and no matter where you go next, through our Lord Jesus you are always one bread and one body with us. As it says in the Ephesians reading for today: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
Hear again the words of Jesus, who said: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

These powerful words speak to us especially in this place rich with ancient history and stones that have endured for centuries, but where nearly everything else seems temporary – friends, work contracts, addresses, permission to cross borders, the lives of Palestinian teenagers (and even toddlers), roadmaps to peace, cease fires.

Even the bread here is temporary.

This has been a topic of much frustration in my household recently. I realize I’m coming from an American culture which is rich in preservatives and prides itself on manufacturing foods with a long shelf life (we love to tell jokes about how a Twinkie will last through the apocalypse, for example) but after one year in Jerusalem I am still having trouble with bread that perishes.

Bread is abundant here, of course. Fresh hubbez or kaayik appears on every table, along with salads of every kind, hummus, olive oil, and za’atar.

But of course, being an American, this is not the bread I’m used to. Sometimes, I want a sandwich! So I seek out bread which is square instead of round, and sliced instead of covered in sesame seeds. I buy cheese and lunch meat and pickles and hope for the best.

And two days later, without fail – the bread is furry and green.  

In my house we’ve had many discussions about the problem of the perishing bread. Maybe we need to shop in a different place, or shop more often. Maybe we need to store the bread in the refrigerator. Maybe we need to bake it ourselves! (This last suggestion was not welcomed enthusiastically by the other members of my household).

The other possibility, the one which up to now we haven’t fully embraced, is that perhaps we’re simply hungering after the wrong bread.

Like the crowds who went looking for Jesus, hoping only to fill their bellies, we are also seeking the bread we think we want—bread which even perishes before we can eat it—while abundant, satisfying bread is right in front of us.

For Jesus said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

Kaayik and other breads laid out for
the breaking of the fast
during Ramadan in Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
This is the 2nd of five bread-themed Sundays in the lectionary. Last Sunday we heard about the miraculous feeding of five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish. That event certainly got the attention of the hungry crowds, so much so that they wanted to capture Jesus and make him into a king. But being CEO of a bread multiplying company wasn’t on Jesus’ agenda, so he secretly went off by himself, away from the crowds. Sometime in between, he also happened to walk on water and reveal himself to the disciples as being the great “I AM”, calming both the waters and their fears before they reached the shore.

And it was there on the shore, on the other side of the sea, where the crowd caught up with Jesus. They had no idea about the walking on water business. They had no knowledge of the revelation to the disciples. They just had the memory of that abundant bread, a growing hunger, and the hope that Jesus would feed them again.

“Rabbi, when did you come here?” they asked him. And Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

And then, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

This whole conversation seems a little unfair. Why scold hungry people for wanting bread, and then turn around and tell them that you are….bread? Isn’t that a little confusing?

But we know without a doubt that Jesus cares for our legitimate physical needs. After all, he fed five thousand hungry people until they had their fill! We know Jesus is always concerned about the hungry—and especially about how those of us who have bread respond to those who don’t.

No, this scolding is not about our hunger. It’s not about our need for bread, or for Jesus. But it is about how we seek to fill not only our empty bellies, but our aching hearts.

Jesus knows that just like the crowds, we come to him hungry. We’re hungry for love, acceptance, and forgiveness. We’re hungry for an end to poverty and occupation and racism. We’re thirsty for an end to terrorist attacks which kill toddlers and burn churches, and acts of retaliation which only increase the sorrow. We are empty, and longing for something to fill our emptiness.

And this is the problem—for when we are desperate to fill our bellies or our hearts, we will accept any meal. We’ll even eat moldy old bread. We’ll gratefully reach out to those offering us the bread of hate. The bread of war. The bread of violence. The bread of endless division. The bread of religious purity. The bread of prosperity at the expense of our neighbors.

This is why so many are drawn to the so-called “prosperity gospel” and other distortions of the Good News. And this is the situation today in the Middle East, where extremism is growing among Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. People who are desperately hungry for change are being peddled the bread of fundamentalism, hatred, violence, and quick-fixes. And sadly, they are eating it.

But this bread will never satisfy! This bread perishes, and quickly! Even when such meals are offered up on plates which bear God’s name, and are served with a side of holy scripture, they will never nourish our souls. They will never lead us to life.

The crowds came to Jesus because they knew he could multiply bread. We, too, come to Jesus because we are hungry, and we know he can work miracles. But our Lord Jesus Christ, by virtue of who he is, and not what he can do, fills not only our bellies but our souls. Jesus, our brother, walks with us through the transitions of life. Jesus, crucified, stands in solidarity with all those who suffer. Jesus, raised from the tomb, gives us hope even in the midst of terror and death. Jesus, our teacher and friend, shows us that the Way to life and peace is always non-violent and self-emptying, for the sake of the other.

Josie, eating extra communion bread
after service at Redeemer Lutheran, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
Yes, Jesus is bread for all the hungry! Jesus is the bread that endures! As Christians, we must reject the bread that perishes, and cling to the words he said to the crowd and which he proclaims to us today:

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Sisters and brothers, this revelation about who Jesus is gives us nourishment in these difficult times. And thanks be to God, we don’t have to just believe it. We don’t have to just “understand” it on a spiritual level. Our Creator knows we have stomachs. And Jesus sees our hunger! So by God’s goodness, we experience the love and life of Jesus through bread and wine. We are strengthened and nourished every time we come to the table and hear the words “This is the body of Christ, given for you.”

In a world where everything seems temporary and the things we love perish, this is the bread that endures.

For this we give thanks. And with the hungering crowds, wherever we are, we pray to Jesus: “Sir, give us this bread always.” Amen.