Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sermon for 13 September 2015: The Power of Words

Sermon for Sunday, 13 September 2015
16th Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


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

On Friday morning I was walking from Redeemer Church here in the Old City to St. Andrew’s Scottish Church in West Jerusalem. It’s not a short walk, and it was a hot day, so I decided to try a back route that would hopefully shave off a few minutes. I went out through Jaffa Gate, through the park, past the fountains, to a garden path which I was fairly certain would lead me to St. Andrew’s.

The only other person on the path was a man who seemed to be walking the same direction. We struck up a conversation, half in Arabic, and half in English. We walked along, and as the Scottish flag in the distance got closer, I was feeling proud that I could not only find my way across Jerusalem, but also hold my own while speaking Arabic. In fact, I’d say I was feeling more than proud—powerful, even! Because words have power.

And then, this man I didn’t know decided to proposition me for something beyond conversation. Several times, in several languages. Sadly, it’s not the first time this has happened to me. Even sadder, I think it would be hard to find a woman in this world who has not been the object of catcalls, whistles, unwanted propositions, or degrading comments about her appearance. Thank God, this man’s bad behavior was limited to his words. I was ever so grateful to arrive at the gates of St. Andrew’s. However, by the time I arrived, because of what he said, I was no longer feeling proud, or strong, or powerful. I was afraid. Because words have power.

When I was a kid, I loved to use words to test out my imagined life plans with my dad. I can remember saying “Maybe I’ll be a concert pianist.” “Maybe I’ll be a doctor.” “Maybe I’ll be music teacher.” “Maybe I’ll go to Africa and teach little children.” “Maybe I’ll write books.” I was looking for some direction, I suppose, some hint about what I was expected to do. But every time, no matter how crazy my idea, what I remember my dad saying is, “Carrie, you can do anything if you set your mind to it.” Not “Well, that’s pretty hard.” Or “That’s too far away” or “Don’t you want to have a family?” just “You can do anything, if you set your mind to it.” Thanks be to God for my dad, because these were the words I remembered when we were moving across the country for grad school with scarcely two nickels in the bank, and again when I returned to seminary in my thirties, and especially when we were considering a move halfway across the world to Jerusalem. I can do anything, if I set my mind to it.

Words have power.

We believe that words have power, or we wouldn’t be sitting here, as a group, all praying and singing the same words together, and listening to one person speak at a pulpit for twelve minutes.

Words have power, which is why the three little words “Black Lives Matter” have become a wedge phrase that divides communities and even churches in the United States.

Words have power, especially words like “right of return”, “occupation”, “administrative detainment”, “apartheid”, or even “State of Palestine”. In fact, in this context, certain words have so much power that we must often edit ourselves, choosing different language for different conversations and different rooms of people.

Words have the power to build up or to tear down. As it says in our Epistle lesson for today, “With (our tongues) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” Nearly the entire book of James is devoted to the power of speech. Ironically, this book which is so focused on the potential harm our words can do makes liberal use of wordy analogies: Humans and their tongues are like horses, led around by a small bit in our mouths. Humans are like ships, directed by a very small rudder. The tongue is a small fire, which can easily set a whole forest ablaze. The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

The point of the book of James is clear: Words have power, and we humans often abuse this power. But, as the author states in verse 10, “My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”  

As we begin this new season of work and study and life in the Holy Land, today’s reading from the book of James reminds us that the power of speech is a gift from God—and then calls us to use that gift wisely.

The third chapter of James begins by saying: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus himself says something similar, stating: “to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48.) Or, to quote the great philosopher Ben, the uncle of Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

In other words, the book of James urges us to be aware not only of the power of words, but how position and privilege changes how those words are heard. Our tongues do not exist in the world by themselves. A tongue is attached to a mouth, which is attached to a body, which is covered in skin, which walks in a particular place in society. Being aware of the power of words means recognizing the body our tongue inhabits.

After all, it wasn’t just the words the man said to me on my walk to St. Andrew’s Church that made me afraid—it was the fact that he was a man, and I am a woman, and we are living in a profoundly patriarchal and sexist world.

And it wasn’t just the words that my father said that gave me the strength to take risks and be bold in life, it was the fact that he is my father, and I am his daughter, and therefore his words carry far greater weight than the same words said by anyone else.

Many in this room are here because our faith in God compels us to live and serve among those who are facing injustice and inequality in this place. Most of us are people who hope to be an alternative voice for peace in a world which cries “war”, and a voice for love in a world which shouts “hate.” But we do this best when we acknowledge the bodies our tongues inhabit. In other words, we can best use the God-given gift of our tongues for good when we are aware of how our skin color, education, gender, passport, profession, or religion affects how our speech is heard.

For example, it is powerful—and painful-- when a white male presidential candidate makes fun of women, Asians, blacks, and immigrants on the campaign trail.

But it is also powerful--and hopeful--when an American Lutheran bishop speaks against the extension of the Israeli separation wall in the Cremisan Valley!

It is powerful—and degrading-- when western reporters refer to Middle Eastern families crossing borders as “waves of immigrants” or “hordes of refugees.”

But it is also powerful--and life-giving--when a person we have wronged says to us, “I forgive you.”

Words have power. Our tongues can be powerful weapons of destruction, or they can be powerful tools for change.

As Christians, we are called to think about power differently. We view power through the witness of Jesus. On the cross, Jesus showed us that the best thing to do with power and privilege is to use them for the good of those who have none. On the cross, the One who possessed everything—even divinity—gave it away for the sake of sinners like you and me. On the cross, the One who could have had it all—the biggest kingdom, the most riches, the best of everything in this world—instead emptied himself, so this broken world could possess peace, wholeness, and reconciliation.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to take up the cross and follow him on this radically new path, using all that we possess for the good of our neighbor—including the God-given gift of speech. We are called to speak words of healing, of forgiveness, and of hope. We are called to speak out when we see the image of God being denied in our neighbor.

Granted, we don’t always get it right. As James reminds us, “No human being can tame the tongue.” We confess that we are often in bondage to our tongues. Sometimes this tiny member of our body rules us. Sometimes we really are a ship being steered by a tiny rudder that leads us into conflict and division and away from the love of God and love of neighbor. Sometimes, in spite of our best intentions, we say things that hurt rather than heal, that tear down rather than build up.

But thanks be to God, we aren’t in this alone. Thanks be to God, we have heard the Good News that Jesus, the Word made flesh, has been born among us.

Jesus, the Word made flesh, healed and forgave and multiplied bread with just a word.

Jesus, the Word made flesh, showed us the path of discipleship with the words, “Follow me.”

Jesus, the Word made flesh, comes to heal and empower us today, in, with and under the bread and wine, accompanied by the most powerful words of all: “This is my body, given for you.”

Words have power. So on this day when we are commissioning new partners in mission, and when we ask for God’s blessing on the work of our hands, I ask that you also commit to using the God-given gift of your tongue for the good of your neighbor.

As God our Creator spoke the world into existence, may we speak peace into this conflicted land.

As Jesus our Savior spoke words of forgiveness even from the cross, may we speak words of grace and healing to broken hearts.

As the Spirit of Wisdom inspires us to speak truth to power and challenge injustices, may we always remember to first take up the cross before we open our mouths.

And may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Sermon for Sunday, 6 September 2015: 15th Sunday after Pentecost (ELCA's "End Racism Sunday")

Sermon for Sunday, 6 September 2015

15th Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


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

Exactly ten years ago today, I was sitting in my first class at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. It was seven years since I first enrolled in seminary in Minnesota. It was six years since I dropped out to stay home with my children. It was three days since I moved from Waco, Texas to Chicago.

And it was two weeks since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the United States.

I was sitting in this first class, a Christian Ethics class, with my Bible on my desk and my pencil and notebook poised and ready. After some introductions, the professor turned our attention to the wall, where she had projected two images from news coverage of the hurricane: One showed a black man in water carrying supplies in his arms. The caption read, “A young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans.” The other showed a white couple, also in water, also carrying supplies. The caption of this photo read, “Two residents wade through chest deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store.”
The professor then turned to us and invited discussion about what it means that the black man was “looting” and the white couple was “finding.” 

I remember well the confusion I felt at that moment. I’d like to say I was thinking deep thoughts about racism and injustice and media bias, but really I was thinking “What does this have to do with Christian Ethics?” and then “What does this have to do with Jesus?”

You may have heard someone talk about having a “Come to Jesus moment” – a time when you find yourself at the crossroads, forced to make a decision, to tell the truth, to confess, to choose a new path. Well, for me this was something else. This is what I like to call a “Brought to Jesus moment.” Because the truth is, I didn’t even know I needed to be there. I didn’t know I had anything to confess. I was a good Christian, after all, sitting in seminary (for the second time) studying to be a pastor. But what I didn’t understand, what I didn’t even recognize about myself, was that I needed healing. Like the deaf and mute man in today’s Gospel story, I needed someone else to pick me up and take me to Jesus. I needed someone to set me at the feet of Jesus and beg him to touch me, to open my ears and to fix my tongue. I needed healing, because whether I realized it or not, I was a racist.

That first seminary class was one of many “Brought to Jesus moments” in my own ongoing, and sometimes messy, journey of healing from the racism which is so embedded in our culture that we often don’t recognize that we suffer from it.

Of course, healing is not always clean, quick, and efficient. Just look at the deaf man who was brought to Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. He didn’t come to Jesus on his own, either—others brought him to Jesus and begged for help. They had heard the stories of his miracles. They heard how he rebuked unclean spirits, forgave sins, stilled storms, and raised a little girl to life with only a word. They even heard about a woman who was healed just by touching the edge of his coat!

So when they brought their friend to Jesus and begged him to lay a hand on him, I suppose they didn’t expect Jesus to stick his fingers in the man’s ears, and to spit, and to touch the man’s tongue, crying out to heaven, “Ephphatha! Be opened!” I mean, why, Jesus? You can turn water into wine without touching it. You can multiply bread and fish without shouting any magic words. Couldn’t this one be a little less gross? Couldn’t this be one of those clean, quick, “didn’t even have to touch the person” kind of healings?

But then, we don’t get to choose how healing happens. I didn’t get to choose to not be a racist on that first day of seminary. Instead, after I was brought to Jesus, Jesus brought me to professors, friends, neighbors, difficult conversations, plenty of mistakes, and tears. Then Jesus brought me to a black church on the South Side of Chicago, where I started to learn how to preach, but more importantly learned how to listen. More recently, Jesus brought me to Jerusalem, where I’ve been learning how a conflict which is often billed as being about religion, politics, or real estate, not so surprisingly turns out to also be about…race.

Thanks be to God for the professor who started my seminary studies with those pictures, and who set me out on a journey of healing which continues today. 

Thanks be to God for all those who are truth-tellers in our lives, opening our eyes to the way we’ve hurt them, or are hurting ourselves, or are participating in systems of injustice and oppression which hurt others.

Thanks be to God for those who have brought us to Jesus and his life-changing love. Amen!

Amen!…which brings me to the other healing story in today’s appointed Scripture lesson.  

The deaf man was brought to Jesus by friends, but in the first part of today’s text we read that the girl with the unclean spirit was left at home, and what her mother brought to the feet of Jesus instead was her love for her daughter.

This week, it is difficult to read the story of a woman begging for healing for her daughter without seeing the image of that Syrian toddler, washed up on a Turkish beach. Again and again, I read the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman.  Again and again, I imagined her as the refugee mother who desperately brought her child onto a boat because the land, her land, was no longer safe.

And again and again, I saw the image of that little boy on the beach. This week, our hearts are broken, and we cry out to Jesus, “Do Syrian lives matter? Do refugee lives matter?” This week, we are all the Syro-Phoenician woman.

On the other hand, we are also her daughter.

What we know is that this little girl suffered from an “unclean spirit.” In the time of Jesus, that could mean many things—demon possession, or mental illness, for example. But it also could have been addiction. Or ADHD, or epilepsy, or any number of ailments that had no treatment in 1st Century Palestine.

But sisters and brothers, racism is also an unclean spirit.

So is the illegal occupation of another people, and the silent justification and participation in such a system.

And so is our collective ability to see photos of dead children on beaches and to do nothing.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, the refugees need a home, but we are the ones who need healing, because we are the ones who are sick.

We are the ones who need to be brought to Jesus this week, because while the image of a Syrian toddler washed up on a beach has stunned and horrified us, so did the images of a toddler and his family burned in Duma.

And so did nine church members shot in South Carolina because they were black.

And so did 500 children killed in Gaza last summer.

Such images and stories always capture our attention and horrify us and inspire poems and prayers and vigils and hashtags and then…life goes on. Life goes on, not because there has been healing, but because there has been a new tragedy. A new photo. A new media focus.

And it will go on like this, until the day when we are healed.

Humanity’s inhumanity will go on until we are brought to the feet of Jesus, and by the power of the cross, our hearts are healed, and our ears unstopped, and our tongues unbound.

Humanity will go on harboring the unclean spirits which allow us to forget, ignore, rationalize, and hide such horrors until the Syro-phoenician mothers of the world bring us to Jesus, demanding to be heard, pounding not only the doors of heaven, but also the doors of the presidents, the prime ministers, and the United Nations.

Dear sisters and brothers, on this “End Racism Sunday”, and at the end of a week which saw thousands of refugees washing up on beaches, decomposing in trucks, and flooding into European countries, it’s time to confess that we are sick. We need healing.

We need a love for our fellow human beings that doesn’t fade at the end of this news cycle.

We need a love for the stranger that will not allow boats of people to be turned away and sent back to war zones.

We need the kind of love for our neighbor that will not stand for them to be killed for their religion, their gender, their national identity, or the color of their skin.

This kind of love isn’t found just anywhere. But it is found at the foot of the cross.

It’s found in the love of the Great Healer, Jesus Christ, who loved all of humanity so much that he couldn’t stand to let us stay sick in sin, but instead emptied himself so we would be filled with the same love.

Thanks be to God, we have been brought to the feet of this same Jesus. By the power of the cross, we are being healed even now, for he has done everything well;

He even makes the deaf to hear the cries of the refugee,
And the mute to speak for justice.

Lord, forgive us.
Lord, heal us.
Lord, make us whole.