Monday, October 26, 2015

Reformation Day Sermon 2015: Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

Sermon for Sunday 25 October 2015
Reformation Day

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Psalm 46


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

“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing”. We began worship this Reformation Sunday singing these words, words which must have made a lot of sense to a German priest and hymn-writer who lived in and around fortresses. Painting an image of God as a mighty stone building is completely understandable when you’ve literally sought refuge and safety from enemies inside a castle.

On the other hand, I don’t know much about castles and fortresses at all, except from Disney movies and fairytales. And as many times as I’ve sung Martin Luther’s famous hymn, I still have no idea what a “bulwark” is!

But today I do live near a mighty wall, 650 kilometers (403 miles) long and 8 meters high (25 feet). I live in a place where massive cement blocks are set in the middle of roadways, blocking patients from access to hospitals. I live in a city where a new “temporary” wall, 5 meters high (16 feet) was recently erected in just hours to divide two neighborhoods from each other.   
If the Wise Men tried to visit Jesus today,
they would first have to get past the wall.

Walls and barriers and checkpoints are such a part of daily life in this context that I am hearing our beloved Reformation hymn, “A Mighty Fortress”, very differently these days.

I have a hard time imagining the God of love and justice and mercy as a wall of any kind, for example. Not a castle wall. Not a city wall. And certainly not a separation wall. My God cannot be a wall anymore. My apologies to Luther.

It’s true, though, that the separation wall down the road is a god (little “g” god) for the people who must live behind, pass through it, or drive around it. The wall acts as a god for those who spend time and money protecting it, reinforcing it, and building new portions of it.

Anything can become our god when we begin to regard it as permanent, immovable, and capable of forming the boundaries of our lives. We humans have a long history of putting our trust in these false gods. We are really good at giving other people, things, ideas, or life events the power to define us and rule over us—especially things that promise to last forever, keep us safe, or make us happy.

But the truth is that everything we think is permanent comes tumbling down eventually. Everything, of course, except God.  

The God of Abraham and Sarah,
the God of Paul and Mary Magdalene,
the God of Martin Luther and all the reformers,
the one true God is with us, and will be with us long after every single thing that is not god comes tumbling down.

This is of course the powerful message of Psalm 46, from which Luther took inspiration for his famous hymn. “A mighty fortress is our God” was his interpretation of “God is our refuge and strength.”

(Please open your bulletins and read Psalm 46 aloud with me once again)
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
  and though the mountains shake in the depths of the sea;
 though its waters rage and foam,
  and though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
  the holy habitation of the Most High.
 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be shaken;
  God shall help it at the break of day.
 The nations rage, and the kingdoms shake;
  God speaks, and the earth melts away.
 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
 Come now, regard the works of the Lord,
  what desolations God has brought upon the earth;
 behold the one who makes war to cease in all the world;
  who breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire.
 “Be still, then, and know that I am God;
  I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.”
 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

In these few beautiful verses, the psalmist proclaims that when things seem to be falling apart around us, and things we thought would last forever are fading away, we have nothing to fear.

When the doctor says “cancer” we have nothing to fear.

When the bank account says “zero” we have nothing to fear.

When the document says “the divorce is final” we have nothing fear.

When the text message says “UN Security Update” we have nothing to fear.

We have nothing to fear, because God is with us. Four times in Psalm 46 the psalmist reminds us of this:

“God is ever present (even when we feel alone)”
“God is in the city! (Even when the city is in chaos)
“The Lord of hosts is with us! (even when we have lost our faith)”
And then, in case we missed it, the psalmist says it again:
“The Lord of hosts is with us!”  Amen!

I’ll never forget the first time I read Psalm 46 and it became more than words for me. It was the 11th of September 2001, and I was sitting on the couch in front of the television, with my toddler at my side and my infant son in my arms, watching two tall towers in New York City crumble to the ground.

I watched for as long as I could bear, and then I turned the television channel to something the kids would like, and I opened my Bible.

I opened it to Psalm 46 – not by accident, and not by divine intervention, but because my spouse was a seminary student (and was assigned to lead chapel that morning) and therefore I knew it was the assigned psalm for the day. For the first time in my very privileged life, I read the words of this psalm and knew what it meant to say “the nations rage, and the kingdoms shake.” I knew what it meant to say “though the earth be moved.” But I also knew in my heart what it really meant to proclaim, “God is in the city. Therefore we will not fear.” These were the words that mattered as I held my sons tight and wondered what the future held for them.

Dear sisters and brothers, it felt like no accident that Psalm 46 was the appointed psalm for that Tuesday morning. And I must say that while I know very well that Psalm 46 is always the assigned psalm for Reformation Sunday, and Reformation Sunday always falls at the same time each year, still it feels like no accident that we are reading these words on this morning. In Jerusalem today we need to know that God is in this city. We need to know we are not alone. We need to know that there is a power at work in this city, and in the world, that is stronger than knives, greater than guns, higher than walls, and louder than any political spin, hate speech, or lie. 

A powerful statement found on the Separation Barrier
Photo by Carrie Smith
For this reason, Psalm 46 gives us comfort when things we love fall down around us. It also gives us strength when other things refuse to fall. When the powers and principalities of the world attempt to assert themselves as god of our lives; and when walls, guns, knives and checkpoints are all shouting “I am your god!”, the Word of God gives us the courage to say NO – you are not our god! Violence will not be our witness. Oppression will not last forever. Racism will not exist in the kingdom. Hatred will never have the last word. 

And yes, the wall will fall, because a mighty fortress is our God! Amen!

With Rev. Robert Smith and Rev. Mitri Raheb
at a recent prayer gathering near the site
where the Israeli government is extending the wall
into the Cremisan Valley (on Palestinian land)
On Reformation Sunday we give thanks for the whole Word of God, through which we know that our refuge and strength is only in God’s righteousness, God’s justice, God’s faithfulness, God’s mercy.

We give thanks for Martin Luther and all the reformers who revived our love for the Word.

And we especially give thanks to God for Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh. On the cross God’s love for the world was shown to be greater than the world’s love of violence. And by rising on the third day, Our Lord Jesus said to the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb, and said even to death: “You are not god. You will never have the last say. The God of love, of peace, of justice and of life will always have the last word for all humanity.”

As you go out into the city and into the world today, I pray you will be strengthened and encouraged through the Word, through this community of faith, and through the bread and the wine. I pray you will go out knowing that the love of God in Christ Jesus surrounds you always. 

And just in case the image of God as a fortress wall is as difficult for you as it is for me these days, I will send you out with an image from another famous hymn, called St. Patrick’s Breastplate. You are invited to repeat the words after me:

“Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, 
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.”   Amen, let it be so.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Sermon for Sunday 18 October 2015: "We are able"

Sermon for Sunday 18 October 2015

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


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

Last Saturday evening, after a day of shocking violence, we debated whether or not to gather for worship at all the next morning. This week, I found myself asking not whether we should open the church, but rather what a preacher could possibly say in response to another week of violent stabbings, executions carried out in the streets, road closures, barricades, reprisal attacks, funerals, and hate-filled words thrown back and forth like bombs.   

What more is there to say when words themselves—even the Word of God—have become weapons? Even those of us who call ourselves followers of the Prince of Peace may feel caught up in the battle cry that is sounding out over Jerusalem. The Holy Land is an unholy mess once again, and if there’s one unifying theme of the past week, it is fear. All the children of Abraham are afraid – afraid of each other, afraid of certain neighborhoods, afraid to walk with hands in pockets, afraid to enter through certain gates, afraid to be seen walking while Arab, walking while Israeli, or simply walking in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sheep at Herod's Gate
American Colony Photo Dept.
But there are a few words from our Isaiah reading this morning which seem to sum up our situation very well: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6) We have gone astray when we find ways to justify the stabbing of innocent people. We have gone astray when we rejoice over bullets fired into already incapacitated teenagers lying on the ground. We have gone astray when we act as if some lives matter more than others, that some blood spilled is really blood but the blood of the other is just water in our eyes.

All we like sheep have gone astray. In Israel and Palestine we humans have all turned to our own way, which is the way of vengeance, division, ideology and power over others – and at times also apathy and despair. Of course, it’s easy to point fingers and divert attention elsewhere. It’s easy in this place to give ourselves a pass for our own contributions to hatred and violence, especially when the situation is so unbalanced, weighted so heavily on the side of injustice and oppression.

But this passage from Isaiah pulls us out of our place in the judgment seat and reminds us that “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” It may be difficult in Jerusalem today to see any evidence of our shared humanity or even a shared commitment to a common goal, but one thing we cannot miss is the overwhelming evidence of our shared human brokenness. Pain, suffering, and grief are not contained by walls or checkpoints. 

Hatred and denial of the humanity of our neighbor is not restricted to one religion, one ethnicity, or one national identity. The Word of God reminds us today that we are all sinners. We ourselves have missed the point and missed the mark, and with each new day fo the occupation, and each new day of violence, we stray further from the godly path of peace, justice, and reconciliation.

Yes, we like sheep have gone astray, and of course lost sheep don’t often find their way back home on their own. We need the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, to lead us on the right path and to guide us home.

As I consider the situation in Jerusalem today, I can’t help but picture the church as the sons of Zebedee from today’s Gospel reading. Here we are, Jesus’ faithful disciples, standing at the gates of Jerusalem—or rather, sitting in the middle of it! We know we are lost and astray. We confess our share of responsibility for the brokenness of this city, of this country, and of this world. We need peace. We want justice. We want the violence to stop. We want the occupation to end.

And so, standing with Jesus as he prepares to enter the city, we are the sons of Zebedee, eagerly saying to Jesus, “Here we are, send us! We are able!”

The sons of Zebedee and their exuberant willingness to follow come across as a bit of comic relief in the midst of this longer passage where Jesus imparts –or tries to impart – difficult truths to his disciples. To get the full comic effect, we have to start reading a few verses ahead of this morning’s assigned text:

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

And then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, step forward to say, “Ok, great, we got all that, but Jesus, we want to sit right next to you when it all goes down. One on the right, and one on the left, if you don’t mind.”

It’s almost impossible to overemphasize the inappropriateness of this comment, both in timing and in context. It reminds me of a gift I received from a member of the first church I served as pastor. It’s a little plaque that says “Jesus loves you”, except that underneath it says “But I’m his favorite.”

“Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite” was what James and John were thinking, even as Jesus told them what was about to happen. They were ready to follow, but they wanted a little glory, too. They were ready to go into Jerusalem, but they wanted to ensure some payoff at the end of this whole “Way of the Cross” business.

Jesus responds by saying, “Were you listening just now? Remember that stuff about being arrested, falsely convicted, publicly humiliated, tortured and killed? Are you really prepared to be at my side through all of this?”

And James and John eagerly reply, “We are able!”

But of course they had no idea what they were really saying. 

Last week when we gathered for worship in the wake of that violent Saturday, Bishop Younan addressed the issue of what we, the church, are able to do about the situation in Jerusalem today. In his sermon the bishop asked the church to commit to prayer and fasting for the sake of the peace of Jerusalem. Pray for peace. Pray for justice. Pray for healing. This is what we are able to do, he told us.

Some might see prayer as a weak strategy. Some would rather hear a call to arms or a plan for something more “radical” or newsworthy. For example, we the disciples might prefer to be at the right and left hand of Jesus as he marches into Jerusalem, turning over tables, knocking down barricades, and giving interviews to BBC and CNN in the process of bringing peace to Jerusalem.

After all, that sounds more fun than prayer.

But really, the commitment to pray – to really pray, putting ourselves wholly in the hands of Jesus – is radical indeed. And dangerous! Because when we tell Jesus “we are able”, we often forget that the way of Jesus is never the way of glory. When we say we are able to drink the cup of Jesus, we’re saying we’re ready for persecution and humiliation. When we say we’re ready for the baptism of Jesus, we’re saying we are ready even for death.

As we gather here in Jerusalem today, asking Jesus to show us the way to peace, praying for him to use the church in the struggle for justice, we must be prepared for what that requires of us. We must be prepared for what Bishop Younan has often called the life of martyria – sacrificial witness for the sake of the Gospel. To be clear, martyria is not the same as calling for Christians to be martyrs. We do not seek to give our lives, although we must always be ready if that is what our faith requires of us.
A life of martyria means suffering the consequences of boldly living the Gospel of love.

When we commit to nonviolence – even nonviolent speech – we may be called weak.
When we commit to dialogue, we may be called collaborators.
When we commit to mercy and forgiveness, we may be called foolish.
When we commit to loving our neighbor – all of our neighbors—we may be called ignorant.
When we commit to challenging unjust systems and policies, we may be accused of supporting terrorists.

Are we really able to do this? Or are we like the sons of Zebedee, still thinking we can follow Jesus and be popular at the same time? Are we really able to walk the way of the cross?

It’s a tall order. But I believe this is what the holy land needs today – people of faith who are willing to follow Jesus not just to the gates of the city, not just to advocacy pages on Facebook, not just to the neighborhoods we are comfortable in, and not just to the meeting rooms of our own organizations, but to the foot of the cross. The cup which he drinks and the baptism with which he is baptized aren’t located in our comfort zones. 

The life of martyria isn’t easy. And yet we are gifted and empowered by our love for Jesus, with faith in the power of the cross, and with the hope that comes from the resurrection. Jesus didn’t promise James and John the seats at his right and left hand—but he did promise to be with us always, to the end of the age. Therefore we can truly say to our Good Shepherd, the Prince of Peace, “We all like sheep have gone astray. But we are ready to follow now. And we are able.”  

We are able to pray faithfully.
We are able to love extravagantly.
We are able to speak out boldly.
We are able to withstand criticism, false accusations, criticisms, and even persecution.
With Jesus by our side, we are able to withstand even the cross.

Thanks be to God, we are able, for the sake of our neighbors, for the sake of peace with justice, and for the sake of Jerusalem, to follow Jesus where he leads.

Let us pray:
God of love, we commit ourselves individually and as a community
to the way of Christ;
to take up the cross;
to seek abundant life for all humanity;
to struggle for peace with justice and freedom;
to risk ourselves in faith, hope, and love,
praying that God’s kingdom may come.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours,

now and for ever. Amen.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sermon for 11 October 2015: Bishop Munib Younan preaches at Redeemer Church

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan

The President of the Lutheran World Federation

Joint Arabic-English service with YAGM commissioning

11 October 2015

Mark 2: 1-12
“Jesus heals a paralytic”

When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”


Bishop of the ELCJHL, Munib Younan
I am especially grateful to have the opportunity to speak to you this morning after the very difficult events of the past weeks. Once again, our country is in distress. Once again our homes, our families, and our futures are threatened by violence, hatred, and death. Our land and our people are in need of healing.

For this reason, the story of the paralyzed man who was brought to Jesus by four friends is an excellent text for us to consider. This man could not come to Jesus of his own power, and the crowd in the house where Jesus was staying was so large that no one could come through the front door. 

Therefore the man’s four friends made a hole in the roof and lowered the paralyzed man down until he was in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he healed the man, but not in the way the friends expected. Jesus looked at the man and said “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

The scribes who witnessed this event were shocked and asked the question, “Why does this man speak this way? Who can forgive sins apart from God?”

I think we are asking this same question today, along with the scribes. Why does this man speak this way? When the four men dug that hole in the roof and lowered their friend through it, they did it because they wanted physical healing. They came because they heard how he had cast out unclean spirits. They came because they heard he had healed Simon’s mother-in-law. They came because Jesus had cleansed the leper.

But when Jesus saw the faith of these four friends, and when he looked upon the face of the paralytic man, he did not heal his physical ailments. Instead, he healed his spiritual ailment.

Bishop Munib Younan preaching at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
11 October 2015
We know that Jesus had the power to heal the man’s body. We know very well it would have been easy for him to heal such a man. But Jesus told him, in front of everyone, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

This is a powerful lesson for us today, when our world is weighed down with the sin of materialism. This is a powerful lesson when so many worship the idol of prosperity. This is a powerful lesson when our land is burdened with the ongoing, systemic evil of occupation and oppression—and when as a result we find ourselves stained with the sin of hatred for our neighbor.

In such a time, we may challenge Jesus along with the scribes, saying “Is this the only healing you can offer? Do we really need forgiveness of sins, when we cannot even walk?”

But in fact this is exactly what the world needs. We need a spiritual healing today. Many of us when we become sick will say “Lord, if you heal me I will do this and this and this. If you heal me, I will love my neighbor. If you heal me, I will forgive those who have wronged me. If you heal me, I will speak out against injustice.” We make promises, as if Jesus is one who bargains with us for better behavior. We make promises, as if only physical healing were in God’s hands, but spiritual health is our own choice and under our own control.

But in fact, spiritual healing is much more precious and much more difficult to obtain. Yes, we need a political solution to this conflict. But it is also true that only spiritual wholeness will ultimately heal our lives, our communities, and our country.

For this reason, Jesus answered the scribes who questioned him, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?

And then, to show them that he did indeed have authority to heal both spiritually and physically, Jesus said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.”

My dear congregation, on this morning when our minds are filled with terrible images, and when our hearts and our bodies are in such need of healing, I have several messages for you.

First of all, I know very well that in these difficult times, you may feel exactly like the paralyzed man. It is true that the checkpoints, the barriers, and the army vehicles restrict our movements. It is true that guns, knives, and unjust policies keep us from walking freely.

But our need for healing is more than merely physical. What paralyzes us as a people and as a country is the sin of hatred for the Other. Physical healing will not come without the spiritual. Freedom of the body will not come without liberation of the spirit. Therefore, we need the faith of those four who knew that Jesus alone could provide the healing they needed. We need the faith of those four who would not give up, who even dug a hole in the roof in order to reach the Great Healer.

We need to experience the power of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We need to know the power of forgiveness of sin.

We need the power of increased faith.

We need the new life, new hope, and clean hearts that only Jesus can give.

Secondly, my brothers and sisters, when I read the story of the paralyzed man I realize that is not only one man, but our entire land that is paralyzed. Our land and our people are lying on a mat outside the house where Jesus is staying. The difference between our situation and the situation of the man in this Gospel story is we don’t have even four friends to carry us to Jesus. We can find no one who will carry us to the front door, much less dig us a hole through the roof.

The world knows we cannot walk. They have seen the occupation, the closure of Jerusalem, and the violence we are experiencing every day. They know, and until now they do nothing. Our country and our people need someone who will not only pick us up but who will even take off the roof to bring us to a place of healing.

Who are these four friends who would dare to do such a thing?

The politicians have failed to find a just solution. They have failed to end the occupation and give freedom to both peoples in this land.

The international media is biased, and if they say anything about us at all, they merely look at the paralyzed man and give him beautiful words. They offer him official statements to make his time lying on the mat more comfortable.
But a paralyzed man does not need these words of honey. He doesn’t need statements or letters of support. He needs wholeness, from the inside out. He needs the freedom to get up and walk.

Who then will be our faithful friends today?

I believe it is the church who must carry the paralyzed man to Jesus. I believe it is the church alone who has the faith, the strength, and the courage to carry a paralyzed country to the roof and place it at Jesus’ feet.

You, my sisters and brothers in Christ, have this faith. You have this power. You can carry the country by your prayers.

Tell God, “Lord, we are tired of our ailment. We are tired of hatred and oppression.”

Tell Jesus, “Lord, this situation paralyzes us. It paralyzes our spirituality and our morals. We cannot even walk!”

Together, we must tell the Great Healer:

“Heal us from oppression. Heal us from hatred. Heal us from violence. Heal us from depression. Forgive us our sins, and bring us new hope and new life, as you gave new hope to the paralyzed man.”

I ask you, members of this church today, commit yourselves to prayer, for we know Jesus said in the ninth chapter of Mark that some unclean spirits can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.

Thirdly, I want to address the young adult volunteers who have come to be with us for one year. You have been here only a short time, and while many of us are questioning Jesus today, you may be asking different questions. You have come here in the midst of a very difficult situation, and you may be asking, “Can we really do this?”

The answer is yes, you can. You have the power to be friend to us. You also have the power to carry us in faith to the feet of Jesus. But I want to tell you some very important things. 

Bishop Munib Younan commissioning and blessing the 2015-16 YAGM Volunteers

First of all, you must listen before you speak.

You must see before you judge.

And I ask you not to think that you will bring a political solution to this conflict. Don’t even try it!

What you can do, the way you can be our faithful friend, is by joining us in our daily lives. Try to understand what is like for us to live this paralyzed life.

Pray with us. Sing with us. Mourn with us. Rejoice with us. If you do this, then you will be one of the four who brought the man to Jesus. Then you will be our friend.

This is what we need from you who are here as Young Adults in Global Mission. This is what we need from all of you here today, and from our partners and friends from all over the world. We need the whole church to see that we are a paralyzed people.

We need our sisters and brothers in Christ to have enough faith that even if the front door is blocked, even if the windows are locked, even if systems and policies and political pressure and the international media are standing in the way, the church can make a way out of no way. The church, by the power of the Holy Spirit and with the strength that comes through prayer, can even make a hole in the roof for us. Then perhaps we will finally hear the words we have needed for so long:

“Dear people of Palestine and Israel, take up your mat and walk.”

May the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sermon for Sunday, 4 October 2015

* A note about this sermon: 

Sometimes preachers preach things they themselves need to hear. On this particular Sunday, I preached God's radical love for all people--for ourselves in all our failings, for our neighbors, and even for our enemies.

In the wake of recent terrible violence and ongoing injustice and oppression in Jerusalem and in this land, I confess that I am angry, and sad, and not feeling particularly loving to my neighbors. 

My heart is hardened this week.

In short, I need Jesus. 
So this sermon is as much for me as for you. 


Sermon for Sunday, 4 October 2015

Pastor Carrie Ballenger Smith


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

Yesterday morning it was my joy and privilege to baptize 4 month old Sofie right here in this font. I was assisted by Sofie’s smiling older brothers who eagerly helped by pouring the water, taking off baby Sofie’s little white hat, and drying her head with a special cloth. It was a joyful moment, a great way to spend a Saturday morning, and of course a fitting image to accompany this week’s Gospel lesson, in which Jesus welcomes children with open arms and blesses them.

But it’s also true that this morning, when I hear Jesus say “Let the little children come to me”, I see 5 year old Ahmed Dawabsheh, still recovering in the hospital from burns received in the arson murder of his parents and baby brother. 

And it’s difficult to imagine Jesus welcoming children into his arms without seeing the nine year old son of Rabbi Eitan and Naama Henkin doing the very adult task of saying Kaddish at their funeral on Friday, after they were murdered in front of him and his three siblings.

Sadly, as I was finishing this sermon yesterday, I was interrupted first by a story that a 6 year old Palestinian boy was shot, apparently by an Israeli settler…and then later by the sirens outside my window after an Israeli father, mother, and toddler were attacked in the Old City.

In the face of such unspeakable violence and tragedy perpetrated against children, it is no small thing to stand and proclaim “Let the little children come to me” this morning. One might ask: Which children does Jesus welcome and bless, exactly? Ours, or theirs? The ones on this side of the wall, or the other side of the wall? The ones in pretty white dresses or the ones wrapped in white hospital bandages? When all of our children have become political pawns and sad symbols of the intensifying conflict in our city, where do we find the Good News in this Gospel lesson?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I have an adequate answer this morning. But what I do have is hope, and a deep faith in the fact that God still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures, and through water, bread, and wine – and so I hope that you will walk with me, as together we seek a Word of grace in this tense time.

Like many ultra-familiar Gospel stories, this one is actually quite difficult for us to interpret and understand today. We’ve all seen the cheery images of Jesus surrounded by adorable children of many colors. Most of us grew up learning songs about Jesus and his love for children. In my Sunday School class, we sang “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” These images and songs and ideas are so familiar that we naturally assume we know what this Gospel story is about: It’s about how Jesus loves children. Cute, clean, adorable, diverse, smiling children. Of course he does! Who wouldn’t!

But when we seek to understand this Gospel story today, it’s important to note that in Jesus’ time, children were not seen as cute or adorable at all. Children were non-people, insignificant, without power or authority or a purpose until they were able to work and contribute to the adult world. Children were like cats to shoo away from the table. They weren’t creatures to be welcomed and touched and blessed, no matter what color they were, what side they were on, or who they belonged to.

So it was a really big deal for Jesus to challenge his disciples and open his arms to those dirty, noisy, insignificant children, sticky fingers and runny noses and all. It was a really big deal for him to count them as worthy to be touched, worthy even to be blessed, because in the eyes of his time and his culture and even his disciples, these creatures deserved less than nothing from him.

In spite of the horrendous violence against children we’ve seen over the last days and weeks, in general today we don’t question the fact that every child is precious. We don’t doubt that Jesus would love and welcome and bless all children---Palestinian and Israeli. Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. Black, brown, and white. Settler and villager. Refugee and citizen.

On the other hand, we do often find it hard to accept that Jesus could love our neighbor who professes different political or religious beliefs. We find it hard to understand that Jesus’ love could extend to those who have wronged us and even to those who hate us. If we were the disciples today, we would have no problem with Jesus welcoming little children, but we may have issues with him saying “Let the terrorist come to me, and do not stop him.”

And this is why the Good News of this morning’s Gospel lesson is not really about children at all. This text reveals so much more than the need for a good Sunday School program, or the need to make our worship services more child-friendly (which nevertheless are important issues, and worthy of discussion!) When in this Gospel reading we encounter Jesus welcoming children – welcoming even children, as the disciples would have seen it – we experience just how expansive, just how great, and just how radical the love of God in Christ Jesus really is. We learn that Jesus’ love really is big enough even for those we consider to be inappropriate, unacceptable, or simply beyond help.

This is the kind of Good News that frankly doesn’t seem like good news some days. 

This is the kind of Good News that gets under our skin, irritates us, and challenges both our assumptions and our worldview – a bit like what the disciples experienced when Jesus scolded them, saying “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Whenever I consider the radical nature of Jesus’ open arms of welcome, and how difficult it can be to understand much less receive such love, I always think of my friend Ray. Ray was a church member at my congregation in suburban Chicago, and I share his story today with his permission. 

Ray enlisted in the Army shortly after World War II. He signed up because he wanted to go to college, and his family could only afford to send his older sister. It was 1949. With the war over, the Army seemed like a great way to earn money for college and get some experience in the world.

He could never have guessed that his country would soon be in another conflict, this time in Korea. While there, he did what soldiers are trained to do: he killed people. The first one, he told me, he remembers in painful detail. He’s not sure how many came after that, and he wouldn’t want to count. He did what the government trained him to do. He did his job.

When he came home from Korea, Ray went on with life. He got married, raised a family, and worked hard. He had always been a believer, and while he may not have made it to church every Sunday, he was especially involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Everything seemed fine on the outside. Anyone who knew Ray would have seen him as a family man, a patriot, and especially a man of faith.

But Ray had a secret. For more than 50 years, Ray lived in fear that God would not, in fact could not, forgive him for what he did as a soldier. Didn’t Scripture say “Thou shalt not kill?” Didn’t Jesus say “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished…Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven?” These words kept Ray bound up by guilt and wrapped tight with fear. To the world, Ray seemed to have it all together, but in reality he was always standing just outside the circle, just outside of reach, certain he was beyond God’s love.

But then, something happened. The way Ray tells it, it happened when he finally shared his fears with a trusted friend, and instead of condemnation, he heard these words: “Ray, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. You have nothing to fear. In Christ, you are forgiven. You have always been forgiven.”

True, he had heard these words before. Who knows why these words made a difference on this day, in this conversation, with this particular person! All that matters is that this time, he got it. This time, he heard Jesus’ voice saying “Let the little children – let even Ray come to me -- and do not stop him” -- and he ran to his open arms. It was Ray’s 81st birthday.

At 81 years old, Ray received the Good News – not as an old man, not as a veteran, not as a lifelong church member, not as a father or grandfather, but as a child. He received the Good News as one who possessed nothing but the deep need to be loved.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, hear again the Good News that when Jesus opens his arms and says “Let the little children come to me”, that welcome includes you. 

Jesus’ love, grace, mercy and forgiveness, 
the open arms of the cross and of the empty tomb, are for you. 

Thanks be to God, this radical love is also for your neighbor, 
and for the arsonists, 
and for the killers, 
and for this fractured land, 
and for this whole broken and bleeding world. 

In Jesus Christ, we have come to know that there is no one outside of God’s love. There is no one outside the reach of God’s healing and reconciliation. Perhaps when we receive this love, really receive it, like a little child with nothing to offer and nothing to prove, then we will find peace. Then we will find wholeness.

And then we will be able to extend it to others.

Let us pray:

Loving God, on this morning we gather to sing your praises, but we also come carrying with us so much grief. We mourn for children who have lost parents. We mourn for this city which is once again torn apart by fear and violence. We pray that our hard hearts would be softened, and our eyes opened, so we can recognize those we call enemies as our sisters and brothers, members of the one human family. Call us back to your arms, and fill us with your Spirit of love, grace, and forgiveness. Make us whole. Make us instruments of your peace. We ask this through your Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.