Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sermon for 1st Sunday of Advent: 29 November 2015

Sermon for Sunday, 29 November 2015
1st Sunday of Advent

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

Luke 21:25-36

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


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

Dear friends, Christmas is on its way! The signs are all around us. Lights and trees are appearing in the Christian quarter. The saxophone-playing Santas are mysteriously appearing again in front of Old City shops. Christmas bazaars are filling our Saturdays while emptying our pockets. Of course, depending on where you call home, the signs of the season here in Jerusalem may feel a bit unfamiliar. Some of us are missing snow and Christmas sweaters. Some of us, from the southern hemisphere, are missing the traditional Christmas summer barbecue! But make no mistake – we have seen the signs. Advent has begun, and Christmas is surely coming soon.

But there are other signs demanding our attention in the world around us. There are disturbances on nearly every continent. There is distress among the nations. Depending on who you listen to, which newspapers you read, or which online news sources you follow, these events are definitive signs pointing to a World War, or to a war with Islam, or to the rise of fascism.

Sources tell us that current events signal the likelihood of a race war in the United States, or the end of the two-state solution for Palestine and Israel, or the formation of one apartheid state.

Even worse, some say all signs point to a President Trump in the White House.

Any one of these things may cause us to tremble, as this morning’s Scripture text says: “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” In other words, when the world is a mess, we humans can be a mess, too.

This doesn’t feel like a very Christmas-y message, and we’re not likely to hear these verses recited at our annual Christmas pageant. And yet, Jesus said these things right here, in the land of Christmas. Preaching in the temple here in Jerusalem, Jesus tried to prepare the people for an event so huge, so dramatic, that it would shake the very foundation of their lives—chiefly the destruction of the temple itself. At the same time, although the disciples didn’t understand it then, he was also preparing them for the destruction of his own body. One way or the other, Jesus is talking about a big change to come, and he tells the people “Be on guard….be alert! For it will come upon all who live on the face of the earth.”

Gathered here in Jerusalem on this first Sunday of Advent 2015, we also see signs that something big is happening. After all, we’ve read the news. We’ve seen how nations and cultures, systems and the status quo have been shaken. Some days it seems even the sun, moon, and stars are stirred up. The world is a mess!

And yet, here we are today, lighting candles and singing of hope. 

St. John Crusader Chapel
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
Advent 2015
Photo by Carrie Smith
Here we are, praying for peace.
Here we are, counting down the days to Christmas.
Here we are, teaching our children the story of a baby born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.

Why? How can this be?

Shouldn’t we be fainting from fear?
Shouldn’t we be building walls and stockpiling weapons?
Shouldn’t we be preaching gloom and doom?

Thanks be to God we have not only seen the news, we have also heard the words of Jesus. Therefore, even when the signs around us point to disaster or to the end of the world as we know it, we know Jesus says to us, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Don’t be caught with your head in the sand or your eyes to the ground. Stand up, look around, and see what God is doing! The God of redemption and new life is always at work in the world.

Continuing his sermon in the temple, Jesus reminds us how when we see trees sprouting new leaves at the end of winter, we naturally think “Oh, wonderful, summer is coming!” We get excited, because we know from experience that new leaves are signs of a new season and of new life. “So also” says Jesus, “when you see these things taking place—even terrible things—you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

Of course, it’s easy to have hope when trees are sprouting and flowers are blooming. It’s much harder to hope when your entire olive grove is uprooted.

It’s easy to trust in God when the weather is pleasant. It’s much more difficult to trust that summer is coming when the world seems controlled by the icy fingers of injustice, terror and death.

Even still, Jesus tells us that as people of faith, hope is our response in every circumstance, because we know that summer is coming. Redemption is drawing near. The kingdom of God is at hand. The baby is about to be born.

Make no mistake: terrible things are happening. There is great sorrow, great struggle, and great worry in the world today.

But no matter what signs and events are happening in the world today—whether they are natural disasters, human disasters, or political disasters –we respond with hope because these events, these signs, these powers and principalities do not write the story of creation. Terrorists are not the authors of life. Brokers of injustice and hate do not have the power to re-write the greatest love story ever told.  

Nativity scene from Beit Gimal Monastery
Bet Shemesh
Photo by Carrie Smith
We have already heard this great love story, the one we started to tell the children this morning at the beginning of this worship service—
the one about how God was born among us as a baby named Jesus;

And how that same Jesus walked with us and shared our joys and sorrows;

And how this same Jesus emptied himself on the cross, taking on all our sin;
And how even then, God’s love for the world raised Jesus from the tomb on the third day.  

No sign, no terror event, no crisis, no wall, no gun, no election, no ideology, nothing in the whole world has the power to change this story. Signs may point to disaster. Breaking news may point to terror. Politicians may point to war. Still, we know that while heaven and earth may pass away, the promises of Jesus will not pass away. Our God remains the God of redemption and new life, who raises even the dead from the grave. This hope sustains us even when the world seems to be falling apart.

I remember an Advent season about twelve years ago when I was certain the world was falling apart around us. It had been a particularly terrible year, beginning with the death of my husband Robert’s father in January, and continuing from there: several failed pregnancies, a cross-country move, a painful divorce in the family, and my beloved grandmother falling ill with pneumonia on Thanksgiving Day. Sitting alone, in a new town in a new state, far from friends and family, I had already decided not to send out Christmas cards that year.

And then, my two year old son got sick. So sick that we were sent to a doctor for a second opinion and a scan on a special machine the hospital had just purchased. This special test would determine if this sickness was a fluke, or if it was that word no one wanted to say out loud: cancer. The test was scheduled for the day after his third birthday, December 9.

If my world wasn’t shaken before, now I was certain the sun and moon and stars would fall out of the sky. All these years later, I can still feel how my stomach hurt and my lungs seemed to stop working properly. How could we get through this? How would we ever celebrate Christmas in the midst of this crisis?

But an amazing thing happened. On the morning of the test, when we arrived at the hospital, a pastor was waiting for us there. This was a pastor we had only just met, because we had just moved to town weeks before. He had been there, sitting in that hospital waiting room before dawn, so that we saw a familiar face when we arrived.
It was a small thing, of course, and he could not change the outcome of the test we were about to undergo (which, by the way, turned out fine). But the presence of that faithful brother in Christ was a reminder that even though the world seemed to be falling apart, God was there. Even though we were entrusting our toddler to medical doctors, God was already there. All around us in the hospital that morning were signs of sickness, signs of sadness, signs of death – but the presence of that pastor sitting in front of us was a powerful sign of hope.

Dear sisters and brothers, the season of Advent comes only once in the church year, but in these four weeks we practice what faithful disciples of Jesus are to be doing all year long. During these four weeks before Christmas, we practice hope.

We light candles in the darkness.
We gather as a community to share meals and to pray.
We prepare our homes to welcome guests and even strangers.
We share food and gifts with family and friends.
We teach our children the story of God’s love for the world. 

The children of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Singing for the 1st Sunday of Advent
"He came down that we might have joy..."
Photo by Carrie Smith
And we sing – we sing songs of hope, trusting in Jesus who said that although some things will pass away, and even some terrible things will happen, 
even so, through him our redemption is drawing near.

During these weeks of Advent, we will be alert. We will stand up and raise our heads! We will be on the lookout for signs of new life, even in winter. Even in the darkness. Even in sickness. Even in conflict. Even in this city. Even today.

For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when peace will be born,
when justice will be born,
when equality will be born
when human kindness will be born
and when Jerusalem—and the whole world—will live secure.

 May this hope fill you with peace, love, and joy in this Advent season, and the whole year through. Amen. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Sermon for Christ the King Sunday, 22 Nov 2015

Sermon for Sunday 22 November 2015

Christ the King Sunday

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


One of the first phrases I learned in Arabic was “inshallah.”

Around here, people will say “inshallah” about everything.

Leaving work at the end of the day: “See you tomorrow, inshallah.”

Setting up a lunch date: “We’ll meet at the restaurant at noon, inshallah.”

Planning a trip to Bethlehem: “Checkpoint 300 should be ok today, inshallah.”

Talking about dreams for the future: “We’ll do it when the occupation ends, inshallah.”

Basically, everything is “inshallah”—if God wills it—because nothing is ever certain in Jerusalem. We must always be ready with plans A, B, and C for any scheduled event, to account for closed checkpoints, security alerts, problems with permissions, and road blocks.  

With so much up in the air, life here is lived somehow both in the here-and-now and also in the future. Today may be difficult, but inshallah, tomorrow there will be peace. Today we may live behind a wall, but inshallah, tomorrow, there will be justice. Inshallah, tomorrow will be a better day.

Very often, Christians think of the Kingdom of God in the same way. Jesus tells us the kingdom starts small but grows and grows, even when we aren’t looking. He says the kingdom is powerful enough to transform the whole world – like yeast which leavens all the woman’s flour.  The Book of Revelation tells us the kingdom is a place where there is no more death, no more mourning, no more crying, and no more pain. We hear these descriptions of the kingdom of God—and compare them to our present reality—and no one could blame us for thinking “Inshallah, the kingdom will come soon. Inshallah, someday Christ will be King.”

But today, we the church gather to celebrate Christ the King Sunday, and we don’t have any hymns which say “Maybe, possibly, someday, hopefully, inshallah, Jesus will be king.” On this day we proclaim Christ as King right now, in this time, and in this city. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, but his kingdom is in this world. While recent events make it clear that we have not yet seen the fulfillment of the kingdom, God’s kingdom —the kingdom to which we belong—has already been born in us, is alive today through the church of Jesus Christ, and is present wherever the Gospel is proclaimed and put into practice.

It’s interesting to note that the church calendar didn’t always have a special day to honor “Christ the King”. One might argue that there’s really no need for one, because every Sunday is a celebration of Jesus’ rule over sin and death and the grave. But this special commemoration was inaugurated by Pope Pius XI in 1925, as an answer to what he saw as powerful destructive forces in the world at that time—specifically the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia and fascism in Italy. This new feast called “Christ the King” was meant to reassure and encourage the faithful that Jesus Christ is still in control, in spite of what any other human being or ideology tries to sell us.

I am struck by how similar our circumstances are today. Now, more than ever, we need Christ the King Sunday. We need to remember that in spite of breaking news of terror, in spite of security alerts on our phones, in spite of the guns in our faces and the walls dividing us, Jesus is still on his throne. In these times when others are drawing lines of fear, division, and hatred around us, we must know that our citizenship is in a kingdom formed by boundaries of love, mercy, and forgiveness.

This is especially important today because there are so many other potential kings vying for our allegiance and our attention. There are so many leaders, groups, and ideologies who try to establish their kingdoms among us and to set the borders of our reality: 

Religious extremists. 
The economy. 
The occupation. 
Racism and sexism. 
Fear of the other. 
Sin and death. 

Every one of these powers and principalities want to claim the crown and assert themselves as rulers of our lives and of the world. They want to tell us where to 
travel, where to live, whom to fear, how to pray, how to respond to crisis, and even how to dream for the future.

One Quaker storyteller tells of a man who went to the corner store to buy a newspaper with a friend. When they got there, the grumpy salesman just handed over the paper and took the money, without a smile or even a word of acknowledgement. In spite of this, the first man politely took the newspaper and said “thank you” with a smile.

“He was a grumpy fellow, wasn’t he?” said his friend.

“Oh, he’s that way every time.”

“Then why do you continue being so polite to him?”

The man’s answer was, “Why should I let him decide how I’m going to act?”

In the same way, at this moment in time we are challenged to consider who really decides how we, as people of faith, will act in the world today. Who is our king? Do the terrorists decide if and when we travel? Does fear dictate how we treat refugees? Do economic reports determine if we will feed the hungry and care for the sick? Do criticisms from others make the rules about when we can speak out against injustice?

Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” In this chaotic world, with so many voices competing for authority over our lives, we must listen for the voice of truth. 

The other day, I escaped from the Redeemer church office to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher around the corner. I needed a break, not just from the regular work of the church, but from the security alerts and breaking news that kept feeding me fear and terror and tension. I headed for the Franciscan Chapel of the Apparition in the back, one of my favorite spots both for its beauty and for the fact that fewer tourists are generally coming through to take photos.

And then, of course, the first thing I did when I got into the chapel was take a photo! I had to take a picture, because for the first time I noticed a bronze sculpture on the back wall, which depicts Jesus wearing a large and regal crown. There he is, floating on the clouds, one arm stretched toward heaven and the other holding a staff on which waves some kind of banner. 
This is Christ the King, ascending in glory to sit on his heavenly throne. 

What a perfect place to contemplate my Christ the King sermon, I thought! And then, as I was praying, a young woman came in with a wiggly little boy, about three years old. They sat in the front pew so the mother could pray, but almost immediately the little boy jumped up and ran up to the altar, tugging on the white paraments and trying to put his fingers in the candle flames. With a gasp, the mother leapt up and grabbed the boy. 

But instead of sitting down again, she just swooped him up on her shoulders and took him over to a broken stone pillar tucked into a crevice in the wall. This pillar, the story goes, is the one to which Jesus was tied when he was whipped on the way to the cross.

The mother kissed her hand and then placed her hand on the stone in prayer, and then she carefully helped her little boy to do the same, putting his hand first to his lips and then to the stone pillar. Both stood quietly for a moment, contemplating the stone, and then she put the boy down and he scampered out of the church.

As I watched this from a back pew, I reconsidered what made this chapel the perfect place to write a Christ the King sermon, for in that tender moment between mother and child, I caught a glimpse of Christ the King. From a broken stone pillar (which in reality holds very little true historical significance,) I heard the voice of truth.

Here is Christ the King—not the one with a golden crown, waving his flag as he floats toward heaven – but one who wore a crown of thorns. Not a military leader who would march us into a world war against another religion, but a prince who was tied to a column and whipped for the sake of a sinful world. Not a savvy politician, using tragic events to benefit his own agenda, but an innocent man, nailed to the cross between two criminals.

This is Christ the King, who has taught us how to deal with the enemy (pray for him), how to deal with the stranger (love him), how to deal with the poor (give all that we have for their sake) and how to deal with fear (don’t give it any time or attention!)

Yes, this is Christ the King, whose power and authority comes never from bombs, guns or knives, but always from great love, great mercy, and great sacrifice. We have heard his voice of truth loud and clear from the cross and the empty tomb. We belong to this truth, and the truth will set us free!  
As Jesus said when he stood before Pilate, 

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Therefore, sisters and brothers, I urge the church today to listen to the voice of truth, and not to be fooled into legitimizing false kings and prophets by allowing them to make the rules. We must stand firm in the truth, strong in faith and never ashamed of the Gospel of love.

Therefore, when terrorists say “Fear will rule you” we will say:
No, we serve the Prince of Peace!

When religious extremists say “God teaches us to hate!” we will say:
No, we serve the King of Love!

When refugees are denied their humanity, we will say:
No, we serve the Friend of the Friendless!

When darkness threatens to cover this city, this land, and this world, we will say:
No! We serve the light of the world, Jesus Christ.
We belong to the truth, and the truth will set us free!

All praise and glory be to you, Christ our King, whose voice alone leads us, whose love alone sustains us, and whose crucifixion and resurrection alone have saved us. Amen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Advent Candle Lighting Prayers from Jerusalem

As I was preparing worship services for the upcoming Advent season, I found that many of the available Advent candle prayers and litanies didn't really speak to our context here in Jerusalem.
Here is what I came up with for this year. Feel free to use them, and adapt them to your own context!


Pastoral Intern Rachel Graaf-Leslie lights the Advent candles
with the children of Redeemer Church, December 2014
Photo by Danae Hudson/ELCJHL


From Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Written by Pastor Carrie Smith

Congregation speaks the words in bold print.


As we gather on this first Sunday of Advent, we are waiting:
For peace
For justice
For a political solution

We are waiting
For a city without division
For a land without walls
For a world without war

We are waiting
For a love that is louder than hate
For a hope that is stronger than fear
For a light that shines in the darkness

We are waiting
For Jesus to be born in our hearts again!  

Holy God, you said the days are surely coming when justice and righteousness will rule this land, and Jerusalem will live in safety. We light one candle today for the hope that those days are indeed coming soon. Guide us by this light until the day of your coming. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.


On this second Sunday of Advent, we are listening:
To breaking news
To security alerts
To police sirens and tear gas launchers

We are listening
To politicians
To preachers
To predictions of war

We are listening
For a word of hope
For a word of peace
For a word of life.

We are listening
For Jesus, the Word made flesh, to speak to our hearts again!

Holy God, you sent John to be the voice crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way for Christ’s coming. Help us to listen to the voices of the prophets of this age. Tune our ears to hear those who speak your love, your mercy, and your peace. We light the second candle today to remind us that you are still speaking. Guide us by this light until the day of your coming. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.


On this third Sunday of Advent, we are rejoicing:
In our achievements
In our blessings
In our holiday celebrations

We are rejoicing
Far from family
Far from home
Far from those we love

We are rejoicing
At all times
In all places
Because you are near.

We are rejoicing
For Jesus will soon be born in our hearts again!

Holy God, because you are near we are able to rejoice in all circumstances—even far from home, and even in times of conflict. We light the third candle today for the joy of knowing that Christmas is one week closer, and Jesus is coming soon. Guide us by this light until the day of your coming. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.


On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we are making peace:
Across borders
Across checkpoints
Across cultures

We are making peace
With our friends
With our enemies
With our history

We are making peace
For the sake of our neighbor
For the sake of our children
For the sake of the world

We are making peace
For Jesus, the Prince of Peace, will soon be born in our hearts again!

Holy God, it was prophesied that the One of Peace would come out of Bethlehem. We light the fourth candle for the peace the world knows through the baby born to Mary. Help us to be peacemakers, not just at Christmastime, but throughout the year. Guide us by this light until the day of your coming. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sermon for Sunday 15 November 2015: "That's (NOT) All, Folks"

Sermon for Sunday 15 November 2015

25th Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

NEW! Listen to this week's sermon


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

About a week ago I had an unusual visitor in the church office – a man who said he was a priest, but from church whose name I did not recognize. Of course, I didn’t know very much about many of my Christian sisters and brothers of other traditions before I moved to Jerusalem, so I was happy to invite this priest into the office for a chat.

It took all of two minutes for me to realize this “priest” represented a group that Lutherans probably wouldn’t recognize as an ecumenical partner. My visitor excitedly told me that Jesus has already returned, and his purpose for our meeting was for him to share the Good News. He pulled out a laptop computer and showed me a video of strange lights hovering over the Dome of the Rock, and another of a city floating on a cloud somewhere in China. He read me headlines about impending wars with Russia and Syria (and a few other countries as well.) These, he told me, were undeniable signs that Jesus has returned. Furthermore, they were warnings that we must be ready because the Messiah (whose new name is apparently “Ra-El”, short for “Raymond Elwood”) is coming soon to Jerusalem.

Now, my internal reaction to this so-called news was to consider kindly showing this “priest” to the door and to get on with my day. But as I listened, I became curious. I was curious not so much about this new incarnation of Jesus, whom he was now describing in great detail, but about what this evangelist expected my response to be. 
So I asked him:

“So Joe, now that you’ve shared these signs and warnings with me and others, what should we be doing about it?”

This question seemed to take him a bit by surprise, and he actually raised his voice a little to say, “Well, of course you need to accept this news and then prepare yourself and your congregation, because when he arrives here in Jerusalem, it will be with a sword! The end is very near!” 

We talked for just a few minutes more, until my visitor’s advice to “Be afraid, for the end is near” started to make me a little afraid of him.

This priest wasn’t the first strange person I’ve met in Jerusalem, and he certainly won’t be the last. But you can imagine that this conversation about signs of the end-times remained with me these last few days, especially when our lectionary gave us this text from the thirteenth chapter of Mark:  

“Beware that no one leads you astray” said Jesus. “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” 

Even before this visitor arrived in my church office, this Gospel reading seemed to speak directly to our situation today in Jerusalem. We know what it’s like to live with wars and rumors of wars. We know what it looks like when nation rises up against nation. This is a very uncertain time in this city and in the whole Middle East, when many are predicting that this is the end:

the end of the two-state solution;
the end of the dream of a free Palestinian state;
the end of the project of Israel as a Jewish state;
or the end of Jerusalem as we know it.

With all of these “end times scenarios” being predicted and talked about around us, it is difficult not to be alarmed. It’s difficult not to worry when pilgrimage trips are cancelled and when colleagues have their visas revoked. It’s difficult not to be afraid when terrorists are blowing themselves up in Beirut, and are storming concert halls, football games, and restaurants in Paris.

It is difficult not to be depressed when world leaders simply throw up their hands and say, “We’ve given up on a plan for peace.”

And yet as Jesus sat with Peter, James, John and Andrew on the Mt. of Olives, overlooking the Temple which he had just prophesied would be destroyed, he told them “Do not be alarmed.”

Do not be alarmed, even when people come with dire warnings and predictions.
Do not be alarmed, even when you hear of terrorist attacks.
Do not be alarmed, even when there are natural disasters.
Do not be alarmed, even when your most beloved institutions and symbols are thrown down.

Jesus says even when the pain of the world seems too much to bear, we must not be alarmed, but remain steadfast in faith, trusting that something new, something good, and something godly is in fact being birthed into the world. The kingdom of God is coming soon.

I think it is exceedingly appropriate for Jesus to use birth imagery when telling the disciples about the coming of the kingdom. As a woman who has given birth – twice – I can say that labor was the hardest work I’ve ever done. It was also the closest to death I’ve ever felt. I don’t mean that I or my babies were close to death. What I mean is that during labor your whole being –mind, body, and soul—are involved in saying goodbye to one reality and saying hello to a new one.

In the same way, the kingdom of God for which the world still waits will not come without work, without suffering, without even cosmic trauma. After all, God’s kingdom is not just a new and improved version of this one. It is completely opposite of this broken and sinful world. It is an entirely new creature. As Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)

There is pain and suffering involved in this birth process because the kingdom of God is contrary to our human natures and desires. God is doing something in and among us that pushes against our human hunger for power, for control, and for victory through violence and revenge. As much as we long for the coming of the kingdom, at the same time our human sinfulness resists it.

God is birthing peace, but we worship weapons.
God is birthing reconciliation, but we cling to retribution.
God is birthing a diverse creation, but we insist on division.
God is birthing love for our neighbors and even our enemies, but hatred motivates us more than we want to admit.

These are the “birthpangs” we are suffering at this moment. As the Apostle Paul said, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” The whole world is groaning in labor, from Paris to Beirut to Jerusalem to the state of Missouri, as the kingdom of justice, of peace, of love and mercy and reconciliation, is being born among us.

Sunrise over Jerusalem
photo by Carrie Smith
This is hard labor. And yet, even when things seem too much to bear, as followers of the crucified and risen Christ we will not be alarmed. We will not be afraid.

And we will not give up hoping and praying and laboring for the kingdom!

Our brother Martin Luther is often quoted as having said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” In other words, signs of the end are never an invitation to despair, but to hope of the new life to come.

As images of the attacks in Paris flooded my newsfeed yesterday, I was moved to also learn of this story of resistance and hope in the face of what seemed to be the end, from the late orchestra conductor Leonard Bernstein:

It was November 24, 1963, just two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when Bernstein conducted a memorial concert for the president. There was much conversation beforehand about the appropriate music to be performed, with everyone agreeing that Brahms’ “Requiem” would be the most fitting. But at the last minute, Bernstein changed the program, and the orchestra played instead Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony.”

When asked why, the conductor said,

“Last night the New York Philharmonic and I performed Mahler’s Second Symphony-- The Resurrection-- in tribute to the memory of our beloved late President. There were those who asked: Why the Resurrection Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March from the Eroica? Why indeed? We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him.”

And then Bernstein said,

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

Dear sisters and brothers, we have so many reasons to worry, to grieve, and to be  afraid today. But while any day may be the end of things as we know them, our faith teaches us this is not the end of God’s good purposes for creation. Therefore, even in the face of wars and rumors of wars, we will not be afraid. Even when nation rises against nation, we will not give up hope.

Even when the doctor says “there’s nothing more we can do”, we will not lose heart.
Instead, we will make music. We will plant trees. We will learn new languages. We will build relationships with our Muslim and Jewish neighbors. We will teach our children to love. We will continue to work for peace, justice, and equality for every human being.

Above all, we will not be alarmed, for Jesus has taught us that death will never have the last word. Thanks be to God, even when the temple of Jesus’ body was destroyed, he was raised to new life on the third day. By the power of his crucifixion and his resurrection, we await with hope and joyful expectation the birth of the kingdom of peace, of justice, of mercy, of reconciliation, of life everlasting.

Hear the Good News: The kingdom is coming.
The baby is about to be born. 
Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King! Amen!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

All Saints' Sunday 2015: Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

Sermon for All Saints Day 2015

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

Every Sunday, and in fact every day, is a good day for Christians to celebrate God’s Good News in Christ that life is stronger than death. However, today is All Saints’ Day, a special day set aside for the church to come together and light candles, speak names aloud, and remember with thanksgiving our beloved saints who have died. On this day we honor the ones whose witness lives on in the church through the communion of saints.

Candles lit for the saints on All Saints' Day 2015
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
We remember them today in joy, and with hopeful anticipation of the resurrection, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that death has claimed victory over them and over us.

It’s true, all the evidence before us says that our loved ones are gone. They reside now in tombs and in graveyards, and live only in our memories and the pages of our family photo albums.

Our eyes clearly see it.

Our minds clearly know it.

Or, as in the case of Martha and Mary at the tomb of Lazarus, our noses clearly smell it.

We know very well the reality and the rationality of death and its power over us.

But in spite of this so-called “empirical evidence”, our faith teaches us that the empire of death never has the last word. Our faith teaches us to hope beyond hope, and to trust that the One who spoke life into dust is also able to speak life everlasting into our beloved mothers and fathers, neighbors and friends on the last day. On that day, there will be a new heaven and a new earth. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things will have passed away. Therefore on this on All Saints’ Day, we look to the raising of Lazarus – and to the empty tomb of Jesus – and we rejoice, for our God is a God of resurrection and new life. Amen!

Israeli Separation Wall in Bethlehem
Photo by Carrie Smith
In this place, and at this time, the resurrection Good News of All Saints’ Day holds particular power.  As I was contemplating the message for this morning, it struck me how much easier it is for me to trust in the hope of resurrection for my beloved grandmothers and grandfathers, than it is for me to trust in the hope of resurrection for the city I live in. 

At this moment in the land called holy we are faced with the almost overwhelming stench of the wall, of the checkpoints, of knife attacks and field executions. The stink of hatred, and of tear gas, chokes us almost daily. The evidence that the empire of death rules this land – and its peoples -- seems impossible to ignore.

For this reason, to take seriously the story of Lazarus, who was already dead for four days and stinking in the tomb, and to proclaim God’s power over death, is almost crazy. To gather as people of faith to sing, to pray, and to contemplate the possibility that the empire of despair does not have the last word –even in this holy land torn apart by an unholy conflict -- is downright foolish.  

If Mary were here in Jerusalem today, she would say “It’s too late! You could have done something in 1948. You could have done something in 1967. You could have done something in 1993. But you, the politicians, you the international community, you the church, took your own sweet time. Jesus, if you had been here, the dream of peace and equality for all the people of this land would not have died.”  

If Martha were here, she would simply say, “Lord, it stinks around here.”

Indeed, Mary and Martha in the story of Lazarus sound a lot like my friends, neighbors, and colleagues in the last few weeks. The recent wave of violence, piled on top of decades of oppression, seems to have taken its toll.

“I’m afraid to go into the New City, they are killing Palestinians on the street” says a lifelong resident of the Old City.

“I’m just glad I live in a neighborhood far from the Arabs”, says the security guard at my kids’ school.

“I try not to walk with my hands in my pockets, in case someone thinks I have a knife,” says the church receptionist.

“I’m more afraid now than I ever was during the second intifada,” …says nearly everyone I know, on both sides of the city, and both sides of the wall.

In other words, like Mary and Martha, we can smell the death in the air. We can see the writing on the wall…literally. With each knife attack, with each new checkpoint, with each video of a teenager shot dead in the street, the possibility of liberation, of transformation, and of resurrection for the people of Israel and Palestine seems less and less likely.

There is a reason we hear the story of Lazarus on All Saints’ Day. We hear this story on this day because we recognize Mary and Martha. We know what it’s like to lose people – and to lose hope.

Some days, we find ourselves standing at the final resting place of someone we love dearly, and we wonder why Jesus didn’t show up when we prayed.

Some days, the dream of peace, the hope for justice, and the struggle for liberation and equality seems all but lost, and we wonder why the prayers of so many seem unanswered.

But do we really think a tombstone can stand in the way of the God of life?

Do we really think a wall can obstruct the movement of Jesus, the Prince of Peace?

Do we really think the stench of injustice and violence and death can overtake the breath of God, the Holy Spirit blowing through land of Jesus’ birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection?

Sunrise over Jerusalem on 29 October 2015
Photo by Carrie Smith 
My dear sisters and brothers, the Holy Scriptures teach us not to despair, for we know that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

And if we do start to lose hope, if we feel tempted to allow despair into our hearts, we must remember the words of Jesus, who said to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

Did I not tell you I love you? This is the hope that allows us to on living – and even to find joy – after a beloved spouse, or friend, or parent has died.

Did I not tell you I would bring peace? This is the hope that allows us to go on living -- and even to find joy – in a city where death and despair are always trying to claim power over our lives, our families, our communities, and our dreams.

Did Jesus not tell us that we would see the glory of God? 

Jesus did not leave Lazarus in the tomb, and he did not leave Mary and Martha in their grief. In the same way, we trust that Jesus will not leave the people of Palestine in the tomb of the occupation, nor will he leave the people of Israel captive to the empire. The One who healed lepers, who forgave sinners, and who gave sight to the blind, will never leave God’s children abandoned. The one who raised Lazarus to life after four days in the tomb, can certainly raise this country to peace and abundant life, even after four decades.

In great love, Our Lord Jesus is with us, at the city gates, at the checkpoints, at the churches and mosques and synagogues, calling to all the people of this country, saying, 
“Come out! Come out and live!”

Racism, unbind them and let them go.
Hatred, unbind them and let them go.
Oppression, unbind them and let them go.
Violence, unbind them and let them go.
Fear, unbind them and let them go.

Dear sisters and brothers, dear neighbors, be unbound, and live  – with the peace, justice, and equality that is God’s hope for all of God’s children.

Let us pray,
Great God of love, fill our hearts with the confidence that you will never leave us, or this city, in despair. Send your Holy Spirit into the hearts of all who are gathered here today, that they would know that your love for us extends even beyond death. And give us the strength and good courage to follow in the path of the saints who went before us. In the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, we pray. Amen.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Bishop Munib Younan's Reformation Day Sermon 2015

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

Sermon preached for Reformation Day, 31 October 2015

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

Bishop Dr. Munib Younan
Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land

Matthew 5:1-12 (The Beatitudes)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:  ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

First of all, a hearty welcome and thank you to the esteemed patriarchs, bishops, priests, pastors, and representatives from various churches and institutions, and to all visitors from around the world who have come to be with us for this feast of the Reformation.  It is a blessing to have our brothers and sisters of many different traditions here as we celebrate our heritage of Reformation and look to the future of the church.

In two years’ time, we will celebrate five hundred years of the Reformation, and therefore we must really consider why we are still celebrating Reformation today. Some would honor Reformation Day in a spirit of triumphalism, or some would claim that the Reformation brought divisions to the church, but this is neither the spirit of Reformation nor the spirit in which we gather today. This is a day for reflection and humility. On this day we give thanks for the way the Holy Spirit is always at work in the church. 
We honor the reformers of every age who have kept the freshness of the Gospel for new generations. We do not believe that the Reformation ended when Martin Luther died. Through the power of the Holy Spirit the Reformation continues to take place in every congregation, in every church tradition, in every country, and in the heart of every believer. This is what is meant when we say, “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” – the church is always to be reformed.

This spirit of ongoing reformation for the sake of the Gospel is what inspires us to celebrate this day ecumenically, with our sisters and brothers in Christ from many traditions. The spirit of ongoing reformation is what inspired Lutherans and Catholics in recent years to sign a joint document on Reformation called “From Conflict to Communion”, which emphasizes not our divisions but the ways in which we are joined together in baptism. Through baptism we are engrafted into the Church of God -- Lutherans and Catholics and Orthodox and evangelicals and so many others – one bread, one body, one baptism, one church, one faith, working together for the sake of God’s kingdom in spite of our differences in tradition or theology.

The spirit of the Reformation as an ongoing process, not a one-time event, is what has inspired the Lutheran World Federation to lift up ten thousand “Young Reformers” across the world until this moment. In preparation for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, the church is empowering young men and women to engage in all aspects of church life through the Global Young Reformers Network. These ten thousand young reformers are bringing new inspiration and energy to the church of God, which still has so much work to do in this broken world. We ask all young people of our congregations who are with us in this service, to join this network of Young Reformers.

Martin Luther was not the last reformer, and we know very well he was not the first. Our Lord Jesus himself was our greatest reformer. His life reformed the way we view outsiders and sinners. His crucifixion reformed the way we understand power, sacrifice, and love. His resurrection has reformed the way we view life, death, and the hope of humanity. And in today’s reading from the fifth chapter of Matthew, we heard a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which invites us to radically reform our understanding of what it means to live a life that is makarios, touba, or “blessed”.

Even though these verses are very familiar, each time I read the Beatitudes I am stunned. I am stunned, as the great Indian peacemaker Gandhi was when he read the Sermon on the Mount. Gandhi is even reported to have said, “I very much like your Christ and his teachings, even if I don’t like Christianity.” It is indeed stunning that Jesus says “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the peacemakers, the hungry, and the persecuted.” Each time I read this, I ask myself, “Who is he talking about?” Here in Jerusalem we do not have to look very far to find those who are poor, mournful, hungry, persecuted, or peacemakers. Not many would choose these circumstances. Not many would consider themselves “blessed.”

And still, Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mournful, the persecuted, and the peacemakers.” In a world where extravagant homes, excessive spending, extraordinary wealth and polarization between rich and poor are considered the ultimate blessings, Jesus declares the opposite. In a world which promotes extremism, Jesus is teaching us to go the second mile, extreme only in our commitment to mercy, forgiveness, and love.
Through these teachings we call the Beatitudes, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus invites us to reform our thinking about what it means for the church to be blessed –and to be a blessing – in Jerusalem, in the Holy Land, and in the whole world today.  

At a festival such as this one, we are blessed to have so many gathered in one place who are a blessing to the church today. We are honored to see patriarchs, bishops, pastors and priests who pray and work diligently for the sake of the Gospel in this city. As the clergy of Jerusalem, many know our names, and the names of our churches, and the impact our schools and ministries have had in this city and in the whole country.  

But my dear brothers and sisters, we know very well that sitting among us are also many forgotten saints. I’m not speaking of the saints who are abiding in heaven, but rather those who are abiding in our congregations and communities. These are the faithful men and women who, through their steadfastness, love, prayers, and faithfulness, are keeping the freshness of the Gospel in Jerusalem today. These are the living stones of the church, the ones we read about in 1 Peter chapter 2, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

In the Beatitudes, Jesus says these are the ones who are blessed. In Lutheran theology, we would say that these living stones are the “priesthood of all believers.” We will not hear about them in the mass media. We will not see them sitting in the front rows. But we cannot overlook the power and influence of the grassroots in the church today. Without these blessed ones in our congregations, at the same time sinners and saints, there would not be a living church.

We know very well that it is not easy to remain in this land as indigenous Christians today. It is not easy to stay steadfast when your families are emigrating. It is not easy to proclaim the Gospel of love when all around us we see hatred, violence, division and occupation. It is not easy to commit to prayer and acts of mercy when no one shows us mercy. And yet, the living stones of the Holy Land are still here, standing firm in faith and hope, a blessing to the global church and a blessing to this city. They have stayed steadfast in their faith for two thousand years in the Holy Land, and they want to remain here as witnesses for another two thousand years. 

On this Reformation Day, therefore, we honor not only Martin Luther, not only Calvin, not only Zwingli, Melanchthon, Knox, and the others whose names have become synonymous with the Reformation. We honor those whom Jesus has called blessed –The quiet. The steadfast. The prayerful. The persecuted. The peacemakers. We honor you -- the faithful ones of Jerusalem. We honor you as blessed reformers of the church, who by the power of the Holy Spirit are living witnesses to the Gospel of love in this time and in this place.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, dear blessed ones, the church needs you today. You may feel small. You may feel you are a minority. You may wonder if you can stay. You may wonder if you can change the tide. But let me assure you that you are a blessing to the church, to this city and to the world. As the Lord said to the Apostle Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) In the strength of this power, we need you to remain here and to be a blessing, because the church of Jesus Christ is facing great challenges. What is Jerusalem, without the local, indigenous Christians?

First, we are facing a challenge from those who see Jerusalem as the center of their own apocalyptic vision. These influences from outside (and sometimes from within) are using religion to perpetuate their own worldviews. They manipulate theology to serve their own interests, and Jerusalem suffers the consequences. We are seeing that there is no religion that is immune. There is no faith tradition which is innocent of extremism—whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. But when we allow extremists to flourish, then they make all of us and our country hostages to their ideas.

In the spirit of Martin Luther, we must stand firm, steadfast in the Word of God and against these sick ideologies. With Luther, we must say “Here we stand, we can do no other.” Extremism is a perversion of religion, and those who promote it are using Holy Scripture for their own political agendas and their own economic gains. The true religion is not only loving God, but through the love of God loving your neighbor, and even your enemies. For this reason, extremists who claim to love God but hate their neighbors are the enemy of the church and the enemy of the Gospel!  We must be strong in faith and boldly proclaim that these are not the ones who will build the church or the Jerusalem of the future.

Secondly, many people are asking today “What really is the future of Christianity in this city?” In a way, I am afraid. I am afraid because I see so many families emigrating because of the unsettled political reality in the Holy Land and the region. I am afraid because I see so many forced to make tough decisions for economic reasons. I am afraid because of policies and restrictions which cause hardships for our churches and their members.

It’s true, there are many reasons to fear for Christianity today, but not only in Jerusalem, and not only in the Middle East. In fact, both the Pew Research Group and the Vatican have recently issued reports revealing that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world today. In Syria, in Nigeria, in Pakistan, in Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, and in many other places, our Christian brothers and sisters face tremendous challenges to life, liberty, and freedom of religion.

When I visit these sisters and brothers, I feel their grief and their struggle deeply. At the same time, in a way I envy them. I envy them, because for them, Christianity is not a luxury. Faith is not a hobby. The suffering of the cross cannot be theoretical for them, but it is in fact their reality. By necessity, Christ and His church are the center of their lives.

For this reason, I believe these persecuted faithful are the saints of the 21st Century. When I read the Beatitudes today, I think of the Pakistani Christians, the Nigerian Christians, the Iranian Christians, the Syrian, the Iraqi and the Coptic Christians, among so many others. These are the ones of whom Jesus speaks when he says “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the persecuted.” We have much to learn from them about what it means to stand firm in the face of violence, danger, and death. 

Lord, if we have taken our faith lightly, forgive us. 

Lord, if we did not carry your cross with joy, forgive us.

Many of us feel today disempowered because of the current situation in Jerusalem and in this country. But we can learn from these persecuted sisters and brothers in other places that our strength is not in numbers but in our steadfastness. Our strength is not in prosperity but in faithfulness to the Gospel. Our hope for the future is not found in any kind of extremism and is not affected by a failed political process.

God alone is our refuge and strength. In Christ alone we find our hope. We will not fear, for Jesus has said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32) The Gospel of love will not be silenced by any wave of hatred, frustration, or violence. As Psalm 46 proclaims, “God is in the city. Therefore we will not fear.”

This ecumenical gathering itself is a powerful sign that God is indeed in the city of Jerusalem. Not only that, but one of the early church fathers once said that every time we celebrate Holy Communion, all Christians are together in Jerusalem. Wherever the bread and wine are shared across the world, the heart of the Christian church is united here in this city, the city of the resurrection.

Therefore, we gather today in Jerusalem not as the meek, not as the persecuted, not as a religious minority, but as ones who are blessed.

We are blessed by the presence of Christ in this city.

We are blessed by the grassroots faith of the indigenous local Christians of Jerusalem.

We are blessed by our shared commitment to the Gospel, in spite of our differences in theology and tradition.

Therefore, on this day when we celebrate the reforming work of the Holy Spirit in the church, we who are so blessed are challenged to consider:
Will we allow the Holy Spirit to change us, to mold us, and to reform us, so that we will be a blessing to God’s mission, God’s world, and God’s city?

Last week, in response to the current political situation, I called for the whole church to commit to the resistance of prayer. I believe that the faithful response to this wave of violence and hatred is to pray for the Holy Spirit to cleanse our hearts, to renew our spirits, and to reform this country. In humility, we should be offering our whole hearts in prayer, that God will reform animosity into acceptance, will reform fear into trust, and will reform the systemic denial of human rights into the honoring of God’s image in every human being.

As Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah said recently in a speech in Beir Ouna, “We need to pray. As we meet behind the wall, we Palestinians ask that Israelis on the other side of the wall will pray with us for justice and peace.”

Dear sisters and brothers, how then shall we pray? In these days when all around us are voices of hatred, of racism, and of war, our best prayer may be silence. To join hands and hearts in holy silence, creating a web of prayer across this city and this country, and to listen with open hearts to God’s plan for peace with justice and human rights for all, is my invitation to you today.

I pray we will have the courage to answer when the Holy Spirit calls the church to pray and act as one – from the corners of Jerusalem to the corners of the world. Then will we be the “blessed ones” of whom Jesus has spoken. Then we will be a blessing to the world.

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