Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon 2015: Christmas Lutheran Church, Bethlehem

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2015

Christmas Lutheran Church, Bethlehem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Luke 2:1-20

“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who is born in Bethlehem on this night. A warm welcome to our honored guests, to our visitors from around the world, and a special thank you to the local congregation of Christmas Lutheran Church for your hospitality. It is an honor and a privilege to be sharing the Christmas message with you tonight. Kul sane wa intou salmeen. Frohe Weihnachten. Merry Christmas!

Years ago, before I had the honor of preaching here in Bethlehem, before I moved to Jerusalem, before I was even a pastor, I worked as a doula, otherwise known as a labor and childbirth assistant. In this role, I helped women and young mothers – women like Mary, the mother of Our Lord – through the miracle of birth. During this time, I remember hearing a story from a colleague, a childbirth educator, about once when she had difficulty finding a room to rent for teaching a birthing class. She looked everywhere, but there was no room in the hospital, or the library, or the community center, much less room in the inn. After looking all over town, the only room available was in a nursing home for the elderly.

It was an unusual location for a birthing class, but nevertheless, on the scheduled day my colleague gathered her small group of pregnant mothers in the community room of the nursing facility. As soon as she started teaching, in walked an elderly resident of the home. This woman, surely in her nineties, sat in the back and listened quietly as the younger women learned about labor and birth and caring for a newborn baby.
Then, slowly, the old woman in the back stood up. She raised her hand and said in a loud voice, “Let me tell you something about having babies.”

And she proceeded to tell the stories of how each of her children were born. She shared these memories from at least seventy years before as if they had happened yesterday.
I think of this story every time I hear the story of our Lord Jesus’ birth. Of course we always remember certain details of that Christmas night – the journey to Bethlehem, the manger, the angel and the shepherds, the star, and later the wise men and their gifts.

But the verse that always catches my attention is this one:

“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

Like the elderly woman who joined the childbirth class, Mary would never forget the birth of the baby Jesus. Like any mother, she treasured the memories of that miracle – even the difficult memories – and would keep them with her as long as she lived. She treasured them as she watched her son Jesus grow, and teach, and heal, and feed the hungry. She would ponder them in her heart as she stood at the cross of Our Lord, and then again when she stood near the tomb where he was laid.

Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart, not only because every mother remembers the birth of her child, but because of the identity of this particular baby. She treasured the news the angel had announced to the shepherds, which the shepherds then shared with Mary and the others:

 “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

The birth of a baby is always a miracle, but this one was miraculous not only for Mary, and not only for Joseph, and not only for the little town of Bethlehem. The birth of this baby changed the world. Through this baby, the Word became flesh and lived among us. Through this baby, the world knows God as Emmanuel, God-with-us. Through this baby, light has shined on a dark and broken world, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Like Mary, we can never forget the miracle of this baby’s birth. We never tire of hearing the Christmas story. We are never too weary to teach it to our children and grandchildren. From the manger to the stable, from the star to the shepherds, from the angel to the three kings, we treasure all these words and ponder them in our hearts.

And indeed, that’s exactly what the message of Christmas is: a treasure. Because God so loved the world, because Mary said “yes”, and because the angels and the shepherds shared the news, we have been a given a treasure. We have heard the Good News of great joy for all the people: To us is born this day in the city of David a Savior. God is with us. This is our joy, our hope, our courage, and our strength. This is our treasure – not only on Christmas, but throughout the whole year.

Dear friends, my sisters and brothers in Christ from throughout the world, we must remember that we possess this treasure when we leave the manger and the stable and the star behind. We must remember that we possess this treasure as we go to our homes which now stand in the shadow of the wall,

when we pass through military checkpoints to return to Jerusalem,

or when we fly back to our home countries and far from the reality of the occupation.

We must remember that we possess this treasure when the powers and principalities of the world seek to terrify and terrorize us,

when despair tells us we possess nothing,

and when false prophets endeavor to convince us that what they offer is more precious than our hope, more valuable than our joy, and more secure than God’s promises.

To all who offer us such fool’s gold, we must stand firm and say, “No, let me tell you something! Let me tell you about the birth of a baby. Let me tell you about this treasure.”

We will say:

To us is born a Savior, who has broken down the dividing wall! This treasure is for a Christian community surrounded by a wall and checkpoints.

To us is born a Savior, who is the mighty fortress! This treasure is for persecuted Christians in Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria.

To us is born a Savior, in whom we abide! This treasure is for the thousands of refugees fleeing their homes, wondering which country will welcome them.

To us is born a Savior, who is the Prince of Peace! This treasure is for a world community held hostage by religious extremists and dangerous ideologies.

To us is born a Savior, who is the light shining in the darkness! This treasure is for a time in history when the dark powers of hatred and fear of the other claim to be more powerful than the light of peace, the light of justice, and the light of love.

Dear sisters and brothers, as we gather on this holy night so near to the manger where Mary laid her newborn baby, you have heard again the Good News. You have been to the manger once again. You have seen how the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Therefore, take heart. Do not be afraid. This treasure is yours! Although the darkness of occupation, division, and hatred seems heavy, the night will not last forever. The wall will not stand forever. The empire of injustice and inequality will not rule forever. Violence and death will not govern us—not today, not tomorrow, not any day. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

Above all, if it seems the path to peace with justice has been abandoned, 

If the treasure chest of diplomacy and ideas and solutions seems empty –

remember that the manger of Bethlehem is not empty. Our treasure is in the manger. The baby has been born. And therefore our hope for a lasting peace with justice is with us still.

Hear again the Good News of great joy: to us is born this day in the city of David a Savior! The baby has been born! Love has come, a light in the darkness! Treasure these words. Ponder them in your hearts. And when you leave this place, share the treasure of God’s love with the world, that all may know the riches of Christ’s love, grace, and mercy.

Frohe Weihnachten! Kul sane wa intou salmeen! Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sermon for Sunday 20 December 2015: 4th Sunday of Advent

Sermon for Sunday, 20 December 2015

4th Sunday of Advent

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


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

Earlier this week I took my friends Stacy, John, and Cate to Bethlehem for their first visit to the Church of the Nativity. It actually took two tries to reach that fourteen-pointed star on the floor of the cave. The first time we entered through the exit because of renovations underway, but then we were shooed out quickly, along with a large group of Nigerian pilgrims, because a Mass was about to begin.

My friend Stacy visiting the site of Jesus' birth
Photo by Carrie Smith
On the second try later in the day, we entered through the regular entrance and stood in line behind a Muslim family—the mother in hijab, the father listening carefully to the tour guide, and a small son carrying a Spiderman backpack.

When it was our turn, I stood back to take photos of my friend as she reached in to touch the site where Jesus was born. As I did, a nearby tour guide decided to speak to me.

“You need help?” he asked.
“No, thank you.” I replied.
“But do you know about this place?” he insisted.
“Well, yes, I do. I’m actually a pastor.”

You can guess what happened next.

The idea of a female priest was such a surprise that it made this tour guide’s mouth hang open and his eyes grow large. He was very nice about it, though, and when he saw me a little later in the day he called out to me loudly, “Ya, Assiseh!”

This wasn’t the first time that being both a clergyperson and a woman meant I was a disturbing presence for the people around me. But it was the first time it happened in a birthing room.

After all, that’s what the Church of the Nativity is – a church built around a birthing room. That cave, with its candles and tapestries and marble and paintings, now guarded intensely by clergymen of several traditions, was at least on one Silent and Holy night probably filled with women.

Somehow, our tradition has forgotten (or intentionally hidden) the fact that if the arrival of the Messiah happened through a woman, she was most likely also surrounded by other women. Where is the midwife in our nativity scenes, after all? Where are the wise women who brought food and did the cleaning for Mary in the days after the birth of Jesus?

It’s no secret that our cultures have often hidden the presence of women in both history and holy scripture because they were considered either insignificant or inappropriate. 

And this is what makes this morning’s reading from the first chapter of Luke so astounding. This morning, on the last Sunday of Advent and just a few days before Christmas, we are reminded in a powerful way that the story of the salvation of the world includes some insignificant and inappropriate people – specifically women.

Mary Greets Elizabeth
This morning’s reading from Luke features Mary and Elizabeth – two pregnant women -- having a deep conversation. It includes the description of the baby kicking inside Elizabeth’s womb. The story even includes singing! If this were a movie instead of a Sunday morning Scripture reading, it would probably be classified as a “chick flick.” The movie companies would market it to women only and would print the posters in shades of pink. Can you imagine the advertising campaign? “This Christmas, leave the men at home and come to see the heartwarming story of Mary and Elizabeth: two pregnant women from very different stages of life, but both part of the same miracle.”

But of course, this Scripture lesson is not for women only, and the Gospel is not a “chick flick.” The story of Mary’s visit with Elizabeth is a vital part of the Christmas story, and appropriate for all audiences. It’s about friendship and family. It’s about having courage and faith when faced with great challenges.

But chiefly, the story of Mary and Elizabeth is about how God is doing amazing, unexpected, even unacceptable things through amazing, unexpected, and even unacceptable people all the time. After all, the story of God’s love for the world, from Genesis to Revelation, includes various unusual choices: 

Rahab was a prostitute and is also one of the ancestors of Jesus. 
King David stole his friend Uriah’s wife. 
The Apostle Paul persecuted Christians before he became one. 
Zaccheus was a wee little man (at least, that’s how the song goes) but more importantly he was a tax collector who ended up hosting Jesus for dinner.

And let’s not forget Jesus himself – born in Bethlehem (a village so small that it barely counted among the clans of Judah), denied a room to be born in, chased out of the country by King Herod, misunderstood throughout his entire ministry, falsely accused and then publicly executed. 

Is this what the world expected from the Messiah? 
Would we have thought to look in a manger for the Prince of Peace, or to the cross for our King?

God’s love for the world has been revealed to us through many unexpected and even inappropriate people. And today Holy Scripture invites us, through the story of Mary and Elizabeth, to rejoice in the unfailing goodness of God in every circumstance.  We are invited to join in Mary’s song of great joy, of deep faith, and of absolute trust that a good God is at work in the world even through imperfect people. Even in the middle of a crisis. Even when our faith is weak. Even when there seems to be no path to peace. Even through a woman well beyond childbearing age. Even through an unmarried, pregnant teenager.

Even through us.

On Monday, I’ll be taking our friends back to Bethlehem—actually to Aida Refugee Camp—for a cooking class. A camp resident named Islam and her friends started teaching classes there as a way to support their disabled children. It started in Islam’s kitchen, and has now expanded to a larger space, renovated by her husband. I’ve taken many visitors to these cooking classes, partly because the experience of being in a refugee camp is one most have never experienced before, and partly because the food is outstanding.

But there’s another reason, too. I take people to these classes because I see God at work through the women of Aida camp. I see Western eyes open wide when we walk through the streets of the camp. I see smiles when visitors make human connections with Palestinians they have only seen on the news. I see hearts open up when Christians are welcomed into a Muslim home and share a meal they have cooked together.

I see that the God of Mary and Elizabeth, the God of Sarah and Rahab, the God of Mary Magdalene and Hannah, is doing great and unexpected and even unacceptable things around a dinner table, in a refugee camp, behind a wall, in occupied territory, through women
Through Muslim women.

And this gives me courage. Like Mary, when I think of all the great things God has done and is doing through unexpected people—even through me!—it makes me want to sing. It makes me want to praise God as Mary did in the Magnificat:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

Mary sings because she knows that although she is lowly, although she is young, although she is unmarried, although she is insignificant and even inappropriate, she can do great things. She can even bear the savior of the world.

She can do it, not because she is great, but because God is good.

She can do it, not because she is so special, but because God is so faithful.

“God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
he has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

This is Mary’s song, but it is also ours. As we approach Christmas Day and the celebration of the birth of the Messiah to a young girl in a stable in the little town of Bethlehem, we are invited to sing praises to the God who did such a wild, unexpected, inappropriate, wonderful, blessed thing.

Thanks be to God, we are gifted with voices to sing God’s praise. We are gifted with hands to continue God’s work. And we are gifted with courage and faith – the courage and faith of Mary, who unexpectedly was given the chance to carry the salvation of the world in her womb. Amen!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sermon for Sunday 13 December: 3rd Sunday of Advent. REJOICE! The Lord is near!

Sermon for Sunday 13 December 2015

3rd Sunday in Advent

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Smith

Philippians 4:4-7


New Gate Tree, in process
As I was walking near New Gate the other day, I saw a glorious site: the Christmas tree on the roof of the Freres School, being decorated in a flurry of activity by a crew of at least ten men. It made me smile – both to see the lights going up this year, and to remember my reaction to the very same tree last year. 

Last year in Advent, just a few months after moving to Jerusalem, I saw that tree as a bit of a monstrosity. I mean, there were just SO MANY LIGHTS. And ornaments as big as my head. And a life-sized nativity set. And music. And sparkles. And nearby, Santa playing violin, Santa playing guitar, Santa playing electric organ, and the ever-popular Santa playing saxophone. I can remember thinking “this is NOT what I expected Christmastime in the Holy Land to look like!”

This year, however, is different. This year, I’m more aware that the season of waiting also includes waiting for the next security alert on our phones. We’re not only expecting the birth of Jesus, we’re expecting new roadblocks to appear on our streets, and new illegal settlements to creep into our neighborhoods. We’re not only anticipating Christmas in the Middle East, we’re anticipating that things will get worse before they get better.

This year, the audacious joy of the New Gate Christmas Tree feels to me like a protest against the violence and killing of recent months. It feels like a small piece of resistance to the darkness threatening this city and the world.

It’s true, though, that some are questioning whether such a Christmas celebration is even appropriate, given the situation. So many have been killed. So much hope has been lost. How are we to celebrate under these circumstances?

New Gate Tree, almost complete!
This is the question I asked my hairdresser, Samer, a Palestinian Christian who also happens to be on the organizing committee for that fabulous New Gate tree. His answer was, “It’s true, many are saying “they” will not approve. And this year we will decorate a little less. But who are “they” anyway? And who are “they” to tell us not to have Christmas? We need Christmas now more than ever.”

Indeed, the situation is terrible in Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, in Hebron. The world is boiling over, in this place and many others. But this isn’t the first time Christmas has come during a time of conflict, war, or despair. This isn’t the first time the world has waited in darkness for the light to appear. After all, Jesus does not come to an already sparkling, pure, perfectly decorated world. His birth among us is not extra, or expendable, or an extravagance to be put aside during difficult times. The incarnation of Jesus, the Word made flesh, God-with-us, the light shining in the darkness, is the foundation of our faith, of our hope, and of our joy—this year, and always.

In today’s second reading, the Apostle Paul tells the embattled Christian community at Philippi to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” The Philippian Christians were struggling with threats both from the outside and from within. There was concern that the church would crumble under the weight of their situation. Paul wrote to encourage them, but not as some feel-good, self-help guru. His words held particular significance because he himself knew about dark times. Paul knew persecution. He even knew the inside of a prison. And yet, again he said to the people, “Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” 

Though we may be persecuted, though we may be imprisoned, though we may be suffering oppression, though we may be threatened by extremism, though we may even be facing death, as people of faith our response will always be prayer, thankfulness, and joy.

Of course, being joyful doesn’t mean sticking our heads in the sand, ignoring the news, or somehow putting on a fake, happy smile to mask the pain. There’s a difference between joy and happiness! There's nothing wrong with being happy. We’re happy with a good grade on a test. We’re happy with an excellent Christmas gift, or a tasty dinner, or when our candidate is up in the polls. We’re happy when a day in this city goes by somewhat peacefully, or when good friends arrive for the holidays.

But joy isn’t dependent on the circumstances of the day. It’s not found under the tree, or in the lights on the tree. Joy is a gift from God. Joy lies in a manger, in the city of Bethlehem, and was announced by a host of angels. Joy is the sure and certain knowledge that because God so loved the world, the Lord is near—to you, to me, and to all humanity.

Thanks be to God, the Lord is near! Of course, at times it’s difficult to sense the nearness of God. Even here in the holy city, just a few kilometers away from the manger and the stable and the shepherds’ fields, Jesus can seem far away. Terror, tear gas, knives, guns and walls often feel nearer to us than the Prince of Peace. Given our current situation, we may find ourselves asking, “Where is my joy? Where is Jesus?”

During my years in seminary, the school had a special program which encouraged students to participate in so-called “Growth in Faith” activities. Essentially, we were required to earn credits by doing “spiritual” things – things which would encourage growth in faith. This program might seem unnecessary for a group of students studying to be Lutheran pastors, but believe me, some of us needed that extra encouragement to get our heads out of the books and our eyes turned toward God.

One of the options for Growth in Faith credit was working with a spiritual director. Since the school was offering to pay for the first semester, I signed up. Even with the credits to be earned and the free price tag, I admit I arrived with an attitude. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought it all might be too “silly” for a serious future pastor like myself.

And sure enough, as soon as I arrived for that first session my spiritual director lowered the lights and lit a candle. She invited me to run my hands through a bowl of sand. Then she had me close my eyes and asked me to breathe deeply. “This is SOOOO silly”, I thought.

It took a few more sessions before I let go of my attitude and let God start working on my heart. This was happening during a time of great change and discernment for me and for my family, so most of my sessions with the spiritual director, Lorelei, were focused on how I was dealing with worry and anxiety. One day, Lorelei asked me to close my eyes and to consider “Where is Jesus right now?”

Where is Jesus?! Even after several sessions together, this exercise seemed pretty silly. Where is Jesus? How should I know? Isn’t Jesus in heaven? Isn’t Jesus everywhere? Jesus is probably hanging out with the suffering and oppressed, where’s he’s supposed to be. Still, Lorelei pressed on. “Don’t worry, just breathe—and pray.” she said. “Where is Jesus?”

So I did. I let go of some of the worry, and the attitude. I closed my eyes and prayed for direction and for faith. I prayed for some clue about where Jesus was.
And then...I suddenly knew. I knew where Jesus was! “I think I sense him, standing behind me!” I said to Lorelei, surprising myself. “Jesus is behind me, with his hands on my shoulders!”

“Ah…” she said knowingly. “So, Jesus has your back.”

Indeed…even in those difficult, worrying times, even when I felt lost, even when I was confused, Jesus had my back. The Lord was near—nearer than I ever imagined. I was not alone.

This, sisters and brothers, is our joy: during Advent, during Christmas, and every other day of the year. The Lord is near.

In the manger, Jesus is near to all humanity and all creation.
On the cross, Jesus is near to all who are oppressed or suffering.
And having walked out of the tomb, resurrected and whole, Jesus will be with us -- near to us -- always.

Therefore, rejoice, for when you pass through the checkpoints – the Lord is near.
When the neighborhood is filled with tear gas -- the Lord is near.
When you are at the doctor’s office – the Lord is near.
When you are by the graveside of a friend – the Lord is near.
When your job is ending – the Lord is near.
When a new stage in life is beginning – the Lord is near.
When the path ahead is unclear – the Lord is near.
When the world seems to be falling apart – the Lord is near.
When we are still waiting for the advent of peace with justice for all the people of Palestine and Israel – the Lord is near.

The children of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
Dear sisters and brothers:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.