Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sermon for Sunday 24 January 2016: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Sermon for Sunday 24 January 2016
3rd Sunday after Epiphany

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

The day after Christmas – Armenian Christmas, that is, otherwise known as this past Tuesday – I was sitting at the Armenian Patriarchate with my Methodist colleague on one side and two Catholic priests on the other. We were waiting patiently for the little shots of brandy and trays of Christmas chocolates to be brought around to all the visiting clergy, but first the bishops and patriarchs had to give their speeches. 

It was during one of these very serious, very earnest Christmas speeches that the priest next to me leaned in and said, “Hey, did you hear about the teacher who was explaining the resurrection to her students?”

No, I replied.

“Well,” he continued, “the teacher told the children the whole story of the cross and the tomb and the stone being rolled away, and when she was finished a boy raised his hand and asked, “Teacher, do YOU believe in the Good News of the resurrection?”

“Yes, of course I do”, the teacher said sternly.

“Well then” said the boy, “Would you kindly inform your face?”

This, the priest told me, is how he always feels when he comes to these Christmas “celebrations” at the various patriarchates. Someone needs to inform the priests' faces that Jesus is born!

Some of the "men in black" at the Armenian Patriarchate
It was a beautiful and holy moment, chuckling with priests from a tradition different from mine in some very critical ways (for example, not ordaining humans like me), but nevertheless finding ourselves united as Christians in the desire to have a little more merriment in our Merry Christmas. 

The holy, mysterious, and sometimes precarious unity of the church of Jesus Christ is the focus of this morning’s reading from 1 Corinthians, chapter 12. It’s an especially appropriate reading as we begin the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity here in Jerusalem. This week, Jerusalem’s Christians will gather in various churches across the city to pray. We will lift our voices and our hearts to God together as one body, although in the manner of many different traditions—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian, and Maronite, to name a few.

I love Christian Unity week. It’s the one week of the year when I feel the most pride in being a member of this awesome, global body we call the Church. I relish our diversity. I treasure this opportunity to experience how culture and history have shaped the way we pray, and yet to see how the Good News remains the same. Truly, during this one week we embody the Apostle Paul’s assertion that “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”

Of course, there are also 51 other weeks of the year, weeks in which we, the church, do not act as one body with one spirit. Most of the time, instead of uniting to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, give sight to the blind, or bring liberation to the oppressed, we are engaging in an epic battle over who has the best theology or the best music, whose tradition is older, whose liturgy is the most authentic, or whose social justice statements are the most progressive. Yes, we were all baptized into one body, but in this body, everyone seems to want to be the head. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say, everyone acts like they are the mouth.

We only need to walk around the corner to see in living color how the body is divided today, even in the one place where you would think we could get it right. When I walk to work through the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I often hear tour guides telling visitors the story of the status quo and the infamous immovable ladder. I admit, it always makes me a little embarrassed. If the body of Christ can’t even get it together in the place where Jesus was raised, then the Apostle Paul’s lofty words about the church being one, united body seem somewhat irrelevant.

For this reason, it’s tempting when reading 1st Corinthians to consider it merely as an idea of the church as it should be. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” says Paul. And again, “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body.” This may be a description of the church as it was for about five minutes after the resurrection of Jesus, but it seems to have very little to do with the reality of the church today. At best, it sounds like an ideal, a goal, or a dream. The church of the future! The church as it will be in heaven!

But about this passage from 1 Corinthians, Latin-American liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes: “Readers often regard this theology of the church as simply a beautiful metaphor. However, we must, shocking though this idea may be, see through to the realism that characterizes the Pauline approach. He is speaking of the real body of Christ, which he looks upon as an extension of the incarnation.” (Gustavo GutiĆ©rrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People) In other words, Gutierrez asserts that for Paul, the church is not LIKE a body, it is The Body. The church is not TRYING or HOPING to be the presence of Christ in the world someday, it IS the presence of Christ in the world today.

NOW you are the body of Christ, writes Paul. Not when you get it right, but now. Not when we sign enough ecumenical agreements. Not when we un-do the Reformation or re-unite the Eastern and Western traditions. Not when the church heals it wounds and patches its relationships, but now. NOW this messy, imperfect, divided, hypocritical, sometimes corrupt organism we call the church is the body of our Lord Jesus Christ. NOW we are the body of the One who was broken, wounded, persecuted, put on trial, stripped naked, and crucified for the sake of the world.

Of course, it goes against our human instincts to view brokenness as anything but a mistake. For this reason, we view the divisions in the church as a liability, or an embarrassment, or even as a possible argument for its illegitimacy. However, our faith tells us that the broken body of our Lord Jesus was the world’s path to reconciliation with God our Creator. Through the eyes of faith, what the world saw as an instrument of humiliation and death we know to be a symbol of victory and life.

In the same way, the brokenness of this body we call the church is also a conduit of God’s grace. A divided church is a diverse church, and this diverse church is a powerful and sacramental presence in the world.

After all, where would the world be without the pacifism and radical peace-making of the Mennonites?

What would our spirituality be without the iconography of the Orthodox?

What would our witness be without the Coptics’ courage in the face of persecution?

Where would systematic theology be without the Catholic church fathers?

What would worship be without the Pentecostal spirit?

Where would biblical scholarship be without the Lutherans’ devotion to the Word?

Indeed, what would the world be today without the fullness of our various Christian traditions? Through the grace of God, the divisions in the church, which were born of human sin and pride, have become gifts to the world. Just as Christ was raised, so has a broken church been raised to new life. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Good News of Jesus Christ has been heard, and received, and shared across centuries, across boundaries, and across cultures through this imperfect body we call the church.

Some of the clergywomen of Jerusalem, heading out to the
Christmas greetings at the Armenian Patriarchate
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, we don’t have to be one and the same to be of one Spirit. We don’t have to be unified in practice to be united in purpose.

But what we must be, what we are, is interdependent. We need each other. As Paul put it, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? If all were a single member, where would the body be?”

In this time when Christians in many places are suffering persecution, when many thousands have become refugees, when fear wants to rule us, and when the very existence of the Christian community here in the holy land is threatened by military occupation, we are reminded that we cannot do this alone. We need every member of the body of Christ to stand together against terror, injustice, and hatred, and to stand for justice, peace, and equality. Even the ones with whom we disagree. Even the ones whose theology or worship seem strange to us. Even the ones whose policies exclude us! Even – and I would say especially -  the members of the body who are often ignored, silenced, or kept on the margins.

In these challenging times, we give thanks to God that our brokenness is not the sum total of our witness. We may be divided by church structure, theology, politics or history, but we are one in the measure of grace and new life we have received through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sisters and brothers, now you are the body of Christ, both crucified and risen. 
Now you are the church, broken and divided, and at the same time holy and healed. 
Go in the strength of this knowledge, and be bold witnesses to the one Gospel, the one faith, the one light, the one salvation, the one hope for this broken world, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen! 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sermon for Sunday, 17 January 2016: He turned the water into wine

Sermon for Sunday 17 January 2016
2nd Sunday after Epiphany

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

Jesus turned the water into wine. And it was a good thing he did, because the party was about to fall apart! That’s what happens when the wine runs out. The party is always over when the bar closes or they run out of food. The dancing stops. The people go home. Water alone certainly wasn’t enough to sustain the traditional seven-day wedding celebration of Jesus’ time. No wine, no party.

But of course, the party wasn’t over in Cana that day, because Jesus turned the water into wine. This was Jesus’ first miracle, and it comes to us at a time when we could really use a miracle.

It’s been a rough few months in Jerusalem and the West Bank. It’s not just the violent attacks and the equally violent responses. It’s not just the new settlements and the ever-expanding wall. It’s not just the hateful rhetoric from politicians and the silence from international leaders.

It’s the fact that it’s been this way for so many years already, with no discernible change. We’ve drunk deeply from the wells of peace talks, protests, partitioning plans and political rhetoric, and we are still thirsty. We are at a point in this conflict – and indeed in the world community today—when we might just throw up our hands and say,

“Oh well. I guess this is it.  
I guess the wall is so high and so thick now that it will never come down.
I guess racism is just part of the human condition.
I guess these politicians are the best leaders we can expect.
I guess terror is here to stay.”

At this moment it may feel like the wedding party is over. The wine has run out – along with our energy and hope and dreams for a better world.

Kids getting photos with "soldiers" at the Berlin Wall Memorial
Photo by Carrie Smith
A few weeks ago I was in Germany for Christmas break with my family. One of the things I really wanted to see was the Berlin Wall Memorial. I expected it to be interesting, and perhaps even a sign of hope, something that would give me renewed energy for the struggle here in Israel and Palestine. But in fact I was overwhelmed with a different emotion as I stood before the remains of the wall. There was a booth where you could get your real passport stamped with a fake “East Germany” stamp (no thank you, I thought – we have enough passport issues around here!) And there was a little boy, nine or ten years old, who stood with two actors dressed as soldiers in front of the memorial. One was dressed as an East German soldier, and the other as a West German soldier. Everyone was smiling. Many photos were being snapped. 

Old man looking at the remains of the Berlin wall
Photo by Carrie Smith
It should have been a hope-filled moment. But instead, I started to cry. I was crying, not because it gave me hope, but because I was thinking how unimaginable this scene seems for the people of Israel and Palestine. Will we really see a day when little Palestinian boys can stand with pretend soldiers near the remains of the Israeli separation wall?

Will we really see a day when all the people of this land—Palestinian and Israeli, Muslim, Christian and Jew—will live in peace and freedom and equality, unafraid of their neighbors?

Do we still believe it?
Can we still imagine it?
Or has our hope run out?
Is the party over, or can Jesus do even this?   

When the wine ran out at the wedding in Cana, the party should have been over. The hosts would surely be embarrassed, the guests would be disappointed, and the joy of the wedding celebration would forever be clouded by scandal. But Mary, the mother of our Lord, had confidence that Jesus had the power to intervene. She knew him better than anyone else in the world, and for this reason she told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Think for a moment about those servants. What reason did they possibly have to listen to Mary? They didn’t work for her. And why in the world would they “do whatever Jesus tells them”? Jesus and his disciples were probably only invited to the wedding because Mary was somehow related to the bride and groom. After all, at this point Jesus and the gang were becoming well-known for their strange preaching and unusual way of life. The guys who took only one tunic with them on the journey might not be the guests you want seated near the head table.

I can think of lots of reasons why I might have said no:

“No way, those jars are way too heavy.”
“No way, I don’t work for you!”
“No way, the people don’t want water anyway. The party is over.”
“No way…and besides, what can you possibly do with jars of plain water?”

But in spite of these very good reasons to walk away, the servants did as Jesus said. They took the heavy stone jars down to the water. They hauled the even heavier full stone jars back to the wedding. They scooped out a cup of the same water to give the chief steward.

And then, having tasted the water that had become wine, the chief steward said to the groom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

Thanks to Jesus, the supply of wine was replenished and the party was given new life. He took what they had – empty stone jars – and gave them more than they could have imagined. He gave them a miracle.

The fact that this first miracle happens, we are told, “on the third day”, is a clue that this was no magic trick. That good wine was only a foretaste of the feast to come. In Cana, the party was saved. But in Jerusalem, when his hour had finally come, Jesus would save more than a party. He would give the world more than we could imagine. On the cross he would empty himself, pouring out his very own life, so that all would receive a never-ending supply of the good wine – the wine of mercy, the wine of grace, the wine of forgiveness, and the wine of eternal life.

Thanks be to God our faith tells us that because Jesus is with us—because he’s always invited to the party—our hope never runs empty. Jesus’ transformational love for you—and for the world—is always in abundant supply.

Tomorrow is honored as Martin Luther King Day in my home country. Dr. King is remembered as one who seemed to drink from a bottomless well of hope, strength, and courage. He was able to articulate in such a powerful way the world so many people desired to see, but which almost no one thought possible until he came along—a world in which equality, justice, education, and opportunity would be free-flowing for all people, regardless of their skin color or class or gender.

When Dr. King was killed, it must have felt like the wine had run out, that the civil rights struggle was over, and the people should just go home. I imagine there were many involved in the movement who felt the dream had died along with him.
But of course, we know the party was not over. All hope was not lost. Many others took up the struggle for civil and human rights, and although we have not yet seen its fulfilment, Martin Luther King’s dream lives on today. Faithful people all over the globe continue to work for a better world – a world that MLK called the Beloved Community, and that we might call the Kingdom of God, but which people everywhere simply call justice, peace, equality, and abundant life.

A young Palestinian at a protest against the
expansion of the wall into the Cremisan Valley
His sign says "Praying is Resisting" and
"The Wall Will Fall"
Photo by Carrie Smith
Today, we give thanks to God for the saints of all times and places who have drunk deeply from Jesus’ good wine of mercy, love, and grace, and have therefore been strengthened to work for the good of all: 
people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 
and especially the many brave Israelis and Palestinians who continue to hope and to struggle and to speak truth to power, for the sake of peace with justice in the Holy Land.

Dear sisters and brothers, there will be times when the struggle seems too difficult, when the obstacles seem too great, and when we seem to be running on empty.

But when those days come, remember that we may run out of wine,
We may run out of ideas,
We may run out of patience,
We may run out of energy,
We may run out of tolerance for the way things are,

But because Jesus has been invited, we will never run out of hope.

Jesus takes our empty stone jars and fills them with the water of life.
Jesus takes our frustration with the system and turns it into action.
Jesus takes our broken hearts and turns them into the courage to speak up for the lost.
Jesus takes our hunger and thirst for justice and turns them into love for our neighbor.
Jesus takes even our exhaustion, our despair, our doubt and our hopelessness, and turns them into good wine.

For this miracle, we give thanks.
For his sacrifice of love, we give praise.
And for the courage to live in faithful response to such a miracle, we pray to the Lord. Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

"Look to Jesus" Sermon for 10 January 2016: Baptism of Our Lord.

Sermon for Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Baptism of Our Lord

Preacher's Note: 

This was an interesting Sunday worship service, as we had 2 surprise groups visiting us. One was a group of 38 seminarians and pastors from South Carolina. 

The other was an interfaith group of 22 Muslims, Jews, and Christians. 

It was interesting first of all to celebrate Thanksgiving for Baptism in an interfaith context....

and it was even more interesting to preach "Look to Jesus" in the same context! 

As I stood to preach, I thought to myself: "If I had known they were coming, would I have changed my sermon? Why? And would it have mattered?"

I give thanks for such an opportunity to be unashamedly ourselves -- Christian, Muslim, and Jew -- and yet of one mind and spirit, respecting our differences, and praying together for peace with justice for all peoples.  What a gift.


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

Not long ago there was a video floating around the internet of a basketball game. The video began with instructions to the viewer: “Count how many times the players wearing white pass the basketball.”

And so I watched, and I counted: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…the basketball was passed fifteen times, I was certain.

And then on the screen it said, “The correct answer is fifteen passes.” Perfect! I knew it!

But then on the screen appeared these words: “But did you see the gorilla?!”

Did I see the gorilla?! Seriously, there was no gorilla. I was certain – after all, I was watching so carefully to count those basketball passes! So I watched it again.
One, two, three, four, five…and oh my goodness, there it was. The Gorilla.

While I was busy watching the white shirts and counting the basketball passes, a man in a gorilla suit walked right across the screen, looked directly at the camera, beat his chest with his hands, and walked off.

But I never saw the gorilla.

It turns out, that’s the case with most others who watch this video, too. 

Most of us are paying so much attention to other things, we miss the gorilla right in front of us.

This may seem like a strange opening to a sermon, but I ask you to think again about the Gospel lesson you just heard a few moments ago.

 John is in the river Jordan, baptizing a group of believers. And they’re all looking at him. Scripture tells us “the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” After all, he fit the profile of a prophet of God:

#1: Funny clothes (camel’s hair)
#2: Funny parentage (his mother was old and his father fell mute until he was born)
And #3: Funny diet (locusts and wild honey).

And now, he was standing in the water with them, preaching repentance and baptizing all who turned back to God.

So why would they not look to John? He was an attention-grabber!

Little did they know, however, that already walking among the sinners, tax collectors, mothers, fathers, priests and scribes, shopkeepers, and ordinary folks of the world, was Jesus.

Jesus, born in Bethlehem.
Jesus, laid in a manger.
Jesus, raised in a carpenter’s family.
Jesus, the Son of God, the beloved.

The one the world was waiting for, the one who had been prophesied, the one the people thought might possibly be John, had already come into the world, but the world did not yet know him.

Like the man in the gorilla suit walking through the basketball game, the Messiah went unnoticed because the people were looking elsewhere. Their attention was focused on John.

John tried to tell them:
“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” In other words: No, not me! It’s not me – look at Jesus!

But of course, the world would not begin to see Jesus for who he was until all the people had been baptized,

Until Jesus himself had been baptized,

And until the heavens opened up, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, and a voice from the heavens said,

“You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

Indeed, the world would not finally see Jesus for who he was until he was nailed to a cross,

And when the stone was rolled back and he walked out of the tomb.

Of course, the world still struggles to see Jesus for who he is today, but on this Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord we celebrate that it was at his baptism when Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Son of God, was first revealed to us.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, at the beginning of this New Year 2016, God is grabbing our attention. This story of Jesus’ baptism draws our attention away from the bouncing basketballs of life and back to what matters – not a man in a gorilla suit, but God incarnate as our brother, Jesus Christ.

To be honest, this is about the time in the year when we need a good attention-grabbing Scripture lesson. After all, it was easy to focus on Jesus during the Christmas season. It’s easy to focus on Jesus when the tree is in the living room, and the nativity scene is on display, and the world’s eyes are on the manger.

It’s much harder to keep our eyes on Jesus when the dazzle of Christmas is behind us, and the baby Jesus has left the manger.

And of course it’s always harder to focus on the Good News when there’s so much terrible news demanding our attention.

Friday afternoon was a perfect example of this. Sitting with a clergy colleague at lunch, we both received a security alert on our phones. “Imminent terror attack in Tel Aviv” it said. Imminent! Any moment! Be afraid! Instantly our conversation stopped. We put our forks down. It was as if a dark cloud had floated into the restaurant and hovered over our table. It only made matters worse when, a little while later, the second alert came saying, “No imminent threat in Tel Aviv.” Oops. Pay no attention to that last bit of adrenaline and fear. Go on with your lives. Nothing to see here.

Those of us who are living here know that this almost daily occurrence is more than just a distraction. It’s more than an annoying lunch interruption. The reality of what we simply call “the situation” can become for us the lord of our lives, defining where we walk and how we speak. Fear and anxiety can start to rule our friendships and change our behaviors. Soon, we may find that we’ve crowned terror and violence as king and messiah.

For this reason, we must really consider where our eyes and hearts and minds will be focused in this New Year. Will we spend 2016 counting the bouncing basketball from terror attack to terror attack, from one mass shooting to another, from one incident of racially motivated violence to another?

Will we keep our ears tuned to the voices of extremism, racism, and division, which seem louder than ever?

Will we keep our eyes only on our neighbor’s hands, wondering if he has a knife? 
Or on our neighbor’s gun, judging if it will be pointed at us next?

Or will we look to Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the healer of nations, the reconciler of peoples, the one who has already broken down the dividing wall that separates us?

We must really ask ourselves if we will allow 2016 to be defined by noisy prophets of destruction, and our lives to be shaped only in response to hatred and violence.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, as we celebrate this day when the heavens opened up to reveal Jesus as the Son of God, the beloved, our Messiah and Lord,
I invite you to recommit yourselves to your own true identity.

We began this worship service at the font, remembering our baptisms. But this is not just something we can do in church. This is a spiritual practice for the New Year. 

Every day, at home, at work, on the streets, with friends, among strangers,

Remember who you are.
Remember that you have been washed in the waters.
Remember that in baptism you have died with Jesus and will therefore rise again with him.
Remember that you have been called by name, and you belong to him. You are beloved. You are a Child of God.

In these increasingly uncertain times, take hold of this sure and certain identity.

And if the prophets of doom, the powers of darkness, or the priorities of the empire become your focus or demand your allegiance, attempting to tell you who you are...

...look to Jesus.

Look to Jesus, baptized by John.
Jesus of the People, by Janet McKenzie
Look to Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
Look to Jesus, who welcomes the stranger.
Look to Jesus, who shows mercy to the sinner.
Look to Jesus, who on the cross opens his arms to all.
Look to Jesus, who walks out of the tomb and gives us the promise of eternal life.

Look to Jesus, whose radical love defines our lives not only in the manger, and not only at Christmas,
But in the conflict,
In the mess,
In the occupation,
And in the waters of daily life!

In this New Year, let us keep our eyes on Jesus, the beloved of God, who has called us by name, that by his grace our lives may more closely resemble his. Amen!

(after this sermon, we sang together this song..."Woke Up This Morning with my Mind Stayed on Jesus" ....and on Freedom...and on Justice....)