Sunday, March 27, 2016

"He is not here!" Easter sermon 2016

Sermon for Easter Sunday 2016

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

English-speaking congregation

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

On Tuesday of this Holy Week, a group of Armenian, Greek Orthodox, and Franciscan priests gathered in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to do something a little unusual: they were blessing scaffolding. This isn’t just any scaffolding—it is the support structure holding up the shrine over the tomb of Christ. Two hundred years of candles and pilgrim traffic, along with the weight of the marble edifice, have caused the little building to sag desperately. The priests gathered Tuesday to bless scaffolding because soon a long-overdue renovation project will begin there, at the site of God’s greatest miracle. Actually, it’s a small miracle in itself that the multiple, often bickering, traditions in the church managed to agree on the renovation project in the first place!

Still, miracle or no miracle, I couldn’t quite get over seeing this news headline about the renovation, shared during Holy Week: “Christ’s tomb to be restored soon.”

Church of the Holy Sepulcher,
closed for prayer on Maundy Thursday
Photo by Carrie Smith
Christ’s tomb—which he no longer inhabits—is being restored. Christ’s tomb—which he exited as soon as possible—is getting an expensive facelift. Christ’s tomb—which the women entered on the first day of the week and found empty—will soon look as good as new. Clearly, this renovation is a good idea in terms of historic preservation. Still, whenever I visit the church and see long lines of faithful people waiting hours for just a moment inside the tomb, I want to tell them: “Guys, you know he’s not there, right?”

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Recently, a friend who is a tour guide was explaining to a group how the actual stone tomb of Jesus is located far below the shrine, in the basement of the church. It is only accessible if one priest from each of the various churches is present to witness the event. Impressed by this fact, one of the tourists asked, “That’s so cool! Did they ever find anything in the tomb?” To which my friend responded, “Uh, no. It’s empty. Actually, there’s a story about that. Maybe you’ve heard it…”

This morning, we rejoice to hear the story once again. We are gathered here in this place to remember how on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women went to the tomb. Finding the stone already rolled away, they entered the tomb but the body was not there.

This Good News, the simple but perplexing fact of an empty tomb, is the source of our joy and our hope. For this reason, we got up before dawn and made our way here to the Mt. of Olives. For this reason, the musicians have prepared for weeks to provide joyful music. For this reason, some of you have traveled many miles to be in Jerusalem, the City of the Resurrection, on the Day of Resurrection.

Yes, the tomb is empty – for this reason let us say again,

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Such is the astounding headline news of this Easter day –and yet, on Tuesday the headlines were different.

On Tuesday, my News Feed read like this:

“Brussels Attacked.”


“Christ’s tomb to be restored soon.”

Yes, Jesus is risen! But we are still hanging around the tomb.

Isn’t this true about so much of our lives?

On Sunday mornings, we rejoice in the risen Christ. We sing “I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me!” and “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” We share the peace of Christ with those in the pews next to us. We break the bread and drink the wine and give thanks for being raised with him. Sunday morning is all about Resurrection.

And then the rest of the week, we are about the business of caring for the dead places in our lives: Rearranging the furniture. Putting on a fresh coat of paint. Trying to make the tomb seem less dark, less dead.

When my little family and I were in graduate school, I would sometimes spend entire days rearranging the stuff in our tiny apartment. I would stack the toddler toys and move around the books and try to hide the things that had no home, but in the end, it was still a tiny, dark, damp, windowless basement apartment. No amount of redecorating was going to change that fact.

Sisters and brothers, Christ is risen! And still, we keep tidying up the tomb.

We keep trying to make peace through war.
We keep trying to achieve justice through hatred of the other side.
We update old paradigms instead of adopting new ones.
We renovate systems of injustice rather than toppling them.
We fortify walls and borders, instead of stepping into the light.
We keep looking for the living among the dead.

But who can blame us for thinking the tomb is the place to be? After all, death makes headlines. Violence always gets our attention. Hate sells, and even wins elections. Who can blame the women for looking for Jesus where they last saw him—among the dead? Who can blame them for being perplexed when the tomb was empty? We aren’t conditioned to expect resurrection. We aren’t accustomed to life outside the tomb.

A dear friend of mine struggled and suffered for years in an abusive relationship. She would often say that as a person of faith, she believed in resurrection. Couldn’t God resurrect even this relationship, even if the love was dead or dying?

For years my friend tried renovation, redecoration, hoped for restoration, and prayed for resurrection, but at long last the relationship—and the abuse—were over. 

And you know what? There was indeed resurrection. There was indeed new life. But it was not found in the tomb of abuse. It was not found in the tomb of disrespect. It was not found in the darkness of violence and fear. My friend found resurrection, liberation, and life abundant in the light of the Risen Christ. It happened when she remembered the stone was already rolled away. It happened when she remembered nothing could keep her in that tomb.

Suddenly two visitors in dazzling clothes appeared and said to the women: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (Luke 24)

Dear friends in Christ, hear again the Good News: Jesus is no longer in the tomb.

You will not find Jesus hiding in the darkness, held down by hatred, defeated by violence, wrapped in a death shroud, or imprisoned by a stone.

He is not there!

And that means Life is not found there, either.
Hope is not found there.
Peace is not found there.
Justice is not found there.
Liberation is not found there.
Jesus is no longer among the dead, and neither are we.

Today, dear friends, is the festival of our freedom!
Today is the feast of our liberation from sin and death!
Today is the first day of the week, and it is the first day of our Risen Life!

In an Easter sermon sometime in the 4th century, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria preached:  

“Christ, risen from the dead,
Makes the whole of human life
A festival without end.”

Dear sisters and brothers, today is our Great Feast. Today we gather to celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord. But hear me when I say: this Good News is not only for Easter morning. It’s not only for Sunday morning. The feast of our freedom, the joy of our liberation, the certainty of our hope, is a festival without end.

Every single day when God wakes us up to a new day is Easter morning! Amen!

And watch out, world, for when the Children of Light and the People of the Resurrection start celebrating their freedom every day of the week.

For as theologian Jürgen Moltmann recently wrote: “When freedom is near, the chains begin to chafe.”  (Jürgen Moltmann: The Living God and the Fullness of Life)

Yes, Lord – when freedom is near,
when we our Easter liberation is carried close to our hearts,
when the cries of “Alleluia” stay on our lips all day long,
when our baptismal garments become everyday clothes instead of our Sunday best,

then every prison,
every separation wall,
every system of injustice,
every racial or gender inequity,
every addiction,
every pattern of abuse,
every dark place in our lives—and in the world—becomes more than we can tolerate.

Then a renovation of the tomb just won’t be enough.

And then – oh then! – just watch as the Risen Lord, on the move through the Holy Spirit, raises up all the People of the Resurrection to share the Good News.

People won’t believe it.
People will say it’s an idle tale.
People will say “Pay no attention. It’s only a couple of women. It’s only a couple of Jesus freaks. It’s only a couple of human rights activists, radicals, peaceniks, politicians, mothers, fathers, academics, teenagers, evangelicals…

It’s just a couple Lutherans saying that stuff.” 

And still we will proclaim it. Still we will live it. Still we will rejoice in our Easter freedom, our liberation from the tomb, our new lives on this side of the stone of hatred, fear, violence, and death.

Together, along with Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary mother of James, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, our testimony to the world is this:

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed Alleluia! 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Sermon for 4th Sunday in Lent: 6 March 2016

Sermon for Sunday 6 March 2016

4th Sunday in Lent

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32


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

In a way, I think it’s a bit silly to preach a sermon on this parable. The story of the Prodigal Son itself says it all: The one who was lost has been found! The Father welcomes us home! God is merciful! Amen, thanks be to God, now let’s sing the hymn of the day!

But of course, even the most familiar teachings of Jesus have the power to speak to us again and again.

And I think today, in this context, in this time and place, we desperately need this parable of the Prodigal Son.

Friends, I know you are well-acquainted with the God of justice.

You know the God who welcomes the stranger.
You know the Christ who has broken down the dividing wall.
You know the Jesus who stands with the oppressed and turns over tables in the marketplace.
You know the Holy Spirit who inspires people to speak truth to power.

I know you know this God, because I see your lives of faith in action. I see how so many of you have committed your lives to working for peace and justice for all the people of this land. I see how you have sacrificed comfort and risked much to be where you are and to do what you do.

I see how many of you even came to church on a beautiful Sunday in Jerusalem, to give thanks to God for this sunny day before going out to enjoy it!

I see your faith, and the way you live it out, and I give thanks to God for you.

In fact, I think the Pharisees would have no problem at all with you guys hanging around with Jesus. If the sinners and tax collectors were the “wrong kind of people” for Jesus to eat with, then surely you are the right kind...

If you had a part in the parable of the Prodigal Son, you’d probably be the older son…you know the one who stayed. The one who thinks he doesn’t need the Father’s mercy, but would love a party anyway...

But the truth is, even if we’ve been lifelong church goers;
Even if we are diplomats;
Even if we are activists;
Even if we are missionaries;
Even if everyone around us thinks we have it “all together” ;

Even then – and perhaps especially then – we hunger to know the God of mercy, forgiveness, and love.

Even if we are the son who stayed;
we need to hear again that God is merciful, because as the older son in Jesus’ parable misunderstood his father’s heart, so it can be dangerously easy to start thinking that our good work for peace, or for the poor, or for human rights – or our good work taking care of our children, or making a home, or studying, or running a business – is the real reason God sees us as lovable, as worthy, as precious children.

And we are lost – as lost as the son who found himself feeding pigs in a land far from home – if we don’t know in our heart of hearts that God’s mercy is also for us.

Recently I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Robert Enright, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin who is world renowned for this studies on forgiveness. During our Redeemer Lenten gatherings last year, we encountered him as one of the speakers in our video called “The Power of Forgiveness.”

It was enlightening to meet Dr. Enright in person. I especially appreciated hearing him describe the “Forgiveness Education” curriculum they have been instituting in places like Northern Ireland and now Liberia (and, inshallah, soon here in Israel and Palestine). With this curriculum, young children do practical lessons in forgiveness. For example, children will put on silly plastic sunglasses and try to “see” what the other person is feeling. They practice forgiving little hurts, so one day they will have the skills to forgive bigger ones.

I had heard about this portion of the curriculum before. But in this recent meeting here in Jerusalem, Dr. Enright told us about similar efforts to teach mercy. It goes like this: if a child in school has made a minor mistake (arriving late for class, for example), occasionally the teachers will employ mercy instead of punishment. The class will discuss the infraction, and what the appropriate punishment should be. And then, the teacher will explain that this time, even though punishment is appropriate, the student would be receiving mercy instead. Not “getting away with it”, but receiving a gift in place of the deserved punishment.

I must say, when I first heard of this I was skeptical. I imagined the classrooms I grew up in, and the classrooms I taught in when I was a public school music teacher, and I could just imagine how this would play out. I pictured students saying, “Awesome! No punishment! Let’s do it again!”

But then I thought: so what.  Who ever said mercy was reasonable? Who ever said saving the world through a cross made sense? The mercy of God we have known through the cross of Jesus Christ has always be a scandal. And just imagine the power of this experience for these children. In a world of vengeance and of violence, these students get to experience the power of mercy – both receiving it, and giving it. In a world where power over others rules the day, these children experience the power of vulnerability and owning up to mistakes, as well as the power of showing mercy toward another human being.

And one day, when they need to access this knowledge, it won’t be theoretical – it will already be there.

One day, when they find themselves needing to offer mercy to a friend, or a spouse, or a co-worker, they will have the skills they need.
One day, when they hear someone say “God is merciful”, they will know deep down what that word means.
And one day, when they find themselves far from home, in a pigpen, with an empty belly, they will know the heart of their God in heaven, and may turn towards home—and toward the cross, through which the world has received extravagant, unreasonable, unexplainable mercy.

I wonder what it would be like for Christians to proclaim a merciful God as loudly as we proclaim a just God. I wonder what it would be like to hear politicians advocate for God’s mercy with the same vigor as they advocate for God’s morality.

I wonder what it would be like to have mercy activists here in Palestine and Israel, to work alongside peace and justice activists for example.

Can you imagine it?

I imagine that with God’s mercy as the center of our lives – at the heart of who we are, and the guiding principle in all our relationships --  we wouldn’t have to spend all that energy pretending not to need mercy ourselves. We wouldn’t need to spend our time masking our privilege, or protecting our power, or putting on a happy face to hide our own struggles with doubt or depression or despair.

If God is merciful, then we need only to come home.
If God is merciful, we need only to turn towards God, with all our imperfections, with all our failings, with all our knowing that our loving parent has already met us on the way.
If God is merciful, and through Christ we are forgiven, then we have nothing to lose by offering that same mercy to others.

Pope Francis has declared 2016 a “Year of Mercy”, and in light of that I would like to end with a prayer he wrote for the occasion:

Lord Jesus Christ, 

you have taught us to be merciful like the heavenly Father, 
and have told us that whoever sees you sees Him. 
Show us your face and we will be saved. 
Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money; 
the adulteress and Magdalene from seeking happiness only in created things; 
made Peter weep after his betrayal, 
and assured Paradise to the repentant thief. 
Let us hear, as if addressed to each one of us, the words that you spoke to the Samaritan woman: 
“If you knew the gift of God!”
You are the visible face of the invisible Father, 
of the God who manifests his power above all by forgiveness and mercy: 
let the Church be your visible face in the world, its Lord risen and glorified. 
You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness 
in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error: 
let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God.
Send your Spirit and consecrate every one of us with its anointing, 
so that the Jubilee of Mercy may be a year of grace from the Lord, 
and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm, may bring good news to the poor, 
proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed, 
and restore sight to the blind.

We ask this of you, Lord Jesus, who lives and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.