Monday, April 18, 2016

"The Lord is My Shepherd": Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter, 17 April 2016

"The Lord is my shepherd" 

Sermon for Sunday 17 April 2016
4th Sunday of Easter

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


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

Twice a day, for four years, Tina led us safely across 55th Street in Chicago.

Before and after school, in the rain, snow, sleet, hail, and occasional Chicago sunshine, Tina was there to help me and my small boys across the street. Always in uniform. 
Always professional.

She took her job as school crossing guard very seriously. If Tina stepped in front of your car to allow some children to cross, believe me, you stopped your car.

But on Valentine’s Day, her pockets were also full of paper valentine cards.

On Halloween she wore crazy glasses with her uniform, and handed out candy to the little superheroes, princesses, and Ninja warriors walking to school.

She knew the birthdays of many of the kids.

She asked about them when she didn’t see them for a few days.

She scolded them if they walked to school without a proper hat or coat or mittens.

Because her crosswalk was located near the Lutheran seminary, many of us who crossed the street with our children were student pastors. Tina was fascinated by this – especially by those of us who were mothers. She was a church member, but from a tradition which did not ordain women. For this reason, Tina and I had some theological discussions which took place in 90 second increments, spaced out over those twice-a-day crossings, and lasting several weeks.

Tina often asked for prayer for herself and her family. And she prayed for us. She prayed for our children. Her children, as she called them.

After school, at bedtime, we often read one of my boys’ favorite picture books: an illustrated version of the 23rd Psalm. It was just a straight-forward translation of this familiar psalm – no surprise ending, no choose-your-own-adventure options, no video-game tie-in or movie cover to make it sell.

This picture book was the 23rd Psalm, but illustrated for city kids—kids like mine, who knew more about concrete sidewalks than green pastures. The illustrations featured brown kids, black kids. Apartment-dwelling kids. Kids who had never seen a sheep in their lives, much less a shepherd. It was for kids like mine, who thankfully had not yet experienced many dark valleys in life, but who lived in a school district where 38 schoolchildren had died from gun violence in one year alone.

On the first page of the book, which said “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want”, the illustration was of two small children, a boy and a girl, having breakfast before school in their grandparents’ city apartment.

On the next page, where it said, “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul”, the same kids were rolling in a patch of grass in a park on the way to school, escaping the concrete hardness of the city to enjoy a few moments of nature.

And on the page which said,

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me” …

…there was a drawing of a school crossing guard. Arms up, stopping traffic. A whistle in her mouth. On her face, a look that was both firm and loving. Leading the children safely across the busy street. Shepherding the sheep in her care.

Just like Tina.

Just like Jesus.

In a world – and a city, and a street—which can be incredibly unsafe for children, Tina our school crossing guard represented safety and security. In the middle of chaos and uncertainty, she brought order and stability. For so many children in our neighborhood, she was a real-life embodiment of the God we know through Jesus Christ:

Steadfast. Faithful. Loving. Personal. Trustworthy.

A good shepherd.

“The Lord is my shepherd.”

We most often think of these as words of comfort. But actually, the 23rd Psalm is also a psalm of resistance. It is a psalm of protest against the powers and principalities of the world. In a world where sin, despair, and death claim to lead the way, the Word of God proclaims this is God’s world, this is God’s city, this is God’s street—and we are the Lord’s sheep.

And actually, this is the reason Psalm 23 is so popular at funerals. It’s not just that these words are familiar. It’s that when we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death—or addiction, or depression, or cancer, or injustice—these familiar words give us the voice to say to anything that tries to come between us and abundant life, “No! You are not my shepherd—because the Lord God Almighty, the King of Love, the Prince of Peace, the great shepherd of the sheep, is leading me through this.”

For the Lord is our shepherd – but there are others.

There are other shepherds who want to take us along their paths, who promise us stiller waters and greener pastures.

In the city of Chicago, where Tina faithfully shepherded children across the street, there are those who promise vulnerable young people a life of luxury, and a place to call home—but all too soon they find themselves walking in the valley of the shadow of gangs, and guns, and death.

In cities all across the world today, shepherds of the media and politics (and even religion) try to convince us that actually, we are in want. They tell us we are in want of more than our share of the world’s resources; we are in want of more guns to feel safe; or we are in want of high walls to keep wolves out.

Today in the city of Jerusalem, the same false shepherds seek to gather a flock. Here, there are those who would lead us on the path of violent revenge for past injustices. They make us to lie down in fields of hatred for those who are different. They promise us still and peaceful waters—if only we will accept inequality, division, and power over others as necessary and reasonable.

And in the presence of all such false shepherds, our faith teaches us to proclaim: “The Lord is my shepherd.”

The Lord is our shepherd, and we shall want for nothing! For we proclaim that God’s goodness and mercy has become flesh in Jesus Christ.  We proclaim that the cross reveals the vastness of God’s love for us. We proclaim that because the tomb was empty on that Easter morning, nothing, not even death, can separate the sheep from the shepherd.

Thanks be to God, the Lord is our shepherd, and we shall want for nothing. Like Tina, standing guard in her uniform between the Chicago traffic and her schoolchildren, the Crucified and Risen Christ has declared to every power and principality claiming ownership of his flock: “Oh no…These are my sheep!”

The King of Love has said: “These are my sheep…and surely goodness and mercy shall follow them all the days of their lives.”

Surely goodness and mercy shall sit with us in the hospital waiting room.
Surely goodness and mercy will accompany us through chemo treatment.
Surely goodness and mercy will walk into the courtroom with us.
Surely goodness and mercy will fight our addictions with us.
Surely goodness and mercy will cross the checkpoint with us.
Surely goodness and mercy will give us renewed strength to stand for justice, to hope for peace, to speak truth to power.

Because our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, is risen from the dead,
surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives,

And we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Sermon for 10 April 2016: 3rd Sunday of Easter

Sermon for Sunday 10 April 2016

3rd Sunday of Easter

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

My bishop back in Illinois—who is retiring this summer after 18 years heading up the Northern Illinois Synod—can find a way to fit a fishing story into almost every sermon. Having fishing as a favorite hobby comes in quite handy when you’re a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially on Sundays like this, when we hear a story about the fishing misadventures of Simon, Thomas, Nathaniel, and the rest. I can just imagine the detail and color and wisdom Bishop Gary would bring to a sermon this morning if he were here today.

I, on the other hand, don’t have much to say about fishing.

The few times I went fishing with my grandpa, I never quite got past the part about putting the worm on the hook. It’s not that I didn’t like it – I just couldn’t get past it. I maybe liked it a little too much. Worms are squishy and fascinating and disgusting and fun. Waiting for fish to bite—not so much.

I don’t know much about fishing, so I can’t say whether one should fish from the left side of the boat or the right side of the boat. I don’t know if it was weird that the disciples were fishing at night, or if they should have waited until morning. I definitely don’t know what to say about the fact that Simon Peter was fishing naked!

I don’t know much about fishing, but I do know something about casting your net into the water and getting more than you bargained for.

I know about standing outside in the bitterly cold Illinois winter, waiting for my dog to do his business, praying to God about a nagging sense of being unsettled, in spite of being very happy in my call. “Show me the way, O Lord.”

I know about randomly saying one time or another, “Sure, I’d be interested in global service someday. When the kids are older. When the time is right.”

I know about stepping on a plane to Tel Aviv a few months later, shocked and excited about the unexpected adventure of living and working in Jerusalem.

And even though I had prayed, even though I said “yes” to this new job, even though I had cast my net, perhaps like many of you, I still wasn’t prepared for the 153 fish that were suddenly straining the capacity of my fishing net.

153 fish!

Fish called a new language – actually, two new languages to learn.
Fish called a new culture—actually two new cultures to learn.
Fish called work challenges and relationship worries.
Fish called a burning passion to make a difference, but finding bureaucracies, politics, and prejudices standing in the way.
Fish called oppression and suffering around this corner, and beaches and unparalleled beauty around the next.

One hundred fifty-three fish are too many to comprehend, far too many to carry.
The net is bursting! What do we do with it all?

This isn’t what we asked for!

Come on Jesus – I only asked for dinner. And you gave me 153 fish?

But then…there’s that sunrise over the Dome of the Rock. 
There’s the smell of freshly baked bread as I walk to the church.
There’s the Muslim shopkeeper who wishes me “Happy Feast”.
There’s the sound of the collective voices of this congregation, singing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!” at sunrise on the Mt. of Olives.

And suddenly, my net seems a little bit lighter.

Just when we think it’s all just too heavy, when we can’t take a step further, just when we’re this close to throwing it all back in the water, Jesus calls to us from the beach: “Come and have breakfast.”

Jesus is already on the shore, has already started a fire, has already made a place for us to sit and rest in his presence.

We don’t need to be fishermen and fisherwomen to understand the Good News of this morning’s Gospel, which is this: When we are weary and our nets are full, Jesus feeds us.

Just to be clear, we’re not going down the road of “God never gives you more than you can handle” this morning. Sometimes, our nets do break. Sometimes it all spills out. Sometimes we even have to get back in the boat and start over.

Nor is this sermon a step-by-step plan for getting your own 153 fish: “If you are following Jesus’ fishing instructions, your nets will be full! Cast your nets here, not there, and you, too, can be blessed—or rich, or happy, or free.”

Actually, if living in the Holy Land today has taught us anything, surely it has taught us that this kind of theology is just a bucket of smelly rotten fish.

So I won’t be telling any fish tales today.

But I do want to talk about that breakfast on the beach.

I want to talk about the ways Jesus feeds us, nourishes, us, and strengthens us when we’re dealing with nets bursting with change, with illness, with work, with worry, or even with opportunities which excite us and overwhelm us at the same time.

When was the last time you were unexpectedly fed and nourished in a time of need?
When was the last time you had breakfast with Jesus on the beach?

Years ago, when I was pregnant with our second son, things started to look sketchy. All signs pointed to a possible pregnancy loss. We were in graduate school – far from home, far from family, and far from being able to do anything about it. We also had a toddler to care for, classes to attend, and no money for anything extra. Our nets were bursting. We were weary.

And then our neighbor, Heba, showed up to our door. She was carrying a big pot of spinach soup, a recipe from her home country of Egypt. She said it would be good for my health. She said it would be good for my husband’s stomach. But even better – it was good for our spirits. Heba fed us with love and concern and care. She strengthened us for the burden we were carrying. Our net was still full, but we saw that we weren’t carrying it alone. Standing in our doorway with that pot of soup, she might as well have said, “Come and have breakfast.” Heba’s spinach soup was our breakfast on the beach with Jesus, thanks be to God.

Again and again the Risen Christ provides the love, the nourishment, and the strength we need. Like the disciples who didn’t recognize Jesus as first, we also may not recognize it as Jesus. Nourishment may come to us as a phone call from a friend; or a beautiful sunrise; or kindness from a stranger. It may sound like a verse of Scripture; or like music that speaks to our soul.

We may not recognize Jesus at first, but trust me – he’s the one cooking that breakfast.

And thanks be to God for that, because weariness can seem to be our constant companion in this place. I have hardly ever heard someone say about life in Jerusalem, or in Bethlehem, or in Hebron, “It’s okay, but it’s a little boring. I wish something would happen every once in a while.”

On the contrary, carrying full nets is the norm for most of us here – and in fact, the minute we say that out loud, we realize how easy our load is compared to what so many of our local neighbors, friends, and colleagues experience every day of the week.
Still, these nets are heavy. Truly, we cannot do it alone. Truly, we cannot do it on an empty stomach.

And so we come to breakfast.

We come to the Word of God—the psalms, the parables, the Gospel stories which feed us again and again with the grace, love, and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

We come to the table, where ordinary bread and wine becomes the place we encounter Jesus’ own body broken for us, and Jesus’ blood shed for us.

We come to music, to art, to nature, to the gifts from God which cannot make our burdens lighter, but whose beauty gives us the inner strength and peace to carry them.

And we come to Christian community—as imperfect as it is, as frustrating as it can be—for it is here that we come to recognize the presence of the Risen Christ among us. It is here, among this strange collection of people called the church, where we find breakfast has already been prepared for us. As our sister Dorothy Day once wrote:

“We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.”

Dear people, I don’t know much about fishing.

But I do know that the resurrected life, the life of faith in the Risen Christ, is not without struggle. Some days our nets will be empty. Some days they will be so full we won’t be able to lift them. But every day, the life of faith is about trusting that when we are weary, there is strength, there is nourishment, and there is hope with the Risen Christ. Every day, he calls to us from the shore, “Come. Come to breakfast. Take and eat. This is my Body, given for you.”
Amen, Thanks be to God!

Friday, April 8, 2016

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Easter: "Alive, not Undead"

Better late than never! I completely forgot to post this sermon from Sunday. Here you go! 

Sermon for Sunday, 3 April 2016

2nd Sunday of Easter

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

Last Saturday evening, when the sermon and other preparations for Easter Sunday were finally wrapped up, my husband and I grabbed a snack and sat down to watch a scary movie.

It was called “JeruZalem.”

With a Z.

It was set in – you guessed it – Jerusalem, and featured many shots of Damascus Gate and the Western Wall and the streets of this city we know and love.

Of course, the main characters also stayed in a “Jerusalem guest house” called “Fauzi Azar Inn”, which some of you may recognize as being located in Nazareth, not Jerusalem. And it was obvious to us that most of the movie was actually shot in that Old City, not this one.

It was really a terrible movie. 
Fauzi Azar Inn. It's in Nazareth -- I promise!
Photo by Robert Smith

And it wasn’t scary at all, in spite of the many creepy shots of Old City streets, ancient dark tunnels, and zombies!

“JeruZalem” the movie was full of zombies. Dead-eyed, hungry, merciless zombies. We couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that the one thing that brings the three religions and two peoples of Jerusalem together (at least in the movies) is a fear of the undead.
Admittedly, it was a strange thing to watch the night before the Feast of the Resurrection.

Or maybe it wasn’t.

Maybe it isn’t so strange, because actually those scenes of a Jerusalem populated by zombies are a perfect contrast to the Easter proclamation that came out of Jerusalem.
Fear of what lurks around the corner is very different from the fear the Marys felt when they could not find Jesus’ body.

Empty eyes of the undead are very different from the empty tomb.
For we do not proclaim Jesus revived, or Jesus resuscitated, or Jesus the “undead”.
We proclaim Jesus resurrected, Jesus alive, Jesus who through death has defeated death!

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

It is not an undead Jesus who comes to greet the disciples in a locked room on Easter evening – and again one week later.

It is Jesus of Nazareth.
It is Jesus, born of Mary.
It is Jesus, teacher and healer.
It is Jesus the crucified and risen.

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.”

My grandfather Bill Nelson, fixing a family lawnmower
Are there people in your life you could identify by their hands alone? I remember very well the hands of my Grandpa Bill Nelson, whose job as owner of a small-town hardware store included cutting glass for windows and fixing lawnmowers and chainsaws. I remember sitting at the table with him, watching him make a cheese sandwich, and counting how many of his fingers were still whole fingers. The answer was: not many. His hands told the story of his life’s work. 

In the same way, Jesus’ body told the story of his life’s work. I suppose Jesus could have shown the disciples his feet – pierced by nails, and dusty from walking the roads of Galilee with them. He could have shown them his back, whipped by the soldiers. He could have shown his shoulders, strong from carrying the burden of a sinful world.
But he chose to show them his hands and his side, pierced by nails and by the sword.
Jesus was risen from the dead, and the proof was his body—a body that sat at the table with sinners,

A body with hands that heal,
A body that hung alongside criminals,
A body that bore the stripes by which we are healed,
a body who was standing in the room with them,
Speaking with them.
Breathing upon them.
Being with them. Emmanuel, God-with-us, even after the cross.

I just can’t get past the earthiness and the intimacy of this post-resurrection encounter with Jesus. So often, the Christianity of today feels very “other-worldly.”

Many Christians focus on reaching the after-life, and ignore the reality and sufferings in this one.
Others enjoy drawing distinctions between our beliefs and the beliefs of others:
We are the religion of peace, and “they” are not.
We possess the facts and the truth, and “they” do not – whoever “they” are at this moment in the political cycle.

Viewed in this way, Christianity seems to be something that exists “out there”, or in the thought world. A head trip. A prescribed system to be swallowed whole and defended at all cost.

And yet: Jesus did not walk through that locked door and hand the disciples a gospel tract.
He did not bring them volumes of systematic theology.
He did not begin an academic debate, or start a culture war, or make anyone promise his or her vote.
He simply stood among them. He spoke a word of peace. He showed them his hands and side. He breathed on them.

Dear sisters and brothers, children of the resurrection, we do not proclaim that Jesus’ ideas were raised from the dead.

We proclaim that Jesus’ BODY was raised from the dead.
The Good News of the resurrection is Good News of the body,
And for the body,
Every body.

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

This is such a critical message for today, because like those disciples who were locked away in the room for fear of the people outside, often we also are locked up and afraid.

We are afraid of bodies.

Sadly, there is a long Christian history of being afraid of our own bodies – a wound to God’s good creation which sadly is not yet completely healed. 

But today, the fear that holds us tight, the fear causing so much hatred today, the fear which keeps us locked behind doors, the fear that keeps us from living the Good News of the resurrection, is the fear of other bodies.

This is Jerusalem after all, and while we are not afraid of zombie bodies, we are often afraid of bodies in riot gear and armed with machine guns.
We are afraid of bodies bearing knives.
We are afraid of bodies carrying bombs at airport security.  
We’re afraid of any body of a different religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, age, race, or size.

Maybe this is why we are so attracted to zombie movies. Zombies look like us, but are different. They were once like us, but now they have changed. Regardless, they are out for blood. They must not be trusted. They must not be touched. If you see one, run the other way as fast as you can. Kill them if you can!

This plot feels familiar. This plot even echoes the platforms of a few political candidates.

This plot allows us to fully embrace the fear inside us:
Lock the doors!
Be afraid: of what comes next.
Of what lurks around the corner.
Of the things we don’t know.
Be afraid of them.
Be afraid of death.

But my friends, this is Easter. This is Jerusalem (with an s, not a z). This is the city of resurrection, and Jesus has come to stand with us—in the flesh!
He is not dead – he is alive!
He is not undead – he is alive!
Jesus is the living God.
He is wholeness.
He is perfection.
He is love incarnate.
His bodily presence with us and among us, from the cradle to the cross,
On the road and at the table,
Outside the tomb,
And inside every one of our locked rooms,
Is a witness to the sacredness of all life, everywhere,
Of all bodies, everywhere.
He comes to bring us peace.
He comes to abolish fear.
He comes to fill us with the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of resurrection and life.

Because he is risen, body and all, we know that the resurrected life is not lived behind locked doors, or in our minds, or in theology books,
But is lived in our bodies, and with other bodies:

The resurrected life is:
Bodies running for freedom of movement on the streets of Bethlehem,
Bodies of mothers caring for babies,
Bodies of children going to school,
Bodies of friends caring for each other in times of need,
Bodies of enemies seeking peace and reconciliation,
Bodies of doubters, kneeling to pray anyway.

As the Father sent Jesus, so he now sends us – bodies and all – with all our imperfections, with all our failings, with all our doubts, to a world still clinging to zombie stories, to a world still hungry for the real Good News of the resurrection. He sends us out, that all may come to believe, and may have life in him.

As St. Teresa of Avila wrote:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

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