Monday, May 30, 2016

"Not that there is another gospel..." A Sermon for 2nd Sunday after Pentecost: 29 May 2016

"Not that there is another gospel..."

Sermon for Sunday 29 May 2016
2nd Sunday after Pentecost


The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


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

As a missionary living thousands of kilometers away from family and friends, I’m a great fan of social media and the many modern technologies which keep me in touch with those I love across great distances. Still, it is unnerving the way these technologies interact with one another, and with us. Shop for tickets to a show today, and tomorrow when you’re reading a news story, there will be an ad for that same show after the second paragraph. If I buy a book today, tomorrow the website will tell me “You might be interested in this!” The internet gods seem to know what I will want to eat next, buy next, and read next. And much of the time, they’re right.

But sometimes the great internet gods get it wrong. Sometimes, they think they know me, but it turns out their algorithms are off. This week, as I was doing some sermon prep, this flashy ad appeared on my screen: “Click here for EIGHT PRAYERS THAT WORK!”

Eight prayers that work! I suppose that’s as opposed to the ones I’ve been praying already? Or the one prayer that Jesus taught us to pray? And why only eight? If these prayers really work, I want more! I found myself wondering if these prayers were like three magic wishes from a fairy tale, and whether you could use one of your eight prayers to pray for one million MORE prayers that work…

But I didn’t click on the ad link to find out. When the Apostle Paul wrote in Galatians about the temptation of false gospels, he certainly never imagined the ever-present danger of social media ads, but his words still ring true in today’s context. He writes to the church in Galatia:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.”

From Paul’s time to today, there have been those who pervert the gospel of Jesus Christ, twisting its radical message of grace and love to fit their own agenda, confusing us along the way. For the church in Galatia, the controversy was over who had a place at the Lord’s Table. Some were saying—and others were believing—that all needed to follow Jewish law before they could receive the Good News.

Today the issues are different, but we can easily point to some confusing messages about Jesus that are popular in today’s world:

The so-called Prosperity “gospel”, for example, promises health and wealth and abundant blessings, if only you will fill the preacher’s pocket with money first. Sadly, this message finds many followers in the poorest countries, where people can least afford its consequences.

There are those whose interpretation of the “Good News” seems to suggest that Jesus is a nationalist, or a racist, or a sexist, or is mostly concerned with which bathroom a person is allowed to access.

And in our city, we see other perversions of the Good News which have nothing to do with Jesus’ love or the cross and empty tomb, but have everything to do with a strange end-times fantasy. For these frequent visitors to the Holy Land, the real people of Jerusalem—Muslim, Jew, and Christian—serve only as characters in an end-times drama we are told is surely unfolding this year…or maybe the next. And never mind about the suffering of our Palestinian neighbors—they don’t even appear in this version of the script.

The Apostle Paul tells us: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!”

This may seem a little heavy-handed for something like that ad for the “Eight Prayers that Work!” But what is clear is that followers of Jesus, grateful recipients of the grace of God through the cross of Christ, have a responsibility to call false gospels what they are. We are called to rebuke perversions of Jesus’ message—not so that we can sit in judgement or force our beliefs on others—but because Jesus also calls us to love our neighbors.

For what is the greatest commandment? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” And the second one is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31) If we are to love our neighbors, then we must be concerned that so many suffer today because they’ve given money to preachers believing they will receive a car or a house in return. Too many have left the church because someone told them it was their lack of faith that kept their child’s cancer from being healed. Too many wars have been started, and racist attitudes provoked and promoted, because of twisted ideas about biblical real-estate deals, and fantasies about Jerusalem’s role in the eventual return of Jesus.

These and other false gospels we must name and rebuke, for the love and protection of all our neighbors – Christian, Muslim, and Jew. All deserve to hear, from our lips, that the cross of Christ is not a weapon, or a magic trick, or a flag representing any nation, but is the visible sign of God’s radical love for the whole world. All should hear this Good News, but perhaps especially our neighbors of different faiths need to hear it, since they are the ones who have most suffered because of perversions of Jesus’ message.

But then, sometimes the most dangerous perversions of the Gospel come not from a preacher, or a biblical interpretation, or from outside us at all. Sometimes, the most unhelpful ideas about the way God works come from ourselves.

When I was a student preacher, one of the suggestions for improving our preaching was to have the congregation fill out sermon feedback forms. This usually worked fine, except for one very faithful elder in the congregation. She had been a member of the church for many decades, and had certainly heard more sermons than she could count. Still, every single week, her sermon feedback form said something like this:

“Carrie, I really like how you said that if we are good people, and pray the right prayers, and do things for our neighbor, then Jesus will love us and save us.”

I promise I have never once preached a sermon with this message! And I’m fairly certain that this life-long Lutheran church member had not heard other preachers promoting what Lutheran tradition calls “works righteousness”, either. And yet, this was the gospel she held in her heart. This was the news she had heard about Jesus—news that can hardly be called “good.” Somehow, no matter how many times she heard otherwise, this lovely Christian woman believed she must walk the straight and narrow, or the power of the cross wouldn’t work for her. Like the synagogue elders in today’s Gospel lesson, who believed the centurion’s good deeds made him worthy of Jesus’ attention, she did not yet know that her faith alone made her worthy.

I was sad to think that this kind-hearted woman had spent eighty years living in fear of making a mistake that could take Jesus’ love away from her. This, too, is a perversion of the gospel, as false and as dangerous as any message coming from a slick televangelist.

The truth is, each one of us likely harbors secret beliefs about the way God works, beliefs which have nothing to do with the Good News of the cross and the empty tomb.

Even if we’ve heard the Good News many times,
even if we’ve read the Bible cover to cover,
even if we’re theology students, or preachers, or we work in a church-related NGO, or we go to church every week,
 Even if we live in the Holy City of Jerusalem,
we may have secret, false, so-called “gospels” taking up space in our hearts and minds, tormenting our souls, or simply distracting us from the abundant life Jesus desires for us.

Therefore, I proclaim to you the Good News today, as the Apostle Paul began his letter to the Galatians:

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

Hear it again: Grace and peace are yours from Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free

In Christ, we are free! We are free from the prison of prejudice, racism, sexism, and homophobia, for we have all been made in God’s image.

In Christ, we are free from the idea that blessedness is a full bank account or a new car, for we possess the riches of heaven.

In Christ, we are free to pound our swords into plowshares, for he has already won the battle for us.

In Christ, we are free to join in the struggle for peace, justice, and reconciliation, for he has already broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.

In Christ, we are free to rebuke false gospels which want to confuse us – whether they come from the pulpit, or from the media, or whether fear hides them deep within us, making us question if such Good News, such amazing grace, such mighty power over sin and death could really be for us.

Thanks be to God, the grace and peace and love and liberation of the cross and the empty tomb are for all! God’s love alone makes you worthy of this gift! 

This is the one true Gospel that has been proclaimed to us, from the disciples of Jesus, to the early church, to Redeemer Church in Jerusalem today. 

For this Gospel, we praise Jesus. For this Gospel, we sing. For the sake of this Gospel, we continue to work for peace, justice, and reconciliation in this country, with hope and courage, in spite of the odds that seem stacked against us.


For the sake of this Gospel, we go out to love and serve our neighbor, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday: 22 May 2016

Sermon for Sunday 22 May 2016
The Holy Trinity

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Psalm 8

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

son-father-mother
on the way to church
NOT the Trinity!
Not heresy!
Just one place I noticed the presence of God
this Sunday in Jerusalem.
Anniversary:

1:  the annual recurrence of a date marking a notable event; broadly:  a date that follows such an event by a specified period of time measured in units other than years, such as “the 6-month anniversary of the accident”
Or
2:  the celebration of an anniversary.

From the Middle English anniversarie, from Medieval Latin anniversarium, from Latin, neuter of anniversarius meaning “returning annually”, from annus (year) + versus, past participle of vertere, “to turn”. First known use in the 13th century.

Friday was my wedding anniversary – or as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary would put it, the “annual recurrence of the date marking the notable event that is my marriage to my spouse”. I wonder how I would have felt if Robert had come home on Friday evening with a card featuring a definition of “anniversary”. Something like:

“Dear Carrie, since today is an annually recurring date of personal and historical importance to us, I bought you this card. Did you know that the institution of marriage originated out of concern for inheritance of land? And that the celebration of wedding anniversaries goes back to the Holy Roman Empire?  Anyway, happy anniversary. Love, Robert.”

This didn’t happen, of course. Instead we had a lovely anniversary dinner at a restaurant, and we talked about the last 21 years, as well as the next 21 to come, and celebrated the mystery that is love and marriage and making a life together.

We know very well that definitions, doctrines, and explanations are hardly appropriate for the celebration of anniversaries, birthdays, or graduations. So why is it that when we’re presented with “Feast of the Holy Trinity” on the church calendar, our first instinct is to define, describe, and explain God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Why do we assume this is the way to say “I love you” to Jesus? 

We would never show up to a friend’s birthday party and expect to be greeted by a lecture on why we eat cake for birthdays. We would never go to a wedding and ask the couple to explain their love for one another. We don’t go to a graduation ceremony and ask to see IQ scores and grades for every graduate. We wouldn’t do this, because we recognize that such events are occasions for celebration, not explanation.

In the same way, the Feast of the Holy Trinity need not be a day to analyze God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It need not be a day to assert proper Trinitarian doctrine or root out heresy (or false belief) in the church. In fact, as soon as we attempt to do that, we commit heresy anyway.

For example:

The Holy Trinity is like a three-leaf clover, one leaf but at the same time also three leaves? Heresy.

The Holy Trinity is like water, found in the three different forms of liquid, ice, and vapor? Heresy.  

The Holy Trinity is like the sun in the sky, in which the star itself sends out heat and light to the world? Heresy.

The Holy Trinity is like a BLT sandwich, part bacon, part lettuce, part tomato, but still one sandwich? (This one was offered by a friend, and while it is definitely heresy, it also sounds delicious!)

The mystery of the Trinity is best described as just that – a mystery. Ancient ecumenical councils were held to try and solve this issue. Theologians have twisted themselves in pretzels trying to make the math of “3 in 1, but 1 in 3” make sense. But Martin Luther rightly said that there is no human reason which can make sense of this mystery – which is why we call it a mystery. It is best understood through faith, which itself is a gift from God. 
The Redeemer Church Sunday morning welcome crew.
1 Lutheran and 2 Muslims.
Nope, this isn't the Trinity, either!
but it is another way I noticed the presence of God this Sunday.

Dear friends in Christ, instead of “church-splaining” the Trinity this morning—and risking heresy at the same time—I’d like to turn our attention back to the psalm of the day. Please open your bulletins and read aloud with me the words of Psalm 8:

“O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

AMEN! Now that is a love letter! These are words which honor the Divine Mystery who is our God, one-in-three and three-in-one! This is the way to praise the One whose creation is more beautiful than we can ever describe, whose forgiveness through the cross of Jesus Christ is more perfect than deserve, and whose work through the Spirit is so boundless. This is how we celebrate God’s unity and diversity: Not with doctrine or creeds or dissertations, but with an outpouring of love, and awe, and wonder.

For when we see the heavens, and the moon and the stars;
when hear again how God silenced enemies through the birth of a baby;
when we stand near the cross and the empty tomb;
when we experience this community of faith gathered together through the power of the Holy Spirit from all the ends of the earth —what else can be said, except for these very words of the psalmist: “Who are we, Lord?”

Flowers of Jerusalem.
NOT a Trinity analogy!
But also a sign of God's presence.
Who are we, in the presence of the One who made all of this?
Who are we, to think we can understand the Mystery of one-in-three and three-in-one?
Who are we, that the Triune God would pay us any attention at all?
Who are we, even to sing your praises?
We stand in awe of your greatness!
O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Amen! 

Yes—today is a day for celebration, not explanation of the Holy Trinity! And yet, so is next Sunday. And the next. And the next. And in fact every other day of every other week in the year! Every day in which we wake up to the sun is a day to praise the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who makes it all possible.

But of course, some days we also have to go to work. And shop for groceries. And fix the car. Some days we find ourselves standing near a great and ugly separation barrier or walking through a military checkpoint. Some days our friend’s home has been demolished (again) and planes crash into the ocean with no explanation. Some days we are sitting next to a friend’s hospital bed, or we find ourselves alone for yet another Friday evening. 

On these days, the awesome mystery of the Trinity is likely not the first thing in our minds, or on our lips.

In fact, we may find ourselves asking: Where is God at that checkpoint? What if I don’t feel Jesus at all in this hospital? Is there something wrong with me when the only spirit I know is a spirit of disillusionment, or depression, or despair? 

On such days, the question is not so much “Who are we, God, that you are mindful of us?” but rather “Who are you, God, that my mind can’t seem to make sense of you?”

Recently I heard a radio story about a new training program for police detectives in the United States. It’s an unconventional kind of police education, as it takes place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is taught by an art history teacher.

This art history specialist takes policemen and women through the art galleries and asks them questions like “Did you notice the rainbow in the background of that portrait of George Washington?”  (The answer, most of the time, is “No.”) and “If you were in the scene in this painting, what would it smell like?” (The answer: horse manure). The idea of this art training is to make these women and men better detectives. She teaches them to be more mindful and attentive to things they normally would miss, in order to better solve crimes. She teaches them to notice.

As I listened to this story, I thought about how often we walk through life without noticing the beauty and the presence of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all around us: The flowers on your walk to work. The tree near your apartment. The cats in the street. Can you picture them? Can you smell them? What do these familiar places sound like?

And what of the people God has placed in our path? How often are we mindful of the people in our lives—not just family and close friends, but those who make us coffee and pick up our trash? The ones who are holding guns at the checkpoints and the ones searching our bags?

Are these not also children of God, made in God’s own image?

Is not your healing from addiction the healing hand of Christ in your life? 

Have you not seen the Spirit bring down walls, reconcile warring peoples, and bring peace where it once seemed impossible?

Have you not seen? Have you not heard?
Or have you just not noticed?

The answer, all too often, is no….we have not noticed. We have not been mindful of the presence of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in our day, in our lives, in our world.

And so we need special days, don’t we? We need anniversaries and birthdays. We need graduation ceremonies, and farewell parties. Just as we need days set aside to remember to give thanks and celebrate the people and the milestones in our lives, so we also need Holy Trinity Sunday—a day to be mindful, intentional, and loving.

A day to stop, to give thanks, to sing, to pray, to celebrate.

A day to stand in awe of the God who is present with at all times, in all places, in at least three ways.

This is a day to notice.

This is a day to say to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit: “We love you.”

Let us pray:

Holy God,
you have revealed yourself to us in a trinity of ways: as our powerful Creator, our dying Savior, and our comforting Spirit.
But we also know you as a loving parent, a risen Lord, and a dynamic breath of fresh air.
We're never really sure of how you are able to be all these things to us, but you are. And we praise you.
Holy God, lead us down your Holy Way that we may grow in becoming who you have created and redeemed us to be.
As we hear what may seem to our limited minds to be an impossible call, teach us the grace to place our limitations within the wonder of your unlimited hands.
In Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.

~ this prayer was posted on the Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren website.http://rockhay.tripod.com/worship/orders/2011/11-02-20.htm


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Day of Pentecost: Sermon for 15 May 2016

Sermon for Sunday 15 May 2016
Day of Pentecost

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.

 Let us begin with a prayer inspired by Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic of the 14th C.:
St. John Chapel at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Pentecost 2016
          
O God of every breath,
our beginning and our end,


O God of burning passion
and most tender compassion,
unbind our sin and our tongues this day,
that we may joyfully praise your name.
            
 For our substance is in you.
Heal our broken hearts and restore us,
make us one with you,
with each other
and with your entire creation.
            
 For you have assured us:
"I may make all things well.
I can make all things well.
I shall make all things well.
I will make all things well.
You will see for yourself
that every kind of thing
will be well."      Amen.
                

As I was preparing our little worship space here in St. John Chapel for Pentecost – hanging our beautiful red banner, and changing to red paraments, and looking for enough music stands for our wonderful musicians -- I found myself thinking about another Pentecost Sunday, in a chapel a few thousand kilometers away from Jerusalem.

It was a Wednesday evening in the tiny town in Illinois where I was first pastor. There were about seven of us lingering after our regular mid-week worship service to hang about one hundred red, orange, and yellow paper tongues of fire from the church ceiling. 

We had just heard the story of Pentecost from the book of Acts, and had sung a few Pentecost-y hymns to get in the Spirit of the week, among them, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” We welcomed a new church member that evening; we shared communion; and the Spirit got us moving and even clapping during the last hymn. It was a very good, Spirit-filled, Wednesday evening.
            
Capron Lutheran Church
Capron, Illinois
Pentecost 2011
But after the worship service, as we stood on chairs, ladders, and the backs of the pews trying to hang those dozens of paper tongues of fire from fishing line strung from one end of the chapel to the other, our conversation went something like this:
  
“Does this even look like fire?”
              
“Are the flames too close together?”
               
 “Steve, can you string that fishing line up a little higher?”
          
“We have to make sure Bill doesn’t turn the ceiling fan on this Sunday!”
             
“Ron, please don’t fall off the back of that pew!”

And of course:


“Whose idea was this, anyway?” (that one was directed at me!)
                
In fact, we were so caught up in the details of creating a beautiful, artistic, high-quality, life-like experience of Pentecost that we almost missed the real work of the Holy Spirit right in our midst.
            
And then, she blew into the room. Actually, her name was Marian, and she was a traveler seeking refuge from a storm.
             
You see, unbeknownst to us, at the same time as we were reading the biblical account of the mighty wind blowing in Acts chapter 2, another mighty wind was gathering momentum just outside. And as we were hanging those tongues of fire and generally blowing hot air inside the church, this stranger—Marian—was blown into our midst by the 105 kilometer per hour wind of the storm brewing in the early summer skies.
               
After a few frantic cell phone calls from family, wondering why we were still at the church when a tornado was brewing, we finally decided it might not be the best time to focus on liturgical decorations. We all escaped to our respective homes to check on farm animals and loved ones, leaving a few pitiful paper flames and some empty fishing line as the only remnants of our Pentecost plans.

I invited our wayfaring stranger, Marian, to follow me to the parsonage, where she waited in safety until the wind died down a bit.

We shared some tea and watched the weather reports until things seemed safe. And it was just as she was about to leave my house, an hour or so later, that Marian said, “Thank you so much for taking me in. As I drove past, I saw there were lights on in the church, and the Spirit led me to stop here."

“And by the way,” she said, “I’m a born-again Christian, and I’ve been baptized in the Holy Spirit.”
               
Could it have been just a few hours earlier that we were reading the account in Acts chapter 2 of the Holy Spirit’s unexpected entrance? Weren’t we just fussing about the proper placement of red, yellow, and orange paper to achieve the perfect “tongues of fire” look? And now, here she was—an unexpected guest, sitting in my living room, testifying to the real and awesome power of the Holy Spirit in her life.
               
Lutherans and other mainline Christians often struggle with what to think about the Holy Spirit. For many of us, the Spirit is kept under wraps until this one Sunday a year, when we break out our red shoes and sometimes even dare to clap during the hymn of the day! But other Christians—and definitely other Lutherans who aren’t as burdened by northern European sensibilities—don’t find it as difficult to embrace the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God!
                 
The Holy Spirit challenges us because, like an unexpected guest on a stormy night, she blows in and disrupts our best laid plans. The Spirit comes to us when we least expect her—though we have to laugh when it happens while we’re literally up to our elbows in tongues of fire! Though we may pray every week, “Come, Holy Spirit”, the truth is we’re generally unprepared for what it will mean when she—the Holy Spirit—actually arrives among us.
           
When the Spirit comes, our plans go out the window!
         
When the Spirit comes, we are stopped in our tracks and often must leave things hanging!
         
When the Spirit comes, we find ourselves doing and saying things we never thought possible!
                  
Have you ever just had to speak up for someone, or to speak out against an injustice?

Have you ever felt absolutely compelled to do something for a neighbor?

Have you ever known exactly what to do or say at just the right time? 

Maybe you had a moment of clarity in the midst of a crisis, or felt peace after making a difficult decision.

Perhaps you just knew that the church with the lights still on during a storm was a safe place to stop—or maybe you dropped everything to provide hospitality to a stranger seeking refuge from a storm.
                
If you have, then you know that the Holy Spirit moves us, inspires us, guides us, and empowers us in ways we can’t always explain!
             
Now someone once suggested to me that the Spirit is, in fact, just church-talk for “Stuff We Can’t Explain.” He suggested that these examples I just gave aren’t the work of the Spirit at all, but are just explainable, accidental, perhaps even overly-emotional moments in our lives.
                   
And maybe this is a fair question: How do we know if something is the work of the Spirit? After all, not all of us have the gift of speaking in tongues. Not all of us are preachers, teachers, or healers. Scripture tells us “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” (1 Corinthians) But how do we know if what we’re experiencing is the Spirit of God or just one of our crazy ideas?
              
1 Corinthians 12 gives us a clue in verse 7, where it says: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” 

For the common good. This tells us that the works of the Holy Spirit—the 3rd person of the Trinity, the breath of God, our Advocate—will by nature be for the good of others. The works of the Spirit will be reflective of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which was for the sake of our entire broken world.
                 
So you can test the promptings of the Spirit by asking yourself: “Is this about me, or about others?” The gifts of the Spirit which we celebrate today are not ultimately gifts for you, but are gifts for the world. The Holy Spirit summons out not only your best qualities, but God’s best qualities.

And this means that when the Holy Spirit blows in and makes herself known, she moves you to care for others. She guides you on right pathways and shows you the things that make for peace. She empowers you to forgive the sins of others. She gives you a voice—perhaps even a new language—so that you can be a voice for the voiceless, a broker of justice, an advocate for peace, and an agent of reconciliation, here in Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, or wherever the Spirit takes you next.

On this Pentecost Day, we give thanks for the way the Holy Spirit lives and moves in this congregation, and in the global church—not for our sake, but for the good of the world! Amen, Come Holy Spirit!



Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Sermon Sunday 8 May 2016: 7th Sunday of Easter

Sermon for Sunday 8 May 2016
7th 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.

The other day, I was happy to run into two young women I’ve come to know here in Jerusalem. Both of them are from Protestant backgrounds (Lutheran and non-denominational) and both of them happen to be on spiritual journeys toward confirmation in the Roman Catholic tradition.

It had been awhile since I had seen them, so it was good to catch up. I noticed that their chosen reading material on that sunny afternoon was a thick book called “Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

“A little light reading, eh?’ I teased.
And one of the women responded, “Carrie, convince me to stay Lutheran.”

I suppose she expected me to do my best sales pitch for grace and sola scriptura. I suppose I should have been prepared with my elevator speech, summing up essential Lutheran theology such as the priesthood of all believers, or recounting the historic scandal of how the church sold indulgences to save souls (and to build a church in Rome).

But I didn’t offer any of those things.

"That they may all be one" --
with my German and Palestinian Lutheran colleagues
Ascension Day 2016
Instead, I told her a bit of my own story: how I was baptized Lutheran, but confirmed in a Congregationalist church; how I then had an internship with a Presbyterian ministry during college, only to be confirmed as a Roman Catholic a few years later.

I told her how I found my way back to the Lutheran tradition chiefly because I was feeling called to preach—and that I am married to a Lutheran pastor who happens to be a former Pentecostal Christian.

“You’re not helping,” said my Lutheran-but-almost-Catholic friend.

I suppose this makes me the worst Lutheran missionary ever. In fact, it might be a little risky to tell this story this morning, given the fact that my supervisor from the national office of our denomination is sitting in the pew in front of me! But the thing is, I’ve read the Gospels. I’ve heard the Good News. And therefore I know that we do not belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. We belong to Jesus, crucified and risen. We belong to Jesus—the same Jesus who is proclaimed in this church, and in the famous one around the corner, and in the Cowboy Church I once visited in Oklahoma.

No matter what the sign on the door of the church says, we belong to Jesus, who earnestly prayed,

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”

“That they may all be one.” Unity is Jesus’ heart’s desire for the whole church—past, present, and future. It’s a beautiful prayer, but one that stings a bit when we consider the reality of the Jesus movement today. In fact, almost nowhere are the divisions within the church of Jesus Christ more visible than right here in Jerusalem! We can’t even get it together in the church built around Jesus’ tomb, a fact which gives the tour guides something to talk about, but should really give us something to pray about.

Celebrating with our Arab Orthodox friends on Holy Fire Saturday in Jerusalem

“That they may all be one.” Two thousand years after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, our faith communities have developed many different ways of praying, singing, and talking about God. Some of these differences are theological, some are cultural, and some are simply accidents of history. Some have sadly become justification for hatred, discrimination, and even violence. It was only a few years ago, in fact, that the Lutheran Church publicly apologized for terrible injustices perpetrated against Anabaptists in the 16th Century—violence that grew out of differing understandings and practices of baptism.

It is a sobering reminder of our human brokenness to realize that even the sacrament which forms believers into the one Body of Christ—baptism—became justification for harming members of the very same Body.

I remember preparing to do my very first baptism as an ordained pastor. I was pretty sure I knew how it was supposed to work (after all, I did pay attention most days in seminary!) but I was sure to ask a knowledgeable church member for the details before the big day.

Children of Redeemer Church,
"playing baptism" after worship
“So tell me about how you do baptisms here.” I asked.
“Oh, we just do it regular.” was the reply.
“Well, walk me through it anyway” I insisted.

“Well, we invite the family to come up front.” Got it.
“Then we have some prayers.” Check.
“Then we pour the water in the bowl and baptize the baby.” So far, so good.
“And then we present them with the calendar.”

Wait…
What calendar? This doesn’t appear in the Lutheran book of liturgy! They didn’t teach us about a "holy calendar" in seminary! I was so glad I asked.

The presentation of a baptism calendar is not likely to become a practice that divides the church or ignites a new Reformation movement. On the other hand, this is a great example of how differences in culture, tradition, and context can become sacred to us. 

Soon, we may start to think of ourselves as the First United Apostolic Church of the Holy Baptism Calendar (Reformed).

That is, until someone starts the Second United Apostolic Church of the Holy Baptism Calendar.

And still, Jesus prays on our behalf: “That they may all be one.”

As we prepare for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, the global church has much to ponder. Do we celebrate this anniversary in a spirit of triumph, or a spirit of repentance? Should we be singing songs of Lutheran pride and identity, or joining in Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one”? And what does that unity look like?

On October 31, 2016—Reformation Day and the beginning of the 500th anniversary year—Bishop Munib Younan of the ELCJHL will be joining Pope Francis, the first female Archbishop of Sweden, Antje Jackelen, and others, in Lund, Sweden, for a special joint prayer service. Bishop Younan and Pope Francis will be offering the final blessing together, side by side.

Just describing this event sounds like the beginning of a joke: a Palestinian Lutheran, a Swedish lady priest, and the Argentinian Pope walk into a bar...

And yet, it’s no joke. This event is historic, even before it has happened. Some critics from both the Lutheran and the Catholic traditions are already putting up road blocks. But Bishop Younan just chuckled and said to me, “Five hundred years ago, a German divided the church. Who would have thought a Palestinian and an Argentinian would go this far to unite it!” 

The Pope praying together with Lutherans on Reformation Day will indeed be historic. And yet, this historic event is not just a photo op or a good press release. We do not seek Christian unity in order to consolidate the office staff, or reduce overhead costs, or to improve our public image.   

Our Orthodox neighbors visited the Lutheran church
to wish us a Happy Easter (while they were still observing Lent)

We pray for unity, we seek reconciliation, and we boldly risk criticism only for the sake of those who have not yet heard the Good News. Our efforts to practice oneness in Christ—imperfect though they may be—are always for the sake of those who do not yet know they are loved by God. For Jesus prayed:

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

So that the world may know that Jesus loves them. This is why we celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Jerusalem and around the world. This is why we have joint Arabic-English-German services at Redeemer, like the one we had on Ascension Day this week. This is why Munib and Francis, brothers in Christ, divided by language, culture, theology, history, and institutional power, will stand side by side to bless the next 500 years of the one Church of Jesus Christ.

And this is why I couldn’t—or wouldn’t—convince a friend to “stay Lutheran.”

Because Jesus does not belong to us—we belong to Jesus.
By the cross, he loved us as one.
When he was raised from the tomb, he gave us one hope.
Through water and the Word, he made us One Body.

And when, by the Holy Spirit, Jesus sends us out, he doesn’t ask us to carry the Good News of our traditions, or the Good News of our theologies, or the Good News of our hymnals, or the Good News of our institutional or ecclesiastical structures. 
Jesus asks us to carry the Good News of the one cross of our Lord Jesus, that the world may know they are loved.

Some friends celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary on Friday. Their names are Hunter and Ruth. On Facebook, Hunter wrote about their marriage: 

“I don't think that there is any longer a Hunter without a Ruth. And maybe that is the definition of what it means to be one.”


I think this is the kind of unity Jesus had in mind for the church when he prayed, “That they may all be one”. May we always remember that there are no Lutherans without Catholics, there are no Evangelicals without the Orthodox, and there is no church without the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. 
Together, may we all be one voice proclaiming the love of this same Jesus Christ, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Amen!