Monday, June 20, 2016

A Broom Tree Week: Sermon for Sunday 19 June 2016

Sermon for Sunday 19 June 2016

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

1 Kings 19: Elijah is renewed

A Broom Tree Week

NOTE: Preached in Jerusalem on the last day of Sunday School, and just before many in the community are leaving for the summer--including the preacher! 
It was also the week after the hate crime against the LGBT community in Orlando, and one year after the racist hate crime in Charleston. 
It also is Ramadan in Jerusalem. And our neighbors are being denied access to prayer. To top it off, the Israeli government is openly using the fact that the Orlando shooter was a Muslim to increase hatred here. 

That's a lot of context! All this to say: I hoped to acknowledge the broom tree many of us find ourselves sitting under this week -- and to seek God's Good News in the midst of it. I might still be looking. Thankfully, I trust God will come through for me, too. 

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

It was not a good day. My kids were about one and three years old, and we were living in a dark basement apartment in Nebraska during my spouse’s grad school internship. One of the kids – maybe both – had been sick. For days, I had watched the piles of dirty laundry and dishes grow, mysteriously towering higher no matter how hard I tried to keep up. The kids wouldn’t stop crying, none of us were sleeping, and even the cats seemed needier than usual.

Somewhere between the 50th and 150th time I had cleaned up after a sick child that day, the phone rang. It was a bill collector. I had forgotten to pay one of the bills – the phone, the water, a credit card – I can’t remember which.

Of course, it didn’t really matter which bill it was, because there was no money to pay it, anyway. I slammed down the phone, walked straight to the bathroom, shut the door, and just sat down and cried. And I mean a loud, ugly cry, an existential cry, a cry that meant– “That’s it! I can’t take this one more minute!” There in the bathroom, all by myself, I threw a grown-up tantrum that rivaled the professional ones my toddler sons threw on a daily basis.  I was so over it – I was just done with sick toddlers, done with housekeeping, done with graduate school, done with never having enough money, done even with the state of Nebraska as a whole. Whose idea was it to come to Nebraska, anyway?

I sat there on the cold tiles, my back resting on the bathroom door, feeling I simply had nothing left to give, to anyone. Like Elijah sitting under his solitary broom tree, I prayed that the Lord would just take me home—or would at least take my toddlers to someone else’s house for the day.

I sat in this state of despair for quite a while, and then I heard a quiet “knock, knock” on the door behind my head. Then again, a little louder—knock, knock. “Um, Mommy? Are you in there?”

Reluctantly, I pulled myself up and opened the door, to see both of my little boys looking up at me with concern. “Mommy, don’t cry, it’s ok,” they said. And then they wrapped their little bodies around my legs in huge hugs.

Truly, these were messengers of the Lord. Truly, this was my manna from heaven. This love, and these hugs, were the nourishment I needed. “Get up and eat” my kids were saying to me. As the angel of the Lord said to an exhausted Elijah under the broom tree: “Get up and eat, or the journey will be too much for you.”

It was not a good day for Elijah, either. When Elijah sat down under that solitary broom tree and prepared to die, he had good reason to be exhausted. Elijah didn’t have toddlers at home, but in the 18th chapter of 1 Kings, Elijah took on 450 prophets of the god Baal to prove the one true God was greater than their false one. He was outnumbered 450 to 1, but Elijah alone courageously defended the honor of Yahweh. He was a prophet, and a bold one at that.

But now Jezebel was after his head. And he was tired! The struggle was too great, and the journey too long. He felt completely alone. He couldn’t go even one step further. So Elijah found himself a tree, sat down under it, and gave up.

The story of Elijah’s despair speaks to us today because most of us have been under that broom tree at some point in life. At one time or another, we’ve felt unable to take even one more step, or felt that the entire world is against us, or that we simply have nothing left to give.

This week in particular we have good reason to be exhausted, and not just because it’s the end of the school year and the beginning of a long, hot summer. Last Sunday, after a lively and spiritual worship service and then a productive church council meeting, a few of us were standing in my church office when the first news of a mass shooting in the US started to break. Over the next few hours, details began to emerge, and the numbers kept going up: Nine, twenty, no fifty dead. The victims were gay, and brown, and black. The shooter was Muslim. Allegiance to ISIS may have been a motive.

Each time a new detail was revealed, I could feel my heart grow heavier in my chest. Is this really the world we live in? Must we be tossed from one mass shooting to another, one terror attack to another, one violent expression of hatred to the next? How long, O Lord? Some clergy friends in the States commented that they were able to put together prayer services and candlelight vigils for Orlando in just a few hours. Why? Because they already had liturgies and prayers and songs prepared from other recent tragedies in San Bernardino, Charleston, Paris, and Brussels…sadly, even our lament has become routine.

In a time when extremists of every religion -- and of no religion -- are trying to kidnap both the church and the world, it can feel like we are only a tiny voice in the wilderness, just whispering God’s love, grace, and mercy above the deafening shouts of hatred, violence, and exclusion. We know that Holy Scripture proclaims that all are made in the image of God, every single person fearfully and wonderfully made. We know the Gospel of Jesus Christ denounces every force which defies God’s radical love, including the forces of racism, sexism, extremism, terrorism, and homophobia. We know our Lutheran heritage teaches us to stand firm in opposition to every power and principality which tries to separate us or our neighbors from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.

We do it imperfectly--and often the church fails miserably--but this is the message the church is sent to carry to every corner of the world.

Some days, frankly, this mission wears us out. Some days it feels there’s always someone after our head. Some days we’re checking the map for directions to Elijah’s broom tree.

Sunday was one of those days, especially for our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and friends, who are LGBT, and who are brown or black. This week was a broom tree week.

But I was reminded this week that Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, once wrote:

“People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”

Sister Dorothy helps us to remember that Elijah didn’t stay under that broom tree for very long, and neither will we. The God who came through for Elijah when he faced off 450 prophets of the so-called god Baal was not going to let his prophetic ministry end in a nap under a broom tree.

God came through for Elijah! An angel came to Elijah as he lay under that broom tree, touching him on the shoulder to say, “Get up and eat!” When Elijah looked around, he saw there were cakes baked on hot stone and a pitcher of water sitting near him. So he ate...but then he went right back to sleep. 

But God would not let Elijah go. The angel came to Elijah again, saying “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” So Elijah got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

God came through for Elijah, and God will come through for us.
Elijah’s story did not end under that broom tree, and neither does ours.

Our story does not end in yet another mass shooting.
Our story does not end in a spray of bullets aimed at gay and lesbian sisters and brothers.
Our story does not end with black church members being killed by a white supremacist.
Our story does not end in a bombing, or in a stabbing, or in systemic racial and economic injustice.
Our story does not end at a checkpoint, or in apartheid.

The story of God’s beloved creation, the story of us, does not end and will not end this way. Love always wins. Death never has the final word. This is our Christian hope and our witness: That the Way of Jesus may lead to the cross, but it does not end with a stone blocking the entrance to the tomb.

Thanks be to God, the love of God rolled that stone away, and Christ is risen! Amen!

Thanks be to God, Jesus healed the Gerasene man who was tormented by demons, and he was sent out to share the Good News!

Thanks be to God, an angel fed Elijah under that broom tree, giving him the strength continue his journey and his prophetic ministry!

And thanks be to God, the love of God gets us up from under our broom trees, too.

When we are exhausted, when we are weary, when we feel we can’t take another step toward healing, toward wholeness, toward justice, toward peace—the love of God gets us up and sends us on our way. Again and again, our loving God wakes us up and feeds us in unexpected ways.

We are fed by the love and support of family – whether it is the family of birth, or the family of choice we have created here in Jerusalem.

We are fed by the Word of God, through which we have come to know God’s promises and Christ’s radical love and mercy.

We are fed by the presence of Christ in the bread and the wine, the food of heaven, a foretaste of the feast to come.

And we are fed by the witness of the saints – men and women of faith who have walked this path before us, who boldly stood for justice, love, and peace even at great risk: 
This week we remember especially the Charleston Nine, church members who sat and studied the Bible with a stranger for over an hour, sharing the love of God with him. And even though that visitor chose to end their meeting in a violent act of hatred—the Charleston Nine’s witness of love and hospitality, in the name of Christ, lives on today. Their story did not end there. Love always wins.

Again and again, the love of God comes to us in our despair. Again and again, we are offered the bread of teaching, the wine of wisdom, the water of new life. Again and again, we get up to eat and drink – and why? Why get up at all?

Artwork created during worship by a child of Redeemer Lutheran
For the sake of Christ, and for those who have not heard the Good News.
For the sake of peace. For the sake of justice. 
For the sake of our children.

By the grace of God, we get up from under our broom trees for the sake of the ones who will inherit this earth – the little ones, the meek ones, God’s newest beloved creations – precious ones who deserve to live in a world free of racism, free of sexism, free of homophobia, free of human rights violations, free of religious persecution, free of military occupation. Free of walls, of any kind.

Today, as we gather just before many of us leave for the summer, returning to our other homes and other communities, we give thanks for this one. We are thankful for the ways that God feeds us through this beloved community we call Redeemer Lutheran  – day by day, in times of despair, and in times of joy. And we give thanks for the love of Christ we have come to know through our littlest angels – the children of Redeemer, for whose sake we continue the struggle for a better world. Amen.

Monday, June 13, 2016

"A Woman Worth Seeing" Sermon for Sunday 12 June 2016

Sermon for Sunday 12 June 2016
4th Sunday after Pentecost

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

"(I am) A Woman Worth Seeing"

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

In spite of the novelty it seems to be for many folks I meet on the streets of Jerusalem, most of the time it is completely irrelevant that I am a preacher who happens to be a woman. Most Sundays, it doesn’t matter at all—except for the moment when I step up on my special footstool, because this pulpit was definitely built for a man’s height!
Most of the time, it truly doesn’t matter that I’m a woman in the pulpit, because the call of preacher is not to proclaim “What is God’s Good News for women?” but rather “What is God’s Good News for humans?”

This time, however, it is different. This morning it feels like it does matter that I’m a woman in this pulpit, because this week’s Gospel lesson is about a woman—specifically a woman judged to be unacceptable and unworthy to be seen.

This morning it matters that I’m a woman in this pulpit, because this week’s news was also filled with stories of women deemed unacceptable and unworthy to be seen:

In Iraq, nineteen Yazidi women were burned alive in iron cages for refusing to sleep with ISIS fighters.

In Latvia, the Lutheran Church voted to ban women’s ordination, and to revoke the preaching privileges of woman pastors who had been ordained outside the country.

Here in Jerusalem, a rabbi issued a decree that girls over the age of five are no longer allowed to ride bicycles.

And just in case we want to think these are things that happen in other places, in other neighborhoods, or in cultures much different from ours, this week a judge in California gave a young college athlete a short six-month prison sentence for committing a violent sexual assault against a woman. In his statement, the judge worried that a longer sentence would have had a “severe impact” on the young man.

These and other events of the past week did not just leave my mind or my heart when I stepped into the pulpit this morning. As I stand here, it is impossible for me to forget that in 2016 there are those who do not want to see me in a pulpit, or on a bicycle, or driving a car, or saying “no” to unwanted marriage or unwanted physical contact.

Is this morning’s Gospel lesson about women’s ordination? Is it about rape culture?  Does it say anything about girls riding bicycles?

No, it doesn’t. It’s simply the story of a woman—a woman judged not worth seeing. 

But it’s also the story of Jesus, and his ministry to “Open the eyes of the blind.” For as it is written earlier in the Gospel according to Luke:

"Christ and the sinful woman"
By Elena Cherkasova
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)

“Do you see this woman?” Jesus asked Simon the Pharisee.

 It’s a silly question, because of course Simon saw the woman at Jesus’ feet. He wasn’t blind! The whole room saw her! She showed up, uninvited, and started crying. Then she used her hair to clean up the tears, and after that she anointed Jesus’ feet from a jar of alabaster that was far too nice for her to own. This whole drama caused such a scene that Simon, the host of the dinner party, said to himself (or perhaps said under his breath to any who could hear): “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

So Simon clearly saw her with his own eyes. But still, Jesus asked, “Do you see this woman?”

The question really is: What did Simon see?

He saw that this was supposed to be a “men only” event.
He saw that she didn’t look “professional” with her hair down.
He saw that she didn’t have the qualifications to be hanging with the Pharisees.
He saw that she was out of place, out of bounds, out of order.
He saw that she was a sinner.

Simon didn’t really see the woman in front of him at all, because he could only see her sins. To him, she as a sinner and nothing more. Centuries of Bible translators seem to have taken Simon’s word for it, for this Gospel story is almost always titled, “A sinful woman anoints Jesus” or “Jesus forgives a sinful woman” – emphasis on the “sin.”

But what did Jesus see?

Palestinian woman with water jar
Jericho 1967
Jesus saw that this uninvited woman brought the most precious thing she had—an alabaster box—and broke it open at his feet.
Jesus saw that she was a sinner—as we all are—but that she desired forgiveness.
Jesus saw her faith.
Jesus saw her great love for him.

I think if Jesus were providing a title for this Gospel narrative, he would call it: “The woman who showed great love.”

And maybe it would be subtitled: “Simon the Pharisee gets it all wrong.”

Simon the Pharisee gets it all wrong, because he thinks what makes him worthy to be seen with Jesus is his wealth and his hospitality. He thinks he’s worthy to be seen with Jesus because he follows the rules, because he sticks to protocol, because he’s a respected member of society, because he has surely not sinned as much as this woman.

He’s a Pharisee after all. And a man!

Simon didn’t realize he was blind, until through a parable Jesus opened his eyes to the truth: “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Simon saw a sinner. Jesus saw great love.

And what do we see? Do we see this woman? 
Do we really see any of the people around us -- Or do we see what we want to see?

This week, a man came into my office near the end of the day, just as I was about to leave. He wanted to talk to a priest, so the receptionist sent him back to my office. This is a pretty common occurrence, but this turned out to be an unusual visitor. He was dressed in yellow terrycloth bath towels, which he had fashioned into a skirt, and he carried a heavy backpack. He announced right away that he was a candidate for Messiah.

He told me of his great qualifications (he was a good debater apparently, and once said something very profound when he was about 13 years old). Also, he has been unable to hold a job for about 6 years, which means he has plenty of time for his duties as Messiah. He said he had come to Jerusalem to bring peace to the Middle East, and felt that he of all people possessed the right set of skills to do it.

Then he asked me to please call the president—or at least my bishop—and inform them that Jesus had returned and was in my office.

I listened to “Jesus” for a bit, and attempted to divert him by sharing some Scripture, especially where it says we will know “neither the day nor the hour” of Jesus’ coming. But my visitor just said, “Well, I know the day – because the day is now.”

We went around like this for a while, and at one point I wondered if he might have something dangerous in that heavy backpack. Finally, he left in frustration, and I admit I was relieved to have this latest incarnation of “Jerusalem Syndrome” out of my office.

About half an hour later, walking through Damascus Gate to my home, I saw him again. But this time, I really saw him. Instead of seeing a textbook psychiatric case study, or an interruption in my day, or a funny story to tell later over drinks, I saw someone’s son, halfway around the world from home, wrapped in yellow bath towels. I saw someone’s brother, confused in the intense heat of the day, trying to find rest in some shade, but sitting just inches from the loaded machine guns of six Israeli soldiers.

Instead of seeing someone with an unacceptable delusion, someone unworthy of my time, I saw this man as Jesus sees him: a beloved child of God. I saw a man of faith, even if it is a faith I don’t understand.

I saw a sinner like me, just trying to find someone who would appreciate his alabaster jar of ointment—the gift he desperately wanted to offer.

I stopped to talk with him, but this time, he didn’t see me. His mind had drifted elsewhere.

When Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” he challenges not only Simon the Pharisee, but also modern readers of the Gospel. Who do we see? Who would we rather not see? Who does society refuse to see?

The week’s news makes me wonder: Do we see women? More importantly, do we see them as more than objects of desire, but also as worthy of respect, worthy of protection, worthy of holding important positions of power?

Do we see refugees? Do we see them as people – fathers, mothers, sisters, aunts, uncles – or do we see “waves”, “hordes”, and a “crisis”?

In our context, we must ask ourselves:

Do we see the Israeli fathers, mothers, and children who are mourning their four loved ones killedin Tel Aviv this week – or do we see only “settlers” or “Zionists?”

Do we see Muslim men and women of faith unable to pray at Al Aqsa during the holy month of Ramadan because Israel revoked their permits? Or do we see 83,000 “terrorists”, likely to commit a violent attack at any moment?

All too often, we see what we want to see. We see people as valuable only insofar as they meet our needs and purposes. We see them as acceptable and worthy only if they fit into our cultural expectations, our gender paradigms, our political platforms, or our narratives.

But again and again, Jesus opens the eyes of the blind. Again and again, our Lord Jesus restores and protects the humanity, the dignity, and the worth of each and every person. He sits at the table with sinners. He heals lepers. He preaches to Gentiles. He blesses children. He casts out demons from the possessed. He includes women in his ministry—as it says at the end of our Gospel lesson today, he went from town to town with Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many other women. Jesus’ ministry was always inclusive, never exclusive.

Even from the cross, Jesus insists on the humanity of his executioners, saying, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

And when the woman with the alabaster jar was at his feet, and no one else could or would see her at all;
when even she could not see herself apart from her sins,
Jesus turned to her and said, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.”

Thanks be to God, by the cross and the resurrection, by Water and the Word, and by his presence in the bread and the wine, Jesus opens our eyes. Jesus opens our eyes to see every human being as made in God’s image, as saved by grace, as acceptable in his sight, as worthy to be seen.

He recovers our sight, so that we may even see ourselves as he sees us – as beloved children, saved by grace through faith, apart from anything we do or fail to do.

Thanks be to God, we were blind, but now we see!