Sunday, October 30, 2016

Reformation Sunday 2016

Sermon for Sunday, 30 October 2016
Reformation Sunday

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

Tomorrow is the 499th anniversary of the day a priest named Martin Luther posted 95 theological complaints on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. This means that tomorrow begins the 500th year of what we now call theReformation—not a single day, or a single event, but an ongoing movement within the Body of Christ, a movement that has given birth to many theological reforms, to the translation of the Bible into the languages of the people, and to the formation of countless new Christian church bodies. A few of these new church bodies bear the name of that rebellious German priest, calling themselves “Lutherans.”

You may not have noticed, but for some folks—this is kind of a big deal.

It’s such a big deal that in 1999, at the close of the millennium, an American news source listed the three most influential people of the last thousand years as Johannes Gutenberg (for inventing the printing press), Isaac Newton (for discovering gravity) and Martin Luther, for using Gutenberg’s printing press to disseminate his radical, church-reforming ideas. (Of course, Luther also used Newton’s ideas about gravity, especially when he decided to use a hammer and nails to make sure his 95 complaints didn’t fall off the church door!)

This 500th Reformation anniversary is such a big deal that our Bishop Munib Younan is in Sweden with Pope Francis right now, preparing to offer a common prayer and a shared blessing—the first time in history that a Pope has commemorated the Reformation.

This Reformation anniversary is such a big deal that Lutheran churches across the globe are spending the year with the writings of Luther, biographies of Luther, movies about Luther, and even purchasing special edition plastic PlayMobil figurines of Luther.

In this same anniversary spirit, I was describing big ideas I had for gathering our Redeemer community together this year for a special study of Luther’s Small Catechism, when a friend interrupted my monologue to say, “Honestly, Carrie, why should I care? I mean, really? Why is this something I should spend my time doing or thinking about?”

Ouch! Ironically, my friend didn’t know it, but in a way, he was echoing the Small Catechism, in which Luther follows each theological point with the question, “But what does this mean? Was bedeutet dass?”

What does this Reformation anniversary mean?
Why should we care?
Why should anyone care?

Perhaps we Lutherans need to step away from the church door for a moment.
Perhaps we need to get our heads out of the 16th century for a moment.

After all, why should we celebrate an historic division in the church, when we can walk around the corner to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and see how the real-life drama of a divided Body of Christ plays out today in Jerusalem?
Why should we commemorate the 500th anniversary of a European intellectual movement, when we’re living in a place and among a people commemorating 50years of military occupation?

Why should we care about “Luther 2017” at all, if (as a Catholic theologian recently said to reporter about the Common Prayer in Lund) the Reformation was all just a “huge misunderstanding?”

A few days ago, I posed these very questions to another friend. I complained to her how I was struggling to come up with what to say in this sermon, struggling with why the Reformation matters in this time, and in this place. And she said to me:
 “Well, I don’t know why others should care, but the Reformation matters to me because of that famous motto: ‘Ecclesia semper reformanda est. The church always reforming.’ I take comfort in that, because I’ve not always been happy with the church’s positions (or church people), but I knew that things were still reforming. There is always still hope for the future.”

Can we just take a moment to give thanks for friends? Praise the Lord! Thanks be to God for the Holy Spirit who puts wise people in our lives! Amen!

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, I decided I can’t tell you why you should care about the Reformation this morning, or why you should care tomorrow at our fussy and pompous ecumenical Reformation service, or for that matter why you should care for the rest of this 500th anniversary year.

But I can tell you why I care. I can tell you why it matters to me that the Church of Jesus Christ is both reformed and reforming.

I can tell you that the Reformation emphasis on Scripture matters to me. When I was 13 years old my pastor told me to memorize Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 for Confirmation class—which I tried to do. Sadly, I did not win the class prize for successfully memorizing the entire Sermon on the Mount, but still today I have these words (along with many others) written on my heart: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:23-25) I can thank Martin Luther that I first read those words in my own language, and that I was encouraged by my pastor to interpret them for myself and for my own life. Today, in the context of Israel and Palestine, it is this Word that guides my feet to walk the way of peace, justice, and love, even for enemies and persecutors.

Reformation theology matters to me, because of the way Luther emphasized the grace of God. As it is written in Romans: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Romans 3:22-24). And again: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Romans 3:28) This emphasis on salvation by grace apart from works matters to me because it has saved lives—lives of people like my friend Ray, who had been weighed down for decades with worry that God would never forgive him for things he did as a soldier during war. It matters because he needed to hear that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. It matters because at age 80, Ray heard that the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ makes him free.

The ongoing Reformation of theology and church policy matters to me, because a few years ago I was honored to preside over the marriage of two women who had been both faithful church members and partners for 38 years. I was able, with the full blessing of my denomination, to assure them that God saw their four decades of faithfulness to one another as good and holy.

Indeed, the ongoing Reformation of the church matters to me because forty years ago, not only could these church members not have been married, but I, as a woman, could not have been ordained, and could not have been the one to marry anyone!

Dear friends, I can tell you that the richness and diversity of the Reformation movement matters to me because it means that even if we disagree about what I just said from this pulpit, today, we can all be together in this room—Lutheran, Presbyterian, non-denominational, evangelical, Dutch Reformed, Anglican, Mennonite, and Catholic—because we are one body. We are one body, free to worship and pray together, because we are saved not by our uniformity, not by our ecclesiology, not by theology, not by our social statements, and certainly not by Martin Luther.
Because of the bold witness of the Reformers, we know we are saved by Word alone, Grace alone, and Faith alone—always and only set free by the cross of Christ and his resurrection.

And if the Son sets us free, we are free indeed! Amen!

This is the truth that mattered so much to Martin Luther he would not allow the failings and fallibility of a human-run organization like the church to stand in its way.
This is the truth that motivates Bishop Younan and Pope Francis to stand up to many critics—both Lutheran and Catholic—in order to boldly move our churches towards the unity and reconciliation for which our Lord Jesus prayed.

This truth, the Good News of freedom in Christ—and the many ways Luther’s reforms have helped that Good News reach more people—is why this Reformation anniversary matters to me. It’s why I hope it matters to you!

It’s why I hope you will join us tomorrow at 4:30 pm, in the main sanctuary here at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer Jerusalem, where we will be praying in solidarity with Bishop Munib and Pope Francis—and the first woman Lutheran Archbishop of Sweden, Antje Jackelen. We will pray for refugees. For the hungry. For nations at war. For the protection of creation. For the liberation of the oppressed. And for the future of the church!  

We will pray for the ongoing re-formation of the Body of Christ—so that the world may know that they are loved, that they are forgiven, and that they are free indeed.

May the peace of Christ which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Monday, October 10, 2016

"The word of God is not chained": Sermon for 9 October 2016

Sermon for Sunday 9 October 2016

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

Long, long ago, before email and Facebook messenger and Google chats, my dad sent a handwritten letter to my summer music camp.

At 16 years old, I was living in the mountains of Colorado all summer long, studying piano and oboe performance with other high school musicians from around the country. It was a long way up the mountain, and a long way from home, and it was no summer vacation—we practiced our instruments for four hours a day, along with orchestra rehearsals, recitals, music theory classes, and of course regular camp duties. I had been one of the last to arrive at camp, which meant I received one of the least desirable work assignments – cooking breakfast. All summer long, I was up at 5:30 am making pancakes for hundreds of other campers.

This was basically boot camp for young musicians considering a career in music. Think you want to be a performer? Survive this summer. After only a few weeks, I was already starting to doubt my decision. The work hours were crazy. My teachers had high expectations. The competition with other students was often downright mean. Already I wasn’t sure I had what it took to be a musician—for the rest of the summer, or for the rest of my life.

And then the mail truck arrived on the mountain, carrying my dad’s letter. It was written on a greeting card with a silly Far Side cartoon on the front. Today I can’t remember what the cartoon was about, but I definitely remember the letter. My dad wrote how proud he was of me. He reminded me of what a good musician I was. The letter encouraged me to seize this opportunity, to really commit to practicing and learning from my teachers. He told me he loved me, and to have fun. Most of all, my dad reminded me I was there to make music.

It was just a few short sentences on a silly greeting card, but it was just what I needed. I needed a reminder of who I was, and why I was there in the first place. I was there, I was working hard, and I was sometimes struggling, for the love of music—and I stayed because of the love of my dad.

I thought about that letter from my dad this week as I studied the letter the Apostle Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy. The portion we heard this morning, from 2 Timothy chapter 2, begins like this:

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.”

In the same way that my dad reminded me of who I was, what I loved (and who loved me!) Paul writes Timothy from his prison cell, saying:

Remember who you are! Remember who loves you! Remember Jesus who was resurrected in Jerusalem, and born in Bethlehem! Remember the Good News.

Now the situation at that time was very difficult for the new Christian communities: Followers of Jesus were being persecuted. False teachers within churches were leading people away from the true Gospel. Preachers, like Paul, were imprisoned.  In fact, this was shortly before Paul himself was martyred. So it stands to reason that a disciple like Timothy might need some encouragement to stay on the path, to fight the good fight of faith, to be bold in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.

For this reason, Paul writes a letter to Timothy. The letter begins with these encouraging words we heard in last week’s assigned reading:

“To Timothy, my beloved child: I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline…my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

And then, as we heard this morning, Paul’s letter continues:

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David…”

But he doesn’t stop there! Paul says:

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.”

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, hear those words again: The word of God is not chained! Amen!

I hear these seven short words of a letter from the Apostle Paul as if they had been written on a greeting card, sent across the country, and carried up a mountain in a mail truck just for us this Sunday morning.

The word of God is not chained!

These seven words, written from a prison cell and sent to an unsure disciple, are a love letter to all who wonder if love really wins.

These seven words come to us as a much-needed letter of encouragement this Sunday morning, because there are some weeks when the brokenness of the world can really bring a disciple down.

Almost every day this week brought shocking news out of Syria…or out of the United States.

This week a long and hard-fought peace deal fell apart in Colombia…by the vote of the people…just days before their president won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to negotiate it.

This week, Israel once again announced the building of a new settlement, deep in the West Bank, in direct violation of previous agreements with the international community…and my country is still sending 38 billion dollars.

All around us, it seems the Gospel principles of love, peace, justice, and dignity for all creation are being imprisoned by walls of fear.

All around us, we see the preachers, advocates, and workers for this same Gospel being persecuted, reviled, and mocked…while the voices of division, racism, sexism, and even fascism seem tolerated and accepted.

So who could blame us for feeling a bit like Timothy?

Who could blame a disciple for feeling, at times, that maybe we just aren’t up to the task of preaching peace, of advocating for justice, of promoting human rights, or of speaking truth to power?

Who could blame us for hesitating before following the Apostle Paul to prison—or following Jesus to the cross—for the sake of a Gospel the world seems determined to fight against?

But hear again the words of Paul to our brother Timothy:

The word of God is not chained!

It’s true, the powers and principalities of the world may oppress and imprison the preachers of love and liberation…

The powers and principalities of the world may conspire to bind the Gospel of love, to keep it from being preached and lived…

But such attempts will always fail, because the word of God is not chained!

The word of God is not chained because Christ is both crucified and risen, liberated from the tomb!
The word of God is not chained because we have been given an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who teaches us and reminds us of all Jesus has said!
The word of God is not chained because it is alive within all who have been washed in the waters of baptism!

Therefore, the word of God is a bird flying freely over the separation wall.

The word of God is freely moving from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Ramallah, without checkpoints, without passports, without I.D.

The word of God is amplifying the voices of all those who speak for justice.

The word of God is lifting up the poor from the dust and freeing the oppressed.

The word of God is speaking to the lonely, to the grieving, to the suffering, saying “I am with you always, to the end of the age”.

Dear disciples, because Christ is both crucified and risen, because we are baptized, because we are filled with the Holy Spirit--the word of God is on the loose in the world in the world today. The word of God is alive and free in our hearts, in our hands, and in our feet – therefore no one can contain it! No one can destroy it! No one can chain it! Amen!

This morning, at the beginning of new day and the beginning of a new week, we give thanks for this wild, liberated, unchained word which comes to us when we need it the most.

We give thanks for the love letter we know as Holy Scripture, which has traveled across centuries and cultures and languages to encourage us today.

We give thanks for the word of God which reminds us of who we are—beloved children of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.

We give thanks for the word of God which sustains us when we suffer persecution for the sake of Jesus and his Gospel.

Like the one leper who turned back to give thanks to Jesus for being healed, this morning we pour out our thanks at the feet of the one whose death, resurrection, and ascension have brought us here.

I pray that after we have given thanks, after we have sung our songs, after we have shared the bread and the wine in this place, that each one of us will answer the call to go out as living letters of encouragement for others. For it is for their sake Christ was crucified. It was for their sake Paul was imprisoned. And it is for their sake that we continue to preach, to teach, to advocate—and sometimes to suffer—for the one Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen!

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

"Deeply troubling..."

Not a sermon. But a lament, and a call to action.

Deeply troubling, indeed.

Approval of New West Bank Settlement

Press Statement

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Department Spokesperson
Washington, DC
October 5, 2016

We strongly condemn the Israeli government's recent decision to advance a plan that would create a significant new settlement deep in the West Bank.
Proceeding with this new settlement, which could include up to 300 units, would further damage the prospects for a two state solution. The retroactive authorization of nearby illegal outposts, or redrawing of local settlement boundaries, does not change the fact that this approval contradicts previous public statements by the Government of Israel that it had no intention of creating new settlements. And this settlement's location deep in the West Bank, far closer to Jordan than Israel, would link a string of outposts that effectively divide the West Bank and make the possibility of a viable Palestinian state more remote.
It is deeply troubling, in the wake of Israel and the U.S. concluding an unprecedented agreement on military assistance designed to further strengthen Israel's security, that Israel would take a decision so contrary to its long term security interest in a peaceful resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians. Furthermore, it is disheartening that while Israel and the world mourned the passing of President Shimon Peres, and leaders from the U.S. and other nations prepared to honor one of the great champions of peace, plans were advanced that would seriously undermine the prospects for the two state solution that he so passionately supported.
Israelis must ultimately decide between expanding settlements and preserving the possibility of a peaceful two state solution. Since the recent Quartet report called on both sides to take affirmative steps to reverse current trends and advance the two state solution on the ground, we have unfortunately seen just the opposite. Proceeding with this new settlement is another step towards cementing a one-state reality of perpetual occupation that is fundamentally inconsistent with Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state. Such moves will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from many of its partners, and further call into question Israel's commitment to achieving a negotiated peace.