Monday, November 21, 2016

"#notmyking": Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Sermon for Sunday 20 November 2016
Christ the King Sunday

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.

I’d like to start this sermon with an important question:

Signs of Christmas in Jerusalem

Is it too soon to spend Sunday afternoon watching Christmas movies?
What about Christmas music? Too soon?
And what about the Christmas tree—approximately when is too early to assemble and decorate it, without seeming ridiculous?
I’m asking for a friend…

The truth is, this year I’m more than ready for a little Christmas.
I’m ready for some light shining in this darkness.
I’m ready for the hopeful expectation of good things about to be born, instead of the gloom and doom about the apocalypse to come.
I’m ready for Mary and Joseph, and the star, and the little town of Bethlehem.
I’m ready for sweet baby Jesus, so full of potential, so full of hope, so full of love for this broken world! 

But of course, it’s not Christmas yet.
It’s not even Advent yet.

In today’s Scripture readings, we aren’t in Bethlehem, we’re in Jerusalem. Jesus is not in the manger, but is at Calvary. Advent begins in just a few days, and Christmas will be here and gone before we know it…but before we kneel with the wise men at the manger, today we are invited to spend some time kneeling at the foot of the cross.

If this juxtaposition of death and impending birth seems strange, consider that most Orthodox icons of the incarnation show the infant Jesus wrapped in what could be either “swaddling clothes” or a death shroud. Jesus and the Virgin Mary are often pictured sitting in a cave which could be interpreted either his birthplace or his resting place. This is a subtle but powerful reminder that our faith is not just a Christmas faith. We may prefer the baby Jesus, meek and mild, but we can never forget that this same baby’s life of preaching, teaching, and healing leads him to the cross and to the tomb.

This is the reason that on the last Sunday of the church year, Christ the King Sunday, we hear an account of the crucifixion. As we wrap up another year and look toward the next, we are invited to contemplate the nature of the one we call Lord and Savior. Who is this Jesus, whose birthday is our favorite holiday? Who is this Jesus, whose life has inspired us for two thousand years? Who is this Jesus we call King, and exactly what kind of “king” can be found on a cross?

I recently heard a radio report about a company that will take the entirety of your online presence—everything you have ever Instagrammed, Tweeted, or posted on Facebook—and will compile it into a social media “autobiography” when you die. Because, of course, if you didn’t share it on social media, it didn’t happen! A reporter paid for this special service and asked to have her so-called “autobiography” prepared, in video form, which she then watched in a room full of other people. Her review of the experience was, in a word, “disturbing.” Having your entire life distilled into the sum of your photos, tweets, and shares, is enough to give one pause. And what about your very last social media contribution? Do you really want to be remembered for that last angry tweet? Or for that last cat photo you just couldn’t help sharing? (All cat photos are worth sharing, by the way.)

What can anyone really know about you from your last words, online or in real life?

In this morning’s Gospel text, from the 23rd chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, we don’t hear Jesus’ very last words. But what we do hear in this account of the crucifixion are some of Jesus’ last words to a human being. We hear how Jesus was nailed to a cross, and hanging next to him were condemned criminals: One on his right, and one on his left.

As it is written:

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And Jesus replied: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

Imagine the joy these words must have given the dying man next to Jesus.
Imagine the comfort these words must have given him in his time of agony.
Imagine the love, and the divine strength Jesus must have possessed, to utter such words of hope and healing to another dying man, even as he also was suffering greatly.
So, what can we know of Jesus from these last words? What kind of king is he?

We know everything:

We know Jesus is the king of healing and wholeness, able to soothe the soul of a dying man with a few words.

We know Jesus is the king of aggravating authorities, denying them even the satisfaction of putting an end to a prisoner, as he offered that same prisoner life and liberation with him in Paradise.

We know Jesus is the king of mercy, as he did not use his last breaths to utter curses upon those who had tortured him, but instead uttered words of grace and forgiveness to a confessed criminal.

We know Jesus is the king of love—not for himself, but for others—for he chose not to save himself, but in great love emptied himself of divine power in order to save our broken world.

Needless to say, it is difficult for the world to comprehend a king like this. For what has the world taught us about kings? Kings are born of royal lineage. Kings live in fortresses. Kings travel with a security detail. Kings live a world apart, untouched by the cares of regular people, much less criminals.

Kings do not get crucified.

So it is really quite something to profess:
My king was born of an unwed mother.
My king’s first bed was in a stable.
My king is condemned by religious authorities.
My king is publicly mocked.
My king is a death row prisoner.
My king is killed by the empire.
My king rules by love and not by might.

It’s a scandal to say such things, especially in this time when world leaders can ascend to seats of power through domination, through exclusion, and even through mocking and ridiculing all who are different.

In the wake of the recent US election, some protestors have adopted the slogan “#notmypresident”. I have mixed feelings about the use of this phrase, especially since my country endured eight years of folks saying nearly the same about our last president, merely for the color of his skin. But it occurs to me that when we proclaim Christ as King over our lives, we are necessarily proclaiming others as #notmyking. When we proclaim Christ as king, we are making a political statement:

If Christ is love, then hatred is #notmyking
If Christ is mercy, then violence is #notmyking
If Christ is truth, then lies are #notmyking
If Christ is of one being with the Father, Creator of all my fellow humans, then racism is #notmyking, sexism is #notmyking, homophobia is #notmyking, anti-Semitism is #notmyking, Islamophobia is #notmyking.

If Christ is my King—the same Christ who spoke words of mercy, healing, and welcome to a confessed criminal in his dying moments—then any and all powers and principalities who stand against the Gospel values of love, mercy, forgiveness, equality, diversity, living together, non-violence, and reconciliation—these are #notmyking, #notmyjesus, #notmyguidinglight, #notmyhope, and #notgoingtochangethewayItreatmyneighbor!

It’s interesting to note that Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King in 1925 in response to the rise of fascism in Europe. In that precarious time—not all too different from our own—he called upon Christians to remember what kind of God they serve, and how the reign of Christ is fundamentally different from the fascist values spreading across the world. In his encyclical of 11 December 1925, in which he established the observance of Christ the King Sunday, Pope Pius quoted Cyril of Alexandria, saying: 

“Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature."

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” said the dying man.
“Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Dear sisters and brothers, as we begin our Advent journey together next week, making our way with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, let us remember these words of grace and mercy, and the one who spoke them. This is the king whose birth we await. This is the king we follow and serve. This is the king of our lives, and of the world—a king who can be neither elected nor impeached, neither inaugurated nor deposed. A king whose love surpasses all understanding. A king who welcomes all who repent and believe into his kingdom—even confessed criminals. Even our neighbors with whom we disagree! Even us.

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

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Advent Candle-lighting Litanies, Year A


From Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
English-speaking congregation

Written by Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith 

Dear friends,
These litanies were written with our context in mind (an international congregation in Jerusalem.) If your church is one of our partners, or if your church is sponsoring my mission work, I hope you will consider using them during Advent this year! Thank you for praying with us and for us. Thank you for continuing to pray and advocate for peace, justice, and reconciliation in the land where Jesus was born. -- Pr. Carrie

LITANY FOR ADVENT 1 (based on Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14)

On this first Sunday of Advent, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem:

May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.

We pray for the strength to become answers to our own prayers:

We shall beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall we learn war any more.

We have seen the wall. We have seen the suffering of our neighbors. We have seen the devastating effects of occupation and war. We are awake! And with seekers of justice all over the world, we pray for the courage to “stay woke”:

For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.

Holy God,
In Jerusalem and across the globe, the powers of fear, violence, prejudice and war strive to keep us lost in the night. But into the night shines the light of the Morning Star—your Son, Jesus. We light this first candle in hope, confident that his birth is also the dawn of your kingdom of peace, justice, and reconciliation. Let the light of this candle, and the light of your love, O God, guide our feet into the ways of peace. Amen.

LITANY FOR ADVENT 2 (based on Matthew 3:1-12)

On this second Sunday of Advent, we hear the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, proclaiming: Prepare the way of the Lord!

Friends in Christ, the wall is about to fall
We will prepare the way

Peace and justice are more than a dream
We will prepare the way

Division and oppression will give way to love and liberation
We will prepare the way

The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, those who are enemies will be reconciled, and those who fear one another will become family.
We will repent, and we will prepare the way. Come, Lord Jesus!

Let us pray: Holy God,
Throughout the ages, you have sent prophets to stir us up, to encourage us to repent, and to prepare the way for your kingdom. We light this second candle for all the prophets, peacemakers, and seekers of justice who have gone before us. Give us the courage to prepare the way, and then to boldly follow the path your Son sets before us. Amen.

LITANY FOR ADVENT 3  (based on James 5:7-10)

On this third Sunday of Advent, our brother James tells us: “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” (James 5:7)
But we’ve already waited so long!

The farmer is patient, waiting for the crops. So you also must be patient.
We have planted seeds of peace. But when will we see the fruits of our labors?

 Be strong of heart, the Lord is near.
But the wall is high, the teargas is thick, and we are weary!

Just hold on—he’s almost here! Be at peace with one another!
How long, O Lord? Are we there yet?

Today we light three candles: for hope, for peace, and for “sumud”—trusting your Word that the long wait for freedom, for peace, and for justice will soon be over. The Christ Child will soon be born among us! We are hopeful. We are joyful. We are ready!

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen!

(NOTE: “sumud”  صمود  is an Arabic word that means “steadfast perseverance.” Palestinians often point to the olive tree as an example of this kind of steadfastness, flourishing in spite of harsh conditions.)


LITANY FOR ADVENT 4: (based on Matthew 1:18-25)

We light the fourth candle and remember that it happened this way:

An angel came to Joseph and said
Do not be afraid!

A baby will soon be born
And we are not afraid!

This baby will do great things
And we are not afraid!

He will save the world from sin
And we are not afraid!

 He will teach us to love one another
And we are not afraid!

He will heal the sick and feed the hungry
And we are not afraid!

He will speak truth to power
And we are not afraid!

 He will bring down walls of fear and systems of oppression
And we are not afraid!

He will love the world to the end
And we are not afraid!

 An angel came to say “Jesus is coming, do not be afraid!” And all the people said:

We are not afraid! Come, Lord Jesus! Come to set your people free!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"What will your testimony be?" Sermon for Sunday, 13 November 2016

Sermon for Sunday 13 November 2016
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

“What will your testimony be?”


The candle we lit on election day in Jerusalem,
praying for a peaceful and free election in the USA.
Fifty years ago, Munib was seventeen years old. Fifty years ago, his family spent six days hiding in St. John’s Convent in Jerusalem’s Old City, crouched on a dirt floor with twenty other families while airplanes, helicopters, and shelling sounded overhead. Fifty years ago, his mother and the other community women answered the door as a group when the soldiers came, and successfully convinced them not to detain the boys who were over age fifteen.

Fifty years ago, after six days, when the war was over, Munib stepped out of that hiding place into a new country—and was handed a new ID card, which stated he was now a “resident alien” in the city where he was born.

Fifty years ago, when the occupation of Palestine began, our Bishop Munib Younan was a young man, in his last year of high school. It should have felt like the beginning of his life! But to him, it felt like the end.

Bishop Younan told me this story this week, on a day when I was focused on my own end-times scenario. I admit, I was totally preoccupied with the deeply disappointing election news from my home country, wondering what it means for my family, my country, and the world. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of the acceptance of racism, sexism, homophobia, and fear of immigrants among my people. It’s not that the other candidate reflected my values fully, either! It’s just that in one day, in a few short hours, the veil was lifted, and I could see my culture for what it really is. The walls of my wishful thinking were thrown down. Not one stone was left upon another. I stepped out into the world on the morning of 9 November and it felt like the end—or at least, the beginning of the end.

All of this meant I really needed these words from my bishop. I needed to hear his story of surviving the end of the world as he knew it. I needed to hear how a person of faith moves forward when everything falls apart—when the things we once treasured and thought were permanent have toppled, not one stone left upon another.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has a few things to say about just such an occurrence. Standing in the shadow of the Temple, in the center of Jerusalem, at the center of life for the people of the city, Jesus said to the disciples: “Things will fall apart. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and natural disasters, and everything will seem like a sign from heaven.

But wait—there’s more! Before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will imprison you, and you will be challenged for your beliefs.”

And still, Jesus says, do not be misled.
In spite of everything, do not follow false prophets.
Although things seem desperate, do not panic.
You will be called in front of religious authorities and elected officials, but don’t spend your time now worrying what you will say.
No matter what it looks like, dear ones, this is not the end.
But this will be your opportunity to testify.

Now, when things fall apart in our lives or in the world, I doubt there are many of us who immediately think: “Oh, good, this will be my opportunity to testify!”

It’s not the advice anyone wants to hear when a home has burned down,
when a child has been diagnosed with cancer,
when the marriage has ended,
when the nation is at war,
or when your people have elected someone uniquely unqualified and historically offensive to women, immigrants, the disabled, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.

…For example.

Still, Jesus says to his followers: “This will be your opportunity to testify!”

To be honest, I’d rather have a little more information first.
For example: Could this actually be the end, Jesus?
The Cubs and Trump won in the same week. That has to mean something, right?
 If this is not the end, then when?
What does this mean? What will happen next? Am I safe? Is my family safe? Is the world safe? How could you let this happen? I want to know!

Presbyterian pastor and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote that all we can really know is the grace of God in Christ Jesus. And the grace of God means something like this: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you.”

My Palestinian co-workers might simply say, “Haik adainiya!” That’s life.

There’s so much we don’t know. We don’t know what the election of any earthly leader will ultimately mean to the course of history. We don’t know when humanity will finally throw off the shackles of racism, sexism, and fear of the other. We don’t know when peace will finally come to Israel and Palestine. We don’t know when the kingdom of God will be fulfilled on earth, as it is in heaven.

We don’t know when the end will come—for us, or for the world.

The one thing we do know is that now, right now, is the time for Christian testimony.
Now is the time for martyria—witnessing to the faith in both word and action.
Now is the time for the global church to move and act together against racism, against extremism, and the rise of fascism.
Now is the time for Christians to be bold in testifying to their faith in the God of love!

For “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid…Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:14.16).

And, as we are instructed in our epistle reading for the day: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” (2 Thess 3:13)

Now is the time for bold Christian witness, because Jesus is clear that in times of testing and strife, in the face of harassment, betrayal, ridicule, or disappointments, his followers don’t get the day off. We don’t get a sabbatical when we lose. There is no sick day for persecution on account of his name.

Are you suffering? This is your opportunity to testify.
Are you persecuted? This is your opportunity to testify.
Are you occupied? This is your opportunity to testify.
Are you shocked and disappointed, and afraid for the safety of your friends and neighbors?
Then Jesus’ words are for you today: This is your opportunity to testify.

What will your testimony be?
What do you know of God’s love, that the world needs to hear?
What have you experienced of grace, that your neighbors need to experience?
How has your faith shaped your passion and work for justice?
What has Jesus’ life taught you about making peace and living with the other?
How does the cross of Christ speak to those who are suffering now, those who are persecuted now, those who are fearful now?

If you believe Christ, crucified and risen, has anything at all to offer this broken world, then now is the time to stand and say, “Dear world, I believe I will testify!” Amen!

After seventeen-year-old Munib stepped out of his church hiding place, he made a decision: This was not the end. He would graduate. He was in his last year of high school, but after the war, all the schools in Jerusalem had closed. This meant he had to travel alone every day to Ramallah, through many checkpoints and enduring many searches. As a young Palestinian man, he was constantly a suspect. It was frightening and difficult for a young man who had already seen so much, but he was never deterred, because he knew he wanted to study theology.

He told me, “I was on a quest. Many international pastors in Jerusalem had told us this war was God’s will. That the occupation was prophesied in the Bible, and there was nothing we could do. At first I accepted this, because I was a believer, and I did not want to be an apostate! But it really caused me a crisis of faith. I knew the God of love, and I wanted to find this God in the Bible.

For this reason, I went to Finland to study theology, and by this my faith in God was strengthened. Eventually I understood that I am called to proclaim God’s love and not God’s anger. I am not called to preach things that God is innocent of.”

Munib has spent his entire adult life--50 years--under occupation, as have so many others.

He has also spent his entire adult life giving his testimony—as a parish pastor, as a father, and as a bishop—that God is a God of love, not war. That all people should live in peace, with justice and freedom and equal rights. That temples fall, systems are overturned, and saviors are crucified—but we are people of the resurrection.

Dear sisters and brothers, this is the world.
Beautiful and terrible things will happen.
But this is not the end, and you are not helpless in the face of any trial or tribulation. Just as death and the tomb did not have the last word, but Christ was raised to life, so you must not accept the rule of hatred, death, or war. You must not bow to the powers and principalities which deny the Gospel of love, of peace, of grace, of liberation.

This is your opportunity to testify!
What will your testimony be?

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

Monday, November 7, 2016

All Saints Sunday 2016: "I couldn't have done it without my family"

Sermon for Sunday, 6 November 2016

All Saints Sunday

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.

“I couldn’t have done it without my family.”

On stage receiving an Academy Award, on the podium after earning an Olympic medal, or on television after winning their first baseball World Series Championship since 1908 (GO CUBS GO!), winners of all kinds will often utter a variation on this phrase: “I couldn’t have done it without my family.” Granted, they may have completely ignored or forgotten parents, spouses, or children on the way up, but in moments of glory most folks take time to acknowledge they didn’t get there alone. 
Most people will recognize there were others who had joined them on the journey to the top—nurturing, encouraging, inspiring, picking them up when they fall, and sometimes kicking them down the path toward the goal.

For this reason, these winners stand before the world and humbly (and sometimes not so humbly) confess: “I couldn’t have done it without my family.”

There are no awards being handed out today, either for standing in this pulpit or for getting out of bed in time for church this morning! But this same phrase is an excellent description of what we are doing here today. These words capture the essence of All Saints Sunday, for on this morning we remember there would be no church, and there would be no Christians today, without the faithful witness of the family we call the Communion of Saints.

In some expressions of Christianity, it is tradition to chant a version of the Litany of Saints—the same litany we sang this morning—at every baptism. It’s as if the congregation is introducing the newly baptized to his or her new family: “Sarah and Abraham, Moses and Isaiah, James and John, Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of our Lord—these are your people. Along with us, these are your nurturers, your encouragers, your inspiration. These are the aunties and uncles, teachers and mentors, who will surround you with the strength and love you need to follow the path Jesus sets before you.”

We only need to look as far as today’s Gospel lesson to understand why Christians need this kind of back-up support. The Beatitudes, especially as told by Luke, make it clear that the Christian walk is no walk in the park. The Way of Jesus is subversive. The Way of Jesus is counter-cultural. Jesus’ priorities fly in the face of all that the world counts as valuable, which means following him always puts us outside the realm of the expected and the accepted.

Jesus tells us:
Blessed are the poor—and woe to the comfortable.
Blessed are the hungry—and woe to those whose refrigerators are full.
Blessed are the grieving—and woe to those whose privilege protects them from suffering.
Blessed are the hated—and woe to the popular, the media-savvy, and the well-connected.

These are not the “Be Happy Attitudes” we find in the Gospel according to Matthew. Actually, most of us might rather to stick with Matthew’s version, in which we can simply be “poor in spirit”, instead of Luke’s pronouncement that blessedness resides with the actual poor: the poor and hungry, the poor and homeless, the poor and imprisoned, the poor and displaced. Matthew allows us to spiritualize Jesus’ teachings a bit, whereas Luke leaves little room for misinterpretation. Here, it is clear that when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he’s leading us away from all that the world prizes. He’s leading us to the cross.

Now, five million people will gather in Chicago to honor a winning baseball team.

And millions will pledge their allegiance—and their votes—to anyone bold enough to stand on a podium and declare, “I’m a winner. The greatest winner. I know it. You know it, everybody knows it!”

But there are no Academy Awards for standing with the oppressed and the occupied. No one gives you a raise for dismantling racism or sexism or homophobia. No one grants you tenure for visiting the sick or the imprisoned. There is no World Series for caring for new babies or holding the hands of the dying.

When we walk with Jesus, we won't be recognized on the world stage.
When we walk with Jesus, we can expect persecution, not praise.
When we walk with Jesus, the only prize we can count on is the weight of the cross.

For this reason, we know we cannot “do” discipleship without our people—the prophets, priests, and troublemakers who have gone before us. We need their witness of holy living. We need their stories of perseverance in times of trial. We need their maps for walking the unpopular path.

And so, today, we remember St. John the Baptist, who everyone thought was crazy, but prophesied the coming of the Prince of Peace.

We remember Mary, who in faith said “yes” to God and gave birth to the salvation of the world.

We remember St. George, patron saint of Palestine, whose defeat of the powerful dragon encourages many today to stand up against hatred, injustice, and occupation.

We remember Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music, written to the glory of God, lifts our souls still today.

We remember Nelson Mandela, who overcame great persecution to lead his country into peace and reconciliation.

We remember Dorothy Day, who took it seriously when Jesus said “Blessed are the poor”, and chose to live her life in service to them.

And we remember the others—the saints and holy ones in our own lives, beloved by us but unknown to the rest of the world: The grandparents who taught us to pray. The pastors who instilled in us a love of Scripture. The teachers who taught us to forgive and to share. The poets and authors whose writing inspires us. The children who taught us to love. The friends, sisters, and brothers whose love and support mirrored the love of Christ himself.

These are the ones who walked the way of the cross--and have now earned their heavenly crowns. 

These are the ones who have shown us that the Way of Jesus is possible, even today. Even for us. 

On All Saints Sunday, we remember that we never worship alone. We never pray alone. We never walk alone.

And we light candles.

We light candles to be surrounded by their love. We light candles to be warmed by the heat of their passion for justice, for peace, and the kingdom of God. We light candles so that when we come to the table to share the bread and the wine, we are reminded of their eternal presence with us not only on the path of discipleship, but also at the heavenly table with Jesus.

Dear sisters and brothers, dear fellow disciples, dear lovers of peace, brokers of justice, advocates for human rights, makers of music, creators and dreamers and builders of the kingdom—we could never do this without our family. 

Thanks be to God, we never have to.

For by the cross and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are knit together with all the saints, past and present. Through him, we are one body, broken and raised with him. Together with all the saints, we will shine the light of God’s love for all the world to see. Amen.