Monday, December 4, 2017

First Sunday of Advent in Jerusalem

At Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem, we began worship with a children's message about WAITING. We learned that waiting is hard, but God can be trusted. God keeps promises! 
Christ is coming soon.

Pray with us: 

Above the clamor of our violence your word of truth resounds,
O God of majesty and power.
Over nations enshrouded in despair your justice dawns.
Grant your household a discerning spirit and a watchful eye
to perceive the hour in which we live.
Hasten the advent of that day when when the weapons of war shall be banished,
our deeds of darkness cast off,
and all your scattered children gathered into one.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose day draws near: 
your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.

(from "An Advent Sourcebook", ed. Thomas O'Gorman)

Photos by Ben Gray/ELCJHL

Sunday, November 19, 2017

"Purple suits and hope: What to wear while waiting" - Sermon for 19 November 2017

"Purple suits and hope: What to wear while waiting"
Sermon for Sunday 19 November 2017

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

One Saturday morning in late summer, I popped over to the market near Damascus Gate to buy few things for breakfast, and on the way back, found myself stopped at a red light with a crowd of "black hatters” returning from their Shabbat prayers. There I was, surrounded by a sea of people wearing black religious clothes, but this time I wearing jeans and a t-shirt instead of a clergy collar! I felt utterly conspicuous, but in a completely different way than usual.

As I stood there at the intersection with the men, feeling awkward, I saw that waiting on the other side of the street was an elderly Palestinian man. He was white-haired and frail, and used a walking stick. He looked so fragile, I honestly worried he wouldn't make it across the street by himself.

But he was noticeable for another reason, too. In contrast to our somber side of the street, this man was wearing a fancy suit in the brightest color purple I have ever seen. In fact, "purple" doesn't even describe it. It was Welch's Grape Jelly! Pants, jacket, vest, and tie, all in Welch's Grape Jelly purple.

He. Was. Fabulous.

And it was only 9:30 in the morning.

When the signal said “Walk”, the old man in purple stepped off the curb and marched towards us. I really shouldn’t have worried about him. He walked like he owned that particular street. He walked like the King of Palestine! He walked like the Easter bunny hopping through a Good Friday procession! And I thought: Mabrouk, habibi! You woke up this morning in a city where it seems only "black clothes matter", and you decided to bring the whole rainbow to the party! Hallelujah!

We passed by each other quickly, going our separate ways, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the man in purple. I decided he should be called “Abu Ainab أبو عنب”, Father of the Grape. And I wondered: “Dear Abu Aynab, where are you possibly going dressed like that on a Saturday morning in Jerusalem?”

You are not dressed for the blazing hot Jerusalem summer.
You are not dressed for drinking coffee on the corner and smoking cigarettes.

Abu Aynab was not dressed for selling bread, or dealing with grandchildren, or shopping for groceries, or really anything that I could imagine might lie ahead on that particular street.

In fact, it seems to me he does not even belong to this Jerusalem at all.

He does not belong to the Jerusalem of soldiers and guns, permits and checkpoints, priests in black robes and men in black hats.

I have no idea if he is Christian or Muslim, but Abu Aynab definitely belongs to the New Jerusalem. He was dressed for the resurrection dawn! He was clothed for possibility, for liberation, and for the light of a new day. Amen!

On this morning, the question I’d like us to consider is:
Which Jerusalem, which world, what kind of future are we dressed for?

Do we belong to the day, or to the night? To peace, or to war? To despair, or to hope? Are we outfitted for continuing the fight as usual, or have we put on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of salvation?

In 1 Thessalonians chapter 5, the Apostle Paul writes to a Christian community weighed down with the strain of keeping the faith, weary of waiting for Jesus’ return, and tempted to give up on the hope of God’s kingdom of peace and justice, and he says:

“…you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”

Paul says Christians are children of light and of the day; we are not of the night and of the darkness. So let’s act like it! And let’s dress appropriately for the day ahead. We don’t need armor and weapons. We don’t need sharp tongues and sharp elbows! 

Instead, let’s get fabulous. Let us put on Christ. Let us put on our baptismal robes. Let us put on our purple suits and get ready for the Day of the Lord. Amen!

The Apostle Paul wants the Thessalonians to boldly claim their identity as followers of Christ, and to persist in faith even though the wait for the Kingdom of God is long. 

Notice that in writing to the Thessalonians, Paul makes his point with some very clear and distinct binaries: We are of the day, not of the night. We are children of light, not of the darkness.

There is some painful history here which needs to be addressed, before we move any further. Preachers have long used this passage, and others like it, to perpetuate racist and anti-Semitic attitudes. “Children of the darkness” has been interpreted as a code for “Jews” and has been extrapolated to include other non-believers as well. The church has used this interpretation to persecute our Jewish, Muslim, and atheist neighbors, among others.

And it has taken far too long for the church to recognize how equating “darkness” or “blackness” with evil and lack of faith is spiritual abuse of our sisters and brothers of color. We must reject these simplistic and false interpretations of Scripture—for the Gospel ceases to be “Good News” when it harms any one of God’s children. This morning, as a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and representing preachers past and present, I ask my Jewish and black and brown neighbors for forgiveness for these sins.

In the context of the Holy Land today, we are also no strangers to strict binaries like “night and day”, or “dark and light.” Everything (and everyone) in this place seems to be divided into “us” and “them”.

Muslim and Jewish residents of Jerusalem walk
inside Damascus Gate
18 November 2017
We speak of:

Israel or Palestine, 
East or West Jerusalem,
Jew or Muslim,
Local or international,
Normalizer or freedom fighter, 
Zionist colonialist or Islamic terrorist,
West Bank resident or West Bank settler.

These binaries are impossible to escape. There are literally walls built to keep everyone in their places.

So, one of the dangers of interpreting Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians today is that it feels all too familiar. These words could fuel and stoke the fires of division within us and among us.

But even considering the dangers in this text, I’m still drawn to it. I’m drawn to it, because Paul’s message speaks to the struggle of claiming one’s baptismal identity in a world which offers so many alternatives.  I believe Paul’s message is not about casting out those who are outside our inner circle, but is instead about casting out from our hearts everything that opposes the light of Christ.

When Paul says “We are children of the light and of the day”, he urges us to remember we have been called by name and now live in the light of the Gospel—and therefore we must never get too comfortable with the opposite.

And there is so much that opposes the light today. There is so much bad stuff going on in the world while we wait for Jesus to return:

Terrorists with bombs and guns attack innocent crowds. Again.
Palestinian homes—and entire villages—are destroyed. Again.
The world is at the brink of nuclear war. Again.
Leaders are elected and laws are passed which harm the poor, the elderly, and the vulnerable. Again.
Men (and others with power) use it to get what they want from women (and others who feel powerless.) Again.

The longer we must wait, the longer the night goes on, the greater the danger that we will just get comfortable here. The longer it takes for Jesus to return, the more we may get used to the absence of light, and start to make our home here.

But hear again the Good News:
You, children of God and children of light, have been called by name!

We do not belong to the tomb.
We do not belong to war.
We do not belong to white supremacy.
We do not belong to the patriarchy.
We do not belong to despair or desperation or cynicism.
We do not belong to the night!

We belong to the morning. 
Coffee seller in Bethlehem
19 Nov 2017
Photo by Carrie Smith
We belong to the taste of freshly brewed coffee,
and the smell of newly baked bread.
We belong to the sun rising over the Mt of Olives and rainclouds hanging over the Dome of the Rock.
We belong to freshly washed streets,
And the quiet of the Old City before the tourists arrive.
We belong to promise and possibility and resurrection!
We belong to justice and mercy, reconciliation and wholeness!
We belong to the day.
We belong to Christ. AMEN!

Now I admit, it can be difficult to recall the light of day, when the night stretches on and on.  

I remember the long nights when my son Caleb was a baby. He had a really rough first few months, and would cry all night from colic. I walked him in countless circles around the coffee table in our tiny seminary apartment, thinking “THIS NIGHT WILL NEVER END!” One time, in the wee hours of the morning, I looked out the second story window and saw a deer standing there, looking right back at me. Keep in mind, this was the middle of the city! I had no idea deer even existed there—and maybe he didn’t know I existed until that moment, either.

But you know what? Every time, after one of those desperate and never-ending nights, the morning would arrive. The sun would rise and I would look into my precious baby’s eyes and think “GOD IS SO GOOD AND THIS BABY IS SO WONDERFUL AND HOW COULD I HAVE EVER THOUGHT ABOUT THROWING HIM OUT THAT WINDOW?!”

Dear sisters and brothers, we belong to the morning light.
We belong to Easter morning, when in great love God raised Christ from three days in the tomb. On that great morning, death itself was defeated, and a new day dawned for the whole world. Thanks be to God!

Yes, we are children of this day, and of this light!

But listen: Even children of the day have days.
We all have those days when we can’t even put on a smile, much less put on our purple resurrection suit and walk around town. We all have those days when we wonder, “Where is God? How long will this last? When will things ever change for the better?”

And Paul says: “Encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

Paul knew, even two thousand years ago, that we can’t always be hopeful! We aren’t always dressed for resurrection! Sometimes our breastplate of faith and helmet of hope get a little tired looking.

And for this reason, we need each other.
We need the church, the community of faith, so we can remind each other that we do not belong to this mess.

This conflict does not define us.
This world cannot confine us.

It seems that evil will win! And it won’t. 
Morning skies over Jerusalem
19 November 2017
Photo by Carrie Smith
It seems the night will last forever! And it never does.
The morning always comes.

And so, dear friends, fellow children of the day:
Encourage each other, and build each other up.
Sing for each other. Pray for each other. Cook for each other.
When you see someone getting a little too comfortable in the night, or even getting lost in the darkness, shine the light of love and courage for them.

For the answer to the question “Where is God?” is always, “Right here.”
And the answer to the question, “When will Christ come again?” is always NOW.

Now is the day of his dawning.
Now is the day of resurrection.
Now Christ comes to be with us again, in the bread and the wine.

Come one, come all! Come as you are.
You’re dressed perfectly for this new day.

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

"For dragon-slayers, saints, and other odd folk: Mabrouk!" Sermon for All Saints Sunday in Jerusalem 2017

“For dragon-slayers, saints, and other odd folk: Mabrouk!”

Sermon for 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. Amen.

This morning, we remember Bob, Karen, Ilja, Maggie, Megan, Gitta, Rimon, and

St Margaret of Antioch by Sara Muzira
Leslie, along with many other saints whose names and faces are gone from this earth, but who live on in our hearts.  Whether we knew them personally or not, together we give thanks for all these members of our family, the one Body of Christ. Through baptism we have become part of this family, the Communion of Saints of every time and place. In fact, we don’t have enough candles to honor the memory of our entire family! We don’t have a table large enough to hold all the light they have shared—but God does. God’s table is large enough for the whole family, past and present. 

Therefore, while we long for their presence with us here, today the church rejoices that our sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, beloved children and faithful friends who have died, are all sitting together at the banquet table with Jesus, enjoying a heavenly feast without end. Amen!

Very often, however, when we remember these family members who have died in the Lord, it can be tempting to not only to honor them as part of the communion of saints, but to make them into icons. It can be tempting to sanitize them, to remember them not as the real people we knew and loved, but as symbols of perfect faith and holiness.

Living in this context, surrounded by ancient icons and images of the faithful who lived and died right here in this city, it can be easy to assume that a saint must possess extraordinary bravery, extraordinary courage, or extraordinary holiness.

But, contrary to popular belief, not all saints are dragon-slayers!

The truth is, the saints we remember today were not perfect. But they were perfectly loved! 

They didn’t wear halos, but they did wear the sign of the cross!

In fact, a saint is simply one who has sought, in faith, to live life in response to God’s extraordinary love—a love we have come to know through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Being a saint does not make you perfect!
But it does make you different.

Or, as the American Catholic author Flannery O’Connor wrote: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

This is certainly true: Being a follower of Jesus does not make you perfect, but it does make you odd in the eyes of the world, and therefore it’s very appropriate that we hear a portion of the Sermon on the Mount on All Saints Sunday.

The disciples and Jesus had been followed by a large crowd everywhere they went, but for these important teachings Jesus pulled his most faithful aside. When they were gathered around him, he sat next to them, too. And then he began to teach them what the path of a Christian looks like.

And what he said was a little bit odd! He said:

“Mabrouk to the poor in spirit! The empire of Heaven belongs to them.
Mabrouk to those who grieve! They will be consoled.
Mabrouk to the gentle! They will inherit the earth.
Mabrouk to those who hunger and thirst for justice! They will have a feast.
Mabrouk to the merciful! They will receive mercy.
Mabrouk to those whose motives are pure! They will see God.
Mabrouk to those who work for peace! They will be called God’s children.
Mabrouk to those who have suffered persecution for the sake of justice!
The empire of Heaven belongs to them.
Mabrouk to you when they denounce you and persecute you and spread malicious gossip about you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad!  In heaven you’ll be more than rewarded.  Remember, that is how they persecuted the prophets who preceded you.”

(Matthew 5:1-12, based on the “Scholar’s Version”)

Can you imagine the faces of those the disciples as they heard this new teaching? Everything Jesus said goes against what the world counts as valuable. Everything Jesus says deserves congratulations is something we generally do our best to avoid: poverty, grief, meekness, hunger, thirst, persecution.

Furthermore, these are situations the disciples have likely already been experiencing. They had already suffered much for their newfound faith. They had already lost friends, and given up many comforts, and even suffered persecution when they chose to follow Jesus.

And Jesus looked right at them, in love, and said, “Mabrouk. Rejoice and be glad! This is the path of the prophets. This is our path together.

And it will make you different. It will make you odd! But it will also make you free.”

Dear fellow saints: God’s kingdom is a place of truth, love, compassion, justice, peace, freedom, and sharing. As believers, we are citizens of this kingdom. This is the truth as we know it! 

Living this truth certainly puts us at odds with the world.
Sometimes it makes us enemies. Sometimes it breaks our hearts!

But it also joins us with all the saints, all the other odd folk who believed, and followed, and lived in response to God’s great love for the world.

One of those odd folks we remember today, one of our sisters in faith, was named Margaret. Margaret was born to a pagan priest in Antioch (what we now know as Syria) in the 3rd century after Jesus. Because her mother died shortly after childbirth, she was nursed and cared for by a Christian woman. When she was old enough to return to her father, Margaret told him she refused to pray to other gods, for she was now a Christian.

This angered her father the priest, who tried several times to marry her off to respectable pagan men in the community. Each time, Margaret refused, on the basis of her faith in God. The stories of her abuse and torture are many, each one worse than the last. Nevertheless, she persisted—Margaret never abandoned her faith in the crucified God.

Finally, the legend goes, Margaret was confronted by the devil himself, who had transformed himself into a huge dragon. The dragon swallowed Margaret whole.

But as soon as Margaret passed through the dragon’s mouth and throat and into his stomach, the dragon got a terrible stomachache! It so happened that Margaret was carrying a wooden cross in her hand when she was swallowed. And that cross, the symbol of her great faith, irritated the stomach of the dragon.

That cross poked and provoked and caused the devil such suffering, that he spat Margaret back out whole!

Actually, some paintings of Margaret show an even more triumphant scene, with her standing atop the dragon, his belly split wide open, the devil completely vanquished by the power of the cross she holds high in her hand.

Now, just to be clear once again: Not all saints are dragonslayers!

But by the power of the cross, we all have the capacity to irritate the devil.

We all have the ability to disrupt the system—from the inside—as witnesses to to the truth of God’s love for the world.

And in fact, this is what it means to live a life shaped by the Beatitudes!

When we show mercy while others show contempt;
When we hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice as the world lusts for power;
When we try and maintain a gentle heart in a world of violence—a heart soft enough to still be broken by the suffering of our neighbors;
When we tell the truth about ourselves, the truth about the world, and the truth about God, even when it seems the dragon might swallow us whole;

Then we frustrate the powers-that-be.
We upset the status quo.
We challenge unjust systems.
We become holy interrupters.
We give the devil a bellyache!
We become saints.

So on this All Saints Sunday we remember all the odd ones:

The truthtellers,
The peacemakers,
And the holy interrupters.

We remember those who irritated the powers that be,
Those who frustrated the work of the devil,
Those who loved us…and loved God…to the end.

For all these saints, today we say:
Mabrouk. Congratulations! Well done, good and faithful servants.

And thank you – thank you for living the truth, even when it made you odd.  We honor you today, and we recommit to following Jesus on the path you walked before us. We are strengthened by your witness, by your love for us, and by your faith in Jesus Christ, who against all odds has granted us life abundant, a life of purpose, and life with God, forever and ever. Amen. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Reformation in Jerusalem: Bishop Younan's sermon

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Celebrating 500 years of Reformation
Preached in Jerusalem

Bishop Munib A. Younan

31 October 2017

Matthew 10:26b-33

‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.


From the 2017 Reformation celebration in Jerusalem
Photo by Ben Gray, ELCJHL

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, last year I was not able to be with you for our annual Reformation commemoration, because I was in Lund, Sweden. On that day, I as President of the Lutheran World Federation had the honor of co-hosting an historic Lutheran-Catholic prayer service with His Holiness Pope Francis and the Rev. Martin Junge, General Secretary of the LWF. The positive energy of that event has not stayed in Sweden, but has multiplied over the past year, and has inspired many other Lutheran-Catholic prayer services. In Bethlehem and in Amman, Lutherans and Catholics gathered to pray for the world and for each other. And just a few weeks ago I was in South Africa for a similar service, where tens of thousands of Christians, both Lutheran and Catholic, gathered in a sports stadium to pray for the unity of the church. And on this day there are many Lutheran-Catholic joint services happening all over the world. This is truly a work of the Holy Spirit.

When we gathered last year to pray together in Sweden, it was not only to commemorate five hundred years. We gathered to commit ourselves to the future: specifically, a future of thanksgiving, repentance, and witnessing together as one Body of Christ.

These three commitments—Thanksgiving, Repentance, and Witnessing Together—are very important parts of our Reformation commemorations, for we do not wish to celebrate division. We do not honor the past 500 years with any spirit of triumphalism.

Instead, we look to the future with humility. We are thankful that we can now recognize the ways our respective churches have been loyal to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We see and acknowledge the faithfulness in each of our churches, in spite of our differences. We are thankful for this reformation of the heart.

At the same time, we repent for the sins of division, for our mistakes, and for the pain that we have caused each other. The living and witnessing church of Jesus Christ does not hide the mistakes of the past. Instead, she confesses and asks for forgiveness.

There is no church which can say it has not done wrong. For this reason, in the Common Prayer liturgy used in Sweden in 2016, Lutherans and Catholics confessed together:

“O God of mercy, we lament that even good actions of reform and renewal had often unintended negative consequences. We bring before you the burdens of the guilt of the past when our forebears did not follow your will that all be one in the truth of the Gospel.”

The joint statement signed by Pope Francis and myself also connects our commitment to repentance with our baptisms. It proclaims:

“Our common faith in Jesus Christ and our baptism demands of us a daily conversion, by which we cast off the historical disagreements and conflicts that impeded the ministry of reconciliation.”

Because we share one faith and one baptism, together we give thanks and repent.

And thirdly, in the spirit of ongoing Reformation, we commit to witnessing together. Our joint statement of 2016 proclaims:

“As we move beyond those episodes in history that burden us, we pledge to witness together to God’s merciful grace, made visible in the crucified and risen Christ. Aware that the way we relate to one another shapes our witness to the Gospel, we commit ourselves to further growth in communion rooted in Baptism, as we seek to remove the remaining obstacles that hinder us from attaining full unity. Christ desires that we be one, so that the world may believe. (John 17:23)”

After 500 years of Reformation, the church’s commitment to thanksgiving, repentance, and witnessing together shows the world that what unites us is so much greater than what divides us. We pray and work toward reconciliation and unity, not for our own glory, but as an answer to Jesus’ prayer “that they may be one….so that the world may believe.” (John 17:21-23) This is our joint acknowledgment of Christ.

I want to share with you a witness that caught my attention in Sweden even before I had the opportunity to meet with Pope Francis. One day earlier, during the regular Reformation Day worship at Lund Cathedral, and following the liturgy of Holy Communion, something very special happened. Just before the closing hymn, we suddenly saw the Dean of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Parish in Lund entering the Lutheran cathedral with the Vatican flag, an icon of the Virgin Mary, and the entire Catholic congregation. Together, they processed to the front of this Lutheran cathedral and joined the Lutheran congregation in shared song and prayers.

As we gathered together around the altar, I have never seen faces so elevated and happy. It was as if we were dreaming. Many in the church were amazed; it reminded me of the Day of Pentecost when the disciples and the people were amazed with what was happening in front of their eyes. Many people were in tears. This was a powerful and moving witness of how the Holy Spirit always gathers us, unites us, and empowers us for the common mission of Jesus Christ our Savior. This is the confession we are called to proclaim together.

The preaching text for this day is a very meaningful one for us as we look to the future together. In Matthew 10, verses 32 and 33, Jesus says to the disciples:

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

It’s true that we often read this as a very personal message to the individual Christian. But on this Reformation Day, I hear it as a direct message to our churches.

We live today in a world of merit and consumerism, of extremism, populism, and division. These are the values and the ideologies that the world confesses. These are the things the media and popular culture acknowledge as having meaning and power. The question for us today is: In the midst of such a culture, what does the church confess? What values do we acknowledge?

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther saw that the church was often confessing the values of the world, rather than the cross of Christ. He was frustrated by this, and spoke out boldly for reform of his beloved Catholic church. We also know that he went seeking the mercy of God. He searched and searched for the core of the Gospel message, the message he believed the church should confess, and he found it in Romans chapter 3:

“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

This truth—that the Christian is saved by grace through faith, apart from works—became the central message of the Reformation. It was clear to Luther that what the church is called to do is to confess Christ, and Christ alone. The church is called to proclaim the grace, mercy, and love of God, which is a free gift, never for sale! Martin Luther said, “The true Christian justification, which is our protection, not only against the power and the wiliness people, but also against the gates of hell, consists of our being justified and saved by our faith in Christ.”

Whenever we find that our churches are not preaching the radical love of the cross, whenever we find that our churches have put their own self-interests above the needs of the poor and the oppressed, the lost and the lonely, then the churches are in need of Reformation.

The Indian theologian Monica Melanchthon has written profoundly of how we see the issues of the 16th century manifest today. She says:

“Salvation cannot and should not be sold. But today, the idolatry of mammon has hijacked the world…and our society has sacrificed virtually all its principles at the altar of consumerism…In a world where wealth is god, the name of every living god herself is enlisted to serve mammon, as the charlatans of the church in every age has proved—from Tetzel selling his indulgences for buying forgiveness in the 16th Century to televangelists selling salvation, healing, and prosperity.”

Professor Melanchthon rightly points out that the problems of the 16th century did not end when Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg. But we would be mistaken to believe that it is only extremists who are in the business of selling salvation today. All too often we find similar theology in our own churches. All too often, the free gift of grace is perverted into a set of laws, cultural norms, or a political platform which all are expected to follow. Whether preached from the pulpit, or silently implied within a church community, this message that the Gospel is a formula to achieve happiness, acceptance, worth, or righteousness, is no different from the one preached by the fundamentalists we find so easy to accuse.

Furthermore, writes Professor Melanchthon: “greed for wealth and for power work hand in hand to exploit the vulnerability of peoples caught in a web of poverty, systemic oppression, conflict, and violence”. This twisting of the Gospel causes not only spiritual harm, but real physical danger to our neighbors.

For this reason, even 500 years later, the motto of the Reformation is still relevant. Ecclesia semper reformanda est—the church must always be reformed! And when it is reformed it only bears a witness to Christ and him crucified.

Believe me, the call to reformation is not a message only for one church or one tradition. Just as each one of our churches strives to be faithful to the Gospel, each one of our churches often needs reform. Reformation is the call of the Holy Spirit, to change us, to reform us, to transform us, to mold us to be witnesses to the cross. This is the call for the churches in Jerusalem as well.

Jesus said, “Those who acknowledge me, I will acknowledge, and those who deny me, I will deny.” The challenge for us today is: Have our churches been putting the Gospel at the center of all that we do? Or have we put everything but the Gospel at the center? It is uncomfortable to ask ourselves these questions. But we must never be ashamed of the Gospel, nor ever ashamed of our need for reformation!

As Martin Luther famously said, “Let us be sinners and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly!”

And what does this mean?

This means we must fear and love God, but we must never keep quiet about the Good News, to be shared in our broken world.

This means we must fear and love God, but we must never hide the light of Christ’s love for the world, for fear of offending others.

If we do not preach love, who will do it?
If we do not feed the poor, who will do it?
If we do not care for the refugees, who will do it?
If we do not speak out against oppression, who will do it?
If we do not work to strengthen Christians in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, who will we do it?
If we do not sing Alleluia, who will do it?

Our brother Martin Luther once wrote: “How soon ‘not now’ becomes ‘never’.” At this moment, after 500 years of disagreement between the churches, there is no time for “not now.” There is no time like the present to re-commit ourselves to boldly proclaiming the love of Jesus Christ in word and in deed.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, we boldly confess that every human being has been created equally in the image of God, and every human being has been saved equally through the cross of Jesus Christ. Through word, through service, and through the sacraments, the church proclaims to all the world that in Christ, we are free—and if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed! This is our confession!

For this reason, the Lutheran World Federation has rightly used the motto “Liberated by God’s Grace” for this 500th Anniversary Year. The core message of the Reformation is liberation.

The world is waiting to hear from our churches this message of liberation! The world is hungering and thirsting for this bread and wine. Our Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem are longing to hear the voice of liberation from the churches.

Today, there is a chorus of voices who are asking, “When will we be liberated?”

Refugees at the borders in Europe are asking, “Where is my liberation? Where is my dignity?”

Christians in many parts of the Middle East, facing persecution, are asking, “When will we be liberated? When will the international community move to assist us?”

Christians in Jerusalem are asking, “Will there be a change in the status quo that will threaten our future? Do we have any future in our homeland? When will we be liberated?”

Citizens of every nation, who feel the threat of a third world war, even a nuclear war, are asking, “Where is our liberation from this culture of violence and hatred?”

The poor are asking, “When will we be liberated from the sins of greed and capitalism?”

The Palestinian people are asking, after fifty years of occupation and 100 years of the Balfour declaration, “When will we be liberated from this unjust system of occupation?”

Israelis are asking, “When will we be liberated from this conflict with our neighbors, and live in peace based on justice?”

We can see that the Gospel message of liberation is not only a message for the church. It is Good News for a hurting world, a world imprisoned by greed and fear, and for Christians in the Holy Land. We give thanks today for the ways the Reformation has strengthened our confession of this Good News, and has amplified the proclamation of Jesus’ liberating and saving power. Together, we must confess this liberating power of Jesus Christ in our world today.

In the next 500 years, I believe the church is called to be prophetic, confessing our freedom in Christ not only to the poor and the oppressed, but also to those who are the oppressors. For truly, the message of liberation is also for those who promote racism, extremism, populism, occupation, hatred, and violence. They, too, need to be liberated! They, too, need to hear about the free gift of grace, and that they cannot be free unless their neighbors have full liberation and their equal human rights.  

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, my prayer for our churches in the next 500 years is that we would be ready for just such a bold ecumenical witness. After 500 years, it is high time that we put aside our disagreements and join our voices to confess Christ together for the sake of the world.

Martin Luther once stood before a council of authorities and said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Today, we also must take a stand against the powers and principalities which threaten our world. But we won’t get much done if we’re standing still! For this reason, instead of “Here I stand” I would like to see our churches join hands and proclaim: “Here we journey together!”

Here we go, clergy and laity, journeying together to acknowledge Christ: different churches, different traditions, different languages, different cultures, different music, different ecclesiology, different ministries, and yet each of us equally saved through the one cross of Christ, our Liberator.

We are different. We are blessedly diverse. And yet we share the same confession:

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again! Thanks be to God!

Today begins the next 500 years in the story of the church of Jesus Christ. And today starts the 29th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Will we journey together? Will you join us in boldly confessing the liberating love of Christ Jesus, as one holy apostolic church? Thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit is always present with us, forming and re-forming us for the sake of the world.

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

Monday, October 30, 2017

"Procession of the Lost and Found: Celebrating 500 years of Reformation"

Sermon for Reformation Sunday 2017

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

29 October 2017

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

Reformation Procession in Jerusalem 2014 (ELCJHL)
On the last day of our vacation in Prague, I decided to take one more walk around the city before heading to the airport. A long early morning walk had been my habit each day of our week away, as the weather was just stunning, and the others in my family are late sleepers. As I stepped out into the crisp autumn air, I plugged in my earphones, tuned into a podcast, and happily set off through the Old Town.  

Because I had walked this particular path for six days already, I was feeling quite at home. The same musicians were on the St. Charles Bridge, playing the same songs. The same artists were there, selling the same tacky watercolors. “I wonder if anyone thinks I’m a local!” I thought smugly to myself, silently judging the more “obvious” tourists. In fact, I was feeling so comfortable that when I reached the other side of the river, I decided to take a different route home. And why not? Prague felt like my city now, and there was still plenty of time before our flight back to Jerusalem.

And then, everything was fine, until it wasn’t.

I looked up and realized I had no idea where I was. I took a left turn, and then a right. Then another left, and another right. I studied the street signs, but of course they were in Czech, so that didn’t help at all. I kept on walking, hoping a building or a statue or even a tree would look familiar. I certainly didn’t feel or look like a local anymore! I was mostly looking desperate. Thirty minutes passed, then an hour. Our flight time back to Jerusalem was fast approaching.

Well, I started to get a little panicked, so I walked faster. At one point, as I ran across a busy street that looked far too similar to the one I crossed 15 minutes before, the heel of my boot caught in the train track and I fell face first in front of a line of stopped cars.

I picked myself up and brushed myself off as gracefully as I could, but there was no denying the truth now: I was lost. Utterly, completely, lost.

St Charles Bridge, Prague
Since there was no more denying this painful truth, I finally stopped walking. I pulled my earphones out of my ears and stared down at my cell phone. Of course, to save money on the trip, I had not purchased a Czech SIM card, so I had no way to call for help. But I stared at the useless device in my hand anyway, as if willing something to happen.

And then, a miracle happened! Two bars appeared at the top of the screen. I had WiFi! But from where? When I looked around I saw I was standing in front of a fancy hotel, which was inadvertently sharing its signal with me. It was just a flicker of a signal, but to me that internet connection felt like manna from heaven! It was a light, shining in the darkness!

Now connected, I clicked on “Maps”, and as the image filled the screen, I saw that I was not only lost, I was on the wrong side of the river. How is it even possible to cross a river without noticing? And why did I not think to check if I had a WiFi signal earlier?! Those are great questions, but it didn’t matter now: By the grace of God (in the form of Google maps!) I was headed home. I was lost, but now I am found.

“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 3:23-25)

Dear friends in Christ, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gift for the lost. God’s grace is Good News for those on the wrong side of the river, with no map, and no way to call home. The mercy of God is a free gift for those who have gone astray, for those who are too filled with pride to ask for help, for those who have no idea what to do next, for those who have nothing to offer in return.

In other words: Every. Single. One of us.

Let me say it again: The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gift for the lost.

This maybe seem an obvious statement, perhaps not radical enough or important enough for a sermon on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation! And yet, 500 years after our brother Martin Luther took a stand, proclaiming to all who would listen that salvation is not for sale, we still find it difficult to receive God’s free gift of grace. Five hundred years after the Bible was translated into our mother tongues, so all believers could read “we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:28), we still want to try it our way. We still want to earn our own righteousness. We still want to justify ourselves.

We still want to find our own way home.

Things have changed a bit since the day Brother Luther nailed his 95 complaints on the door of the Wittenberg church, of course.

Five hundred years ago, Johan Tetzel was selling indulgences, promising Christians they could purchase a fast-track out of purgatory and into heaven for their deceased loved ones.

Today, preachers are selling us the path to health, wealth, and true love, if only we will donate to their mega-church ministry and fund the personal pastoral airplane.

Five hundred years ago, Luther put himself through much bodily suffering, trying to deserve God’s love through extreme diets and long hours of prayer.

Today, we try to earn righteousness through a vegan diet, or exercise, or by joining a political movement. We may not have specific worries about climbing a ladder to heaven, but we climb the ladder of acceptability every day by achieving success in our careers, or perfecting our appearances, or curating our social media presence.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gift for the lost, and yet Christians today still live as if we aren’t lost at all. We act as if we already have a map, so we don’t need to be found. We act as if we have no need of God’s free gift, because we have the means to pay for it ourselves.

This pride and self-righteousness is the most expensive indulgence of all. It costs us the freedom and liberation of the Gospel. It costs us time spent hiding our true selves. It costs us the peace of knowing that although all have fallen short, all can rest easy because our lives are in the hands of the One who says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) And it costs the people of the world much suffering, for those who do not know they are loved cannot love their neighbor, much less God.

Dear friends, five hundred years ago, a faithful monk named Martin Luther went searching for the core of the Gospel message, and he didn’t find it in a cathedral. He didn’t find it in the institutional church. He found it in the Word of God, especially Romans chapter 3 verse 28: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” This Gospel message became a motto of the Reformation movement in the 16th century.

But the Reformation of the church was not a single event. It did not happen on one day in 1517. The Reformation was and is an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God, that Spirit is still stirring up trouble among us today! Ecclesia semper reformanda est: the church is always being reformed!

The truth is, the message of the Reformation is still critically relevant for the world today. So many people, both inside and outside the church, need to hear that we have been made right with God, not through anything we did or could possibly do, but through the self-emptying love of Jesus. So many still need to hear the truth about God, for this truth sets us free. 

We really can’t know the fullness of God’s grace if we’re still trying to hold everything together.

Earlier this week, I was delighted to read a poem by the Rev. Laura Martin, a Facebook friend and a pastor in Virginia. I have no idea if she wrote this with the Reformation in mind (Actually, who does anything with the Reformation in mind, except for Lutheran pastors?!) but to me, it captures the essence of what I hope this Reformation commemoration will be about. She writes:

“Sometimes the strongest thing
You can do is
Come apart.
Come apart like the
Seed giving itself up in the dirt
Like the rain changing to torrent
Like the sand letting go in a storm.
Maybe this is how you discover
Where you belong,
And what has always
Held you.”

Hear that again: Sometimes the strongest thing you can do is come apart.

Sometimes the most authentic thing you can do is stop and admit you are lost.

Sometimes the most faithful thing you can do is say to Jesus, “I am weak, but you are strong. I've got nothing for this. Come quickly!”

On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, what I hope the world hears from we who are Christians in the Reformation tradition is this:

We are lost!

And--equally important--God’s answer to a lost and broken humanity is the free gift of grace, poured out from the cross.

It’s a scandal that God’s answer to our weakness is God’s own weakness.
It’s a mystery why God chose to save a suffering world through God’s own suffering.
And yet, that foolishness is our power. That scandal is our wisdom. 
The cross is our joy, and our hope, and our way home.

Dear friends in Christ, on Tuesday afternoon at 4:30 pm, the Lutherans and other evangelical Christians will gather in the main sanctuary at Redeemer for a big festive worship service. You will see representatives of every church in Jerusalem at this event: Syrian Orthodox, Catholics, Armenians, Ethiopians, sisters in habits and brothers in robes and believers of every stripe.

And you will see at least 25 clergy from our Protestant traditions, processing solemnly to the front of the church while singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

We will look like we know what we’re doing!
We will look like we have it all together!
We will look like we know the way.

But if it were up to me (and it’s not) I would love to see us do it a little different for this 500th anniversary. I would love to see us tell the truth in that procession. 

I would love to see the words “I’m lost” printed on all our fancy robes. The color of the day is red, so maybe we could write it in red! I’d like to see the bishops and pastors and deacons wearing the truth, in big letters, for all to see:

“I am lost. I need the gift of grace.”
“I am broken. I need the healing that comes through the cross.”
“I am lonely. I need the solidarity and friendship of the Body of Christ.”
“I have fallen short! And I am loved.”

What better witness could there be to the world, as we begin the next 500 years in the story of the ever-reforming church, than to admit we are lost? 
What better way to honor the free gift of grace given by God, than to open our hands to receive it?

It won’t go exactly that way on Tuesday. 

But believe me, our Lord knows our failings! Jesus knows we fall short, even in this. And still, he will be there.
Still, Jesus comes to us, lost as we are:
In, with, and under the bread and the wine,
Through water and the Word,
Freely, abundantly, mercifully, poured out for all the lost.
The free gift of grace, leading us home. Thanks be to God.