Friday, January 27, 2017

Singing against the darkness

Photo by Ben Gray
ELCA missionary, photographer for the ELCJHL
The lights went out on the Syrian choir tonight at St. Anthony Coptic Church, near the Holy Sepulcher, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service.

And they kept on singing.

As in, they quite literally didn't skip a beat. It was pitch black now in the packed chapel, only a faint glow from a candle near the altar, but they sang as if nothing had happened.

The women sang in tight little harmonies, based on a scale that seemed to have 50 tones where ours have only 7. They sang LOUD and PROUD.

The lights came back on a few minutes later, and you could hear the collective sigh of relief as the visiting congregation relaxed back into their pews.
Priests read the Scripture in Arabic
photo be Carrie Smith

We are much more comfortable praying in the light.

More scripture, more prayer, more incense, as the winter storm outside raged on.

Swept up by the sounds of the Gospel read in Arabic (which I only partly understood) and the chill of the wind blowing through the church's open door, I admit I was not thinking deep thoughts about Christian Unity. I was thinking "We're so lucky we only had to deal with a little microphone problem at OUR service!"

And then, as the Coptic choir sang "Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and glorious", the lights went out again.

Again, the music never stopped. The men 's voices, accompanied only by a triangle and small cymbals, pierced the darkness until, once again, the lights came back on.

At the cookie and coffee reception, I thanked the Syrian priest, Father Antonios, for his sermon.
"And I was so impressed at how the choirs kept singing when the lights went out!"
Fr. Antonios, really, guffawed...and said: 

 "Bwahaha! They can do anything to us, and we will keep singing! No lights, no church, we will keep singing! They can drop bombs on us, and we will keep singing!"

Best sermon of the week, right there.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

"Blessed are you when people hate you, and persecute you, and revile you on account of my name."

"How can I keep from singing?"

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

"Not afraid" Sermon for 22 January 2017

Sermon for Sunday, 22 January 2017
3 Epiphany

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Psalm 27


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

Even music majors need to take a science class.

Christian Quarter, Old City
January 2017
This was the bad news my academic adviser delivered to me, sometime near the end of my university studies. I was not pleased, and was also not sure I could pass a college-level chemistry or physics class. But I had heard a rumor, a hint that lots of arts majors took one particular science class in the entomology department: “Insects and Society.” I registered for it that day.

In the class “Insects and Society”, I learned how fleas had a part in spreading the plague. I brought a Giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroach home in a cage and observed it as homework.
And—since the professor was indeed sympathetic to arts majors—I wrote a paper about children’s piano solos with titles like “The Cockroach Dance” and “The Bumblebee Festival” and how the music represented the real insects in question.

I got an A.

Now, this was all taking place shortly after I was married, and it so happened that one day, a giant insect appeared on the ceiling of a room in our house. Being newly married, my spouse and I had not yet worked out all the household chores, but I assumed, following typical gender roles, that the husband would deal with big ugly insects.

Robert was not so sure about this.

So it was decided (equally) that we would (equally) deal with the insect (of whom we were equally afraid.)

Thankfully, in my class “Insects and Society”, we were given a flowchart with which to identify unknown critters. It went like this: If it has 6 legs, turn to page 2. If it has 8, go back to the section on Spiders. If it has a segmented body, turn to page 10. If it is greenish-brown, turn to page 11.

Armed with the flowchart, and standing side-by-side on two chairs, Robert and I got up close to the ceiling bug.

We were not afraid.
We were not afraid, because I was taking “Insects and Society.”
We were not afraid, because we had a flowchart.

We were not afraid…but we were also confused, because we could not identify it. Each time we followed the chart to its conclusion, we ended up at a picture of something entirely different from our insect.

And so, we stood on tiptoe and pressed our faces even closer, inches from its body.
We were definitely not afraid, we told ourselves.

And then, suddenly, the giant bug left the ceiling and flew right into our faces! We jumped off the chairs, dropped the flowchart and screamed.
Equally loudly, of course.

Where the chart had asked “Does it have wings?” we had answered “no.” (It turns out, a giant praying mantis DOES have wings.)

Whom shall we fear? Of what shall we be afraid?

There is no handy flowchart for answering this question about life, and events, and the people we encounter. 

But we do have a never-ending cycle of “Breaking News”, which all day long feeds us fearful images of natural disasters and unnatural terrorism, of historic sites destroyed by extremists, of 17-year-old boys shot and dragged away, of homes demolished, of new political leaders and the millions marching in protest.

Then there is the advertising which sells us fear of looking our age, of not having enough money for retirement, of not enjoying (or at least consuming) our “best life now.”

There are also the fears that originate inside of us—the fears of not doing enough, not being enough—or the fear of doing and being the wrong things.

And how long has it been since someone from home has said to you, “Aren’t you afraid to live in Jerusalem?” I would guess that for many of you, the answer is the same as mine: Roughly 12 hours, or the last time I checked Facebook.

Aren’t you afraid? If you track every news story, and heed every warning, and listen to every inner dialogue, the question really isn’t “Aren’t you afraid to live in Jerusalem?” but “Aren’t you afraid to get up in the morning?”

Thanks be to God, into this seemingly awful, fearful world come the words of the 27th Psalm, which we sang together this morning:

“The LORD ismy light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

There are some who interpret this as a psalm of absolute confidence and victory, the bold song of someone possessing great courage. In fact, in many Bibles, this psalm is titled “A Triumphant Song of Confidence.” In this way, Psalm 27 can be heard as a sort of theme song for the bold and the beautiful.

But I hear it differently! I read Psalm 27 and I suspect this is the song of someone who knows what fear is. This is the mantra of someone trying to summon the courage to do something difficult, to achieve something risky, or to face something that is rightfully scary. This is two people, armed with a flowchart, saying to themselves, “Don’t worry, get closer, it doesn’t have wings!” (…for example!)

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?” I believe these are the words of someone who both knows fear AND knows God. This is the song of someone who is facing the darkness, and not for the first time. This is the song of someone who knows from personal experience that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, and life is stronger than death! Amen!

Even though the psalmist has reason to be afraid, he or she sings in confidence because God has been faithful in the past. Things have been bad before, and God has always come through.

It’s a bit sad that both the lectionary writers and the song writers left out verses 2 and 3 of this psalm, for here is where the psalmist exhibits a trust and confidence in the midst of trials which can only come from personal experience:

“When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—my adversaries and foes—they shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.”

This reminds me of a different media message I encountered this week: a sermon preached by the Rev. Nina Turner on Martin Luther King Day. Standing in front of the MLK Memorial in Washington, D.C., in the week when a new president was about to be inaugurated (a president whose attitudes and speech give many good reasons to be afraid), Rev. Turner said,

“We have been here before. The valley may be lower, but we’ve been here before. The mountain may be higher, but we’ve been here before.”

We have been here before! Whether the adversary—the one trying to steal our freedom, steal our life, or steal our joy—comes from outside us or from deep within us, we have been here before. This is not the first time. There is nothing new under the sun—and that means we know, from experience, that the Lord always shows up. Psalm 27 both names the reality of sin that we face, and gives us words of trust in a good God who has always come through, who has always shown up, and who is always on the side of the oppressed, the distressed, the depressed, and yes, the afraid.

One of our Eucharistic prayers from the communion liturgy puts it this way:

“When the world was a formless void, you formed order and beauty. When Abraham and Sarah were barren, you sent them a child. When the Israelites were enslaved, you led them to freedom. Ruth faced starvation, David fought Goliath, and the psalmists cried out for healing, and full of compassion, you granted the people your life.
You entered our sorrows as Jesus your brother. He was born among the poor, he lived under oppression, he wept over the city. With infinite love, he granted the people your life.”

Yes, the night has been long before, but the witness of the Holy Scriptures is that the morning light has always come. And therefore we can sing with the psalmist:

“The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
We are hearing this particular psalm today, on the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, because Epiphany is the season of the church year when we celebrate how God showed up for us on Christmas morning in the flesh, and then became manifest to the nations of the world. This is the season when the church hears the stories of how Jesus, the light of the world and our morningstar, traveled throughout the Galilee assembling his band of disciples. This is the season when the whole church—that’s you and me—is enlivened and empowered by the light of Christ to join in his mission, to heal the sick, to preach the good news, to raise the dead, and to bring God’s justice, peace, and love to all.

In great love, God in Christ shows up again, and again, and again to offer light to this dark world—and for this reason, we have nothing to fear. We have no one to fear.
But we do have a story to tell! We have a mission to share! And we have a song to sing. As the psalmist says:

“Even now my head is lifted up above my enemies who surround me. Therefore I will offer sacrifice in the sanctuary, sacrifices of rejoicing; I will sing and make music to the LORD.” Amen!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"4 o'clock in the afternoon" Sermon for Sunday 15 January 2017

Sermon for Sunday 15 January 2017

2 Epiphany

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.

Earlier this week, I ventured into my apartment’s crawlspace, retrieved the empty box marked “Christmas”, and then began the work of putting Jesus out of sight and out of mind until next year.

At least, that’s what it felt like! I have a growing collection of nativity sets from around the world, which means at Christmastime the baby Jesus is literally “God with us” in every room of the house. So each time I wrap the Holy Family in tissue paper and bubble wrap, nestling Jesus in the box between Mary and Joseph and the camels for the next eleven months, I feel a little sad to see him go. It makes me think of how, when I was very small, I would feel guilty when my family went on vacation, because my stuffed animals would be left all alone! I just knew they preferred me to stay with them. I can remember apologizing to my collection of bears and bunnies and kittens, saying, “I’ll be right back! I won’t forget you, I promise!”

Dear friends, our Christmas celebrations are over. Even here in Jerusalem, Christmas is 2/3rds over! The church’s tree has disappeared, and the baby Jesus is packed away and out of sight. But the Messiah is with us still! The Lamb of God is walking among us! And in this morning’s Gospel lesson, John the Baptist will not let us forget him.

One day, when John sees Jesus walking by, he declares, to no one in particular, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” And the next day, this time standing with two disciples when Jesus walks by, John exclaims again, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” As we learned during Advent, John is the voice crying out in the wilderness—or in this case, crying out on the side of road—always preparing the way of the Lord and always pointing the people to Christ.

And John’s roadside testimony worked very well, because his two disciples immediately left him and started following Jesus. As it is written, 

“The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.

It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.”

Friends, as usual, I have so many questions about this Gospel story. There are so many details I wish I knew: Where was Jesus going? Why is John always lurking on the side of the road spying on him? And how is it that two disciples had nothing better to do but take off following a guy they just saw?

But one thing I never wondered—at all—is what time of day this all took place. And yet, here it is: It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.

The Gospel writer felt it was important that we have this detail: It was four o’clock. Late afternoon. After lunch. Not quite suppertime, but soon to be dark, depending on the time of year.

When you show up at someone’s house at four o’clock in the afternoon for a visit, the host will surely offer you something to eat after your journey. And if you’ve had something to eat, someone will definitely bring you coffee. And if you’ve stayed for coffee, chances are now it’s nearly night. And if it’s nearly nighttime—and if you are living in 1st Century Palestine, without the benefit of a car or an evening bus to take you home—then you are likely staying for supper.

If you’re staying for supper, then you’re probably staying the night.

And if you’ve remained with Jesus and his disciples for coffee, supper, conversation, and sleep, then perhaps, after breakfast, you will join Jesus on his next daily walk.

Which makes you a follower. Which makes you a disciple.

Which means, in other words, four o’clock in the afternoon is decision time.

Four o’clock in the afternoon is the time to consider: Are you here for a moment, or are you here for the evening? Jesus says “Come and see”—and it’s not so the curious can have a 15-minute tour of the house and then be on their way. When the Lamb of God calls us to follow, when the Messiah invites us to walk with him, he invites us also to stay. Jesus invites us for supper. He invites for conversation. He invites us to take a part in his Gospel mission.

Jesus invites us to stay for the long haul!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the decision to stay with Jesus for the long haul as we begin this new year. 2017 carries much meaning here in Israel and Palestine. This year we are marking fifty years of the occupation of the Palestinian Territories, and one hundred years since the Balfour Declaration—the letter from Britain which established in Palestine a home for the Jewish people, and which is seen as a key moment in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It’s difficult to comprehend the magnitude of suffering on all sides that has occurred here since 1917 or even since 1967. It’s equally difficult to comprehend the steadfastness (or “sumud” as it is called in Arabic) of the voices for peace, for justice, for reconciliation and living together that have continued to rise up in this place in those many years. I often wonder: Would I have the faith and the courage to continue the work of peace and reconciliation for so many decades? I have been here just 2.5 years, and already the cycle of violence, of failed peace initiatives, and of unreliable international involvement often takes a toll on my passion and my resolve. 

I am in awe of those who are in it for the long haul—the Palestinians and Israelis and faithful allies of conscience who refuse to be silenced. Those who refuse to lose hope. Those who do not turn around and go home, even when it’s four o’clock in the afternoon, and even when the sun seems to be setting on the chances for peace with justice.

I am in awe of those who stay.

I am in awe of nurses who stay with dying patients, long after their shifts have ended.
I am in awe of mothers and fathers and teachers who advocate for children, when others have simply written them off.
I am in awe of rabbis who protect Palestinian farmers harvesting olives,

I am in awe of the last doctors in Aleppo.

I am in awe of all those who choose to stay—those who continue to feed the hungry, to serve the poor, to combat racism, to teach non-violence, to subvert the patriarchy, and to amplify the voices of the ignored and overlooked—for the entire communion of saints who have chosen discipleship, even knowing the way of Jesus is the Way of the Cross.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, today we find ourselves at a time in history when followers of Jesus are being asked, not only if we will follow, but if we will stay. We are at a critical juncture. This is a moment of decision. It is four o’clock in the afternoon! Are we drinking the next cup of coffee? Are we staying for supper? Are we listening for what Jesus has called us to do at this time? Are we in this for the long haul?

Or will we decide that other commitments, other offers, other prophets, other paths are calling us away from where Jesus is staying?

We may remember how, on the night when he was betrayed, waiting in the garden before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus also begged his followers to stay, saying, “remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26:38)

Stay with me! Remain here with me! I believe this is the call we are hearing, not only from Jesus, but also from our neighbors today! Across the globe, from Syria to Cairo, from fearful neighborhoods in the United States to the demolished neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, our neighbors are begging us to stay.
Our sisters and brothers, fellow human beings and children of God, are asking us, inviting us, begging us to stay with Jesus and on his path of peace, of justice, of liberation, of equality, of love.

Yes, it’s already 4 o clock in the afternoon.
Yes, night is falling.
There are other places to eat. There are other places to stay. There are other, easier paths we could take.

But along with Andrew and Simon Peter and Mary Magdalene and the others, we will stay with Jesus.
We will stay with him, for we have seen that he is the Messiah, the Lamb of God.
We will stay with Jesus, for his love for us leads all the way to the cross.
We will stay with Jesus, for even death cannot keep him from us.
The light shines in the darkness...
At the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
December 2016
We will stay with Jesus, for as it is written: “Lo, I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age”. In great love, Jesus stays with us, remains with us, in, with and under the bread and the wine, through water and the Word, and wherever two or three are gathered in his name.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, it may seem the sun is setting on the hope for peace with justice in this land. It may seem the night is covering the earth and difficult days are coming for the nations of the world. But hear again the Good News: 
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it! Jesus, Lamb of God, light of the world and all the nations, invites us to come and see where he is staying.

And lo, here we are, with him! At the table. At the water’s edge. At the foot of the cross. And we shall not be moved. Amen.