Monday, February 27, 2017

Transfiguration Sermon: "Holy ground?"

Sermon for Sunday, 26 February 2017
Transfiguration Sunday

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

"No other sentiment draws people to Jerusalem than the desire to see and touch the places where Christ was physically present, and to be able to say from their very own experience: 'We have gone into his tabernacle, and have worshipped in the places where his feet have stood.'"

—Paulinus of Nola (5th century)

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

I can’t remember exactly why, but for some reason, I was the last one to leave my grandmother’s house after her funeral.

As in, it was my job to turn out the lights, lock the door, and drive away. Everyone else had left for the airport, or wanted to get on the road early in the morning. But I had two small children with me, which always slows things down, so there I was, closing up the house. By myself.

It sounded like a fine plan, until that last moment. It was all good until that moment when I walked out the door and heard it “click” shut and realized this place, this holy place, would soon belong to someone else.

I hesitated there on the porch, and started to think: Maybe I could buy the house. I could keep it as a summer home.  Because who doesn’t want to spend summers in a village of 300 people in the middle of the Iowa cornfields?

No, that wasn’t practical. But I desperately wanted to keep that house, to preserve it as the holy site it was. During a childhood filled with constant moves and changes, Grandma’s house was safety, security, history, family. It was home.

Eventually, the kids calling from the backseat of the car ended my dreaming. I locked the door of the house, started the car, and reluctantly drove away.

A few years later, my mom and I traveled back to rural Iowa for a family reunion—a very special event, because the relatives who had stayed in Sweden when the rest of the family emigrated to the US would be joining us for the first time. During a lull in the reunion activity, Mom and I drove down the road to Grandma’s house. 

I remember being so excited. I was filled with anticipation of the sights, sounds, and smells from my childhood—I could imagine the house, perched on top of the hill across the street from the Lutheran Church, and the apple tree in the back yard with the rope swing my Grandpa hung for me. I could hear the sound of the awful community tornado siren, which stood in the backyard and pointed directly at the rooms upstairs, whose ear-splitting scream announced not only tornados, but also daily lunch and supper, at noon and six, so the farmers knew when to come in from the fields.

I could even smell the beef roast and potatoes cooking on the stove.

But when we drove up to the house, it was all wrong. The tree and the swing were both missing. Someone had removed the white stucco and the black wooden shutters and had put up modern siding. There was a fancy porch around the front of the house now, replacing my Grandpa’s humble lawn chair and ashtray. It wasn’t right at all.

It wasn’t right, of course, because my grandparents weren’t there. It wasn’t right, because it never was the house or the tree or the tornado siren which mattered—it was the people. I had always thought this was a holy house, but now I realized it was my grandparents who made it home. It was their love that made it holy ground—and now, because I carry their love with me, every step is made on holy ground.

On this Transfiguration Sunday, we have heard how Peter, James, and John were confused in much the same way.

Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

In other words, when Peter saw Jesus shining in all this divine glory before them, his instinct was to say, “This PLACE is amazing. Let’s stay HERE forever! Let’s even build some houses, because if Moses and Elijah are here, this must be a holy mountain. If Jesus shines here, this must be holy ground.”

Today, we still love the idea of special holy places and uniquely holy ground.

Those of you who are living, working, and studying in Jerusalem have likely been asked many times what it’s like to live in the “Holy City.” I meet often with visiting groups after worship, and I always try to share a bit of the reality of living in this place. I tell visitors about Palestinian Christians, and how they are affected by the occupation. I tell them about our church receptionist, how it takes him 2 hours to travel just a few kilometers across the checkpoint to work each morning. I tell visitors about where I have met Christ in my neighbor, on both sides of the wall. I especially want them to know about the people I have met who are carrying the cross of Christ today.

But invariably, someone always raises his hand to say,

“But Pastor, it must be so wonderful to walk where Jesus walked two thousand years ago. It must be so thrilling to work here, to pray here, to preach here. It must be so good to be here.”

Like the disciples on the high mountain with Jesus, it is natural for us to be attracted to holy ground and holy places and even holy cities. Our spirits long to connect with God, to experience the divine, to glimpse the beauty and peace of heaven in the midst of this painful and broken world. We want to know exactly where to find that connection. It would be nice if the holy land tourism companies could really deliver on their promise. If only we could buy a ticket and stand in line and be guaranteed a revelation, an epiphany, or a vision of Jesus shining like the sun before us.

It would be nice if we knew exactly where to find holy ground—and how to preserve it forever.

But, even though this morning’s Gospel lesson takes place on a high mountain, close to the clouds and seemingly close to God, the message of Transfiguration Sunday is not about identifying a holy place. Yes, this is the place where Jesus is transfigured before the disciples. Yes, this mountain is where he shines like the sun, and holy figures from the past appear with him. Yes, this is where God reveals something important to encourage the disciples before they follow Jesus down the mountain, into the streets, and ultimately to the cross and the tomb.

But what is the revelation exactly? What is it that God the Creator of all things wants the followers of Jesus to understand before they enter Jerusalem? Is it that nothing will ever live up to this “mountaintop experience”?

The answer comes after Peter suggests building holy houses and preserving the holy ground of this holy moment for all eternity. It comes when a voice from the clouds says:

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

The voice from heaven says “This is my Son!” Not “this is where I live”. Not “This is my mountain.” Not “This is the site of my future theme park and convention center and gift shop” but “This is my Son. Listen to him!”

Scripture tells us that when the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
Jesus came and touched the disciples. The power of that simple touch is the most important revelation of all! It was Jesus, not the mountain, who was transfigured that day. It was Jesus, not the ground he walked on, who was revealed to be beautiful, unique, and holy.

Shining like the sun, Jesus was revealed to be the light of the world. Appearing with Moses and Elijah, Jesus was revealed to be continuing the tradition of the great prophets. Called “beloved” by the voice from heaven, Jesus was revealed to be the Son of God.

And through a simple comforting touch on the shoulders of some fearful disciples, our God was revealed as One who is big enough, powerful enough, loving enough, and merciful enough, to come among us in humblest of ways—as a baby, born in Bethlehem.

Because Jesus walked among us, all earth is holy ground.
Because Jesus had a body like ours, all bodies are holy ground.
Because Jesus had parents, and friends, and teachers, and neighbors, all relationships are holy ground.
Because Jesus ate with sinners and outcasts as well as disciples, all tables are holy ground.
Because Jesus knew pain, sorrow, and suffering as we do, not one moment of our lives is empty of his holy presence.

This revelation is especially important for us on this last Sunday of the season of Epiphany—the season of revelations. On Wednesday, we will gather as a community to begin the season of Lent. At noon or at 6 pm, we’ll be marked with ashes in remembrance of our mortality, and will pray for strength and courage for our personal and communal journeys of repentance and spiritual growth.

As always, when we begin the Lenten season and prepare to hear the story of Jesus’ own temptation and his journey to the cross and the tomb, we need to know that God is not only present with us on the mountaintop. The grace and mercy of God do not only shine in moments and places of beauty and transcendence, but are present with us in our struggles, in our doubt, in our mistakes, in our grief, in our darkest hours—and in Jesus’ darkest hour.

Dear sisters and brothers, our Lord Jesus is beautiful. He himself is our holy ground. And by his love, every moment of our lives, from the mountaintop to the valley, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, and from the cradle to the grave, is filled with his holy presence. Thanks be to God. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Be who you are" Sermon for Sunday 5 February 2017

Sermon for Sunday 5 February 2017
5 Epiphany

"Be who you are"

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.

Cross leaning against the church of the Holy Sepulcher
Graffiti reading "Be who you are"
29 January 2017
Photo by Carrie Smith
Last week we had dinner with some friends we hadn’t seen for a while, and as usual the conversation turned to talking about our kids. How’s school, how old are they now, oh my goodness how can they be ready for college, etc. At one point, our friend said to us, “Well, I know that you just want them to be all that they can be.”

At which point Robert and I laughed out loud, to the dismay of our friends, who were just trying to be nice. These friends are not from the US, so they couldn’t know that when Americans of a certain age hear this phrase, it automatically comes with a tune. That’s because all throughout the 80’s and 90’s, the slogan for the United States Army was: “Be all that you can be, in the Army!” It showed up on posters in our high schools and played repeatedly on television, before the evening news or even in between our Saturday morning cartoons.

It was an extremely effective marketing campaign, and not only because of that catchy tune. “Be all that you can be” tapped into a human desire to be and to do more. It spoke to the belief—perhaps a typically American belief—that life is about achieving, progressing, and becoming. For this reason, motivational speakers are fond of saying things like, “If you’re standing still, you’re already falling behind!” It is in this spirit that the US Army promised to help you tap your inner potential—to be all that you can be, rather than whatever it is you are now—by flying planes, driving tanks, and “seeing the world” as a soldier.

This idea that life is about aspiring to do or become something else also affects how we read and interpret the words of Scripture. This morning’s Gospel reading from the 5th chapter of Matthew is a good example. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount continues this week with these very familiar words:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?


You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden."

These are some of the most famous phrases in the most famous sermon ever preached, and still most of the time we misquote it or at least misremember it. 

“You are the salt of the earth” becomes in our minds, “You should become salt!” 
"You are the light of the world” becomes “You need to be the light!”

But in fact, Jesus does not tell the disciples that they have the potential to maybe, one day, be salt and light, if they try hard enough. He proclaims to them: You are salt. You are light. Right now! This minute! You don’t need to join anything, study anything, do anything, or buy anything to “be all that you can be.”

“All that you can be” has already happened.

Your life has mattered since you were in your mother’s womb.
Your sins have been forgiven since the day Jesus went to the cross.
You have been born anew since the day you were washed in the water.
And you have been salt and light since the day Jesus called you by name and invited you to join in his Gospel mission with all the other disciples.

This is one instance when I’d like to re-purpose an old car bumper sticker I used to see in Oklahoma. It proclaimed something like: “Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it!” Amen!

Jesus says: You are salt. You are light. Of course, this runs counter to our inner dialogues and opinions about ourselves and our value. If Jesus came to church this morning and said “You, Redeemer Lutheran, are the salt of the earth!” we’d probably wonder if we are really the best salt we could be. Maybe we should really be ethically harvested, organic, fair trade, artisanal sea salt. Or at least kosher salt, since we’re in Jerusalem. Or should we be Dead Sea salt? In any case, surely regular table salt is not enough.

But again, Jesus doesn’t love you for your potential. Jesus didn’t die for the person he thought you might become. Jesus went to the cross for a broken world. He died for the you you are now – messed up. Imperfect. Doubtful and dubious.

And he has called the you you are now. You are salt and you are light, not because you are so special, but because Jesus is! You are a disciple, essential to the mission of the church, because he has called you here. It is his love that flavors all that you do. It is the light of his resurrection that illumines all that you do.

The famous Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his own sermon about the Sermon on the Mount:

“You are the salt—not: You should be the salt! It is not for the disciples to decide whether they are or are not to be salt. Nor is any appeal made to them to become the salt of the earth. They are that salt, whether they want to be or not, in the power of the call they have encountered.
The same one who says of himself in direct speech: “I am the light,” says to his disciples in direct speech: You are the light in your entire lives insofar as you abide in my call. And because you are the light, you can no longer remain hidden, whether you want this or not…”

Hear again this Good News: we do not need to become salt or light, because Christ has already done that work in us through the power of the cross and the resurrection.

Now, with that being said, sometimes we do need to remember the nature of salt and light. What are salt and light for?

Jesus said, “If salt has lost its flavor, what good is it? And no one puts a light under a basket, but sets it up high, so it can brighten the room.”

In other words, salt and light are agents of change.

You are salt. And what does this mean? Salt changes flavor. Salt preserves meat, changing it so it won’t spoil. Salt reacts with other ingredients and makes bread and cakes and all sorts of delicious things, changing plain flour, eggs, and butter into lifegiving food!

You are light. And what does this mean? Light changes night into day. Light warms and comforts. Light reveals things unseen. Light leads the way down paths untrodden and ventures of which we cannot see the ending.

Salt and light have the power to change things.
Which means: As disciples, we too are change agents.

Followers of Jesus bring mercy and forgiveness to a world of judgment and fear.
Followers of Jesus bring a commitment to justice and peace to a world that worships power over others.
Followers of Jesus bring concern for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, refugees, and strangers, to a world which is all about self-protection and self-concern.
Followers of Jesus bring the audacity and the boldness of speaking truth to power when necessary—even if it means, as it did for Jesus, walking the way of the cross and suffering for the sake of our friends.

Called by him and empowered by his love, we who have been called salt and light have the power to change the situation, to change lives, even to change the world.

Not long ago, I paid a visit to a church member, who always makes me coffee when I come around. Now this woman does not drink anything in her coffee, and I think she considers it a sign of personal weakness that I take both sugar and milk in mine.

Still, she always graciously sets out a bowl of sugar just for me.

On this occasion, I took a large spoonful of sugar and stirred it into my coffee. Then I took a drink.

Coffee at Shakespeare & Co, Paris
January 2017
Photo by Carrie Smith
And of course, I discovered that the bowl of sugar was really a bowl of salt.
It was all I could do not to spit it out onto this church member’s delicate lace tablecloth! A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but a spoonful of salt makes it difficult to keep the coffee down.

I was remembering this experience—tasting again the salty coffee in my mouth—as I considered what it means for disciples of Jesus to express our saltiness in the world today.

And I thought: Yes, salt is an essential ingredient in baking cakes.
Yes, salt preserves meat and other useful things.
But salt also gets your attention, especially when it shows up where you least expect it.

So, I would like to suggest that as disciples of Jesus, as the church, when we come together in our saltiness...
We are the salt in racism’s coffee.

Together, we are the heaping spoonful of salt in xenophobia’s vanilla milkshake.
Together, we are the entire cup of salt poured into the occupation’s lemonade.
Together, we are the kilo of salt dumped into whatever they’re serving in the halls of power as they plan the next war.

And why not? This is what salt does! It changes things.

The first reading this morning, from Isaiah 58, began with the prophet Isaiah’s words:
“Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!”

And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is telling us:
Listen up: You are already salt! So don’t be afraid to flavor some stuff!
You are already light! Don’t be afraid to disrupt the night with your brightness!

"A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Dear friends in Christ, you don’t need to "Be all that you can be.” Just be who Jesus says you are:

Be salt. Be light. Be peacemakers. Be troublemakers!

Be who you are, that the world may see your good works, that your neighbor may know welcome, that the oppressed may be set free, that the hungry may be fed, and that all may know the love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Of BLTs and Psalm 137

“How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” Psalm 137:4
2 February 2017
I had all the makings of BLT sandwiches…I only needed lettuce and tomatoes.
Which, in Jerusalem, is really saying something.
I currently am the proud owner of a pack of bacon, and I decided early this morning that tonight would be BLT night. I just needed to buy some L and some T.
Today was “write at home” day, so first I wrote some emails.
Then I wrote notes on a sermon.
Then I made some cookies.
Then I read some articles and wrote some more.
Lettuce and tomatoes moved further and further down the list, but not because I wasn’t hungry.
It was because I didn’t feel like going outside. 
It was silly, really!
The sun was shining. The air was crisp.
The trash from the municipal strike earlier in the week had been cleared on my street.
And I live a 2-minute walk from an outdoor market literally spilling over with fresh tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and even strawberries (Winter is strawberry season in Jerusalem!)
Still, today I did everything possible before I walked out my front door to purchase lettuce and tomatoes.
The truth is, most of the time, it is thrilling to live in Jerusalem.
Most of the time, I am awash with the great privilege it is to be here, in the Holy City, home to 2 peoples and 3 religions, a city where you can literally visit the “Axis Mundi”, the Center of the World, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
But some days, I’m just a stranger in a strange land. Some days, walking out the door and into a new culture and a new language takes all my courage and strength.
I admit I rarely thought about this when I met newcomers to my own country. I suppose I assumed they were just awash in gratitude to be in the great US of A, the “land of the free!” I suppose I assumed my culture was as comfortable for them as it was for me. How could they not appreciate its beauty?
But now I wonder: Did they get the same knots in their stomachs when they walked out the front door?
Did they also practice all the possible phrases they would need at the market, and then panic when the cashier went “off script” or had a different accent?
Did they have days when they changed the dinner menu to avoid leaving the house?
At 3 pm, I put on my coat and grabbed my bag and decided it was now or never. Or, more accurately, it was now or the kids would be eating BLT’s without the L or the T. Which is just…not the same.
Ayn Het Street, Musrara, Jerusalem
As seen from my kitchen balcony
I started down the three flights of stairs and opened the front gate and there, just in front of our building, was an elderly woman sitting before an easel. She looked up briefly and smiled, then went back to work.
She was painting my street. The street I spent all day avoiding!I glanced down at her canvas, to the colors she had artfully placed there. Then I raised my eyes to my street to see that yes: it really is beautiful.

The afternoon sun cast pink shadows on the monochrome stone buildings. The window shutters, all a brilliant turquoise, added another pop of color. My beloved cats of Jerusalem darted across the street and between the buildings.
It IS beautiful. Different, but beautiful. Not the February I have ever experienced anywhere else, but beautiful.
I left the artist to her work and walked toward the market. An Orthodox Jewish mother pushed her daughter down the sidewalk on a tricycle. I crossed the street toward the Old City, and a Muslim woman with a bag of groceries balanced on her head walked toward me while chatting on her cell phone. The man at the market greeted me in Arabic, and I knew exactly what to say.
It was beautiful. And I am grateful. And it’s still hard.
Today, my prayers are with refugees and immigrants and newcomers to every foreign land. Some days, it’s really hard to sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land. Some days, it’s even hard just to walk out the door.
But, God is still good!
And I have bacon. And lettuce, and tomatoes.
Thanks be to God. الحمد لله