Monday, March 27, 2017

"What Jesus does with dust" Sermon for 4th Sunday in Lent 2017

Sermon for Sunday 26 March 2017

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

"What Jesus does with dust"

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

It was a bitterly cold winter day on the outskirts of Chicago, as the long black hearse I was riding in pulled into the Lutheran cemetery and parked. It was so cold that the funeral director and I sat for a moment in the front seat, debating whether the elderly widow of the deceased should even get out of her car for the graveside service. We both knew this feisty woman well, however, and decided to not even suggest such a thing.

The cold air smacked us in the face as we opened the car doors into the wind. The funeral director quickly gathered the small group of family and friends around the gravesite, the pallbearers quickly (but ceremoniously) moved the casket into place, and I tried to breathe in as little as possible. Breathing hurt. My face hurt. For the umpteenth time, I thought to myself, “Why do I live in a place where breathing hurts my face?”

With gloved hands and fingers fat and clumsy from the cold, I flipped through my prayer book to the proper page and began to read,

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.”

Then there was a prayer, and another Scripture, and then it was time for those famous words which, mostly thanks to television, have become an iconic part of the American funeral tradition: “We commend to almighty God our brother Harold, and commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

All that was left was for the pastor to say these words and to toss a handful of earth onto the casket. Then we could all get out of the cold, and go to lunch at the church!
But there was a problem. As I looked down to my feet, I realized that the ground was frozen solid. I kicked at it with my foot. Nothing moved. I looked around for a pile of dirt, of gravel, of dust, of anything I could conceivably scoop up with my hand for this last step of saying goodbye to Harold.

But it was hopeless. Everything was frozen, including my feet now. And throwing snow into the grave just wouldn’t have the same effect! I had decided just to skip it, when suddenly, my friend the funeral director was at my side. He stuck his gloved hand into his coat pocket and produced a little plastic container, the kind that holds prescription medicine. He popped the lid off and handed it to me.

“Hey, things really aren’t that bad yet!” I wanted to say.

But as I took the little vial from him I saw that it contained, not pills, but dust.

The funeral director looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, leaned in and whispered, “For emergencies.”

The idea of carrying “emergency dust” in your pocket struck me as so funny that I barely held it together for the last moments of that graveside service. But: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” I proclaimed, and tossed the contents of that little plastic container onto Harold’s casket. “Amen” said the crowd, and then they all hurried into their cars and drove off to eat ham sandwiches and macaroni salad at the church.

I thought about that “emergency dust” again this week as I read the story of Jesus and the man born blind. Jesus does some amazing stuff with dust! Amen!

We read in the Gospel according to John chapter 9, that while Jesus walking along, he saw a man born blind. The disciples wanted to know, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They might as well have added, “…and how can we avoid it happening to us?”

But Jesus turned their question upside down. He said, “Neither this man nor his parents have sinned. He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him!”

And then Jesus spat on the ground, made mud from the dust, and spread the mud on the man’s eyes. And after the man had washed the mud off in the pool of Siloam, he came back able to see.

Thanks be to God, Jesus restored a blind man’s sight with only dust and spit! As the healed man himself said later, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.” Amen!

Now one conclusion from this miraculous event is that if plain dust has such great power, perhaps we should all be carrying around little bottles of “emergency dust” in our pockets!

But of course, it was not the dust which held the healing power, but Jesus. This beautiful–and sometimes humorous—Gospel story is a powerful testimony of just who Jesus is.

It is no accident that Jesus heals the man born blind with dust and spit. This important detail of the story serves to remind us of Genesis 2:7, where it is written, “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Therefore, just as God the Father created Adam out of dust and holy breath, we are meant to see that Jesus re-creates the blind man’s life out of dust and holy saliva.

Jesus, therefore, is more than a prophet. He is more than a teacher and a healer. Jesus possesses the powers of creation and re-creation, powers that only come from the one God, the Creator heaven and earth. As the man who was healed said to the Pharisees, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

Jesus, his teachings, and his works are from God! This is the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Good News the Pharisees struggled to understand, but which the man born blind embodied in their midst.

But there is more Good News in this story.

That all-important detail—the fact that Jesus spat on the ground to make the mud which gave the blind man new life—is also a reminder that dust is the stuff of miracles.

Dust is the stuff of miracles. Here in the Middle East, it feels strange to say anything positive about dust. In fact, we are entering the time of year when every day will feel like a futile fight against the dust in the air, the dust in our noses, and the dust settling on every conceivable surface in our homes.

But God does some beautiful things with dust. Our cleanliness, it turns out, is not “next to godliness.” Our mess is!

God does beautiful things with our dust, with our dirt, with our mess, with our imperfections, with our doubts, and with our sins.

God does beautiful things with us, the ones who, in the beginning, God fashioned out of dust! For as it says in every youth pastor’s favorite psalm:

“For he knows how we are formed. He remembers that we are but dust.” (Psalm 103:14)

(If you’re wondering why I say this is every youth pastor’s favorite psalm, try saying “we are but dust” in front of a youth group! I dare you!)

God knows we are dust. God knows we are a mess.
God knows what we are made of—because God made us.

Early morning cleaning at Damascus Gate
26 March 2017
Photo by Carrie Smith
And still, when we are lost, when we are afraid, when we are lonely, when we are beating ourselves up for the messes in our lives, we always think the answer is to tidy things up on our own:

So we clean up our closets.
We clean up our email inbox.
We clean up our friend list.
We vow to clean up our lives, once and for all, so God will have a reason to love us.
We even renovate the tomb of Jesus.

As a matter of fact, I visited the newly-cleaned up and renovated tomb of Jesus the other day.

It was the day after the big formal dedication of the centuries-old aedicule. At mid-morning, I left my office here at the church and walked over to the Holy Sepulcher Church to see it for myself. My plan was to sit by the “sparkly” new tomb and meditate on the preaching text for this week.

So I pushed through the crowds and found a spot on one of the wooden benches opposite the aedicule, next to a Franciscan brother in his long brown robe, and two Russian women wearing matronly skirts and headscarves. I unfolded my printed-out scriptures for this week and read,

            He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud    on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam (which        means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

Pilgrims line up to visit the newly-renovated
aedicule over the tomb of Jesus
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
23 March 2017
And it suddenly struck me as incongruous, and almost humorous, to be reading about Jesus playing in the mud and dust, while all around me people were lining up, shoving, and jockeying for position to see the tomb of the same Jesus—now free of dust, free of ash and soot, free of the wear and tear of life and the passage of time.

I looked down at my notebook read again: Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes.”

I thought about it some more, and made some notes in my notebook, until something distracted me:

It wasn’t the crowds. It wasn’t the noise of the pilgrims praying, chatting, and taking selfies.
It was the extreme body odor of the man standing next to me, peering into the room behind me where the “Navel of the World” is found.

Deodorant did not find its way into this man’s luggage.
Deodorant may not have found its way into this man’s life up to this point, I surmised.
His presence near me was beyond distracting. And yet…somehow his was the perfect scent to accompany our Gospel lesson for this morning.

Hear these words again:

Jesus spat on the ground. He made mud with dust and saliva. And he used that mess—that muddy, sticky mess—to give a blind man new eyes and a new life.

Dear friends in Christ, Jesus is not afraid of dust.
Or mud.
Or sweat.
Or body odor.
And Jesus is not afraid of your mess.

In fact, Our Lord loves the things we find dirty, stinky, messy, unsightly. Our Lord makes miracles happen with the stuff we deem worthless. Our Lord makes miracles happen with relationships we deem worthless. Our Lord makes miracles happen with the people we deem worthless. Our Lord makes miracles happen through us, even though we are “but dust”.

And so yes, I find it strange, and a little bit funny, that we just spent 3 million dollars and an entire year to clean up and beautify the tomb of the One who,
In great love,
Creates miracles out of dust.

Hear again the Good News: Jesus of Nazareth, the one who gave sight to the man born blind, is the Son of God. He is the Messiah we’ve been waiting for. He is the light of the world, our salvation, our healer and our brother.

And he loves us, the ones created out of holy dust, and holy breath, and holy love. He may even keep “emergency dust” in his pockets! Because thanks be to God, our messes are the building blocks of his miracles.

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

"Jesus and the Woman with a Bucket" Sermon for 3 Lent 2017

Sermon for Sunday 19 March 2017
3rd Sunday in Lent
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.

"The holy martyr Photina was that Samaritan woman who had the rare fortune to speak with the Lord Christ Himself at Jacob's Well in Sychar. Coming to faith in the Lord, she then came to belief in His Gospel, together with her two sons, Victor and Josiah, and five sisters who were called Anatolia, Phota, Photida, Paraskeva and Kyriake. They went to Carthage in Africa. But they were arrested and taken to Rome in the time of the Emperor Nero, and thrown into prison. By the providence of God, Domnina, Nero's daughter, came into contact with St. Photina and was brought by her to the Christian faith. After imprisonment, they all suffered for Christ. Photina, who first encountered the light of truth by a well, was thrown into a well, where she died and entered into the immortal Kingdom of Christ."  

(Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic, The Prolog from Ochrid/Ohridski Prolog)

This is the story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, according to Greek Orthodox tradition. The Catholic tradition is similar, except she is called St. Photiona. Her feast day is celebrated tomorrow, on March 20th. In some traditions, she is known as “St. Photina—Equal to the Apostles.

If you’re thinking, “Wait—that’s way more than I ever heard about the Woman at the Well”…there’s a reason. Because none of this is found in Scripture, none of it has made it into our Protestant church tradition. But I rather like the idea of honoring the Woman at the Well as being “equal to the apostles”. I like that she is recognized as an evangelist! After all, Scripture says “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony”. And I love the simple fact that she has a name, even if it is a fictional one.

Today I begin my sermon with this tradition of “St. Photina” because, frankly, I’m tired of preaching about nameless women in our Holy Scriptures. I’m tired of waiting for a Gospel reading that features someone who looks like me, and then when we finally get one, our Bible commentaries tell us she’s just another anonymous woman with a sketchy past, a good opportunity to preach a morality message: “Don’t be like the woman at the well! But if you are…well, at least Jesus will accept you.”

No! Today I want to tell you about Photina, or Photiona, or…Jennifer, or whatever her name might have been: A woman who (for unknown reasons) had been married to five men. Maybe they died. Maybe they were unfaithful to her! Maybe they divorced her because she was unable to bear a child. In any case, this woman—this strong woman, this audacious woman, this persistent woman--got up anyway, got dressed anyway, picked up her bucket anyway, and went to the well in the heat of the midday.

And in my sanctified imagination, this woman was thinking to herself,

“Oh, please let there be no one there today. Please let this be the day I can just do my chores and not have to listen to those other women and their comments. Please let there be water, because Lord knows, I am thirsty.”

In my eyes, this woman is a heroine, even before she met Jesus. Her culture, her time, and her life circumstances, all conspired against her. Even our history of biblical interpretation has conspired against her, making her into a sinner. Making her into a “nasty woman.”

And nevertheless…she persisted! Amen!

In case you’ve missed my point so far: The Woman who met Jesus at the Well was not a sinner—she was an outsider, not because of anything she did, but because she was abandoned and rejected by her community.

As an outsider, of course she was surprised that the Jewish man at the well asked her for a drink. As a woman, and a Samaritan, he had no reason to talk to her. He had no reason to acknowledge her presence.

She was a nobody.

Do you know what it feels like to be a nobody? To not be counted? To feel you have nothing to offer?

When have you walked into a room only to realize that you are the wrong gender, the wrong color, or possess the wrong credentials to hang with this crowd? Or what does it feel like to know there are walls and checkpoints built just to keep you in your place? To know that no matter what you do, you’ll never possess the right identification?

And what does it feel like, then, when someone does notice you? What does it mean when someone sees you, really sees you?

When you are a nobody, what does it mean for a person to see you as –somebody?

During my seminary training—the second time around, after I had been home for a number of years with small children—I was experiencing a lot of ambivalence about my future in ministry. It was the summer of my required chaplaincy training, which I did at a trauma hospital in Waco, Texas. Now this was a Baptist hospital, in a predominately Baptist town, and at least in that part of the world, most Baptists do not believe in ordaining women. Again and again, I encountered patients who didn’t care that my nametag said, “Chaplain.” Again and again, I was sent out of the room so a “suitable” male chaplain could be brought in to pray with them. Eventually, I was beginning to think that maybe, they were right. Maybe I should return home to my kids. Maybe I had nothing to offer as a pastor!

Maybe, I was nobody.

One evening, after sharing these feelings with my supervisor and contemplating whether I should quit the chaplaincy program, I prepared to leave the hospital. I was in regular clothes—no collar. No cross. No nametag. Nothing to identify me. I was just—nobody, walking through the halls to the exit. I just wanted to go home. In peace. Alone.

But as I made my way through the long hospital corridors, deep in some pretty self-critical thought, a man suddenly darted out of a nearby hospital room, looked right in my face, and said, “PASTOR! Come quick!”

I looked to the right and to the left. Where was the pastor? Who was he talking to?

He said to me again, “PASTOR! Come quick! I need someone to pray with my wife!”

I was so confused. I had never seen this man before. And I was definitely not a pastor! I was just a student. Just a wannabe, and on this day more of a “not-sure-I-wannabe.”
I was just…nobody.

But that’s not what this man saw. He saw something about me that I didn’t. What could I do? I followed him into his wife’s room. We gathered around her bed. We both held her hands, and we prayed together. Afterward, he shook my hand and said, “Thank you, Pastor. You came at just the right time. Your prayer was just what we needed.”

His words were everything to me. He and his wife had a need, and I had something to offer. Little did he know that his request was what I was thirsty for—validation of my call. Others said I was a nobody, but I now knew I did have something to offer. I had a bucket! I had a call. And I could use it, for the sake of Jesus, the fount of living water, the source of Good News for the world.

Now, when the Samaritan woman—St. Photina—arrived at the well with her bucket, she didn’t get her wish to be there alone, either. Jesus was there already, and he was thirsty. “Give me a drink” Jesus said to her.

Can you imagine her surprise?

Jesus, the Son of God, the Prophet of the Most High, the Savior of the world, saw her. He saw that a woman that the world counted as worthless had something he needed:
She had a bucket. The well was deep. And he was thirsty.

“Give me a drink,” Jesus said. And thus began the longest conversation Jesus has with a woman, in all four of the gospels!

Thus began a conversation, and a powerful transformation! The woman at the well comes to realize not only who Jesus is, but also who she is. In the light of day, at the fount of living water, she comes to know that Jesus is a prophet, maybe even the Messiah!
And she comes to know that she is somebody.

This is a healing story, though we don’t often think of it that way. Jesus healed the Samaritan woman of the disease of marginalization, inflicted by her community. He gave her living water, a new life and a new mission—as an apostle of the Good News.

So this is so much more than a morality story about a nameless woman with five husbands.
This is so much more than a story teaching us to “accept those who are different”.

I hope that this morning you hear this Good News:

When you feel you have nothing to give, when the world has weighed you down, when they tell you you have nothing to offer, nothing to say, nothing to contribute,

When anyone at all tells you that you are “Nobody”,

Know that Jesus is waiting at the well for you. Jesus sees you. Jesus knows everything about you! And he loves you—not in spite of who you are, but because of who you are.

Let us give thanks this morning for St. Photina, the Woman at the Well…
The woman with a bucket.
The woman who persisted.
The woman Jesus saw, and liberated, and sent as an apostle of the Good News!

And let us give thanks for Jesus, the Messiah,
whose acceptance quenches our thirst for belonging,
Whose grace quenches our thirst for forgiveness,

And whose love pours like a fountain of living water from the cross, enough for the whole world. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

First Friday in Lent: Is this the fast I choose?


On the way to the church office this morning, I stopped to withdraw rent money at Shabaan's shop. He was barely open, his many scarves and knick-knacks still piled inside, as he was still eating breakfast and drinking coffee with the neighbors. 

But..."!آهلاً وَ سهلاً Welcome!

Shabaan tore off a piece of his own warm bread with za'atar and olive oil and handed it to me, as he counted out my money.

At the spice shop in the afternoon, I stopped for ingredients for a special Friday night dish. It was shortly after noon prayers, so the place was packed with men "buying spices" (aka catching up on the news). I pushed my way through the crowd and stood awkwardly near the spices I needed. Soon, the shopkeeper recognized me, and left his friends to wait on me.

I really appreciate how this shopkeeper only speaks Arabic to me (although I know he speaks English well.) How must it try his patience to wait as I'm trying to remember the words for "Cardamom? Cloves? Cinnamon?" ("Cinnamon" sounds the same as "room" to me. I hope I don't order 4 sticks of "room"!)

As I'm paying, he offers me a kind of sweet black bean paste (yum?), the same as he's been offering "the guys."

"The guys" all nod to me and smile as I pass.

Just inside Damascus Gate is, arguably, the best place for الحلويات (sweets) in Jerusalem. 

Damascus Gate Sweets 
I often feel like an outsider here, but I'd say that "after Friday prayers walking through Damascus Gate" is where I feel the height of awkwardness! Standing in a "line" (crowd of people) for ma'amoul, I wondered how I would be received. Am I just an intruder here, especially at this time? 

The man (the famous man!) who runs the stand was surprised at first that this white lady was speaking Arabic--but then he was filling my bag with extra sweets. Plus a sesame cookie for the road..."!مَع السَلامة Go with peace!"

"Give us today our daily bread."
Three times today, I was fed by a Muslim neighbor--with food. 

With kindness. With respect and hospitality.
Lord knows, I was hungry!

God answers prayer. Amen! 

Perhaps during Lent, I will fast from my assumptions about just how (and through whom) God does the answering.