Sunday, April 16, 2017

"God's love rolls away the Mother of All Stones" Easter Sermon 2017

Sermon for Easter Sunrise, 16 April 2017

Mt. of Olives, Jerusalem

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
English-speaking congregation

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

God’s love rolls away the “Mother of All Stones”

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Preaching at the Easter sunrise service, Mt of Olives
16 April 2017

Photo by Ben Gray/ELCJHL
On Maundy Thursday evening, after walking to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray in the spot where Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back in its sheath! For those who live by the sword will die by the sword”, I saw that a news alert had arrived on my phone while we were at prayer. My country, the United States of America, had just dropped what is called the “Mother of All Bombs” on some caves in Afghanistan. The “Mother of All Bombs” is the largest non-nuclear bomb in my country’s arsenal, and it had never been used before. It is 21 times larger than the missiles we dropped on Syria the week before. This weapon is so large it needed to be transported in a massive cargo plane and, according to a military source, “Pushed out the back end.”

This “Mother of All Bombs” was still on my mind on Friday morning, as a large group of Anglicans, Lutherans, and Church of Scotland believers (among others) gathered just after dawn to walk the Way of the Cross. I couldn’t stop thinking about the feminine, maternal imagery evoked by this bomb’s nickname. As professor Steven Salaita tweeted on Thursday, calling a weapon of mass destruction ‘mother’ “envisions murder as a form of birth, the progenitor of sustenance and new life.” The irony of this was almost too heavy to bear as we moved from station to station along Jesus’ long walk of sorrows, especially as we came to Station 4: “Jesus Meets His Mother” and Station 8 “Jesus Speaks to the Women of Jerusalem”, and of course Station 11: “Jesus is nailed to the cross”.

Because, of course, we were gathered to remember how Jesus was nailed to a weapon of the state, and executed by means of a human invention designed to cause maximum pain and suffering. 
Redeemer English-speaking congregation gathered
on the Mt of Olives for the Easter sunrise service

Photo by Ben Gray/ELCJHL

And still, here we are today. A band of faithful believers, early risers, bold disciples, gathered not only for the view from the Mt. of Olives or for the tasty breakfast to come, but for another reason:

We are here to celebrate how an angel of the Lord, by the power of God’s love, rolled the “Mother of All Stones” away from the tomb of Jesus.

God’s love for us rolled away the Mother of All Stones, and our presence here two thousand years later is a direct challenge to the news out of Afghanistan, out of Syria, out of Egypt, out of every place where death and destruction claim to be our “mothers”.

Our presence here is a witness to Jerusalem and to the world that the “Mother of All Bombs” has no authority over us, parental or otherwise—for we serve the God of life.

We serve the One who was born among us in Bethlehem.
We serve the One who carried the cross of suffering in solidarity with us.
We serve the One who on the third day walked out of the tomb, to the surprise of the guards, the women, and even his own disciples!

Easter, just before dawn
Photo by Ben Gray/ELCJHL
Hallelujah, we serve the One who is Father of Creation, Brother of the oppressed, Friend of the poor, Savior of the lost, and whose Mothering Spirit leads us into the Way of peace, justice, reconciliation, and new life.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Yes, the stone has been rolled away, and Christ is alive!
Goodness is stronger than evil!
Love is stronger than hate!
Life is stronger than death!

And for this reason, the chance that the “Mother of All Bombs” will bring peace, justice, and security to the Middle East should be filed with the rest of the “fake news” being fed to us on a daily basis.

It is perhaps no surprise to hear that the phrase “fake news” was voted “Word of the Year” in 2016. Certainly, we have become painfully aware of its presence and influence in recent months. But Scripture tells us there is “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) and this applies to “fake news” as well. The powers and principalities of every age have promoted lies and falsehoods, and we have all too often accepted them without challenge.

Of course, it’s one thing to challenge and resist the lure of headlines like “Pope Francis endorses Donald Trump for President”, or “Free plane tickets to Africa and Mexico being offered to Americans who want to leave.” A few minutes of research and a little internet etiquette can save us all from the embarrassment and annoyance of sharing “alternative facts.”

But it’s another thing entirely to challenge the most dangerous fake news, because some assumptions, ideologies, ethical compromises, and sins against God’s good creation are so familiar we don’t recognize them for what they are. Some are foundational to our cultures, our governments, or our belief systems. We don’t see them. We don’t hear them. We don’t even smell the stench of death emanating from them, because the flowery language of preachers, politicians, and pundits cover the scent.

So this morning, at the entrance of the open tomb, and in the presence of the Risen Christ, let’s clear the air:

Bombs and guns do not bring real and lasting peace.  
That unhealthy or abusive relationship you’re in? It’s not the best you can expect, and is certainly not what you deserve.
Depression, grief, addiction, and brokenness are not death sentences.
Walls do not create security.
Checkpoints are not justice.
The Occupation will never last another 50 years!
And death never, ever has the final word, for by Jesus’ dying and rising, God has defeated the Mother of All Lies: death itself.

The truth is, that stone never did have the power to keep Jesus in the tomb. They could crucify Jesus. They could bury Jesus. But they could never bury God’s love for us. They could never bury the Mother of All Headlines, the Good News the whole world was waiting for:

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Thanks be to God, the Good News of the resurrection triumphs over all the fake news the world can publish or promote. And this news is not just a matter of belief. In fact, the angel’s message of resurrection is verifiable. It can even be “cross-checked”! Amen!

Redeemer church members, gathered to hear the Good News
Photo by Ben Gray/ELCJHL
On that resurrection morning, the angel came to the tomb to give the women the message: “Do not be afraid!” But like the Marys, we know there are very good reasons to be afraid. There are earthquakes and storms all around us—world-shaking events, heartbreaking horrors, and frightening political trends. Terror strikes in new cities every week.  Chemicals take away the breath of innocent children—and leaders try to solve it with missiles. Within every religion and every nation, the voices of extremists are louder and have even become normalized.

And on Palm Sunday, the beginning of this Holy Week, innocent Egyptian Christians were bombed while peacefully praying and celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Sadly, we know this is not fake news. This is all too real.

And still, the angel of the Lord comes to us on Easter morning to say, “Do not be afraid!”

Do not be afraid! If the angel’s message had stopped there, we would have no reason to celebrate today. If the angel’s message had stopped there, it would be just one more voice telling us to calm down, to go home, to pay no attention, because there’s “nothing to see here”. Of course, this is the message we are accustomed to hearing. This is the message of the media, of politicians, and of preachers of prosperity. This is the message of the powers and principalities who want to operate in the darkness, who want us to look away, who want to continue to control, to oppress, to occupy, to destroy.

This is fake news.

But this is not the message of our loving God. This is not the message of the empty tomb!

My fellow disciples, what I want you to remember as you go down from this holy mountain and into the world today is this:
After the three days,
After the earthquake,
After the lightning,
After the Mother of All Stones was rolled away and the tomb was revealed to be empty,
Then the angel said to the faithful women:
“Do not be afraid—for Jesus is raised! And he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.”

Alleluia, the Risen Christ goes before us, and appears to the faithful! After all, the Good News is not really about the emptiness of the tomb, but about the One who walked out of it! Amen!

During times of fear, of confusion and doubt, of trial and tribulation, we do see him, as the disciples did. In fact, like the Marys who ran from the tomb in fear and great joy, we may discover he’s closer than we imagined!

We know him in the breaking of the bread, as the disciples did on the way to Emmaus.
We know him in the lives of the suffering, as Thomas knew Jesus by touching his wounds.
We know him as fiery passion for justice, and as the strength to follow the winds of change, as the disciples knew the Spirit as fire and wind on the Pentecost.
We see him in the stranger, in the prisoner, in the outcast, and in the refugee, all those Jesus has taught us to call “neighbor.”
We know him by the embrace of the Christian community, wherever we are in the world.
We know Him by His love.

Therefore, dear friends in Christ:
When the darkness of the tomb overwhelms you,
When the stones and the bombs seem too large to defeat,
When the prophets of war seem louder than the angels of mercy,
Be assured by His risen presence among you:
The Gospel of Resurrection and new life is not fake news, but Good News!

This news has been verified.
This news has been cross-checked.
This news has been empty-tomb-certified.
This news has been Holy Spirit guaranteed.
This news has been confirmed by the saints and the martyrs of the ages.

Therefore, we will not be afraid. From Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, we will proclaim the Good News to all who long to hear it:
Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Friday, April 7, 2017

"I know the way!" Reflections on walking the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem

Yesterday I drove from Jerusalem, where I lay my head, to the place where the little Lord Jesus lays down His sweet head. (aka Manger Square in Bethlehem!)
And then, after picking up my boss (who is visiting from Chicago) I successfully drove us both directly to the Lutheran School in Beit Sahour.
No detours! No backtracking! And never any Google Maps in Palestine. 
Just Point A, Point B, Point C. A small miracle.
This may seem a small thing, but to me it felt like a victory! After nearly three years as a missionary in Jerusalem and the West Bank, I feel like I really live here.
I know the way.

Of course, the day before I wasn’t so sure.
As part of our Lenten focus on the Stations of the Cross, I had planned a community walk of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. On Wednesday afternoon, a small group met at Redeemer Church and then walked together to the first station:
Jesus Is Condemned to Death:
"Pilate again said to them, "Then what shall I do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?" And they cried out again, "Crucify him.":
…and then my phone rings. Latecomers are trying to find us along the way.

Once they find us, we continue on to Station 2: Jesus Takes Up the Cross.
"When they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak, and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him"
...and I have to jump out of the way, as a car comes zipping past!

Station 3 is behind the spot where the soldiers stand with their weapons and riot gear. When did they add that protective bulletproof box? I wonder.

Station 4 (Jesus Meets His Mother) now has a beer garden in front of it. (Sister Sylvia told me there used to be a lingerie shop there as well.)

Station 5: "As they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the Cross, to carry it behind Jesus."
We huddle near a trash can to read this scripture, as there is already a crowd gathered here. A street cat, unbothered by my presence, walks across my foot to get to the trash/treasure. I am remembering how one day, on my way to work, I saw a young Palestinian man being searched by police, arms and legs splayed out against the stone wall underneath the sign that says “Station V: Simon Helps Jesus Carry the Cross.”

Station 6: Tourists Get in My Way.
Station 7: Small Boy Fires Toy Gun in My Direction.
Station 8: The One in Front of the Internet Café.
Station 9: Just past “Mike’s Place” Restaurant.

By the time we are entering the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I am thinking, “What am I doing? This was a stupid idea. This doesn’t feel spiritual at all! I don’t know how to pray in this chaos! These people are following me, and I don’t even know the way.”

Being a pastor often feels like this. Nearly 8 years after ordination and I still want to stand in the pulpit and say:
“I don’t know! I don’t know how to love my enemy. I don’t know how to forgive some things. I don’t know how to persevere in faith and trust and hope in the midst of cancer, or of crippling anxiety, or of heinous crimes in Syria, or of a 50-year military occupation.
I don’t really know the Way.”

But Mr. Nusseibeh, the Muslim man who keeps the keys to the door of the Holy Sepulcher, greets me with a kiss. “Wen inti??” he asks. “Where have you been?” and our group ascends the steep staircase to Golgotha, where we read the next few Stations:
Jesus is Stripped of His Garments.
Jesus is Nailed to the Cross.
And Station 12: "Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." And having said this, he breathed his last."

Two thousand years later, and we are still learning the Way. So many years, so many books, so many saints to learn from, so many songs sung, so many prayers prayed, so much theology systematized, and still we sometimes just need to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
There’s no Google Map for Palestine or for discipleship! 
There’s just the walking, and the walking, and the walking:
In the chaos of the streets.
In the confusion of human relationships.
In times of doubt.
In times of war.
In every time, and in every place, the Way of Jesus is the Way of love and mercy. It is the Way of life, together. It is the Way of love, to the end.

Some days, I think I can get from Point A to Point B all by myself! 
Some days, this Way truly feels like the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows.
Most days, I'm just lost.
“We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, for by your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world.”