Thursday, May 25, 2017

"The Feast of Both Feet: A Reflection for Ascension Day 2017"

Reflection for Ascension Day
25 May 2017

Lutheran Church of the Ascension, Mt. of Olives
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The cradle is empty.
The cross is empty.
The tomb is (still) empty!
And now, Jesus because is ascended into heaven, our world feels a bit empty.

In ten days, on the Feast of Pentecost, this emptiness will be filled with Holy Spirit and with fire. In ten days, we will be empowered for God’s mission and sent into the world.

But now, we are still waiting. Now, we must trust the promise that he will not leave us orphaned, that he is indeed coming to us.

For now, we no longer see Jesus.

We no longer see Jesus—and for this reason, the Ascension is a challenging topic for artists. After all, how would you paint a picture of a Feast of Emptiness anyway? How does one capture the essence of such an in-between moment? One might imagine a painting of a long, empty hallway, with the Ascension on one end and Pentecost on the other, and the disciples, looking lost in the middle.

Of course, many artists have painted the Ascension, and they have not once painted a hallway (as far as I know!) But my favorite images of the Ascension are the ones that portray the disciples standing on the ground, looking up into the skies.

In some of these paintings, up in the sky, poking out from the bottom of a fluffy white cloud, are Jesus’ two feet. Just his feet! Nothing more. 

This is so funny to me, to think that the last thing the disciples saw on the Day of Ascension was Jesus’ feet—especially in our context, where it is considered rude to show anyone the soles of your shoes!

Jesus’ feet, flying above the heads of the disciples, is a funny thing to imagine.
But it also makes perfect sense.

It makes sense, because we have read that before he was taken up into heaven, Jesus did not leave the disciples empty-handed:

First, he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
Then he commissioned and blessed them, reminding them that the message of repentance and forgiveness must be taken to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Then he got specific with them, saying, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

And then--Jesus did leave the disciples. But he did not leave them empty-handed! 

So it makes sense to me that as he was carried up into heaven, he would also give them one last image to contemplate.

I love the idea that the last bit of Jesus the disciples saw,
before the Spirit arrived,
and before the birth of the Church,
Dust from the roads of Galilee,
Dirt from consorting with sinners,
Callouses from standing with the oppressed,
Blisters from walking in the shoes of the poor,
And the holes:
Holes from the nails which held him on the cross,
Holes from which poured the blood of our salvation.

It seems very fitting to me that the last the disciples saw of the Risen Christ was his dirty, painful, beautiful feet.

I wonder: What if we thought of Ascension not as a feast of emptiness, or a feast of farewell, but as the Feast of Both Feet?

What if we thought of Ascension as the day Jesus’ feet were lifted high above our heads, not because they were being taken from us, but so we could see them clearly?

If we think of the Ascension in this way, then this is the Feast of seeing clearly where Jesus wants his disciples to walk.
This is the Feast of seeing clearly where Jesus wants the church to stand.
This is the Feast of seeing clearly how the church will suffer for doing what is right.
This is the Feast of seeing clearly, once again, just how much Jesus loved us.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, for these next ten days, as we await the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost and the beginning of the church’s ministry, know that we have also not been left empty-handed. We have received the precious gift of time! We have this time in-between to contemplate Our Lord’s feet—where they stood, with whom they walked, and what they suffered, for the sake of this broken world. Let us take full advantage of this gift, committing ourselves to prayer, to singing, to worship, and to joy, as the first disciples did.

And on Pentecost,
when the promised Holy Spirit fills our churches once again,
when we are sent to share the Good News with all nations, beginning in Jerusalem,
I pray that we will be ready:
Ready to jump in, with both feet.

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

"I will not leave you occupied": Sermon for 21 May 2017

"I will not leave you occupied”

Sermon for Sunday 21 May 2017
Sixth Sunday of Easter

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

A few years ago, I was invited to preside at the wedding of a church member’s daughter. The service was to take place at the groom’s home congregation, in a town about an hour away. But as I drove up to the address and glanced at the church sign, I burst into a fit of inappropriate laughter. The sign itself was not the problem—it was quite tasteful. It didn’t carry any crazy political messages or cute sayings, as many American churches do. But I couldn’t help laughing because the church was called: “Holy Comforter Episcopal Church.”

Now, if this doesn’t strike you as funny, you should know that in American English, a “comforter” is a blanket. A bedspread. A fluffy duvet, used in cold weather.

I laughed even more when I said the church’s name out loud to myself, and imagined not a “holy comforter” but a “comforter with holes”, which might describe a good number of my favorite blankets. Quilts with stitches missing, cotton blankets with the silken edges unraveling, favorite fluffy things with holes from years of use.

This is what I was thinking about as I drove up to “Holy Comforter Episcopal Church”, and greeted a confused couple with tears in my eyes and cheeks red from laughing!

Now, my best friend, an Episcopal priest, patiently explained to me that this is a quite common name for churches in the Episcopal tradition. It comes from our Scripture reading today, in which Jesus says to the disciples: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”  The word translated in our reading today as “Advocate” is “paraclete” in Greek. “Paraclete” is a word that is basically untranslatable into English. “Comforter” is one attempt to capture its meaning. Other translations might be Counselor, Helper, Strengthener, or even “the one who runs to our side and helps us up.”

Given these options, I can see how “Holy Comforter” might be easier to fit on the church sign than “The Church of the One Who Runs to Help When We’ve Fallen and Can’t Get Up.”

Still, it seems to me that careful translation of this Greek word alone does not capture the essence of the Holy Spirit. How are we to understand the nature of the One who is coming to us after Jesus’ departure? Who is this helper, this counselor, this strengthener, this holy comforter who will be with us after Jesus is ascended into heaven?

As I read today’s Gospel lesson from the 14th chapter of John, I find an important message about the nature of the Spirit not in the Greek word “paraclete” but in this phrase: “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you.”

“I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you!” This message is part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse from the night he was arrested. Gathered with his friends after supper, Jesus knew that after the crucifixion—and especially after his Ascension into heaven—the disciples would be asking themselves, “Now who will lead us? Who will guide us? Who will love us?”

He knew his followers would feel lost, like children without parents.
He knew they would wonder who they were!
He knew they would wonder to whom they belonged.

Now, I don’t know what it feels like to be orphaned. Both of my parents, thanks be to God, are still alive and well. I can no more speak about being an orphan than I can speak to you about what it is to be a man, or a brain surgeon, or Ivanka Trump. These are foreign realities, not part of my experience of the world.

But I do know a little about what it means to lose one’s identity and sense of belonging.

As many of you know, a few months ago, on a Saturday evening, I was robbed on Nablus Road. The thief took the bag containing my passport, driver’s license, credit cards, keys, important medicine, and (very tragically) my old-school, paper, weekly calendar. I felt devastated, and violated, and lost. It felt like the thief took everything that grounded me here in Jerusalem.

Of course, the things taken were just things, and things can be replaced. But my feelings of being lost only increased when I visited Jerusalem’s US Consulate office to apply for a new passport. 

“We need to see some form of identification,” they said.
“Well, it was all stolen,” I told them.

“Still, we can’t just give you a passport without proof of who you are,” they told me.
“But…it was all in that bag!” I said again.

It went around like this for a little while, until I started to think, “What if they don’t give me a passport? Where will I go? What will I do? How will I prove who I am?”

We worked it out eventually, but it was still a few weeks before the new passport arrived. And in the meantime, I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t cross any checkpoints. I certainly couldn’t leave the country. I was even nervous to walk outside of my normal routes in the Old City, afraid that a soldier would ask to see identification. And what would I say? “Just trust me, officer. I belong here.”

I doubted I could say, “It’s ok, my Jesus will not leave me orphaned! He is coming to me!”

During this time, I became a little obsessed with the plight of others who possess no identification, no passport, no state. I didn’t have to look very far. In my church office alone, my co-workers possess multiple kinds of IDs and permissions: West Bank IDs, Jerusalem IDs, refugee cards, Jordanian passports, Laissez passer. The ability to travel, to come to work, and to receive medical care is wholly dependent on what these papers say, and whether one can obtain them. Identity, and belonging, are all determined by a worker in a government office, and even by the actions (or inactions) of the international community.

When I told co-workers about my passport plight, they were of course angry and concerned for me. But there was something else, too. A few of them said to me, with a twinkle in their eyes: “Now you will understand how it feels to be Palestinian.”

Awhile back there was a movie starring Tom Hanks called “The Terminal”, about a man who lives in an airport for nine months because his passport is no longer valid, and he lacks permission to enter any country. I remember not actually liking this movie, to tell you the truth, but I thought it might be a good metaphor for this sermon—until I learned it wasn’t a metaphor at all. This movie was based on the life story of Mehran Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived for eighteen years in the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport after being denied entry to any country. Eighteen years, in an airport terminal! Can you imagine?

Eighteen years with no place to call home.
No papers.
No permissions.
No helper, no counselor, no advocate.
No comforter.
Belonging nowhere, and to no one.

This is the feeling—this airport terminal, lost in-between feeling—is the feeling Jesus was addressing when he said to the disciples, on the night of his arrest, “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you.”

This is the feeling I can only imagine the many thousands of refugees feel as they place their families in boats and set off from violent shores, hoping for someone, somewhere, to receive them and give them a place to belong.

This is the feeling we may have when we see the state of the world today. As Christians, how do we find our place in the midst of war, injustice, terror, fascism, occupation, human cruelty, and violence committed in the name of God? Do we even belong in this world? Where is Jesus when we need him?

Hear again the words of Jesus, who says to every believer: I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you.

The God of Creation, the One who loves us enough to be born among us and to walk among us, does not abandon us.

The God of the cross, who loves us enough to suffer with us and for us, does not forget us.

The God of the empty tomb, who loves us enough to break through stones and walls even of our own making, does not leave us alone.

The God we have come to know through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ does not leave us orphaned, but comes to us as Spirit.

The Spirit comes to us as Holy Comforter, wrapping us in perfect love.

She comes to us as Advocate, standing with us and for us, in the face of every power and principality.

She comes to us mother. As father. As our heritage and our future.
The Spirit gives us a name, an identity, and a promise.

The Spirit of God is our identity card, our passport, and our laissez passer.

Thanks be to God, this Advocate Jesus has promised gives us not only the permission but the power—and therefore the responsibility—to move, to speak, and to act for the sake of the Gospel in this broken world.

But dear friends in Christ, do not worry if others don’t recognize that permission.
Do not be surprised when others challenge your God-given passport to prophesy against injustice, or question the power of the Spirit given to you in baptism. For Jesus said to the disciples:

“The One Jesus is sending is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you!”

And as it is written in our reading from 1 Peter chapter 3 this morning:

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid—even when others falsely identify you as refugee, foreigner, illegal, inappropriate, outsider, outcast, or occupied.

Hear again the Good News! Jesus said:
I will not leave you without a name.
I will not leave you without a place to call home.
I will not leave you without an inheritance.
I will not leave you without a future.
I will not leave you without somewhere to visit for Christmas.
I will not leave you without someone to attend your graduation.
I will not leave you a refugee.
I will not leave you homeless.
I will not leave you stateless.
I will not leave you occupied.

I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you!
For lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

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

Jerusalem, 21 May 2017

Monday, May 15, 2017

"Today there are apricots" -- Sermon for 5 Easter 2017

Sermon for 5 Easter 2017: 14 May 2017

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

Did you remember that it’s still Easter? We all know Lent lasts forty days, but it’s easy to forget that the Easter season lasts for a full fifty days. We continue to celebrate the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ until Pentecost on Sunday, 4 June, a feast whose very name means “fifitieth.”

Apricots (mishsmish) being sold outside Damascus Gate
12 May 2017
So yes, this is still the Easter season! This is the Alleluia season! This is the season of resurrection and new life! Furthermore, this is the season of the impossible, for I can report that I purchased a kilo of apricots two days ago in the markets outside Damascus Gate. 

As you may know, in Arabic, if you want to say something will never happen, you say “tomorrow there will be apricots”, because the harvest season is so short. But today, we will not say “bukra fil mishmish” (tomorrow there will be apricots). Today we say “hella fil mishmish” (Now there are apricots!) Amen!

Today peace is possible!
Today there will be justice and equality for all!
Today the prisoners will be freed!
Today there is healing and wholeness and life, for all who believe!

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

Dear sisters and brothers, today Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! And yet even for the faithful it is often difficult to live into this reality, because we must contend with death every day. Christ is risen, and yet there are tombs, there are stones, and there are walls that stand in our path every day. Christ is risen, and yet there is oppression, and hatred, and war to contend with every day.

Christ is risen, and yet we must contend with the occupation every single day.

Yesterday afternoon, as I left the home of some church members after a pastoral visit, I attempted to leave the Old City through Damascus Gate. But as I approached the gate, I saw crowds of people blocking the entrance. There had just been a stabbing of a policeman near the Chain Gate, followed by the killing of the alleged perpetrator, and all gates in and out of the city were closed as a result.

As I stood there in the heat, contemplating what to do next, I heard several Europeans talking excitedly around me. They were tourists who did not receive security alerts on their phones, so they had no idea something had happened. When their questions to passersby were met with confused looks, I stepped in to help.

“The gate is closed,” I said. “In fact, all the gates are closed. You’ll have to wait.”
“But what happened?” said the woman from France. When I explained the situation, she asked, “Is this normal??”

Yes, I said. Sadly, yes it is.

Then the very tall man from Norway stood up even taller and proclaimed to all who would hear, “Well I think this is outrageous!”


Closed gates are outrageous! Stabbing in the name of freedom is outrageous! The Nakba was and is outrageous! Fifty years of military occupation is outrageous! Death and oppression and racism and killing in the name of God, and trying to make peace through war are all outrageous!

And yes, while I would never call it “normal”, this is the status quo—even in this city, the City of the Resurrection.

Yes, Christ is risen, and still there is death to contend with: not only on days of violence in Jerusalem, and not only on Good Friday. My fellow missionary here in Jerusalem lost her father suddenly on Friday and is now on her way to Oklahoma for his funeral. The 11-year old son of a fellow pastor died of a rare and swift-moving cancer earlier in the week. One thousand five hundred Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons are in their fourth week of a hunger strike, hoping to draw attention to the policy of “administrative detention”, a policy which is in direct violation of international law.

And while this is the day honored in my home country as Mother’s Day, here in Jerusalem and the West Bank we are honoring Nakba Day—69 years since the event that Palestinians call “the catastrophe”.

There is death to contend with, every day. And this is what makes it so difficult to remember that the Easter season lasts fifty days. This is what makes it so hard to remember that we live in a post-resurrection world, and we are an Easter people.

And how then shall we live? How do we find voices to sing our Easter “Alleluias” in such a world?

Today, I give thanks for the gift of Holy Scripture. I give thanks for the Living Word, the book that Martin Luther called “the cradle wherein Christ himself is laid” for it is a powerful answer to the world’s proclamations of hatred, death, and destruction. The Living Word of God reminds us that while there is death to contend with every day, there is also life to encounter every day. The Living Word of God looks the culture of death in the face and proclaims: “No! Today, there will be peace! Today, there will be love! Today, there will be room at the table for all! Today, there is resurrection!”

Today, there are apricots! Amen!

I especially want to lift up the reading we heard this morning from the second chapter of 1 Peter. Now this is a passage that may not immediately engage us today, as it draws on images and phrases that were meaningful to 1st Century Christians, but which are not so familiar to us now. I doubt any of you have used the phrases “spiritual milk” or “holy priesthood” in your recent conversations, for example.

And yet, as strange as this reading may seem initially, it is a powerful antidote to the awful daily presence of death in our lives. This passage encourages us and strengthens us to live in a world where we encounter both Good Friday and Easter Sunday every single day. Above all, this Living Word of God empowers us to see ourselves as living stones in a world that often treats us as dead weight.

Hear again the words of 1 Peter chapter 2:

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Come to him…and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.

Israeli soldiers in the Old City, May 2017
I find these words to be powerful and empowering in this moment in time. These days, I often feel more like gravel than a living stone. More and more, I find myself struggling to know what to say and what to do in a world where extremism and fascism are gaining popularity, in a time when leaders call concern for the environment ridiculous, and in a city which is simultaneously gearing up for and ignoring what promises to be a tumultuous commemoration of fifty years of occupation.

Dear sisters and brothers, even though we live in a post-resurrection world, and even though I am called, ordained, commissioned and paid to preach the Easter Good News, I often feel small and insignificant at the entrance to these tombs. I often feel like a newborn infant, unable to do much more than pray and hope for something different to happen.

But this passage from 1 Peter reminds me that although I may feel like a newborn in the faith, God provides all the nourishment I need to grow strong in faith and courage. God has given us the Holy Scriptures. God has placed us in this community of faith to support us, even far away from home. And the Risen Christ comes near to the faithful, again and again, in the bread and the wine. Therefore, although we have seen that the world is often ugly, and people are often broken,  we have also tasted and seen that the Lord is good. Amen!

1 Peter also reminds us that although the church may seem weak in number compared to the armies of death and destruction, Christ our cornerstone is building us up into something great. Christ our cornerstone is building us up into a spiritual house: a refuge for the lost, a home for the weary, and a mighty fortress where truth, justice, and reconciliation can flourish.

“Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” it says, and this reminds me that I don’t have to be the whole house all by myself. I don’t have to possess the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or discover the cure to cancer or make peace in Syria all by myself. Small as I am, I trust that the Risen Lord is using me, together will all the faithful, to build a house of love and life, in a world which worships death and destruction.

Hear again the Good News: There is death to contend with every day—but because Christ is risen, there is also life to encounter every day. Amen!

On Wednesday of this week, I was invited to sit with the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mrs. Caroline Welby, at a gathering of Palestinian Christian women. This gathering was intended as a space for the women to share their stories with Mrs. Welby. Her assistant began by smiling widely and asking the guests, “We would like to hear your stories of joy. What do you enjoy about being a Christian and a Palestinian and a woman?”

For some very long moments, the only thing you could hear at that table was the clinking of coffee cups and the munching of ma’moul cookies. It felt to me—and apparently did to the others as well—that Mrs. Welby wanted to edit their stories before they were even told. She did not want to hear about ugly things.

Finally, one of the women spoke up.

“Let me tell you how it is to be a Palestinian Christian Woman.”

And one by one, the women did just that.

They told of humiliation at the checkpoints.
They told of losing their homes and their dignity.
They told of pressure from increasing radical beliefs on all sides—from both Muslim and Jewish neighbors.
Palestinian Christian women sharing their stories
with Mrs. Welby

They told how, as Palestinian Christian women, they must contend with death and despair, every single day.

And yet, as they spoke, it became clear that each woman’s story of struggle was also a story of life. Each was a story of strength and courage, persistence and faith in the face of death. Each story was a powerful witness to the presence of both Good Friday and Easter in their lives of faith.

All the women at the table happened to be mothers, and the great majority of their children have chosen to leave this country. But one woman said that she encouraged her kids as they left for college in Europe: “You will come back! In another country, you will be seen as a number. You will be just another Arab. But here, you are somebody. This is where our faith was born. This is where Christ was risen! We are not intruders in this land.”

And then, an elderly bishop’s wife told how, as a young woman, she was once humiliated because her skirt was ripped as she walked through rocks and tangled weeds at a checkpoint. The soldiers pointed and laughed because her underwear was showing through the back—but she just twirled the skirt around so the hole was in the front and walked on through. “From that day forward,” she said, “I just decided to wear trousers.”

Dear friends, be encouraged.
Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
Come to him…and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house. Taste and see that the Lord is good!
Yes, there is death to contend with every day. But because Christ is risen, every day also brings new life, new hope, new faith. Death does not have the last word—and neither will war, or prison, or illness, or fascism, or sexism, or lies. 
Our story does not end in catastrophe!

Today, there are apricots!
Today peace is possible!
Today the wall will fall!  
Today the prisoners will be freed!
Today there is healing and wholeness and life, for all who believe!
Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

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