Sunday, June 4, 2017

On Ramadan, Pentecost, and strangers in Jerusalem

Sermon for the Day of Pentecost
Sunday, 4 June 2017

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Salaam and grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Damascus Gate, Ramadan 2017
Early on Friday morning, like most mornings, I put on my black clergy shirt and white collar, slipped the black cord carrying a silver cross over my head, and walked out the door towards Damascus Gate. 

In this outfit and in this city, I often feel strange and unusual, but on Fridays—the day of prayer for both Muslims and Jews—that feeling is always greatly amplified. On Fridays during Ramadan, the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land can be so overwhelming that I choose instead to work at home—or to walk through New Gate instead.

But on this day, I chose Damascus Gate, partly because it’s closer to my apartment, and partly because I wanted to be a witness. I wanted to see with my own eyes exactly what was happening in Jerusalem on this day of prayer, and on this 50th anniversary weekend of the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

If seeing something was my goal, I wasn’t disappointed. I saw barricades placed from just outside my apartment gate all the way to Damascus Gate. Orthodox Jews were being guided to walk on one side of these barricades, and Muslims on the other. There were soldiers in every conceivable corner, with their weapons at the ready, keeping watch over it all.

And there were people. So. Many. People! The people were streaming from the bus station and from the markets and from Salah al din street, all of them compressed between the barricades and squeezed into lines and funneled past more soldiers planted at Damascus Gate.

I folded myself into one of these lines and made my way into the now-familiar Old
City streets.

Three years into my ministry in Jerusalem, I have started to know the people on my morning commute. The bread bakers usually call out “Hi Sister!” The women selling grape leaves and mint know what I like to buy. Even the soldiers, there to respond to anything unusual, look the other direction when they see me coming. Apparently, I’m recognized as “not a threat.”

Mother, children, and soldiers
Inside Damascus Gate, June 2017
But on this day, it was like my first day in Jerusalem all over again. Young girls were staring at my cross. Old men carrying prayer carpets jumped out of my way. Women in hijab, looking weary from all-day Ramadan cooking and late-night eating, looked me up and down, up and down, up and down.

To be honest, this disturbed me for a few moments. I thought maybe, I had made a mistake. Maybe, this stranger should have stayed away.

But when I took another look at the crowds around me, I saw things differently. I saw men and women carrying cell phones high above their heads, filming every step of the walk from Damascus Gate to Al Aqsa. I saw old men with tears in their eyes. Yes, there was pushing and shoving, but it was happening in part because people were walking in a state of oblivious reverence and excitement. Heads were darting from right to left, taking it all in.

Suddenly I realized that on this Friday, I was not the stranger in Jerusalem, no matter what I was wearing, or where I was from. I was surrounded by Muslim men and women from the West Bank, granted permission to come for Ramadan prayer, perhaps for the first time in years. They were the ones feeling strange, feeling out of place, even feeling afraid to be in Al Quds, the Holy City.

So when the next young woman stared at my cross, I said, “Sabah il khair. Good morning!”

When a man bumped me by accident and jumped away, afraid that he had offended me, I said, “Salaam aleikum. Peace be with you!”

When a group of women stopped their conversation to whisper about me, I smiled wide at them and said, “Keef halkum? How are you?”

And each time, I received back looks of surprise. All were amazed and perplexed. It’s as if they were saying to one another, “Is this strange lady not an American, and a Christian? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”

No one accused me of being drunk, though. After all, it was only 9 ‘o’ clock in the morning!

But they did smile, and answered me, “Sabah il ward! Morning of the flower! Keef inti, habibiti! How are you, dear? Wa- alaikum salaam! And peace be with you!”
And then, as we walked our separate ways—them to pray at Al-Aqsa, and me to write this sermon here at church—it seemed to me we parted no longer as strangers, but as friends.

Now you might call this simple kindness.

Or you might call this the expected result of three years of Arabic lessons!

But I call this the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

These small interactions on the streets of Jerusalem are not only a reminder, but are in fact a continuation of the mighty acts of God on a different morning two thousand years ago in this same city.

It was on that Pentecost morning long ago, when the disciples were gathered together in one place (maybe at the Cenacle, or maybe at St. Mark’s Syrian Church, depending on who you ask!) that very suddenly, the Spirit showed up.

Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Pentecost Sunday 2017
The Spirit of God blew in to that comfortable room, dropped tongues as of fire on their heads, and filled their mouths with new words.

And this was not just a trick.

This was not for the entertainment or the enrichment of the disciples.

The God of love,
The One who tears down the dividing walls between us,
divided the tongues of the disciples in the upper room that day—
For the sake of love,
And for the sake of the stranger.

See, in the past, when I have read the story of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, I have always put myself in the place of the disciples. I thought, “Look how much God loves us, that God sent the Spirit upon us!”

So I’ve tried to imagine what it was like in that room where the first disciples were gathered. In some of my previous congregations, we even tried to re-create the exact sounds and sights of that day. We would hang red, yellow, and orange paper flames from the ceiling. We used a giant fan in the balcony and some well-placed microphones so we could experience the “sound like that of a rushing wind.” We searched for people who could speak a foreign language during the service—and unlike at Redeemer, we often had to search far and wide—which gave us the feeling of what it was like to suddenly have the friends sitting near you speaking in tongues you don’t understand.

This was all a lot of fun.

But never before did I think about what it was like for the crowd gathered outside the upper room. Never before had I thought about the experience of the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs who had been living in Jerusalem.

They didn’t speak the local language.

They didn’t know the customs or the culture.

I wonder: when they went shopping in the markets, did they practice every word they needed to say, and then panic when the shopkeeper went off script, like I always do?

Did they know other people from Egypt and Pamphylia in Jerusalem, or did they often feel alone in Jerusalem, especially on holidays?

Did they miss their families? Did they miss their favorite foods?

How long had it been since they had heard someone speak Phrygian? Or Parthian?

What joy the crowd must have felt on that Pentecost morning, when suddenly, from the upper room, they heard familiar accents.

What surprise they must have felt to hear the mighty acts of God told in the languages of home—perhaps like the surprise on the streets of Jerusalem today when an American “lady priest” speaks Arabic!

It’s no wonder they came running.

It’s no wonder a crowd gathered.

It’s no wonder Peter had to come out and calm the multitudes.

These strangers in Jerusalem didn’t come to congratulate the disciples on their new talent.
They came to hear words of comfort, words of hope, and news of God’s mighty acts of power.
They came because—finally—they heard a word they understood.

They came near to listen, because by the power of the Holy Spirit, God had come near to them. Alleluia, God sent the Spirit upon the disciples...not because of God’s great love for the ones inside the room, but because of God’s great love for the outsider and the stranger.

In this room this morning, most of us know all too well what it feels like to hunger for a familiar word. Nearly everyone in this room knows the experience of being a stranger in a strange land. In fact, at the end of this service, we will say farewell and Godspeed to the Grawburgs as they prepare to move to Cambodia. Soon we will also bless Wijnand and Anne-Marieke, headed to Romania, and the Mannings, headed to Uganda. All too soon, Caleb and Esther will be heading to university, and others of you to your next adventures.

Some of you will head back to your home countries—where, I promise, after living in Jerusalem, you will also feel like a stranger.

Most often on this day, we focus on how Pentecost sends us out into the world. We celebrate how the Holy Spirit works through us to share God’s mighty acts with others. And dear sisters and brothers in Christ, I rejoice that the news of God’s mighty acts of love, grace, power, and mercy will be on your lips in your new countries.

But I also want you to hear that the miracle of Pentecost not only works through you, but is for you.

I want you to hear that the Spirit of God is already in Cambodia, and Uganda, and Romania.
I want you to hear that the Holy Spirit already moves, and burns brightly, and blows mightily in every corner of this world.

And this means that whenever you feel a stranger in a strange land,
When you wonder if God is with you even here,
When you are the visitor,
the expat,
the exchange student,
the outsider,
the outcast,
or the oppressed,

When you are outside of the culture,
Outside of the norm,
Outside of the room,
Or on the other side of the wall,

Know that the One we know as the Advocate, the Comforter, and the Breath of God is there, too.

Listen carefully—and you will hear the same Word of love, hope, and grace, in the most unexpected places—for God loves you so much, that by the power of the Holy Spirit, God is with you always, even unto the end of the age. Amen.