Sermon for Sunday 30 July 2017
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.
On Tuesday morning, as I made my way through the road construction (or destruction) near New Gate, I met my friend George at the corner. He was standing near his empty shop, looking at the completely empty streets.
“This. Is. Bad.” he said, with arms crossed before him. As you know, the recent crisis at Al Aqsa has kept tourists, internationals, and even locals away from the Old City. Consulates have extended security warnings and tours have been cancelled. All of this has made the typically slow July business even slower.
“This is REALLY bad,” said George again. “And not only now—this is bad for the months to come! Now is when people are making holiday plans for November and December. Who will watch the news this week and then book a trip to Jerusalem?”
I nodded in agreement, and then told George that things have been slow here at church, too. So many of our regular members are out of the country, and many who are still in Jerusalem are not allowed to enter the Old City. In fact, the last few Sundays I’ve walked to church taking much comfort in the verse which promises wherever only “two or three are gathered”, Jesus will be there, too! Amen!
“Inshallah,” I said to George, “the crisis will be over soon, and they will all come back to Jerusalem.”
George just chuckled and said to me, "You know, I think even Jesus won't choose to come back to Jerusalem when he returns! We've made such a mess of it."
"Really?" I asked him. "Where do you think he'll show up, then?"
George thought about it for a moment, and then said, "I don't know. Probably Seattle!"
Now, I don’t have an issue with Seattle. I suppose it’s as good a place as any for Jesus to return. In fact, it might be interesting to hear the parables Jesus would tell in the rainy northwest, as opposed to the desert!
And I admit that I share George’s frustration with the Holy City at times. This is not an easy place to live. This is not an easy place to keep hoping, to keep praying, to keep loving. As my friend Danny Seidemann recently wrote, “If you don’t already love Jerusalem, you’re certainly not going like it here.”
And still, in spite of the drama, in spite of the conflict, and in spite of the ways religion has contributed to the problems of Jerusalem, I am confident that Jesus has not (and will not) abandon the city of his crucifixion and resurrection.
Jesus does not read the security protocols.
Jesus has no time for checkpoints.
Jesus pays as much attention to checkpoints as he does to stones blocking the entrance to tombs!
By the power of the Holy Spirit (who rested upon the disciples in this very city!) Jesus is with us even here, and even in these difficult times.
As the Apostle Paul reminds us in today’s reading from Romans chapter 8, this is the Spirit who helps us in our weakness.
This is the Spirit who intercedes for us, praying when we cannot find the words.
And by this Holy Spirit, all things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
Therefore, even as we await Jesus’ return to earth in glory, we rejoice that God’s Spirit remains with us today—in Jerusalem, in Seattle, and in every place where two or three are gathered in his name. Amen!
Now this message, by itself, is Good News for Jerusalem, and for Israel and Palestine, and for all of us living and working here in these tense and confusing times. God is with us. Jesus will not abandon us. The Holy Spirit is still moving among us. Thanks be to God. Amen! End of sermon…
Except, that after I left George’s empty shop, and continued through the empty streets to our (mostly) empty church, I got to thinking how quick we are to believe that Jesus might actually abandon us.
How easy it is to convince ourselves that maybe Jesus could abandon not only Jerusalem, but also our hearts, and even our lives.
In our darkest hours (and sometimes just on our lunch hour) a small voice often lurks in the back of our minds:
Maybe Jesus sees my heart, and judges it as unfit for habitation.
Maybe Jesus thinks my situation is too difficult to fix.
Maybe Jesus will forget my family, my hopes, my dreams.
Maybe Jesus has already abandoned my city, or my life!
Maybe Jesus has already left Jerusalem.
Of course, we don’t usually say these things out loud. We know, in our heads if not in our hearts, that Jesus is not the type of guy who says about God’s beloved children, “Yeah, I’ve about had enough of these people. I’m out of here!”
And still, these feelings, these worries, these fears prevail. Even those of us who are called to preach the Good News may doubt our own belovedness.
The Apostle Paul, addressing the Christians in Rome, spoke to the exact same fears, present in their community so many years ago. These early Christians were suffering persecution from family, and from the authorities. They were even suffering from disagreements within their tiny new church! They felt forgotten. They felt unloved. They often felt unlovable.
And Paul spoke to them clearly, saying:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
These verses are among the most beloved in all of Christian Scripture, and for good reason. Paul speaks so clearly to our inmost fears. Paul proclaims to the Christians of Jerusalem (and Seattle, and every other city):
Listen! I don’t care what you’re going through. I don’t care what others say about you. Through the cross of Christ nothing and no one is outside of God’s love. Not you, not me, not our neighbors, not even our enemies!
Nothing you do, nothing you can say, nothing you can think, nothing you can go through, nothing anyone can do to you, not even death itself, will ever separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Amen!
And still, the lie that God’s love has limits persists in our hearts and in our world.
This lie comes from our mouths whenever we label other humans “monsters,” or “savages”, or when we assign them a number and call them “collateral damage,” “hordes of refugees” or “waves of immigrants.”
This lie lives in our churches when we tell some humans they are not acceptable because of their gender, their color, their political views, or their sexual orientation.
And this lie lives in our hearts, whenever we call our own selves unlovable.
When we allow ourselves to believe that we are somehow outside the realm of God’s love or God’s keeping, then we are lying not only about ourselves, but about God.
This fearful lie is so persistent in our hearts and in our minds, that countless poets, theologians, artists, and hymnwriters have offered us gifts to remind us just how great, just how deep, just how excellent, just how awesome, just how boundless God’s love in Christ really is. You know many of them:
“Great is God’s faithfulness”
“O love that will not let me go”
“What Wondrous Love is This”
And of course: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!”
One great mystic who has written on the boundless nature of God’s love is Julian of Norwich, who lived from 1342 to 1416. Julian’s book, “Revelations of Divine Love”, written in 1395, is the first English-language book known to be written by a woman.
When Julian was 30 years old, she contracted a terrible illness and was so near death that she was given her last rites (the prayers said by a priest just before a person dies.) Nearing death, she experienced several visions (what she called “showings”) which she understood to have come from God. She spent the next 20 years reflecting on these visions and writing them down in her book.
One of her most famous visions is about a tiny nut which revealed something profound about God’s love. (A bit like Jesus’ parable of the tiny mustard seed which became a great tree!)
“And in this (God) showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”
Dear sisters and brothers, no matter how small you feel today, know that God made you. God loves you. And God will keep you.
God’s love in Christ is higher than any separation wall.
God’s love in Christ is deeper than any political divide.
And God’s love in Christ is greater than all your mess.
Jesus will not abandon Jerusalem! And Jesus will not abandon you.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.