Monday, July 31, 2017

Neither death nor life, nor checkpoints nor walls: Sermon for 30 July 2017

Sermon for Sunday 30 July 2017

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

Romans 8:26-39

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!)

Julian wrote:

“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. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Philanthropia: A sermon on weeds, kindness, and seeking righteousness in Jerusalem

Sermon for Sunday, 23 July 2017
7th Sunday after Pentecost

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19

 For neither is there any god besides you, whose care is for all people,
 to whom you should prove that you have not judged unjustly;
 For your strength is the source of righteousness,
 and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all.
 For you show your strength when people doubt the completeness of your power,
 and you rebuke any insolence among those who know it.
 Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness,
 and with great forbearance you govern us;
 for you have power to act whenever you choose.

Through such works you have taught your people
 that the righteous must be kind,

 and you have filled your children with good hope,
 because you give repentance for sins.

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

On Monday morning, as usual, I printed out the scripture texts assigned by the lectionary for this 7th Sunday after Pentecost, then folded the paper neatly and placed it in the front cover of my old-school paper calendar, where I would see it each day. I do this nearly every week, as a spiritual practice and as a preaching help, because it helps me notice the presence of the Living Word in my everyday life.

For example, on Saturday morning, when I saw that a giant, thorny, very persistent weed had pushed through a crack in the wall of our apartment building, making it nearly impossible to climb the stairs without getting poked, I thought of today’s reading from the 13th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew. I remembered how the disciples asked Jesus, “What do you want us to do with these weeds?” and how he answered them, “Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will take care of it.”

I remembered these words, because I had been reading them each day…
…but then I said to myself, “Nope, Jesus, not today! THIS weed is getting whacked.”

Then I sent my oldest son out to do the job in the blistering heat. If he had been carrying the week’s Scriptures around in his pocket, he may have taken comfort in today’s reading from Romans, in which it is written:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” Amen!

Now, it was only a few hours later that I opened my front door and saw, sitting right there, a pile of sticks and leaves, remnants from the weed our son had recently whacked. At first, I thought he was just no good at weed-whacking, and I was prepared to give him a clear lesson on finishing jobs properly. But then I realized: Someone has placed this pile here on purpose. In fact, a well-known downstairs neighbor, in a classic passive-aggressive move, has put this pile of sticks and leaves in front of my door as a not-so-subtle message. A message about what? I had no idea.

But I started down the stone steps of our apartment building, stomping heavier with each step, and had almost reached the offending neighbor’s door, when suddenly another verse from this week’s Scriptures popped into my mind. It was from the Wisdom of Solomon, an alternate reading for the week, which ends like this:

“Through such works you have taught your people
 that the righteous must be kind,
 and you have filled your children with good hope,
 because you give repentance for sins.”

“The righteous must be KIND,” I thought to myself, just as the old woman who lives below us emerged from her apartment and starting wagging her finger and berating me in Hebrew.

“The righteous must be KIND,” echoed those words again, as I considered my response to what seemed, to me, an unreasonable level of anger over a few sticks and leaves left in one’s stairwell.

And again: “The righteous must be KIND,” resounded the Living Word of God in my heart, so what came out of my mouth was:

“Yes, ma’am, I see those leaves on your doorstep. My son will take care of it.”

And, yes, I said it with KINDNESS. In spite of myself!

Yes, I was kind to the woman downstairs, and not only because it makes a good story for this sermon.

I was kind, because I remembered the Living Word which teaches that our God has shown us kindness upon kindness.

As it is written in the Wisdom of Solomon—a book found in the canon of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, but not typically found in Protestant Bibles—God is strong, and yet God judges our sins with mildness. God has great power, and yet God practices forbearance and mercy. As Christians, we know this truth of God’s character through the cross of Christ, where our Lord Jesus has shown us great love—and great kindness--for he,

“though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)

Amen! Through Christ we have received the greatest kindness of all—forgiveness of sins—and for this reason, of no other, it is our duty—and our joy—to take heed of the wisdom: that the righteous must also be kind.

Now I must say, it was not my original plan to preach on “kindness” this week. In fact, when I first read these verses, I thought to myself, “well, thank God this is the ALTERNATE reading so I don’t have to deal with that silliness.”

Furthermore, it’s been a rough week in Jerusalem. This week has been filled with terror and fear of terror. It’s been a week of security protocols and closed gates and extra checkpoints. This week, the entire city of Jerusalem has been holding its breath, waiting for what felt like inevitable violence and bloodshed.

And when Friday ended with three Palestinians and three Israelis senselessly killed, and many more Palestinians wounded or arrested, our fears were realized. Until this moment, I dare say no one in Jerusalem has been able to take a deep breath.

Given the reality of this situation in our city, I had thought about preaching a sermon on the Christian imperative to work for peace and justice. I considered preaching about non-violence, or perhaps even the church’s call to be prophetic in these challenging times.

What I didn’t consider—at all—was preaching on “kindness”, because to tell you the truth, when I first read verse 19 of chapter 12 of the Wisdom of Solomon, I didn’t even process the word “kind”. What I read, and what I thought I understood, was:

“Through such works (God) has taught the people that the righteous must be…NICE. ”

And my instant reaction was: “FORGET NICE.”
I’m tired of nice!
I’m tired of oppressors telling oppressed people to be “nice” or “appropriate” in their resistance.
I’m tired of Precious Moments Jesus.
I’m tired of 3-D hologram dinner placemat Jesus (you can find him for sale up the street near New Gate, if you’re interested!)

I’m tired of religion that tells me to behave, to stay in line, to never offend anyone—and therefore to never say anything.

As a preacher friend of mine put it recently in her sermon, “If your Christianity makes you comfortable, you’re doing it wrong.” Amen! (thanks, Rev. Angela Khabeb!)

Yes, this week especially, I am tired of “nice Christianity”, and I have no use for nice Jesus, either. You know who I’d like to see at the gates of Jerusalem today? I’d really love to see the Jesus who casts out demons, kicks over the tables of the temple moneychangers, and pays absolutely no attention to giant rocks sealing the doors of tombs.

This Jesus would never leave a passive-aggressive pile of leaves at my front door! He would just knock on the door and tell me to clean it up. Amen!

No, I didn’t like it one bit when I thought I read in the Scriptures, “You have taught us that the righteous must be NICE” and yet, that verse from the Wisdom of Solomon wouldn’t leave my head or my heart this entire week. For this reason, I decided to take a closer look at it, and at that word “kind.”

The Wisdom of Solomon was written in Greek, so I looked up that Greek word translated into English as “kind”, and discovered that it is “philanthropia.”

This word “philanthropia”—from which we derive our English word “philanthropy”—really has nothing to do with being “nice.” Philo + Anthropos means, literally: Love of humans.

So, one might translate the Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 12 verse 19 as saying:

“You have taught your people that the righteous must be LOVERS OF HUMANKIND.” 

The righteous are those who love their fellow humans.

And this means, fellow disciples: the minute we make space in our hearts for hatred of brother or sister, we are no longer walking in the path of the righteous.
The minute we say “they deserved it”,
The minute we say “It’s for their own good,”
The minute we justify human rights abuses under the guise of "security",

The minute we justify the killing of anyone – innocent or guilty, on our side or the other side, whether they were “rioting” or whether they were living in illegal settlements – then we are no longer practicing “philanthropia”. 
We are no longer righteous. 
And we are certainly no longer following in the footsteps of Jesus.

Our Lutheran bishop here in Jerusalem, Bishop Munib Younan, often quotes his favorite Bible verse in his speeches and sermons. It is 1 John 4:20, where it is written:

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

(He also often adds "And unfortunately, in our world today, we have many liars!")

Love of God and love of our fellow humans go hand in hand. They cannot be separated! Therefore, if we want to love God, we must love our neighbors. ALL our neighbors.

We must stand firm against any speech or action which de-humanizes the one who is a different religion, gender, nationality, color, creed, or political party.

In the face of war, of oppression, of persecution, of terror, and of growing extremism and division in this city and in the world, as people of faith we must remain lovers of humankind. We must stand firm on the side of "philanthropia".
We don’t have to be nice…but we always must be kind. 

I dare say we haven't seen much of such kindness, from anyone, this week in Jerusalem.

But on Friday, as I watched the day's violent events unfold on livestream from my living room a few blocks away, there was one image which kept coming across my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

It was of a young Palestinian Christian man, wearing his cross necklace, and holding a Bible. He was standing in a line of his Palestinian Muslim friends, praying with them.

I couldn't stop looking at that photo.

 Now, I don’t know who the young man is. 
I don’t know if he is a “nice person.”
I don’t know if he’s from a “nice family,"
or whether he lives a "righteous life,"
 or if he is active in his faith other than for that particularly day and that photo opportunity..

But what I know is, in that moment, he was bold. 
He was a lover of God, and of his neighbor.
He was kind.

And therefore, by the grace of God, he was righteous.

As we go forth this week, empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us also say “yes” to love, to kindness, and to righteousness. Let us say "yes" to hope, and to the free gift of grace we have received through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Monday: At the intersection

Monday, 17 July 2017

"At the intersection."

At the same Jerusalem intersection, on a different day
Waiting to cross the street from West to East Jerusalem late Monday morning, we are:
One Orthodox Jewish man: white shirt (untucked), black pants. Head covered by a kippah. Tzitzit swinging at his legs as he comes to a quick stop at the edge of the curb.
Two young Muslim women in hijab: Full length black dresses, ankles covered, heads wrapped in scarves. Brightly colored backpacks perched on their backs, a stark contrast to the rest of their outfits.

And me: Head noticeably UN-covered. Black shoes and black tights. White plastic collar adorning a black dress, covering knees and elbows (but revealing slightly the tattoos on my forearms). Would it have been so appealing to get these tattoos, had I not been living inside this uniform for three years? Perhaps not. But here they are now, a tiny bit of resistance. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Four human beings at a city intersection. Four human beings, created by God, covering their bodies out of respect for God. As we bake together in the unfiltered sun and heat of Jerusalem, I wonder: Is this what God intended? Or perhaps God sees us sweating through layers of black polyester and cotton and shakes her head, saying, “Oh my dears, I didn’t mean for you to suffer so.”

The light turns green, and we make our way across the lanes of traffic. As we approach the markets of Musrara, the Jewish man veers off to the right and into the street, as far away as possible from the vegetable stands. The Muslim women head the opposite direction, edging as close as possible to the tomatoes, peppers, and onions.

I walk on, somewhere in between, but just before I reach the first vegetable stand, a large white van swerves into my path from the road. It makes me catch my breath, in a way I haven’t felt since the fall of 2015, when daily car-ramming attacks made even the sidewalks feel like war zones.

When the van comes to a stop just ahead of me, I see that it is driven by a priest—a Christian, and a foreigner, like me. He swings open the door and jumps out: Black shirt and pants. White plastic clergy tab, casually poking out one side of his unbuttoned collar. He is in an awful hurry, but for what? To buy a life-saving tomato? A critical watermelon? I can’t imagine.

In his haste, he nearly knocks me over. Finally, he sees me: A look of recognition. A look of confusion. Then a simple nod.

As I walk past the van and the priest, now furiously shopping for vegetables, I think about the odd space we inhabit in Jerusalem, this priest and I. We are Christian, a minority religion. I am a minority within that minority. But we are also internationals (read: White), privileged by virtue of our passports and our skin color. We are also clergy, a holy protected class in the City of Holy Protected Things.

The question is: How do we inhabit this complex of identities? Where do we stand? How do we walk, and with whom? Do we attempt to blend in (impossible)? Is there a middle path, where we try to offend no one but also say nothing (all too possible)?
Will we use our unique positions to affect change?
Or do we just drive our big white vans full of our Big White Privilege anywhere we desire?

Monday, July 17, 2017

"The first 100 years"

 Sunday 16 July 2017

This morning, on the way to church, I passed through New Gate.
The situation there, however, was nothing “new”.

I was granted immediate entry:
Not because of my black shirt and white collar,
And not because of my large cross,
But because of my blue eyes and light skin.
The soldier looked me up and down, nodded my direction, and allowed me to pass—
Past his fellow soldiers
Past the large guns and riot gear
And past the Palestinian man being denied the same entry to the Old City.

“Keef il Hajez? How is the checkpoint?” I asked Abu Ahmad upon arriving at Redeemer.

“Not good,” he replied. It took him from 5 to 7 am to pass from Bethlehem to the church. His brother arrived to the checkpoint at 3:15 am, and didn’t reach Jerusalem until 5:45 am. After a few words of appreciation for his efforts, I entered the church to prepare for worship, and Abu Ahmad went off to prepare me a cup of tea.
Most of our English-speaking congregation is either away for the summer, or they were restricted from entering the Old City today by employers concerned about the security situation.
So we were only 1 toddler and 12 adults, including:
A few church members
A visiting family from Botswana
Some amateur archaeologists
An American theologian
A Swedish Lutheran deacon
A nuclear war resistor
And me, the pastor.
I don’t really love the Sundays when it’s a one-woman show. Of course, it’s handy that I can bake the communion bread AND create the bulletin AND play the piano AND preach the sermon—but it’s so much better when there’s a better sense of community! It’s so much better when the liturgy is really the “work of the people.” And this morning, although we were mostly strangers, community was exactly what we needed.

So, we gathered around the altar, and we prayed for Jerusalem. 

We prayed for lives lost to violence, and for futures lost to occupation and oppression.
We broke bread. We shared the cup. We sang “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound”. 
Even a few tears were shed. Alleluia! Thanks be to God.

On the way home, just before I passed through the same Old City gate where the same soldiers continued to stand guard, I stopped to talk with my friend George at his pottery shop. I told him there were only 12 of us around the table this morning. I told him I was feeling discouraged--by the same old situation in the city. By the same old violence. By the same old injustices.

George just smiled at me and said,
“Oh Sister, don’t be discouraged in your ministry! The first 100 years are always the worst.”