Sunday, September 24, 2017

"Hard-pressed, choosing hope": Sermon for 24 September 2017

“Hard-pressed, choosing hope”

Sermon for Sunday 24 September 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. 

The Israeli separation wall, as seen from Wi'am Center
I have a confession to make: What I’m about to preach is not the first sermon I wrote for this morning.

You see, I spent the week reading various commentaries on Jesus’ parable of the landowner and the workers in the vineyard. I read Martin Luther’s sermon on the topic. I read a new urban interpretation of the Gospel according to Matthew. And then I started writing a sermon, which I thought captured the Gospel message and carried the possibility of a few laughs, which I had tentatively titled: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…dodgeball.”

I know it sounds a little weird, but I promise, it made sense in my mind, and it almost made sense on paper. It was about how just as the kingdom of heaven turns our assumptions upside down, the game of dodgeball subverts the paradigm of elementary school, because the last kid standing, the kid nobody notices, is the winner of the game. You know, the last shall be first…

Anyway, it was a work in progress, but I was confident that by this Sunday morning, it would be a sermon worth preaching.

But as the dodgeball sermon was coming together this week, life kept happening.

And things haven’t been all that good.

There was no dodging the bad news from around the world this week:

There were more hurricanes.
And there were earthquakes—and then more earthquakes.
Countries across the globe are in political turmoil.
The threat of nuclear war grows every day, spurred on by juvenile jabs from world leaders.

And then a colleague, a pastor very close to my own age, died suddenly in her sleep this week, just days after starting a call at a new church.

As these events unfolded around me, I started to lose interest in my dodgeball-themed sermon. During a week heavy with issues of life and death, hope and despair, a sports analogy was just not going to work.

The sniper tower that overlooks Wi'am Palestinian
Conflict Transformation Center in Bethlehem
And then, Friday evening, I gathered with a small group of clergy, activists, and allies at the Wi’am Palestinian ConflictTransformation Center in Bethlehem. It was the annual prayer service for the World Council of Churches’ World Week for Peace. For the fourth time since I moved to Jerusalem, I sat there in the shadow of the wall to join my prayers with others for peace, justice, reconciliation, and liberation for the Palestinian people.

And although I had been contemplating Jesus’ parable all week long, it was suddenly the Apostle Paul’s voice that was ringing in my ears, from today’s appointed Epistle reading. I invite you to open in your Bible to page 953 to read aloud with me, Philippians chapter 1, verses 21-30:

“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

  Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well—since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”

Paul writes these powerful words from his prison cell. He has come to understand the real possibility that he will never be released, and that he may in fact face the death penalty. His faith assures him that death will not be the end, and his current suffering in prison was very great. Therefore, a part of him considers whether he should just give in to the blessing of death rather than to suffer further. For this reason, he writes, “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”

And yet, Paul knows there is work to be done. He knows there are other believers relying on him, that others are looking to him for courage and direction. He is “hard-pressed” to choose between despair and hope, between acceptance and resistance. Ultimately, Paul chooses life, saying:

“Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith.”

As I sat beneath the separation wall in Bethlehem on Friday, with the smell of tear gas wafting in the air, I was reminded that choosing life, and choosing hope, is an everyday struggle for so many of our neighbors. Such a choice is not easy—in fact it requires incredible courage and strength.

It is one thing to sit in a faraway place and speak of lofty things like “peace and justice in the Middle East”, or to advocate for “non-violence” as if it were the obvious choice. It is quite another thing to say it, to believe it, and to choose it, when “occupation” isn’t just a word, but is a reality spelled out in concrete and barbed wire in your backyard. Choosing life in the valley of the shadow of death requires steadfast faith in God, or what is called in Arabic “sumud.”

For this reason, Paul’s letter was a gift to me during a week heavy with questions of life or death, hope or despair. Paul’s voice rings out across time, encouraging fellow believers in every time and place to be courageous. Paul the preacher, Paul the prisoner, Paul the persecutor who became the persecuted, challenges us never to give up, but to choose life and hope even when the evidence doesn’t support it.

All of us will face this choice at one time or another.  

Not all of us will find ourselves living behind prison bars of steel, or walls of concrete and barbed wire.

But we may find ourselves in prisons of depression, addiction, or abuse.
We may find ourselves in a prison of cancer, or poverty, or grief.
Others may try to put us in prisons of patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, or religious persecution.

And when you find yourself surrounded by such walls, visible or invisible, Paul says to you from inside his own prison: Don’t give up.

Don’t give up. And don’t just survive—live! Live in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.

“Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.”

I suppose one could interpret this to mean, “Live a pure life. Be good while I’m gone! Follow the rules! Play it safe, so you don’t get caught, or arrested, or imprisoned yourself!”

But living a Gospel life is not about playing it safe. A cross-shaped life is never without risk, never without struggle, never without controversy.

On the contrary, “living in a manner worthy of the Gospel” means we never let the fear of dying stop us from living.

It means never letting the fear of criticism stop us from speaking.

It means never letting the walls our opponents build around us block out the light of our faith in God and our hope in Jesus Christ.

Of course, there are moments when death may seem preferable. There are times when it seems all hope is lost, when the struggle seems too much to bear:

When there is no peace process and it’s already been 50 years of occupation. When your home has been destroyed by a hurricane or your child is beneath the rubble of an earthquake. When your bank account has had a negative balance for months, and you never get chosen for the job. When your political leaders are fanning the flames of hatred, and war seems inevitable.

In such times, like our brother Paul we may feel “hard-pressed.”

And still, we choose hope. Still, we choose life, not only for ourselves, but for others. As Paul chose to persist and endure for the sake of the Philippians, we also choose to persist in hope for the sake of our neighbors, for the sake of our children, for the sake of peace, justice, and reconciliation.

On Friday, as I sat looking up at that ugly wall, contemplating not only these 50 years of occupation but the sad state of the world today, I asked myself:

What do I choose?

Do I see barbed wire, or do I see the two little girls eating apples under that olive tree?

Do I smell the tear gas from Aida camp, or do I smell the flowers blooming even in the shadow of the wall?

Do I hear the voices of those saying “the dream of the Palestinian state is over” and “there will never be peace”, or do I hear the voice of Bishop Younan, proclaiming, “We choose to light a candle rather than stand to curse the darkness”?

And the answer is: By the power of the Holy Spirit, I choose hope.

Because I believe in Christ crucified and risen,
because by the power of love my Lord has defeated even death itself,
and with the Apostle Paul and the saints of every age,
I choose hope.

For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it! Amen!

At the end of this World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel, we will close with a prayer written by Most Rev. Dr Antje Jackelén, Archbishop of the Church of Sweden).

Let us pray:

God of hope, who fulfilled the promises of Easter by sending your Holy Spirit to the Church, and opening to all people the way of eternal life, pour your power upon your children in the Holy Land: Jews, Christians and Muslims, Palestinians and Israelis. Seeking a just peace, we turn to you. Let hatred be turned into love, fear to trust, despair to hope, oppression to freedom. Let what is broken be healed, teach us ways to live in equality. For in the light of Easter you have given us a vision of shalom and salaam, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Sermon by Bishop Munib Younan: On the occasion of Adrainne Gray's consecration as deacon

Today's post features a guest sermon by Bishop Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. It was preached for our joint service of the English-speaking and Arabic-speaking congregations of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Jerusalem on 17 September 2017.

(Note: in the ELCA, deacons are "consecrated." In the ELCJHL, they are "ordained.")

All the photos are by Ben Gray. You can see more photos of the day (and of the ministries of the ELCJHL) at


Photo by Ben Gray/ELCJHL
Sermon for the Ordination of  
Ms. Adrainne Gray as deacon

Preached by Bishop Munib Younan

Luke 17:11-19“Service and Gratitude”

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

This morning we heard that when our Lord Jesus was on the road between Samaria and Galilee, he entered a village, and ten lepers approached him. They called out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus did not know them. He did not know anything about them. He did not ask their gender, or their race, or their religion. He did not ask them to first get a permit, or a note from the doctor, or to provide references from their employers. He knew all he needed to know: They were sick, and needed to be healed. Therefore he said to them all, without discrimination: “Go, and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were healed. All ten of them were healed!

This morning, as we are gathered to witness the ordination of our sister Adrainne into the ministry of diakonia, this Gospel lesson is very important for us. Jesus did not hear the cries of the ten lepers and then choose to heal only the deserving ones, only the polite ones, or only the sickest ones. His love, his mercy, and his healing are for all.

In the same way, the servant of God is not picky about who to
serve. When our Lord calls us to follow him, and sends us to be his hands and feet in the world today, he expects us to follow the same ethic. As the American Catholic activist and writer Dorothy Day once said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” The love of God in Christ Jesus is for every human being—man and woman, black and white, rich and poor, local and international, citizen and non-citizen, friend and enemy, occupier and the occupied.

When we read about the commissioning of the first deacons in the 6th chapter of Acts, we notice that the office of deacon was not meant to be a position less than the ministry of the Word, but a complementary one. The ministry of service was vital to the ongoing mission of the early church. The twelve could not accomplish their calling without the deacons, and vice versa. It was only through their equal partnership that the church could feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and care for the widows and orphans, and at the same time teach and preach. As a result of their faithful accompaniment in mission, we read in Acts 6 verse 7: “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”

Dear Adrainne, we give thanks this morning that you have heard the call of God on your life, and that you have answered. When you said to the Lord, “Yes, I will follow you and I will serve your people,” I’m sure you never imagined God would bring you to Jerusalem! But as Jesus did not discriminate between the ten lepers who asked for healing, a deacon must also be ready to serve all who are in need, wherever they are in the world. And here you are! The Lord has opened your heart to the Palestinian people, and to our church, and we welcome you.

You have been sent here among us as a missionary, and a very special kind of missionary—one who has been sent to share the Gospel not only at the pulpit, but also in the world. But, in fact, we have suffered greatly from more narrow understandings of mission. In the past, missionaries have come to this place only to impose systems of belief or cultural values. They have brought us colonial ideas and have called it healing. We have no need of this kind of mission today.

But today when Adrainne is ordained, we welcome her as a missionary who will share the Good News through service. She will preach through her hands, her feet, and her open heart. This is the ministry of diakonia which our Lord has established, and to which every believer is called—service to the poor, to the oppressed, and to all who are in need.

In our world today we speak often about “prophetic diakonia.” In our understanding, this diakonia is more than charity or alms-giving. Prophetic diakonia is not only serving those who are oppressed but challenging the systems of oppression. It is not only feeding the poor, but lifting up the poor so they can stand on their own feet, that they may be able to sustain their own futures. It is not only giving material help to alleviate suffering, but also courageously standing against the powers and principalities which perpetuate such suffering. As followers of Jesus today, and as the global church, we are called to this prophetic diakonia.

Photo by Ben Gray/ELCJHL
When we think about the story of Jesus and the ten lepers, it is interesting to note that after they got what they wanted, they were so gratified they forgot to thank the Healer. Only one of them—the Samaritan, who was considered a stranger and even an enemy—remembered to come and thank Jesus for the healing he received.

Dear Adrainne, as you take on this new role as deacon in the church, do not expect that many will thank you for your service. Experience shows us that we humans are most of the time like the other nine lepers! As we read in Luke 17 verse 18:

“Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’”

We are often lacking gratitude to God for the gift of grace we have received, and we definitely lack gratitude for those who serve among us. We prefer whining, complaining, and criticizing over thanking or blessing.

Adrainne, your service will often go unnoticed. People will forget you. They will even criticize you. They will get the healing they need and then you will never again see their faces.

But we do not serve to be thanked for our efforts, and we do not preach to receive compliments for our beautiful words. We do not answer the call in order to receive special stoles or pins on our shirts.

We serve because Jesus served. We share the Word because it has changed our lives. And we love, because he first loved us.

Dear Adrainne, as you receive the deacon’s stole and pin today, be encouraged. Although you may not receive many thanks, remember that this sign of your calling is also the sign that you are not in this alone. When God calls, God qualifies and equips. You are not only sent, but strengthened for this service. The love of God in Christ is with you. And the church is also with you!

Your calling is but one part of our communal call as the global church of Jesus Christ. Together, each in our own way, we are fulfilling God’s mission to feed the hungry, to care for the orphan and the widow, to liberate the oppressed and occupied, and to bring about God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

We give thanks for your willingness to answer the call among us. May God bless you, and may God bless your ministry, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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

Photo by Ben Gray/ELCJHL

Sunday, September 10, 2017

"Sticks and Stones"- Sermon for Sunday 10 September 2017

Sermon for Sunday 10 September 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, I was chased out of church by a nun carrying a big stick.

I really wish this were the start of a great joke! Or the first line of a great work of fiction.

But it’s a true story: 
On Tuesday morning, I was chased out of a church by a nun carrying a big stick, partly because I am not an Orthodox Christian, but mostly because I am a woman wearing a clergy collar. At the invitation of an Orthodox co-worker, a small group of us climbed to a monastery roof in the Holy Sepulcher courtyard to watch the formal procession of an icon. I had done this in years past with no problem, but this time, as we stepped onto the roof, a sister in black saw me coming, and she took immediate action. “Oh, no!” she said, hands on hips. Then she pointed at the clergy collars I and another woman pastor were wearing, and with a stamp of her foot she shouted: “THIS. NOT. GOOD. OUT!”

Now, there are times to stand your ground. There are times when, in the spirit of Martin Luther, it is appropriate to say, “Here I stand! I can do no other!” But it seemed to me that on that roof, face to face with an angry nun, was neither the time nor the place.  

We quickly turned to leave, while our Orthodox co-worker stayed to give Sister Shouts-a-Lot a piece of her mind.

When we got to the bottom of the stairs and we were about to make our exit, I looked back up to see the red-faced sister, still shouting, and now waving a broom handle at us. “And stay out!” she yelled.

I’ve experienced a number of awkward ecumenical incidents while serving as a pastor who is a woman in Jerusalem, but this one was truly exceptional. And hurtful! What makes it sadder is we were visiting the church that day to honor a woman. We were there, along with hundreds of others, to honor Mary, the mother of Our Lord. I can’t help but wonder if Mary would also find it necessary to keep the church free and clear of women (or just women like me).
The Orthodox priests carrying the icon of
Sleeping Mary into the church
Photo by Adrainne Gray/ELCJHL

My pastor friends and I did finally see the icon procession, albeit from ground level. We saw finely-dressed priests march into the courtyard, cradling the icon of Sleeping Mary. We watched as they carried the icon past Sister Waves-a-Stick and into the chapel, where it was placed behind glass until next year.

And then, my colleagues and I came back to the Redeemer Café for a healing cup of coffee and our weekly Bible study.

But before the coffee, I stopped in my office, and told my other co-workers what happened. Some of them promised to keep a big stick by our church door for the next time any Orthodox priests come to visit. You don’t need people like that in your life, they said. Shake the dust off your feet. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let them get you down. End of story. 

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum...on my arm!
I admit, it felt good, just for a moment, to think of making her feel as bad, and as excluded, as I did.

A few minutes later, sitting around one of the tables in the courtyard downstairs, we began to study this week’s appointed Scripture lessons. Pastor John read aloud:
“Jesus said to the disciples: If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

…and he stopped right there. We were silent for a moment, and then all of us burst out laughing! “Go talk to her!” said Jesus. But not one of us felt like going back to the monastery have a heart-to-heart with Sister Grumpypants (or, more accurately, Sister Grumpy-habit…).

When we stopped laughing, John continued reading:

“If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Oh my, what a perfect Scripture text that was for us that day! I’ve heard it said that God is never in a hurry, but is always right on time, and that’s exactly what it felt like that morning. At just the right time, when we needed help to process the morning’s events from a new perspective, we received Jesus’ specific instructions for how to deal with conflicts that arise within the Body of Christ. This didn’t feel like church history, or theology. This felt like a direct word to me and my sister in Christ standing on that roof, the two of us united in faith, but divided by church tradition, personal opinion, and a little patriarchy thrown in for good measure.

And what I heard Jesus say to me was: This is not the end of the story.

Carrie, you don’t get to lock the door on your sister and throw away the key.

You don’t get to push your hurt under the rug either, acting as if everything is ok on the outside while nurturing hateful thoughts on the inside.

And you definitely don’t get to pick up sticks and wage a sister-on-sister battle.

The story doesn’t end here.

“Talk to her,” says Jesus. “And if that doesn’t work, bring a few friends. And if that doesn’t work, appeal to the church as a whole.”

Finally, Jesus says, “If all else fails, let her be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Now, let’s talk about Gentiles and tax collectors.

“Let her be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” at first seems like Jesus is saying, “Forget her. You don’t need that in your life.” After all, these were the types of folks “nice people” didn’t hang around with in Jesus’ time. So why not just walk away?

Some of the clergywomen of Jerusalem
Except it turns out, Jesus has a history with Gentiles and tax collectors. Jesus has a proven record of consorting with lepers and even with women, and of populating his inner circle with the outcast and the despised. By the witness of the Gospels, we know very well how Jesus deals with such people:

He invites them to dinner.
He heals them.
He loves them.
He makes them disciples!
And he takes up the cross for their sake, and for the sake of all sinners.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, because the church is Christ’s crucified and risen body on earth, we can never say to another part of the body, “I have no need of you.” (1 Cor 12:12-26). Conflict between a few members affects the entire body. This is true for congregations, and it is true for ecumenical relations. Where the rest of the world writes people off when conflict reaches a certain point, or engages in a battle to the death, within the Body we must always seek understanding, healing, and reconciliation.

We must never stop trusting in the power of the cross to heal and restore even the most wounded body.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and I must say I have heard (and helped to write) many sermons already which proclaim the hope that soon, the church divisions of the 16th century will be healed. The Pope and our Lutheran bishop just last year prayed together in Sweden, remember? Surely an open communion table, women priests, and the end of celibacy cannot be far behind.

And every time I hear these hopes, I think: “Really? Does anyone really think the Pope will accept priests who look like me? For that matter, does anyone think evangelical Christians will accept a pope, in any shape or form?”

And it’s not like things have gotten better between the churches over the last five hundred years! 

Nuns still chase Lutheran lady pastors around with sticks.
Churches still chase people out with social statements,
Or with their silence over such statements.
Believers still hurt one another, sometimes even in the name of God.

For this reason, visions of miraculous reconciliation within the global church can seem unlikely. Unrealistic. Fake news of the highest order.

But then, the resurrection seemed unlikely, too.
And yet, we believe!
We believe in blind eyes opened.
We believe in ears unstopped.
We believe in prison walls crumbled,
And stones rolled away from the doors of tombs.

We believe in resurrection, restoration, reformation, and transformation.

Thanks be to God, we have heard the Good News, and we believe, that because Christ is raised, love, life, and restoration are at the end of every story of conflict, sickness, and struggle--in our homes, in our communities, in the church, and in the world.

And so, I wonder: what should I say to Sister Shouts-a-Lot this week?

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure. I walk past her special roof every day on my way to work, so it would be pretty hard to avoid her altogether.
But I do know that our story does not end in sticks and shouting.
So I think I’ll start with prayer—for her, and for myself.

And one day, I will talk with her. I might make sure there are no sticks around first, but I will surely talk to her again!

And when I do, it will be in confidence, for I know Jesus will be there, too. Wherever two or three are gathered, he has promised that he will there, too, doing what he always does: Healing. Reconciling. Loving us, and loving his church, to the very end. Amen.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Sermon for Sunday 3 September 2017: On what Jesus does (and does not) ask us to carry

Sermon for Sunday 3 September 2017
13th Sunday after Pentecost

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Psalm 19:14

One afternoon earlier this week, I stepped out the front door of Redeemer Church and saw a face that was at once familiar, and completely out of place. It was Mr. Nusseibeh, the Muslim key keeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Most days, all day long, he is sitting on his bench just inside those massive, carved, wooden doors, greeting the many pilgrims coming to visit the tomb of Jesus. So I was surprised to see him in front of our church!

Whenever Mr. Nusseibeh sees me, I am scolded for not coming to pray at “his” church more often. This was no exception.

“Sister, wen inti???” he exclaimed. “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you!”

After a few standard greetings, a kiss on the cheek, and a little more scolding, he asked me about my family.

“They live in Texas, sah? How are they doing?”

I explained that my mom and dad have recently moved to Ohio, where they are safe and dry, but that we are praying for all those affected by the terrible hurricane in Houston.

Mr. Nusseibeh grabbed my arm and gave me a serious look.

“You know that this storm is from God, don’t you?”
“Um…” I said, hesitantly.
“Yes,” he insisted, but now with a smile. “This is what happens when people think they are bigger than God. And Texans think they are bigger than everything!”

Now, as a former Texan, I found this “joke” pretty funny.

But as a Christian and a pastor, I found it disturbing.

As Mr. Nusseibeh walked away, I wondered how many people would not understand that he was trying to be funny. And the answer is: far too many.

Whenever horrible natural disasters occur, pastors, politicians, and armchair theologians struggle to make sense of it. How could this happen? Why were so many people hurt, displaced, and killed? What did Houston do to deserve this suffering? There must be an explanation.

An example is this week’s tweet from an infamous American political commentator, Ann Coulter:

I don't believe Hurricane Harvey is God's punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor. But that is more credible than "climate change."

Now, I suppose we can give her credit for letting God off the hook (although she did it only to deny the existence of climate change). But the problem with this snarky tweet is it works precisely because so many do believe God would send a hurricane to teach Houston a morality lesson.

Preachers, books, movies, and jokes perpetuate the idea that this is how God works:
that the Creator of the universe deals out disease or disability or war or hurricanes from a deck of cards, so that humans might have the opportunity to learn a lesson or increase our faith.

As I’ve listened to radio and television reports coming from Texas and Louisiana this week, already I have heard hurricane survivors uttering this familiar bit of the same popular theology:

“I guess this is the cross I must bear.”

This breaks my heart, to see people standing in the ruins of their homes, or sitting in disaster shelters, knowing they believe Jesus wants them to be there.

It breaks my heart, and I believe it breaks the heart of God!

So this morning, I want to say very clearly:

God did not give Houston a hurricane because Houstonians needed an attitude adjustment. That’s not how God works!

And your flooded house, your cancer diagnosis, your chronic depression, or your abusive relationship are not the cross Jesus asks you to carry.
That’s not how discipleship works.

I need to say this clearly this morning, because as a pastor, I’ve often heard people I love describe a medical diagnosis, a job loss, or even a particularly annoying co-worker as “the cross I must bear.” While it might be accurate to describe these situations as burdens, as trials, and yes, even as opportunities for spiritual growth, these sufferings are not the cross of discipleship Jesus invites us to carry, as heavy as they are.

When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he is making a very specific invitation—not to the suffering and life struggles and persecution inflicted upon us by disaster, or by others, but to a costly, and voluntary, discipleship.

As Jesus prepared the disciples for the next step on the journey, the entrance into Jerusalem, he told them the truth. He told them that as a result of his radical message of repentance, love, and forgiveness, he and any followers would soon face suffering, and public humiliation, and possibly death. He did not say to them: “Andrew, here’s your cross. And Philip, here’s yours. Peter, yours is especially big, because after all, you’re the rock. You can handle it.”

Jesus said to them: “I’m going to Jerusalem. Things are going to get tough—really tough. I want you to come with me. But if you want to join me, you’re going to have to leave some stuff behind, because what you’ll be carrying is heavy. This will require all of your heart, your mind, and your strength. Even so, do not be afraid, for what you will find in the end is life, and life abundantly.”

Jesus voluntarily took upon his shoulders the ultimate tool of public disgrace and violence, and made it his identifying mark. He transformed the cross from a symbol of death into a symbol of life and liberation. Therefore, his invitation to the disciples, and to us, is to join him in this subversive effort.

Jesus asks us to consider:

In the context in which I find myself today, where do I see powers and principalities working against God’s kingdom and the Gospel of love? Who is suffering as a result?
Once we’ve discovered these answers, we can answer the question:

What, therefore, is Jesus asking me to take up and carry for the sake of my neighbor, and for the sake of co-creating the kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven?

Our local Lutheran bishop, Munib Younan, has a story he loves to include in sermons about discipleship and carrying the cross. He sometimes says it is a story “from one of the church fathers.” Other times, he says it is “from the Arab literature.” I’m skeptical about both of these claims. I have sneaking suspicion this story comes from an Arab church father named Munib. In any case, it goes like this:

There once was a man who had a very strange dream. In his dream, he prayed to God: “Please, my cross is too heavy! It is too much to bear! Please give me a different one!”

And as he prayed, an angel came to carry the man to heaven.

When they arrived in heaven, the angel took the man to a room full of crosses of every shape and size. The angel said to the man, “Your prayers have been answered. Please, choose the cross you would prefer.”

The man went to the first cross, a large one made of iron. He could only carry it for a few steps, so he said, “No, this one is too heavy.”

Then, the angel led him to the next cross. This one was made of silver. The man carried it a few steps, and then he said, “This one is better, but I think I see one made of gold over there.”

So the man put down the silver one and picked up the gold cross. But this one was still too heavy. And besides, he preferred white gold to yellow gold.

The next one was made of wood, but it was far too large to lift, and besides, it put splinters in his shoulders.

On and on he went, picking up and carrying the many crosses in the room, unable to decide, until finally the man said to the angel,

“You know what, after all I’ve seen, I think I choose the cross Jesus gave me in the first place, because it’s the one God gave me the strength to carry.”

Now, I sort of feel about this story the way I feel about Mr. Nusseibeh’s Texas joke! I want to say: NOPE. That’s not how God works.

On the other hand, there is a bit of truth here.

First, the cross of discipleship does come in many shapes and sizes. Not everyone’s path of discipleship is the same.

The cross of discipleship looks like the blisters and sore feet and lost sleep of the big-hearted Texans who have stepped up to help neighbors in need.

The cross of discipleship also looks like the exhaustion of the nurse on the chemo ward, who gives not only of her expertise but of her heart as she cares for her patients.

The cross of discipleship often looks like the harassment and sometimes violence inflicted upon those who dare to speak out against the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, and systemic injustices.

And the cross of discipleship looks like the broken hearts of those who, for 50 years, have worked tirelessly for peace, justice, and equality for every human being here in Palestine and Israel.

When Jesus invites us to take up the cross and follow, we don’t know its shape or its size. We don’t know how long we will have to carry it, or where the path is leading us.
And this is the second truth in Bishop Younan’s story:

Ultimately, we don’t really choose to carry any cross. We choose to follow Jesus. And the result of following him is we will carry some heavy stuff. We may carry the burden of ridicule from others. We may carry the burden of disagreement with family or friends. We will certainly carry the burden of sorrow and grief over the ongoing heartbreak in the world.

And, if necessary, we may need to carry the cross all the way to Calvary, loving God and our neighbors with our whole life, as Jesus did for us.

But be not afraid! For truly, whatever we carry for the sake of our neighbor, and for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, God will give us the strength to do it. In this time when the world is facing so many challenges, and our neighbors are experiencing so much suffering, the church has many opportunities for faithful discipleship. It is good for us to hear again that with God, all things are possible, for “my burden is easy, and my yoke is light” says the Lord. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

This is how discipleship works.
This is how God works. 

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, for by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world. Amen.