Monday, October 30, 2017

"Procession of the Lost and Found: Celebrating 500 years of Reformation"

Sermon for Reformation Sunday 2017

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

29 October 2017

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

Reformation Procession in Jerusalem 2014 (ELCJHL)
On the last day of our vacation in Prague, I decided to take one more walk around the city before heading to the airport. A long early morning walk had been my habit each day of our week away, as the weather was just stunning, and the others in my family are late sleepers. As I stepped out into the crisp autumn air, I plugged in my earphones, tuned into a podcast, and happily set off through the Old Town.  

Because I had walked this particular path for six days already, I was feeling quite at home. The same musicians were on the St. Charles Bridge, playing the same songs. The same artists were there, selling the same tacky watercolors. “I wonder if anyone thinks I’m a local!” I thought smugly to myself, silently judging the more “obvious” tourists. In fact, I was feeling so comfortable that when I reached the other side of the river, I decided to take a different route home. And why not? Prague felt like my city now, and there was still plenty of time before our flight back to Jerusalem.

And then, everything was fine, until it wasn’t.

I looked up and realized I had no idea where I was. I took a left turn, and then a right. Then another left, and another right. I studied the street signs, but of course they were in Czech, so that didn’t help at all. I kept on walking, hoping a building or a statue or even a tree would look familiar. I certainly didn’t feel or look like a local anymore! I was mostly looking desperate. Thirty minutes passed, then an hour. Our flight time back to Jerusalem was fast approaching.

Well, I started to get a little panicked, so I walked faster. At one point, as I ran across a busy street that looked far too similar to the one I crossed 15 minutes before, the heel of my boot caught in the train track and I fell face first in front of a line of stopped cars.

I picked myself up and brushed myself off as gracefully as I could, but there was no denying the truth now: I was lost. Utterly, completely, lost.

St Charles Bridge, Prague
Since there was no more denying this painful truth, I finally stopped walking. I pulled my earphones out of my ears and stared down at my cell phone. Of course, to save money on the trip, I had not purchased a Czech SIM card, so I had no way to call for help. But I stared at the useless device in my hand anyway, as if willing something to happen.

And then, a miracle happened! Two bars appeared at the top of the screen. I had WiFi! But from where? When I looked around I saw I was standing in front of a fancy hotel, which was inadvertently sharing its signal with me. It was just a flicker of a signal, but to me that internet connection felt like manna from heaven! It was a light, shining in the darkness!

Now connected, I clicked on “Maps”, and as the image filled the screen, I saw that I was not only lost, I was on the wrong side of the river. How is it even possible to cross a river without noticing? And why did I not think to check if I had a WiFi signal earlier?! Those are great questions, but it didn’t matter now: By the grace of God (in the form of Google maps!) I was headed home. I was lost, but now I am found.

“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Romans 3:23-25)

Dear friends in Christ, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gift for the lost. God’s grace is Good News for those on the wrong side of the river, with no map, and no way to call home. The mercy of God is a free gift for those who have gone astray, for those who are too filled with pride to ask for help, for those who have no idea what to do next, for those who have nothing to offer in return.

In other words: Every. Single. One of us.

Let me say it again: The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gift for the lost.

This maybe seem an obvious statement, perhaps not radical enough or important enough for a sermon on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation! And yet, 500 years after our brother Martin Luther took a stand, proclaiming to all who would listen that salvation is not for sale, we still find it difficult to receive God’s free gift of grace. Five hundred years after the Bible was translated into our mother tongues, so all believers could read “we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:28), we still want to try it our way. We still want to earn our own righteousness. We still want to justify ourselves.

We still want to find our own way home.

Things have changed a bit since the day Brother Luther nailed his 95 complaints on the door of the Wittenberg church, of course.

Five hundred years ago, Johan Tetzel was selling indulgences, promising Christians they could purchase a fast-track out of purgatory and into heaven for their deceased loved ones.

Today, preachers are selling us the path to health, wealth, and true love, if only we will donate to their mega-church ministry and fund the personal pastoral airplane.

Five hundred years ago, Luther put himself through much bodily suffering, trying to deserve God’s love through extreme diets and long hours of prayer.

Today, we try to earn righteousness through a vegan diet, or exercise, or by joining a political movement. We may not have specific worries about climbing a ladder to heaven, but we climb the ladder of acceptability every day by achieving success in our careers, or perfecting our appearances, or curating our social media presence.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gift for the lost, and yet Christians today still live as if we aren’t lost at all. We act as if we already have a map, so we don’t need to be found. We act as if we have no need of God’s free gift, because we have the means to pay for it ourselves.

This pride and self-righteousness is the most expensive indulgence of all. It costs us the freedom and liberation of the Gospel. It costs us time spent hiding our true selves. It costs us the peace of knowing that although all have fallen short, all can rest easy because our lives are in the hands of the One who says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) And it costs the people of the world much suffering, for those who do not know they are loved cannot love their neighbor, much less God.

Dear friends, five hundred years ago, a faithful monk named Martin Luther went searching for the core of the Gospel message, and he didn’t find it in a cathedral. He didn’t find it in the institutional church. He found it in the Word of God, especially Romans chapter 3 verse 28: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” This Gospel message became a motto of the Reformation movement in the 16th century.

But the Reformation of the church was not a single event. It did not happen on one day in 1517. The Reformation was and is an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God, that Spirit is still stirring up trouble among us today! Ecclesia semper reformanda est: the church is always being reformed!

The truth is, the message of the Reformation is still critically relevant for the world today. So many people, both inside and outside the church, need to hear that we have been made right with God, not through anything we did or could possibly do, but through the self-emptying love of Jesus. So many still need to hear the truth about God, for this truth sets us free. 

We really can’t know the fullness of God’s grace if we’re still trying to hold everything together.

Earlier this week, I was delighted to read a poem by the Rev. Laura Martin, a Facebook friend and a pastor in Virginia. I have no idea if she wrote this with the Reformation in mind (Actually, who does anything with the Reformation in mind, except for Lutheran pastors?!) but to me, it captures the essence of what I hope this Reformation commemoration will be about. She writes:

“Sometimes the strongest thing
You can do is
Come apart.
Come apart like the
Seed giving itself up in the dirt
Like the rain changing to torrent
Like the sand letting go in a storm.
Maybe this is how you discover
Where you belong,
And what has always
Held you.”

Hear that again: Sometimes the strongest thing you can do is come apart.

Sometimes the most authentic thing you can do is stop and admit you are lost.

Sometimes the most faithful thing you can do is say to Jesus, “I am weak, but you are strong. I've got nothing for this. Come quickly!”

On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, what I hope the world hears from we who are Christians in the Reformation tradition is this:

We are lost!

And--equally important--God’s answer to a lost and broken humanity is the free gift of grace, poured out from the cross.

It’s a scandal that God’s answer to our weakness is God’s own weakness.
It’s a mystery why God chose to save a suffering world through God’s own suffering.
And yet, that foolishness is our power. That scandal is our wisdom. 
The cross is our joy, and our hope, and our way home.

Dear friends in Christ, on Tuesday afternoon at 4:30 pm, the Lutherans and other evangelical Christians will gather in the main sanctuary at Redeemer for a big festive worship service. You will see representatives of every church in Jerusalem at this event: Syrian Orthodox, Catholics, Armenians, Ethiopians, sisters in habits and brothers in robes and believers of every stripe.

And you will see at least 25 clergy from our Protestant traditions, processing solemnly to the front of the church while singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

We will look like we know what we’re doing!
We will look like we have it all together!
We will look like we know the way.

But if it were up to me (and it’s not) I would love to see us do it a little different for this 500th anniversary. I would love to see us tell the truth in that procession. 

I would love to see the words “I’m lost” printed on all our fancy robes. The color of the day is red, so maybe we could write it in red! I’d like to see the bishops and pastors and deacons wearing the truth, in big letters, for all to see:

“I am lost. I need the gift of grace.”
“I am broken. I need the healing that comes through the cross.”
“I am lonely. I need the solidarity and friendship of the Body of Christ.”
“I have fallen short! And I am loved.”

What better witness could there be to the world, as we begin the next 500 years in the story of the ever-reforming church, than to admit we are lost? 
What better way to honor the free gift of grace given by God, than to open our hands to receive it?

It won’t go exactly that way on Tuesday. 

But believe me, our Lord knows our failings! Jesus knows we fall short, even in this. And still, he will be there.
Still, Jesus comes to us, lost as we are:
In, with, and under the bread and the wine,
Through water and the Word,
Freely, abundantly, mercifully, poured out for all the lost.
The free gift of grace, leading us home. Thanks be to God.

Monday, October 23, 2017

"The soul itself is symphonic: On Psalm 96, St. Hildegarde, and singing your song TODAY"


You know, it's a great thing that many people read these sermons who are not sitting in the pews immediately in front of me.

At the same time, this larger audience makes preaching complicated. For example, this sermon mentions the untimely and tragic death of a church member the day before--therefore a palpable grief was present in the room as it was being preached, a feeling and a spirit which cannot be relayed in print.

This sermon also tells two different stories of my ministry in previous congregations. This is always risky to do, as I never want to misrepresent events or people, and my memory is never perfect! But I also find it so helpful to tell the stories of how I have seen God at work, in real places and among real people. If you remember things differently, I ask for your grace.

So...with that, read on, dear readers.

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


Sermon for Sunday 22 October 2017
20th Sunday after Pentecost

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

“Pastor Carrie, we never sing my favorite hymn on Sunday morning. And why are we singing all these new songs? Can’t we stick to the old favorites?”

I was hearing comments like this so often, and from such a chorus of voices, that one summer (with the support of the church worship committee, of course) we launched an experiment. A box was placed at the back of the sanctuary with paper and a pencil and a hymnal next to it, and members were invited to write down both title and number of their favorite hymns. Then, every week of the summer, our Sunday worship would feature only these “old favorites”.  (Also known as: None of Pastor Carrie’s “weird choices”!)

The results were somewhat predictable. As expected, when we opened the box, it contained an overwhelming multitude of requests for “Amazing Grace” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

But what surprised many was how the rest of the box consisted of papers notating almost every other hymn in the book.

So, that summer, we sang “Amazing Grace” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
But we also sang “Be Thou My Vision”, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, and “Shout to the Lord.”

We sang old songs, and new songs. We sang familiar and unfamiliar tunes. We sang hymns in Spanish and German and chanted melodies in Latin. Some we sang in full four-part harmony, and some we could only hum along and pretend to know (or even pretend to enjoy).

Of course, I was pleased that the chorus of complainers was silenced for a bit (at least on this issue…)

But the best thing our congregation learned that summer is there are so many songs to sing.

There are so many songs to sing, and so many ways to praise the One the psalmist calls “great, and greatly to be praised”, the One who made the heavens, the One who is to be feared above all “little g” gods.

There are so many songs to sing: so why, oh why do we keep singing the same tunes?

I would say humanity is like a broken record, but that would show my age.

Maybe I should say that humanity acts like it doesn’t have WiFi, and is therefore forced to play the same songs from the ancient iPod it had in Middle School.

There are so many songs to sing in this one precious life, on this one exquisite earth, but humanity chooses instead to pound out the drum beat of war, and division, and hatred.

Humanity chooses to sing love songs to money and privilege and power over others.

We sing occupation, and walls, and checkpoints,
We sing racism and acceptance of sexual assault and homophobia,
Our broken and sinful humanity chooses, time after time, to repeat melodies of fear, to add harmony and counterpoint, to remix them for new generations:

We sing the fear of change
Fear of difference
Fear of death
And fear, even, of life and living!

There are so many songs to sing, and yet war, hatred, power and fear remain the soundtrack to our lives.

I can just imagine the Beloved Creator waking up again to this same old soundtrack and saying,

“People, please! Please sing me a NEW SONG.”

Please sing me a song of praise.
Please sing me a song of delight in my magnificent Creation.
Please sing me a melody of mercy,
Sing for me your delight in diversity and your love of living together,
And for goodness’ sake, give me a good bassline: a foundation of justice for the poor and the oppressed.

It’s all about that bass, Amen!

For as the psalmist proclaimed:

“Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, bless the name of the LORD; proclaim God’s salvation from day to day. Declare God’s glory among the nations and God’s wonders among all peoples. For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised, more to be feared than all gods.”

Now, at this point in the sermon I want to stop and acknowledge that your preacher is a musician.

A third-generation musician.

My parents and grand-parents, my aunt and uncle, and nearly everyone else in my family are professional and semi-professional musicians. So of course, Psalm 96 and its musical images mean a lot to me.

But I understand there are some of you have been thinking this whole time, “I’m not singing anything, Pastor Carrie. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.” And I get that.

Perhaps you feel the way I would feel if the preacher stood and gave a sermon based on a sports analogy!

And yet, for those of you who feel musically disinclined,
For those of you who say you could never sing any kind of song,
And especially those of you who wonder if you even have a song to sing,
I want to introduce you to Hildegarde of Bingen.

Hildegarde was a nun, an author, a mystic, and a composer of music: a true polymath. She lived in the 11th century, around the time this chapel was being built, as a matter of fact.

Because she was a musician herself, Hidegarde often wrote about God as composer, and of Christians as making the music of God.

In her work “Illuminations” she wrote:

“All of creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit which is joy and jubilation.”
“O Trinity, you are music, you are life.”

She also wrote:
“The soul itself is symphonic.”
The soul itself is symphonic!

Your soul, itself, is symphonic!

In other words: No one is tone deaf.
No one is unable to sing praises to the one God, the creator of heaven and earth.
Not one human is consigned to sing the song of the powers and principalities, or the song of despair.
Not one of you is left out of the choir, for you yourself already possess the song of the universe. You know it already, deep within you.

As Hildegarde wrote:

“The marvels of God are not brought forth from one's self. Rather, it is more like a chord, a sound that is played. The tone does not come out of the chord itself, but rather, through the touch of the Musician. I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God's kindness.”

Dear people, you are not the composer – you are the singer.

You are singing the song of God, and the melody of creation.

Every day you are sounding out God’s chords of peace and justice,
Love and mercy
Gentleness, Kindness,
Prophetic witness and godly troublemaking.

Therefore, when the psalmist proclaims, “Sing the Lord a new song”, this is not only a message for Shadia, Brittany, and Karis, and the other trained musicians in the room today. This message is for each one of you. For those who have good voices, and those who don’t.

Psalm 96 says even the sea thunders, and the fields are joyful, and the trees in the wood shout for joy!

Therefore, sing your song! Sing it loud. Sing it proud. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!

Majesty and magnificence are in God’s presence!
Power and splendor are in God’s sanctuary!

Sing, dear people, and not only because the psalmist told us to, and not only because we happen to like the hymns chosen for today.

We sing, because as Christians, we believe God sang a new song on Easter morning.

God sang a new song through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On that glorious day, a new song of liberation, of hope, of life, of love, sounded throughout the whole earth.
Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is himself a new song, sounding out across time and space. The witness of Jesus’ birth under occupation, his life and his teachings, his execution by the state, and his glorious resurrection in defiance of every expectation is a radically new song—a song the world needs.

The witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection sang a new song, too, and it wasn’t always easy.
Mary Magdalene and Peter and all the apostles were criticized, persecuted, mocked and even killed for it.

It’s not easy to sing love and peace, mercy and reconciliation, when everyone around you is humming something different. It takes concentration. It takes courage. It takes fortitude. It helps, though, when there are two or three with you.

It helps when there are two or three, for example, who might join their voices with yours, who might even sing in harmony.

This morning, I am very aware of the untimely death of Redeemer church member Ilja Anthonissen. Ilja was a lovely man, a man of faith, a father and a husband and truly a gentle person. I admit, I never heard Ilja’s singing voice, although he often sat in the front row! I have no idea if he was a good musician.

But i do know Ilja sang his particular song of faith every day, here in Jerusalem and in his home country. 

And I although I am confident that Ilja is singing with the angels today, I am heartbroken for Marleen, Marieke, and Nils, his wife and children, and for the Dutch Christian community here in Jerusalem, which benefited from his faithful and loving spirit--which benefited from his voice in our little choir called Redeemer. 

Partly as a result of Ilja’s untimely passing, I confess that this morning, I am feeling, in a real way, the urgency to sing my own song of faith and love, every single day.

Earlier this week, as I contemplated Psalm 96, I also thought about Conrad.

Conrad was a confirmation student in my previous church.

Conrad had both Down Syndrome and autism, and was not verbal. And yet he had been part of Sunday school and confirmation classes throughout school. His parents were unflagging advocates for his inclusion in every aspect of school and church life.
When it came time for Conrad to be confirmed, I wondered how we would handle it. One part of the confirmation curriculum was for each child to understand his or her spiritual gifts—and then to commit to using that gift for the good of God’s mission and the good of the church.

So what was Conrad’s gift?

How could we know his spiritual gift, if he couldn’t do the test?!

But we didn’t need to do the traditional “spiritual inventory” test for Conrad.
Instead, his classmates answered for him. They said:

Conrad smiles. He always smiles. He makes us feel happy and welcome.

And it was true – Conard was always at the church door, overjoyed to see each and every one of them and to shake their hand.

I think now about what a gift that truly was: You may not remember middle school, but I know that in your early teens, life is not often filled with smiles. Life is often full of anxiety, and judgement from others, and worry over clothes and relationships and futures and grades.

And then there was Conrad.
Conrad, with his bright smile.
Conrad, with his eager handshake.
Conrad, always singing his melody of wonder at the beauty of creation, the beauty of humanity, the beauty of his friends at church—without words, but with every fiber of his being.

On the day of confirmation, when all 25 of the students lined up to be confirmed, Conrad was with them in his red robe. He was so proud.

But there was one more part that worried me. Part of the service required that I go down the line and ask each student, in turn, if they affirmed their baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and promised to live a life that reflected that baptism.

Each student was supposed to say “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.”
When I got to Conrad, I asked the same question. He looked at me with his brilliant smile, and then gave me an enthusiastic “thumbs up.”

Which meant: “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.”

Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless the name of the Lord;
proclaim God’s salvation from day to day.
Declare God’s glory among the nations
and God’s wonders among all peoples.
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised,
more to be feared than all gods. 

I hope this morning that it helps you to hear once again, that each of you has a song to sing: and you don’t need to compose the song yourself.

This new song is bursting forth from God’s beloved creation…from within you!
All you need to do is let it sound out.
You are singing praise to God already.
Every note
Every chord
Every drum beat of peace, love, and justice, sounded in the name of Jesus, crucified and risen:
This is the music for which we were designed.
You were composed for this.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

"Not the end of the world, but we can see it from here..."

Sermon for Sunday 8 October 2017
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Philippians 3:4b-14

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

I once made a quilt that took me twelve years to finish.

Twelve. Long. Years.

I started sewing it when I was pregnant with our firstborn son in 1998, and finished in 2010, when he was in middle school. I saw the pattern in a quilting magazine and was in love with it at first sight: 

It is a 1930’s vintage design called Grandmother’s Flower Garden, sewn using the traditional “paper-piecing” method. Basically, this entailed cutting out roughly 1,000 tiny fabric hexagons, then basting them to 1,000 paper hexagons, then hand-sewing those 1,000 fabric-covered paper hexagons together to make one queen-size quilt.

Yeah, it was nuts.

But for some reason, it sounded like just the right project for the last few months of pregnancy. I thought: surely, this won’t take too long! And I need something to help get through these last days of feeling as big as a house. So I purchased all the necessary fabric, and imagined placing this beautiful handmade vintage-inspired quilt on the bed, along with my precious newborn baby, in just a few months.

That didn’t happen.

Those 1,000 hexagons took me roughly 6 years to complete by themselves. Then there was the long quite period while I went back to graduate school, when the pieces sat in a box in a closet. Then it took a few more years just to summon the energy to begin the actual hand-quilting process.

Over those twelve long years, the unfinished quilt became quite a joke in my family, with Robert often asking if I planned for it to be Caleb’s wedding quilt, at the rate I was going.

And to be honest, at some point I asked myself: Why exactly am I doing this? Stubbornness was one factor, to be sure. I started, so I was going to finish, by hell or high water!

But there was also the fact that I believed in it. I believed in that picture I saw years ago. I believed that one day, my very own handmade 1930’s vintage-inspired Grandmother’s Flower Garden Quilt would be gracing my bed, and keeping me warm at night, and that’s what made me move 1,000 pieces of fabric from Minnesota to Nebraska, back to Minnesota, to Texas, to Chicago, and then to my first call in rural Capron, Illinois. I pressed on towards the goal, because I just knew it was worth it. I never did lose the vision! I knew there was hope. I just knew there was beauty at the other side of the chaos.

Now when the Apostle Paul spoke to the Christian community at Philippi, he also hoped to remind them that the struggle is worth it. He wanted to encourage them that although things are hard now, there is life, and beauty, and redemption, on the other side of the chaos.

What we know about the Philippians is that they were often persecuted for their beliefs, being a minority religious community. And like any group of humans gathered together as a community, they also struggled with chaos from the inside. At this particular time, it seems they were battling one another—and Paul—over the question of whether Christians needed to be circumcised and whether they needed to follow the Jewish purity laws.

Adding to the chaos and uncertainty was the fact that their teacher, Paul, was in prison, and could not be present with them. 

It may not be so easy to imagine being a 1st century Christian, but surely we can understand how uncertain the Philippians were feeling at this time. Was this new-found faith really worth it? Is this struggle worth it? It’s one thing to hang a sign that says “Keep Calm and Carry On” on one’s door, or to train for a charity marathon, or even to persevere towards the goal of sewing a ridiculously massive quilt, by hand. 

It’s quite another thing to press on in faith and in hope when your savior has died, when your teacher is in prison, and when it seems everyone is against you, from within and from without.

It was into this context and situation that the Apostle Paul—from prison!—wrote his very personal and encouraging letter, saying:

“Beloved…this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Hear it again:

“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

The message is clear: Paul, facing persecution and possible death, was not giving up hope, and the Philippians shouldn’t, either.

Earlier this week, I had the chance to talk with a good friend in the US, and during our conversation I enumerated my long litany of grievances about the world today:

1 1. Friends and colleagues are dying far too young, and far too often. 

22. World leaders seem intent on dragging us into nuclear war, cold war, or maybe a new world war

33. My Muslim co-worker was barred from entering Jerusalem for work this week (although he’s worked here at the church for 40 years!)

44. There is no autumn in Jerusalem, and I am missing fall colors, fall sweaters, fall apple cider donuts...and, well, FALL.

55. And last but not least, I shared my grief and disbelief that a lone shooter possessed the firepower to kill 58 people and injure 500 all by himself, and my country seems unwilling to do anything about it.

I was really lamenting all this terrible news, and my friend listened patiently. I guess I was sounding overly negative, because after a silence she said, “You know, Carrie, you gotta have hope. What’s the use of being a Christian if you don’t have hope?”

Which, of course, is exactly right.

A Christian always has hope, even in the midst of chaos.
A Christian always has hope, even after 18 years in prison.
A Christian always has hope, even after fifty years of occupation.
A Christian always has hope, even after the most recent “Largest mass shooting in American history.”
A Christian always has hope, even when, by all outside evidence, all hope is lost—even on Good Friday.

The thing is, sometimes Christians—and even preachers—get stuck on Good Friday. 

The cross of Jesus Christ is so integral to our faith, and we want to proclaim to all who are suffering that God is with you. We want all to know how Jesus knows your suffering and is in solidarity with you even in the chaos of life. God is with you, and knows your struggle, even when the patchwork quilt of life is in 1,000 pieces.

But it can be hard to remember the hope and joy of Easter morning when chaos reigns, when everything is falling apart, when walls surround you,and when a stone blocks the entrance to the tomb.

For this same reason, Paul writes to the Philippians, and urges them to remember that the cross is not the end of the story. 

This struggle will not last forever. This chaos is not how the story ends.

It’s interesting to notice how, in his writing, the Apostle Paul moves very quickly from Easter to Good Friday and back to Easter. 

He writes:

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection

and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,

if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

For Paul, the cross and the empty tomb cannot be separated. Good Friday does not exist without Easter Sunday, and vice versa. 

For me, this is a reminder that it is not enough to know Jesus was born, to know his teachings, or even to know of his suffering (with us and for us) on the cross.

The fullness of Christian faith and hope rests in the blessed assurance that on the third day, Christ was risen from the dead. 

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

The Philippians knew this on one level, of course. They had already heard the Good News of the resurrection! But Paul understood that sometimes, we need to be reminded.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that violence and the cross are not the end of the story.
Sometimes we need to remember that the world does not end in a mass shooting.

Dear friends in Christ, there are so many who are suffering in the world today, so many who know the reality of the cross, so many who need our prayers, our advocacy, our hands to help: Las Vegas, Spain, Puerto Rico, North Korea, India, Bangladesh--and this is just the start of the list.

Closer to home here in Jerusalem, we don’t have to look far to see the chaos, the drama, and the suffering of Good Friday. We don’t have to look far to see how a wall blocking entrance to Jerusalem, and to work, feels no different from the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb.

So it can often seem that we are living in—and perhaps are stuck in—a Good Friday world.

But my sisters and brothers, though it may seem to be a Good Friday world, we are an Easter people.

I know this phrase has been used many times, by many preachers. And perhaps it has lost its power!

But really, at Redeemer, we are an Easter people. I mean it! 

Let me explain:

Have you ever visited the archaeological site below our church? It’s actually quite interesting, in that it shows how the outside wall of Jerusalem ran just underneath our present-day church building. And this is of interest to many scholars, because it adds to the evidence that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher could truly be the location where Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried (as opposed to the Garden Tomb, for example, which has no real archaeological backing, but is undeniably quite beautiful!)

This archaeological evidence is cool, but even more interesting is the fact that this spot, where our church resides today, is thought to be the place where the women watched the crucifixion.

We often forget, but Scripture says “Many women were also there.” 

The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion vary a bit, of course. Matthew says “Many women were also there, looking on from a distance.” (Matthew 27:55)  Mark and Luke concur. (Mark 15:40 and Luke 23:49). John, as usual, changes things a bit, saying that Jesus’ mother, and the other two Marys, were standing “near the cross of Jesus.” I suppose I would ask: Is Redeemer Church near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or at a distance from it? It depends on who you ask! It depends on your perspective.

When I lived in Nebraska, there was a joke that went, “Nebraska isn’t the end of the world, but we can see it from here.” Actually, that same joke was told in Waco, Texas, and in Stillwater, Oklahoma,  and in my first call in Capron, Illinois!

Well, at the time of the crucifixion, this spot, where we sit today, wasn’t the end of the world, but you could see it from here. 

You could see Jesus’ suffering. You could see Jesus giving up his last breath, for the sake of this broken and sinful world. You could see him being taken down from the cross, and laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

This wasn’t the end, but the women, who were also there, could see it from this very spot.

And that means, this is a Good Friday church.

But listen, dear friends, that means that from this spot, you could also see the resurrection. 

From this very spot, one could see the rising of the Son,
you could see the dawning of a new day,
you could see the stone being rolled away,
From this spot, you could see Jesus walking out of the tomb.
From this spot, you could truly know Christ and the power of the resurrection.

Therefore, this is an Easter church, and we are an Easter people.

This morning, as we together struggle under the weight of the cross and the sufferings of this broken world, I hope you will hear this as a word of encouragement. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged. We are an Easter people! We are an Easter church!
From here, from this vantage point, if we remember to open our eyes, we will see the Lord. 

We see him, crucified and risen

We know, because we have seen, because we have heard, that Good Friday is not the end of the story. Death does not have last word. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And so, together, we press on towards the goal. We press on in faith, and in hope. We press on, with the saints of every time and place, for we never lose the vision. We never forget the promise of the kingdom of God—which we are called to inaugurate on earth as it is in heaven—

where all are welcome at the table,
where all are safe from guns and from bombs,
where all receive mercy and forgiveness,
where peace reigns over all the earth,
where reconciliation is not just a word, but is a lived reality,
where there are no mass shootings,
no forgotten islands,
no police states,
no walls,
no checkpoints, and no friends who die too soon.

Dear friends in Christ, hear the Good News: 
Christ has died. Christ is risen. And Christ will come again. Amen.