Sunday, November 19, 2017

"Purple suits and hope: What to wear while waiting" - Sermon for 19 November 2017

"Purple suits and hope: What to wear while waiting"
Sermon for Sunday 19 November 2017

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

One Saturday morning in late summer, I popped over to the market near Damascus Gate to buy few things for breakfast, and on the way back, found myself stopped at a red light with a crowd of "black hatters” returning from their Shabbat prayers. There I was, surrounded by a sea of people wearing black religious clothes, but this time I wearing jeans and a t-shirt instead of a clergy collar! I felt utterly conspicuous, but in a completely different way than usual.

As I stood there at the intersection with the men, feeling awkward, I saw that waiting on the other side of the street was an elderly Palestinian man. He was white-haired and frail, and used a walking stick. He looked so fragile, I honestly worried he wouldn't make it across the street by himself.

But he was noticeable for another reason, too. In contrast to our somber side of the street, this man was wearing a fancy suit in the brightest color purple I have ever seen. In fact, "purple" doesn't even describe it. It was Welch's Grape Jelly! Pants, jacket, vest, and tie, all in Welch's Grape Jelly purple.

He. Was. Fabulous.

And it was only 9:30 in the morning.

When the signal said “Walk”, the old man in purple stepped off the curb and marched towards us. I really shouldn’t have worried about him. He walked like he owned that particular street. He walked like the King of Palestine! He walked like the Easter bunny hopping through a Good Friday procession! And I thought: Mabrouk, habibi! You woke up this morning in a city where it seems only "black clothes matter", and you decided to bring the whole rainbow to the party! Hallelujah!

We passed by each other quickly, going our separate ways, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the man in purple. I decided he should be called “Abu Ainab أبو عنب”, Father of the Grape. And I wondered: “Dear Abu Aynab, where are you possibly going dressed like that on a Saturday morning in Jerusalem?”

You are not dressed for the blazing hot Jerusalem summer.
You are not dressed for drinking coffee on the corner and smoking cigarettes.

Abu Aynab was not dressed for selling bread, or dealing with grandchildren, or shopping for groceries, or really anything that I could imagine might lie ahead on that particular street.

In fact, it seems to me he does not even belong to this Jerusalem at all.

He does not belong to the Jerusalem of soldiers and guns, permits and checkpoints, priests in black robes and men in black hats.

I have no idea if he is Christian or Muslim, but Abu Aynab definitely belongs to the New Jerusalem. He was dressed for the resurrection dawn! He was clothed for possibility, for liberation, and for the light of a new day. Amen!

On this morning, the question I’d like us to consider is:
Which Jerusalem, which world, what kind of future are we dressed for?

Do we belong to the day, or to the night? To peace, or to war? To despair, or to hope? Are we outfitted for continuing the fight as usual, or have we put on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of salvation?

In 1 Thessalonians chapter 5, the Apostle Paul writes to a Christian community weighed down with the strain of keeping the faith, weary of waiting for Jesus’ return, and tempted to give up on the hope of God’s kingdom of peace and justice, and he says:

“…you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”

Paul says Christians are children of light and of the day; we are not of the night and of the darkness. So let’s act like it! And let’s dress appropriately for the day ahead. We don’t need armor and weapons. We don’t need sharp tongues and sharp elbows! 

Instead, let’s get fabulous. Let us put on Christ. Let us put on our baptismal robes. Let us put on our purple suits and get ready for the Day of the Lord. Amen!

The Apostle Paul wants the Thessalonians to boldly claim their identity as followers of Christ, and to persist in faith even though the wait for the Kingdom of God is long. 

Notice that in writing to the Thessalonians, Paul makes his point with some very clear and distinct binaries: We are of the day, not of the night. We are children of light, not of the darkness.

There is some painful history here which needs to be addressed, before we move any further. Preachers have long used this passage, and others like it, to perpetuate racist and anti-Semitic attitudes. “Children of the darkness” has been interpreted as a code for “Jews” and has been extrapolated to include other non-believers as well. The church has used this interpretation to persecute our Jewish, Muslim, and atheist neighbors, among others.

And it has taken far too long for the church to recognize how equating “darkness” or “blackness” with evil and lack of faith is spiritual abuse of our sisters and brothers of color. We must reject these simplistic and false interpretations of Scripture—for the Gospel ceases to be “Good News” when it harms any one of God’s children. This morning, as a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and representing preachers past and present, I ask my Jewish and black and brown neighbors for forgiveness for these sins.

In the context of the Holy Land today, we are also no strangers to strict binaries like “night and day”, or “dark and light.” Everything (and everyone) in this place seems to be divided into “us” and “them”.

Muslim and Jewish residents of Jerusalem walk
inside Damascus Gate
18 November 2017
We speak of:

Israel or Palestine, 
East or West Jerusalem,
Jew or Muslim,
Local or international,
Normalizer or freedom fighter, 
Zionist colonialist or Islamic terrorist,
West Bank resident or West Bank settler.

These binaries are impossible to escape. There are literally walls built to keep everyone in their places.

So, one of the dangers of interpreting Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians today is that it feels all too familiar. These words could fuel and stoke the fires of division within us and among us.

But even considering the dangers in this text, I’m still drawn to it. I’m drawn to it, because Paul’s message speaks to the struggle of claiming one’s baptismal identity in a world which offers so many alternatives.  I believe Paul’s message is not about casting out those who are outside our inner circle, but is instead about casting out from our hearts everything that opposes the light of Christ.

When Paul says “We are children of the light and of the day”, he urges us to remember we have been called by name and now live in the light of the Gospel—and therefore we must never get too comfortable with the opposite.

And there is so much that opposes the light today. There is so much bad stuff going on in the world while we wait for Jesus to return:

Terrorists with bombs and guns attack innocent crowds. Again.
Palestinian homes—and entire villages—are destroyed. Again.
The world is at the brink of nuclear war. Again.
Leaders are elected and laws are passed which harm the poor, the elderly, and the vulnerable. Again.
Men (and others with power) use it to get what they want from women (and others who feel powerless.) Again.

The longer we must wait, the longer the night goes on, the greater the danger that we will just get comfortable here. The longer it takes for Jesus to return, the more we may get used to the absence of light, and start to make our home here.

But hear again the Good News:
You, children of God and children of light, have been called by name!

We do not belong to the tomb.
We do not belong to war.
We do not belong to white supremacy.
We do not belong to the patriarchy.
We do not belong to despair or desperation or cynicism.
We do not belong to the night!

We belong to the morning. 
Coffee seller in Bethlehem
19 Nov 2017
Photo by Carrie Smith
We belong to the taste of freshly brewed coffee,
and the smell of newly baked bread.
We belong to the sun rising over the Mt of Olives and rainclouds hanging over the Dome of the Rock.
We belong to freshly washed streets,
And the quiet of the Old City before the tourists arrive.
We belong to promise and possibility and resurrection!
We belong to justice and mercy, reconciliation and wholeness!
We belong to the day.
We belong to Christ. AMEN!

Now I admit, it can be difficult to recall the light of day, when the night stretches on and on.  

I remember the long nights when my son Caleb was a baby. He had a really rough first few months, and would cry all night from colic. I walked him in countless circles around the coffee table in our tiny seminary apartment, thinking “THIS NIGHT WILL NEVER END!” One time, in the wee hours of the morning, I looked out the second story window and saw a deer standing there, looking right back at me. Keep in mind, this was the middle of the city! I had no idea deer even existed there—and maybe he didn’t know I existed until that moment, either.

But you know what? Every time, after one of those desperate and never-ending nights, the morning would arrive. The sun would rise and I would look into my precious baby’s eyes and think “GOD IS SO GOOD AND THIS BABY IS SO WONDERFUL AND HOW COULD I HAVE EVER THOUGHT ABOUT THROWING HIM OUT THAT WINDOW?!”

Dear sisters and brothers, we belong to the morning light.
We belong to Easter morning, when in great love God raised Christ from three days in the tomb. On that great morning, death itself was defeated, and a new day dawned for the whole world. Thanks be to God!

Yes, we are children of this day, and of this light!

But listen: Even children of the day have days.
We all have those days when we can’t even put on a smile, much less put on our purple resurrection suit and walk around town. We all have those days when we wonder, “Where is God? How long will this last? When will things ever change for the better?”

And Paul says: “Encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

Paul knew, even two thousand years ago, that we can’t always be hopeful! We aren’t always dressed for resurrection! Sometimes our breastplate of faith and helmet of hope get a little tired looking.

And for this reason, we need each other.
We need the church, the community of faith, so we can remind each other that we do not belong to this mess.

This conflict does not define us.
This world cannot confine us.

It seems that evil will win! And it won’t. 
Morning skies over Jerusalem
19 November 2017
Photo by Carrie Smith
It seems the night will last forever! And it never does.
The morning always comes.

And so, dear friends, fellow children of the day:
Encourage each other, and build each other up.
Sing for each other. Pray for each other. Cook for each other.
When you see someone getting a little too comfortable in the night, or even getting lost in the darkness, shine the light of love and courage for them.

For the answer to the question “Where is God?” is always, “Right here.”
And the answer to the question, “When will Christ come again?” is always NOW.

Now is the day of his dawning.
Now is the day of resurrection.
Now Christ comes to be with us again, in the bread and the wine.

Come one, come all! Come as you are.
You’re dressed perfectly for this new day.

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

"For dragon-slayers, saints, and other odd folk: Mabrouk!" Sermon for All Saints Sunday in Jerusalem 2017

“For dragon-slayers, saints, and other odd folk: Mabrouk!”

Sermon for All Saints Sunday

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. Amen.

This morning, we remember Bob, Karen, Ilja, Maggie, Megan, Gitta, Rimon, and

St Margaret of Antioch by Sara Muzira
Leslie, along with many other saints whose names and faces are gone from this earth, but who live on in our hearts.  Whether we knew them personally or not, together we give thanks for all these members of our family, the one Body of Christ. Through baptism we have become part of this family, the Communion of Saints of every time and place. In fact, we don’t have enough candles to honor the memory of our entire family! We don’t have a table large enough to hold all the light they have shared—but God does. God’s table is large enough for the whole family, past and present. 

Therefore, while we long for their presence with us here, today the church rejoices that our sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, beloved children and faithful friends who have died, are all sitting together at the banquet table with Jesus, enjoying a heavenly feast without end. Amen!

Very often, however, when we remember these family members who have died in the Lord, it can be tempting to not only to honor them as part of the communion of saints, but to make them into icons. It can be tempting to sanitize them, to remember them not as the real people we knew and loved, but as symbols of perfect faith and holiness.

Living in this context, surrounded by ancient icons and images of the faithful who lived and died right here in this city, it can be easy to assume that a saint must possess extraordinary bravery, extraordinary courage, or extraordinary holiness.

But, contrary to popular belief, not all saints are dragon-slayers!

The truth is, the saints we remember today were not perfect. But they were perfectly loved! 

They didn’t wear halos, but they did wear the sign of the cross!

In fact, a saint is simply one who has sought, in faith, to live life in response to God’s extraordinary love—a love we have come to know through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Being a saint does not make you perfect!
But it does make you different.

Or, as the American Catholic author Flannery O’Connor wrote: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

This is certainly true: Being a follower of Jesus does not make you perfect, but it does make you odd in the eyes of the world, and therefore it’s very appropriate that we hear a portion of the Sermon on the Mount on All Saints Sunday.

The disciples and Jesus had been followed by a large crowd everywhere they went, but for these important teachings Jesus pulled his most faithful aside. When they were gathered around him, he sat next to them, too. And then he began to teach them what the path of a Christian looks like.

And what he said was a little bit odd! He said:

“Mabrouk to the poor in spirit! The empire of Heaven belongs to them.
Mabrouk to those who grieve! They will be consoled.
Mabrouk to the gentle! They will inherit the earth.
Mabrouk to those who hunger and thirst for justice! They will have a feast.
Mabrouk to the merciful! They will receive mercy.
Mabrouk to those whose motives are pure! They will see God.
Mabrouk to those who work for peace! They will be called God’s children.
Mabrouk to those who have suffered persecution for the sake of justice!
The empire of Heaven belongs to them.
Mabrouk to you when they denounce you and persecute you and spread malicious gossip about you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad!  In heaven you’ll be more than rewarded.  Remember, that is how they persecuted the prophets who preceded you.”

(Matthew 5:1-12, based on the “Scholar’s Version”)

Can you imagine the faces of those the disciples as they heard this new teaching? Everything Jesus said goes against what the world counts as valuable. Everything Jesus says deserves congratulations is something we generally do our best to avoid: poverty, grief, meekness, hunger, thirst, persecution.

Furthermore, these are situations the disciples have likely already been experiencing. They had already suffered much for their newfound faith. They had already lost friends, and given up many comforts, and even suffered persecution when they chose to follow Jesus.

And Jesus looked right at them, in love, and said, “Mabrouk. Rejoice and be glad! This is the path of the prophets. This is our path together.

And it will make you different. It will make you odd! But it will also make you free.”

Dear fellow saints: God’s kingdom is a place of truth, love, compassion, justice, peace, freedom, and sharing. As believers, we are citizens of this kingdom. This is the truth as we know it! 

Living this truth certainly puts us at odds with the world.
Sometimes it makes us enemies. Sometimes it breaks our hearts!

But it also joins us with all the saints, all the other odd folk who believed, and followed, and lived in response to God’s great love for the world.

One of those odd folks we remember today, one of our sisters in faith, was named Margaret. Margaret was born to a pagan priest in Antioch (what we now know as Syria) in the 3rd century after Jesus. Because her mother died shortly after childbirth, she was nursed and cared for by a Christian woman. When she was old enough to return to her father, Margaret told him she refused to pray to other gods, for she was now a Christian.

This angered her father the priest, who tried several times to marry her off to respectable pagan men in the community. Each time, Margaret refused, on the basis of her faith in God. The stories of her abuse and torture are many, each one worse than the last. Nevertheless, she persisted—Margaret never abandoned her faith in the crucified God.

Finally, the legend goes, Margaret was confronted by the devil himself, who had transformed himself into a huge dragon. The dragon swallowed Margaret whole.

But as soon as Margaret passed through the dragon’s mouth and throat and into his stomach, the dragon got a terrible stomachache! It so happened that Margaret was carrying a wooden cross in her hand when she was swallowed. And that cross, the symbol of her great faith, irritated the stomach of the dragon.

That cross poked and provoked and caused the devil such suffering, that he spat Margaret back out whole!

Actually, some paintings of Margaret show an even more triumphant scene, with her standing atop the dragon, his belly split wide open, the devil completely vanquished by the power of the cross she holds high in her hand.

Now, just to be clear once again: Not all saints are dragonslayers!

But by the power of the cross, we all have the capacity to irritate the devil.

We all have the ability to disrupt the system—from the inside—as witnesses to to the truth of God’s love for the world.

And in fact, this is what it means to live a life shaped by the Beatitudes!

When we show mercy while others show contempt;
When we hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice as the world lusts for power;
When we try and maintain a gentle heart in a world of violence—a heart soft enough to still be broken by the suffering of our neighbors;
When we tell the truth about ourselves, the truth about the world, and the truth about God, even when it seems the dragon might swallow us whole;

Then we frustrate the powers-that-be.
We upset the status quo.
We challenge unjust systems.
We become holy interrupters.
We give the devil a bellyache!
We become saints.

So on this All Saints Sunday we remember all the odd ones:

The truthtellers,
The peacemakers,
And the holy interrupters.

We remember those who irritated the powers that be,
Those who frustrated the work of the devil,
Those who loved us…and loved God…to the end.

For all these saints, today we say:
Mabrouk. Congratulations! Well done, good and faithful servants.

And thank you – thank you for living the truth, even when it made you odd.  We honor you today, and we recommit to following Jesus on the path you walked before us. We are strengthened by your witness, by your love for us, and by your faith in Jesus Christ, who against all odds has granted us life abundant, a life of purpose, and life with God, forever and ever. Amen. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Reformation in Jerusalem: Bishop Younan's sermon

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

Celebrating 500 years of Reformation
Preached in Jerusalem

Bishop Munib A. Younan

31 October 2017

Matthew 10:26b-33

‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.


From the 2017 Reformation celebration in Jerusalem
Photo by Ben Gray, ELCJHL

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, last year I was not able to be with you for our annual Reformation commemoration, because I was in Lund, Sweden. On that day, I as President of the Lutheran World Federation had the honor of co-hosting an historic Lutheran-Catholic prayer service with His Holiness Pope Francis and the Rev. Martin Junge, General Secretary of the LWF. The positive energy of that event has not stayed in Sweden, but has multiplied over the past year, and has inspired many other Lutheran-Catholic prayer services. In Bethlehem and in Amman, Lutherans and Catholics gathered to pray for the world and for each other. And just a few weeks ago I was in South Africa for a similar service, where tens of thousands of Christians, both Lutheran and Catholic, gathered in a sports stadium to pray for the unity of the church. And on this day there are many Lutheran-Catholic joint services happening all over the world. This is truly a work of the Holy Spirit.

When we gathered last year to pray together in Sweden, it was not only to commemorate five hundred years. We gathered to commit ourselves to the future: specifically, a future of thanksgiving, repentance, and witnessing together as one Body of Christ.

These three commitments—Thanksgiving, Repentance, and Witnessing Together—are very important parts of our Reformation commemorations, for we do not wish to celebrate division. We do not honor the past 500 years with any spirit of triumphalism.

Instead, we look to the future with humility. We are thankful that we can now recognize the ways our respective churches have been loyal to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We see and acknowledge the faithfulness in each of our churches, in spite of our differences. We are thankful for this reformation of the heart.

At the same time, we repent for the sins of division, for our mistakes, and for the pain that we have caused each other. The living and witnessing church of Jesus Christ does not hide the mistakes of the past. Instead, she confesses and asks for forgiveness.

There is no church which can say it has not done wrong. For this reason, in the Common Prayer liturgy used in Sweden in 2016, Lutherans and Catholics confessed together:

“O God of mercy, we lament that even good actions of reform and renewal had often unintended negative consequences. We bring before you the burdens of the guilt of the past when our forebears did not follow your will that all be one in the truth of the Gospel.”

The joint statement signed by Pope Francis and myself also connects our commitment to repentance with our baptisms. It proclaims:

“Our common faith in Jesus Christ and our baptism demands of us a daily conversion, by which we cast off the historical disagreements and conflicts that impeded the ministry of reconciliation.”

Because we share one faith and one baptism, together we give thanks and repent.

And thirdly, in the spirit of ongoing Reformation, we commit to witnessing together. Our joint statement of 2016 proclaims:

“As we move beyond those episodes in history that burden us, we pledge to witness together to God’s merciful grace, made visible in the crucified and risen Christ. Aware that the way we relate to one another shapes our witness to the Gospel, we commit ourselves to further growth in communion rooted in Baptism, as we seek to remove the remaining obstacles that hinder us from attaining full unity. Christ desires that we be one, so that the world may believe. (John 17:23)”

After 500 years of Reformation, the church’s commitment to thanksgiving, repentance, and witnessing together shows the world that what unites us is so much greater than what divides us. We pray and work toward reconciliation and unity, not for our own glory, but as an answer to Jesus’ prayer “that they may be one….so that the world may believe.” (John 17:21-23) This is our joint acknowledgment of Christ.

I want to share with you a witness that caught my attention in Sweden even before I had the opportunity to meet with Pope Francis. One day earlier, during the regular Reformation Day worship at Lund Cathedral, and following the liturgy of Holy Communion, something very special happened. Just before the closing hymn, we suddenly saw the Dean of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Parish in Lund entering the Lutheran cathedral with the Vatican flag, an icon of the Virgin Mary, and the entire Catholic congregation. Together, they processed to the front of this Lutheran cathedral and joined the Lutheran congregation in shared song and prayers.

As we gathered together around the altar, I have never seen faces so elevated and happy. It was as if we were dreaming. Many in the church were amazed; it reminded me of the Day of Pentecost when the disciples and the people were amazed with what was happening in front of their eyes. Many people were in tears. This was a powerful and moving witness of how the Holy Spirit always gathers us, unites us, and empowers us for the common mission of Jesus Christ our Savior. This is the confession we are called to proclaim together.

The preaching text for this day is a very meaningful one for us as we look to the future together. In Matthew 10, verses 32 and 33, Jesus says to the disciples:

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

It’s true that we often read this as a very personal message to the individual Christian. But on this Reformation Day, I hear it as a direct message to our churches.

We live today in a world of merit and consumerism, of extremism, populism, and division. These are the values and the ideologies that the world confesses. These are the things the media and popular culture acknowledge as having meaning and power. The question for us today is: In the midst of such a culture, what does the church confess? What values do we acknowledge?

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther saw that the church was often confessing the values of the world, rather than the cross of Christ. He was frustrated by this, and spoke out boldly for reform of his beloved Catholic church. We also know that he went seeking the mercy of God. He searched and searched for the core of the Gospel message, the message he believed the church should confess, and he found it in Romans chapter 3:

“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

This truth—that the Christian is saved by grace through faith, apart from works—became the central message of the Reformation. It was clear to Luther that what the church is called to do is to confess Christ, and Christ alone. The church is called to proclaim the grace, mercy, and love of God, which is a free gift, never for sale! Martin Luther said, “The true Christian justification, which is our protection, not only against the power and the wiliness people, but also against the gates of hell, consists of our being justified and saved by our faith in Christ.”

Whenever we find that our churches are not preaching the radical love of the cross, whenever we find that our churches have put their own self-interests above the needs of the poor and the oppressed, the lost and the lonely, then the churches are in need of Reformation.

The Indian theologian Monica Melanchthon has written profoundly of how we see the issues of the 16th century manifest today. She says:

“Salvation cannot and should not be sold. But today, the idolatry of mammon has hijacked the world…and our society has sacrificed virtually all its principles at the altar of consumerism…In a world where wealth is god, the name of every living god herself is enlisted to serve mammon, as the charlatans of the church in every age has proved—from Tetzel selling his indulgences for buying forgiveness in the 16th Century to televangelists selling salvation, healing, and prosperity.”

Professor Melanchthon rightly points out that the problems of the 16th century did not end when Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg. But we would be mistaken to believe that it is only extremists who are in the business of selling salvation today. All too often we find similar theology in our own churches. All too often, the free gift of grace is perverted into a set of laws, cultural norms, or a political platform which all are expected to follow. Whether preached from the pulpit, or silently implied within a church community, this message that the Gospel is a formula to achieve happiness, acceptance, worth, or righteousness, is no different from the one preached by the fundamentalists we find so easy to accuse.

Furthermore, writes Professor Melanchthon: “greed for wealth and for power work hand in hand to exploit the vulnerability of peoples caught in a web of poverty, systemic oppression, conflict, and violence”. This twisting of the Gospel causes not only spiritual harm, but real physical danger to our neighbors.

For this reason, even 500 years later, the motto of the Reformation is still relevant. Ecclesia semper reformanda est—the church must always be reformed! And when it is reformed it only bears a witness to Christ and him crucified.

Believe me, the call to reformation is not a message only for one church or one tradition. Just as each one of our churches strives to be faithful to the Gospel, each one of our churches often needs reform. Reformation is the call of the Holy Spirit, to change us, to reform us, to transform us, to mold us to be witnesses to the cross. This is the call for the churches in Jerusalem as well.

Jesus said, “Those who acknowledge me, I will acknowledge, and those who deny me, I will deny.” The challenge for us today is: Have our churches been putting the Gospel at the center of all that we do? Or have we put everything but the Gospel at the center? It is uncomfortable to ask ourselves these questions. But we must never be ashamed of the Gospel, nor ever ashamed of our need for reformation!

As Martin Luther famously said, “Let us be sinners and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly!”

And what does this mean?

This means we must fear and love God, but we must never keep quiet about the Good News, to be shared in our broken world.

This means we must fear and love God, but we must never hide the light of Christ’s love for the world, for fear of offending others.

If we do not preach love, who will do it?
If we do not feed the poor, who will do it?
If we do not care for the refugees, who will do it?
If we do not speak out against oppression, who will do it?
If we do not work to strengthen Christians in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, who will we do it?
If we do not sing Alleluia, who will do it?

Our brother Martin Luther once wrote: “How soon ‘not now’ becomes ‘never’.” At this moment, after 500 years of disagreement between the churches, there is no time for “not now.” There is no time like the present to re-commit ourselves to boldly proclaiming the love of Jesus Christ in word and in deed.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, we boldly confess that every human being has been created equally in the image of God, and every human being has been saved equally through the cross of Jesus Christ. Through word, through service, and through the sacraments, the church proclaims to all the world that in Christ, we are free—and if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed! This is our confession!

For this reason, the Lutheran World Federation has rightly used the motto “Liberated by God’s Grace” for this 500th Anniversary Year. The core message of the Reformation is liberation.

The world is waiting to hear from our churches this message of liberation! The world is hungering and thirsting for this bread and wine. Our Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem are longing to hear the voice of liberation from the churches.

Today, there is a chorus of voices who are asking, “When will we be liberated?”

Refugees at the borders in Europe are asking, “Where is my liberation? Where is my dignity?”

Christians in many parts of the Middle East, facing persecution, are asking, “When will we be liberated? When will the international community move to assist us?”

Christians in Jerusalem are asking, “Will there be a change in the status quo that will threaten our future? Do we have any future in our homeland? When will we be liberated?”

Citizens of every nation, who feel the threat of a third world war, even a nuclear war, are asking, “Where is our liberation from this culture of violence and hatred?”

The poor are asking, “When will we be liberated from the sins of greed and capitalism?”

The Palestinian people are asking, after fifty years of occupation and 100 years of the Balfour declaration, “When will we be liberated from this unjust system of occupation?”

Israelis are asking, “When will we be liberated from this conflict with our neighbors, and live in peace based on justice?”

We can see that the Gospel message of liberation is not only a message for the church. It is Good News for a hurting world, a world imprisoned by greed and fear, and for Christians in the Holy Land. We give thanks today for the ways the Reformation has strengthened our confession of this Good News, and has amplified the proclamation of Jesus’ liberating and saving power. Together, we must confess this liberating power of Jesus Christ in our world today.

In the next 500 years, I believe the church is called to be prophetic, confessing our freedom in Christ not only to the poor and the oppressed, but also to those who are the oppressors. For truly, the message of liberation is also for those who promote racism, extremism, populism, occupation, hatred, and violence. They, too, need to be liberated! They, too, need to hear about the free gift of grace, and that they cannot be free unless their neighbors have full liberation and their equal human rights.  

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, my prayer for our churches in the next 500 years is that we would be ready for just such a bold ecumenical witness. After 500 years, it is high time that we put aside our disagreements and join our voices to confess Christ together for the sake of the world.

Martin Luther once stood before a council of authorities and said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Today, we also must take a stand against the powers and principalities which threaten our world. But we won’t get much done if we’re standing still! For this reason, instead of “Here I stand” I would like to see our churches join hands and proclaim: “Here we journey together!”

Here we go, clergy and laity, journeying together to acknowledge Christ: different churches, different traditions, different languages, different cultures, different music, different ecclesiology, different ministries, and yet each of us equally saved through the one cross of Christ, our Liberator.

We are different. We are blessedly diverse. And yet we share the same confession:

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again! Thanks be to God!

Today begins the next 500 years in the story of the church of Jesus Christ. And today starts the 29th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Will we journey together? Will you join us in boldly confessing the liberating love of Christ Jesus, as one holy apostolic church? Thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit is always present with us, forming and re-forming us for the sake of the world.

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