Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Pentecost & Confirmation at Redeemer Jerusalem


On Sunday, 20 May 2018 the English-speaking congregation witnessed the Affirmation of Baptism of three young members. (Photos by Ben Gray/ELCJHL)

For the past school year, Teodor, Jonas, and Sylvia have met with Pastor Carrie for lessons on the Bible, the Small Catechism, and discipleship. On Pentecost, these three amazing 9th graders stood before the congregation and gave powerful faith testimonies.

Jonas, from Norway, spoke about 1 Corinthians 16:13-14. He talked about how he would need to be strong and courageous in life, especially when he moves back to Norway and must leave his friends. With God's help, he knows he can be strong! We were especially impressed that he quoted Bishop Michael Curry's sermon from the Royal Wedding, which had happened just he day before!

Jonas Haraldstad Landsverk

Teo (Jonas' twin brother), spoke on Matthew 5:38-42. He gave a very detailed interpretation of this portion of the Sermon on the Mount. He says that he thinks the world would be very different if everyone tried to follow Jesus' teachings. He especially thinks things could change here in Israel and Palestine if people could choose love over revenge. Amen, Teo!

Teo Haraldstad Landsverk

Sylvia (the daughter of ELCA missionaries Ben and Adrainne Gray) spoke about Matthew 25:31-40. She related a story of visiting a homeless community in Atlanta, before she moved to Jerusalem. She noticed how often the people who have the least to give, give the most. She says she has also noticed this among the Palestinian people she has come to know here--even though they are going through a terrible time, they show great hospitality and generosity to others.

Sylvia Gray

What an uplifting day it was! We all felt very inspired. We were also thrilled to welcome to worship the president of the African Descent Lutheran Association, Pastor Lamont Wells, and Bishop Emeritus Munib Younan.

The Rev. Lamont Wells, Bishop Emeritus Munib Younan, Pr. Carrie Smith, Deacon Adrainne Gray

Please join us in giving thanks to God for Jonas, Teo, and Sylvia, and praying that their faith in Christ would continue to grow!

BONUS: This was a new song we sang in worship on Sunday. It was written by the director of the Oslo, Norway Gospel Choir (a little nod to the home country of two of the confirmands!)
It may be a new favorite for us in Jerusalem. Enjoy!

Monday, May 14, 2018

"Last words": Sermon for Sunday 13 May 2018

Sermon for Sunday 13 May 2018
7th Sunday of Easter
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.

I’d like to say a few words about Iva.

Iva was the oldest member of the first church I served as pastor, in northern Illinois, and she was notorious for never mincing words. She said exactly what she thought—which, I suppose, is a privilege you earn if you’ve lived for an entire century on this earth.
As an example, on her 98th birthday, Iva’s friends from the church quilting group arranged a party around her bed at home, complete with cake, ice cream, and chicken salad (which was her favorite). It was a lovely gesture, a real show of love from her friends. But Iva just couldn’t pass up the chance to comment, while staring into her coffee cup, “Well I guess you just can’t get good coffee around here anymore.”

On another day, shortly after she had entered hospice care, I took communion to her house. Iva’s hearing was pretty terrible, so as I entered the front door I called out loudly, ‘”Iva, how ya doin’ today?” And she yelled back at me from her bed, “Pastor, I’m just bitchin’!”

The thing was, Iva was ready to go, and she told me so often. She had outlived several husbands, several children, and a beloved grandchild. I would ask how to pray for her, and she would say “Please just pray the Lord takes me home tomorrow.”

So when Iva’s daughter phoned me to say the end was near, and I should hurry quickly to the house, I smiled a little. I thought, “Finally, Iva’s prayers are being answered.” When I entered the house, I found the family gathered quietly around her bed. We held hands, and I led us in prayer. But when I finished with a solemn “Amen”,  Iva suddenly opened her eyes, looked straight at me and said, “Oops, Pastor, I guess it was a false alarm!”

These were not Iva’s last words—I wasn’t there to witness those. But I remember them, because these words, spoken near the end of a long life, reveal so much about who she was. She was colorful. She was honest. She was strong. She was a little bit ornery! And she was faithful, to the end.

People love to record and remember last words, especially the last words of famous people. We are curious to know that Harriet Tubman sang “Swing low, sweet chariot” as she lay dying. We are interested to know that Winston Churchill declared, “I’m bored with it all!” and that Groucho Marx had to get in one last joke, quipping from his deathbed, “This is no way to live!” We love to know these (possibly true) bits of trivia, because last words are believed to reveal something deep and true about a person.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we get the chance to eavesdrop on some of Jesus’ last words—and in fact they do reveal something deep and true. They reveal much about who he is, and about what it means to follow him.

The verses we heard this morning from the 17th chapter of John are part of Jesus’ farewell speech to the disciples, which took place at the Last Supper.

In front of the Holy Sepulcher church,
a man dressed as Jesus takes a moment to pray
(He's known around here as "Detroit Jesus"!)
Photo by Carrie Smith
After he had washed their feet,
After he gave them a new commandment to love one another;
And after he promised that an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, would soon come to be with them forever,
Then Jesus lifted his eyes up to heaven, and he prayed for them.
Yes, hear the Good News: Jesus prayed for us!

It feels good to be prayed for, doesn’t it?

I will never forget how, during the fall of 2015 (the terrible months often called the “stabbing intifada”), a pastor from Ferguson, Missouri, visited us here at Redeemer. He was here on a much-needed sabbatical after the terrible police violence and subsequent protests in his city. He came to be refreshed in the Holy Land, but instead found himself moved by the plight of the Palestinian people.

When he returned home, he shared what he had seen and heard with his congregation. And shortly thereafter, I received a large color photo in the mail. It was a picture of the members of this pastor’s congregation, all of them holding big paper letters which spelled out: “God’s Peace, from Zion, Ferguson Missouri”.

I tell you, it brought me to tears immediately. It meant so much to know people who had themselves known so much suffering and turmoil were standing in solidarity with us, and with our Palestinian neighbors and friends. It meant so much to know they were praying for us, and with us, for God’s kingdom of peace, justice, reconciliation, and love.

Yes, it feels good to be prayed for.

In recent days, many of us here in Jerusalem have received messages from friends and family, promising that they are praying for us. It feels good, and it matters—not because we believe that God only listens to prayers that are prayed by a great number of people,
Or because we believe God only reads Facebook memes shared by the greatest number of people.

It matters when we are prayed for, because it helps to know we are not alone.
It matters because it helps to know that other parts of the Body are paying attention to this part, which is hurting right now.

It matters because the prayers of others give us strength and courage. They give us sumud, or steadfastness.

The prayers of friends and loved ones help us to become like the rghteous named in today’s Psalm: “They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.” Yes, like trees planted by the water, we shall not be moved! Amen!

Dear siblings in Christ, hear the Good News again: Some of Jesus’ last words happened to be a prayer for us! And in today’s reading we learn that he prays not that things would be easy for us, but that his disciples would always be strong.

Jesus prays that we would be one, because we are better together.
Jesus prays that we would have joy, and that our joy would be complete.
And he prays that although the world hates us for who we are (and for whose we are), we would be protected by God the Father.

Jesus prayed:
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”

Hear that again:
Jesus acknowledges that the world often hates us and what we stand for…but he does not pray for us to be taken out of the world. He prays that we would be protected while in the world. That we would be safe. That we would be strengthened to continue on the path he has set before us—which is a path straight through the world. 

Straight through the city. Often, it is a path straight into conflict, into difficult conversations, into challenging relationships.
It is often a path straight to the cross. 

But, thanks be to God, our Risen Lord has shown us that his is also the path to life, and to love, and to joy. Thanks be to God! Amen!

Oh, it feels good to be prayed for.
It feels good to know that Jesus, who sits at the right hand of God the Father, is praying for us even now!
And this prayer of Jesus feels especially good at this moment.
Sometimes, we it can seem we are alone—alone in praying for peace. Alone in standing for justice. Alone in hoping beyond hope. Alone in standing steadfast for truth, for reconciliation, for a world where all can live free.

But we are not alone. We are never alone!

Next week, when we gather again as the church, we will celebrate how the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, fell upon the disciples, filling them with the gift of tongues, but also with the gift of peace and the assurance of God’s presence.
In the meantime, between now and next Sunday, things may get a little rough in Jerusalem.
Today is Jerusalem Day, and some very nasty words will likely be shouted and chanted at our neighbors here in the Old City and in East Jerusalem.
Tomorrow is the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, and we expect some false words will be said…words like “eternal” and “capital”.
And Tuesday is Nakba Day. As always, some false words will be published that day: Words like “there is no nakba” and “there has never been a Palestine.”

But dear siblings in Christ, today I want you to hear these words:
Jesus, crucified, risen, and ascended, is now seated at the right hand of the Father. He is praying for us.

And he always has the last word.
Not politicians. Not missiles. Not bullets. Not terrorists. Not the wall. Not oppression, or occupation, or apathy, or the grinding sameness of the “way things have always been.”

Jesus, our friend, our brother, our Savior, always has the last word. And what a gift it is to know that some of his last words were a prayer on our behalf.

Thanks be to God, for we know that because he is Risen, love has the last word!
Life has the last word!
Truth has the last word!
Joy has the last word!
Strengthened by Jesus’ prayers, and by his faithful presence with us, we can and will face whatever is to come.

We shall not be moved! Amen! 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

"Watching the skies for Jesus...or missiles?" Reflection for Ascension Day 2018 in Jerusalem


Lutheran Church of the Ascension
Mt of Olives, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

The Ascended Jesus
On the ceiling of Lutheran Church of the Ascension
Mt of Olives, Jerusalem
In the Acts of the Apostles, the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven goes like this:

The disciples asked Jesus: “Is it time now? Is this the end? Is this when everything will be restored?”

And Jesus answered them: “It’s not for you to know the time. But the Holy Spirit is coming, and you will receive great power. Then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth!”

Then, while the disciples were watching, Jesus was lifted up on a cloud and taken away into the heavens..
But the disciples kept standing there!
They kept looking for Jesus, even though he was already far away. In fact, their eyes were so focused on the skies above that they didn’t even notice when two men in white robes appeared next to them.

These men (angels, perhaps) said to the disciples:

“What are you looking at, guys? Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

The angels might ask us this same question today. Why are we looking up to the skies? There is so much work to do!

But some of you might answer: Of course we’re looking up! We have very good reasons!

Of course we look up to the skies—there are missiles flying overhead.
Of course we look to the skies—we hear the rumblings of war and rumors of war.
Of course we look to the skies—we are watching for rockets. We are watching for tear gas canisters. We are watching for bullets!

Honestly, what else can we do in this situation? Why can we do but look up to the skies, when it’s so full of danger?

I remember in the weeks after September 11, 2001, I couldn’t stop looking to the skies, either. Now I was living in Minnesota, far away from the attacks in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. But I had seen the images of terror and destruction on television, and suddenly it seemed the skies everywhere were full of evil. Every time I heard the rumble of an airplane overhead—or what I thought might possibly be an airplane—my eyes would dart up, and I would search the skies for what I was certain would be the next terrible attack.

The truth is, even though I was a student of theology at the time, studying to be a pastor, I had started to believe more the power of fear, and in the authority of terrorists, than I did in the presence, power, and authority of God in the world.

It took some time before I remembered that Jesus promised he would not leave us abandoned.

It took some time before I remembered that Jesus said he would be with us always, unto the end of the age.

It took some time before I stopped looking up to the skies, paralyzed by fear, and started to look again to my family, and my neighbors, and my community, and remembered that whenever Jesus seems far away, this is where he can always be found. This is where we always see him—closer than we ever imagined.

This world, which God loves,
This world, where Jesus walked,
This world, which he has now entrusted to us to love and nurture,
Is where disciples are always called to focus our eyes, our hearts, and our energies—not the skies, and never our fears about the future.

Dear friends in Christ, today we are gathered on this mountain to remember that Jesus, crucified and risen, is also Jesus, ascended into heaven. He is no longer with us in the way he was with the first disciples. It’s true that he has left our sight!

But this does not mean we should now fix our eyes on the sin and evil of the world.
We do not watch the skies for disaster!
We do not watch the clocks for the end of the world!
We do not look to the news to tell us how to live or how to love.

Jesus has left our sight, but now our eyes are free to look to the beauty of God’s creation.
Jesus has left our sight, but now our eyes are free to see the poor, and ask how we can serve them.
Jesus has left our sight, but now our eyes are free to see our neighbor, and to recognize God’s image in her.
Jesus has left our sight, but he never leaves our side!

With Christ’s help—even when there are wars and rumors of war—we will never lose sight of the vision and mission he has left with us.

We will continue to be witnesses of his love—in Jerusalem, and to the ends of the earth!

Let us pray:

Risen and ascended Lord Jesus,                                                                                           
When we are numbed by the suffering of the world,                                                      
And frightened by war and rumors of war,                                                                        
Take us back to the deep truth
Of your power and glory, of your Kingdom,
Of your promise of reconciliation and peace.
In the knowledge of this truth,
Help us to bring our gaze to earth                                                                                         
Help us to focus our eyes on the needs of our neighbor                                                   
Give us strength to go into the world,                                                                                     
To remain in the world, 
and to build the kingdom of God
On earth as it is in heaven. Amen.  

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

On Tattoos, True Friends, and Jesus: A sermon for 6th Sunday of Easter

Sermon for Sunday 6 May 2018
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

***Portions of this sermon were previously published on the "Transformation is Real" blog. Check it out!***

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

As my friend Stacy and I walked into the tattoo studio on Belmont in Chicago, I was distracted, doing some math in my head.
“Eight years,” I said.
“Eight years what?” She replied.
“It was eight years ago we first talked about doing this!” 

Eight years earlier, Stacy was struggling to exit a marriage, and I was struggling to exit seminary. We lived a few blocks away from each other in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, the blocks of pavement between well-worn by frequent trips back and forth for mutual encouragement over a glass (or two) of wine.

Eight years earlier, the tattoo conversation had started as a joke, sort of a “when this mess is over, we’re doing something crazy” thing.

When this divorce is final...
When I’m finally ordained...
Someday. Maybe.

Stacy and I became fast friends about three years before the tattoo idea was birthed, in spite of our own bad attitudes and very low expectations. My spouse Robert met Stacy, an Episcopal priest, at a campus minister’s conference in Chicago. Knowing we were soon moving into her neighborhood, Robert took the opportunity to tell her all about me. We still laugh about how he decided to describe me as a “stay at home mom of two living in Waco, Texas”, which didn’t exactly sell Stacy on the idea that we would have much in common! (I might have described myself as a “music teacher, certified doula, and midwifery student considering a return to seminary”, but whatever…)

As we were packing for the big move to Chicago, Robert also told me about Stacy, saying, “You two are going to be best friends.” My sharp response was, “Who told you you could pick my friends?!”

But it turns out he was right. Soon after we moved to Chicago, I begrudgingly invited Stacy over for dinner, and five hours later we realized we had forgotten to put the kids to bed. This became an all-too-familiar pattern. (Just ask our kids!)

Stacy heard my first (terrible) sermons, and commiserated with me when sexism in the church made me want to scream. She was my cheerleader when I doubted whether I could really make the transition from “pastor’s wife” to “pastor.”

I accompanied Stacy to court dates and custody hearings, and helped perform a house blessing/exorcism at her parsonage during the ugly years of divorce proceedings. I was her cheerleader when she wondered who would ever want to date a divorced priest with two kids.

And finally, after eleven years of friendship, a decade of shared Thanksgivings, one divorce, two high school graduations, one ordination, two new churches, some heartbreaking parenting moments, a new marriage for Stacy, one giant career move for me (to serve as Lutheran pastor here in Jerusalem), and eight years of talking about it, there we were:

Two lady priests, walking into a tattoo shop on Belmont Avenue in Chicago.

Stacy went first, choosing an intricate image of St. Brigid’s Cross on her upper arm. She wasn’t supposed to talk while the artist was working, so I tried to think of something encouraging to say.

“If it hurts,” I said, “Just think how much better this is than those awful hard years were!”
“Nope,” she replied. “This is why I’m glad we waited. This isn’t about that struggle. This is about my strength. This is for where I am today.”

See why I love her?!

I chose a Jerusalem cross, the symbol of this city where I’ve served as pastor for four years now.

There are many interpretations of this cross. Some say the four small crosses are for the four corners of the world. Some say they represent the four Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Still others say the five crosses together represent the wounds of Christ.

I like that last interpretation. When I look at my tattoo, it reminds me of Galatians 6:17, where it is written:

“From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.”

It also makes me think of this quote from Pastor Rob Bell:

“Our tendency in the midst of suffering is to turn on God. To get angry and bitter and shake our fist at the sky and say, ‘God, you don’t know what it’s like! You don’t understand! You have no idea what I’m going through. You don’t have a clue how much this hurts.’ The cross is God’s way of taking away all of our accusations, excuses, and arguments. The cross is God taking on flesh and blood and saying, ‘Me too.’”

When I look at the Jerusalem cross on my arm, I think of my friendship with Stacy, but I also I remember that no matter what I’ve been through—or what may be to come—through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, God has said, “Me too.” Amen!

I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship this week—and the mark it makes on us—because in today’s lesson from the Gospel according to John, Jesus calls his disciples “friends”. And I admit that at first, this designation seems a bit strange. After all, Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is Mighty Counselor and Prince of Peace! 

We love him. We serve him. We follow him. We worship him. We pray to him. But being his friend? This is a bit hard to comprehend.

But it’s true: Jesus not only calls his disciples “friends” – he describes what that means:

First: Jesus’ friends are not only servants (although we do serve him), because Jesus doesn’t keep us in the dark. He told the disciples everything that was about to happen in Jerusalem. He has made us cohorts, coworkers, and co-conspirators in the revolution of love and liberation about to happen through him.
Secondly: Jesus’ friends have been chosen by him! His love for us comes first. He chose to love us, to live for us, to die for us, long before we could reciprocate his love, and long before we ever chose him.

And, most importantly, Jesus’ friends are those who keep his commandments. 
Specifically—Jesus’ friends are those who love one another.

Jesus said:  “And this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Now this is important, because it is a reminder that friendship is not chiefly about feelings at all.

A relationship based on feelings alone might be called admiration, or being fan,
Or being friend-ly with someone.

But Jesus doesn’t want us to be friendly with him.

He has chosen us as friends. And there is a certain amount of care and maintenance involved in friendships that last. There is action required!

In a podcast I listened to recently, a young man was talking about the struggle to make and maintain friends in today’s world. He lamented that everyone has more Facebook friends than they can count, and we have work friends we sit with on lunch breaks, but he found it difficult to assemble the “gaggle” of friends everyone in the movies seems to have and maintain effortlessly.

The advice this man received was to work on your friendships as if you were getting paid hourly. In other words --- put in the time. Don’t assume you’re on salary, and that you’ll automatically get paid in love and companionship!  

Call your friends. Pray for them. Know what they’re going through! Love what they love. Let your heart break when theirs is breaking.
Be with them in the joyful times.
Stand with them in the difficult times.
Stay with them, through thick and thin.

Dear siblings in Christ,
Jesus has already chosen you as friends. He has already made his home with you. He has already loved you, suffered for you, died for you.
Jesus has seen our brokenness and our suffering and he has said, “Me too.”

And now we are invited to be more than fans, more than followers.
We are invited to be his friends, and we do this when we love each other, and when we love the world, as he has loved us.

We are his friends when we say, “Me, too, Jesus.”
You want dividing walls to come down and swords to be made into plowshares? Me too, Jesus
You’re standing with the oppressed and the occupied? Me too, Jesus.  
You have a heart that is broken over the poor and the homeless? Me too, Jesus.
You love sinners and outcasts? Me too, Jesus.
You open wide the doors of the church, and of your heart? Me too, Jesus.
You believe in the power of love to transform racism, sexism, xenophobia, greed, and war? Me too, Jesus. Me too.
When we put it this way, being Jesus’ friend sounds like a huge task—and it is. Because this is, really, an uneven friendship. There is only one Son of God. There is only one Morningstar. God has blessed us with many who love us, with many friends to walk with us in this life, but there is only one who is perfect. There is only one friend who will always be steadfast, will always come when we call, who will never fail us.

Oh, What a friend we have in Jesus!
“Can we find a friend so faithful
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness
Take it to the Lord in prayer!” Amen!

Thanks be to God: Jesus has called us friends,
he has commanded us to love,
and he believes in our ability to do it.

One of the places we can be Jesus’ friend is right here, in this space, and wherever two or three are gathered in his name. When we gather with other friends of Jesus, when we pray, when we sing, when we pass the peace, when we proclaim the Good News of God’s love for us, and when we share the bread and the wine as One Body, in a small but important way we start to fulfill Jesus’ command.

Here we practice love and welcome for those who are different from us.
Here we remember that we have all fallen short of the grace of God.
Here we love those Jesus loves—the outcast, the sinner, the broken.
Here we practice even loving those broken parts of ourselves.
And from here, when we leave the table, we go fed and nourished, strengthened and empowered—not only by bread and wine, but by the assurance of his peace, his grace, his mercy, and his friendship—which passes all understanding.

Yes, dear ones, Jesus is your friend!
He is the friend who will never leave you.
He is the friend who will never fail you.
He is the friend who can carry all your burdens.
He is the friend who always knows you best.
Call on him. Lean on him. Walk with him.
Love him, and love those he loves.
Love one another, even all the way to the cross.

For as our friend and brother has said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And you are my friends if you do what I command you.” 

Let us pray:
Thank you, Jesus, for the friends you have brought into our lives—for the love they have shown us, for the support they have given us. Thank you for choosing us as your friends! Show us how to love as you have loved. Forgive us when we fail. And let us abide in your friendship, and in your life, to the end of our days. with you always. Amen.