Sunday, October 28, 2018

"Have mercy on us" -- Sermon for Sunday 28 October 2018

Sermon for Sunday 28 October 2018
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Mark 10:46-52

"Have mercy on us."

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

Julia Stankova (Bulgarian, 1954–), Christ and Bartimaeus, 2017. Painting on wooden panel, 36 × 45 cm.
One could say the story of Bartimaeus is about how sometimes outsiders see the truth more clearly than insiders. It’s also one place we find the roots of the Kyrie in our liturgy, heard in Bartimaeus’s confession, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  It’s a story about the calling of a new disciple, one who seems to “get it” a lot quicker than the disciples who have been following Jesus already for some time. But above all, this is a miracle story—in fact, the last healing miracle in Mark’s Gospel. Bartimaeus was blind, and now he sees. Thanks be to God! Amen.

However, it seems to me there is another miracle here, and it takes place before Bartimaeus regains his sight. It’s that moment when Scripture tells us, “Jesus stood still.”

Jesus stood still. Keep in mind, Jesus was leaving Jericho followed by a large crowd (I’m imagining not a very quiet one, either) so it can’t have been easy to hear one small voice calling from the street. It can’t have been easy to stop the momentum of the mob behind him and around him, and yet we read “Jesus stood still.”

“Call him here” Jesus said, and then the crowd (who had only moments before tried to silence the man) said to Bartimaeus, “Take heart, get up! He is calling you.” And that is what he did. Bartimaeus, who could not see Jesus, who could not see the crowd, who could not see where he was going, threw off his cloak—his only possession—and ran towards the one who gave his full attention. He ran towards hope. He ran towards his miracle.

Indeed, it’s a miracle whenever someone gives us their full attention.

Because I moved a lot as a kid, I spent many days feeling lost in crowds of unfamiliar faces and unfamiliar school hallways. It was easy to feel lost there, unseen and unheard, mostly insignificant to the already-formed cliques of friends at each new school.

But then: there was my weekly piano lesson. No matter where we lived, or how lonely I felt at my new school, I could count on this hour in the week when I was the center of everything. My music, my hard work, my ideas—they were what mattered there. Of course, we didn’t just play piano music in those lessons. We talked about school, and the books I was reading, and what my little brother had done to aggravate me that week. We talked about what I would do when I grew up (I promise “be the Lutheran pastor in Jerusalem” was never on the list!). Mrs. Zimmerman, Ms. Ruth, Ms. Judy, Melody, and Thora—they heard me. They saw me. For one hour, my piano teacher gave me her full attention.

And it felt good.

It felt – miraculous.

When Jesus stood still and gave his full attention to a blind beggar calling out his name (and not even by the proper Messianic title—for “Son of David” is a title Jesus himself repudiated soon after in the temple) it must have felt miraculous to Bartimaeus, too.
After all, how many others had passed by him before? How many had ignored his pleas for food, for shelter, for a little money?

How many beggars on the streets of the Old City do we pass by each day? How many voices from the street do we routinely ignore? I know that I rarely look up when people call to me from the streets outside Damascus Gate. Granted, most of them are yelling “Taxi” or “Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv”, but still…it’s easy to imagine how Bartimaeus was accustomed to most people passing right by, no matter what he called out from the side of the road.

But not Jesus. Jesus stood still. Jesus gave blind Bartimaeus his full attention, and he called him closer, to better understand what he wanted. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

And this really is a miracle, because there were so many others who could have garnered Jesus’ attention. There were so many others in the crowd around him, those who probably thought they deserved his attention – Jericho city officials, perhaps. Religious authorities. Movers and shakers. The disciples, his close friends. And especially the ones who tried to silence Bartimaeus a few moments earlier (in fact, trying to silence him in the same way Jesus often silenced demons).

But in that moment, Jesus doesn’t give his attention to any of those seemingly worthy ones. His ear is tuned to the one on the side of the road, the one on the margins. His body turns immediately toward the one whose voice shakes a bit, the one who doesn’t even call him by the proper name, the one who has nothing to lose.

And Jesus stands still.

The story of Bartimaeus makes me think about the voices we routinely ignore today, the confessions we so often deem unworthy to be heard.

The Sabeel Liberation Theology Center recently published an entire issue of their “Cornerstone” magazine on sexual harassment and violence in Palestinian society. It’s no secret that this is an issue in this culture—as it is in nearly every culture around the world. The “MeToo” movement in the US has done much to raise awareness in the past year. But an interesting thing happened when Sabeel friends started talking about the topic in this context. While nearly everyone acknowledged the problem, many resisted, saying, “Why do we have to talk about this now? Let’s achieve human rights, and then we can talk about women’s rights. Also, let’s not air our dirty laundry to everyone. We can hear these stories when the occupation is ended.”

But the Rev. Naim Ateek, the founder of Sabeel, insisted that this issue go forward, with the reminder that while not all may be ready to hear it, Jesus always hears the cries of the oppressed, and desires liberation for every human being. For this reason, Christians in Palestine and beyond are called to stand still and listen to the voices of women and all survivors of sexual assault today.

There are so many other voices our ears are trained to tune out: The disabled. The homeless. The mentally ill. Any and all who don’t fit in the crowd, those who sit on the margins or choose to live out of bounds, and perhaps especially those who call out to God in a way we don’t recognize or understand—these, like blind Bartimaeus, we too often pass by, or even sternly order to be quiet.

Sadly, the church is often the worst offender. All too often, we are the crowd sternly ordering prophets and troublemakers to be quiet. We are the crowd passing by blind Bartimaeus, so busy following in the footsteps of Jesus that we don’t see what he’s actually doing now. We can become so focused on walking in “the Way” that we don’t notice Jesus has stopped in the middle of the road, that his attention is not on our Christmas program or evangelism strategy or capital campaign at all, but on the one lonely voice crying out from the street. If we’re not careful, we may even blow right past him on the road to Jerusalem—or at least on the road to whatever ecclesiastical success we think there is to achieve—while Jesus stands still, listening to one voice crying “have mercy on me.”

On Wednesday, as we commemorate Reformation Day and remember German monk Martin Luther’s famous “Here I stand” declaration, the church would do well to consider where exactly we stand today.  Perhaps the reformation the church needs today is to worry less about producing a product called “church”, and to instead spend some time standing still—giving full attention to those who call out from the margins, that we may better hear, better understand, and better love those Jesus loves.

Dear ones, here ends the sermon I wrote on Friday, the sermon I created and edited and called good by late yesterday afternoon. But then, of course, the world kept turning and things kept happening and human beings remained broken and by the time I looked at the news again, 11 people had been murdered during prayer at Tree of Life Synagogue in the city of Pittsburgh.

What in the world do we do with that this morning? Where is Jesus’ attention, I want to cry out, if it isn’t on Pittsburgh? On Gaza? On Yemen?

Sometime in the night, my dear friend who is an Episcopal priest in the US sent me this note, about her struggle to write her own sermon:

“WTF. I have nothing to say to anyone tomorrow. Not to the 5 old white people at the 8 am service, not the 50 Latinx folks at 10, not my earnest young adults at 5:30 p.m. We buried Matthew Shepherd, but he’s still dead. Some guy shot two black folks in a Kroger because he couldn’t get into a black church down the road. Racist, xenophobic misogynists still believe that the bombs that were sent were false flags. And 11 people are dead who had gathered for a bris. Donald Trump is still president and Mitch McConnell is still in the Senate. I’ve said all I have to say right now. I am empty.”

By the time I read it this message, she was asleep, so I don’t know what she ended up with for a sermon today. But when I read her note, I thought, “there’s your sermon, friend…and maybe the ending of mine.” I mean, how is her cry any different from Bartimaeus, crying out to Jesus from the side of the road? He was lost, too. He couldn’t see the path forward, either. He didn’t even know how to call out to Jesus, so he said the best thing he could think of (“Son of David, have mercy on me!”) which, in fact, was offensive to both the religious authorities and the political regime.

This is where many of us are these days—feeling blind, unable to see the way forward for the world, not even sure what name to call out, only hoping that someone will hear us if we do.

Trust me, preachers are there, too. It can be hard to preach on miracles when it seems the world needs a really big one.

But this is still the message I have for you today, the message I cling to myself:

When we are lost, when we can’t see the way forward,
when the church or society or family and friends pass us by,
when people are awful, when our own brokenness overwhelms us,
when we don’t even know how to pray, so we just call out -- "Have mercy on us!"--
Jesus stands still. 

Jesus hears, and gives full attention to our pain, our doubts, our questions, our loneliness, our need.

I know it seems impossible to believe—that’s how miracles are—but Jesus, the crucified and risen One, is giving us his full attention today, right now. He is fully present with us this day, in the midst of our grief and confusion and anger.

In a few moments, you are invited to the table, to know Christ’s presence in bread and in wine, and our eyes will once again be opened—not to see all that lies ahead, or to understand somehow the terrible brokenness of our world—but to taste and see that the Lord is good. Taste and see that in him there is healing, wholeness, and love beyond measure. 

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

Sunday, October 14, 2018

"What does not pass away is love": Sermon for Sunday 14 October 2018

Sermon for Sunday 14 October 2018

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

Joint Arabic-English worship service

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.


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

“The present form of the world passes away,
And there remains only the joy of having used this world
to establish God’s rule here.
All pomp, all triumphs, all selfish capitalism,
All the false successes of life will pass
With the world’s form.
All of that passes away.
What does not pass away is love.
When one has turned money, property, work in one’s calling
Into service of others,
Then the joy of sharing
And the feeling that all are one’s family
Does not pass away.
In the evening of life you will be judged on love.

(January 21, 1979)

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador preached these words in 1979, just one year before he was killed by an assassin, shot through the heart while celebrating the Eucharist. Today at the Vatican, Romero will be canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church. This is considered by many to be a long overdue moment which honors the fact that he, in the words of Pope John Paul II, gave his life “for the church and the people of his beloved country.”

During his ministry as parish priest and then as bishop, Oscar Romero did not write polished sermons or publish books of systematic theology. Instead, he spoke directly to the people of El Salvador about their lives and their sufferings. Through his homilies, parish newsletters, and weekly radio broadcasts, he preached the Gospel of love simply and clearly, assuring Salvadorans living in poverty that their struggles “touch the very heart of God.”

But Bishop Romero also took the Gospel message a step further, insisting that it is not enough for the church to merely sympathize with the poor. If human suffering disturbs God, then it should disturb the church. And if it disturbs the church, then the church is called to be a disturbing presence, opposing the authorities and systems and underlying structures causing people to suffer in the first place.

This theology of liberation was not well-received by the ruling authorities of El Salvador, who saw Bishop Romero’s sermons as inciting revolution and chaos among the poor. Ultimately, this is what led to his assassination. But political authorities are not the only ones challenged by such proclamations. There are also those within the church who would like to silence talk of the Gospel’s power to liberate people not only from sin but from oppression, too. Indeed, this is one reason Romero’s canonization today is so remarkable—Pope Francis is really making a bold statement, in spite of those who still consider liberation theology a threat.

To tell you the truth, it’s fascinating to me that anyone would find liberation theology to be radical or threatening to the church, because as we heard in the preaching text today from 1 Corinthians chapter 7, the idea that the present systems of the world will pass away (or be overthrown) is nothing new.

The Apostle Paul, speaking to the church in Corinth, wrote:

“I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short…The present form of this world is passing away.”

The present world is passing away. Sounds like change, doesn’t it? Sounds like transformation. Sounds like liberation. Sounds a bit like revolution…

To be clear, Paul is not talking here simply about the end of the world. He did not say “the world is passing away”, although he certainly believed Jesus would return during his lifetime. In verse 31, when Paul says, “the present form of this world is passing away”, the Greek word translated as “present form” is “schema”, which means the “underlying organizational pattern or structure.” In other words, Paul is telling the Christians of Corinth that the whole messed up system of this world will soon be over. In fact, in light of the Resurrection it is already obsolete! The social structures, the hierarchies, the systems of government, the powers and principalities which seem to rule our behaviors and determine our futures, these things that seem permanent and unchangeable—all of them are passing away, to be replaced by God’s kingdom of peace, justice, love, and yes, liberation.

Friends, there are days when this seems like very Good News indeed. There are so many things of this world that I would like to see pass away, and quickly:
Occupation. White supremacy. Patriarchy. Terrorism. Cancer. Poverty. Sexual assault. Just to name a few!

These present forms of the world I am more than happy to see pass away! Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

But we can’t read these words of Paul without dealing with those other verses—his curious suggestions to the Corinthians about how to live in the meantime.  

Paul says, “The appointed time has grown short—things are about to change!” and then five times, he suggests that Christians are to live in the meantime “as though not.”

Live “as though not married.”
Live “as though not mourning,”
Live “as though not rejoicing.”
Live “as though not owning anything.”
Live “as though not dealing with this world.”

I can just imagine the Corinthians saying: “Excuse me, Paul? How exactly do I have a wife, or a husband, and pretend that I don’t?”

What is this about?

We must remember that Paul truly believed Jesus’ return was imminent. He expected Jesus’ return within his lifetime, for sure. This is not unique to Paul of course—countless Christians have predicted Jesus’ imminent return, in spite of Scripture which clearly tells us that we can know neither the day nor the hour of his return.

When we read these instructions we also remember that Paul lived a very specific lifestyle: He was an unmarried, traveling preacher. This afforded him a lot of freedom—freedom to travel, freedom to preach and speak against the powers that be, and freedom to risk arrest, among other things. In some of his other writings, Paul expresses his belief that this same situation would be a preferable lifestyle for every Christian. (An opinion that was not, obviously, adopted by the entire church.)

But I don’t think Paul is asking the Corinthians to leave everything and become itinerant preachers. He does not say “no one should be married.” He says, “live as though not married.” Live “as though not mourning, or having financial obligations, or belonging to the systems of this world.”

This is not a call to withdraw from the world. This is not to suggest that we ignore family or career or responsibilities, and simply wait for Jesus to return and take care of things.

Rather, I hear Paul calling Christians to the right ordering of things. I hear him reminding the early church (and disciples today) that nothing in this world lasts forever. Yes, that means relationships. And careers. And health. And youth. It means seasons of grief and seasons of joy.

It also means political regimes. And military occupations.
It means racist agendas, and wars, and patriarchy.

These are all part of the present form of this world, and while much of it is beautiful and good and worthy of celebration, much of it is not. And all of it—every bit of this “schema”—will one day pass away.

These oppressive structures, these unjust systems, this patriarchal society, this disease, this grief, this broken and sinful world is not all there is.

All too often, we give these underlying structures and systems far too much authority over us. We act as if they, not God, were ordering the universe. We act as if they, and not the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, give meaning to our days and to our lives. 

And so, we find ways to navigate the checkpoints or airport security, rather than insist that the wall come down and the occupation end.

We laugh off sexist or racist jokes rather than speaking our truth.

We build more soup kitchens to feed the poor rather than voting in leaders who will address poverty and income inequality.

And we accept the gradual destruction of our planet, rather than using our God-given wisdom to slow the progression of climate change.

When we live in this way, we give far too much power and authority to sin and death, to the things that oppose the Kingdom of God.

As Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker once wrote:
“Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.”

Dear siblings in Christ, we are under no obligation to honor these filthy, rotten systems. By the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has shown us that indeed, all the schemes of this world, all these filthy rotten systems are just that:
Rotten. Decaying. Dying. Passing away. Even death itself has been shown to have no power over us.

We have been liberated and set free from sin and death, and now in Christ we live in the hope of the Kingdom to come. We live with the joy of knowing that all of the world’s mess is passing away, even now.

And even better: We get to be part of kicking it out the door.

The world is about to turn, and thanks be to God we get the joy and the privilege of being part of the turning! We can give these systems and structures, these powers and principalities, exactly the amount of authority they deserve—which is none whatsoever.
We can speak truth to power. We can march in the streets if necessary. We can love our neighbors and our enemies. We can share resources. We can care for the planet. We can come to the table and eat the Bread of Heaven!

As Paul wrote, we can live, and love, as though not bound to the present form of this world--because we know that we are not.

When it all starts to feel hopeless, friends, remember: This filthy, rotten system is not forever. It may sometimes feel that way! But it’s not.

The occupation does not make the rules. The wall is not permanent.

 In fact, it is already passing away. It is already a figment of our imagination, for as it is written: “He is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14)

Hear again the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, soon to be St. Oscar Romero:

“God’s reign is already present on our earth in mystery. When the Lord comes, it will be brought to perfection…That is the hope that inspires Christians. We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.” (March 24, 1980)

This passage was spoken only minutes before Archbishop Romero’s sudden death, as part of his last sermon to his people.

Strengthened by these words, and by the words of the Apostle Paul, my prayer is that we will now go out with good courage, remembering as we fight the good fight that none of these structures will ever triumph over the Gospel. These present forms of the world will all come tumbling down—in fact are already passing away. And in their place is the Kingdom of God, and the love of Christ for every sinner, which will never pass away.

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

Sunday, October 7, 2018

On “biblical marriage” and brokenness and God’s unbreakable love for us: Sermon for Sunday 7 October 2018

Sermon for Sunday 7 October 2018

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

On “biblical marriage” and brokenness and God’s unbreakable love for us

Artwork by Redeemer member Adelaide

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, 
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

When you hear this morning’s Gospel reading, how do you feel?

Do you feel grateful for a happy marriage?

Are you thinking of family members and loved ones who have divorced?

Are you thinking of your own marriage that has ended, or is ending?

Do you feel judged right now? Or anxious?

Maybe you’ve already checked out—your brain has turned off and a wall has gone up around your heart in anticipation of a certain kind of sermon. You may be expecting a word of judgment, a word of law, a word that reminds you of your failures—the kind of sermon many of us have heard so often before.

Dear siblings in Christ: In whatever way you received these words from Jesus this morning, I want to assure you this is not a sermon of judgment, and in fact I don’t believe this teaching from Jesus about marriage and divorce—as difficult as it is—is about judgment, either.

Jesus did not come that we would know guilt, and guilt abundant. Jesus came that we would have life, and life abundant (John 10:10)! He came that we would be reconciled to God, and to one another (2 Corinthians 5:18). The Messiah has come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to give sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18).  And therefore, because in the Protestant tradition we understand that Scripture interprets Scripture, as we reflect on these challenging words from Jesus this morning, I pray you will also hear words of liberation and release, good news and new life through them.

Now, with that being said, let’s jump right in and talk about “biblical marriage.”

In my home country, this phrase is thrown around often in political discussions about who can be married and (less often) about how and if people can be divorced. But the way this phrase is used, it’s as if folks imagine there existed some magical time in history when everyone married for true love, and all partnerships lasted forever in peace and harmony and happiness. We talk about “biblical marriage” as if relationships only got complicated with the advent of internet and television, and when women got the vote.

But in fact, one thing this passage from Mark’s Gospel reveals is that so-called “biblical marriage” seems to have been a lot like marriage today. In other words: it was hard!

We know that in Jesus’ time some people married out of love. But many others married out of necessity, or to form political or family alliances.

And we know that sometimes these unions didn’t last, because both the religious authorities and the disciples were eager to talk to Jesus about divorce.

So what does this mean?

I think it means people in Jesus’ time fell in and out of love, political and family alliances changed, and sometimes “biblical marriages” fell apart.

I think it means that sometimes promises and hearts were broken, and the religious authorities necessarily had a system to deal with that reality. 

As it is written:

Some Pharisees came, and to test [Jesus] they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”

Notice that when the Pharisees approached Jesus, they wanted to test if he knew the rules for getting out of a marriage. But Jesus turns them away from that focus on an exit strategy, and instead talks about marriage itself. He reminds them that Moses’ cut and dried “just get a certificate of divorce” reflects our hard hearts, not God’s hope for human relationships.

And in the house a bit later, the disciples ask about the topic again. This time, Jesus says:

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

We know that the church has historically interpreted this passage to be a clear condemnation of remarriage after divorce. And sadly, this has caused great pain for those whose marriages have ended, and who find themselves having to choose between a new love relationship or a relationship with the church.

But something that is often missed is the way Jesus turns the question of “How can/should we get divorced?” upside down. I mean, it seems clear enough: Jesus says “a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery” – but Jewish law held that only a woman was capable of committing adultery, never a man!

And Jesus also says, “if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” But Jewish law held that women had no right to divorce their husbands!

Both of these statements confound the law and turn it on its head. It isn’t that Jesus didn’t know the law. It’s that he was calling the disciples to a deeper understanding of human relationships. He’s turning their hearts away from thinking “what can I get away with” or “what is permissible” and towards God’s intentions for the world.

Those intentions, that hope, that vision, is what we call the Kingdom of God. It is the Kingdom in which we all have citizenship by our baptisms, and the Kingdom the baptized are called and empowered to help co-create on earth, as it is in heaven.

But of course, we know that we fail to live as perfect citizens of God’s Kingdom all the time. We fail as citizens, and our brokenness is revealed, 
whenever we go to war with our neighbors,
when we hoard resources so others go hungry or are homeless,
when we occupy someone else’s land,
or oppress someone on the basis of their gender, race, or sexuality,
when we lie,
when we cheat,
and yes, when promises are broken, and relationships entered in good faith must end. 

Broken marriages are just that—signs of our shared human brokenness.

Although it seems to get a lot of attention from Jesus in this Scripture text, and in society, (and of course, in the church), divorce is no more condemnable than any other way we fall short of the Kingdom of God. It is just one of many painful human experiences which prove that Christians are all simul justus et peccatur (at the same time, saint and sinner.)

I remember when a dear friend was going through a long and painful divorce, she struggled mightily with how it squared with her Christian faith. She would say to me, “We believe in resurrection, don’t we? So I keep waiting for this relationship to be resurrected.” But eventually, it became clear that God did desire resurrection and new life for both her and her former partner—it’s just that resurrection was waiting for her outside the tomb of an abusive marriage, not within it. She needed to trust that God’s life-giving power and love for her were not dependent on her staying in that situation.

And that is really what we learn through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, isn’t it? That our broken and wounded places are precisely the places of God’s active presence and power.

In Christ, God is always binding us up, healing us, making us whole.
Sometimes that looks like broken relationships being healed.
And sometimes it doesn’t.

There are times when we may wonder if, in our brokenness, we have also broken God’s love for us. We may wonder if, because of this (whatever “this” is), God can no longer love us.

But the Gospels reveal that when we fail to uphold our promises, when we make mistakes (even big ones), when we disappoint ourselves and others, even when we hurt others, we are still worthy of love. There’s nothing you can do, nothing you can fail at, nothing you can break (even a marriage) that puts you outside of that love.

In fact, the cross and the resurrection of Jesus are the sure signs that the worst person you know is worthy of love.
The worst person you know is a person Jesus died for—a good thing to remember when you feel that person may be yourself.

The last portion of today’s Gospel lesson may seem out of place, unrelated to Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce. However, as he did in the 9th chapter of Mark, Jesus again uses children to make his point clear to the disciples.

As it is written:

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

It is tempting to read this from our context and imagine Jesus embracing adorable, well-dressed, clean children. Sunday School children, in many colors, representing innocence and joy and again, some vision of an earlier, easier time.

But let’s be clear: Children in Jesus’ time had no status, no value, no matching outfits, no Sunday School programs and no voice whatsoever. For this reason, the disciples shooed them away from Jesus, for why would he spend time with such insignificant creatures? The only thing that matters about the children in this reading is that they represent powerlessness. They are a nuisance. They are pointless.

And Jesus says,

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

In other words: If rowdy and rejected children are welcomed, and blessed, and receive the gift of the Kingdom,
Then we do, too.
Whether we’ve succeeded or failed in love or marriage,
Whether we’ve succeeded or failed in our work,
Whether we’ve succeeded or failed in keeping promises or being faithful disciples,
Even so, we will receive the Kingdom.

In fact, Jesus says he wants us to receive the Kingdom in this way: as a child. We receive it as ones with no accomplishments, with nothing to offer, nothing to be proud of. On our worst days, we are welcomed and embraced by Jesus. Still, we receive his love and attention. Still, we receive the extravagant gift of God’s Kingdom of love, wholeness, peace, justice, and reconciliation.

Today, as we do every Sunday, we will practice receiving that free gift of grace and love, wholeness and forgiveness, when we come forward with open hands and hearts for communion. Jesus, our friend and brother, invites us to receive it as children:

With dirty hands and imperfect behavior.
With hunger and thirst for belonging and acceptance.
With joy and with curiosity.

So come, all of you, and receive the gift! Then go out with renewed energy to follow the One who mends our broken places and softens our hard hearts, the One who is always reforming our lives and relationships to resemble His.

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

Monday, October 1, 2018

"Cut it off": Sermon from Jerusalem, 30 September 2018

“Cut it off”

Sermon for Sunday 30 September 2018

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Mark 9:38-50

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

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.
And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

Friends, this is not an easy passage of Scripture. In fact, it’s a bit of a nightmare for a preacher! This is not warm and fuzzy Jesus. I’d much rather preach on “let the little children come to me”, or “come to me, all who are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” or “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” But today, we must deal with this Jesus, the Jesus who tells hard truths about what it means to follow him.

This Jesus is trying to make a point crystal clear with the disciples: which is apparently very difficult to do! The disciples just never seem to get it. In last week’s reading from Mark chapter 9, they struggle to understand Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection, and then they argue amongst themselves over who is the greatest. And in today’s reading—in spite of Jesus’ careful explanation about what it means to be “great” in God’s kingdom—they proudly report that they’ve stopped someone from casting out demons in Jesus’ name, because he wasn’t part of the “Big Twelve”.

Scripture tells that what Jesus says in response is, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

But what I imagine him saying is, “Listen, boys, it’s really not about you!”

Can you just hear his exasperated voice?

“It’s really not about you, John! It’s not about you, Mark!
My message is not about who’s the greatest, who’s the smartest, or who understands it best. It’s not about who’s part of the ‘in club’, and it’s certainly not about keeping people out of it.”

Whereas the disciples were worried about the purity of the message and of the group, and concerned about protecting the Jesus brand name and logo from unauthorized use, Jesus saw only that a suffering human had been released from the clutches of a demon. 

Jesus saw only that a beloved child of God had been healed of suffering. Thanks be to God!

And for this reason, Jesus turns the disciples’ thoughts from cutting someone out of the club, and instead turns them toward cutting off whatever is keeping them from truly following his Way of radical love and care for the Other.

This is Jesus being deadly serious—about sin, about injustice, about the harm we inflict on others, and about what a disciple should do about it.

Jesus says it is better to lose part of your body than to keep oppressing others.
It is better to lose friends than to keep silent in the face of suffering and injustice.
It is better to sacrifice things you can’t imagine doing without, so that your neighbor will know love and liberation.

Truly, discipleship is not about us! It’s about how far will we go for the sake of our neighbor. 

Jesus has already told the disciples—twice—just how far he will be going! True, they don’t yet understand the cross and the resurrection. But maybe, just maybe, Jesus thinks they will understand this, if he says it plainly:

“Whatever is keeping you from loving the world the way I love you bunch of sinners—cut it off.”

You know, I’m pretty certain that when I first read these verses (and the ones in the Gospel according to Matthew, which are similar) I thought they were all about maintaining with sexual and moral purity. Of course, I think I read them during Confirmation class, with a crowd of other teens, and most of us could only imagine sin as being about one thing. Cutting off body parts and plucking out eyes seemed an extreme way to deal with it, but then again hormones feel pretty extreme, too! I’m also certain I heard a few sermons which encouraged such an interpretation of this text.

But in fact, Jesus cannot be talking about individual sin here. If he were, there should be a lot more Christians walking around today with one hand, one foot, or one eye. Anyone who tries to tell you they are a biblical literalist had better be missing a limb. Ronald Goetz once wrote in the Christian Century, “To be sure, the hand-chopping, eye-plucking remedy for sin could never work, if for no other reason than the fact that we have more sins than we have bodily parts.” 

No, Jesus is not being literal here, but he is being serious—deadly serious—about the Christian responsibility to transform our lives and behaviors and communities so we no longer sin against our neighbor. The question is: How far will we go?

In our Tuesday morning Bible study on this Gospel text, our little group started talking about how far churches in Jerusalem are willing to go to witness against injustice. We recalled how last year, when Israel threatened to levy millions of dollars of back taxes on the churches of Jerusalem, church leaders took dramatic action. They closed the doors of the Holy Sepulcher to tourists, making the bold claim that it was the first time such a thing had happened since (maybe) the Crusades. (Not entirely sure that is true, but it made for good headlines!)

And it worked! At least for now, the churches have been saved from paying these unjust taxes. It was great to see the leaders of these different churches working together in such a way.

But. But!
Almost immediately after this crisis, we started to hear rumblings from local Christians.

Why do they not close the church doors to protest the occupation? Or to advocate for family reunification? Or to prevent escalation in Gaza?

I mean, of course we know the answer to these questions.

It doesn’t happen, because church leaders would really like to keep both their feet.
They’d like to keep their parking permits, and airport privileges, and the doors of their churches and guest houses open.

Believe it or not, priests, pastors, and patriarchs are people too! And not one of us really wants to give up the things that it easy to walk, to work, or to see.

We can’t imagine living without two hands, two feet, two eyes—and so even when we recognize the suffering of another, and even when we have said “Jesus, I want to follow you,” even then we hold on to privilege, and prejudice, and power over others, hoping we can have our cake and eat it, too. We hope we can love the neighbor and maintain our comforts, our habits, our old ways of doing and being.

Friends, I woke up Friday morning so very angry. It took me quite a few hours to figure out where the anger was coming from. It just sat in my stomach, the burning feeling like the unquenchable fire Jesus talks about, and it frankly kept me from being able to make much progress on this sermon.

Finally, I realized I was thinking about the many stories coming out of my home country, the United States, as they are trying to confirm a new Supreme Court justice. The nominee has multiple sexual assault allegations against him, and the debate over his appropriateness to sit on the highest court in the land seems to have consumed American media and Americans in general in the last days.

Of course, it makes us angry. It’s painful and disappointing when we hear people so desperate to hang on to power that they would ignore and even demean a woman who says “This man hurt me.”

And so, Americans are asking some hard questions this week: What do we need to cut off, and cut out, of our culture today, so that rape and sexual assault are no longer accepted and overlooked, and so perpetrators are no longer promoted and elected and honored?  

Today I hear Jesus being deadly serious, and saying to us all: Cut it off!

Cut off rape culture.
Cut off silence.
Cut off protecting and reassigning perpetrators—in business, in government, and in the church.
Cut off the idea that “boys will be boys.”
Cut off all our justifications, and trust that even though we can’t imagine living without some of these things that are so central to our culture, the truth is we can learn to walk and talk and live in new ways.

In Christ, there is new life for all of us—as individuals, as a society, as a church. I think of the many church members I know who have been at a point where they couldn’t imagine doing without that drink, or without that relationship, but have who come to know wholeness and healing, and have been gifted a new way of living and being.

In the same way, just as by the cross Jesus has freed the oppressed, he also frees the oppressor!

It’s not easy. Jesus says we will need to sacrifice. It may hurt. It may be inconvenient. We’ll have to learn new ways to walk and talk, new ways of seeing. We will have to confess, and we will have to cut some stuff off.

But as followers of Jesus, we are called to do exactly this, for the sake of our neighbor, for the sake of the little ones among us. We are not only sent but also empowered to remove stumbling blocks, to tear down walls, to stop nominations, and even to close church doors for the sake of the refugee, the occupied, and the survivor.

Be assured: We aren’t in this alone, for God has already shown us just how far She will go for us to be reconciled and made whole. Thanks be to God for the cross and the resurrection of Jesus, our friend and our savior, whose love for us can never be cut off. Amen.