Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Alpha and Omega" Sermon for Christ the King, 25 November 2018

Sermon for Christ the King Sunday
25 November 2018
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.

Kate Bowler is a scholar and professor of religion who teaches in the Divinity School at Duke University. At age 35, when she had a 2-year old son, she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. If you’re looking for something excellent to curl up and read during these upcoming cold months, I can’t recommend highly enough her book called “Everything Happens for a Reason: And other lies I’ve loved.” She writes frankly and beautifully about what it’s like when suddenly you realize you are not in control, that humans are not limitless, and that life is a privilege, not a reward for somehow getting it all right.

It’s been a few years since that diagnosis, and Dr. Bowler is still living with cancer and still sharing about it. The other day I listened to season 2 of her podcast, also called “Everything Happens”, in which she interviews others who have faced an event that changes everything. This week she talked with a woman named Emily McDowell, who started a greeting card company after she herself was diagnosed with cancer at a young age.

(Emily’s greeting card company is unlike any other, by the way. Her cards don’t put a tidy, happy bow on top of terrible things. Instead of “Get well soon”, her cards say things like “When life gives you lemons – I promise I won’t send you that article I read about how lemons cure cancer.”)

Emily started this company because so many terrible things were said to her in the wake of her diagnosis—and even years after! She has been in remission for quite a while now, but people today will ask her, “So….is cancer going to be the thing that kills you?” to which she often responds “Well I don’t know yet. Stay tuned for Season 2!”

The people who say such awkward things—and I’m certain most of us here have either been that person, or have been the one on the receiving end—are asking because they want to know: What’s the end of your story? (and, lying just behind that question, is another one: What’s the end of my story?)

Of course, this is the ultimate question, the one humanity has been asking since the beginning of time. But I feel it’s gotten tougher to deal with in recent years. In an age when we can binge-watch an entire series on Netflix over a weekend, or when we can watch a movie and, if it gets boring, at the same time Google the ending on your phone (maybe I’m the only one who does this?) not knowing the end is extra hard for us to handle. How are humans today supposed to deal with a cliffhanger like a cancer diagnosis? Or the rumors of war? Or pregnancy? Or an election season? Or…well, life in general?

As a child, I would often read faster than I could get my hands onto new books. So, imagine my joy (and my parents’ joy) when I discovered “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. Are any of you familiar with these? The writing was pretty terrible, but you would start a chapter, and then every so often would be given a choice to make: “If you open the door, go to page 15. If you want to leave it closed, go to page 18.” Oh, I loved these books, because the choices led to different endings each time. It was like having many books in one! I would read them over and over, enough that I could manipulate things to get the ending I preferred.

You see, I wanted to be in control of the ending.

But of course, we aren’t in control.

As Kate Bowler puts it, in relation to life after a cancer diagnosis: “Control is a drug, and we are all hooked.”

If you’re wondering where this sermon is going this morning, well here it is:

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

In this morning’s text from Revelation, John of Patmos shares the beginning of his spectacular vision, in which it is revealed that the Lord God, whom we have come to know through the person of Jesus Christ, is the Alpha and the Omega, both the beginning and the end.

And that means that this life is not exactly like “choose your own adventure”. Oh, we will have adventures! We will have adventures, for we have immense freedom through Christ Jesus—freedom from the wages of sin and death, but also freedom to live, to love, to serve God and neighbor. Our God is not a magic puppet master in the sky, Alleluia.

But just as in the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
and the Word was God, (John 1:1)

So also at the end of the day,
At the end of the world,
From the pilot episode to the series finale,
On every last page,
There is God.
The God of love is always the end of the story.
Every. Single. Time.

I know, it’s hard to trust this sometimes.
Perhaps most of the time.

It’s hard to trust that Christ the King of love reigns over all when we see what’s happening in Yemen, when we see what’s happening to people and the forests in California, when we see what’s happening in Gaza,
When we see a loved one struggling with cancer, when we ourselves are struggling, when we’ve messed it all up,
When we wonder how all this---how the world, how my world—will end.

But again: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” says the Lord God.
I am the beginning and the end.
Do not be afraid.
The Kingdom is near!
I will be with you to the end of the age.

In the church today—especially in our particular strain of mainline Protestantism—we chiefly think of Christian discipleship as being about what we do and how we live in the here and now. We teach and preach and practice all the hard things Jesus taught, and try to encourage one another that being a Christian is about more than believing the right things. It’s about living the faith. And this is right and good! We should indeed forgive, and show mercy, and feed the poor, and stand with the oppressed, and love our enemies, and seek to follow in the footsteps of Jesus our brother—today.

And…(not but, and…) there is another component of discipleship, and that is how we deal with the question of tomorrow.

Perhaps you don’t really believe that life is like a “Choose your own adventure” book. But I think many of us have absorbed the message that if we just do more, eat better, pray harder, wake up earlier, and color within the lines, we can control tomorrow. That we can, by the power of our positivity, will tomorrow to be the way we hope it to be.
We may even believe we, by our own power, can save the world.

But dear people: Today, on Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year, we gather to affirm Christ alone, not Caesar, as king of our lives. The empire is not king. The patriarchy is not king. White supremacism is not king. The military industrial complex is not king. The Occupation is not king. Amen!

On Christ the King Sunday we join our voices with the faithful of all times and places in demanding that every other false dictator step off the throne, take off the crown, and leave us be. Amen!

But you know what? You also are not king.

Neither your hard work for the sake of the kingdom, nor your brokenness and falling short of the kingdom, have any bearing on the ultimate outcome of this beautiful dance called Creation.

God’s got that.

The Lord God, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, Creator of the universe, is the one who puts the period at the end of every sentence.

And so, by our baptisms, disciples are called not only to join in the holy work of co-creating the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven,

We are also called to cultivate a holy trust that the God who was, and who is, and who is to come,
Will never let us go,
Will never let the story of the world end in fascism,
Or in bombs,
Or in bullets,
Or at the hands of any of the other false monarchs who periodically rise up and take an earthly throne.  

Believe me, I know it’s very hard some days to let go of control, or the illusion of control, and to trust that Christ is truly coming soon—of his own accord.

It can be hard to trust that, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it always bends toward justice.”

It can even seem foolish to believe the bold statement that often appears on the separation wall: “Love wins.”

And yet, the abundant hope that the Lord God Almighty is at the end of the story, no matter what happens in the messy middle, is what makes it possible for followers of Jesus to follow in his footsteps today:

To live boldly, to speak bravely, to love extravagantly, without fear.

I resonated so much with a passage in Kate Bowler’s book, where she relates that after her cancer diagnosis, a good friend encouraged her: “Don’t skip to the end.”

Don’t skip to the end: Don’t worry about the last page of the book!

That’s not easy.

So where do we find the hope and the courage to do that? To live in the here and now, to make the best decisions we can, to follow Jesus as best we can…and let God handle the rest?

Revelation 1 verse 7, at the end of today’s reading, says:
“LOOK! He is coming with the clouds. Every eye will see him.”

Friends, where do you see Christ coming near in your life?
Where do you find the blessed assurance that your story, too, will end in love?
Maybe it’s in the socks and chocolate a friend brings when you’re recovering from surgery.
Maybe it’s in the eyes of your new grandchild.
Maybe it’s in the joy and thrill of new love.
Maybe it’s in the persistence and resistance of our Palestinian neighbors, who refuse to let a wall be the end of their story.

Or maybe it’s in the old, old story,
the story of the God who was:  the one who sustained your ancestors and has never failed us yet,
in the story of the God who is: Christ, risen indeed,
And in the story of the God who is to come:
The One at the end of your story,
The One whose perfect peace keeps your heart and mind in Christ Jesus today and every day. Amen.  

Sunday, November 18, 2018

"Jesus: Our doula" : Sermon for Sunday 18 November 2018

Sermon for Sunday 18 November 2018

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.

2002, from my years working as a doula (labor and birth assistant) 

This summer, I took my 17-year-old son to the University of Chicago for a prospective student visit. It’s truly a beautiful campus, with large, stately buildings that make it seem you’re somewhere in the English countryside rather than the South Side of Chicago. As we walked along with the group, we noticed there were many buildings undergoing massive external renovations. The tour guide explained this is a constant problem and has to do with that pseudo-English countryside look. Apparently, when the millionaire John D. Rockefeller founded the school in 1890, he wanted it to seem as if it had been there for centuries—so he instructed the builders to use a stone treatment technique that would prematurely age the stones.

And—it worked! The buildings do look old.

And they are also falling down. That special aging process has been eroding the stones quickly from the very first day. It turns out the desire to have a new campus that looks centuries old has created a centuries-long maintenance nightmare. Of course, the university has a large endowment and plenty of alumnae who will donate to keep the buildings in good shape, but still—like every structure in our world that seems permanent, that seems to have stood forever—the new/old stones of the University of Chicago will one day come tumbling down.

Which brings us to this morning’s Gospel text from the 13th chapter of Mark. In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus called the disciples to his side to point out a widow putting her last two small coins in the temple treasury. “Truly, this poor widow has put in more than all the others,” he told them.

But immediately after, the disciples decided to point something out to Jesus. “Look, Teacher!” one of the disciples said. “What large stones and large buildings!”
Something tells me they didn’t really understand Jesus’ point about the widow and her tiny offering. In spite of his clear object lesson, the disciples were still impressed by the grand, by the ostentatious, by the expensive. They were still judging greatness by the world’s standards.

So Jesus asked them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

All will be thrown down!

For the disciples standing in the temple plaza, looking at the massive stones making up its foundation, and at the buildings of the area which must have been so much grander than anything in their fishing villages, such news must have sounded terrifying. Could the temple really be destroyed—and wouldn’t that be the end of everything? What kind of event could cause these great stones to fall? An earthquake? A war? The end of the world? And when will all of this happen?

Of course, they had questions! Of course, they wanted to know everything they could!

But Jesus didn’t provide them with the answers they wanted. Instead, he said:

“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

This is but the beginning of the birthpangs. In other words: When stones like these are thrown down, when such structures and institutions fall, for sure there will be chaos. It will probably hurt. It may feel like the end! But it’s not the end at all—it’s the beginning! Something new is about to be born.

That phrase from this morning’s text, “the beginning of the birth pangs”, has set me thinking this week about the years before church ministry, when I worked as a doula, or labor and birth assistant. Doula is a Greek word that means “slave” or “servant”, and we encounter it often in the Gospels, for example when Jesus says “Whoever wants to be great among you must be servant (doulos) of all.” (Mark 10:44)

But in the context of childbirth, a doula is one who accompanies a pregnant woman through labor and birth, walking by her side until the new baby is born. As I thought this week about Jesus’ comment about the “beginning of the birthpangs”, I remembered that I would often give expectant couples a questionnaire about their hopes for the labor process. The questions were all multiple choice, and I tried to make them a bit funny.

For example, the question about using pain medication during labor gave these possible answers:

A.    I don’t want it at all, ever. Don’t even give it if I beg for it!
B.     I hope I won’t need it, but I am open to it if needed.
C.     I definitely expect to use pain medication during active labor.
D.    I want an epidural when I arrive in the hospital parking lot!

Now, that last one was included for humor. But I was continually surprised at how many people would actually choose D: “I want drugs in the hospital parking lot!”

Whenever that happened, I knew we needed to have a heart-to-heart talk:

“Listen,” I would say. 

“I know the whole idea of labor and birth is scary. It will feel out of control. It will feel like everything you know is falling away, tumbling down around you. It’s tempting to want to bypass the hard stuff—but the truth is, there’s no such thing as pain-free birth. There’s no such thing as a labor-free labor! This is going to be hard, because all change is hard. But I will be with you the whole time.”

And then, in due time, the birthpangs would start, and I would rush to the mother’s side. It was always hard. It was always a bit out of control. And it was always beautiful to see new life come into the world.

Dear siblings in Christ, it feels like an out of control time in the world right now. There are wars in many places and rumors of war in many more—including right here between Israel and Gaza. Yemen is facing a horrifying humanitarian disaster. Nearly 10,000 homes have burned to the ground and more than 1,000 people are missing in Paradise, California (what a sadly ironic name!) Mass shootings have become so frequent it’s hard to keep track of them. The cumulative effect of these current events can surely make it feel like we are nearing the end—the end of time, the end of civilization, the end of the world as we know it. Sometimes all this suffering and chaos makes me join the disciples in asking Jesus, “Is this it, then, Teacher? Are these the signs of the end?”

But then I remember that other stones are falling, too.

Some structures that needed to be thrown down are finally being disrupted.

White supremacy, patriarchy, greed, xenophobia—all are having their foundations shaken. They aren’t going quietly, but they are going down

And this helps me to remember that when big changes happen, it always feels chaotic. It often does feel like the end. If a person felt the pain of labor and didn’t know a baby was on the way, of course you would be alarmed. Of course, you would wonder: “Is this the end?!”

But we have heard the Good News. We know Christ is crucified and He is risen. We have seen with our own eyes that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, and life is stronger than death! And so, we trust that God is indeed birthing something new into the world—which is the Kingdom God! The Kingdom of peace and justice, of equality, liberation and reconciliation, is being born as we speak—and we get to be part of the birthing process.

Yes, Jesus invites his disciples into the birth process of the Kingdom as active participants. In fact—and stay with me here—I believe Jesus is our doula, our birth assistant for this labor of love for the world. When it seems things are falling down around us, when our lives and the world feel chaotic, when we feel out of control and wonder what good could come of it all, Jesus is by our side to gently remind us:

Yes, this might get ugly.
It might get messy.
It might hurt. 
It has been, and will probably continue to be, a long, long labor.

But just breathe. Breathe deeply.
Trust the wisdom of your body and your heart—and trust the wisdom and witness of the saints who have gone before.
Lean on one another—as it is written in our lesson from Hebrews today:

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25)

Above all, Jesus our brother, Jesus our doula, encourages us:

Do not be led astray into fear or despair. Change is coming. Something new is about to be born—you, my disciples, you, my church, will be there when it happens! And I will be with you all the way.

Therefore, let us go forth with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that God’s hand is leading us and God’s love is supporting us, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

"A racist on a train, a hungry prophet, and the hard things God asks of us..." Sermon for Sunday 11 November 2018

Sermon for Sunday 11 November 2018
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.

Damascus Gate, Sunday morning 11 November 2018

Tuesday morning, 8:30 a.m., I stepped onto the train at the Ammunition Hill station and stood near the door, as usual. It’s only a 6-minute ride from there to Damascus Gate, so it’s usually best not to venture too far into the crowd of commuters and away from the exit. On this particular morning, however, there was a small boy already standing in my regular spot. He seemed only 5 or 6 years old, wearing a backpack and a kippah, clearly on his way to school. I found a place next to the boy, made a point to smile at him, adjusted my earbuds, and turned up the volume of the podcast I was listening to.

At the next stop, the doors opened again, and in walked a large, loud, man. He was also wearing a kippah, along with an American flag t-shirt and a very bad attitude. Because the train was now a bit packed, he had no choice but to stand exactly in front of me and the schoolboy…who instantly became the man’s source of interest.

“Are you Jewish??” he said, leaning into the small boy’s face. “I said, are you Jewish? You look Palestinian! Doesn’t he look Palestinian?”

This he said, apparently, to all the others in our general vicinity. Thankfully, it seemed the boy didn’t speak English, because the man’s rant continued, aimed at no one in particular:

“This is why we have a problem in Jerusalem! Anyone is allowed here now. We even have Japanese in Jerusalem now!”

At this point, I had turned down the volume on my podcast, but kept the earbuds in my ears. I wanted to hear the man and his little speech—and yet I didn’t. I wanted to do something—but knew I could do little in the 2 minutes left before arriving at Damascus Gate. Instead, I used all my superpowers to radiate “hush up” to this man with my eyes, my body, my spirit—and to hopefully communicate “I’ve got you” to the small boy next to me. I relaxed a bit only when I realized the boy was getting off at the same stop as me. Together, we stepped off the train and went opposite directions into the streets of Jerusalem, leaving the Ranting Racist to his ranting, and his racism.

Afterward, as I walked through the Old City to the church, I confess I didn’t have much Christian love in my heart, either for this city or for people in general. “Really, Jesus?” I was half praying, half ranting myself. “I need to love that guy? I need to see your image in that dude? I need to feed him, care for him, seek justice and peace and liberation even for him?”

And the answer I received was: Yes, Carrie. Yes, you do. Even for your enemies. Even him.


Sometimes the Lord asks us to do hard things.
Sometimes, the Creator of all beings says, “This, too, is a beloved child of mine.”

It was quite interesting, then, that after this train encounter the next thing on my schedule was our regular Tuesday morning prayer service and Bible study, during which time we studied 1 Kings and the story of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath.
Eight of us sat with our cappuccinos in the sun-bathed church courtyard and read,

The word of the LORD came to [Elijah,] saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

Now, I’ve heard the story of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath many times, and thought I knew it well. But Holy Scripture is a living Word, which means it can speak to us in new ways in different contexts and situations. On this particular Tuesday morning, the Widow of Zarephath sounded to me something like this:

“Really, Lord? Really, I’m supposed to feed this guy? I have nothing to feed my son, and I’m supposed to take care of this dude, who shows up asking for bread just as I’m gathering sticks to prepare my last meal?”

And the Lord said to the widow of Zarephath, through the prophet Elijah:

“Do not be afraid…the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.”

Wow, that sounds familiar, I thought as I sipped my cappuccino.

Just before worship at Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
11 November 2018

Sometimes the Lord asks us to do hard things. 

Sometimes we’re asked to figure out what it means to love even a racist who would harass a small child on a train!

And sometimes, we’re asked to give all that we have, even when it seems we have nothing left to give.

The Widow of Zarephath is often lifted up as a model of both hospitality and of obedience to God– and it’s true, she is both of those things. But it’s also true that she was at the end of her rope. She had reached the end of her reserves, literally. She had nothing left to give—or so she thought—even to a prophet of the Lord.

And I get that! Some days are just like that. In Jerusalem, many days are like that! Amen?

You’re just trying to get to work, and a ranting racist steps onto the train.

Or you’re trying to get to work, and you have to cross a checkpoint and show your ID and have a gun waved in your face.

You’re trying to offer your small part in the struggle for peace based on justice in Palestine and Israel…and far-away authorities in your home country cut funding, move offices, and undermine the work you’ve been doing.

Or you’re trying to offer your small part in the struggle for peace based on justice in Palestine and Israel…and when you turn on the news 12 people have been shot to death in your home country.


On days like these, when our reserves are empty, who can blame us for talking back to a prophet of God?

On days like these, when our reserves are empty, it can feel like all too much when Jesus shows up and says,

“Love your neighbor as yourself”
“Pray for your enemies”
“Feed my sheep”

and especially, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

How are we supposed to do these hard things, when the world and its brokenness seems to empty our pantry all the time?

Dear siblings in Christ, I confess that when I encountered that racist, ridiculous, beloved Child of God on the train this Tuesday, I wondered how I could possibly do what the Lord requires of me.

Can I really do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with my God?
Can I really see the image of God in every person?
Can I really follow Jesus, knowing that he leads us, his disciples, to the cross?
This stuff isn’t easy! Discipleship isn’t easy! Amen?

I wish I could stand here say “it gets better” or “it gets easier”. I wish I could tell you I went to seminary and got ordained and now I’ve got it all figured out. 

But the truth is, pastors don’t have it all figured out, and even our most beloved saints, activists, and peacemakers have known times when their reserves were gone, and their resolve was fading.

One of the most powerful examples for me is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who often received death threats for his work to achieve civil rights for Black Americans in the US.

In the book “Stride Towards Freedom”, we read about what he called his most profound spiritual experience, which took place late at night at his kitchen table:

Redeemer member Haddie Smith provides prelude music 
“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.

The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone."

Like the Widow of Zarephath, Dr. King felt he had nothing left to give. He had no bread baked, no meal, no oil. While he wasn’t preparing his last meal, he was surely considering this being his last night in the civil rights movement.

But then, Dr. King writes:

"At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever." Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything."

I hear in Dr. King’s account echoes of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath. When she challenged Elijah, saying, “I’ve got nothing!” the word she received from the prophet was, “Do not be afraid! Your meal will not run out. Your oil will not run out. Trust me.”

And when Dr. King took his fears and doubt to the Lord, the message was much the same:

“Do not be afraid! Trust me. You can do this.

Again and again, this is the message we receive through Holy Scripture. Whenever we feel weak, whenever the situation seems bleak, whenever we see only scarcity and emptiness in the world around us, the God of abundance shows up to pull us through.

When the pantry is empty,
When the peace process has stalled,
When the wall seems to be a permanent part of the landscape,
When mass shootings seem commonplace,
When racism and sexual assault and homophobia and hate have been given a pass even by elected leaders,
When a stone is blocking the entrance to Jesus’ tomb and his disciples can’t imagine how the dark night will ever end,

Then the God of light and life shows up to change the rules of the game—

and all are fed.
The oil never fails.
Walls fall.
The captives are freed.
The dead are raised. Thanks be to God! Amen!

In this way, the story of the Widow of Zarephath is a beautiful reminder that as people of faith, we aren’t called to assess the world’s situation and then decide how much we can do,
how much we can love our neighbor,
how far we can follow Jesus,
or how far we can go when trusting the Lord our God.

We do not judge what’s possible by statistics or polling data or even by what we have left in our kitchen pantry.

As today’s Psalm, number 146 states it:

Do not put your trust in princes,
   in mortals, in whom there is no help.  When their breath departs, they return to the earth;    on that very day their plans perish. 
   whose hope is in the Lord their God, 
who made heaven and earth,
   the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever; 
   who executes justice for the oppressed;
   who gives food to the hungry. 
   the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
   the Lord loves the righteous. 
The Lord watches over the strangers;
   he upholds the orphan and the widow,
   but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
The Lord sets the prisoners free.


Yes, God often asks us to do hard things. And often, we feel we have nothing left to give.

Sometimes, we’re ready to prepare our last meal, to throw in the towel and give up on the hope of peace, justice, equality, liberation, and love for all people.

And then…miraculously, we find that the jar of meal is full. The oil is replenished. Our energy is renewed! And by the grace of God, we have enough for one more day—one more day of loving. One more day of hoping. One more day of striving for a better future for all our neighbors.

Tuesday afternoon, St. Francis Road, near my hair salon. I’ve had prayer and Bible study. I’ve had a cappuccino and a good conversation with friends—and still, I’m not really in love with Jerusalem, or its people, or people in general. 

The memory of that awful morning train encounter is still at the forefront of my mind.

But then I look up and see a Muslim woman in hijab, leaning over and fussing with a plastic bag on the street. Soon, the bag starts to rise through the air. I realize it’s attached to a rope, and the rope reaches all the way up to the top floor window of the building next to us. When I look up, I see a Greek Orthodox priest I know, his head sticking out a window, slowly pulling the plastic bag up to his room via that rope.

What’s in the bag? I wondered. Probably lunch. And I’m hungry.

The priest, whom I recognize, sees me and smiles. “Hello, Sister!” he calls out, and waves to me as his lunch passes the windowsill and arrives to his quarters. “Ma’a Salameh. Go in peace!”  

The Muslim woman who had sent the lunch up did the same. “Ma Salameh, Sister!”

I walked away hungry for lunch… because I was certain my friend the priest knew what to order for lunch!

But I also walked away with a smile on my face, and feeling full.

I had been so depleted, so empty that day. I was so sick of humanity.

But in that moment, I felt full of hope, full of trust, full of confidence –
Confidence in the peaceful, just, diverse city of Jerusalem that really can exist someday,

And confidence in the Lord God, the God of our ancestors:

The God of Hannah and Elizabeth, whose prayers for children were answered,
The God of Peter and Mary Magdalene, who witnessed resurrection and light when it seemed the night would last forever,
The God of Dr. Martin Luther King, who received strength for the struggle when he needed it most,

And the God of the Widow of Zarephath,

Who thought she had nothing left to give,
Who wanted to give up,
But who trusted,
Who stepped out in faith,
and whose jar was never emptied,
Whose oil never ran out,
And whose witness of trust and obedience strengthens us for our struggle today.

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