Monday, December 24, 2018

Mary's midwife, catching the miracle: Sermon for Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2018

Dar Annadwa, Bethlehem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who is born here in Bethlehem this night. Amen.

A warm welcome to our honored guests and to our visitors from around the world! And a very special thank you to Pastor Munther Isaac and the local congregation of Christmas Lutheran Church for your hospitality. It is an honor and a privilege to be sharing a Christmas message of hope and joy with you tonight. 

A few days ago, it was announced that our neighbors down the street at Church of the Nativity have found a very modern way to deal with an age-old problem: they’re launching a phone app to manage the visiting crowds.
Now, it may sound strange to use an app to visit the birthplace of Our Lord, but if you’ve ever stood in that long line, waiting sometimes hours for your two minutes near the manger, then you understand the desire for such an innovation. There’s almost always a huge crowd gathered at Nativity Church, as Christians come from all over the world to kneel and pray at the spot where true peace was born, and where God’s love came to live among us.

But when it feels the entire world is packed into that tiny manger room with you, it can be a challenge to get into the Christmas spirit. In fact, it can be a challenge to move or even to breathe! Surrounded by so many other visitors, we might forget that the cave where Jesus was born was not a public space two thousand years ago. It was an intimate and sacred space, as all birthing rooms are.

Our brother Martin Luther imagined what that holy night and sacred space was like in his Christmas sermon from 1521, writing:

“There (Mary) is without any preparation, without either light or fire, alone in the darkness, without any one offering her service as is customary for women to do at such times. Everything is in commotion in the inn, there is a swarming of guests from all parts of the country, no one thinks of this poor woman.”

The young virgin Mary, giving birth alone in the dark, is a poetic notion, I suppose. But while I am certain there was no need for a phone app to deal with crowds lining up to enter her birthing room, neither do I think Mary was alone that night. Joseph was certainly nearby.

And because they had been in Bethlehem a few days already—and because Scripture tells us Joseph had family here—when the time came for the Christ Child to be born, there was most certainly someone else with them. 

And that someone was probably a midwife.

For sure, Mary’s midwife is not a standard piece of the nativity sets we use to decorate our homes during the Christmas season, but she does often appear in Ancient Orthodox and Byzantine icons of the event. Tradition names her Salome, and you can find her depicted in the corner or background of the manger scene. Sometimes she’s seen preparing something for Mary, sometimes she’s just observing quietly, and sometimes she’s giving the Baby Jesus his first bath!

While it’s true that Luke doesn’t mention the presence of a midwife in his account of the nativity, it’s not so hard to imagine that Mary invited one of the women of Bethlehem to be with her that night. It makes sense that there was another trusted person there—someone skilled in the practice of watching and waiting, of encouraging and comforting, and of catching in her hands the miracle that is every newborn baby.

Dear siblings in Christ, on this holy night in Bethlehem two thousand years later, we are the ones invited into sacred space. Like Salome, we have been invited into the birthing room with Mary!

To be clear, we are not doing the work of birthing the Savior and His light into the world. That is the work of God (with Mary playing a special part, of course!)

But neither are we invited into the birthing room as mere spectators. As we hear again the ancient story of Our Lord and Savior Jesus’ birth, we have the great privilege to accompany Mary through the night. We light candles and pray, and sing against the darkness of our human sinfulness, until the Light of the world is born, and the Dawn from on high breaks upon us. Like midwives—who are sometimes called “babycatchers”—our hands and hearts are open this night, ready to “catch” the miracle of God’s love, made flesh and living among us.

And then what? 

Anyone who has been present for the birth of a baby knows the experience changes you forever. Whether you are the parent or grandparent, the doctor or midwife, or a trusted sibling or friend invited into the birthing room, witnessing the moment when a new life enters the world transforms you. You are forever an integral part of that child’s story, as he or she is to your story.

And how much more transforming it is when that new life, that new baby, is the One who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace! 

What do you suppose life was like for Mary’s midwife Salome after the holy night when not only she, but the whole world, was changed forever? Did she continue to catch other babies? Did she become a preacher and teacher of the Gospel? What is life possibly like after you’ve stood near the manger, held the hand of Our Lord’s mother, and perhaps even given the Messiah his first bath?

Surely, hands which have held the Savior of the world will be active in caring for the vulnerable and the voiceless, building a just society based on dignity for all people.

Ears which have heard the Messiah’s first cry will be specially tuned to the cries of the poor and the refugee, the oppressed and the occupied.

Eyes which have seen the infant face of Emmanuel, God-with-us, will surely look upon neighbors, strangers, and even enemies as children of God worthy of love and mercy.

And a voice which has said with tenderness and joy, “Welcome to the world, little Child; welcome to the world, my Lord and Savior” will surely be lifted again, speaking against every form of injustice, prejudice, and hatred.

Of course, I’m imagining the post-nativity life of Mary’ midwife, but I’m also thinking about those of us gathered here tonight.

We who have come near to the manger, to see the One who has come near to us, have also been transformed. Our hands, too, have held a miracle. Our eyes and ears have witnessed something holy and beautiful this night. And now, like Salome, we have the privilege and the power to share that miracle of love with the world!

In fact, if all of us who are “babycatchers” this Christmas night,

If all whose hands and hearts have held the miracle of God’s love born among us,

If all whose voices have been raised to sing “He rules the world with truth and grace”,

would raise our voices together in joy on the day after Christmas,

we could even sing down the wall that surrounds this city, the city of Jesus’ birth.

Dear Christian friends, rejoice! Do not be afraid! For unto us is born this day a Savior, whose name is Jesus. He is the Babe in the manger. He is also the crucified and risen One. He is ascended into heaven, and he is coming again soon, to judge the world with righteousness. What a privilege and a joy it is that we—like Mary and Joseph, like the shepherds, and like Mary’s midwife Salome—have been invited to be integral parts of Jesus’ story and the story of God’s love for the world. 

Me, Rev. Mitri Raheb, Bishop Emeritus Munib Younan, Rev. Munther Isaac
Christmas Eve 2018 in Bethlehem

As you leave this holy and sacred space tonight, I pray you will go and tell it on the mountain, that Peace is born! Justice is born! Love is born!
Thanks be to God, Jesus the Messiah, is born!

Merry Christmas! 
Kul sane wa intou salmeen!
Frohe Weihnachten!

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

Sunday, December 9, 2018

"Let every heart prepare him room" Sermon for 2 Advent

Sermon for Sunday 9 December 2018
2 Advent

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.

One evening about a week ago, I went to bed feeling very excited about the next day. It wasn’t because of what was on my schedule, but because of what was not on my schedule. My calendar for the next day showed only one appointment. Just one thing, all day! It was like a little Christmas miracle – or, more accurately, an Advent miracle. I drifted off to sleep imagining those hours and hours of unscheduled time: time to prepare upcoming Advent and Christmas Eve sermons, time to plan worship, time to get a little ahead of the Christmas rush.

And then….you can probably imagine what happened. My unscheduled Advent Miracle was somehow taken over. Forgotten errands, surprise visitors, and internet interruptions all conspired against my hopes for writing time, until soon the day was ended. There had been no time to write, no time to plan, no time even to stand up from my desk. I went to bed that night feeling a bit anxious, knowing Christmas was one day closer, and I was not at all prepared.

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” proclaims the prophet John. John himself is the one who was foretold, the voice crying out in the wilderness, the one who by his preaching prepared the way for Jesus’ life and ministry—but these words are meant for us, not for him. “Prepare the way,” preaches John. The Lord is coming. Things are about to change! And we have work to do before He gets here. But what does that look like?

We know what it looks like to prepare for Christmas with family and friends. There’s baking and cooking, cleaning and shopping. For those of us living far from home, there are travel arrangements to make. For students, there are end of semester papers to write and exams to take.

But this holiday busyness isn’t the preparation John’s talking about.

Scripture tells us John went all over the region preaching a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins. That doesn’t sound much like decking the halls, does it? Preparing for the Lord’s coming, according to John, is not about adding ornaments to make the world look prettier, or hanging lights to make our lives look less broken. Rather, we prepare be the way by removing obstacles that stand in the way of receiving Jesus and his message—especially the ones in our hearts.

At our Tuesday morning prayer service here at Redeemer, one of the worshipers was surprised to see “Joy to the World” located in the Advent section of our Lutheran hymnal. “Isn’t this a Christmas song?” she asked.

True, it is usually sung at Christmas. But I suspect “Joy to the World” made its way into the Advent section of our hymnal because of one line in the first verse:
(Sing it with me, and see if you can recognize the Advent bit…)

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And Heaven and nature sing…

“Let every heart prepare Him room…” What does a heart prepared for Jesus look like? What does it look like to make room for Jesus?

I know there’s a lot of stuff in my heart that has to go.

One of those things that needs to be cleared out is judgment of others. To be honest, living in Jerusalem has not helped in this regard. I find that walking through the Holy City cultivates really unholy things in my heart. I’m constantly judging others, trying to put them in the right place. What religion are you? What language do you speak? Do we share the same political views? Are you a tourist, and if so, are you going to walk slowly in front of me the whole way to work, or might you move out of the way soon?

Another thing that could go so that my heart can prepare room for Jesus is despair over the state of the world. I’m not sure, really, that humanity is any worse today than it has been in past centuries. There has always been war. There has always been hatred. There has always been greed and indifference and oppression. But wow, today we are confronted with it constantly. Our brokenness is on full view, live streamed and tweeted so we don’t miss a single awful moment. Often, my broken heart takes a turn and becomes a cynical one, a self-concerned and self-protecting one, maybe even a fearful one.

And yet: “Do not be afraid” says Jesus. “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”

So, what does it look like to prepare the way? What does it look like to prepare Him room in our hearts?

It looks like repentance. It means naming and acknowledging the stuff that lives in our hearts, the stuff that is not from God but is from our own fear and self-interest. John preached a baptism of repentance and forgiveness to prepare the way, because we can’t really hear or receive the Good News that in Christ, our sins are forgiven, if we have not acknowledged that we need forgiveness. We can’t receive the Good News that by our baptisms, we have eternal life—if we still think we will live forever by our own willpower. We can’t receive the Good News that every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; if we have not confessed the ways we admire and even worship the mighty, the crooked, and the rough in the world.

For this reason, each week (or nearly each week) we begin our Sunday liturgy with a prayer of confession. Before we sing, before we pray, before we hear the Scripture and (hopefully) hear a sermon that proclaims Jesus, crucified and risen, confess our sins. We begin with a moment of honesty about our brokenness—both the brokenness of the world, and of our hearts and lives. In this way, we prepare room in our hearts to hear the Good News that in Christ we are made whole.

Of course, it’s one thing to join in a corporate prayer of confession at the beginning of a worship service. It’s another thing to truly repent, to really face our individual need to be forgiven. It’s not always easy to forgive – but it can be even harder to be forgiven.

Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote,

 “In forgiving we are still in control, “I forgive you.” But to be forgiven by you means first of all I have to say ,“I’m sorry. There is something that I didn’t do for you.” That is hard and puts me in a vulnerable position, in a dependent position. I have handed you over for suffering…Somehow I have failed you.  I am sorry I failed you. I am sorry that I was the kind of mother, or father, or friend, or brother, or sister, or neighbor, whatever that I wanted to be. Can you forgive me? It is not just asking the individual. It is having the ability to say, “God, can you forgive me?” Can I be open to forgiveness? Then your heart can move from the hardened heart to a heart of flesh.”  

One week about a decade ago, when I was an intern pastor in Chicago, I was asked to give the sermon while my supervising pastor was out of town. I was very excited, as it was one of the first times I had preached. I spent the whole week preparing—reading commentaries, translating from the Greek, consulting with fellow seminarians, even memorizing the entire Gospel text.

When Sunday morning rolled around, I got up early and prepared my kids for church, too. They were about 8 and 10 years old, and not always easy to get out the door. But this morning, I was on it. We got in the car and started the long drive from Chicago’s south side to the north side, where the church was located.

Traffic was not too bad, and I was feeling pretty proud of myself, so as a treat for the kids I stopped at Dunkin Donuts. Why not? It would take a few minutes, but I was prepared for the day.

I had just pulled away from the drive-thru window when my phone rang. It was the church.

“Carrie, you all right?”
“Yep!” I said, cheerfully. “Just down the road. Stopped for donuts.”
“Um, ok” said the voice on the other end. “We were just wondering, since it’s about time for the sermon to start. Should we sing another hymn?”

And then I realized: In all my preparation, I had forgotten to set my clock ahead. It was time to “Spring Forward”. The Sunday service was well under way, and I was eating a donut.

I hung up the phone and drove as quickly (and safely) as possible to the church. I felt terrible. The closer I got to the church, the more my stomach hurt. I was prepared for disappointed looks and harsh words and wondered if this might even mean I would fail my internship.

But as I walked into the worship space and stepped sheepishly into the pulpit, prepared for hearing condemnation, the congregation just said “Good morning, Carrie! How were the donuts?” There were smiles and laughter all around. And many month of teasing…

Love was born there that day.
Grace was born.
Forgiveness was born.
Jesus was born in the church and in my heart that day… and his love was so much more than I was prepared for.

Let us pray:
We praise and thank you, Creator God, for you have not left us alone. Each year you come to us, Emmanuel, God with us in a manger. Each time you come to us in the broken bread and the cup we share. In time or out of time, you will be revealed, and we shall see you face to face. Prepare our hearts to receive you. Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

"What do you expect?" Sermon for 1 Advent

“What do you expect?”
Sermon for 1 Advent 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.

One morning here at Redeemer church, our church receptionist called my office from the front desk to say, “Assisseh, there is a woman here who needs some help. Can you come?”

So I put aside my sermon writing for a moment and went out to greet the unexpected visitor. I started to introduce myself, but as soon as the words left my lips, she launched into her own introduction, which was fast and loud and would have filled several pages had it been written down.

She was from Argentina. She was very happy to be in Jerusalem. It was her first time in the Holy Land. She loved Jesus—very much. She wanted to arrange a Catholic Mass at Redeemer Church for her large group of pilgrims.

And, she was quite eager to add, her priest, Fr. Gustavo, is a personal friend of Pope Francis.

And with that, she stopped to take a breath, and looked at me with bright-eyed anticipation. I could tell she expected that last comment would seal the deal.
“That’s great!” I replied. “Of course, you can have a church service here.”

“ know this is a Lutheran Church, right?”

As these words sunk in, I watched her face fall and her eyes fill up with tears.
“Lutheran? Oh no!”

“But the priests at the Holy Sepulcher yelled at me and said to get out! No reservation, no Mass. Only the Greeks were nice to me, and they said to come here!”

And then her next words came out with little sobs: “Lutheran! Now what will I do?”

I looked at our receptionist, and then back to the crying woman.
“Come with me,” I said.

I took her arm and accompanied her out of the church, around the corner, and down the Via Dolorosa, until we reached the (not-Lutheran) Ecce Homo Convent.

 “Can you help my new friend to schedule a Catholic Mass here?” I asked their front desk receptionist.

Of course, she was more than happy to help, and was immediately busy making arrangements. Our visitor from Argentina was already talking a mile a minute about her group, and about the priests at the Holy Sepulcher, and of course about Fr. Gustavo—who, you may have heard, is a personal friend of Pope Francis.  

I stepped outside the Convent, but when I was almost out of earshot, I heard the woman exclaim,

“You know, I asked God to send me an angel, but I didn’t expect a Lutheran one!” 

Dear friends, today marks the beginning of Advent, the season of expectation. Each year the church takes this 4-week journey together, waiting in hope for Christmas as well as for the second coming of Christ Jesus, the Living Lord. During these weeks before Christmas we sing songs of expectation, and light candles in expectation, and pray prayers of expectation. We decorate trees and hang lights and prepare food in expectation.

Which all begs the question: What do we expect?

Be alert, says Jesus. Be on guard.
But for what?
What are we expecting? Do we expect anything at all?

Some days, it feels we can’t expect much.

I admit that my expectations of elected leaders are pretty low these days. It feels like a good day, for example, when the president of my home country doesn’t say (or tweet) something overtly racist or sexist or xenophobic.

The same could be said about my expectations for the peace process here in Palestine and Israel. At the St. Andrew’s Day celebration at the Scottish Church Thursday evening, I spoke with a diplomat who painted a picture of impending doom for the two-state solution—which, to be fair, is not really news. In recent months, however, people seem to say the word “Oslo” with a wistfulness as if Norway itself had ceased to exist. The days when a viable Palestinian state was something to be expected in our lifetime now seem like a dream.

On the other hand, what we probably can expect, based on recent weather patterns, is extreme cold or extreme snow or extreme heat (and probably all of the above) during the next year, as our planet continues to show symptoms of the disease of climate change—even as many continue to ignore the signs.

And here we are, beginning the season of expectation.

As we decorate the trees, light the candles, and sing the songs of Advent, are we just going through the motions, or do we truly expect something of ourselves, of the world, of God?

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells the disciples exactly what to expect. First, he says, we can expect some turmoil:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25-26)

But then—Jesus says we can expect something else:

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:27)

In other words: yes, the world is a mess—and Jesus is coming again soon.
Yes, humans continue to worship empire and seek power over others—and the kingdom of love, peace, and dignity is near.
Yes, creation itself is wounded by human greed and excess—and the redemption of the world, and of all our messes, is on its way.

What can we expect? We can expect that Jesus,
the Son of Man,
Prince of Peace,
Our Morningstar,
Will not leave us abandoned,
Will not let the story end this way.
Jesus is coming soon! 
And Love, says Jesus, is what you can expect. AMEN!

I really want to believe this. And most days I do! I mean, I wouldn’t be a pastor of the church if the hope of redemption and love and peace for all people and all of the cosmos didn’t live in my heart.

But it is tough sometimes, isn’t it? It’s much more reasonable to expect that things will remain the same, that people will continue to be terrible, that the wall will continue to stand, that justice will never be born—in Palestine, or anywhere else.

And yet, Jesus says: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” 

Scripture tell us Jesus is coming! The Kingdom is coming! God’s peace and justice, redemption and reconciliation are on the way! 

But just how do we believe it, how do we trust it, how do we keep expecting love when the world gives us every reason to expect otherwise?

The short parable Jesus shares in today’s Gospel lesson gives us a hint. Jesus says:

“Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

Of course, the cynic in me wants to say: 
You know, sprouting leaves are signs of spring, not summer. 

In fact, sometimes sprouts are only signs that there’s another snowstorm, or rainstorm, or a terrible springtime cold on the way. We know from experience that when you see those first leaves growing, it can still be a long, long way to summer!

And still, says Jesus, look for the sprouts. Look for the green things. Look for signs of life. Then draw near to the places and the people who are themselves signs of the coming kingdom of God.

Dear friends, this is what Advent is about. It’s an intentional time of noticing the trees, of paying attention to the sprouts. Even though in our part of the world this church season comes during the rainy season, still the church spends these four weeks drawing near to God and to the seeds of life and love God has planted in our midst.

We do this, because sometimes waiting joyfully and expecting hopefully comes easy.

And often it doesn’t. 

The world has a way of clouding our vision, of convincing us that the manger will remain empty, and the stone will remain at the entrance to the tomb, and the long dark night will never end.

And that’s why we need Advent!
We need to gather as a community,
And share food,
And sing hymns,
And hear the words of the prophets,
And light candles against the night.
We need to pray.

And we need to practice—practice seeing the trees.
Practice noticing the sprouts.
We need to practice expectation—so that the rest of the year, in every season, in times of joy and times of sorrow, we will remember that we can joyfully expect Jesus to be born again in our hearts, and can confidently expect the Kingdom of God to be born fully into our broken world.

Let us pray:
Advent Prayer

In our secret yearnings
we wait for your coming,
and in our grinding despair
we doubt that you will.
And in this privileged place
we are surrounded by witnesses who yearn more than do we
and by those who despair more deeply than do we.
Look upon your church and its pastors
in this season of hope
which runs so quickly to fatigue
and in this season of yearning
which becomes so easily quarrelsome.
Give us the grace and the impatience
to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes,
to the edges of our fingertips.
We do not want our several worlds to end.
Come in your power
and come in your weakness
in any case
and make all things new.

― Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann