Sunday, July 7, 2019

Harvest of Weeds: Service for Sunday 7 July 2019

Sermon for Sunday 7 July 2019

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

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

There was a time in my life when a field full of dandelions seemed like a bumper crop of pure joy. I loved their brilliant yellow-orange color, and the way they sprouted up like magic overnight, and of course I loved the way you could pluck them, split their stems, and chain them together as necklaces, bracelets, even crowns befitting a king or a queen. And if that field of gold happened to stand untouched for a few days, all the better. For then it became a field of snow—fluffy white spores just waiting for a good puff of air to be transformed into wishes.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but one day I looked outside the window of my house in suburban Chicago and when I saw a golden field of dandelions, I didn’t experience joy. Instead, I thought about weedkiller and my lawnmower. I thought about the upcoming Saturday, and how my mission would have to be ridding the lawn of these pests in order to be socially acceptable to the neighbors. One day, dandelions were no longer a joy-filled harvest—they were merely a problem to be solved.

Dear people, I admit that when I read this week’s Gospel text from Luke about the bountiful harvest and the seventy laborers, I was a bit bored. There’s something about standing in the midst of a military conflict and announcing that the Christian mission is tough, and that not everyone wants to hear a message of peace based on justice, and that reconciliation and living together are sometimes a dangerous thing to preach and proclaim, which seems a bit like…old news. It’s not that folks who live and work here in the Holy Land don’t need to hear it again (because certainly we all can stand to hear it again)—'it’s just that we know this truth well. We live it.

Nevertheless, I started to work on just that sort of sermon earlier in the week.

And then, on July 4th, I started watching the latest season of “Stranger Things” with my kid, and I was taken in again by the idea of the “upside down”—the alternate reality that keeps breaking into the world of that television show. (If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry—just imagine that the regular world, this one, sits atop another world we usually don’t notice, but which can periodically break in and disturb our comfortable patterns.)

I wondered to myself what would happen if I read this text in an upside-down way. In other words:

What if the Good News is not that the Seventy were sent, but that there is a harvest in the first place?

In fact, maybe it’s not that upside-down to hear the Good News as simply this: the harvest is plentiful. God has provided soil, and seeds, and rain, and sunshine. God has nurtured and cared for a beautiful crop of vegetables and wheat and soybeans and sunflowers and dandelions and fields of fruit we can’t imagine.

The harvest is plentiful. God has cultivated beautifully diverse fields of humanity on our own streets and towns, and in Mexico, and in Iran, and in North Korea, and on both sides of the separation wall here in Palestine and Israel.

The harvest is plentiful—and here’s the thing we often forget: the harvest doesn’t become any more beautiful or bountiful or worthy once a missionary gets ahold of it. Its worth is not determined by my labors, or by yours, or by the church’s. Every field, every flower, is beautiful and worthy—and loved—because God planted them and nurtured them—not because I preached to them, or plucked them up, or fashioned them into necklaces and bracelets and crowns that fit my agenda and my purposes.

The harvest is plentiful. God’s creation is amazing. Humanity is amazing. YOU are a amazing. This is Good News. Full stop! Amen!

OK, but also this Scripture text tells us there are laborers commissioned by Jesus. Just a few, compared to the vast harvest God has cultivated.

And these laborers—let’s just assume that you and I might be some of them—are sent out into God’s abundant fields to gather folks in. Following the spirit of the instructions given to the Seventy, we know that we are to travel lightly. We’re not to go alone, but to take others with us. We are to accept hospitality, and perhaps stay long enough to get to know the culture of the place and the people.

And, if when we offer peace, that peace is returned to us, we are advised to wipe the dust off our feet and move on.

And here is where I think we (the church) often get confused.

We read those words about “wiping the dust off our feet” and some of us think: “OK, so our job is to map the world, to establish borders, to set the boundaries of God’s love. We’ll preach here, and here, and here.” (Or, more likely…we’ll invite people from there and there and there to come to us on Sunday morning!)

We will invite them, and we will preach to them. Some will come to church, and some won’t. Some will accept the message, and some won’t. But then…we’ll be able to draw a map. We’ll be able to say:

Here’s the field where some potential church members are.
And over here—here are the Muslims.
Here is the queer community.
Here the immigrants.
Here are the ones who didn’t vote like us.
Here are the towns, the neighborhoods, the people we can write off, we can shake off, for they are not like us, they have not listened to us, they don’t know our hymns, and most of all—they make us uncomfortable.

So we shake the dust off our feet as a way of saying: Probably these folks aren’t even part of God’s harvest at all.

But listen: Our mission is not to determine who is worthy to be harvested and who is not. The harvest is the harvest, and it is already beautiful and worthy, by virtue of being planted and nurtured and loved by God the Creator.

The harvest is plentiful. Jesus did not tell the Seventy to build walls or set borders or to be surveyors of God’s farmland, establishing “us” and “them”, but always to simply and clearly proclaim “peace” and “the kingdom of God has come near.”

This is what the Seventy were sent to do, and this is what the church today is sent to do.

We are sent to do this because there’s a good chance some don’t know they are beautiful.

We are sent to do this because so many don’t know there’s a loving farmer who each day nurtures and loves them.

We are sent to do this because there are some gorgeous dandelions out there who have been told they are outsiders,
They’re not the right color,
They’re a little too extra,
They’ve crossed borders without permission,
who have been told they must change before God loves them (or at least before the church receives them)
who have been told they are weeds,

and haven’t heard that really, they’re golden balls of sunshine, jewels in the crown of Christ, crucified and risen, who in great love emptied himself for the sake of every stalk of corn, every olive, every one of us in every field on earth.

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. And so the church is called to keep preaching, to keep loving, to keep expanding the borders, to keep setting chairs at the table, to keep on keeping on for the sake of Christ, who on the cross opened his arms to all.

Dear siblings in Christ, dear fellow laborers for the kingdom,

I hope each of you goes out this week, boldly proclaiming peace to all you encounter. I hope those of you who have been here on a Holy Land pilgrimage will especially share the ways you’ve seen that the Kingdom of God has come near in this place—through the witness of Palestinian Christians, of peace activists, of the many Israelis and Palestinians of good conscience who are dedicated to justice and reconciliation in this land. The harvest is indeed plentiful! Thanks be to God.

But listen: If you are part of the harvest that’s been left behind or ignored
If you’ve been trampled or poisoned by judgment
If you’ve gone to seed waiting for someone to see you as beautiful and worthy,
Or for the church to make a place for you,
I hope you can hear these words today:

Peace be with you. Christ’s peace be upon you.
Know that you are an integral part of God’s creation, and of God’s mission in the world. The harvest is plentiful—and so is God’s love. So is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And so is the bread and the wine, through which the kingdom of God comes near, and which you, beloved, are invited to receive today.

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

Sunday, June 16, 2019

"Closer I am to fine" Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2019

Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday 2019
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

Apricots (mish mish) for sale at Damascus Gate
Sunday 16 Jun 2019

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

Who is God? Who am I?
What is God doing here?
What am I doing here?

These questions are often on the hearts and minds of people who spend time in the Holy Land. Whether you’re here for a week, or a year, or much longer—and whether you admit it or not—most folks come to this place looking for answers, or at the very least for some kind of spiritual experience.

And this is completely normal. Where else would you go to seek clarity about God, or about yourself? It makes perfect sense to think that time spent walking and praying in the land where Jesus Christ, God-made-flesh, was born, was crucified, and was raised from the dead, would result in some special insight into the way God works in the world and in our lives.

But…if you’ve spent any time here at all, you know that most people leave this place with more questions than answers.

I can’t count the number of pilgrims I’ve had in my office, tears in their eyes, describing how they came with great hopes for a once-in-a-lifetime Holy Land experience, only to be bitterly disappointed—by the tour company, by the weather, by the political situation, or by the realization that this land we call holy is just as unholy as the one they came from.

A few weeks ago, we welcomed a large group from the United States here to Redeemer, and one of the guests had some special words for me after the service. He said, “Carrie, I met you last summer at our church assembly in Massachusetts. Maybe you remember me—I asked you a very simple question about Israel and Palestine and you gave me a very complex answer…”

“Right…” I said.

“Well” he continued, “I’ve been here for three days, and now I understand why you answered that way. This place is complicated!


This place is indeed complicated—politically, religiously, geographically, historically.
And it is also very simple. This city, this place, this land, is like any other—it’s filled with people who, in spite of their differences, simply want to live and to love, to work and to pray, to create a future for their children, and to sleep well at the end of the day.

Now, in the same way, God can seem very complicated—maybe especially here in Jerusalem, and especially on Holy Trinity Sunday. Because this day is set aside in the church year to reflect on God’s three-in-oneness and one-in-threeness, I could spend the next 12 to 15 minutes telling you how God is like a three-leaf clover, like three forms of water, or like different parts of an apple. I could talk about Modalism and Arianism, Docetism and Adoptionism and various other heresies, impressing you with all I learned in seminary about who God isn’t and how God doesn’t work. I could have us all recite the ancient Athanasian Creed out of the hymnal, which takes about 5 minutes to say, is only ever used on Holy Trinity Sunday, and which one of my clergy friends admits she “hates with the fire of a thousand suns.”

I could make God very, very complicated this morning.

Or, I could tell you about sitting in my garden on Thursday evening,
writing a Trinity sermon while the sun was setting,
The smell of jasmine filling the air,
The kitten chasing her tail at my feet,
A glass of bourbon within reach.

And I could tell you how, mysteriously, these words of the psalmist:

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, what are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them?” (Psalm 8)

Started to mingle with the lyrics from the playlist on my phone:

“The less I seek the source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine”

And how suddenly, in that beautiful moment of being alive,
God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
God the three-in-one and one-in-three,
God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,
became both very, very near,
and very, very simple.  

Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff once wrote:

“Reason is not the only way into the heart of the Trinity. There is also the imagination. Through it we grasp better the existential meaning that the Blessed Trinity has for our life. It is through our imagination that we realize that the human person, the family, community, society, church, and cosmos are signs, symbols, and sacraments of the Trinity.”  (Holy Trinity, Perfect Community, Boff, p.114)

…the human person, the family, community, society, church, and cosmos are signs, symbols, and sacraments of the Trinity…

My Holy Trinity sermon did not get finished that evening in the garden.

In fact, words failed me completely after a moment, so I just closed my computer and called it a day.

But that’s ok.

That’s ok, because really a loving God doesn’t want or need to be explained.
God certainly doesn’t want or need to be “church-splained” which is what we preachers sadly so often do from the pulpit on Trinity Sunday.

God wants to be lived, and to be loved.
God wants to be experienced.

And so it seems to me the best way to celebrate the Holy Trinity—on Holy Trinity Sunday, or on another other day of the year—is to sing “Holy, holy, holy”,
To breathe the morning air,
To write a poem,
To run as fast as our legs can take us,
To hug the ones we love,
To let the tears flow,
To bake a cake,
To laugh until our bellies ache,
To share a meal,
To use our imaginations,
To use the bodies God gave us.

And perhaps the best way to get to know the Trinity,
Is not to read the best books of theology,
Or to look for the perfect words or the cleverest analogies to explain God,
But to get to know other people,
And to pour out our whole selves in love for God’s creation,
Just as God’s love for us has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit.

Dear Jeni and Colin, Courtney and Genna, Katie and Calla, Hannah, Phifer, and Eli,
Today we gather not only to celebrate the Trinitarian God, but to celebrate, bless and send you all on your way. The ELCJHL, and the ELCA, give thanks for the year of service the Young Adults in Global Mission have offered, and for the four years of mission service Jeni and Colin have given here in the Holy Land. During your time here, you have come to know and love the people of this land—and therefore, you have come to know and love God in new ways.

One of the things I can tell you is that when you return to the United States, there will be folks who expect you to have special knowledge not only about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but about God. They’ll want to know what it was like to “walk where Jesus walked.” They will probably ask you to pray at every family gathering from now until you’re 80 years old. Be forewarned.

This can be a lot of pressure! Because, well, as you know—it’s complicated.
This place is complicated. Your feelings about your time here, and about leaving here, are no doubt complicated.

Your feelings about God, as you leave here, may also be complicated.

So hear again some wise words from Leonardo Boff:

“The Blessed Trinity is a sacramental mystery. In other words, it is something that appears in many signs, that can always be more known, yet our effort to know never ends.” (p. 115)

Our effort to know God never ends.

In other words—Holy Trinity Sunday is not the period at the end of the sentence about God, the day when everyone in church walks saying “Aha! I’ve got it now! Thanks for explaining God to me, Pastor!” Rather, the hope is that all of us who are gathered here today will leave having had an experience of God’s oneness, of God’s nearness, of God’s mystery, our imaginations primed to notice God’s unfolding story in our lives through Jesus, crucified and risen and through the gift of the Spirit into our hearts.

And in the same way, dear Jeni and Colin, dear YAGM, know that this is not the period at the end of your story with the Holy Land, either, or with the friends you have come to know and to love here.

You may not know what to say about it yet. Words may fail you.
That’s ok.
Today, maybe all you can do is sing, and give thanks, and dream about what the next sentences in life and in your walk of faith will be.

Maybe all any of us can do, on any day, is the same:

Maybe all we ever can do is give thanks to the One who is the Lord our Lord, whose name is majestic in all the earth, and whose glory is chanted above the heavens (Psalm 8),

Who has loved us all the way to the cross,
Who has defeated death through the empty tomb,
Whose ways often seem more than we can ever know or understand—
And who nevertheless shows up for us in the simplest and most surprising of ways:
through community,
through friendship,
through song,
through bread and wine shared around the table,

and, I would even say, through apricots,
which, like God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
like peace,
like joy,
like new love,
seem to show up just when we thought they never would,
just when the world seems too complicated,
just when we need their simplicity and sweetness the most.

Let us pray:

May God the Father bless us;
may Christ take care of us;
the Holy Ghost enlighten us all the days of our life.
The Lord be our defender and keeper of body and soul,
both now and for ever, to the ages of ages. Amen.

(Æthelwold c 908-984)

Sunday, June 9, 2019

"A Spirit of Belonging" -- Pentecost Sunday 2019

Sermon for Day of Pentecost
9 June 2019

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

Jerusalem, Pentecost 2019. Where I belong (for now)

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

It’s graduation season, and this year I’m about to set a child free into the world. Thanks be to God, Amen!

I’ve done it once before, when my older son went off to college. But also, in a way, I’ve done it many times. It’s not my first rodeo, as some might say! There was the first day of preschool. And kindergarten. And first grade, and all the grades up to and including high school. There were also the church camps and the overnight sleepovers and the international school trips.

The graduating child is actually in Budapest right now with seven other 18 year olds…
But I’m fine, really.

As a parent, anytime you watch your kids move on or move up, you just hope, hope, hope, you’ve done enough.  I mean, I know I haven’t taught him everything he’ll need. Life will have to fill in the gaps where my imperfect parenting failed.

But I think he knows a few crucial things:

He knows I held him when he was sick. Rocked him when he was sad. Carried him around for years and years in a cloth sling—first nestled against my chest in a little bundle, and then balanced on my hip well beyond when my back said “nope.”
He knows I cared for bumps and bruises, broke up sibling wars, and made countless sandwiches and Friday pizzas.
He knows I was always there for a hug before school in the morning, even when he didn’t want or need one.
He knows (I hope) that I’m not perfect, but I tried my best.

Most of all, my son knows I hope) that he can trust me, and can trust my love for him. He knows where, and with whom, he can always find belonging.

Dear siblings in Christ, it’s Pentecost today, which means we’re celebrating the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church. We heard from the Acts of the Apostles the account of how, when the Spirit fell on the disciples, they received the gift of tongues, giving them the ability to share the Good News of Christ’s resurrection with the world. This is how we normally think about Pentecost, and probably what most people think of when we talk of “receiving the Holy Spirit.” But our reading from the Book of Romans reminds us that the Spirit we receive is also a spirit of adoption.

Paul writes:

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.

In other words, possessing the Spirit, the spirit of adoption, means we have a spirit of belonging. We are not slaves, we are not visitors in the household of God. We are beloved children and heirs of the kingdom.

Because this Spirit of adoption is with us, and goes with us wherever we go, we know where we can always find belonging: In the shadow of the cross. In the light of Easter morning. In the arms of God, our loving Parent.

Possessing this Spirit of belonging is no small thing, especially when we’re not sure where or even if we belong:

when we go off to university and try to find our way, try to find our people
when we move to a different country or start a new job, and everything feels foreign and new
when we are between relationships, between life stages, between sickness and health, between faith and doubt
when we’ve been rejected, or felt rejected, by family, by friends, even by the church,
or when we are on the edge of something, about to leap into something new—a new project, a new way of thinking, a new way of relating to others—and wonder if there will be anything, or anyone, to catch us on the other side.

These are the moments when a spirit of fear creeps in, nudging us toward apathy, toward loneliness, toward self-protection and all that comes with it—often prejudice, walls, even war with others.

But the Apostle Paul says:

“You have not received a Spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a Spirit of adoption.” You belong somewhere! You belong to someone.

Thanks be to God for the Spirit, who shows us up to remind us of this, to remind us of all Jesus taught us, of that that Scripture has taught us:

That you have been loved since before you were knit together in your mother’s womb;
That on the cross Jesus suffered with you and for you;
That Jesus will be with you unto the end of the age,
And that through Jesus, crucified and risen, there is forgiveness, and more forgiveness, and more forgiveness, as much as you need.

The Holy Spirit is the one whispering in your ear that no matter what the world says, or how scary it is, you are a beloved child of God, and there is nothing you can do, nothing you can say, nothing you can be, nowhere you can go, that would make you un-beloved. The Spirit, by Her very presence, reminds you that you belong.

This Spirit, being the Spirit, often shows up in unexpected ways and through unexpected people.

This week, as I thought about sending my son off to college, I remembered an experience from my own college years. When I was twenty years old, I had the chance to study in Germany for a year.

I was there to study music and to learn German, but the first new language I learned to speak there wasn’t German. It was public transportation. Public transit is something that just didn’t exist in the small Oklahoma town where I went to high school. Your choice for getting around where I came from was essentially a choice of “vehicle”: car or truck.

But in one 24-hour period on my journey to Germany, I experienced my first overseas plane trip, my first train, first street car, and first taxi ride. Then, once my bags were unpacked at my hosts’ home, they asked if I’d like to accompany their daughter at her rowing lesson. Soon, there I was, in my first rowboat, rowing down the Rhine River.
Needless to say, by the end of the first day I was overwhelmed and disoriented. Almost immediately I looked for comfort and belonging in church. I had just recently joined the Roman Catholic Church back home (that story is a sermon for another day!) so I started attending daily mass at the huge cathedral in Mainz, where I was living.

It didn’t take long to realize this church was very different from my small, liberal, university campus parish in Oklahoma. I didn’t understand the language. I didn’t know any of the hymns. There was lots of standing up and sitting down that we didn’t do at home. And at age 20, I was a good 60 years younger than anyone else attending those early morning masses. It was beyond discouraging, but I kept going, praying hard to feel the presence of God and sense of belonging I so dearly missed.

Adding to my sense of being out of place was this one woman at the church who always seemed to be staring at me. She made me nervous, with her long black dress and her little head doily. Her nose-hairs alone were enough to put the fear of God in you! Every day when I arrived, she was already there praying, and let’s just say: her demeanor was less than welcoming.

One morning, as I arrived and quietly found a spot to kneel and pray, the nose-hair lady began to shuffle towards me. And I thought: OH NO! Did I sit in her pew?

I kept my eyes down, pretending to pray. But when she got to me and I looked up, I saw she was smiling at me! Without saying a word, she reached out and took my hand. She pressed into it something small and hard. Then, probably sensing our language barrier, she just held my hands in hers for a few moments and looked into my eyes before going back to her usual place to pray.

When I opened my hand, I saw she had given me a tiny silver medal, with an image of a baby dressed in royal clothing. I truly had no idea what it was or what I should do with it! Later, I learned it was an image of the Infant Jesus of Prague. Saints and medals were not part of my faith tradition or my understanding of Jesus at all, but at that moment it didn’t matter. That gift meant just one thing to me:

God was with me even in this foreign land. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God was speaking to me through this woman, across the boundaries of language, culture, and generation. And God was saying:

Don’t be afraid!
I am here, too.
And you belong somewhere. You belong to someone! You belong to me.

For: “You have not received a Spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a Spirit of adoption.”

Today, as we are gathered as a community to welcome the Spirit of God again into the church and into our lives, you may have legitimate reasons to be afraid.

Because when we live lives directed by the Holy Spirit,
When we take risks,
When we speak the language of peace, of justice, of anti-oppression and anti-occupation,
When we speak the truth,
When we speak our truths,
We will often be criticized.
We will be judged.
We may even be persecuted.

But do not fear:
You know where you belong. You know to whom you belong.

You know this, not only because you have read the Scriptures,
Not only because you went Sunday school or to church camp,
Not only because you memorized Bible verses and listened to sermons,
You know this, because the Holy Spirit is with you.
You know this because no doubt you have your own stories of being loved
And held in God’s embrace,
Of knowing, suddenly, that you are a child of God.

So my prayer is that today, when you leave this place, you will welcome that same Spirit of belonging and let her move you:
To dance.
Speak a new language.
Embrace a new idea.
Challenge the paradigms.
Smash the patriarchy.
Revive the church.
Also, rest when you need it.
Take a nap.

And remember that you belong—in the church. In the world. In the arms of God, your loving parent. Come, Holy Spirit.

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

Thursday, May 30, 2019

"Leaving, and loving, on a cloud" - Ascension Day 2019

Ascension Day Reflection 2019

Lutheran Church of the Ascension, Mt. of Olives
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

From the ceiling of Lutheran Church of the Ascension, 
Mt. of Olives, Jerusalem

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

About the Ascension of Jesus, Scripture tells us: “When he had said this, as they were watching, (Jesus) was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9)
For this reason, nearly every artistic rendering of the Ascension depicts Jesus on a cloud, or surrounded by clouds, floating with ease up into the heavens, his face a perfect image of serenity and comfort. Sometimes all we see in the clouds are Jesus’ feet, which apparently have lifted off the ground with no effort at all.

These Ascension images are very beautiful, but I often think when I see them:
Wait a minute: Jesus is leaving.

He’s leaving behind his friends. He’s leaving behind his students. He’s leaving behind the earth, where he has made his home for 33 years. The Day of Ascension is about Jesus leaving—and leaving is hard.

Anyone who has ever moved to a new house or a new job, or who has returned after making home in another place for a time, knows this very well. Leaving requires emotional and physical hard work. And so I’m curious why we—and so may artists throughout history—imagine that when it was time for Jesus to go, his body floated into heaven as if it were nothing, his face in perfect repose.

After all, we believe that Our Lord Jesus was really, truly, bodily resurrected. He was not a ghost or a figment of the disciples’ imagination. The Risen Christ ate food with the disciples. He walked and talked with them. Thomas even touched his wounds. After the resurrection, Jesus was here, really here, with feet planted firmly on this ground.

So I imagine that his first move away from this earth, the lift-off, must have taken all of Jesus’ strength and power. I imagine that at the moment of leave-taking, Jesus felt the full weight of his connection to this place—the way we do when we must leave a place, even when we know it’s the right move.  Clouds or no clouds, it’s hard to believe Jesus just floated away from people he loved. It wouldn’t fit with the rest of his story, would it?

For Scripture tells us Jesus didn’t magically appear on earth as a fully-formed adult, but was born of a mother, amid sweat and blood and tears.

Scripture tells us although he is the Son of God, Jesus didn’t sit high above in a throne room avoiding the riff-raff of humanity, but walked among us, his feet gathering the same dust as ours.

And Scripture tells us Jesus didn’t merely “pass away.” His body was lifted up on a cross—a cross we fashioned for him—where he suffered and died for the sake of all our sins.
So today when we read Jesus was lifted up again—lifted up to glory—his body made to untangle itself from earthly relationships and earthly needs in order to be with the Father, consider that it can’t have been easy.

It can’t have been easy, because leaving is never easy. In fact, we read that Jesus was teaching and imparting wisdom to his friends until the last very moment! Perhaps he wanted to stay. Perhaps he felt he had more work to do, more parables to tell, more hearts and bodies to heal, more love to give. But it was time, and he had to go. And so, Jesus, our brother, stepped off the earth, stepped on to a cloud, and ascended to the Father, hard as it was.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” asked the two men in white. “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)

Perhaps the disciples should have gotten to work right away, being his witnesses and continuing Jesus’ ministry of love and reconciliation. But I think I understand why they lingered, looking toward the skies. They wanted one last look, one last wave, one last glimpse of the One who never took the easy way out, but who loved the world fiercely, boldly, extravagantly, with his whole body

from the manger in Bethlehem,
to the dusty roads of Galilee,
to Calvary,
and to this place, the Mt of Olives,
where his great love for us was surely written all over his face,
as he was lifted up in the clouds to be with the Father, 
out of sight for now, but never out of our hearts.

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

The English, German, and Arabic speaking Lutheran pastors in Jerusalem
leading the Ascension Day service on the Mt of Olives
Photo by Ben Gray/ELCJHL

Monday, May 27, 2019

"Peace, when we are in pieces" Sermon for Sunday 26 May 2019

Sermon for Sunday 26 May 2019
6th Sunday after Easter
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Prayers for peace from a church service in 2012

For many years, I’ve signed my emails and letters and other correspondence with one little word: Peace. As in: “See you soon! Peace, Pastor Carrie.”

I’m not sure why I started doing this. I think I just liked it better than writing “sincerely” or “Yours truly” or “kind regards”. A good family friend, however, has taken issue with my use of this word as an email sign-off. One day several years ago I noticed that at the end of his email to me, sent in reply to a dinner invitation, he wrote: 

“OK, see you soon! War, Santiago.”
That’s right: War.

Now, I don’t think he really wanted to start a war—at least, not at dinner.

But my friend Santiago is a liberationist, an agitator, and a provoker. Peace, if it means maintenance of the status quo, or merely the absence of conflict and not the presence of justice, is of no interest to him. And it’s for this reason I suspect he’s wary of me using it to sign my emails—and wary of any use of the word “peace” that may be perceived as casual, silly, or flippant. Peace, and peace-making, are serious business to him.

Of course, he’s not wrong! And God knows, there’s plenty of casual use of the word “peace” in this context.

When people talk about “peace” in relation to Palestine and Israel, it’s often couched in a phrase like “peace and justice” or “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem”. While these phrases roll off our tongues easily, if you probe a little deeper, you’ll find that folks hold very disparate views about what justice is, and what the “peace of Jerusalem” might look like.  As one Jerusalem shopkeeper once said to me: “Everyone prays for the peace of Jerusalem, but what they really want is a piece of Jerusalem.”

Some want a Jerusalem in which everyone looks and talks and worships the same.
Some want a Jerusalem the way it “used to be”, whenever that was: Pre-1967. Pre-1948. Pre-British Mandate. Pre-Ottoman Empire. Or, perhaps, pre-70 AD.

But often, when people talk about “peace” in the Holy Land they simply mean “the absence of newsworthy violence.” Note that I say “newsworthy violence”—for there is violence happening in this place (and many other places) every single day. It’s just that it’s usually not counted as news, or counted as violence at all, unless it’s perpetrated against the powerful.

Then of course, there are things we say like “peace and quiet”, “peace and harmony” or “rest in peace”, which give us the idea that “peace” means something like “we have the conditions that would make for a good nap right now.”

While I love naps, if you think this is what peace means, I will simply quote one of my favorite movies, “The Princess Bride”, and say: “I don’t think that word means what you think it means…”

Peace, when you live in the midst of a military occupation, is never just a word. 
Peace is never an easy thing to define, to measure, or to create.
It’s serious business. It’s life or death…

…which makes it all the more challenging to interpret today’s reading from the Gospel according to John.

For here we encounter Jesus just after the last supper with the disciples, just after washing the disciples’ feet, just after foretelling Peter’s denial of him, and just before the crucifixion, saying:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)

Jesus, in his farewell speech, leaves the disciples the gift of peace—and he promises that he does not give as the world gives. He does not give casually. He does not give with strings attached. This peace—like the grace and forgiveness we receive through the cross—is a free gift, pure and simple, one size fits all, satisfaction guaranteed. Amen!

So where is this peace, do you suppose? Where did it go?

If Jesus gifted the disciples with peace, why is the land where he was born, and died, and raised from the dead in such turmoil?
If Jesus leaves us the gift of peace, why are children dying in Yemen and in detention centers at the US border?
If Jesus leaves us the gift of peace, why are there so many school shootings in my home country, and so much violence committed in God’s name across the world?

Where is our peace? Have we simply misplaced Jesus’ gift? Did we use it up?

I admit I have wondered this at times. And I can’t count how many times I’ve heard Palestinian Christian friends say to me how they struggle to hold on to faith for this very reason. Where is our peace? We need justice. We need peace, in Jerusalem, in Israel and Palestine, in the world.

And Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Scripture assures, Jesus has gifted us with peace. 
But this peace is not the absence of war, although we work and pray for that. It’s not even the end of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, although I believe it will come, sooner than we think.

No, the peace Jesus leaves us with is the peace of the presence of God.
It’s the peace of knowing we are loved by God.

Dear ones, we are loved so deeply that God sent the Son to be born among us.
We are loved so deeply that Jesus suffered for us and with us on the cross.
We are loved so deeply that the Father raised Jesus on the third day.
We are loved so deeply that the Risen Jesus appeared to the disciples several more times to assure them he was still with them.

And we are loved so deeply that God the Father sends an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to teach us, to remind us, and to make her home with us. And now God is present with us, at all times, and in all places.

This is the peace Jesus leaves with us. This peace is serious business!
It is a peace that passes all understanding.

In fact, not only do we not always understand it, at times we don’t really believe it. We often feel unlovable. We can sometimes feel forgotten. The world and its mess can seem to drain the peace of God right out of us, leaving us in pieces.

And then the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, shows up...and we are reminded.

A few years ago, we had a special Saturday lesson on Holy Communion at my home, and the children of Redeemer baked the communion bread themselves. The next morning, they carried the loaves of bread to the altar, and then I invited them to stay and sit in front of the table while I prayed. To be honest, they looked a little bored as I held up the bread and prayed, "This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

But then, from in front of the altar, I heard little Cornelie shout:

"I think you lifted MY loaf during that prayer! That’s my Jesus!” Amen!

And then, at the end of the service, the kids all gathered around again to report what they had learned in Sunday school. "We drew the things that make us afraid, Pastor Carrie!" they said. At the top of the list were spiders and snakes. Also, one little boy said, “I’m afraid of holes with dark in them".

Ruben said, "I am afraid of shooting guns and tanks." "Me, too," I told him.

"But" Ruben added, "We learned God is always with us. Everywhere, and every time! So we don’t have to be afraid.” Amen and amen!

Sometimes peace—and the lack of it—really is beyond our understanding. Sometimes our hearts are troubled, and we are afraid.

And then, thanks be to God, we are reminded. We are reminded that the love of God in Christ Jesus is our peace. We are reminded that God is with us, in every time and in every place. We are reminded that God has made God’s home with us.

And you know what?

This peace, when it is the foundation of our lives, gives a firm place to stand and a soft place to fall when we are doing the hard work of being peacemakers—

When we are working for peace based on justice for all people in the holy land,
When we are advocating for safety and dignity for people of all races, all genders, all religions,
When we are making sure that everyone has enough to eat, and a place to her head, and the chance to live life, and life abundant.

The peace of knowing God’s presence, of knowing how deeply we are loved, gives us the strength and courage to love more, to forgive more, to share more—not only because we love Jesus and want to keep his Word, but because he loves us.

Dear siblings in Christ, know how deeply you are loved. And may this peace, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

(Video below: a live version of the hymn we sang in worship on Sunday: "How Deep the Father's Love for Us")