Sunday, January 20, 2019

"The party's not over (or Seeing the Possibility of Wine)" Sermon for Sunday 20 January 2019

Sermon for 2nd Sunday after Epiphany
20 January 2019
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

Wedding at Cana by He Qi

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

On Monday evening here at Redeemer Church, Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions gave a talk to a packed house. The title of his presentation was “One Democratic State Campaign: It’s Time.” In a little over 45 minutes, he outlined the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how we got to the situation we’re in today. He described how the two-state solution is effectively dead and has been for a long time. And then he laid out the two options he sees for the future of Israel and Palestine:

Jeff Halper speaking to a packed house at Redeemer
January 2019
One is entrenchment and validation of the apartheid and imprisonment system we have today, in which everyone keeps talking about two states, but one people is effectively dominating the other. Jeff says this is (or should be) unacceptable both to Israelis and to the international community.

And the other option Jeff proposed is one state, a constitutional democracy between the sea and the river, including the right of return. This would mean a process of decolonization of minds and hearts as well as decolonization of Israeli culture and systems of government.

It was a fascinating proposal, with some very good practical ideas and strategies for helping such a solution take hold in the grassroots and among important powerbrokers. The room was clearly riveted throughout the talk.

But the problem is: standing up in Jerusalem and challenging the two-state solution is a lot like standing up in church on Sunday morning and challenging the concept of the Trinity. I mean, truthfully, most of us aren’t eager to explain Trinity and how it works even if we’ve been to seminary (or maybe even less so if we have been to seminary!) Nevertheless, we BELIEVE in the Trinity. We are committed to it. We can’t imagine how we would “do” church, “do” theology, or “do” our Christian faith without it.

And so, when Jeff stopped speaking, things in the room got a little heated. Guests stood up to stay things like:

“well I’m in support of peace and democracy but you can’t call me a settler because I was born here”,

and “well that sounds nice but no one will ever support it”

and “Well, I’ve gotten behind every new peace initiative for the past 50 years and nothing ever works.”

In other words: “Well it’d be nice if the party could continue, but there’s no more wine.”

The wine jugs are empty. Our hope is gone. Our imagination has run dry.

There’s nothing we can do! The party is over. Let’s go home.

I must say, after 5 years of living and working here in Jerusalem, I get it. I understand where that cynicism comes from, and I’m neither Israeli nor Palestinian. I can leave anytime I want. My blue passport affords me the privilege to live in the midst of conflict, and at the same time to float above it, rarely touched by the measures of occupation, except as an annoyance in my day—or as a heart broken over the struggles of my colleagues, neighbors, and friends.

Nevertheless, I get why so many Palestinians and Israelis alike look at the current situation and see only empty jugs of wine. Those empty jugs are real—as the occupation is real, the checkpoints are real, the periodic violence is real, and the tragedy in Gaza is real. When the wine’s run out and the wedding’s still on (or when there’s no peace process, and the two-state solution is all but dead, but life still must go on in Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, and in Tel Aviv) nobody has time for foolishness. 
Nobody has time for false hope.  

Nobody has time for miracles.

Nobody has time for miracles, and yet as Christians, we believe in and are committed to Jesus and to miracles!

I was sitting in a meeting with a group of Israeli and American Jews and Palestinian and German Christians a few years ago in Beit Jala talking about ways to create change. We talked about incremental change, and transformational change, and strategies for moving things forward towards peace, justice, and reconciliation. It was a good and friendly discussion, although at some point it felt (as it often does in such meetings) that the only thing we moved forward was the date of the next year’s conference, where we would continue to talk about incremental change, and transformational change, and strategies for moving forward towards peace, justice, and reconciliation…

But an interesting thing happened when, at one point, a Palestinian Christian colleague spoke up and said, “You know, I think it’s great for us to talk about all these strategies and types of change. But at the end of the day, as a Christian, I also believe in miraculous change. I believe in Jesus who turned the water into wine, and in Jesus who multiplied the loaves and the fishes, and in Jesus who himself was raised from the dead on the third day. And I believe we will have peace—maybe sooner than we can imagine.”

You can imagine the hush that fell on the room after that! I mean, we all want to believe in miracles, don’t we? But sitting in that conference room, I’m sure there were many who wanted to say to my miracle-believing friend:

“But those empty wine jugs are right here.  They’re impossible to miss. Have you seen the checkpoints? Have you heard the stories of young people killed, of homes demolished, of children held in detention, of settler violence, and of the stabbing intifada?

Can’t you see the people are thirsty and the dancing has all but stopped?
Can’t you see the party’s over? Who has time for miracles?”

But Mary, the mother of Jesus, said to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”
And Jesus said, “Fill the jars with water.”

So the servants filled the water up to the brim, and some was taken to the chief steward. And as it is written, the steward tasted and saw that it was good. He tasted that the water had become wine. It was good wine! Abundant wine! Yes, there really was enough for all!

Dear friends, Jesus’ first miracle—providing abundant wine for a wedding party—is but a foretaste of the abundant grace, love, mercy and forgiveness he pours out for us on the cross. It is a foretaste of the miracles we can expect in our lives, in our nations, and in the world. Thanks be to God, even on Good Friday, the party is not over! Amen!

When I think about our situation here in Israel and Palestine today, it seems to me we get stuck staring at empty jugs of wine. We get stuck in a way of thinking which says, “well, this is just the way it is.” So we defend dead solutions. We engage in dialogue that goes nowhere. And while we’re busy clinging to what seems like reality (because it’s all we know) we just might miss the miracles happening all around us.

Now, I’m not saying that my friend Jeff’s one state solution is a miraculous. And, officially, both the ELCJHL and the ELCA still support a two-state solution, with 1967 borders and a shared Jerusalem.

But you know what is a miracle? The fact that there are still Israelis and Palestinians (and international allies like you here today) who look at empty water jars and can still see the possibility of wine. And not just any wine! Good wine. Abundant wine. Enough for all – enough peace, enough justice, enough land, enough dignity, enough safety for all the people of the land.

Dear siblings in Christ, some of you have been here for one week. Some have been here for one year or much, much longer. However long you’ve been in Israel and Palestine, I hope you are still able to see not only the empty wine jugs in our midst. I hope you also see the many massive water jars, ready to be filled with a miracle.

I hope you see the many Israelis and Palestinians of good conscience who should be running on empty after more than 50 years of occupation, but who remain steadfastly committed to a future of peace based on justice for all the people in this land.

Like me, I’m sure you’ve had your hearts broke in this place. Nevertheless, I still believe in miraculous change—for your life, for your family, for this land and its people—in fact, for the world and all people! For Jesus, our crucified and risen Lord, is always revealing his glory, and always manifesting God’s love, in ways big and small. The party is not over! Thanks be to God.

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

Monday, January 14, 2019

"Hello my name is...." Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord 2019

Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord
Sunday 13 January 2019

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

“Hello my name is…”

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

A few weeks ago, my neighbor and I walked out the doors of our apartments at the same time, nearly bumping in to each other in our shared garden. “Hi, Melanie!” I said. She responded with, “Hi!”

And then, in her very lovely British accent (which I will not attempt to copy) she said, “I am soooo sorry. I just realized I’ve been calling you by the wrong name for months!”

Now this was very confusing to me, as I was certain she had called me “Carrie” on more than one occasion.

“I’m so very sorry, I hope you’re not offended.” she continued. “All this time I’ve been calling you Carrie, and then I saw your name in print the other day and realized your name is actually CAAA-rrie!”

Now this made me laugh out loud! Believe it or not, I’ve had this exact conversation several times before (nearly always with Europeans) and each time I have to explain that yes, my name is spelled “Carrie” but because I come from the American Midwest, it’s just pronounced “Kerry”. Where I’m from, we say “Merry Christmas” and we also get “married”, not MAAA-ried. We don’t “CAAA-rry” things home from the store—we just carry them.

And yes, my name is also just pronounced—Carrie. 

So no, I wasn’t offended, I told Melanie. She had been saying my name right all along. In fact, some might argue that I’m the one who’s been getting it wrong, my whole life!
As we parted ways, I realized not only was I not offended, I was smiling. It felt good that my neighbor cared enough to say my name correctly. It felt good, because names matter. It matters what we are called.

In today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 3, a voice from heaven—the voice of God—has something to say about Jesus. And it matters what Jesus is called in that moment.  

As it is written, Jesus was in the Jordan River being baptized by John,

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

This name—Beloved Son—matters immensely. It mattered to John! And it mattered to the others gathered at the Jordan that day who must have heard the same heavenly voice.

It matters that Jesus was called Beloved Son at his baptism, because this was a critical moment in Jesus’ life. He was about to start his public teaching ministry. In fact, being baptized by John was Jesus’ first public act—before he gave the Sermon on the Mount, before he turned the water into wine in Cana, before he healed anyone, and before he went obediently to the cross, he stepped into the Jordan and was baptized by his cousin John.

Seeing this public act from our post-Easter, post-Pentecost understanding of baptism, we might say that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. Being sinless, he had no sins to wash away! Being the Body himself, he had no need to be engrafted into the One Holy and Apostolic Church, which is the Body of Christ on earth today!

And yet…Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, as a sign of his obedience to God and his commitment to the tradition of the prophets who came before him. His baptism showed John, and the crowd—and us—who he is.

In other words, Jesus was baptized not so that he would be made whole and holy, but so that in our baptisms, we could be made whole and holy. For as the voice of heaven declared, he is God’s Beloved Son. He is not only a prophet, not only a teacher, not only a healer. He is both human and divine, the One we’ve been waiting for, our Savior and our Redeemer. Amen!

It matters what Jesus was called at that critical moment, when he was poised to begin his ministry of teaching and healing, feeding the hungry and raising the dead. It matters because the crowds—and maybe even Jesus himself—needed to know who he really was before the seeds of the Gospel of love could be planted, and grow, and take root in the lives of the people.

In this way, although there are important differences, Jesus’ baptism and our own are similar. At our baptisms, we hear God calling us by name, bestowing on us our true identity as beloved children—and then, we too are sent out to scatter the seeds of the Gospel—the seeds of justice, love, mercy, reconciliation, and true peace.

Jesus heard the voice from heaven calling him Beloved Son just as he was poised to begin his ministry in the Galilee. Today, we also are gathered at a critical juncture in the church year. Today, the Baptism of Our Lord, is the official end of the Christmas season in the church calendar (although of course in Jerusalem we have one more Christmas to come, when the Armenians celebrate on January 19!)

Christmas is over for now, and next Sunday begins what we call “ordinary time”. It’s not that nothing extraordinary happens in February, it just means there are no feasts or festivals on the Sundays between now and Lent! During this “ordinary” time, we will be hearing about Jesus’ ministry of feeding, healing, and raising the dead. We’ll be challenged and convicted by his teachings. And therefore, it matters what Jesus is called. This is not just any man teaching us to forgive, to love our neighbor and to pray for our enemies. This is not just any prophet who sends us out to seek justice, and build peace, and create community with those who are different from us. This Jesus is God’s Beloved Son, with whom God is well pleased. Amen!

As I said, next week is the beginning of “ordinary” time. But actually, I get to start the ordinary season doing something quite extra-ordinary:

Next Sunday, I get to baptize Jesus in the Jordan!

It’s true! Well, sort of…

You see, after church next week, the German, Arabic, and English-speaking congregations of Redeemer will join together for a trip to the Jordan River baptismal site. With Pastor Fursan and Propst Schmidt we’ll have a short liturgy there to remember our own baptisms and our shared commitment to seeking God’s justice, love, and mercy for all people.

And then, we will step into the Jordan, and baby Emory, daughter of Allyson and John—who just happened to play the part of Baby Jesus in our church’s Christmas pageant in December—will be baptized. How many people get to say they baptized Jesus in the Jordan? I mean, aside from John the Baptist… Nothing ordinary about that, I would say! 

After Baby Emory is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, she will hear these words:

“Emory, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

In that moment, called by name not only by me, but by God, Emory will know her true identity. No matter what else anyone calls her – daughter, student, friend, maybe partner or parent someday—she will know that she is first and foremost a Beloved Child of God, saved and sent through Water and the Word. She won’t remember the day or the river, because she’s only 6 months old! But Allyson and John will. Those of us gathered here today, and those who will gather at the Jordan next Sunday, will not always be Emory’s church community. But our job, as Christ’s global church, is to call her by name. Our job is to remind the Emorys of the world who they are, and who loves them, and to welcome them into our shared mission to manifest the Gospel of love in the world today.

It matters what we are called.

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities for the differently abled, once wrote:

In one of our communities, there is a man called Pierre who has a mental handicap. One day someone asked him, “Do you like praying?” He answered, “Yes.” He was asked what he did when he prayed. He answered, “I listen.” And what does God say to you?” He says, “You are my beloved son.”

I’m sure there were those who called Pierre many other things due to his differences. 

But thanks be to God—and I’m sure, thanks be to the community which nurtured him—he knew who he was. He knew he could trust God’s voice calling him beloved, calling him worthy, calling him saved by grace through faith, apart from works, apart from accomplishments, apart from abilities.

Dear siblings in Christ, I’m sure you have been called by many names in your life. Some of them are welcomed. But if you are Palestinian, you may have been called an invented people. If you are a woman, your voice may have been called insignificant. If you are differently abled, or differently colored, or differently oriented, or differently educated, you may have been called names that are much, much, worse.

Hear me when I say today that through water and the Word, you have been called by name. Your name is God’s beloved. And God always, always, pronounces your name correctly!

As it is written in Isaiah chapter 43:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

On this day, the last before ordinary time, I pray that you hear God calling your name, which is extraordinary. I pray you know that through the cross of Christ, you always have a home in God’s house. You are beautifully and wonderfully made! Because you are beloved, you can confidently be who God created you to be. With God’s help, you can live out your baptismal covenant, standing with the poor and the voiceless and working for justice and peace in all the world—from Jerusalem to California, from Ohio to wherever God takes you next. You, child of God, can live and love boldly for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Let it be so now, according to God’s will. Amen.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

"I see you": Sermon for Epiphany of Our Lord 2019

Sermon for Sunday 6 January 2019
Epiphany of Our Lord

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie N. Ballenger

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

20th century German theologian and priest Karl Rahner wrote this prayer to the mysterious and hidden God he longed to know more deeply:

O God,
“You must adapt Your word to my smallness, so that I can enter into this tiny dwelling of my finiteness—the only dwelling in which I can live—without destroying it. If you should speak such an “abbreviated” word, which would not say everything but only something simple which I could grasp, then I could breathe freely again. You must make your own some human word, for that is the only kind I can comprehend. Don’t tell me everything that You are; don’t tell me of Your Infinity—just say that You love me, just tell me of Your Goodness to me.”

Fr. Rahner’s prayer speaks to our human longing to know the unknowable; our shared desire to grasp that which remains always just out of reach. How can we ever comprehend the Creator of the universe? How can we ever fully know the Ground of all Being, or have any hold on the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end?
By contrast, Holy Scripture says God knows us intimately and completely. As it is written:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.” (Psalm 139)

Of course, books, blogs, and podcasts abound for those who are seeking a closer relationship with God. Especially at the start of the New Year, you have probably been advertised many recommendations of how you, too, can achieve closeness and intimacy with God in 2019—if only you breathe more deeply, pray more effectively, seek God more diligently. To be fair, breathing, praying, and seeking are not terrible spiritual practices. But any time someone says in my presence,  “Have you found Jesus?” I always want to respond, “I didn’t know he was lost!”

Dear siblings in Christ, God is, in many ways, unknowable. Some of who the Creator is will always remain hidden from us, until that day when we join the saints at the heavenly banquet and finally see God face to face.

However: It’s Christmastime, and today is Epiphany. Today we celebrate that God who is greater, God who is first and last, God who is more than we can comprehend, did in fact come near to us—and is nearer now than when we first believed. 
(Romans 13:11, and “Amazing Grace”)

Theologian Elisabeth A. Johnson writes in her book “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God”:

“At the heart of the Christian faith is the almost unbelievable idea that the infinitely incomprehensible holy mystery of God does not remain forever remote but draws near in radical proximity to the world.” (Johnson, “Quest for the Living God” p. 39)

Yes, Jesus is Emmanuel. Jesus is God with us. This is what we have been celebrating for the last twelve days (and will continue to celebrate in Jerusalem until January 19!) While it may seem that the God of the universe is hidden behind theological words and concepts such a creation, grace, resurrection, ascension, or salvation, Christmas and Epiphany are the time when we remember God loves us enough to transcend words and concepts, and to come radically near to us…as a baby.

Maybe this is why we love Christmas so much. Theologically speaking, Holy Week and Easter are far more important to our faith. After all, other religions also feature miraculous births as part of their origin stories. The Virgin Birth doesn’t so much set apart Christianity from other religions as place it among accepted mythologies of its day. The radical love shown on the cross, and the victory over death shown by the empty tomb, are far more scandalous, far more noteworthy.

And yet, Christmas and the Incarnation are critical to our faith, because finally here is something we can comprehend. Here is a situation we can understand. Here is a mother, and a father, and most importantly: a newborn baby.

There’s not much that is mysterious about a baby, after all.

Babies make themselves known. They cannot and will not be ignored! Have you ever tried to ignore a baby—say, on a transcontinental flight, when the baby is sitting just behind your head? Impossible.

Babies are in your face. They are loud, and they are adorable. They are messy, and they are perfect. They are vulnerable, and they are totally demanding of your attention.
Above all, when babies are present with you—they are fully present. They are WITH YOU…like it or not.

This kind of immediate, in-your-face presence is probably not what the Magi from the East were expecting to find when they arrived in Bethlehem. To be fair, we don’t know exactly what they expected, but it seems they expected a king, since their first stop was at Herod’s palace.

I imagine they expected a throne and a crown.
I imagine they expected an army and a kingdom to guard and protect.
I imagine they expected a king who was a bit…Aloof. Stand-offish. Other.

I’m sure they didn’t expect God manifest in a manger.
Or salvation manifest in a stable,
Or a baby, ruling the world through love and mercy rather than by power and might.

On this day which we call the Epiphany of Our Lord, we honor and celebrate the manifestation of our living God as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem. We honor the wise strangers who came to see him. We honor the star, which shown in the night and guided them to the light of god’s love. We honor God, who spoke to the magi in a dream—although they were Gentiles and foreigners and had no reason to listen—and warned them to return home by a different road.

And on this day of Epiphany, we remember that the baby in the manger is not the end of the story. 

God is manifest as Christ in the manger and as Christ on the roads of Galilee. 
God is manifest as Christ on the cross and the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. 

The Epiphany of Our Lord didn’t happen on just the one night when the Magi followed the star to where it stopped. The Epiphany of Our Lord, the manifestation of God’s love in the world, continues to this day. Every day is Epiphany…when our eyes and hearts are open to see Christ manifest in the Other.

Not long ago, I was walking through the Christian Quarter with my arms full of grocery bags, and I stopped to catch my breath in the chairs set, as always, in front of the “Humble Shop in the Name of Pope Francis.” Surprisingly, the chairs—which are usually occupied by not-so-humble smoking and pontificating men—were empty.
I sat with relief and dropped some bags, but the load was heavy enough that a few still hung from my fingertips and balanced on my lap.

Just then, a little girl of no more than seven came bouncing toward me down the street. She wore a plaid skirt and pigtails and held, in front of her face, a cone of pink cotton candy bigger than her head. School was out, sweets had been acquired, and she was HAPPY.

My first thought was “OH MY GOODNESS I NEED A PICTURE TO PUT ON SOCIAL MEDIA” and my second thought was “Ugh. My hands are full.”

I wasn’t even sure where my phone and its camera were hiding among the heaving jumble of grocery bags in my lap, so instead of taking a picture, I just smiled at the girl.

Her joyful bouncing propelled her to just past where I sat, when she abruptly stopped. She turned quickly on her heel to look at me.

With the pink cotton candy partly stuck to her face, and her mouth wide open, she stared at me with something like amusement. Or was it confusion and curiosity? I wondered what it was that caught her attention. Was it the clergy collar, or the silly number of grocery bags by my feet, or the fact that I was sitting where I wasn’t supposed to be?

In any case, it seemed appropriate to say “Marhaba!”
“Marhabteen!” she said back.
“Is that tasty?” I continued in Arabic.
“Oh yes! I just got it after school! It’s COTTON CANDY,” she replied.

Now she was smiling at me, as well as staring at my ridiculous grocery bags, almost as if she were thinking “I wish I could do something about this situation, but my hands are full right now.” 

(“I know the feeling!” I thought.)

A few more pleasantries (my Arabic can only take me so far, even with a 7-year old) and then with a little wave, she bounced away from me and down the street.

I stood up with the groceries re-positioned and set out toward home. I was smiling now, too, but still mourning the loss of the photo of this encounter. If only my hands hadn’t been full!

But then I thought—what if my hands had been empty? Would I have sat down to really see the street, and the people walking on it? Would I have talked to the girl with the cotton candy, or would she have become yet another piece of Jerusalem to consume—like the little plastic baby Jesuses and the postcards they sell at the “Humble Shop in the Name of Pope Francis”?

A local friend once said to me, “Everyone prays for the peace of Jerusalem, but what they really want is a piece of Jerusalem.” This speaks to a painful truth about Jerusalem, but I wonder if it also speaks to the truth of how we approach life in general.

All too often, the people in our day are just part of the scenery. Our lives are busy, our hands are full, and our encounters with others become just one more moment to manage, to capture, to post, to consume.

When we approach life like that, when we approach people like that, we can miss the daily Epiphanies in life. We can miss the manifestations of God’s love that come unexpectedly, in the most mundane places—like on our commute home. Or at the grocery store. Or on the streets of Jerusalem, or Chicago, or wherever you’re from.

Or even in a manger, in a cave, in  no-account town like Bethlehem.

And so on this Day of Epiphany, as we honor the wise travelers who came to see Jesus, I want to say to the girl with the face full of cotton candy and joy:

I see you.
I see Christ in you!
And thank you for seeing me, too.

Let us close with a new year prayer from African-American theologian Howard Thurman:

Grant that I may pass through the coming year with a faithful heart. There will be much to test me and make weak my strength before the year ends.
In my confusion I shall often say the word that is not true and do the thing of which I am ashamed. There will be errors in the mind and great inaccuracies of judgment.
In seeking the light,
I shall again and again find myself
walking in the darkness.
I shall mistake my light for Your light
and I shall drink from the responsibility of the choice I make...
Though my days be marked with failures, stumblings, fallings, let my spirit be free so that You may take it and redeem my moments in all the ways my needs reveal.
Give me the quiet assurance of Your Love and Presence. Grant that I may pass through the coming year with a faithful heart. Amen.”