Sunday, September 5, 2021

"Practicing persistence" A sermon for 5 September 2021

 My apologies: I wasn't able to record the sermon this week!

I hope I'll have a video to post for next week's sermon.

You can watch previous sermons on Vimeo at http://vimeo.com/carrieballenger


Sermon for Sunday 5 September 2021

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

Mark 7:24-37

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.


Yesterday, a group of women in Taliban-controlled Kabul marched in protest for the thirdtime, demanding equal rights to education and the right to participate in government. They were met with tear gas and tasers, and some were hit in the head by the guns the Taliban soldiers were carrying.

The vowed not to quit their protests.

This is an awful scene, and a terrible situation for all women and girls in Afghanistan. But it also echoes scenes we have witnessed before: bold women, stepping out and standing up for what they need and deserve.

Refusing to sit in the back of the bus. Sitting in at segregated lunch counters. Marching the streets for the right to vote. Carrying babies and children on their backs across borders to safety.

Here in Jerusalem, the Women in Black (mostly Israeli women) have met every Friday since 1988 to demand “Stop the Occupation”. And for seven years, the grassroots movement “Women Wage Peace”—including Jews and Arabs, religious and secular—have united in the demand for a non-violent agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Included in their efforts is a document called “the Mother’s Alliance”, which reads, in part: “We, Palestinian and Israeli women from all walks of life, are united in the human desire for a future of peace, freedom, equality, rights, and security for our children and the next generations…Therefore we demand that our leaders listen to our call and promptly begin peace talks and negotiations…”

Women fighting for their lives and the lives of their children.

Women demanding to be heard.

This story is not new.

In today’s Gospel text we read of another bold and audacious woman. Mark chapter 7 tells us that Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre, which today lies in Lebanon but at the time was in the province of Syria. The important thing for today’s story is to note that it was far away from Galilee, where Jesus had been ministering. Jesus entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know he was there. Based on other accounts of Jesus’ ministry, we could conclude that he was tired from his journey and weary of the crowds, and perhaps just needed rest and time for prayer before teaching again.

But…he couldn’t escape being noticed. A woman came to bow at his feet and beg for the life of her daughter, who was sick with an unclean spirit. The text is clear about telling us the woman was Gentile, and of Syro-Phoenician origin. In plain terms, she was not Jewish. She was an outsider, at least in relation to Jesus’ mission.

And still, this mother came to Jesus and begged for him to cast the demon out of her daughter. But Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Let the children be fed first. In other words, your child is not a child.

Every time I read this, I think of the countless women who have been told that their children are not children. That their black children, refugee children, Palestinian children, Jewish children, or disabled children, are not children. Or at least are not children worthy of the same rights, the same care, the same concern for their future and well-being.

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Why would Jesus respond in this way? Some say he was testing the woman’s faith, although nothing in this text says anything about her faith or special morality. Some say this was a “folk saying”, a kind of proverb that would have been familiar to the woman, and that the word “dog” was more like “little puppy” and therefore wasn’t such an insult. (I’m not so sure about that…) Others suggest Jesus was just tired and having a bad day.

In any case, I must say I’m not a fan of Jesus in this scene. This is not the Jesus who welcomes the little children and opens the doors to heaven wide for prostitutes, sinners, tax collectors, and even me! This feels like a Jesus I don’t know, and I don’t particularly like. This is a Jesus with a narrow focus, and that focus is his mission to share the Gospel with just one group of people.

But…this mother doesn’t take no for an answer. She presses on, saying, Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

So what in the world happened here? As I mentioned, this is different from those who encountered Jesus and were healed because of great faith in him. This woman doesn’t reveal that she knows anything about Jesus except that he knows how to cast out demons and provide healing. She doesn’t call him Lord, or teacher, or Son of God. She doesn’t even follow him after this encounter—she simply goes home. No, this is not a story of great faith. It’s a story of great desperation. Her daughter was sick, and she would do anything—even bow at the feet of this teacher from Galilee, and allow herself and her daughter to be called “dogs.”

And Jesus, healer of our every ill, did respond eventually. The woman’s daughter was healed. She was changed, as most who have an encounter with Jesus are changed forever.

But I would suggest that Jesus, also, was changed in this encounter. He had already been expanding the boundaries of his mission, beyond the borders of the Galilee. He had already faced challenges by the Pharisees and other religious authorities over his lack of observance of the law, and for the misfits he had brought into his group of followers. And here, once again, it seems Jesus’ sense of mission is challenged. Jesus is growing and changing.

We may want to think of Jesus as being the same Jesus in the manger as he was at age 12 when he preached in the temple and then when he took his place on the cross—but here we are reminded that we proclaim Jesus to be fully human AND fully divine. And all of us who are fully human grow, and learn and change throughout life. Much growth happens through relationship with others, and especially through relationship with humans who are different from us.

One of the biblical commentaries I consulted this week (written by a man, of course) suggests that the Syro-phoenician woman’s significance is, quote, “bound up not so much with the fact that she is a woman or that she is the mother of a demon-possessed daughter, as with the fact that she is a non-Jew.” It’s true that in the full context of Jesus’ ministry, her identity as a non-Jew is important. But I disagree with separating her identities in this way! I think the outcome of this story has everything to do with her being a woman. As a woman and a mother, I think we see in her the audacity that lives inside us, a God-given audacity that has the power to change the world.

I also think this audacious and persistent woman is a powerful model for the church today. Today it is we, the Body of Christ in the world, who are called to be the hands and feet of Christ. We are the ones who are now empowered to share the Good News of Jesus, crucified and risen, with others. And often we, too, need to have our eyes opened, our ears unstopped, and our boundaries expanded. Institutions as well as individuals need to hear the stories of those who have been left outside the church and outside of society. We need hear and feel their pain, and then with the heart of Christ, we are called to respond in love and in action—even if we are criticized for stepping out of the boundaries of doctrine, tradition, or politeness.

I want to leave you with a piece of writing from the wonderful Daniel Berrigan, an American Jesuit priest and anti-war activist who was also bold, audacious, and often criticized for his work.

He wrote this about the Syro-Phoenician woman, during the height of the AIDS crisis:

“Of this I am certain: of our calling to holiness, our vocation to persist, in season and out in the work of healing others, even as we seek healing for ourselves…

So we take heart. We commend the woman who quite simply, with all her heart, on behalf of someone she loved, refused to give up. We might think of her act as ‘forgiving persistence’ toward Christ. We might also wish to ponder a kind of ‘persistent forgiveness’ toward the church.

The woman refuses and persists. And so prevails.

And so must we. And so shall we.

We must forgive, deepen our love, persist in the conviction that even the church can be redeemed from sin.

In so fulfilling our vocation, we ourselves are healed.”

(Daniel Berrigan, Sorrow Built a Bridge: Friendship and AIDS, 1989)

 

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

Saturday, August 21, 2021

"A different kind of armor for a different kind of battle" Sermon for Sunday 22 August 2021

 

Sermon for Sunday 22 August 2021

13th Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 6:10-20

 Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger


CLICK HERE TO LISTEN


 

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

 

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer. Amen.

 This summer I had the opportunity (finally!) to travel to the United States and visit my mom and dad, brother, son, nephews, and other chosen family. In pre-COVID times I was a frequent traveler, very familiar with airports and airport culture. My experience has been that airport workers are generally stressed out and sometimes rude—because flyers are almost always stressed out and almost always rude.

 On this trip, I found that COVID has not improved airport culture. In fact, the added stress of tests and masks and social distancing and worry meant that on my journey to the States in June, I just tried hard to stay away from everyone. I outdid myself saying “please and thank you” to flight attendants and “pardon me” to anyone who got into my personal space, all to avoid the wrath of grumpy people. It mostly worked.

 On my way back to Jerusalem from Chicago in August, however, something strange happened. I was entering the first of many security lines when Cosmo (the older Greek gentleman arranging us into line) smiled broadly and said to me, “What lovely religious tattoos, Miss.” The unexpected compliment stopped me in my tracks, and I smiled back saying, “Why thank you!”

 And then on we went. At the end of the passport line, I approached the window and handed over my documents. The woman in uniform behind the glass handed my passport back and said, “I just love your haircut!” Again, the compliment surprised me. It seemed so out of place in the context of streams of masked, grumpy people navigating a maze of security protocols. I smiled again and said brightly, “Thank you!” and moved on.

 An hour or so later, after my customary airport adult beverage, I was standing in the special Israel security line. Passport check, visa check, vaccine check, and then I was at the bag check. The man who was scanning my things and rifling through my bag suddenly looked up and said to me, “Ma’am, that’s a lovely yellow necklace you’re wearing. Have a good flight.”

 Now at this point, I was suspicious. Was this niceness some kind of new corporate mandate? Did airport workers have a required number of compliments to give each day? I had never experienced such a thing, in all my years of traveling to many different countries. Cynically, I wondered if perhaps this was a strategic way of coping with COVID grumpiness among travelers. Kill them with kindness, so to speak.

 Or maybe, I thought, this wasn’t corporate intentional kindness, but just individual intentional kindness. Humanity, at its best.

 I suppose in the end, it didn’t matter. Because it worked! I settled into my airplane seat feeling less scared, less stressed, less angry, and far less depressed about humanity and the world in general. Thanks be to God.

 Dear people, we are all in a massive battle against a nasty virus. And most of us are doing our part—receiving vaccines, wearing masks, and following guidelines about gathering in public. Even so, many months later, we are still in the thick of the fight, and we don’t know when it might end.

 But the truth is, we are also in another ongoing battle. It’s the battle for our souls and our shared humanity. In the Ephesians text we heard this morning the Apostle Paul writes,

 12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

 I think if Paul were experiencing the world as it is today, he might add “For our struggle is not against the virus, but against the discord, the vitriol, and the poisonous forces of division invading our communities and our hearts.” This is the ultimate struggle the world is engaged in, and sadly it didn’t begin with COVID, and it didn’t begin with an election, either. We know from Holy Scripture (and from world history) that humans have been fighting to remain human ever since Adam and Eve left the garden. And just in case you think being a Christian solves everything, read the letters of Paul. Or just read the news!

 Yes, we are in an epic battle—for our health, but also for our souls, and for the future of the world. As I walked through the airport that day in Chicago, I saw all kinds of protocols and protections, barriers and blockades in place to fight the spread of the virus. It felt like a war zone. But those small acts of kindness, those three unexpected comments from strangers, they also felt like part of a war strategy. Can kindness kill COVID? No. But it can disrupt the system. It can shift thinking. It can soften hearts. It can make someone smile. It can change the world.

 In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul recommends that the Christian community put on the “whole armor of God.” Now, at that time the church in Ephesus was experiencing persecution from outside as well as turmoil from inside the community. Furthermore, their teacher Paul was in prison.

 (A side note here: traditionally, this letter was thought to be written by Paul himself around the year 62, while he was in prison. However, modern scholars believe it may have been written by one of his students about 25 years later, as a way to sum up Paul’s teachings, and that it was sent to many different Christian communities, including Ephesus. In any case, for the purpose of this sermon, we will assume they are the words of Paul himself.)

 So, the early Christian church in various places was being persecuted by the Romans, which means they would have been familiar with the image of soldiers in mighty armor, patrolling their communities and instilling fear. They may have even been considering their own response to this threat. Should we arm ourselves? Should we fight back? Should we go to war to protect our way of life?

 But Paul gives the early church an alternative. In the midst of a hostile world, he tells them Christians are to engage in battle not with their neighbors, but with the forces of evil which inspired the problem in the first place. This is the Way of Christ, says Paul.

 And for this sort of battle, we need a different uniform.

 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

 Put on the whole armor of God. I have to admit, this whole passage makes me think of our new standard piece of armor: the face mask. It seems to me that this, too, is part of the whole armor of God. Because when we read this description of the pieces of armor God has chosen for us, they are mostly defensive. They are protective. Not only that, they serve to make not only one’s own life better, but others’ as well. Truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace—these make the world a better place. The shield of faith, with which we are able to “quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one”—well it, too serves the common good. And for this reason, yes: a face mask is part of the whole armor of God for a Christian. It is for us, and it is for others.

 Now I do want to say this: We should not spiritualize pain and struggle. The people of Haiti are fighting for their lives. The women of Afghanistan are struggling to remain free to work and to learn. Black people are pushing back against a system that has kept them oppressed for hundreds of years. Palestinians are engaged in the ongoing resistance to an illegal occupation. These battles are real.

 And still, the words of Paul ring true. As Christians engage in protest, in speaking truth to power, and in overturning unjust systems, we are called to remember that ultimately our enemy is not our neighbor. Our enemy is never flesh and blood. Our enemy is the sin and evil which lies at the root of all injustice and hatred. And so we must dress, and act, accordingly for these battles. We must clothe ourselves in Christ, crucified and risen—the Christ who fed the hungry, ate with sinners, challenged empire, and then emptied himself of divine power for the sake of the world. This is the Way we will win not only the battle, but the war—the war for our souls and for the future of the world.

 So back to that airplane from Chicago to Jerusalem. Still basking in the kindness shown to me earlier, I settled in for the long flight. The woman next to me clearly wanted to talk. I did not! Nevertheless, in a few short minutes, she told me about her life, her children, her vacation, and the date when she made Aliyah. I told her I am a Christian pastor. She told me she didn’t know any Christians. I told her I live and work with Palestinians. She told me she lived in a settlement.

 I could feel myself bristle and harden, from the inside out. I just wanted to watch a movie, not have a political or religious talk in close quarters. I knew how these conversations usually developed. So, I put in my earphones and scrolled through the movie options, trying to exhibit an air of “I’m not available for this right now.”

 But as we took off into the air, the woman pulled two apples out of her bag. She leaned over, tapped me on the arm, and handed me one of the apples, saying “Here you go, neighbor. It might be a while until dinner, and I thought you might be hungry.”

 Lutheran theologian, philosopher, musician and doctor Albert Schweitzer once wrote, “Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.”

 And so, my fellow Christians…we shall wear kindness on our sleeves. We shall put on the belt of truth, and the breastplate of righteousness. We shall wear shoes that help us be peacemakers. We shall carry our faith with us, that it can help us resist evil from without and from within. And we shall pray always—for the world, for our neighbors, for our enemies, and for ourselves, that we may stand firm in the love of God in Christ Jesus, not letting our hearts be infected with the virus of hatred or indifference.

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

 

Saturday, May 22, 2021

"Come, Spirit of Understanding" - a Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

 

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2021

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

NOTE: 

This was written and recorded on Wednesday, the day before a ceasefire was announced between Israel and Gaza

Acts 2:1-21

CLICK HERE TO WATCH AND LISTEN

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable unto your sight O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

Dear friends in Christ, I’m recording this sermon in my garden in Jerusalem, just a few minutes north of the Old City. These are very very difficult times for us. Rockets have been bombarding Gaza for days. More than 200 people have been killed there, including 50 children. Rockets have also been shot toward Israel, killing 10 Israelis. There are protests and clashes nightly. Today Palestinians participated in a general strike to protest the situation. As I walked into the Old City this morning, the tension was thick and people looked afraid.

It was just days ago that I preached an Ascension sermon using a favorite country song: “You picked fine time to leave me, Lucille!” I noted that Jesus sure picked a fine to leave us and ascend into heaven—in the middle of a pandemic and at the beginning of the war!

I wish I could say I had a fun country music reference for this sermon, and for this moment. Sadly, I don’t! But I will say that when we pray today “Come, Holy Spirit”, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt these words so deep in my heart. God, Jerusalem needs you today. Gaza needs you today. The world needs to know you are with us.

And, thanks be to God, we are gathered today (virtually, at least!) to celebrate how God did not leave us abandoned, but came to us on Pentecost! As we heard in the Acts of the Apostles, the apostles were all gathered together in one place. And suddenly, there was a rush of wind, and tongues of fire appeared, and all the people in the streets heard the disciples speaking in their own languages.

I’ve thought a lot about the fact that this event happened here in Jerusalem, the city I now call home. On a daily basis, I hear English, Arabic, Hebrew, and German spoken in my church offices. There are many more languages spoken in the streets. Because I don’t speak most of these languages, I spend a lot of time walking quietly, sometimes lost in my thoughts.

But sometimes, I’ll hear an American English accent somewhere nearby. And it never fails, immediately my head will pop up and I’m searching for the source of the sound. Where did it come from? Do I know this person? These moments are always special, especially during the last year when there have been no tourists allowed in the country. Hearing my own language, spoken in my own accent, always makes me happy. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think English is any better language than others (in fact it definitely lacks the lyrical beauty of Arabic, for example!) but that moment when my ears recognize my mother tongue feels a bit like coming home.

So I’ve been thinking about that day, when suddenly all the people of Jerusalem heard words spoken in their own languages. Scripture tells us they were from many different places and spoke many different tongues. I wonder if they, too, often felt out of place in this city. I wonder if they, too, felt a moment of dread in the supermarket, when they forgot the words for the ingredients they needed for supper. I wonder if they, too felt embarrassed when someone rolled their eyes at their accent.

And I wonder how that Pentecost moment must have felt, as they suddenly heard their own language being spoken. It must have felt so good to finally understand—and maybe, even more importantly, to feel understood.

In our Lutheran baptismal liturgy, after the person is baptized in water, the pastor places their hands on the newly baptized person and prays for the Spirit to come upon them. We say:

“Sustain this sister (or brother) with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence both now and forever. Amen.”

Isn’t it interesting that the first thing we pray for us the spirit of wisdom and understanding? It seems to me that this is the gift of the Spirit the world needs most today. We certainly need a spirit of understanding in Jerusalem today. We need the spirit of understanding to blow through this city like a mighty wind, opening hearts and minds so that all of us – Israelis and Palestinians, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, can finally hear one another, see one another, and understand one another. Only then will we ever achieve peace and justice.

 

I imagine you could use such a mighty wind in your city, too. People are so divided in the world today—politically, culturally, religiously. Even if most people in your part of the world speak your language, you probably know what it feels like to walk around and feel that we may live and work side by side, and speak the same tongue, but sometimes it feels we inhabit completely different planets!

It’s not easy to live like this. Furthermore, such extreme division is simply not sustainable, and it’s certainly not the vision of the Beloved Community that God desires for us. Misunderstanding, and feeling misunderstood, leads to frustration, and anger, and sometimes to hatred, and sadly often to violence and war. We must do better.

Which is why I feel those words so deeply today: Come, Holy Spirit. God, we need the Spirit of wisdom and understanding—in Jerusalem, in Chicago, in Rapid City, and in every other corner of the world.

Did you know Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the church? Some churches even celebrate with a birthday cake during coffee and fellowship time after worship! That’s maybe a silly idea, but I like it, and not just because it involves cake! I like it because it reminds me that something was born in us and among us on Pentecost. We may not always be able to see it, we may not always practice it, but by the coming of the Holy Spirit what was born in the church was understanding. Or, at least, the potential for understanding! This Spirit is a gift from God that lives in and among us, a gift that we have both the responsibility and opportunity to share with others.

What would it look like to truly embrace that particular gift of the Spirit of God? This doesn’t mean we need to learn to speak multiple languages (unless that’s a gift and desire of yours, which I heartily support!

But I want to point out that just like that first Pentecost here in Jerusalem, there are people waiting just outside the door of our churches, of our homes, of our communities, who are hungry and thirsty to be understood. There are people whose hearts will leap in their chests when they hear, finally, someone speaking in a way they understand. There are those who will smile to know that someone is listening, and at least trying to understand their experience in the world—as a refugee, as a veteran, as a trans person, as an indigenous person, as a divorced person, as a person in recovery, as someone who was hurt by the church.

Maybe today it is you who just wants to be heard, and understood.

Of course, listening and understanding is not easy. Speaking a new language is not easy. But we are not in it alone. As Jesus promised, God has not left us abandoned, but has sent the Spirit to accompany us, to sustain us, to bring us peace. We have with us this day and every day the gift of the Spirit—the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence. Both now, and forever.

Thanks be to God. May this spirit be alive and active in your life, in your church, and in your community.

And please, remember to pray for the peace of Jerusalem – we need it now more than ever.

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

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

"You picked a fine time to leave us, Jesus..." Ascension Sermon from Jerusalem 2021

 

Ascension Day Reflection

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

Lutheran Church of the Ascension, Jerusalem




 

Luke 24:44-53

44[Jesus said to the eleven and those with them,] “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
  50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight O Lord, my strength and my redeemer

 

This morning I woke up with an American country and western song on my mind.

Kenny Rogers and Waylon Jennings have sung it, among others. The chorus goes: “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.”

I think this song was on my mind this morning because I knew I needed to stand here and preach about the Ascension of Jesus today, and all I could think was, “You picked a fine time to leave us, Jesus.”

Truly, you picked a fine time to leave us! These past few days have had me turning to Jesus in fervent prayer, many times per day: Please, Lord, keep us safe. Please, Lord, let the rockets stop. Please Lord, bring us peace. Please, Lord, bring the people justice at long last.

I imagine the disciples felt the same on the day he ascended into heaven from this very mountain. Watching Jesus float into the clouds, seeing only the bottoms of his dust-covered feet, I feel like the disciples would join me in singing that country song. You picked a fine time to leave us, Jesus! Where are you going, and why? Why now, of all times? We need you, now more than ever!

But of course, as he ascended to the Father, the Risen Christ did not leave his followers empty-handed. As he prepared to go, he reminded them that they would soon receive what the Father had promised: the gift of the Holy Spirit. They would not be left orphaned. He would be with them always, to the end of the age. Neither pandemic nor war, neither rockets nor racism, neither ascension nor occupation can keep Jesus from standing with and for his beloved children.

Just before he disappeared from their sight, Jesus left the disciples with these words:  

“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

You are witnesses.

Along with contemplating random country and western songs, I’ve been thinking a lot about this phrase the last few days: You are witnesses of these things.

Those of us who live and work in Jerusalem are witnesses to many things. Much of it is ugly. Much of it we don’t share with anyone outside of this context.

We are witnesses to conflict and violence, racism and occupation, and human brokenness of every kind. In the last several days, we have been witnesses to air raid sirens, rockets sent into neighborhoods, holy sites breached, children killed, protests and riots in our neighborhoods, and a layer of fear blanketing nearly everything and everyone.

Yes, we are witnesses to these things.

And also:

We are witnesses to a rich life lived in many languages, in several religions, and traversing many cultures. We are witnesses to history and history in the making. In this city we are witnesses to the future, to what the world could look like, if only we saw each other as human beings worthy of care and respect and space and love.

In other words, in small but powerful ways, every day in Jerusalem we are witnesses to resurrection—if only our eyes are open to see it.

If only our mouths were brave enough to proclaim it.

Hear again the Good News: As he ascended into heaven to be with the Father, Jesus said: You are witnesses of these things.

What a responsibility. And what an opportunity.

Dear friends in Christ, dear people of the Resurrection:

Whether you are in Jerusalem or another holy city,

You are witnesses.

You have stories to tell.

You have hope to proclaim.

You have love to share.

You are witnesses, because you have seen the Risen Lord.

You have met him in Holy Scripture

You have met him on the streets of the city

You have known him in the breaking of bread and sharing of wine

You have seen him on Easter morning on this very mountain just a few weeks ago, where we watched the sun rise over the valley and proclaimed together, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”

You are witnesses of these things.

And so today, on this mountain where Jesus ascended to the Father, we witnesses do not gather to mourn that we are alone. We celebrate that we are together! We rejoice that we have been given a voice, to proclaim what we have seen and known! We know the power of life over death, of resurrection over occupation, of love over rockets and bombs and evictions and lies and war. We have seen the Lord, thanks be to God!

Oh, you picked a fine time to leave us, dear Jesus. We wish you were here in body and not just in Spirit.

But you have not left us abandoned. And now is the time: time for Resurrection joy to fill our days, to fill our hearts, to shape our conversations, and to guide our actions as we witness to the radical love of God in Christ Jesus, a love which extends to all people—Christian, Muslim and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian, friend and enemy. From Jerusalem, to the ends of the earth.

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





Saturday, May 1, 2021

"Beloved, let us love" Sermon for Sunday 2 May 2021

 

Sermon for Sunday 2 May 2021

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

1 John 4:7-21


Every day, a Facebook group called “Daily Update on Jesus of Nazareth’s Health Condition” posts this simple message: “He’s alive.”

When I first saw this reposted by a friend, sometime last year during the beginning of the pandemic, I thought: What is this nonsense? Why would anyone spend time writing something like that? Every. Single. Day! But then I thought: Honestly, this is way better than what I mostly see on social media, including the nonsense I post myself. So I clicked “follow” so I would see it again.

And now I’ve been seeing these daily updates on the health status of Jesus of Nazareth for over a year, and today I have a completely different attitude about them. I even look forward to seeing those words: He’s alive! And the next day: He’s alive. And the next day: He’s alive! Honestly, now I look forward to seeing that simple message because every day is a day when we need to be reminded that Christ is risen, death does not have the final word, and yes, Jesus is alive!

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia.

 

Friends, all of the days are days when we need to be reminded “He’s alive” because it can seem that all our days are ruled by the power of death. Whether it’s cancer or COVID, violence and riots in the Old City, or the awful tragedy just the other day at Mt. Meron during a religious celebration, all too often death dominates the news cycle, our conversations, and our thoughts.

When the tomb of death is so visible and present among us, Easter and the joy of the Resurrection can seem very long ago and very far away.  

And this is one reason it’s so important to gather as a community and to turn again to Holy Scripture, the Word of life. We read the scriptures and hear the old, old story because we need to hear from God. However, we also need to hear from our ancestors in the faith. We need to understand how they contended with the sorrows of the world. We want to know how they kept their faith in the power of life and love over death and indifference. This is why, during the season of Easter, the first reading is always from the Acts of the Apostles—the account of the first Christians and the community they built after the Resurrection of Jesus.

Today, one of the readings we heard is from 1 John chapter 4. Scholars disagree about the author of this text, but it may have been John, called the “beloved disciple.” However, even the identity of the “beloved disciple” is in question. Some think the beloved disciple was John the Apostle, or perhaps Lazarus, or another unknown disciple, or (my favorite theory) it could even have been Mary Magdalene!

In any case, whoever the author is, we know that 1 John was written very early, before the end of the 1st century, and it was addressing a struggling faith community. The book deals with how believers are to handle differences in belief, or prayer, or conduct within a community. Should those who are different be cast out? Should we cast stones at those with whom we disagree?

The author of 1 John says: Beloved, let us love one another. Let us love, because love is from God.

Whenever I read this passage, I imagine myself at a church council meeting, listening to church members discussing a contentious issue. They’ve debated, they’ve held town hall meetings, they’ve surveyed the congregation, they’ve discussed things to death, they’ve maybe even prayed about it! And they still can’t come to an agreement. And then someone in the group says, out of the blue, “Hey, how about we try…love?”

Jesus teaches us that love is always the path to take, whether we’re talking about the church budget, or a dispute with a neighbor, or high-level negotiations between nations. Love is always the answer.

Love is always the answer, but it’s not always the easy answer. There are many reasons for this. Some people are just more difficult to love, to be honest! I don’t really feel like loving people who treat me badly, who take away my freedoms, who hurt me or hate me.

Also, sometimes it’s difficult to know what love looks like. What form should it take? Is it more loving to confront someone you know needs to find help for an addiction or a mental health issue, or is it more loving to be the soft place for them to land during their time of struggle?

Some of us have grown up with a deficiency of love, and now we are malnourished. For this reason we might hoard love, keeping it to ourselves, or we might find it difficult to share love with others. We might even lash out and hurt others from our own pain.

But it seems to me that the biggest obstacle to living out God’s love in our own lives is fear, and a particular kind of fear at that. This is the fear that maybe I am not loved. Maybe I am not lovable.

“God is love”, but God probably doesn’t love all the parts of me.

“God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” but that Good News probably doesn’t apply to me. It probably doesn’t apply to me because I haven’t been to church in a year, I’ve been divorced, I’m not sure I believe anymore, I’m living with my boyfriend, I cheated on my exam, I told a lie…this list could go on forever.

The fear that we are not loved or lovable is painful enough for ourselves, but it can sometimes become the ugly root of much pain for others. Fear keeps us turned inward, trying to get it right, trying to be “lovable.” Both St. Augustine and Martin Luther said this is the definition of sin: “homo incurvatus inse”, or “humanity turned in on itself.”  When our focus is inward, we are unable to see the needs of others. We are unable to hear the stories of others. We’re unable to handle any kind of difference in others, because difference would be a distraction and threat to our all-consuming project of protecting, preserving, and promoting ourselves.

In this state, we are unable to love. And so we cast people out. Or we cast stones. Or we build walls. Or we start a war. Or we start a new church, with only those who agree with us.

And still, the Word of God insists: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.”

It’s that last bit that is important. Love is from God. It doesn’t originate in us. If it were up to us, we would spend our whole lives navel-gazing, looking inward taking care of our own, surrounding ourselves with those who agree with us all the time.

But love is from God. We love because God first loved us. Love is possible because we have been filled with love from the moment God breathed into dust and created us. Love is possible because God didn’t abandon humanity when we forgot that we were made of love, but sent Jesus to love us all the way to the cross. Love is possible because today, even in our sometimes messy awfulness, the Holy Spirit fills us with the breath of love and turns us outward, always provoking us to love more, love better, love foolishly and extravagantly.

Episcopal priest William Countryman wrote:

“God’s love is not conditional on anything. It is expressed in forgiveness. You can ignore or oppose God, if you really want to. It will probably do you no great good, but it won’t deprive you of God’s love, either. God’s love has already taken any possible wrong or error or failure on your part into account. You are loved anyway. You have been all along. You will be all along.

It does make a difference, though, when you begin to suspect, however doubtingly and uncertainly, that this good news is true. It makes a difference not in God’s love, but in your awareness of yourself and your world.”

(William Countryman, “The Truth about Love: Re-introducing the Good News, 1993)

Hear that again: It makes a difference when you know the Good News to be true. When you know that you are loved and lovable, just as you are, it makes a difference. It makes a difference, not only for you but for others—because if you are standing firm on a foundation of love, there’s no need to fear. There’s no need to fear difference. There’s no need to fear the other. There’s no need to build walls or start wars or cast stones, because perfect love casts out fear. Thanks be to God!

This week I was blessed to help a Palestinian friend edit a paper he was writing in English. With his permission, I want to share this story with you, because to me it beautifully embodies the difference that knowing we are loved, knowing we are forgiven, and knowing we belong, can make in the way we interact with our neighbors.

My friend writes:

“One day I was travelling to Berlin to attend a conference. It happened that I sat beside a young man in his early 20’s. I started a conversation with him and discovered that he is an Israeli soldier. Of course, the political conflict became the topic of our conversation. Surprisingly, I enjoyed talking to this man. I learned about his perspective and I tried to share mine. What was shocking to me was when he said that since he was so little, he was told that Arabs are his enemy. I told him the same: that since I was a little boy, I have been told that Jews are our enemies.

When the flight attendant came and asked us if we would like to buy a drink, I asked if I could buy him one. He looked at me strangely and said: “But I’m supposed to be your enemy. Why would you buy me a drink?” I answered him: “You might be my enemy on the ground, but enmity does not work in the air.”

 

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.

 

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

Saturday, April 3, 2021

"Look! But...go" Sermon for for Easter Sunday in Jerusalem 2021

 


CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE SERMON


Sermon for Easter Sunday 2021

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer

Celebrating on the Augusta Victoria Hospital Campus

Mount of Olives

Mark 16:1-8

 

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

Dear siblings in Christ: it is so good to be with you this morning, especially because last year we could only gather virtually to celebrate the Resurrection! Thanks be to God for this opportunity to worship together. A warm welcome to the Danish-speaking and Swedish-speaking congregations, and to all visitors this day.

And now may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable unto you O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

***

On the day after my grandma’s funeral, I stood on the front porch of her house with the key in my hand for the longest time. Because of travel schedules for other family members, I had become appointed the last one to leave, and it was my job to lock up the house. I had agreed to do it but had no idea how hard it would be to lock that door until that very moment.

Because I had moved multiple times and lived in many houses in my childhood, Grandma Goldie’s house had always felt the most like “home” to me. As I stood there at the door, I wondered what it would feel like, not only not to see her again in this life, but not to see that front porch, and Grandma’s kitchen, and the rope swing my grandpa had hung from the apple tree in the backyard. I didn’t want to forget any of it. So I kept looking, and looking, and looking….until my toddlers in the backseat of the car let me know it was well past time to go.

A few years later, I was dropping those same children off at elementary school in Chicago. I remember standing just outside the school playground, watching as they walked with their teachers up the stairs, into the doors of the school, and off to a new life of learning. Once again, I didn’t want to leave that spot. I didn’t want to forget the moment! And so I looked, and looked, and looked, as all the children found their way into their classrooms.

And then it was time for me to go.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb early in the morning to anoint the body of their beloved Jesus with spices. The Gospel text tells us they were worried about many things, chiefly about who would roll the stone away from the tomb.

But when they arrived, the stone was already rolled away, and they saw something (or someone) they didn’t expect. It was an angel, dressed in white, who gave them very good news. He said, “He has been raised. He is not here!”

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

But then, there was more. The angel said to the women: Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Look, there is the place they laid him. But go.

I love that the angel told them to look, because it is so important to acknowledge when hard things happen. The angel didn’t try to convince the women that nothing had happened. He didn’t try to gaslight them or rewrite history. He didn’t say, “nothing to see here.” No, the angel said “Look. Look: Something terrible has happened. I know you’re looking for Jesus. I know you loved him.”

I can imagine the angel also saying, sympathetically, “I’m so sorry. This is hard.”

Friends, the last year we’ve experienced has been really hard. Across the globe, people have spent so much time at tombs and in hospital rooms. The virus has taken so much from us: Health. Jobs. Opportunities. Friends and neighbors. Systems of injustice and oppression have taken away the breath, the hope, and the future of far too many. The weight of these losses may have even taken away your faith in God—or at least, faith in your fellow human beings.

At this moment in time, we may only want to stand still, looking backward, contemplating all that has been lost. We may want to remain at the tomb with Mary Magdalene and Mary and Salome and hope that, by sheer force of will, we can make the world look and feel “normal” again.

And the angel of the Lord says, “Yes, look. This is what happened. This is what was lost.

Look: This is where they laid him. But now…go.”

Go! And know that Jesus goes before you.

Dear people, hear the Good News: Christ is not in the tomb. He didn’t stay there, and we don’t need to, either!

The Risen Christ goes before us, into the world, into the future. The Risen Christ goes before us, and therefore we don’t need to be afraid to leave the tomb, or to step into the unknown, because wherever we go, whatever challenges we must face, whatever struggles we must endure, Jesus is already there. Thanks be to God!

Of course, in the Gospel according to Mark, we read that when the three women left the tomb, they did in fact feel afraid. They were seized with terror and amazement, and for this reason they didn’t tell anyone what they had seen and heard.

The other Gospel accounts tell it a bit differently. But I can understand the terror and amazement our sisters in Christ were feeling. The moment when your world changes can take the words right out of your mouth.

The moment you heard “Global pandemic” for the first time.

When you got the news, “You’re having a baby!” or “You got the job!”

When you first saw that video and heard George cry, “I can’t breathe.”

When you lock the door to home for the last time behind you.

Or, when an angel in white says to you, “He is not here. He has been raised.”

Maybe some folks have instant words and eloquent speeches to give in these world-shifting moments, but I usually don’t—and I’m paid to have words to say!

So Mary and Mary Magdalene and Salome left the tomb as the angel instructed, but they were wordless for a bit. They were afraid! Their whole world had changed—again—in just a few moments. But they had heard the words of the angel: “Jesus goes before you to Galilee. There you will find him.” And so they went on their way.

And what was the Risen Lord doing when he left the tomb? He was showing believers how to live the risen life. Jesus was teaching the disciples—and us—about life after the tomb, life after the resurrection, life after everything we know about the world has changed.

Jesus shows us the risen life is about long walks with friends, discussing politics and the news of the day.

It’s about entering locked rooms, or institutions, or systems, and sharing the peace with those who are afraid of others, or afraid of change.

It’s about preaching the Good News of love and justice with the whole world.

The risen life sometimes even includes breakfast on the beach!

And then, at his Ascension, Jesus sent his followers down the mountain and into the world to live as people of the Resurrection. He sent us to live the risen life, continuing his work of feeding, healing, and preaching the Good News of God’s love to all the lost and broken—beginning in Jerusalem and going to all the ends of the earth. Amen!

Friends in Christ, which of us will still be in Jerusalem together on this mountain next year, watching the sun rise? I don’t know. But the truth is, I didn’t know the answer last year, or the year before that, or the year before that. For this reason, it’s always a precious thing to gather on this day, at this stone altar, and to watch the sun rise before us. It’s precious and powerful because it reminds us that just as the sun always rises to light the day to come, so also Jesus, crucified and risen, goes before us to light all our tomorrows.

So now, with the angel in white who spoke to the women that first Easter morning, let me say again:

Look! Here is where they laid him.

Now go: Because Jesus goes before you!

Go, to love and serve and the Risen Lord.  

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia.