Monday, February 5, 2018

Thoughts on fevers and healing, after a visit to Hebron (4 February 2018)

Sermon for Sunday, 4 February 2018
5th Sunday after Epiphany

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

There’s nothing like a visit to Hebron the day before you’re supposed to preach on “healing” to really mess up a gal’s sermon.

To be fair, I was having a bit of a struggle with focus this week anyway, and had been praying hard for the Holy Spirit to be generous and reveal something new about these texts sometime before this morning. Ideally, something inspiring. Something encouraging! Something relevant to our context.

And then I went to Hebron.

In my mind were these words from this morning’s Gospel according to Mark:

“As soon as Jesus and the disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sunset, they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.” (Mark 1:29-33)

Our guide Afnan tells us: “In 1997 the Hebron protocol divided the city into two parts: H1 and H2. H1, under Palestinian rule, is 80% of the city. H2, under Israeli rule, is only 20%--but it included all of the Old City and the main areas of commerce. There are at least 3 police for every 1 settler there now.”

“And Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” (Mark 1:34)

“I will have to meet you on the other side of Shuhada street” says Afnan. “I’m not permitted to walk there, because I am a Palestinian.”

“The Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. The Lord counts the number of the stars and calls them all by their names.” (Psalm 147)

“The Palestinian residents of Shuhada street must present their IDs to the guards” says Afnan. “But they do not look at their names, only their numbers. Each resident is known only by a number.”

“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

“The first time we were under 24-hour curfew, we thought it would be over soon,” says Abu Abed, as he serves us coffee with cardamom inside his tiny shop. “But when it happens the second time, and the third time, and on and on for years—what can we do? Many choose to leave, to find homes in a safer place. They want a better life for their children. But I am still here.”

Dear friends in Christ, what shall I say about healing today? How can we comprehend the promise of Christ’s healing power when we live and work in a place that has been so sick, for so long?  How do we think about the miraculous healings Jesus performed in this land so long ago, when no such miracle seems to be happening in this same land today?

As I walked through Hebron yesterday, with this unwritten sermon on my mind, my thoughts kept going to Peter’s mother-in-law, lying on her sickbed in Capernaum. In Mark’s Gospel, it simply says she had fever. And when we read those words today, we may think, “Well, a fever is not too bad! This is not like those stories where Jesus heals those possessed by demons, or men who have been born blind, or women who have been bleeding for twelve years. This is a fever. Jesus only needed to give her a cup of tea and tell her to take a good nap!”

But of course, the reality is that a fever in Jesus’ time was often a “sickness unto death.” It was indeed life-threatening, and not only that, it was often assumed to be caused by something demonic. For this reason, it was also shameful! Peter’s mother-in-law not only had a fever—she was in mortal danger, and so was her family. She was confined to her room, cut off from society, suffering alone, with little hope of a cure.

Making my way through the streets of Hebron, passing under the metal netting which keeps the settlers’ garbage (but not their dirty water or urine) from hitting the heads of those walking below, I thought: 

“This land is like Peter’s mother-in-law. Here is she is, suffering with the life-threatening disease called Occupation, and so many of us write it off as a simple fever.

Those who haven’t seen (and even those of us who have!) really don’t understand the illness—so we don’t understand the urgent need for healing.

 “There are two sides to every story,” we often say.

“It’s too bad that the Jews returning to the land has inconvenienced the people who were already here,” I have sometimes heard.

Or, all too often:
“These folks have been fighting for thousands of years, and nothing will change until Jesus comes back!”

Nothing will change until Jesus shows up.
Nothing will change until Jesus shows up.

This is both the most aggravating thing—and the most truthful thing—that my fellow Christians say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nothing will change until Jesus shows up.

On the one hand, I reject this way of thinking entirely.

I don’t think it’s in any way right for a Christian to look at the Middle East (or any other part of the world) and say, “Well, this is all really messed up, but Jesus is coming soon, and he’ll fix it. These people are really suffering, but Jesus will show up soon and heal them.”

Friends, Jesus did not suffer and on the cross so that we could throw up our hands and say, “Well, I guess he’s covered that! Nothing else for us to do.”

We have been saved. We have been healed. By his death and resurrection we have been granted the tremendous free gift of grace and forgiveness and salvation—and now what?

To paraphrase our brother Martin Luther: “We don’t have to do anything. And we are entrusted to do everything.”

We have been healed…and now we are freed to be a healing presence for others.

The Gospel according to Mark tells us when the mother of Peter’s wife was healed of her fever, when it left her for good, she immediately got up and began to serve the disciples.

Now there is a completely different sermon I could preach on how we interpret the typical gender roles in this verse, and what Jesus might say about it today! But the thing I want to emphasize this morning is the fact that this woman who was suffering, who was confined to her room, and who was unable to fulfill her role in the community…was brought to healing and wholeness through the presence of Christ.

And the first thing she did was join his movement—not as an apostle, not as a preacher or prophet, but as a deacon, serving Jesus and the disciples in the way she knew how, thereby becoming part of his healing ministry in the world.

Peter’s mother in law was healed…and she became a healer.

For this reason, when someone says, “Nothing will change in Hebron, in Israel and Palestine, or in the world, until Jesus shows up”, I want to say: That’s exactly right.

As St. Teresa of Avila famously wrote:

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.”

Christ has no body on earth but yours...therefore, sometimes healing looks like Jesus entering a sickroom in Capernaum, taking hold of a feverish woman’s hand, and lifting her up so that she can serve the disciples dinner.

But sometimes, healing looks like 13 people (some Christian, some not) entering a tiny shop in Hebron, drinking coffee with cardamom, and hearing one man’s story.

“Life is very difficult here,” said Abu Abed, as he showed us photos of what life in Hebron was like before the closing of his street. “Life is very difficult, but when you come to us, it is like we can breathe again. When you come to us, we breathe fresh air through your lungs.”

Hear that again: “When you come to us, it is like we can breathe again.”

We had no special credentials.
We brought no medicine,
And we possessed no magic.

But by the grace of God, drinking coffee in a tiny shop in occupied territory, there was a small measure of healing for Abu Abed that day.

Not wholeness, as yet—but comfort.
And hope that change is coming soon.

Wholeness will come when Abu Abed, and his family, and Hebron, and indeed all of Palestine and Israel are freed from the deadly fever called Occupation. 

Wholeness comes when all people have not only heard the Good News, but are able to enjoy the love, the liberation, and the healing of God’s Kingdom—on earth, as it is in heaven.

Dear friends, how shall we talk about healing when we live in a world that has been so sick, for so long?

This is what I can say:

If Jesus has come to you and touched your hand,
If your fever has been relieved and you can once again breathe deeply,
If you know that you are loved by God,
If you know that you are called by name, not by number,
If you know that oppression and occupation are not God’s will for humanity,
If you have tasted and seen that the Lord is good,

Then you have the privilege,
You have the power,
You have the freedom,
You have the gift,
Of bringing fresh air,
And forgiveness,
And human rights,
And justice,
And liberation,
And above all the Good News of God’s love,
To all those who so desperately need it. 

You have been healed!
You, too, are a healer.

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

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2018 in Jerusalem


Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
23 January 2018

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

Exodus 15:20-21

The Song of Miriam

Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’

With the Sisters of St. Brigid at the reception after the service!


A few years ago, I took a short plane flight from Chicago to Oklahoma City with Southwest Airlines. This small American airline company is known for both its short domestic routes and its cheap fares. It’s also known for having flight crews with a sense of humor.

On this particular flight, just after we reached a cruising altitude, we heard an announcement from the cockpit:

“Dear passengers, there’s no need to be alarmed, but we thought you should know this will be an ‘unmanned flight’ today.”

Then there was a longer-than-comfortable silence, while I and the other passengers tried to understand: Is this some kind of self-flying automatic plane? Is anyone even at the controls? What was happening?

But just when we were starting to get worried, the voice came back on the intercom and said: “That’s right—our pilots and flight crew today are all women! We are un-manned all the way to Oklahoma City!” and then the female captain gave a joyous laugh, right into the microphone.

What a relief, to know we were simply un-manned, not un-piloted!

I thought again about this “unmanned” flight this past Sunday, when we welcomed a large group of American college students to our English-speaking worship service here at Redeemer. The students sang with us, prayed with us, and shared communion with us, and afterwards I spoke to them about what it’s like to be a Christian in Jerusalem. A few hours after the service, I noticed that the leader of the group posted on Facebook:

“I never thought my first worship service in the Old City would be led entirely by women!”

It was only then that I realized our service that day had, in fact, nearly been “un-manned”. This wasn’t really by design—it just so happened that the preacher, the pianist, the Scripture readers, and all but one of the communion servers that day were women. I quickly typed a response to this trip leader, saying:

“Yes, the service was led by women this week—but consider it only a mild corrective to a few thousand years of worship led by men only!”

Now, if what I’ve just said makes you uncomfortable, I would say that was exactly what I hoped to do at the beginning of this sermon. Because the truth is, I’m a bit uncomfortable standing before you today! It’s not easy being the only woman preaching during an entire week of sermons.

And I also thought it was good to start with some discomfort, because it’s important to name the truth that whenever we visit each other’s spaces (as we have been doing this week in Jerusalem) we are uncomfortable.

We are uncomfortable, because we’re not all the same.

We are uncomfortable, because when we step into each other’s very different traditions, what we experience can feel like hearing that we’re on an “unmanned” airplane flight!
We’re not sure what to do, or how to act, or if we are even welcome there.

Some of us chant in Greek, and some in Arabic, and some sing in four-part harmony.
Some of us use finger cymbals and triangles, and some have massive pipe organs.
Some have elaborate worship spaces, and others have small intimate chapels.
Some have very ancient liturgies, and some of us were literally putting it together yesterday! 

And yes, some of us have women in the pulpit, and at the altar—and we occasionally hold services in which no men are involved. At all. 

And this is why the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is both the best and the hardest week of the year. Oh, we want to support one another. We live in a conflicted city, in a divided land, and we are the minority religion in this place. For this reason, we want to love one another, as Jesus loved us. And I believe we genuinely do want to fulfill Our Lord’s prayer that the church would be one, as He and the Father are one. Not only that, we would love to do it first in Jerusalem, as an example to the world!

But…we may wonder if “Christian Unity” means we have to give up something of who we are. After all, we have strong feelings about each of these points of difference I just mentioned. These are no small matters! This does not feel like adiaphora! Neither our aesthetics, nor our theology, nor our ecclesiology, are things and of us want to change or give up or deny for the sake of some false "unity".

In fact, if we are honest, our prayer during this annual Week of Prayer might really be: 

“When Christ sees fit to re-unite us under one roof, please let it be the church where I feel most comfortable!

But I believe we must really trust that unity in Christ is possible, although we do not understand yet what that really looks like. For as it is written in Jeremiah, “For surely, I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” And again, in the Gospel according to Matthew, we have read that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).  

We must really trust that the unity Our Lord Jesus desires for His church is not a unity that diminishes diversity or erases identity, but one which celebrates the beauty of us all.

So the question is: What might this Christian Unity look like? How can we ever be one, when we are so very different?

I must confess that I was a bit perplexed when I saw the assigned Scripture readings for this week of prayer, and especially the readings for this third day of the Week of Prayer. I wondered: What in the world do these texts have to say to the Christian churches in Jerusalem? What image could these possibly give us as we try to imagine our future one-ness?

But then I looked to the text from Exodus chapter 15, which is the main theme for this Week of Prayer 2018. And of course, as the only woman preaching this week in Jerusalem, I was quite drawn to the last two verses, the Song of the female prophet Miriam:

Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’

How interesting it is for us to be hearing the story of the people of God passing through the waters, at this time in Jerusalem. We are facing a very difficult time in our city right now. Some world leaders are making statements and speeches which will have long-lasting consequences for us. The future for a peaceful solution in Palestine and Israel is not certain. The people of this land always have hope, but the truth is it feels like we are standing at the edge of some very stormy waters, and the way forward is not at all clear.

So perhaps it is fitting to read the song of Miriam, which comes from the other side of the waters. Perhaps this is just what we need, to remember that at a time when everything seemed hopeless, when the people were weary and were starting to doubt, when some were even longing to go back to slavery, because at least it was known…God showed the people the way forward. Moses obeyed the Lord, and the waters parted, and the people of God walked on dry land to safety, and freedom, and liberation.

Our God made a way out of no way, and when they were on the other side, what did the people do? Miriam and all the women sang and danced for the Lord.

 “Sing to the Lord!” She announced to all the people. “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, I am grateful for this image of praise during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, because sometimes I think we forget that the Lord desires our praises.

Sometimes, because our churches and our city and this land and our broken world require so much of our energy, and so many of our prayers, we forget that God also loves to hear our songs of gratitude, and of joy!

It is good and right that we should sing to the One who has vindicated us time and again,
Who has thrown horse and rider into the sea,
Who has freed the oppressed,
Who has already brought down the dividing wall,
Who has kept promises,
Who has provided for God’s people in every time and place,
Who has sent Jesus to walk with us, to suffer for us and with us,
And who, by Christ’s resurrection, has granted us eternal life.

In the midst of all the political turmoil of the times, we must not forget to sing!
In the midst of division between (and within) our churches, we must not forget to sing!
In the midst of worry about the future, we must not forget to sing, with Miriam and Moses, and with all the saints of every time and place—for things may seem uncertain now,
we may be divided now,
but Our God has already triumphed gloriously.
Horse and rider have already been thrown into the sea,
Sin and death have already been defeated,
And we have already been made one.

That’s right—we have already been made one, today!

For during this Week of Prayer, we are not only dreaming of some future, idealistic, unity.
We are one, right now, in this place, in song, and in prayer.
We are one, as Miriam and the women were one, using their whole bodies to praise God for their liberation.

What wonderful practice this is, for the day when we are all singing in the one heavenly choir!

Today, in this place, we are already one, even in our diversity. 

And this unity is not for our sake—it is for the sake of God, who desires our prayers and praise.

And it is for the sake of our neighbors.

For if we can come together in prayer,
Then surely we can come together to as co-workers for God’s kingdom.

If we can come together in song, then surely we can come together in action when we are challenged to throw horse and rider into the sea!

Because after all, now in these last days, we the church—the one people of God, the one Body of Christ today— have been called to throw the horse and rider into the sea,
To part the waters,
And bring down walls,
And heal the sick,
And feed the poor,
And raise the dead,
And set the oppressed free,
And be fearless brokers of peace with justice in our city, and in the world.

Dear sisters and brothers, this is so much easier to accomplish if we aren’t in competition!
This is so much easier to accomplish if we have already worked through our discomfort with each other’s differences!
And this is so much easier to accomplish if we have practiced singing as one.

In harmony, of course—
Because each of our voices is different.

May Jesus our Liberator,
And our Reconciler,
hear our songs and prayers this day, and every day.

And may we be one, as Jesus and the Father are one. Amen. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

"Time's Up!" Sermon for 21 January 2018

Third Sunday after Epiphany: 21 January 2018

“Time’s Up”

Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

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

Five. More. Minutes.

I think these are possibly the three most frustrating words in the English language.

When I was first married, these were the words that greeted me many mornings, when I would casually mention to my new spouse that now might be the time to wake up and go to his College Algebra class. “Five more minutes,” he would groan, to which I would frequently respond, in five of his favorite words: “I. Am. Not. Your. Mother.”

But then, one day, I was someone’s mother! And soon I heard those three words almost nightly when it was time for bed. “Five more minutes! I’m almost done with this level! I just need to save my game! Just five more minutes, PLEASE?!”

There was one—and only one—time when I truly enjoyed hearing those three little words. It was a school day morning, and one of the kids was sitting on the floor of the living room, jacket on, backpack already strapped to his back, trying to finish the last pages of a particularly good book (The Hunger Games, I think). When I said it was time to hurry to the bus stop, he looked up at me with teary eyes and pleaded, “Five more minutes! Please?”

And how could I refuse? Five pages and five minutes later, I happily drove him to school.
“Five more minutes”—just three small words that add up to a very convenient (and much-loved) avoidance technique.

All of which makes me consider the immediate response of the fishermen in today’s Gospel reading from St. Mark, the first chapter. Jesus walked along the Sea of Galilee, calling out to Simon and Andrew, James and John, and the scriptures tell us they “immediately” left their nets and boats and followed him. Not in five minutes, but at once.

And this is how we know they weren’t church people.

Church people would have held some meetings first. Church people would have tabled the discussion for a while and formed a task force.  If those first disciples had been church members, I’ll imagine they would have found a way to bring their nets or even their boats with them—or at least their favorite seats in the boat!

Today, Jesus is still calling new disciples with this simple invitation: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Softly and tenderly—and sometimes boldly and with a good kick in the pants—Jesus is still calling people to new life, new opportunities, and new ways of being in the world. But rather than responding immediately like those first eager disciples, our answer is more often something like “Five more minutes, Lord.”

“We only need five more minutes! There’s so much to do first. And besides, this is the life we’re used to. This is the way we’ve always done it!

Fishing for people sounds interesting—but not today.
Following you sounds like a good opportunity—maybe my cousin would be interested.
I tell you what: give me your number, Jesus, and I’ll call you later.”

Now to be fair, we have lots of practice at putting things off for later, because time is always an issue these days. We have smartphones and smart homes and smart cars and even smart refrigerators, which all means we should have more time than ever. But when are you going to read that story to your kids? When will you have dinner with those friends you haven’t seen in ages? When are you taking that vacation, or taking your partner on a date? When are you going back to school for that degree? When are you finally going to say you’re sorry—or I love you?

“I just need five more minutes!”

Of which our brother Martin Luther once wrote, “How soon NOT NOW becomes NEVER.”

And it was his namesake, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday was celebrated this past week, who famously wrote, “The time is always ripe to do what is right.”

Dr. King wrote those words in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, during the time when he was arrested for his non-violent protests against racism and racial segregation in Alabama. You might be surprised to learn these words weren’t directed at the open racists and bigots who were opposing the fight for civil rights. Instead, these strong words were intended for the well-meaning Christians (many of them pastors) who thought King was simply moving too fast. As Dr. King wrote:

“I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry? It has taken Christianity almost 2,000 years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth."

Dr. King’s letter continues:

“I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

The time is always ripe to do right.
How powerful these words still are today, 55 years later!
And how pertinent these words are in this very different context, many thousands of miles away from Alabama:

“The time is always ripe to do right.”
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

As we worship this morning in a divided city, in the midst of a military occupation, this familiar Gospel lesson about Jesus calling the first disciples should both inspire and convict us. When we hear about fishermen who immediately got off the boat, it’s not hard to recognize the ways in which we ourselves, time after time, have “missed the boat” because we stayed on the boat!

When I respond to the call of Jesus with “Five more minutes, Lord”;
When I avoid talking about justice in Israel and Palestine, or about white supremacy, or about the crushing weight of the patriarchy, for fear of offending others;

When I put off for later what God wants done now
Then the truth is I contribute to the appalling silence of the good people.

I remain a fence-sitter and a pew-warmer, rather than accepting the invitation to be a co-worker in God’s kingdom.

And…perhaps I could end the sermon here, while we pass around sign-up sheets for the various ministry and service opportunities here at Redeemer of Jerusalem! I could probably fill in every slot for musicians and readers and communion servers from now until June. I could populate the church council with new people and arrange a sizable donation to the Peace Center for the Blind today. No more five minutes!
Yalla, let’s go, church! Amen?

But wait: there’s more!

To be sure, this Gospel lesson is focused chiefly on how—and when—we respond to the call of Jesus. It’s a story about time, and how we use it.

But this story also teaches us about how God uses time.
Scripture tells us that Jesus came walking along the Sea of Galilee, and issued his invitation to discipleship, at a certain moment in time:
At that time, Jesus’ friend and mentor, John the Baptist, had just been arrested.
At that time, it was difficult to be a prophet and keep your head.
At that time, laying low might have been the wiser choice for Jesus.

But Jesus instead went to Galilee, boldly proclaiming to anyone who would listen (even fishermen on their boats):
 “Listen! The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”

Other Bible translations put it this way: “The time has come!” or sometimes “The right time has come.”

But my favorite, from the Message Version of the Gospels, goes like this:

“Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here!”

Time’s up! No more waiting! No more living lost in chaos! No more struggling to earn divine approval! No more searching for God’s presence! For, as it is written in Galatians chapter 4:

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

In the fullness of time—at just the right time—we received the gift of Jesus Christ, our Savior, our Redeemer, our healer, and our brother. The God who loves us from the beginning to the end saw fit to make us adopted children in this way, at this time. This great act of love happened at just the right time—and is still happening!

This is the message Jesus calls us to join in sharing with the world.

Not in five minutes.
Not when we’re comfortable,
Or when we’re retired,
or when we’re sure no one will be offended—but NOW.

Now is the time to get out of the boat,
Now is the time to leave our nets, our learned habits, and our culturally-acceptable prejudices behind,
Now is the time to take the first steps toward a life and a world transformed by love,
Now is the time to follow Jesus in proclaiming: “Time’s up!”

For sexual assault and harassment, and for unchallenged patriarchy: Time’s up!
For racism and bigotry, wherever it is found: Time’s up!
For occupation and oppression, for terror and for tyrants: Time’s up!
For poverty in our backyard and around the world: Time’s up!
For apathy, greed, and indifference: Time’s up!
Time’s up, sisters and brothers, because the kingdom of God has come near.

The kingdom of justice, peace, reconciliation and wholeness is close enough to touch, embodied in Jesus of Nazareth himself.

 What amazing grace it is to hear from this Jesus those two simple words: “Follow me.”

"Follow me, walk with me, stand with me, resist with me, eat with me, show mercy with me, be whole with me, believe in me.”

Believe the Good News: The kingdom of love, justice, peace, and reconciliation has come near in Jesus of Nazareth! And we are freed, and we are empowered, to follow. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

"I saw you first" Sermon for 14 January 2018

“I saw you first”

Sermon for Sunday 14 January 2018
2nd Sunday after Epiphany

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer

John 1:43-51 

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

I will begin this sermon today with a story about my favorite nativity scene.

Listen, I know Christmas is over. I know we have moved well beyond the nativity story in the church calendar, and that most of you, who are sensible, have taken down the tree and the lights many days ago.

But the truth is, it is 100% Christmas in my house still to this day. This is mostly because I have been living and breathing the details of the new Bishop’s consecration for the last few weeks, so there’s been no time at all to “de-Christmas” the house. It’s also because I love Christmas, and for the past few years that I’ve lived here, I’ve happily used the excuse that in Jerusalem, Christmas lasts until the Armenians celebrate on January 19!

In any case, I want to tell you that my favorite nativity was made by the Catholic sisters at Beit Gimal. It features the usual characters: Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. But in this one, Mother Mary is lying down, her arm outstretched, and the infant Jesus is lying next to her, as if nursing. Joseph is sitting behind them, looking on tenderly. I love this particular image so much, because it depicts Jesus as a real baby and Mary as a real mom. These could be church members. This could be me and my own infant son. For me, this portrays the essence of incarnation—God made flesh—and I love it. The truth is, I would probably be a Christian even if the only part of the story I ever heard was the chapter that takes place in Bethlehem. I would be a Christian even if all the Good News I ever heard is that God the Creator was born of a human mother and laid in a manger, that he took on our human frailties and was found in human skin. Christmas is enough of a miracle to ignite the mystery of faith in me!

A few years ago, I posted a photo of this lovely nativity set on my Facebook page, and was shocked to see that among the positive comments was one from an online friend (who happened to be Palestinian. He said: “This is horrible! What is our world coming to! We should not see Jesus like this.”

Let me tell you, was so confused. What did he mean, we shouldn’t see Jesus like this? Jesus was a baby! He had a mother! You don’t think he ever needed to eat?!

This incident so disturbed me that I mentioned it to my Palestinian bishop. But I was only about halfway through my impassioned story when he nodded his head and agreed, “That’s right, we really don’t need to see Jesus and his mother that way.”

Well, this shut me up for a bit. But not long ago (during the actual Christmas season), I showed off this nativity scene for a third time, in the presence of another (hopefully more sympathetic) Palestinian friend. And again, much to my surprise, she admitted “Yeah, I don’t really feel comfortable with seeing Jesus in that way.”

This time, I thought to ask the question: So, what does your Jesus look like?

And she said: “Well, a bit more glorious. A bit more “You may think you’re the king, but I’m victorious.”

Where my breastfeeding baby Jesus reflects and sanctifies a sense of my own frail humanity, her King Jesus reigns over the mess of the occupation, and of this world, and never breaks a sweat. Her Palestinian Jesus is less “Babies R Us” and more “Badasses R Us.”

In the end, we both know and love the same Jesus—but it seems we saw him on different days! Amen!

Dear friends, I know that you’ve heard, and have been taught, that there is just one Savior, one who looks like whatever the dominant culture is where you are from, and who possesses the same political positions as your leaders, and who eerily resembles the mega-church pastor in your community.

But I’m here to tell you that Jesus is the Living God. Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary in Bethlehem, defies our limits. Jesus challenges our assumptions and shatters our prejudices. He is the baby at Mary’s breast and the suffering one on the cross and the one who, through the power of love, has triumphed over sin, death, and occupation. Jesus Christ is the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega; he is the one the world has been waiting for, and always exactly who we need to see! Amen!

Which brings me to today’s Gospel reading, in which Philip tells Nathanael that he’s found “him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” When Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip answers, “Come and See!”

Philip invited Nathanael to come and see Jesus for himself, even though Nathanael thought he knew something about this “Jesus” already.
Here’s what Nathanael thought he knew:

The Messiah is the good guy the whole world has been waiting for.
And nothing good ever comes out of a “shithole” town like Nazareth.

But Philip said: “Come and see! Come and meet this guy. Really.”  

Scripture tells us that when Nathanael did meet Jesus, Jesus said to him right away, ““Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?”
And Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

I saw you, and I knew you, before you ever saw me, said Jesus.

And Nathanael responded: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

Now, we don’t know much about Nathanael, but Nathanael’s instant emotional response to being “known” and seen feels so familiar to me. Nathanael sounds like me. He sounds like one of my kids He sounds like a third-culture kid, a global nomad. Maybe he was like some of our kids, who don’t have any friends who have known him forever.

I don’t know if this is true about Nathanael, but it seems clear that being seen, and being known, was exactly what Nathanael needed in order to believe. It was exactly what his heart required in order to follow.

Dear sisters and brothers, in this season after Epiphany, we will hear many stories of Jesus and his love being manifested in the world. We’ll hear of his ministry and his teaching, of healings and meals with sinners and outcasts. This is the season when we, along with the disciples, get to see and to know Jesus before he makes the journey to Jerusalem and the cross.

But this morning, it seems important for us to hear that first, he has seen us. First, he knows us. Jesus has said to each of us, with arms outstretched:

I saw you when you were behind the wall and losing hope.
I saw you when the patriarchy was grinding you down.
I saw you when you were fleeing your home country.
I saw you when you were gaining strength to leave that bad relationship.
I saw you when you relapsed, and when you denied the truth about yourself, and even when you hurt the ones you love the most.
I saw you in your joys and in your sorrows, on your worst days and your best.
I saw you before you were invited to follow!
I saw you before you were born.
And I love you!

For as it is written:

“Lord, you have searched me out; O Lord, you have known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.” (Psalm 139)

And again: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Dear friends, the one who says “follow me” has seen us, has known us, and has loved us, since the beginning, and loves us to the end. Therefore, we may follow boldly, and in confidence, the One who knows us best.

Let us pray:

God, you know us better than we know ourselves.
You know our thoughts,
our weaknesses,
our motivations,
our sins.
And you love us still.
Forgive us when we don’t believe such love is true or possible;
When we wonder how You could love us just as we are,
when we forget our intricate construction,
wonderfully made,
in Your image!
Remove from our minds every thought which keeps us from you.
Break down the walls,
push aside the pride,
and help us to trust anew.
You know our hearts.
And you love us still.
Therefore strengthen us to be your disciples,
Loving others as you have loved us,
To the end.

(Prayer slightly adapted from All Things New, written by Rev. Susan A. Blain and Rev. Scott Ressman. Posted on the United Church ofChrist website.)