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We Welcome…

October 16th, 2016

We Welcome…

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, October 16, 2016.

 Texts: Psalm 119:97-105, Luke 18:1-8                                             


We welcome the hard work of prophecy. Our close proximity to power gives us the chance to speak for the powerless. We are mindful that prophets examine themselves closely before sharing their message with the world.


“What does it mean to welcome the hard work of prophecy?”  Back in July I recorded a sermon and interview for the Day1 radio broadcast and that’s one of the questions asked by the host, Peter Wallace.  Since then, I have been especially mindful of the fact that people pay attention to what we say about ourselves.  Our Core Values are part of Foundry’s witness to the world.  The strength of that witness is measured by how much our actions match what we say we value.  What we say is that we welcome the hard work of prophecy, that our close proximity to power gives us the chance to speak for the powerless, and that we are mindful that prophets examine themselves closely before sharing their message with the world. 


In these words, we as Foundry Church claim the responsibility that comes to us due to our location here at 16th and P Street, NW in our nation’s capital.  We do not shirk the responsibility to speak for and stand in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed.  Our commitments around LGBTQ inclusion, ending chronic homelessness, and racial justice and reconciliation are evidence of this.  The strategy at Foundry for many years has been to focus on several key initiatives, realizing that focused resources can make larger impact.  We do not engage in what Pastor Ben calls “policy by Twitter”—simply reacting to every hot button that pops up.  Rather, we make long-term commitments, are determined to go deep in the work of effecting systemic change, and only put ourselves fully “out there” once we know what we are willing to risk and sacrifice for the sake of those with whom we stand.  This is part of what it means to do the hard work of prophecy.  But the part that I want us to think more about today is this: “We are mindful that prophets examine themselves closely before sharing their message with the world.”  What does this mean and how do we do it faithfully?


Prophecy in the Judeo-Christian tradition is grounded in what the Psalmist refers to as God’s word and precepts.  That is, prophets in our tradition do not speak and act based on their own perspective or some nebulous idea of right and wrong.  Rather, they are guided by the particular vision and teachings of YHWH and, for Christians, the vision and teachings of Jesus. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”  (Ps 119:105) Therefore, if we are to “examine ourselves closely” before sharing our message with the world, the scriptures are where we begin; as Christians, the lens through which we read the Bible is Jesus Christ (not everything in the Bible is Christ-like).  The Wesleyan tradition (growing out of our Anglican heritage) teaches that, in addition to scripture, our self-examination and discernment needs to include the writings and wisdom of Christian tradition, the employment of our God-given capacity to think, question, and reason, and the prayerful reflection upon our experience to clarify and enhance what scripture teaches.  Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are all resources for us in the “hard work of prophecy” as we commit to “examine ourselves closely.”


These days—and likely always—these same resources lead persons to reach very different conclusions.  This shouldn’t surprise us since, contrary to what some want to suggest, our scriptures and tradition do not comprise a list of dogmatic principles that simply have to be accepted or rejected.  Parables, for example, are not “yes or no” questions, but rather stories that do their work on a variety of levels.  Is there only one “lesson” to learn from the parable Jesus tells in our Gospel today?  A quick, surface-level reading reveals that the short parable and teaching that follows includes an acknowledgment that sometimes it seems our prayers are not being received; it is an assurance that God DOES receive our prayers and will respond; it points slant to the issues of injustice that cause those on the margins (in this case, a widow) to “cry out day and night”; and it presents a call for a response at the end: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”— what is that all about??  Our text today is a good example of the ways that the resources we have for discernment and self-examination are multivalent—I have no doubt that any perspective I offer on the parable has counterpoints.  This reality leads to very messy and divisive relationships between people and groups whose paths claim to be lit and guided by God’s word but whose paths lead in very different directions.  The current state of the United Methodist Church is a prime example.


My dad taught me that when you find yourself facing a challenge the first thing to do is assess what resources you have and what you can actually do to make any kind of helpful response.  In this case, what we can’t do is change anyone else. We are called to “examine ourselves closely before sharing our message with the world.”


As I’ve pondered this over these past months, I became aware of the psychological and sociological research on something called “confirmation bias.”  What is confirmation bias?  One article lays it out in terms of our misconception and “the truth.”  “The Misconception: Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.  The Truth: Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what you believed while ignoring information which challenged your preconceived notions.”[i]

The author shares a number of studies and experiments on confirmation bias, including one on Amazon purchasing trends during the 2008 U.S. presidential election.  “People who already supported Obama were the same people buying books which painted him in a positive light.  People who already disliked Obama were the ones buying books painting him in a negative light…people weren’t buying books for the information, they were buying them for the confirmation… Half-a-century of research has placed confirmation bias among the most dependable of mental stumbling blocks.  Journalists looking to tell a certain story must avoid the tendency to ignore evidence to the contrary; scientists looking to prove a hypothesis must avoid designing experiments with little wiggle room for alternate outcomes.”[ii]  Studies suggest that we remember things that support our beliefs and forget what doesn’t.  And there’s also something referred to as the “makes sense stopping rule” in which we come up with an answer then work to prove it right instead of testing to see if it is wrong.  “When you wonder why something happens or what the truth may be, you stop looking for answers once your presumptions are satisfied…// Punditry is a whole industry built on confirmation bias. Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck and Arianna Huffington, Rachel Maddow and Ann Coulter – these people provide fuel for beliefs, they pre-filter the world to match existing world-views. If their filter is like your filter, you love them. If it isn’t, you hate them. Whether or not pundits are telling the truth, or vetting their opinions, or thoroughly researching their topics is all beside the point. You watch them not for information, but for confirmation… Over time, by never seeking the antithetical, through accumulating subscriptions to magazines, stacks of books and hours of television, you can become so confident in your world-view no one could dissuade you…”[iii]


Before a few months ago, I didn’t know the term “confirmation bias” but was certainly familiar with the concept of speaking in an “echo chamber” or “living in a bubble.”  So, as I read about confirmation bias, I wasn’t surprised—except for how deeply convicted I felt.  After all, just because I don’t listen to the likes of Rush Limbaugh doesn’t mean that I willingly ignore all information that counters my preconceptions, right?  I want to believe that my perspectives and stances are rational and tested against the objective resources of scripture, science, and so on.  But how have I fallen prey to this tendency to block anything that might truly challenge my world-view?  If I—and we—seriously value “the hard work of prophecy” and want to engage in the self-examination required to do that work faithfully, we need to wrestle with this.  After all, confirmation bias is driven by our desire to be “right”; but God wants us to be faithful—to be loving, wise, humble, just... 


We can’t do anything about how confirmation bias has formed or affected us up until today; we likely can’t wrest ourselves of this tendency completely even once we acknowledge its existence; but, as with any life-limiting practice, the first step toward freedom it admitting we have a problem.  We can at least try to resist living in the illusion that “our opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis” (and that anyone who disagrees with us is deluded or “evil”).  For example, as we wrestle with the challenging issues of our day—things like immigration, Israel-Palestine, poverty, abortion—we can acknowledge those aspects of our position that may be (if we’re honest) little better than convenient rationalizations.  To counter the effects of confirmation bias doesn’t require me to start regularly watching what Rev. Alan Storey refers to as “the FOX.”  But perhaps it does mean that, if I want to examine myself closely I will intentionally look for and seek to understand (non-sensationalized) perspectives that are truly counter to my own.  The goal is not to be converted to some other position necessarily, but rather to be truly open to the experience and perspective of another person or group, to allow myself to be truly challenged. 


We cannot make anyone else willing to be open to our experience and perspective.  All we have control over is what we are willing to do.  At Foundry we are committed to the hard work of prophecy and to examining ourselves closely before sharing our message.  What are you willing to do, what are you willing to give, in order to make this happen?  When we give financially to Foundry, we not only make possible advocacy and direct service, but we also provide the capacity to increase opportunities to engage in deep study of scripture and the writings of our tradition, to encounter new ideas and perspectives, to connect with one another and learn from each other, and to be involved in the conversations and actions that matter most of all.  Using all the resources of discernment available to us—scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—we are committed to identify and take risks on behalf of the people for whom we are called to speak and with whom we are called to stand.  And by the grace of God we will listen to, seek to understand, learn from, and have compassion for those whose paths and positions and politics challenge our own.  That may be the hardest prophetic work of all…

In the days, weeks, and months ahead as we deal with the fallout of this presidential race, I believe the church generally—and certainly Foundry Church (in every place that we are)—must be willing to do that hard work. It is work grounded in God’s word and precepts.  It is the work of compassion, the work of reconciliation, the work of love.  And, after all is said and done, that is what “faith on earth” looks like.


[i] David McRaney, “Confirmation Bias,”

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

We Serve…

October 9th, 2016

We Serve…

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, October 9, 2016.

Texts: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Luke 17:11-19                                         


We serve God by serving others. We remember the second of Christ’s greatest commandments is to love each other. We make personal commitments to working with people in our neighborhood and around the world.


“In pain today.”  That was the subject line of an email I received this week from a member of our Foundry family.  “In pain today.”  These simple words struck me at a deep place as new reports of the devastation and death toll in Haiti continued to roll in in waves; as fresh news of Christian exclusion and violence to LGBTQ people emerged both within our denomination and from other places like Intervarsity Fellowship; as a participant in the “God and Guns 2016” conference in New York City, listening to the pain-filled stories of survivors of gun violence; as I was again confronted by the intersections of race, poverty, and death by guns; as I caught up on the news I’d missed on Friday during the conference to discover indefensible misogyny and sexual violence being defended and rationalized and normalized for the sake of—what?—winning an election? And then, yesterday, I arrived at Penn Station with a little breathing room to catch my train home only to receive a report that “there is a body on the tracks”…no further story or explanation except that there was a fatality—and so for a couple of hours I settled into a spot on the floor to ponder the words, “In pain today.”


Every day, both near to us and far away, people are in pain. Among the presenters at Friday’s conference was Rev. Alan Storey, South African Methodist pastor and prophet who confessed to us saying, “I numb myself just to keep sane.” That resonated with me. Perhaps it does with some of you, too.  


We may need to numb ourselves sometimes in the face of so much tragedy, injustice, and pain.  But we need to guard against allowing the numbness to devolve into apathy or despair.  We are the people of God, called to be witnesses to God’s extravagant love and mercy in the world.  Our particular witness as Foundry Church, the story we tell and seek to embody, is a critically important counter-narrative to what is espoused by some who claim the name “Christian.”  There are those who preach that to be Christian is to think you know the very mind of God, that God punishes people through natural disasters and acts of violence, that women should be subservient to men, that “God ‘n country” is one word, that serving God requires exclusion and hate.  Alternatively, Foundry affirms that we serve God by serving each other.  We are clear in our core values: all people are children of God and should be treated that way; people who feel excluded elsewhere are welcomed and integral to our shared life. When we say “We serve God by serving each other,” the “each other” we serve is not just those who claim Foundry as their faith community.  The “each other” we serve is not just those who believe what we believe or vote like we vote or live like we live or love like we love.  Our call is to serve each and every other there is!  Because every “other” is beloved of God.  Every “other” experiences pain. Every “other” has the capacity to more fully know and reflect the divine image that is the birthright and goal of all humankind.  We ground this core value of service in Jesus’ teaching that part of the greatest commandment is to love our neighbor. Jesus showed us what that looks like in practice.  It is messy and it is political and beautiful and transforming and confrontational; Jesus shows us that loving our neighbor means to lay down our lives for the other. Death and resurrection is always part of the story.

Today we read the prophet Jeremiah who says, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  I must confess that when I think of this verse of scripture, I often think about my own call to seek the welfare of this city.  And certainly that is part of my calling—it is part of our calling. But these words of Jeremiah are not directed to me or to anyone with power and privilege and stability—they are not words telling us with all the power and resources to go and help those poor people in the city.  Jeremiah’s words were spoken TO the exiles who were deported when Babylon occupied Judah for the first time (597 BC).  Jeremiah is speaking to the poor, the immigrants, to those who had lost their homes and livelihoods, who had been driven out of their country by violence. Several implications come to mind that guide us in our call to serve each other.  First, the assumption in this text is that the exiles (those forced from their homes and countries by violence) have gifts to offer that will contribute to the welfare of the place where they make their home. That is not a small detail in our current cultural and political climate. How much of our current rhetoric speaks of what “those people” (immigrants, the poor, LGBTQ people) take away from “us?”  But this text suggests just the opposite.


Second, God’s people—in this case, those in exile—are encouraged to seek not just their own welfare in a new place, but also the welfare of their enemies (those who had done them the greatest harm!); for in the welfare of their enemies’ home and community they find their own.  This speaks to the interconnectedness of the human family.  All the lines we want to draw to keep us from caring for, serving, and loving others—lines of country, gender, culture, politics, race, religion—are not of God.  Yes, there are real differences among the human family and there are those who have done us real harm, but we belong to each other! Jesus echoes this teaching when he says we are to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Mt 5:44, Lk 6:28).  This doesn’t mean that we don’t challenge and fight against actions or policies that do harm, or that we are to overlook greed, injustice, and fear-mongering.  Rather, we are called to love our enemies enough to call them out for the ways that they betray their own human dignity through acts of injustice or violence, the ways they distort the image of God by their greed and cruelty.  Jesus never minced words with the agents of religious, political, or social injustice. But he never sought to destroy them. The neighbors we are called to love and serve include our enemies.


Another implication for us today from Jeremiah is that, for any here today who are not living in poverty, who are not immigrants, refugees, those dispossessed of home, family, or livelihood due to violence, our duty first and foremost is (as one of the presenters said on Friday) to “close our proximity to pain.”  Like Jesus who draws near to those who were feared and shunned by others—for example, the lepers in our Gospel text—our role is to stand in solidarity, to draw close to those who are struggling, who are suffering, who are in pain and to honor the gifts that they are and the gifts that they bring by concretely supporting them…because we belong to each other, because we are family, because our welfares are bound up together.


A recap:  First, humble yourself and welcome the stranger. Second, serve your enemies as well as your friends—and that might be through challenging them.  Third, be in solidarity, be in real relationship, be on the frontlines with those who are in pain and the victims of exclusion and violence. The welfare of our city, our nation, our world hangs in the balance.


How do we concretely respond to the pain and need that is all around us?  I want you to understand today that, insofar as you contribute to Foundry Church (through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness), you are responding.  Together we are serving God through serving others.  One way we do this is through being who we are and looking like we look!  Another is through the counter-narrative we offer in the world—a narrative of God’s radical hospitality and inclusion, of God’s steadfast love and mercy for all people, a narrative of faith that is relational and personal, that is intellectually rigorous and open to mystery, that is lived out in both personal piety and social justice, that is fueled from start to finish by God’s grace.  This in itself is a powerful way that we serve!!


Our witness is also powerfully manifest through our cooking and feeding missions, through our English as a Second Language program, and through our Imago Dei (I.D.) ministry—one of only two in the city that helps the poor and unhoused obtain government IDs and birth certificates.  Foundry sent more than 30 people to Portland to build relationships and advocate for full-inclusion of LGBTQ people at General Conference—and Foundry remains absolute in our commitment to welcoming all people and practicing marriage equality.  Our Advent and Lenten Justice series help us explore concrete responses to issues such as solitary confinement, gun violence, and environmental justice.  Foundry folks serve across the city during our annual Great Days of Service—and this past spring more than 350 volunteers joined together for a Foundry-inspired Greater Washington District meal packing event to feed hungry people on the other side of the world.  Foundry actively partners with organizations in DC to end chronic homelessness (like Pathways to Housing whose offices reside in our building) and, this past March hosted a standing-room-only Housing For All Rally in which our own Pastor Ben spoke some serious truth to our Mayor and other city officials in attendance.  We have cultivated relationships with Brighter Day UMC in Anacostia and Metropolitan UMC in the Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore to support initiatives of these communities where poverty and racial inequity do harm.  Our Scholar in Residence program this year has challenged us to go deeper into the conversation and discernment around our action for racial justice and, growing out of that, the Racial Justice Ministry Team has clarified its goal: Awareness Raising. Active Dialogue. Action.  Books to Prisons, grief support, Prayer and Care Ministries, pastoral counseling, and more…all of these things are among the concrete ways that we serve as Foundry.


“In pain today…”  This reality can feel overwhelming and like we can’t make any difference.  But you can and do make a difference by your support of Foundry Church.  We serve through our prayers. We serve through our presence with one another in worship, study, and fellowship.  We serve through our financial gifts. We serve through hands-on ministry and mission. We serve through our witness as bearers of the good news of God’s love for all people.



Our core value of service includes these words: “We make personal commitments to working with people in our neighborhood and around the world.”  What personal commitment are you willing to make for the welfare of the world?





We Believe

October 2nd, 2016

  We Believe…

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, October 2, 2016, World Communion Sunday.

Text: Luke 17:5-10                                                                


Foundry Core Value #1:  We believe in Jesus Christ. Everything we do begins with Christ. We remember how he ministered to the poor, fed the hungry, healed the sick, befriended sinners, welcomed the shunned and sacrificed himself to save us.  He rose from the dead and gives us hope.



What does it mean to say “We believe in Jesus Christ?”  What are the disciples asking for when they say, “Increase our faith!”?  Religious faith and belief are often thought of in terms of agreeing with an idea, a concept, a point of doctrine, or a particular philosophy.  But biblical scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer reflects on this saying, “The word ‘faith’ (pistis, in the Greek) is often spoken about as if it meant trying to talk ourselves into intellectual assent to something, with ‘increasing our faith’ meaning that we are successfully persuading ourselves that we have adopted an idea we think is ridiculous. That's not faith; it's self-deception, and usually a pretty unsuccessful kind of self-deception that results in our feeling a little guilty and hypocritical, as we know that we don't actually believe what we say. But faith is not about intellectual projection and assessment…Faith is relationship—a relationship of trust, of allegiance.”[i]  Hold on to that for just a moment because we’ll come back to it…


A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of seeing the musical “Come From Away” at Ford’s Theater.  The show recounts real events beginning on September 11th, 2001 when, in the wake of the attacks in New York, 38 planes with 6,579 passengers were rerouted and then stranded in a remote town in Newfoundland.  People from all over the world landed in this remote place surrounded by trees in the middle of the night.  They had no idea where they were or why their flight had not landed where it was supposed to land; they were not allowed to get off the plane, and they received NO INFORMATION for hours.  I don’t do well when I don’t get an update after sitting on the tarmac for 10 minutes, so the thought of being in this situation makes me twitchy.  But the people were being held because there was no place for them to go and there was little information and heightened security.  As they sat on the plane, the people of the small town of Gander (who had the benefit of television) knew what had happened in the U.S., had been made aware of the thousands of people sitting on planes at the airport, and were kicking into gear to create shelters out of the school and the Elks’ lodge and every available space.  They were gathering food and supplies, cots and air mattresses, diapers and extra clothes to provide shelter for almost as many people as actually lived in their town.  Eventually, the “plane people” as they came to be called were shuttled by school bus into Gander.  They were from dozens of countries, spoke different languages, had various medical conditions and infirmities, practiced different religions, and represented every race, culture, gender identity and orientation.  Just imagine trying to provide hospitality on the fly for that kind of community!  But the people of Gander did it. They barely slept for days as they cared for the needs of all the people and animals—including a pregnant orangutan!—who came to them off the diverted planes.


Among the personal narratives highlighted in the show, one I want to share is of a hardened New Yorker.  He is suspicious of where he’s landed and doesn’t trust the generosity and kindness of his hosts.  This guy fears that World War 3 has begun and worries that someone is going to shoot him… and steal his wallet.  Throughout the musical, we see him transformed; this man goes from being aloof, defensive, and distrustful to allowing himself to open his heart and receive the gifts being offered with real joy. It is a delightful transformation to behold.  


What caused the transformation?  It was not that he was provided with a copy of “Seven Steps to Move from Fear to Trust Like a Rock Star” (I just made that up); it was not that the man was given a treatise outlining the character and actions of the people who lived in Gander and decided to “believe” it; it was the people themselves and the relationships he formed with them that brought about the change. Those folks just kept showing up and being kind and patient and generous. He learned he could trust them—and could trust himself with them. 


That is what we’re talking about when we talk about “belief” and “faith” being about relationships.  It’s about trusting the relationship between ourselves and another; about believing in what can be held and transformed and overcome through the power of love, friendship, trust, and commitment. It’s about believing in the intentions and heart of those with whom we are in relationship.  And that happens as each person shows that they are worthy of trust, that their promises are not empty, that there is safety in opening up.  It’s akin to saying to another person and really meaning it: “I believe in you. I believe in us.”


For Christians, faith is to say that to God.  God, I believe in you…I believe in us.  It is to trust God’s perfect, steadfast love, to believe in what can happen through our relationship with God.  If that is what faith is, then how does it increase?  Jesus responds with a rather enigmatic parable that is further complicated for us (at least as it comes to us in translation and in our context) because it is about a “slave” knowing his or her place. Because we don’t have time today to deeply examine the parable, I simply remind us of what we know about the one telling it.  We know that Jesus doesn’t think human beings are worthless (you don’t give your whole life for people you deem worthless), Jesus doesn’t enslave people, he sets them free (e.g. Lk 13:16), Jesus loves and values people not as commodities but as partners in the work of God’s saving love in the world.  Knowing all that, we’re left to ask the question:  what is the point Jesus is trying to make in the parable?  At its most simple, the story presents hardworking servants whose relationship with the one they serve leads them to proclaim, “We have done only what we ought to have done!” 


When it came time for the “plane people” to leave Gander, they kept wanting to show their appreciation in some tangible way to the people who had opened their homes and lives so generously.  But the Newfoundlanders said, “No, no, you would have done the same for us…We have done only what we ought to have done.”  It was about relationship, about doing what was right, about stepping up to love and care and be generous with others.


Perhaps that is the point Jesus makes.  To increase faith (to deepen trust and love in relationship with God) we simply need to keep doing what is faithful—doing what we have been given to do as followers of Jesus Christ.  Pray and serve and give and seek justice and love, love, love. As you do these things, by God’s grace, faith increases—your own and that of the people around you.


In Gander, Newfoundland in September of 2001, in the midst of tragedy, a kind of “world communion” took place.  Self-giving love was poured out.  Hearts and homes were opened to the stranger.  Prayers were shared.  The language of care and gratitude became the common tongue.  People got fed.  That is what we celebrate today and seek to embody every day at Foundry Church.  It is not through words about Jesus Christ, but through following Jesus in sacrament, service, generosity, and love that our faith grows and becomes a living witness to the world.  May it be evermore so…and may we do all we can to make it so…may we do what we ought to do.

[i] Sarah Dylan Breuer, “Sarah’s Lectionary Blog,”

Go and Share

September 25th, 2016

Go and SHARE

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry United Methodist Church, September 25, 2016.

Text:  Luke 8:26-39                                                             


As Jesus stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.  When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”—for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)


This “man of the city” (Greek aner poleos—kinda like “some guy in the city”) was someone’s son, someone’s brother—perhaps someone’s husband or parent.  He bore in his body the scars of different kinds of chains that had repeatedly been fashioned to control and subdue him.  He was repeatedly seized by the recurring violence that seeped into his psyche and cells through abuse—his abuse of himself or of others upon him.  He was abandoned and alone.  He was unhoused and lived in the wild and in the tombs and in the places no respectable person would go.  He was not in his right mind. 


He represents so many who suffer in our society:  black and brown people who bear in their bodies and through daily experience the scars and fresh wounds of racism; people suffering from addiction whose cycles of self-destruction seem beyond even the best efforts at control; those who have been abused physically or emotionally and who dwell in depths that feel like death; LGBTQ people who are abandoned by their families or rejected by their churches; the homeless and the poor who get quarantined to the margins and less “desirable” neighborhoods; the mentally ill who walk among us but whose pain goes unnoticed until it becomes a “nuisance” to our cities or erupts in violence; anyone who feels accosted by spiritual torment that steals life and hope and the ability to live without constant fear.


No wonder the man says his name is “Legion.”  In Jesus’ day, anyone would have known the implications of such a name: “legion” was a Roman army unit of up to six thousand soldiers.  It symbolizes an occupying force whose power is complete and whose presence means the loss of control over every dimension of life.  This was the experience of the Jewish people under Roman occupation.  When the man identifies himself as “Legion” we see someone who is powerless before the things that bind him.  And the larger implication in the story Luke tells is that the Roman empire—with its violence, exploitation, use of fear to control (all legitimated by religion)—is identified with (or at least compared to) the supernatural powers that are behind all systems of violent oppression.  In other words, human communities create “demoniacs” through systemic violence and neglect.


The forces of empire had taken their toll on the body, spirit, and mind of this “man of the city.”  The result was a living death.  He was doing things that did harm to himself and others.  These words in response to the unrest this past week in Charlotte from the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II come to mind:  “I am a pastor. I will not condemn grief. But I was trained as a lifeguard, and I learned a long time ago that when people are drowning, their instincts can kill them and anyone who tries to help them. If a lifeguard can get to a drowning person, the first thing the lifeguard says is, ‘Stop struggling. Let me hold you up in this water, and we can get to the shore together.’ The riots in Charlotte are the predictable response of human beings who are drowning in systemic injustice.”[i]  // I would argue that the “man of the city” in our Gospel was drowning in systemic injustice. 

When Jesus came on the scene, seeing what had hold of the man and demanding that it release him, things escalated rapidly. 


The “demons”—those supernatural forces of empire: apathy, blindness to reality, distraction, greed, that cause and allow so much suffering—are scared because they know they’re no match for the power that has just arrived in Jesus. They beg Jesus not to “order them back to the abussos,” the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew word meaning “the flood or watery deep.”  Jesus grants their request to take up residence in the nearby pigs.  And immediately, the pigs run into the waters and drown.  Jesus didn’t order them back to the abyss.  What we see here is that these control- and power-hungry, life-consuming, enslaving forces are hurtling toward a cliff and will take themselves—and anyone who is in their thrall—over the cliff into the abyss.   They don’t want it, but it is where their energies lead.


The man is saved from drowning, is released from his constant struggle, is set free from the powers that had held him. And when the people come to see what has happened they find him clothed and in his right mind. He is described at this point not as aner poleos but instead as anthropon, literally “human being.”  When the crowds saw not some random “other” but a human being like themselves, they were afraid.  Why?  Well, as President Obama said yesterday at the opening ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, “The best history helps us recognize the mistakes that we’ve made, and the dark corners of the human spirit that we need to guard against. And yes, a clear-eyed view of history can make us uncomfortable. It will shake us out of familiar narratives.”[ii]  Jesus has just reframed the “man from the city” as a human being with a history that led to his current state.  The people were made uncomfortable and shaken in their familiar narratives.


The people got scared because Jesus had just unmasked their complicity with the powers that banished a brother to death.  The people got scared because Jesus put a human face on what they wanted to keep in caricature and stereotype.  The people got scared because they needed their scapegoat, they needed their victim, they needed to be able to point to the “man from the city” as the problem, as the danger, as the dead-weight.  The people got scared because the consequence of saving the man was disruption of the local pig farming economy. The people got scared because they realized that if this brother was so vulnerable then they were, too.  The people were on the verge of drowning in their need to blame and deny and justify, in their compulsion to put others down in order to lift themselves up. They were hurtling toward a cliff and the abyss below; and they sent the lifeguard away.


But before he left, Jesus spoke to the now-free human being saying, Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”  In other words: Go and SHARE!  Go and tell. Go and live. Go and be a lifeguard for your people.  Go and let your liberation be a hopeful witness for others who are vulnerable and oppressed. Go and declare the powers of empire null and void in things that truly matter. Go and share the call to stand fast against all that is wrong, to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in any form they present themselves. Go and share the good news that there is no power in heaven, on earth, or under the earth that will outmatch the liberating power of God’s love in Jesus Christ.


So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.  


Will you?



[i] William J. Barber, II, “Charlotte is Drowning in Systemic Injustice,”


[ii] President Barack Obama,

Go and SEE

September 18th, 2016

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry United Methodist Church, September 18, 2016.

 Text:  Psalm 27                                                                  


Palestinian-American Poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells this story of an encounter with a Middle Eastern mother and child:  “The little girl at the airport gate in Cincinnati had a tuft of vivid pink ponytail sticking straight up out of her brown-haired head.  I wondered how hard she had to beg to get her mother to do that.  She was about five, wearing a lacy white party dress.  When we boarded the plane she turned up sitting right in front of me.  She poked her cute little face through the crack between the seats.  ‘Do you have a table that comes out of your arm?’…When the flight attendant gave safety instructions over the loudspeaker, the girl chimed out loud responses.  ‘You’re welcome!’ to ‘Thanks for flying with us.’ ‘Hope you have a nice flight too!’ Her mother tried to shush her.  ‘But you told me to answer people,’ the girl protested.  The mama said, ‘That lady’s talking to everyone.  She’s not just talking to you.’ The plane took off toward San Francisco and the little girl looked down on Cincinnati.  ‘Oh Mama!’ she cried. ‘We forget we live in a zigzag world.  Look how it’s shining!’”[i]


“We forget we live in a zigzag world,” a shining world…  This little Arab child had the eyes to see the beauty of the world, the light in the world, she saw everyone as a friend.  Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we don’t see.


Many months ago now, in a sermon, I lifted up the opening prayer from our United Methodist Order for Morning Praise and Prayer that begins, “New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world.” I regularly post the prayer on FaceBook and many of you have commented about how helpful it is.  But something else I’ve heard in response to the words of this prayer is:  “I have a hard time seeing God working for good in the world.”  // So many people struggle just to get by; the specter of violence haunts our streets, our homes, even our computers; the earth is wrecked to line the pockets of the already wealthy; bigotry, cruelty and injustice not only land upon human bodies with humiliating, deadly force, but also become rallying cries to mobilize the very worst of human nature.  And it feels tiresome to have to keep acknowledging the vitriol and division and polarization that seems so overwhelming in these days.  But this is the soup in which we are swimming.  We can’t escape it.  I’ve been hearing how difficult it is for those of you who are directly involved in the political fray in any way to keep a sense of balance, kindness, and faith.  I have been hearing painful stories about hateful, dismissive, words and actions from family members and friends.  When our own loved ones begin to treat us like an enemy we know that the infection of this particular dis-ease has become pervasive indeed. We may wince to think of the ways that we ourselves have contributed to the ugliness that is determined to get its hooks in all of us.  In the midst of all of this, our vision can get clouded by defensiveness, hurt, self-righteousness, regret, fear, sadness, and more. How can we see the shining, zigzag world, how can we see others as friends, how can we see God in these conditions?


Jean Vanier is a Catholic philosopher and the founder of L’Arche, an international organization that creates communities where people with intellectual disabilities and those who assist them share life together. Vanier himself has lived in this intentional community for more than 50 years. He talks about seeing God through “signs” explaining that, “A sign means ‘a great event that is visible and reveals a presence of God.’”[ii]  Vanier isn’t just talking about things we might associate as “miracles”—like walking on water or immediate healing.  Instead he mentions things like the 2010 film Of Gods and Men, a movie that retold the tragic fate of nine Trappist monks in Algeria. The monks lived in deep harmony with their Muslim neighbors until 1996, when Islamic fundamentalist forces ordered them to leave. The monks refused to leave the people with whom they had formed such close bonds and paid dearly for their solidarity. Vanier says that the film reveals God’s presence and, therefore, is a “sign.”  He also mentions things that certain people do—acts of courage, of love, of humility, of service—and says that these are “signs”—great events that are visible and that reveal God’s presence.  I imagine that many of us can get on board with this understanding as an abstract concept.  But is this the lens through which we actually look upon the world?  Are we actively looking for “signs” and, if so, do we have the eyes to see them? 


As Naomi Shihab Nye’s story reminds us, children tend to see signs with great clarity.  I am reminded of the moment here at Foundry back in July when this truth was on brilliant display.  On July 17th, author Diana Butler Bass joined us for worship with her family. She wrote about what happened on her FaceBook page: “The pastor (Pastor Dawn) called the little ones forward for the children’s sermon, about a dozen preschoolers gathered on the chancel steps. The pastor asked, ‘Where is the candle? Do you see the candle?’ The children looked around. One sharp-eyed boy said, ‘There it is.’ And the pastor replied, ‘Would you get it?’ The boy retrieved the candle and handed it to her. ‘Where is the white bowl?’ she then asked. And the same happened. ‘Where are the silver and gold beads?’ Repeat. ‘Where is something that reminds you of Christmas?’ Again.  Finally she asked, ‘Where is God?’  The children looked about.  Up, down, all around.  A few bewildered stares, some shrugged shoulders. Then, a small blonde boy in a plaid shirt, about three years old, said, ‘I know!’ The pastor said, ‘You do?’ The little boy looked excited insisting, ‘Yes, yes!’ Then the pastor said, ‘Where?’ And the little boy replied, ‘I’ll go get God!’  He jumped up from the chancel stairs and ran down the center aisle. His father, obviously a bit worried about the open doors at the back of the sanctuary, leaped out of his pew to fetch his son.  Before he got very far, however, the little boy had returned. He was holding the hand of a kind-looking woman in her seventies, literally pulling her down the aisle. ‘Here!’ he cried, ‘Here’s God! She’s here!’ The pastor looked puzzled: ‘Miss Jean?’ And the boy pointed, ‘There she is! God! God!’”[iii]


I received an email from Diana later that day saying that her FaceBook stats revealed that her post of the story had reached more than 100 thousand people.  She said “I've never seen people respond so beautifully to something I've put up on social media…People are hungering for goodness.”


The signs are all around us.  But, as Vanier writes, “to see signs, we have to be alive to reality, to what is actually happening.”  Perhaps that tempts us to circle back around to all the nastiness and struggle that pervades the world at present.  That, some would say, is what is actually happening.  True enough.  But it is not the only thing happening.  New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world.”  Are we looking upon our lives and the world with the expectation that all day long God is working for good?  Do we have the eyes to see? 


“Witness” is our guiding theme for this next year and one aspect of that is seeing. What do we witness?  What do we see?  I’m glad we have the year to explore these questions because there is so much to think about.  But as a beginning—and way of framing this piece of our reflection on the topic—I was drawn to Psalm 27.  It came to mind initially because verse four of the Psalm is part of the daily office I pray from the Celtic Daily Prayer book: 

One thing I asked of the Lord,

    that will I seek after:

to dwell in the house of the Lord

    all the days of my life,

to behold the beauty of the Lord,

    and to seek God in God's  temple.


Having prayed this verse every morning for over two years, I have come to understand “the house of the Lord” not as a building—or a physical sanctuary—but instead as an enfolding in God’s presence.  Where does God dwell, where is God present?  I believe God’s “household” is the created world.  Even so, I can have the experience—does this happen to you?—where I become so caught up in my own agenda and so familiar with my surroundings that I forget where I am and can only see as far as the end of my nose.  Therefore, an awareness of where I am—God’s household!—opens my eyes to beauty and reminds me to look for God everywhere.  My experience is that, without the daily reminder of how to fix my gaze—the reminder of what to seek, what to look for—my vision shrinks and becomes distorted and fixed upon distractions, divisions, destruction. 


When I went back to read the whole Psalm, I was reminded that in this prayer we don’t find anything that could be interpreted as a denial of the painful realities of the world.  This Psalm doesn’t suggest that if you just go to church regularly all the bad things will go away and your life will get easy and you’ll never get hurt or feel sad or angry.  Instead, we hear of flesh being devoured (v. 2), of war (v. 3), of parents’ abandonment (v. 10), of slander and violence (v. 12).  In the midst of all these realities, the Psalmist seeks the God who is known as a light and guide for the path, a teacher, a source of protection and help.  And finally, the Psalmist’s testimony is: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (v. 13)  If the Psalmist is correct, seeing God in the midst of pain and struggle gives us the courage to stand strong, to resist the forces all around us that would devour us given the chance.  Seeing God even in the presence of injustice and attack also allows us to recognize beauty in the world when it seems there is no beauty to be found.  That is, an awareness of God’s presence gives us the eyes to see the acts of kindness, generosity, tenderness, courage, self-sacrifice, patience, creativity and the like that happen right in the middle of tragedy and struggle.  Seeing God helps us see what God sees…because if we are seeing God’s presence and activity, then we become aware of the people God sees, the ways God is at work.  And if we are seeing that, we will know where we can participate in what God is doing in the world. 


There is a lot to unpack about the process and practice and benefits of seeing God—and we’ll have opportunities to do that in the months ahead.  But for today, the invitation is to recognize how important it is to know what you are looking for.  The Psalmist says, “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after”:  to dwell in God’s household every single day and to behold—to see—the beauty of the Lord.  What do you seek?  What do you look for?  Friends, today you are invited to go and SEE God.


“We forget we live in a zigzag world.  Look how it’s shining!”  Look!  “Here’s God! She’s here!”


[i] Naomi Shihab Nye, “My Perfect Stranger,” You & Yours, Rochester, NY: Boa Editions, Ltd., 2005, p. 78.

[ii] Jean Vanier, Signs: Seven Words of Hope, New York: Paulist Press, 2013, p. 45.

[iii] Diana Butler Bass, FaceBook post, July 17, 2016.