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Nonconformity

August 28th, 2016

Nonconformity

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC August 28, 2016, the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Text:  Luke 13:10-17

Now Rabbi Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath.

 

And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that made her doubt whether she was welcome since she had doubts and questions about some tenets of the faith. She was hunched over, unable to see (without craning her neck) how important she was in that place.

 

And just then there appeared a man with a spirit that made him cynical about everything, including himself. He struggled to trust, to hope, to believe that things might ever be better. He was hunched over, unable to see the beauty and positive changes happening in spite of constant struggle.

 

And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that made it difficult to manage the anger she felt at the reality of suffering and injustice. She was hunched over, unable to see that she didn’t have to manage her anger alone, that there was a whole community with whom she could lament, rage, and engage in acts of solidarity and change.

 

And just then there appeared a genderqueer person with a spirit that told them that they were crazy and broken. They were hunched over, unable to see that the mystery and beauty of humanity includes a variety of God-given, created natures.

 

 

And just then there appeared a man with a spirit that told him that he was a disappointment, that he was not a man, that he couldn’t be a faithful disciple, because he was gay. He was bent over, unable to see the strength and gifts and vision that he could uniquely offer because of his orientation, not in spite of it.

 

And just then there appeared people with spirits of grief, guilt, fear, despair, loneliness, self-righteousness, numbness, mental illness, addiction, exhaustion…

 

Now Rabbi Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath.

 

And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.  And Jesus saw her and called her and set her free from what, in the original Greek, is described as a spirit that causes weakness.  And the woman praised God at this unsolicited grace!  But the leader of the synagogue was not having any of it—this is the sabbath after all.  He directs his words to the crowd, but is really preaching to Jesus who has just made the mistake of healing on the wrong day.

 

In the two versions of the Ten Commandments found in the Bible (Ex 20:1-17 and Deut 5:6-21), the only commandment with a significant variation is the fourth one—regarding the sabbath.  In Exodus, the sabbath commandment is grounded in creation, recalling God’s own creative activity and subsequent rest.  In Deuteronomy, sabbath is connected to liberation, with the reminder that God led the people out of slavery in Egypt.  Taken together, we learn that Sabbath keeping has to do with both creation and redemption:  delighting in the creation such that we are ourselves re-created and remembering with joy that God frees us from all that is enslaving and harmful to our life. 

 

Sabbath understood in this way makes Jesus’ encounter with the bent-over woman perfectly appropriate.  So why does the leader of the synagogue get so bent out of shape?  Well, evidently, over the years, the one clear prohibition in the fourth commandment—no work—required some further definition; a policy if you will.  In time, according to one commentator, 613 additional rules and regulations were attached to that simple admonition.  The result is that a commandment originally meant to provide a day of enjoyment and renewal became a fearful thing—leading folks to worry all day long that they might mess up and actually do something that could be construed as work.

 

I confess that I feel for the leader of the synagogue.  Like him, I want to get it right and to follow God’s teaching.  I am a huge fan of following the rules—jaywalking makes me nervous as does walking into a place when the sign says “closed” or not using the blinker when changing lanes.  I am a team player—and, having played sports for years, I know that when people don’t know or follow the rules of the game, the whole thing falls apart.  I know through experience that without shared commitments to agreed-upon norms, community breaks down.  I feel for the synagogue leader and can feel the sting when Jesus speaks the word, “hypocrite,” that most painful of words when directed at those of us who are trying to be faithful, to get it right.

 

But part of being faithful is a willingness to receive correction, an openness to learn that we might be getting it wrong.  Jesus points out that, according to the current state of things, an ox has a better chance of being treated well than does a human being; this, due to a provision written into the Sabbath policy that allows for livestock to be given water on the seventh day. Perhaps another amendment is called for.[i]  After all, if an animal can be untethered in order to be cared for on the sabbath, cannot a beloved daughter be set free as well?

 

In this story, we see Jesus breaking some of the finer points of the synagogue’s Book of Discipline for the sake of a woman with a spirit that had crippled her life for eighteen years (what if she is only 18 years old?).  In this case at least, it appears that what is called “nonconformity” by the religious institution is actually much more conformed to the heart and intention of God’s Law.  Jesus’ acts of “nonconformity”—in addition to showing love and mercy—were meant to liberate the faith community from hypocrisy and from a harmful application of God’s law.  Jesus wasn’t trying to destroy his Jewish faith tradition or to cause schism. //  “Nonconformity” has been a word flying around a lot in our United Methodist denomination over the past months particularly with regard to those of us who stand and act in defiance of the discriminatory language and rules against LGBTQ people.  My participation in acts of so-called nonconformity finds inspiration and justification in the story we have heard today and others like it.  That is, I believe I am following Jesus.  But, if I am taking this passage of scripture seriously, I must remain aware that I stumble into the sanctuary each and every week with some spirit or another from which I need to be liberated. I need the healing touch of Christ.  And I also need to come open to a word of challenge, of correction, of conviction.  I need to be open to Jesus who can see me and what in me needs to be…fixed and released…

 

We all come to this place in all sorts of shape, some of us feeling strong and some of us feeling weak and some of us uncertain and some of us more certain than we, perhaps, ought to be.  We are here to worship or to find a place to belong or to hear a word of hope or challenge or to confess or to be healed or without really knowing why we have come.  But you are here.  Now.  And, thank God, Jesus will not conform to even well-meaning human rules that would keep him from seeing you and extending whatever you need to live more fully and to see more clearly.  It may sting, but even that is for the greater purpose of love and liberation.

 

Now Rabbi Jesus is teaching on this Sabbath and says, “You are set free.”  Praise be to God!

 



[i] I am indebted to the work of Scott Hoezee, Biblical commentator for the Center for Excellence in Preaching, for the information on Sabbath referred to in the sermon.  Center for Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, ©Luther Seminary.  The information was confirmed by my colleague, Rabbi Steve Weisman of Temple Solel in Bowie, MD.

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Have You Been ‘Shedding’?

August 21st, 2016

A sermon preached by Rev. Will Ed Green, Director of Connecting Ministries at Foundry UMC, on
August 21, 2016, the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

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The Heart of the Matter

August 14th, 2016

The Heart of the Matter

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC August 14, 2016, the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost.


Text: Matthew 5:17-30                                                          

Is it possible to legislate morality?  Will stricter gun laws keep people from killing each other?  If we outlaw online extramarital hook-up sites will people stop cheating on their partner?  Will legally enforced compliance with the agenda proposed by the Black Lives Matter movement insure the end of racism in every police precinct?  Of course the answer to those more specific questions is absolutely not.  But that didn’t keep Foundry from being deeply invested in the work of the Anti-Saloon League in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some may scoff at that as a romantic and misguided investment of resources and energy, but at that time alcohol was tearing at the fabric of families and whole communities on a massive scale.  Something had to be done.  The pros and cons of Prohibition are still debated today.  Some may suggest that Prohibition—and gun control legislation as a contemporary corollary—are not “legislating morality,” but are rather attempts to protect citizens by setting legal boundaries for production, sale, and use of death-dealing products.  And others will counter with statements like “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”  And then the debate has a tendency to turn toward the need to focus on changing hearts and minds of individuals versus the benefits and necessity to address systems through policy and laws.

 

In Jesus’ time, the debate was a bit different since there was no separation of “church” and state. The “law” was inherently and simultaneously religious, social, legal, and moral.  And the differentiation between “individual rights” and “communal systems” was nothing like it is for us; the interdependence of the individual and community was simply understood.  In today’s reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that he hasn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but rather to fulfill them (Mt. 5:17).  Jesus’ fulfillment of the law is his life, the way that he shows what it looks like to truly embody not just the letter, but the intent of the law.  One of Jesus’ primary critiques of the scribes and Pharisees is the hypocrisy manifest among many, the ways that their lives don’t match their words (Mt 23:3).  He also challenges the tendency to apply laws in a way that ignores or harms the poor and oppressed (Mt 12:10-12).  So when Jesus goes on to challenge his followers to exceed even the scribes and Pharisees in faithfulness to the law (Mt. 5:20), it seems that he is saying: know the law and the teachings of the prophets and then try to actually live and apply them in life-giving ways.  Jesus then offers some examples to help his hearers understand how they might do that.  Here are a couple of those examples (Mt 5:21-30):

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’

22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,

24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.

26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

 

So do these verses simple things up for you?? 

Undoubtedly, Jesus is setting a very high standard for his followers here.  But what we have in these verses is not a full-blown ethical system, a list of rules, a new set of commandments.  Rather, what we have here are some examples of how to get to the heart of the matter when it comes to living as God would have us live.  Jesus takes a couple of examples from the Ten Commandments—“You shall not murder,” and “You shall not commit adultery”— then, in essence says, “On a scale of 1 to 10, I want you to live these things at 11.” 

 

Jesus’ assumption is that all will know and understand what it means in the law when it says “You shall not murder” and “You shall not commit adultery.”  After all, those admonitions are pretty straightforward.  But Jesus goes on, stressing that the heart of these commandments is based on God’s desire that we do no harm to one another.  The extreme case is murder, but Jesus goes on to speak about anger, urging us to understand that mismanaged anger can become the seed of violence.  To be clear, Jesus would never suggest that we should never be angry; there is such a thing as “righteous anger” that can and must be expressed—prophets ancient and contemporary spend most of their time being angry and making sure everyone knows about it!  But that kind of anger is a directed anger for the purpose of addressing injustice, righting wrongs, making a world that does less harm.  Jesus’ teaching here challenges us to seek reconciliation and to be mindful of the words we use.  We know well enough—even those who have become good at publicly pretending otherwise—that words can hurt us just as much as sticks and stones.  Notice that the strongest consequence comes from spewing an insult at someone (calling someone a “fool” 5:22). Stubborn refusal to seek reconciliation and engaging in hate speech, while not taken to the extreme case of murder, is still not to be taken lightly. 

And a second extreme case is adultery, but Jesus presses the point, emphasizing that unchecked lustful desire for another’s spouse or partner is the seed of that betrayal.  Allowing ourselves to covet another person’s partner will harm every relationship involved—not to mention our own mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  Let the small thing—the awareness of the way we are seeing someone (our eye), or our temptation to reach out and touch them (our hand)—let those things be the warning to stop ourselves from doing harm; let them also be the prompt to reflect upon what in our own life or our own relationship needs to be cared for.  I’d wager that 9 times out of 10 when we are tempted to have an affair there is something in the shadows of our being that is trying to get some attention—something that has little to do with the object of our desire.  I also hasten to add that in Jesus’ teaching and practice, women were not to be avoided as dangerous seductresses, but rather were welcomed as sisters and partners in the work of ministry.  Jesus isn’t saying that a handsome woman or man cannot be admired as beautiful and attractive.  He is pointing to the damaging effects of wanting to possess or take another in a way that objectifies them, that betrays trust, and hurts all involved.

 

Jesus is trying to explain the teaching from the Hebrew Scriptures that the heart is the inner source of outer actions.  To put it simply:  what is in our heart is at the heart of all these matters.  Jesus taught “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Mt. 5:8)  Later in Matthew, when the disciples express concern that Jesus has offended the Pharisees with his critique of their ritual purity laws[i] (Mt. 15:12), he asks them, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?  But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”  (Mt. 15:17-19)  And a bit later than that, in Matthew chapter 22, we get to the heart of this matter of the heart:  “one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mt. 22:34-40)  // But before we allow ourselves to settle in to the comforting word, “love,” remember that in Jesus’ sermon he takes the law of love to “11” too, saying: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…Be perfect…as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Mt 5:43-45, 48)             //

 

We are all swimming in the Olympic pool at the moment and there have been some amazing moments and truly breathtaking performances (Simone Biles!).  But the Olympic moment that springs to mind as I reflect on Jesus’ teaching is not from this year’s games.  The context was Berlin on the verge of World War II…Nazism, red and black swastikas flying, goose-stepping Storm Troopers marching before Hitler…It was the 1936 Games and Jesse Owens, the African-American son of a sharecropper and grandson to slaves, was winning gold after gold in track and field. But he struggled on the long jump.  On his last attempt in the qualifying round, Luz Long, a tall, blue-eyed, blond German long jumper who was his stiffest competition, introduced himself to Owens and gave him some advice. Owens took the advice, qualified, and went on to edge Long out to take the gold. The first person to congratulate Jesse Owens on his win was Luz Long.  Owens commented that “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler…Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.”[ii]

“Love your enemies…be perfect as God is perfect…”  Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets.  And at the heart of God’s teaching is love.  To be perfect as God is perfect is, quite simply, to love as God loves.  Jesus, in seeking to fulfill God’s law, shows us what it looks like to have our outward acts, our conscious decisions, our choices, our priorities consistently driven by a heart overflowing with God’s love. 

 

The work of the church and of faith communities everywhere is to do all we can to teach, practice, model and encourage people to be ever more filled with the love of God.  In the meantime, knowing that the world—and we along with it—are far from perfect, we need the guidance and protection of just laws that are enacted and upheld for the purpose of ensuring life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens, not just some.  We are responsible for doing all we can to enact and maintain such laws.  And then we are called to take it to the next level and attend not only to the letter but also to the heart of the law—and that always has to do with what is in our hearts.  What is in your heart?  Does an expanding and compassionate love reside there?  Or is anger, hatred, lust, and dishonesty taking up residence?  Howard Thurman, the great African-American pastor, theologian and poet, offers us the perfect prayer:  “Lord…In my heart, above all else, let love and integrity envelop me until my love is perfected and the last vestige of my desiring is no longer in conflict with thy Spirit.”[iii] //  These teachings of Jesus are challenging, there’s no doubt about that.  But they are challenging us toward this good end:  to love more and to allow God’s love to fill us so completely that not only our outward appearance and action, but even our inward intention is consistent with a whole-hearted love of God and of neighbor.  Through the grace of God, may it be so… and in the meantime it’s always a good idea to truly meditate on the question:  what is in my heart?  How do you answer today?

 



[i] Alyce M. McKenzie, “The Telltale Heart: Reflections on Matthew 21-27,” February 7, 2011, www.patheos.com.

[ii] “Owens pierced a myth,” by Larry Schwartz, https://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016393.html

[iii] Howard Thurman, The United Methodist Hymnal, #401.

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What Do You Treasure?

August 7th, 2016

A sermon preached by Executive Pastor/Chief of Staff Rev. Dawn M. Hand at Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington, DC, on Sunday, August 7, 2016.

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More than Enough

July 31st, 2016

Outstanding Preacher Erin Hawkins, guest preaching at Foundry UMC on Sunday, July 31, 2016.

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