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Stubborn Ounces

February 19th, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, February 19, 2017, the seventh Sunday after Epiphany.

Text:  1 Corinthians 12:4-31

 

Several weeks ago, I read David Frum’s article in The Atlantic entitled, “How to Build an Autocracy.”  It’s a quite a piece of writing with lots to ponder.  The thing that’s stuck with me is a quote Frum mentions: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”  He says that when the early Americans wrote things like that, “they did not do so to provide bromides for future bumper stickers. They lived in a world in which authoritarian rule was the norm, in which rulers habitually claimed the powers and assets of the state as their own personal property.”[i]  Frum makes the case that guarding against autocracy requires active engagement by an American public that cares about our “democracy and the habits and conventions that sustain it.”  In other words, we contribute to whatever future unfolds—precisely through our engagement OR disengagement.  It has been suggested recently that we (American citizens) don’t care.  I disagree in principle, but understand how it may appear to be true.  Over the past several months, part of my personal confession is that for much of my life I have not been as vigilant and engaged in civic life as I should be.  In every administration—even those I’ve generally supported—there have been issues and actions that cried out for active, organized “sacred resistance.”  While I have voted and tried to set priorities for my daily living that are moral and just and neighborly and faithful, I know that there have been times I was lukewarm when I should have been on fire.  In other words, I am among those who find themselves feeling both culpable for the sorry state of our current democracy and newly energized and engaged.

 

It’s easy enough to lurk around the edges of community—whether that’s our neighborhood, our city, our country, or our church—to pick up pieces of “information” informally without seeking out the whole story, to use what serves us and complain about what doesn’t.  It is commonplace for us to become complacent and distracted until something happens to disrupt our own lives or that provokes our moral outrage to the point of action.  But the truth is that we are responsible for our communal life all the time. We can’t control everything, of course, but our engagement matters.  This is not just a civics lesson, but a Christian one as well. 

 

As students—disciples—of Jesus, this should be pretty obvious.  We are called to action, to engagement, to service.  We are called to serve by using the gifts we have.  We are called to serve without expecting reward.  We are called to serve others for the common good.  We are called to serve together with others who have different, complementary gifts.  This is the example set by Jesus and the vision laid out by Paul in his letter to the church he’d founded in Corinth.  But the metaphor Paul uses in our passage today isn’t a celebration of how the people were living and serving together.  Paul had received reports that the church was suffering from conflict and power struggles about which gifts—and which people—were most valuable. 

 

Corinth was a bustling urban center with an ethnically, culturally, religiously diverse population. 

In the rhetoric of the time, the metaphor of the body wasn’t uncommon; but in the midst of all that Corinthian diversity, the image of the body would have been used to describe and solidify differences in value.  Evidently, the Corinthian church had fallen into this cultural habit, comparing and contrasting gifts, with some being lifted up and others belittled.  Paul turns the cultural norm on its head by teaching that, in Christ, the different parts of the body are all equally valued; and perhaps because of the overwhelming cultural prejudice, Christians are to give more honor to those parts that others would discount.  Paul teaches us to celebrate the contributions of every member of the body, to rejoice with each other, to suffer with each other.  In other words, Paul reminds the church that we are called to be prophetic, countercultural, to witness to an alternative way of being in relationship and in community, a way that is not about power games over which gifts are most important, but rather a way of being that recognizes the beauty, value, and dignity of every member of the body; a way that engages each person, igniting every gift to be employed in the work of the Kin-dom. 

//

Imagine, if you will, the conversation between Jesus and the archangel Gabriel when Jesus returned to heaven after the ascension:
Gabriel: “You mean your whole plan to save the world depends on that ragtag bunch of followers you left behind?”
Jesus: “That’s right”
Gabriel: “But what if they fail? What’s your backup plan?”
Jesus: “There is no backup plan.”

 

“Now YOU are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor 12:27) You are the body of Christ.  You have a gift to share that no one else can offer in the same way you can.  If you are “checked out” then there is a gaping hole where your particular presence and contribution belongs.  Our mission at Foundry is to love God, love each other, and change the world.  This is not a vision in which the “professional Christians” love God, love each other, and change the world on your behalf.  The clergy are not the only ones who can pray, the staff are not the only ones who can provide leadership or welcome or vision.  As pastor and church consultant Bill Easum says, “Never hire staff to do ministry.”  What he means is that pastors and staff in healthy, growing congregations are hired not to “do” the ministry but rather “to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4.12 NIV—“equip the saints for the work of ministry” NRSV).  Jesus prepared his disciples and followers for works of service—equipped others to do what he did—and left the work in their (our) hands!  Our vision at Foundry is to be a community of servant leaders—both clergy and lay, paid and unpaid—in which each and every one of us give and share and live and serve and pray and care together as the Spirit leads. 

 

There may be folks who are feeling overwhelmed or inadequate or uncertain about what gift you have to offer.  If that is the case, I encourage you to seek out a trusted friend or pastor to talk to.  I also encourage you to pray about it.  There may be others who think this truly has nothing to do with YOU.  You are free to think that, of course… There may be some who feel like nothing you can offer the church or the world would make any possible difference.  That is simply not true.  Your gift matters.  Your engagement matters—for your own life, the life of others, the life of the church, the life of the world. 

 

I returned yesterday evening from the women’s retreat and one of the recurring themes in conversation is that there are simply too many challenges to address and resist right now. What difference can we possibly make and where do we even begin?  All we can do is what we can do… And we can do something or nothing.  Either way, we’re making a difference for better or worse.  In this month’s Forge newsletter I shared this poem:

You say the Little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in balance.

I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.[ii]

 

Who and what feels “the stubborn ounces of [your] weight?”  You change the world by engagement or disengagement.  You change the world by sharing your gifts or withholding them.  You have a right to choose.  But there is urgency about the decisions you make.  There is no backup plan.  As Jim Harnish, our guru for this series, writes:  “There are children who may never hear the stories of Jesus if people with the gift of teaching do not teach them.  There are lost, confused, spiritually searching people who may never experience God’s love unless people with the gift of evangelism share the good news with them.  There are adults who may never grow in their understanding of Scripture until someone with the gift of discernment guides them.  There are people who may never find their way into the church until people with the gift of hospitality welcome them.  There are people with broken hearts and broken lives who may never find healing until people with the gift of intercession pray for them.  There are new opportunities for new ministries that may never be accomplished unless people with the gift of leadership show others the way. There are lonely, isolated people who may never find their way into Christian community until people with the gift of mercy extend care to them. There are important issues of justice and peace that never will be confronted until people with the gift of prophecy confront them.  In short, God has work to be done in this world that will not get done until we offer the stubborn ounces of our weight to make it happen.”[iii]

Now YOU are the body of Christ…

 

[i] David Frum, “How to Build an Autocracy,” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/how-to-build-an-autocracy/513872/

[ii] Bonaro Overstreet, “To One Who Doubts the Worth of Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything”

[iii] James A. Harnish, A Disciple’s Path: Deepening Your Relationship Christ and the Church, Companion Reader, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012, p. 63.

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A Generous Life

February 12th, 2017

A sermon preached by Associate Pastor Will Green on Sunday, February 12, 2017.

 

Text: 1 Timothy 6:17-19, Matthew 6: 1-4, 16-21. 

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I Am Because You Are

February 5th, 2017

Note: The audio recording of this sermon will be added by March 15, 2017.

 

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC February 5, 2017, the fifth Sunday after Epiphany.

Texts: Psalm 100; Acts 2:42-47

 

“It’s easy to put people in boxes. There’s ‘us’ and there’s ‘them’…”  These words open a video[i] that came across my social media early last week.  As the voiceover continues to describe all the ways we separate ourselves from others, you see groups of categorized people enter and take their place in boxes marked on the floor with white tape.  Once all the boxes are filled, a facilitator says he is going to ask everyone questions and to please respond honestly.  Everyone looks distrustful and nervous.  The first question is, “Who here was the class clown?”  The sense of relief is palpable.  People begin to sheepishly move out of their boxes and come to stand together at the front.  After everyone is back in their box, other questions follow, with new configurations of people coming together as a group in front.  There is a group of stepparents, those who believe in life after death, people who love to dance, those who feel lonely, those who have been bullied, those who have bullied others, the “lucky” ones who’ve had sex in the past week, people who are brokenhearted, those who are madly in love, people who’ve seen UFOs, and those who have saved lives.  Preparing for today, I went back to the video (it’s on YouTube) and, of course, there were simply awful and ugly words, nasty debates and hate speech all over the comment feed.  If we had the technology to show the video, I imagine I might receive pushback from some that it is manipulative or uninclusive or something.  I may be a sap, and maybe the video is propaganda, but I agree with its closing sentiment that “maybe there’s more that brings us together than we think.”  And, after all, if we’re going to have propaganda, why not have it for the purpose of manipulating us into more neighborly behavior and recognition of our shared humanity with folks who are different from us? 

 

No doubt the work to be done is much more difficult and needs to go much deeper than simple tolerance or “playing nice.”  But we’ve moved so far from even that in many quarters.  Mutual respect, acknowledging the human dignity of others, and common decency are increasingly on the endangered list.  And that is true in every corner of political and civic life; it doesn’t only apply among radical leftists or alt-right groups.  The cancer of fear-driven hate and distrust is pervasive. Many of you have told me how hard it is for you…

 

But I’ve been encouraged over the past couple of weeks to see and hear signs of love-fueled resistance breaking through like sunbeams through dark clouds.  Folks are speaking out about shared values that cut across ideological differences.  Folks are calling us to make our protests like block parties—a celebration of the things that extend love and create community.  There is an almost hopeful appreciation that this moment is waking folks up to the need for consistent and thoughtful activism and community spirit.  I hear rumblings of people of faith and conscience, aware of the absurdity and destruction of our radical polarization, working across party lines to listen, collaborate, and respond. 

 

Recognition of our shared humanity—what brings us together—is a powerful force for the work of peace and justice.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu is not naïve about the realities of systemic violence, racism, and radical polarization; much of his life was spent fighting against apartheid in South Africa.  What he teaches and models—even with all that he has seen and experienced—is the African concept of ubuntu. The Archbishop defines ubuntu saying, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours…A person is a person through other persons.”[ii]  Another way of saying it is that there are no “self-made people.”  I am who I am because you are who you are.  In other words, we need each other.  Wholeness for the world—peace, justice, joy, safety, shalom—will not happen if we continue to deny the reality, the needs, the humanity and dignity of others.  Healing will not be possible if we, from our own cozy box, continue to throw stones at people we’ve stuffed into a different one. There is great opportunity in this moment if we will resist giving in to the energies of chaos and division that have been roiling for years and have recently boiled over.  There is opportunity for a great awakening, for a moment of profound movement toward reconciliation if we resist the temptation to spew hate and division into an already wounded world.

 

As people of faith—and of Christian faith in particular—we should be well-practiced in this work, this work of communal life with people who are different from us.  It is painfully obvious that many Christians seem perfectly willing to throw in with the haters.  But be that as it may, Christians are called to be a people of peace, reconciliation, and justice who cross human boundaries for the sake of sharing God’s love and extending the circle of relationship.  Christianity is a profoundly relational and communal faith tradition.  The vision of the early church described in Acts 2 is clear; the community was “together and had all things in common.” They sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds to any who had need.  They “spent much time together in the temple.”  And one translation of the text says that “they broke bread from house to house and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” This was the model Jesus set as he created a traveling community who ate together from house to house, observed Sabbath, and engaged in shared ministry.  In our study materials for A Disciple’s Path, Jim Harnish makes it plain: “There is no such thing as solitary Christianity.  Being a follower of Jesus means being in community with other followers of Jesus.”[iii]   

We can self-select a small group of like-minded individuals as our closest companions on the way.  But when we connect with a congregation for worship, service, and study, I assure you that there will be folks who are not only different from you in a wow-they-expand-my-thinking way, but also folks who push your buttons and challenge your patience.  I contend that this reality is part of the discipline, part of the spiritual practice of “presence.”  When we formally enter into covenant with a United Methodist congregation, we say that we will participate through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  The “presence” part of that promise is showing up in community and in worship.  It is showing up even when we know that we will be challenged or that our patience will be tested by someone.  It is in community that we get to practice those things we are called to live in our lives Monday through Saturday.  And if we’re doing it well, our presence in church—especially in small groups—will provide a context of encouragement, accountability, and grace that may not always be available elsewhere. 

 

“Presence” is showing up in worship and community even when we don’t feel like it—because we have promised to do so, because we seek to form a holy habit, because even when we’re not feeling it, God might just do something amazing in our lives.  One of the iconic stories in our United Methodist tradition is the story of John Wesley’s “heart-warming experience on May 24, 1738.  He records in his Journal that he went ‘very unwillingly’ to a small-group Bible study that was meeting in Aldersgate Street in London. He went unwillingly, but he went.  He was present.  That night, the spirit of God touched his heart.  He wrote, ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed.’  That heart-warming experience was a critically important stop along his personal journey of discipleship, which helped ignite the spiritual awakening that swept across England and became the Methodist movement around the world.  But what would have happened—or more to the point, what would not have happened—if Wesley had not been ‘unwillingly’ present that night?”[iv]

 

God can do amazing things even when we’re not cooperating, even when we are nominally present.  But it is also true that when we begin to make the spiritual practice of “presence” a priority we open ourselves to untold gifts of growth, insight, and joy.  Just as with any practice, the more you put into it, the more you will receive.  If I go to the gym five times a year, my body will not be changed that much and my heart won’t be any stronger.  If I go every week and don’t really do the workout, I might be changed a bit but still won’t receive the full benefits available.  The same is true for the practice of presence in Christian community and worship.  

 

Today, we celebrate what is the most communal of all our practices, the sacrament of Holy Communion. All eat the same food, all are welcome, all are fed with the grace and love of God through Jesus Christ.  At this table, we proclaim and affirm ubuntu, that we are deeply interconnected and interdependent.  By the Holy Spirit we are made one with Christ and with each other.  Traditional words at the breaking of the bread are, “Because there is one loaf,
we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.  And the cup over which we give thanks is a sharing in the blood of Christ.”  At this Table we pray that by God’s grace we will be able to live in the world the vision to which we are called, a vision of unity in diversity, of equity, inclusion, humility, and interdependence.  At this Table, we say to God and to one another, “I am because you are.”  And we give thanks.

 

i “All That We Share”, TV2, Denmark, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jD8tjhVO1Tc&app=desktop

[ii] James A. Harnish, A Disciple’s Path: Deepening Your Relationship Christ and the Church, Companion Reader, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012, p. 38.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., p. 39

When You Pray

January 29th, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC January 29, 2017, the fourth Sunday after Epiphany.

Texts: Psalm 139:1-18, Matthew 6:5-15

 

 

I once heard it said that the human heart “syncs” to the rhythm of a drumbeat.  That same teacher suggested that when a drum is played in community, the outcome is that the hearts of those gathered start to beat with the same rhythm.  It’s a cool concept.  When I did a little research, I discovered that the science is debatable.  But regardless, it makes sense to me based on experience.  Music and rhythm can have a powerful unifying effect among us.  A good dance beat makes the human body want to respond. And the even, slow, steady beat of a drum (used for centuries as part of tribal chants and prayers) settles the human body into a kind of centered attention.  The science may be iffy, but evidence in community makes me think there’s something to the idea that rhythm affects the human body, that the “beat” to which we walk affects our hearts. I tend to believe that it’s possible to have our hearts beat to the same rhythm.

 

Spiritual practices (those things we are exploring on A Disciple’s Path) are a kind of life rhythm—a way to mark time, to punctuate our days and weeks, to give shape to our lives.  One of the ways I describe my own spiritual practice is by using the language of rhythm.  I have a daily, weekly, monthly, and even annual rhythm.  That is, I engage in spiritual practices that mark time, that punctuate my days and weeks, giving shape and frame to my whole life.  Among those practices are the things on A Disciple’s Path that we are studying as a congregationprayer, presence in faith community, generous giving, sacrificial service, and joyful witness.  For me, these practices are lived out through observance of daily morning devotions, daily engagement in congregational life, weekly Sabbath, weekly corporate worship, weekly tithing to the church, weekly and monthly small covenant group engagement, and an annual week of silent retreat.  These are spiritual rhythms, practices that form habits in both body and soul. 

 

I don’t think I’m alone in the need to schedule this stuff—to put it on the calendar very intentionally and to make it a priority.  The goal is to make the practices habitual—what I call holy habits.  Because our habits deeply affect our lives—either for good or for ill.  There’s plenty of science to back that up though not enough time this morning to share it.  Forming a healthy habit can sometimes be a challenge, breaking a bad one almost always is.  What the science affirms is that habits are formed through repetition and, eventually, become almost unconscious because they are so deeply part of the rhythm of our lives. 

 

Our spiritual tradition as United Methodists is grounded in holy habits.  John and Charles Wesley were so intensely methodical in practicing the spiritual disciplines that they mockingly became known as “methodists” and the name has been with us ever since.  The Wesleys understood that methodical spiritual practices changed their lives.  This isn’t something that John Wesley dreamed up.  Religious Orders, cloistered or not, had been at this for centuries.  The practice of holy habits has been part of the Judeo-Christian tradition from the very beginning.

 

In our Gospel today (an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount) Jesus begins four of the first five sentences saying “Whenever you pray,” “When you are praying,” and “Pray.”  When my friend Paul Abernathy, then Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill, preached this text, he emphasized the fact that Jesus doesn’t say “if” you pray, but “when” you pray. He said that it’s clear that Jesus’s expectation is that prayer will be a regular part of our lives—a holy habit.  Over my years in ministry, one of the most consistent things I’ve heard is that folks struggle with prayer.  It feels intimidating; folks worry that they are doing it wrong.  Jesus helps us out.  When you pray, says Jesus, you can use the words we call “The Lord’s Prayer”—what I call our family prayer, the prayer that names our God as a loving parent who is worthy of praise, the prayer that surrenders worldly kingdoms as we entreat God’s Kin-dom to come, the prayer that acknowledges our human need for sustenance, the prayer that admits our need to forgive and be forgiven.  Jesus gives us words to pray and they are a gift and guide to us.  But they aren’t the only way to pray. 

 

There are a multitude of prayer practices, so many ways to pray.  We can sing or chant our prayers; we can write prayers; prayer can be communing with God as we meditate on an icon or other image; prayer can be a mantra or words repeated with the rhythm of our breath; prayer might be guided with beads.  Prayer is speaking and also listening.  Prayer can also be just resting in the presence of God, just being.  I describe prayer simply as “relationship with God.”  Jim Harnish makes a helpful clarification saying: “Let’s begin by clearing the deck of the idea that prayer is a magic trick by which we manipulate God’s power to get what we want done. In Scripture, the primary purpose of prayer is to enable us to live in an intimate relationship God so that we become the agents of God’s saving purpose in this world.”[i] 

 

Contemporary writer Anne Lamott has this to say:  “You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word ‘prayer.’ It’s certainly not what TV Christians mean. It’s not for display purposes, like plastic sushi or neon. Prayer…is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God.”[ii] She goes on, “Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up… My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. If you say to God, ‘I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,’ that might be the most honest thing you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, ‘It is all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,’ it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real—really real.  It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.  So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light.”[iii]

 

There isn’t only one way to think about prayer and certainly not only one way to pray.  But it is at the heart of our spiritual tradition TO PRAY.  It isn’t if you pray, but when you pray.  Find what form of prayer allows you to bring your most authentic self into relationship with God.  And then, as the old ad slogan goes, “Just do it.” 

 

Right now, many of us are preoccupied with the words and actions of the new president; we are focused on our call to sacred resistance of that which is counter to the Gospel.  We know that we are in for a long and exhausting journey.  Some of us already feel targeted by the new administration and even more vulnerable than usual.  Many feel overwhelmed and unable to discern how to respond.  When we are tired and anxious, we’re not at our best.  In this moment when we are tempted to be reactive, to be tossed to and fro by the winds of partisanship; in this moment when we can lash out or become depressed or become hateful toward those we accuse of being hateful, it is essential that we attend to the holy habit of prayer.  And I’m not talking about prayer as a cop-out for action or as Anne Lamott says, “for display purposes.”  I’m talking about prayer that shapes action, that focuses the mind and conscience, that shows us who we are and who we aren’t, that reveals our weakness as well as our strength.  I’m talking about prayer that helps us respond to what is happening around us with wisdom, intention, courage, and love. As Rev. Dr. Luke Powery reminded us a couple of weeks ago, prayer is not ancillary to the work of justice, it is right at the center; it is the fuel, the grounding, the heart of it all.  Just do it…

 

Look at God looking at you.  Let God’s light reveal what you need to see in your own heart and in the lives of others and in the events of our day.  Be real.  Search the scriptures and listen for God’s voice.  Be still and know that God is God and you’re not.  Confess.  Be held and remember how deeply you are loved.  Allow the love and mercy of God to fill and renew you with fresh energy and courage for the journey.

 

 

Stay close enough to God in loving relationship that the rhythm of God’s heartbeat sets the pace for your own.  As we do that, our hearts will beat as one, and we’ll find ourselves dancing together to the life-giving beat of love.

 

[i] James A. Harnish, A Disciple’s Path: Deepening Your Relationship Christ and the Church, Companion Reader, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012, p. 29.

[ii] Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, New York: Riverhead Books, 2012, p. 1.

[iii] Ibid., p. 5-7.

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Stepping Out: Traveling Mercies

January 22nd, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC January 22, 2017, the third Sunday after the Epiphany.

 Texts: Isaiah 9:2-4, Matthew 4:12-23  

 

“Traveling mercies…”  These two words are often shared as a kind of blessing prayer as someone steps out upon a journey.  “Traveling mercies.”  I love to travel and always want to explore something new.  But I also get very anxious about leaving home—I worry about Harvey and AnnieRose (my dog and cat), I worry that my house is going to catch on fire (an old imagined nightmare).  I tend to manage anxiety pretty well most of the time, but, in addition to taking long trips away from home, two other things I really struggle with are gridlock and getting to the airport to catch a flight.  Both of those things require serious deep breathing exercises.  When gridlock is part of my journey to the airport to catch a flight, all bets are off.  I go into full-on give me paper bag to breathe into mode (at least on the inside).  All that is to say, I welcome prayers for traveling mercies.  I imagine we all do. Because making a journey is fraught with separation anxiety, with potential obstacles, hassles, and dangers.  Depending upon the terrain and events beyond our control, our very lives could be changed or lost. 

 

This weekend our country has experienced a peaceful transition from one president to another. We are stepping out onto a new stretch of road. And Lord knows we need traveling mercies for the journey.  Some of us are already experiencing separation anxiety.  Many of us are planning to encounter obstacles and dangers as we move forward.  We are organizing and mobilizing to do all in our power to make a way for all people to keep walking and moving forward—particularly those most in danger of being kicked aside or left behind or beaten along the road. 

But, as I and many before me have said: the journey we are on is not new.  John Lewis could remind us that this road we’re walking, this story we’re seeing unfold, is not new.  The nations of Standing Rock could remind us that this road we’re walking, this story unfolding, is not new.  Our sister, (newly consecrated United Methodist) Bishop Karen Oliveto, would most certainly remind us that this is not a new path we’re blazing. The survivors of Auschwitz and other “ethnic cleansing” massacres will affirm that this road we’re on is not new.  Factory workers, coal miners, folks who feel stuck in underpaying jobs or unemployment because their work has gone away know good and well this road we’re traveling is not new.  Immigrants and refugees across the world, organizers, union workers, the oppressed down through the ages would proclaim this journey is not only just beginning.  Our current moment is but one moment in, one location of, the ongoing struggle for God’s Kin-dom to be manifest on earth as it is in heaven.  It is the movement for justice and for peace and for reconciliation among all God’s people in all the earth.  It is a journey that always has its obstacles and dangers.  This has been true throughout our nation’s history. It has been true throughout the whole history recorded in our sacred texts. 

 

The prophet Isaiah—referenced in our Gospel passage—writes in the late eighth century B.C.E. along a particularly challenging stretch of the journey.  Israel was Assyrian-occupied territory.  Zebulun and Naphtali, tribes associated with the northern region of Galilee, are in anguish. Their home had been invaded by a hostile power, the rod of oppression was upon them, the other tribes of Israel had been scattered and overwhelmed.  The days seemed very dark indeed.  // When Jesus came into the world and onto the scene, Israel was Rome-occupied territory with a “game of thrones” struggle for power and control as the backdrop. That stretch of the journey was marked—as is always the case in such contexts—by the poor and vulnerable straining under injustice and prophets like John the baptizer get locked up for telling the truth.  In Matthew’s account, Jesus wasn’t even out of the manger and those wielding power and control in the world already want to kill him.

 

The journey we are on is not new and it has never been easy.  God knows it has never been easy.  It is not easy to be human. It is not easy to stay strong when things are hard. It is not easy to grow up.  It is not easy to let go.  It is not easy to trust or forgive.  It is not easy to keep getting up when others keep knocking you down.  It is not easy to live together in unity.  It is not easy to do justice.  It is not easy to love those who are difficult to love.  It is not easy to walk in the way that leads to life.  God knows.  And so God decided to get real with us, to get all human, to come into the world in solidarity to walk with us awhile. 

 

Today, that’s what Jesus is doing and as he walks, he came across some fisherfolk at their nets.  These were not guys who had signed up (or been qualified by the standardized tests of the day) to follow a Rabbi.  They were among the laborers, those of the daily grind, the family trade.  We don’t know how old Peter, Andrew, James, and John were when Jesus called them to follow. We don’t know their motivation for leaving their nets and stepping onto the path with Jesus.  Maybe they thought that by following a Rabbi they’d finally get some respect.  Maybe they thought that a different life, a different path would be easier than casting and mending nets every day. Whatever their motivation, what we know for certain is that when Jesus called them to follow, they joined him on the journey.  We also know their lives did not get easier.  I imagine there were extraordinary moments of joy and astonishment along the way. But, in many ways, following Jesus is more difficult than not following Jesus.  Because stepping out with Jesus means stepping out of your comfort zone.  It means stepping out of your blissful ignorance and the illusion of self-sufficiency.  It means stepping out of believing that the needs of others have nothing to do with you.  It means stepping out of the fiction that it’s all about you.  It means stepping out of paralyzing fear and despair.  Stepping out with Jesus means stepping onto a path of wisdom gained through pain, freedom gained through surrender, dependence learned through experience of our limit, and the piercing awareness that suffering and injustice anywhere is a threat to wholeness and justice everywhere.  Stepping out with Jesus is not easy.  But it is good.  It leads to a life that is more truly human, more meaningful, more whole.  The journey with Jesus will change your life, it will lead you to the life that is most truly yours, the one you were created to live.

 

I was just sharing with some folks the other day that I never imagined or wanted the role I’m in today…  I think of the young woman who was among the original organizers for yesterday’s Women’s March who, holding her infant onstage yesterday, said that before this, she’d never done anything like this before. You can bet Peter and Andrew and James and John didn’t sit around fantasizing about being community organizers, teachers, healers, preachers, martyrs.  They fished.  That’s what they did.  And yet Jesus came by and knew that they were capable of so much more; Jesus knew that they were not only capable, but desperately needed for the mission of the Gospel, to bear the light of God’s love to those who walk in the darkness of fear and oppression and despair.  Jesus comes by and sees you and me, too, knowing what we’re capable of and where we’re needed and what role we need to play wherever we find ourselves on the journey. 

 

Our spiritual tradition provides practices that help us listen for God’s voice, discern our calling, and guide and strengthen us as we walk the path with Jesus.  In the coming weeks, we’ll explore those practices together.  If you haven’t already signed up for our congregation-wide study of A Disciple’s Path I encourage you to do so—or just drop in to the class today.  This past week, it occurred to me that as we turn into this new and challenging era in our nation’s history I’m so grateful that we are going deeper as a community of faith into our understanding and practice of discipleship.  The practices of prayer, study, worship, community, generosity, service, and witness are what will fuel our ongoing work of sacred resistance.  And these practices will also help us walk the journey with love, patience, courage, gentleness, and wisdom.  It will be easy and tempting to travel through the coming days and years without those things. It will be tempting to walk in arrogance, anger, hatred, and fear.  Amidst so much beauty, inspiration, and vision at yesterday’s march, I did notice that when speakers would call for love for folks on the other side of the vote, when folks would speak of fighting for the dignity and justice and needs of people on all sides of the issues, it got silent… We as God’s people have to step out into that gap. We are called to be a people of love.

 

Jesus calls us to follow his lead…to love God, to love each other, and by the power of that love, to change the world.  That journey is not new. It is not easy. But God walks with us, holds us, nudges us, guides us, opens our eyes, softens our hearts, releases our grip, gives us courage, turns us around, wakes us up, loves us…God loves us, loves the world, loves you, God is with you…a light to guide and liberate us, a light that shines in the darkness and will always prevail.  In other words, God grants us traveling mercies.  So…let’s go!

 

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