Foundry UMC

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Summer Preaching Series-Drop The Mic: The Already and They Not Yet; A sermon preached by Bishop LaTrelle Easterling at Foundry UMC, July 15, 2018

July 17th, 2018

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Summer Preaching Series-Drop the Mic: The First Words of Faith: Give Thanks! A sermon preached by Dr. Diana Butler Bass at Foundry UMC, July 8

July 9th, 2018

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Summer Preaching Series -Drop The Mic: The American Caesar, A sermon preached by Rev. Rob Lee at Foundry UMC, July 1, 2018

July 5th, 2018

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When You’re Not Feelin’ It

June 25th, 2018

When You’re Not Feelin’ It

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, June 24, 2018, the fifth Sunday after Pentecost. A Tempo sermon series.

Texts: Isaiah 55:8-13, James 5:7-8

 

Every Sunday I extend the same words of welcome at the beginning of worship. Among those words are these: “No matter what you feel or don’t feel today…”  Sometimes, I adjust to say “No matter what you feel or if you’re just not feelin’ it today…” you’re invited to come and be met by God who knows you, loves you, and wants to be closer to you.

 

A phrase that’s used these days for experiencing lots of emotions is “having all the feels.” For many over the past couple of weeks, the most prevalent “feels” have been rage, disappointment, and heartbreak as the stories of thousands of children separated from their parents at our border have come into the public consciousness.  Part of the tragedy here is that migrant children have been suffering at our borders for a long time.  Using this suffering as a deterrent to coming to the U.S. is new (through the “zero-tolerance” policy), but for years the horrendous violence and poverty in countries like Honduras and Guatemala have meant that children—both accompanied by a parent and unaccompanied—have arrived on our southern borders seeking a better life, a place of safety, and have not always found what they were seeking.  Our failure as a nation—and across administrations—to mend our broken immigration system and to invest in a humane program to consistently care for children and families in a way in line with our core values has meant that trauma is added to trauma for vulnerable members of our human family.  This most recent horror takes that to new heights, the only possible benefit being that it’s opened the eyes of many to this suffering being inflicted in our name and may have the effect of spurring some substantive change through public pressure.  Of course, it’s hard to believe that will actually happen when we’ve seen other violence done to children yield no such change.  And, of course, the suffering of immigrants and asylum-seekers is but one of many instances of profound pain in our world. 

 

Sometimes in the face of such overwhelming pain and struggle, we are drawn more closely to God, seeking solace, guidance, courage, and inspiration. Other times, we may be left feeling distant from God, as in a dry and weary land.  Sometimes we may feel energized by the opportunity to serve and to be in community with God’s people at church, to organize and strategize, to vent in safe space and to seek ways to engage in acts of sacred resistance.  Other times, we may not find energy at all—not to worship, not to serve, not to engage, not to pray.  Sometimes, we’re just not feelin’ God or church.

 

And that response can happen for so many reasons.  Sometimes it may be due to what’s happening in the world. Other times, we may feel uninspired or aggravated by what is happening in our church—to what other people are doing, to what is being said or sung or prayed or how things are being managed or organized.  Other times, it may be our own stuff that leaves us feeling untouched, unmoved… like “meh.”  That is, we may be exhausted, overwhelmed, distracted… And there may be times when we are simply in a season of spiritual “dryness.”  This is a common experience, even for famous Christians!  In 2007, a collection of Mother Theresa’s private writings[i] was published revealing that she’d suffered for most of her adult life with spiritual dryness. She didn’t feel God’s presence at all.

 

And that is the worst kind of “not feelin’ it.” To want to feel that Christ is near, to want to feel Spirit’s love and power, to want to feel the comfort and care of God our Father and Mother, and to not feel any of it…that is difficult and painful.  The revelation of (now) Saint Theresa’s spiritual suffering came as a shock to many since her public life of self-giving service to the destitute and dying in Kolkata was so steady, so constant; her daily practice of spending hours in prayer is the stuff of legend. 

 

And it is there we receive the core message of today.  Saint Theresa just kept serving. She just kept praying. She just kept bringing herself to be before the One Who Is even when she didn’t feel anything.  //

 

Both our scripture texts today employ images of planting and harvest. James writes, “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient.” And in Isaiah we hear God promise: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  When we are in a moment or a season of spiritual drought, we are encouraged to be patient.  And we are given assurance that our patient waiting will not ultimately be in vain.  We don’t know God’s thoughts or God’s full purpose, but we are assured that God’s word is poured out and is potent.  In the beginning, our story goes, God spoke and the whole world was created.  God’s word—eternally spoken—God’s word of love and justice and peace and mercy and restoration is like water, life-giving and life-sustaining. 

 

I imagine Saint Theresa… continuing to show up, putting herself in the flow of God’s grace, in the flow of God’s word, through service, worship, sacrament, and prayer.  Not necessarily feeling God’s presence or power, but patiently attending to those practices that put her in proximity to the word and work of God.  I have read that Saint Theresa’s presence was powerful, that love and light was felt when she was in the room.  Evidently, even though she may have not been feeling God’s presence, God’s love and light were made manifest through her.  You see, God’s word accomplishes that for which it is purposed…

 

When we’re not feelin’ it, it remains so important to continue to show up.  If you are in a season when you feel you’ve lost faith, then show up in worship and let the church hold faith for you and hold you! If you’re feeling cynical, show up at a service project and observe the commitment and hope in action of others. If you’re fed up with the fact that the church isn’t all it’s supposed to be and are thinking the whole organized religion thing is a waste of time, then show up and really look in this or any congregation and see where love and reconciliation and hope and restoration and joy and justice really do happen in ways large and small. I think that some folks believe that if they’re not feeling something they think they’re supposed to feel, then something is wrong with them or something is wrong with the church.  What I want to suggest is that sometimes, just like many of our spiritual ancestors, you just won’t be feelin’ it that day or even for a long while. And no matter what you feel or don’t feel, you are welcome, you are encouraged, to come and at just be in the midst of the gathered body and the music and the prayers and the words and scriptures and to be reminded that just because you’re not feelin’ it doesn’t mean that God is not present and working for good in the world…

 

If you struggle to pray because it seems like nothing is happening and no one is there, just keep showing up and allowing the word of God—through scripture or a prayer book or a song or a poem—to be in your mind.  A dear friend, Dr. Ann Jervis, a teacher of New Testament and an Anglican Priest, once shared how, in her daily praying of the Hours—the morning, midday, evening, and night prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, she would sometimes feel deeply moved, but other times, she’d just “get through it.”  Sometimes, she said, she just went through the motions, read the Psalms, recited the prayers, and the rest, without feelin’ it at all.  But, she said, the feeling is not what it’s about. It’s about making yourself available.  It’s about showing up.  

 

Spiritual master Evelyn Underhill writes, “Intellect and feeling are not wholly in our control.  They fluctuate from day to day, from hour to hour; they are dependent on many delicate adjustments. Sometimes we are mentally dull, sometimes we are emotionally flat.  On such occasions it is notoriously useless to try to beat ourselves up to a froth: to make ourselves think more deeply or make ourselves care more intensely.  If the worth of our prayer life depended upon the maintenance of a constant high level of feeling or understanding, we would be in a dangerous place.  Though these often seem to fail us, the reigning will remains.  Even when our heart is cold and our mind is dim, prayer is still possible to us…The determined fixing of our will upon God, and pressing toward [God] steadily and without deflection; this is the very center and the art of prayer.”[ii]  This is what my friend Ann was saying.  And I witnessed a quality of being in Ann that communicated a spiritual groundedness that can only be the fruit of a deep, sustained practice of being in the flow of God’s grace.

 

I’m not suggesting that showing up through attending to spiritual practices and holy habits will automatically restore to you what is missing; it certainly doesn’t solve the tragedies in our lives and in our world.  But the long record of God’s people through history affirms that God can and does bring new life out of the dry places.  And, I don’t know about you, but I find that sometimes when I am in a dry and thirsty season and manage to get myself into a space shared between friends over a cup of coffee, or the space of a classroom, a mission gathering, or a sanctuary—sometimes, when I least expect it, something happens in that sacred space that feels like water seeping deep within me to touch seeds of hope, courage, wonder, and love I didn’t remember were there.  In those moments, I might cry, I might laugh, I might shout, I might grow silent and still, I might discover a new resolve to act or to serve.  In those moments—perhaps you know what I mean—I find myself thinking, “The Lord is near…” And—sometimes only for a moment—I’m no longer thirsty…and it’s enough.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] https://www.amazon.com/Mother-Teresa-Private-Writings-Calcutta/dp/0307589234

[ii] Evelyn Underhill, Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals & Groups, Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith, eds. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 115.

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Sing Your Prayers

June 17th, 2018

Sing Your Prayers

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, June 17, 2018, the fourth Sunday after Pentecost. A Tempo sermon series.

Texts: Isaiah 49:8-13, Colossians 3:16-17

 

“Those who sing pray twice.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard here and there for years, but never knew where it came from until this past week when I discovered—lo and behold—it is adapted from some words of Saint Augustine!  Y’all are going to start thinking I have some kind of obsession with the fifth century Bishop of North Africa!  After a little research, it seems Augustine’s point is that singing adds an extra dimension to a text—that words sung rather than spoken express a depth of emotion that cannot be conveyed otherwise.

 

This idea that song conveys meaning is a very ancient concept. Many of you know that “Myths of ancient indigenous cultures claim that the universe began with one root sound which permeates the entire universe. According to ancient Vedic (Hindu) philosophy, the Sanskrit word, Om, is the primordial sound from which the whole universe emanated. Om represents the Divine and the Absolute.”[i]  The idea then, is that chanting “Om” puts you on the same sound “wave” as the Divine Creator and connects you—or makes you aware of your connection—to the whole of creation. Indigenous and religious cultures from around the world have, over the centuries, developed their own unique chants and songs.  Songs of joy unite people in that spirit, narrative songs teach the stories of tribal identity and relational values, repetitive chants are used to focus and quiet the mind.  Stories are told of how the Muslim sung call to prayer—called the adhan—have brought about conversion simply through the power of hearing it.[ii]  Psalms—our Judeo-Christian chant and hymnbook—are the lyrics of prayers to God and meditations on God written to be sung or chanted.  Both listening to and singing certain kinds of music and chants are known to have concrete effects upon the body.  This isn’t just about sitting in the Lotus position chanting “Om.”  Think about what happens when you are singing something or listening to a piece of music and all of a sudden you are moved to tears; or you feel in your body a sense of strength and courage; or you feel more relaxed or at peace.  At a funeral, you might be holding it together pretty well until a familiar melody begins to be played and voices swell to lift up the lyrics of the hymn… All this is to say, that music has a kind of spiritual power. It is one of the most ancient forms of connecting with God, of being in relationship with God; it’s one of the most ancient forms of prayer.

 

As we continue to ponder how we might “return to God’s pace” through prayer in this A Tempo series, I want to focus today singing as a form of prayer.  One of the prayers I have loved from my youth is referred to as “The Prayer of St. Francis” and is included in our United Methodist Hymnal on page 481. The words of this prayer are beautiful.  Some years back, I heard these words set to music by the singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan and my heart broke open all over again at their power.  Something happens when words and music work together to express or carry a message.

 

Some might imagine that only a professional singer will be able to create or participate in such a powerful—and even mystical—phenomenon.  But every time we gather for worship, we are singing prayers.  Last fall, we spent a whole series calling to mind the ways that singing together is a central part of our worship life as United Methodists and we studied together John Wesley’s “Directions for Singing.”  We looked at our hymnal during another sermon series on grace and noticed the headings in the top corners of its pages that help signal the theological or spiritual theme of the hymns in that section. And today I want us to explore the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” that we may have sung for years but never mentally connected with prayer. And for those of us new to this whole Christian worship thing, my hope is that our reflection on this central act of worship and the idea of prayer through singing will help you understand why we do it. (and, by the way, if you don’t have a great voice or can’t carry a tune fear not! The Bible encourages us to “make a joyful noise” not “make a pretty noise”—so you’re good!)…

 

Our text today begins with the encouragement to “let the word of God dwell in you richly.” Singing is a great way to do that! I can’t help but think of my Nana floating around the house humming and singing hymns… a powerful image…  Singing is a great way to learn things—I probably learned most of my core theology through the songs I sang as a child and youth.  Singing songs that have been sung in historic moments of struggle—those sung on civil rights freedom marches or the songs sung at Reconciling Ministries convocations for example—help connect us to the movement across time. Some of our hymn lyrics are a statement of faith or testimony or a proclamation of hope or a call to action.  Singing these kinds of hymns invites us to contemplate the promises of our faith, the providence of God, the call of God, and more. These hymns plant the word of God deep within us, draw us close to God and are a form of contemplative prayer.  

 

But some years back, I realized that so many of the hymns I grew up with are direct addresses to God.  Not really sure how I missed that detail for so long—perhaps some weird disconnect between “this is a song I sing in church” and “these are prayers that I pray.”  I’d made the initial connection by the time I arrived here in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, but it was here that I encountered the tradition of using the words of hymns as public prayers.  I’ll never forget hearing Bishop Felton May pray before he preached using these words: “Breathe on me, breath of God, ‘til I am wholly Thine. ‘Til all this earthly part of me, glows with thy fire divine.” (UMH #420)  It was then that I began to really think about praying the hymns and singing my prayers.

 

I wonder if there are hymns and songs that come to your mind as examples of what I’m talking about… There are prayers of invocation like “Spirit of the Living God” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart.”   Prayers of lament like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.” There are prayers of petition like “I Need Thee Every Hour” (#397) and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” (#384)  There are prayers of praise like “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty,” (#64) “How Great Thou Art,” (#77) “Blessed Be Your Name,” (WS #3002) and “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” (#89)  There are prayers of confession like “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” (#286) and “Just as I Am, Without One Plea.” (#357)  There are prayers of commitment and surrender like “Here I Am to Worship” (WS #3177) and “Here I Am, Lord.” (#593) There are prayers of thanksgiving like “For the Beauty of the Earth” (#92) and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” (#140) All of these and many more give us powerful words to pray through singing.

 

Think about what it’s like when the music in this sanctuary draws all of us in and we raise our voices together…there’s something mystical about it.  It’s a deep form of communal prayer.

 

Throughout the Bible we are not only encouraged to sing to the Lord, but we’re given whole books of songs—like the love song that is Song of Solomon and the Psalms.  I’ve long celebrated the way the Psalms cover the full range of emotions, but this past week I found a writer who made me think about that in a new way—particularly parts of the Psalms that get really raw in anger and suffering. The example the writer uses is Psalm 137, a lament over the destruction of Israel. Briefly, the context of that Psalm is that the people have been the victims of horrific violence, their loved ones hurt and killed, their homes destroyed, and they are now exiled into the very lands inhabited by their conquerors.  The Psalmist gives voice to the lament and the raw emotion of the moment. The Psalm begins, “By the rivers of Babylon—/  there we sat down and there we wept / when we remembered Zion.” But the last words of that Psalm are, “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! / Happy shall they be who pay you back / what you have done to us! /Happy shall they be who take your little ones / and dash them against the rock!” The author writes, “Verses like that embarrass us. They’re disquieting, disconcerting. Part of me wants to edit them out of the Bible. What a mistake that would be, like censoring a prayer… What if we sang out in our anger…? What if our vengeful urges were put to music to sing to God? I can imagine the experience would be cleansing, healing. We all have enemies. We’re supposed to pray about them…Why should we be surprised when a psalm gets raw? A lot of other contemporary music is.”[iii]  This is simply another reminder that we don’t have to hold anything back from God. God can take whatever we’ve got.  And this week I imagine we might have some anger and raw emotion to bring into God’s presence in prayer. 

 

Throughout scripture we see people at key moments break into song—I realized it like one long musical in the old style---dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, and then someone starts singing!  There’s Miriam’s song of praise to God for liberation from slavery (Exodus 15:20-21), Israel’s song of thanksgiving for God’s provision of water in the wilderness (Numbers 21:17-18), the fight song of Deborah, Prophetess and Judge (Judges 5), David’s songs of praise, the prophet Isaiah’s songs of judgment, victory, and praise, the prophet Zephaniah’s song of joy (Zephaniah 3:14-20) and Mary’s song of praise— what we call the “Magnificat”: “My soul magnifies the Lord, /  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, / for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” (Luke 1:46-48)

 

Pray the hymns. Sing your prayers. Connect with God and with others through the power and cosmic resonance of music and feel Spirit’s power. Prayer is the heart of our spiritual life. And when you sing, you pray twice.

 

 

[i] https://blog.pachamama.org/healing-sounds-of-the-universe

[ii] http://www.ethnotraveler.com/2013/12/a-reason-to-rise-the-men-behind-the-muslim-call-to-prayer/

[iii] Rick Hamlin, “To Sing is To Pray,” https://www.huffingtonpost.com/rick-hamlin/to-sing-is-to-pray_b_3154977.html

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