December 4th, 2016
A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC December 4, 2016, the second Sunday of Advent.
Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12
Why do we have to feel pain? Our physical bodies are designed to alert us when there is danger; when we touch something hot, pain causes us to protect ourselves. Ignoring chronic physical pain allows whatever is causing the issue to get worse. Emotional pain is less straightforward perhaps, but wisdom reveals that there are similar dynamics at play. Loneliness, betrayal, fear, disappointment, insecurity, guilt, loss, grief…these things have to be named and addressed or the pain of them will continue unabated. We know that denial or suppression of our emotional pain does not make the source or the pain disappear, but rather can lead to all sorts of nasty, destructive behaviors. In order for any healing or freedom to happen, we have to allow ourselves to feel the pain; we have to acknowledge the pain, be in it, go through it… And that just stinks. It is hard. We generally don’t want to do it. We try to get out of it in all sorts of ways: distractions, addictions, rationalizations.
There is a sinister way in which this human aversion to pain becomes systemically magnified in human societies. Our guru for this series on what it means to be a prophetic witness, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, describes empire as oppressive “rule by a few, economic exploitation, and religious legitimation.”[i] And he says that this reality leads to a “numbed consciousness of denial.”[ii] Brueggemann says, “Imperial economics is designed to keep people satiated so that they do not notice. Its politics is intended to block out the cries of the denied ones. Its religion is to be an opiate so that no one discerns misery alive in the heart of God.”[iii] In other words, the imperial reality distracts, rationalizes, and drugs the populace so that the awareness of suffering and human pain won’t get in the way of business as usual and a healthy bottom line for those in the top 1%.
Brueggemann insists that part of what it means to be prophetic is to name the pain, to cry out in grief, to allow the realities of human suffering to disrupt the status quo. He writes, “The replacing of numbness with compassion, that is, the end of cynical indifference and the beginning of noticed pain, signals a social revolution.”[iv] Just as in our personal lives, the beginning of societal healing and liberation is to tell the truth, to name the source of our pain, to acknowledge that there is hurt, and to begin to address it with love and compassion.
Several years ago I came across a collection of “Poetry for Peace” written by kindergarten through 8th grade students.[v] You can imagine how sweet some of the entries were. A kindergarten class wrote, “…PEACE is when we can work together in our class and in our world…PEACE is when we can listen quietly on the learning rug…PEACE is when we take turns and share without being told to.” But just when I started feeling sentimental about how wise children are in their prophetic vision of how the world should be, I came across seventh grader, Skye Green’s poem simply entitled “Peace”:
My belly starved
Unhappy, I eat once
Muddy streams I drink
Evil invades my house
Takes me, my sisters
They slap my mother beloved
Can’t do anything
“God, why us?”
Hard life, pain,
All over again,
Killed by evil.
I am a man.
Where’s my childhood?
This is (also) prophetic speech. To be prophetic is to cry out, to name what is real in all its messiness and pain and disappointment and anger and fear. Brueggemann suggests that poetry, lyric, and metaphor is the primary language of prophecy. Not that we have to be able to rhyme, write poems, or know meter and music to be prophetic. Rather, the point is that the common prose is often unable to keep us awake. Skye Green and prophets through the ages get to the center of things, to the truth of things in words that don’t go together in the day-to-day way of writing articles and briefs and reports and action plans.
Did you hear John the Baptizer out there in the wilderness this morning?! He shows up bathed not only in the waters of the Jordan river, but also up to his eyeballs in the flow of prophecy: John employs the prophetic poetry of the past to point toward God’s future—all the while calling people to change their ways in the now. And when the Pharisees and Sadducees appear to make a show of their populism—to show that they are “down with the people,” John uses a killer metaphor—brood of vipers!—to critique and break through their rationalizations. “Vipers are mostly nocturnal creatures, seeking their prey after dark. In the daytime, vipers camouflage themselves and, if encountered, may appear sluggish; but they can lash out in a split second when provoked. Vipers have limited stores of venom; they may bite humans without poisoning them, saving their venom for the smaller creatures on which they can more easily feed.” So, metaphorically, vipers hide—like the religious elite who want to hide behind their tribal pedigree; vipers do the most damage to the “little” ones, those perhaps considered “non- or sub-human in society—those least able to contribute materially to the economic cycle on which the empire depends.”[vi]
John shows us what a prophet looks like: Grounded in and guided by the sacred story, a prophet publicly speaks up—using language that quickens the heart and cuts to the core of things— to name what is real, to critique what is inhuman and unjust in the world, to notice the pain and to give it voice. Prophetic witness will always cry out in grief over the suffering of innocents, the callous inhumanity of so many in power, the greedy destruction of what is good and true and beautiful. Because a prophet looks upon the world and sees beauty and goodness, love and harmony…sees both what is and what can be. But a prophet also sees that things are deeply broken, sees that we all participate through capitulation to the culture, and sees that things—that people—must change. So a prophet will always name the pain of our lives and of our world because that is the beginning of social revolution. A prophet—and, by God’s grace, this prophetic community—will tell perhaps the hardest truth: there is a limit to what we can do; that truth brings its own pain and calls for humility and surrender (talk about countercultural!). But a prophet proclaims: in the face of death and the worst the world can do, when human powers fail and human community breaks down, God shows up ready to do something new. The prophetic witness—whether that is your own voice or the collective witness of this congregation—will always say: “One more powerful than I is coming…” who will gather up all the broken pieces and make us whole.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, pp. 13-15.
[ii]Ibid., p. 81.
[iii] Ibid., p. 35.
[iv] Ibid., p. 91.
[v] Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT conducts an annual “Poetry for Peace” contest, receiving submissions from K-8th grade students. The winning selections are brought together into a small publication.
[vi] Thanks to my colleague, David Lott, for his “brooding about vipers” commentary on FaceBook! I am quoting his good research here.
November 27th, 2016
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, November 27, 2016, the first Sunday of Advent.
Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44
In the fantastic 1987 film The Princess Bride, self-proclaimed genius, Vizzini, says for the umpteenth time, “Inconceivable!” and the sobered up-revenge-seeking swordsman, Inigo Montoya, replies, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
As we enter into this new Christian year and the season of Advent, our focus here at Foundry is on prophecy—and particularly what it means to be a prophetic witness. The word “prophetic” gets used a lot these days, assigned to all sorts of words and actions. Sometimes I wonder whether that word doesn’t mean what we think it means. For example, some will say that pastoral ministry isn’t prophetic ministry. Some will think of “prophetic” as something mainly done outside the bounds of traditional churches. Others might think of prophetic action as always being driven by anger and public protest; and still others as something that mostly proclaims future judgment. Foundry Church’s call includes transforming the world through “prophetic leadership.” So it is important for us to have clarity about what it really means to be “prophetic.” Over these next several weeks, we will explore this together and today we make a modest beginning.
Renowned Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann describes what he calls “tired misconceptions” about prophecy this way: “The dominant conservative misconception, evident in manifold bumper stickers, is that the prophet is a fortune-teller, a predictor of things to come (mostly ominous), usually with specific reference to Jesus…While the prophets are in a way future-tellers, they are concerned with the future as it impinges upon the present. Conversely, liberals who abdicated and turned all futuring over to conservatives have settled for a focus on the present. Thus prophecy is alternatively reduced to righteous indignation and, in circles where I move, prophecy is mostly understood as social action.”[i] Brueggemann goes on to say that prophecy is BOTH about pointing to a faithful future AND about faithful critique and action in the present. But he says that even holding the conservative and liberal tendencies together doesn’t capture the fullness of what biblical prophecy is really about. “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”[ii] To be a prophetic witness is to concretely live, speak, believe, and choose in ways counter to the dominant culture.
Understood in this way, things like practicing Sabbath, tithing, and humility are prophetic acts right along with acts of social justice and belief in a living, radically free God. Brueggemann insists that the most difficult and crucial thing for the people of God to do is to resist being co-opted by illusions, to resist becoming enthralled with the claims, values, powers, and principalities of the world that cannot keep their promises. Listen to some of those voices: “If you work all the time you will be rewarded with success and meaning and respect…Be afraid that you won’t have enough—and make sure you have plenty for unchecked spending on yourself…Come on—you know how things really work—throw your weight around and show ‘em who’s boss!...” Our culture of consumerism, self-help, virtual reality, and might-makes-right is like a siren-call that can lure even the most well-meaning among us into capitulation, numbness and apathy, as if this is simply the way things are and we can’t do anything but go along with it.
But if we’re paying attention, if we stay awake, we will be able to resist. How do we stay awake? Active participation in a community that tells “the old, old story” not as nostalgia, but as a grounding, energizing shared history is a place to start. Brueggemann suggests that a prophetic community is one in which “a long and available memory…sinks the present generation deep into an identifiable past that is available in song and story.”[iii] This doesn’t mean that prophetic witness is stuck in the past, but rather, that our story grounds us in what is real, provides a concrete alternative to the illusions of prevailing culture, and reminds us of what is possible through the steadfast, eternal love of God.
On election day this year, Foundry offered morning, midday, and evening prayer services. At noon, we sang what is traditionally called the Gloria Patri—“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” I sang this every Sunday growing up. It’s ingrained in me—like the Lord’s Prayer— in that way that makes it easy to just say the words without paying attention. But on that Tuesday, singing the familiar words, I found myself brought to tears. What was going on? What had touched my heart and mind was hope—the awareness that no matter what happened in the election, no matter what happens ever, the God who is at the beginning of all things IS now and ever shall BE. Awareness of the steadfast, eternal presence of God brought (and brings!) the assurance that no matter what mess we humans make of things, no matter how lost we become, no matter how much damage we do to one another and to the creation, God has been, is, and will be at work to restore, renew, resurrect. This assurance is not just wishful thinking or simple human optimism. Christian hope in the presence and life-giving power of God is based on a lived history of a flesh and blood people. The story we tell—a story of a God who creates all that is by the power of a loving word, who draws close to humankind in loving companionship, who is radically free to act in unexpected ways through and for unlikely people, who is passionate and unyielding in the quest to make us truly human (yet always without sacrificing our burden of free will), whose heart is literally broken by our stubborn, selfish rejection, and who has the power to bring life out of death—this story and this God is real, revealed to us through the scriptures, the prophets, and most fully in Jesus. It is our history. It is our story. We are the people of God, the people of this particular, historically engaged God. In the present, we hope for the future because we know what God has done in the past.
This is our “long and available memory… available in song and story.” The past is present as a living memory and as a living hope. Hope in God’s loving presence and life-renewing power allows us to believe that things will not always be the way they are today. And our story affirms that as God’s people we have work to do as we lean into an alternative future. Hope in a God revealed as with us and for us empowers us to live NOW in a way that is in line with the Kin-dom vision that will one day be brought to fulfillment. That is really what our Gospel passage is about today. At first glance, it seems a bit scary—and the whole of chapter 24 is pretty challenging, apocalyptic stuff. But the basic theme of the passage is to keep alert—to watch and pray and persevere in living the life we’re made for right now. We are to guard against being lulled to sleep or satiation by the sirens of the age. Alert and awake, we are called to live in the hope and freedom and love of God as revealed by Jesus.
Advent and Christmas is a time when memory and story is so powerful. So many symbols—objects, songs, rituals—remind us of people and experiences that have shaped us and given our lives meaning. I don’t know of any time of the year when my own past feels so palpably present. And the old Christian story we tell at this time of year is a story that we are aching to experience in our world today: the appearance of God’s love in flesh, the promise of a world restored, the gifts of wonder and wisdom, beauty and joy, peace with justice. Amidst the co-option and commercialization of our story, over the siren call to make the first coming of Christ saccharine and nostalgic, the jarring apocalyptic words of our tradition shake us and wake us to tell and to live the real story every day of our lives until Christ comes again and all things are truly made new. The story we tell in this holy season is a story we need—it is a message the world needs: God loves you. God is with you. God is for you. God will not leave nor forsake you. God comes to you in ways both simple and profound. The Kin-dom of God is as near as your own breath. Look! Listen! Wake up!
We are God’s people, people with a particular history, grounded in a peculiar way of being that, from age to age, runs counter to the prevailing culture. The temptation is to fall asleep, to check out, to give in to the self-serving, self-satisfied, self-defensive, self-made ways of the world. But a prophetic community—this prophetic community—will not allow that to happen. Today we claim the prophetic work of telling a story of love, mercy, compassion, and new life made possible in and through a God who has proved again and again that the way of abundant life is found not in selfish, defensive control, but rather in self-giving, vulnerable freedom. Our shared, sacred story not only gives us solid ground upon which to stand, it provides a community with whom to walk and work and points us, together, in the direction of God’s promised future for all people. That is the work of our whole lives—not something only undertaken in this place. Foundry is simply a prophetic community that, by the grace of God, tries to keep us awake.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 3.
[iii] Ibid., p. xvi.
November 20th, 2016
Note: Audio podcast of this sermon to be uploaded soon.
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC November 20, 2016, Reign of Christ Sunday.
Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6, Luke 23:33-43
Whose side are you on? That question is, perhaps, particularly fraught at this moment in American history. We so easily slide into political partisanship, taking our stand on one side of the aisle or the other. Some, perhaps rightly, will say that the question of whose side we’re on is the wrong question to ask right now. Others will assert it is the most important question! Still others will always balk at the idea of choosing sides because it strikes them as exclusive and inherently dismissive of particular kinds of human experience—after all, “all lives matter.” But here’s the thing: Jesus chose a side.
Folks will rush to claim which side Jesus is on in every debate. It makes me think of a cartoon I saw a while back. The American elephant and donkey are in a frame with Pope Francis. These representatives of the two major political parties are saying of the Pope, “He’s with me!” In the corner of the frame, Jesus says, “I’m pretty sure he’s with me.” It is cliché to say that Jesus (like the Pope) is not a Republican or a Democrat, but that doesn’t keep folks from dressing him up in their own rally gear. Today, I affirm that Jesus is not politically partisan. At the same time, I am clear that Jesus does choose sides. What side is Jesus on?
Two stories at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry provide insight. The first is the story of the devil tempting Jesus by saying, “If you are the Son of God then save yourself, worship me, do a sign.” The devil promised a full belly, worldly power, and ego-stroking affirmation. Making this deal with the devil would have set Jesus on a certain kind of path. (Lk 4:1-13) Instead, Jesus chose to worship God, to trust God, and to embark on a journey that would lead him not to fill his own belly, but to feed the bodies and souls of the whole world; a journey that would set him against the powers of the world and that would inspire not ego-stroking affirmation, but mocking and betrayal.
Immediately after that encounter in the wilderness, Jesus went into the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath as was his custom and opened the scroll to the place in Isaiah where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because [God] has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. [God] has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18-19) Jesus says these verses of prophecy are fulfilled in him; in other words, this is his “position description.” Jesus sides with the poor, with the captives, with those who cannot see, with the oppressed. Jesus calls for fulfillment of the economic and social “reset” of a “jubilee” every fiftieth year—“the year of the Lord’s favor”—when debts are canceled, tribal lands restored, and indentured servants set free.
Having claimed his role as God’s anointed messenger and liberator, Jesus frames the message this way: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God… for I was sent for this purpose.” (Lk 4:43) Here at Foundry, we often use the word “Kin-dom” in place of “kingdom” to reflect a gender-neutral view of God’s community, the “kinship” we share with all humanity, and the belief that God’s vision for the creation is all about loving, mutual relationship. The Kin-dom of God Jesus proclaims is a reality not confined to any one place or time. He describes the Kin-dom as that dynamic way of life-in-relationship that is characterized (ruled) by the perfect love, unity in diversity, mutuality, peace, and justice of God’s own Triune life. To be a citizen of God’s Kin-dom is to seek, by God’s grace, to live in a way that reflects God’s own love and life. The opposite to that way of life, a way we see manifest in some individuals and human communities and systems, is hateful, destructive, greedy, violent, and so on. These things have no place in the Kin-dom of God. One of my favorite liberation theologians, Jon Sobrino, talks about the Kingdom of God and the “Anti-Kingdom” with the latter being anything that actively works against the in-breaking of God’s Kin-dom of peace, justice, and life for the poor. Sobrino says that all persons have a choice to make “between Jesus and the devils, which means having to choose between God and the Evil One, and also between what each generates: between the Kingdom and the anti-Kingdom.”[i] For Sobrino—and, I believe, for Jesus—God’s love generates the Kingdom and the Kingdom is the realm of life. Alternatively, the Evil One (however we think of that reality) generates the anti-Kingdom and the anti-Kingdom is the realm of death. Novels and Hollywood provide ready examples of the struggle—think of Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort, The Lord of the Rings’Frodo and Sauron, Saruman, and their orcs, and (the now classic) Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
Jesus had a choice to make in the wilderness about whether to choose the side of God’s Kin-dom of life or the devilish anti-Kin-dom of death. The anti-Kin-dom is all about power, domination, safety, and self-sufficiency. Jesus chose the side of God’s Kin-dom, the side of sacrificial love, humility, compassion, mercy, liberation, vulnerability, and justice. And choosing that side led to the cross. The forces of the anti-Kin-dom thought they’d won.
In our Gospel for today, we hear the emboldened voices of the assumed victors as they mock and jeer at the foot of the cross. They echo the voice of the devil in the wilderness: “If you are the messiah, the chosen one, save yourself!” On one side of Jesus, a criminal joins that chorus: “Aren’t you the messiah? Save yourself and us!” These voices have the full force of the anti-Kin-dom behind them: “Use your power, Jesus! Look out for number one. Cash in on your privilege as the son of God and betray your full solidarity with all those who suffer injustice. Side with us, Jesus! Because to side with the poor and downtrodden is a waste of time and it makes you weak, a fool, and the butt of jokes. Just look at how we play a game with your cheap clothes! Look where your love has gotten you. Save yourself!”
On the other side of Jesus, another voice emerges. A more humble voice. A more realistic voice. “This man has done nothing wrong.” Among all the other words this convicted criminal speaks from the cross, this is the line that stands out for me right now. “This man—Jesus—has done nothing wrong.” This criminal looks upon Jesus and sees the truth, sees that Jesus is a victim of injustice. It is not inappropriate to interpret the encounter between this criminal and Jesus as a moment of salvation. But I think we have to be very careful about how we understand why. I don’t believe the encounter is about this criminal incanting the “magic salvation words” a la Paul’s words in Romans about “confess[ing] with your lips that Jesus is Lord.” (Rom 10:9) Rather, I think there is something here about a heart that has been strangely warmed and a person who has become more human. After all, a person who can see and name the injustice of the principalities and powers against innocent victims is someone who has at least an inkling of God’s Kin-dom whether they call it that or not. A person who can see and honor the power of loving, sacrificial solidarity is someone who has in some way been pierced by divine love. In that moment, this criminal chose a side. He rejected the loud voices of the anti-kin-dom. He chose the man dying next to him, he chose the Kin-dom Jesus embodied, he chose the way of life that would lead someone to humbly give his life for the sake of love and justice. He couldn’t have known that choice would do anything at all for him. It seems to me that this criminal only asked for the same compassion that Jesus had already shown to the executioners. “Please remember me,” he says. In that humble act of seeing, of honoring, of choosing Jesus and all that Jesus held on the cross, that convicted criminal was drawn—even at that moment—into the reality of the Kin-dom of God, into the way of being human that heralds Kin-dom citizenship. That, I believe, is what Jesus affirmed.
Today, we see Jesus on the cross with a criminal on his right and one on his left. These two illustrate for us the choice we have before us each day. The issue isn’t whether Jesus is on our side, but whether we are on his. Will we side with the Kin-dom that Jesus embodied or the anti-Kin-dom that crucified him? Will we allow Jesus’s sacrifice to remove the veil from our eyes to see the innocent victims of injustice that continue to be crucified by the power players and policies of the church and state? Or will we remain blind to the fact that Christ is not alone on his cross? We have a choice to make. Whose side are we on?
I am painfully aware that when we are dealing with the thorniest issues among us as a human family and as a nation, there are competing interpretations of reality and dueling strategies for how to concretely act. This is where sane, loving, mutually respectful debate serves us well. Our tradition teaches us to speak our truth in love (Eph 4:15) and humility. Several weeks ago, we thought together about the reality of confirmation bias[ii]—so we know that it behooves us to also seek voices outside our echo chambers and listen for understanding. But ultimately, we have to choose what to do, how to act, whom to support, which side we’re on. Regardless of our political affiliation, as Christians, we have some concrete guidance.
Jesus chose a side. It wasn’t the side of the status quo. It wasn’t the side of the strong and powerful. It wasn’t the side of personal comfort or cheap grace. It wasn’t the side of self-protection or revenge. It wasn’t the side of wealth or privilege. Jesus chooses the underside, the outside, the pushed-aside. He stands on the side of justice, he stands on the side of self-giving love, he stands on the side of humility and vulnerability. Jesus doesn’t choose the side of the poor and oppressed because he only loves them. Jesus takes that side because he loves all people and knows that “when one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers with it.” (1 Cor 12:26) As American Jewish poet, Emma Lazarus, wrote, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” The only way we will ever ALL be free and whole is if we finally see one another, care for one another, sacrifice for one another, forgive one another, love one another. This is what Jesus does. This is what Jesus chooses.
What about you?
[i] Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological View, 95.
[ii] “We Welcome” A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, October 16, 2016.
November 13th, 2016
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC November 113, 2016, the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost.
Text: Luke 21:5-19
I begin today by telling my truth: this past week has been excruciatingly painful and difficult. In past presidential elections, my preferred candidate has lost plenty of times. That’s not what this is about. What I’m dealing with grows out of the convictions of my faith and the contours of my experience. My faith and experience have raised concern and discomfort about both Democrat and Republican candidates and administrations in the past. What is happening now, however, feels like a whole new category of concern. I’m not so naïve to have believed that a campaign fueled by fear, bullying, and boldfaced racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and prejudice of every kind couldn’t win. But I was caught off-guard by the depth of my reactions to the election results—grief, rage, humiliation, the visceral sense of my own vulnerability as a woman and survivor of sexual assault; and painful awareness of the much greater vulnerability of my sisters and brothers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, black, brown, immigrants, Muslim, disabled, or poor. I haven’t even begun to unravel my thoughts and feelings about the hypocrisy represented by the polling data related to Christians. Add to that, worry about the safety of the planet and our relationship with nations around the world… I know full well that there are others who are having different reactions to the past week, who hold very different perspectives, many of which are truly not fueled by hatred. I am profoundly grateful that we live in a country in which the transfer of power is accomplished without violence—something I pray we as a nation never undermine or take for granted. But today, I feel I must begin with the truth of where I am. I am anxious and fearful for people I love and for what may be in our collective future as a nation.
In our Gospel assigned for today from Luke, those who heard Jesus must have felt the same way as he predicts the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. The temple represented not only the center of religious and civic life, but also the very presence of God among the people. Nothing would have felt more devastating. For us to make any sense of this passage, it helps to understand that the author of Luke is writing around fifteen years after Jerusalem was sacked by Rome in 70 CE. When Luke’s version of the Jesus story got into the hands of the early Christians, the whole story had already happened—including what Jesus talks about in our passage today: not one stone of the temple left upon another, nation against nation, arrests, persecutions, betrayals. All of these have occurred. The Romans have killed the Jews—including Jewish Christians—and have razed Jerusalem. Those holding the book of Luke for the first time are people who have suffered, are suffering, persecuted for who they are, persecuted for their faith, persecuted by those in power, reviled by family and friends, and some even tortured and murdered. The first hearers of this text know this story. It has already happened TO THEM—the pain still fresh, the dust still settling… I imagine them adding their own, personal stories to the accounts of persecution. Into the flow of memory and pain, Jesus throws a line, teaching that even victims, those powerless against stronger forces, have the power to choose what they believe and to be a witness: “This [awful situation] will give you an opportunity to testify.” These are not words only pointing backward to those who have already stood firm in their faith. These are words for those reading the story—those who are still suffering, still struggling, still being persecuted and facing trials and temptations. These are words for us today.
Today, this gathered body and our nation as a whole is facing trials and temptations. There is suffering and struggle, division and demonization, anger and confusion, fear and deep uncertainty. I hear blame flowing in every possible direction. Theories about what is going on in our nation abound. The “problem” is described in terms of rural versus urban, white versus black, educated versus under-educated, establishment versus anti-establishment, rich versus poor. “Versus” is the common denominator… The “problem,” depending upon who is speaking, is “coastal elites” or immigrants or evangelicals or Muslims or the media… // The best I can tell, there is not just one “problem” but rather a whole mess of deep-seated, and often interrelated issues that have contributed to our current situation. In this and every moment of deep division and struggle, subtlety and nuance and the realities of history and complex intersections in human community are often lost as we cast about for some scapegoat for our own anxiety and fear and rage. But there is no quick “fix.” Blaming someone won’t bring transformation.
This is not to say that there is nothing to be called out, renounced, and challenged. Lord knows Jesus didn’t mince words with purveyors of injustice. But Jesus never ever acted with violence or hatred or deceit. He was angry at the death-dealing ways of Empire; he was angry at the perversion of religious law. But Jesus’ anger was fueled by his love for people and a desire for all people to experience the liberating love of God and life in God’s Kin-dom; it was not an anger seeking a scapegoat, but rather reconciliation, mercy, and justice.
You and I find ourselves in this complicated and volatile moment in our nation’s history, gathered as a community who bear the name of Jesus the Christ. And Jesus speaks to us today saying: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.” What will your testimony be? How are you going to respond? How are you going to choose to live?
That has been the question I’ve asked myself again and again over these past days. The challenge has been to feel what I feel even as I keep perspective of the larger picture, to resist being pulled into polarized, absolutized, scapegoating and blaming scenarios on the one hand, and to resist capitulation to any easy “peace” on the other. The struggle is real! But my simple grounding is this: I am a Jesus-follower and that means I am called to love, compassion, forgiveness, and humility. I am called to sacrificial solidarity with the most vulnerable. I am called to non-violent resistance to empire and to courageous renunciation of weaponized religion. I am called to mutual respect and reconciliation as I seek fulfillment of God’s vision of a peaceable Kin-dom. In other words, I am called to Love God. Love each “other.” Change the world.
Here at 16th and P Street, NW, we find ourselves called into a great struggle for the heart and soul of our nation and of our church and of the Christian faith itself. This struggle is not new; it has been going on in every age and generation around the globe—it is the ongoing struggle for God’s vision of love and mercy and peace with justice to appear on earth as it is in heaven. The struggle is not new, but this is our time, our moment in the struggle. This struggle, Jesus reminds us, provides an opportunity to testify. What will our testimony be? Love God. Love each other. Change the world. That has been our testimony here at Foundry and it will continue. Our testimony will be to try to follow Jesus who laid down his life for the sake of love and justice. Our testimony will be to support policies and politicians that support the wellbeing of all people. Our testimony will be to challenge any policy or politician that does harm. We will continue to proclaim and seek concrete ways to witness that Black Lives Matter. We will continue to embrace and cherish LGBTQ persons, families, and marriages. We will continue to advocate for the poor and homeless, to feed the hungry, to walk gently upon this planet. We will continue to be Foundry and to do what we know we are called to do. But here’s the thing: I believe this work will require even more from us in the years to come. Already dangerous streets will likely become more dangerous, not less. We must not only be alert to emerging needs for care, sanctuary, and support, but we simply must stay in the struggle for the long haul. Jesus says, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Where does the endurance come from? How do we find the energy and will to persevere? How do we manage to keep perspective and to be wise and discerning when all the forces in the world make us want to revert to the reptilian brain of reactivity, fight or flight, scapegoating, and all the rest, when grief tempts us to fall into the abyss? The endurance we need is not something that we can achieve by our own strength. We need help. And our help comes from God. If we lose our ability to trust in the promise of God’s presence, God’s goodness, God’s faithfulness, then we are sure to fall into despair or worse. New every morning, we have to choose…choose to trust God’s love, choose to trust that God’s vision of peace is more than a pipe dream, that the lions and the lambs, the hawks and the doves, will not hurt or destroy, that justice will finally reign, that holocaust of people and of creation will cease, that people will learn to love one another and that the church will one day be the resurrected Body of Christ and not just the crucified and broken Body. We need to trust that God’s love has triumphed even when the empire strikes back and seems to be winning the day. We need to trust that our lives are part of God’s life and that God will give us grace in order to not only withstand the pains of life, but also to act, to testify to our faith, hope, and love in the midst, that God’s grace will help our lives be concrete signs of the inbreaking of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.
Towers and temples fall, illusions crumble, eco-systems disappear, empires come and go, flood and fire are real, hearts are broken, bodies age, fall ill, and die. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” says Jesus, “but my words will not pass away.” (Lk. 21:33) Jesus’s words and life testify to this truth: what truly endures is God—God’s presence, God’s Word, God’s promise, God’s love; GOD endures. Forces seen and unseen keep trying to run God off and stamp God out and break God down. They thought they had done it when they tore down the temple. They thought they had done it when they nailed Jesus to a tree. But the love of God is stronger than every evil, every suffering, every death-dealing, destruction-seeking power. Everything else falls apart and passes away, but God is indestructible. And by God’s amazing grace at work in our lives, here and there and now and again our own little lives will testify to that truth even though some call us fools. Our hope draws us forward into a life that requires engagement in the struggle, a life that is not free from pain, uncertainty and risk, but that is full of meaning, vitality, and love. Our hope is not in vain. What we hope for has already happened, after all. We know the story of the cross. And we know the story of Easter morning. And we are an Easter people—so even now in the face of this present moment of struggle: hope, love, trust, be brave… this will be powerful testimony. Hold on to each other. God holds on to us from age to age until all things are made new.
November 6th, 2016
A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry United Methodist Church November 6, 2016, All Saints Sunday.
Text: Rev. 7:9-17
The vision we have just received from Revelation is of those who remained faithful in the face of persecution—who have lived through and “come out of the great ordeal.” Now they live in the light, love, and care of the Lamb of God, Jesus. This vision is a reflection of what Jesus promises in the Beatitudes: namely that “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” will enter the kin-dom of heaven— that kin-dom in which the Lamb of God, Jesus, sits on the throne, and in which there is no more hunger…no more getting burned for carrying the light, no more thirst for righteousness—because the Lamb is also the shepherd, guiding the blessed faithful to springs of the water of life. And, as it says so powerfully in verse 17: “and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Friends, through the ages there are many we call saints, official and unofficial, living and dead. These are folks who persevered through trial and tribulation and didn’t lose their faith, who continued to love and hope even in the face of challenge and violence and outright evil. Those who sat down because they were tired…Those who stood up because they were tired…Those who spoke out because they were tired…Those who acted up because they were tired…Because they were tired of 2nd class citizenship, tired of being denied their own humanity, tired of having to hide and pretend and be careful and fearful—even for their very lives. And some were tired of living in a world that not only allowed, but systematically and institutionally fed and approved oppression. Some of these saints we could name—famous ones like Mother Teresa and Sojourner Truth and lesser known ones like Sandra Bland and Greg Dell. Thousands of others are known only to God. Those we could name have done extraordinary things, putting their very lives on the line for the sake of others, for the sake of justice, for the sake of the Gospel. Some have accomplished great feats of thought or ministry that have furthered God’s reign of peace on earth.
Still other saints of God persevered in their faith in different and perhaps more quiet ways. They have hung in there and been willing to do the hard thing for a loved one caught in the snares of addiction. Some have sacrificed much of their own lives to care for mentally or physically ill partners, children, or parents. Some have delivered meals, visited the sick and lonely, shared words of love and comfort with those who truly needed it, offered healing hands and prayers to the suffering, been on-call to fix things for those who needed help, and a myriad other acts of loving service. Some have suffered debilitating illness, persevering with grace and good humor. Some have persevered with dignity and strength in the midst of poverty and neglect. Some saints have spent their lives in prayer. Some saints have prayerfully and lovingly shared not only their lives but their resources, making sacrificial gifts to further God’s kin-dom of peace and love on earth.
In all the forms their lives take, saints, past and present, live their hope and their faith. They act with courage in the face of prejudice and fear and despair and cynicism and apathy and self-interest—those things in human life that can so easily get the better of us. The saints are a testimony to God’s presence and power and love and justice and grace. In the face of all that would do them harm, the saints of God stand firm in their faith and in their hope that God’s future WILL come to pass. It’s not that they never doubt or struggle; but they hold on and ultimately they keep the faith. They not only believe, but act out their faith and Jesus promises that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
On this day, we give thanks for the saints who have gone before and whose example and courage and love inspire and challenge us. We give thanks for the saints of God we have been blessed to know and whom we see no more, for all the ways that they continue to walk with us and give us strength. We give thanks for those around us who stand as living testimonies to the goodness and love and glory of God, whose witness gives us courage and inspiration to stand firm and to persevere with faith, hope, and love. // But we miss the point if we leave here thinking that this day is only about some extraordinary persons. Saints—regular people like you and me—show us that we can follow in their footsteps and live our faith in concrete acts of love and care. We are ALL called to be living testimonies to the God who loves us so much that we are called children of God, sisters and brothers of Jesus who came into the world as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world. In the face of the trials and struggles of this world you are called to be a living testimony to the hope that you have been given as a gift in Christ Jesus. The promise is that, as you stand firm in faith, hope, and love, you’ll be in very good company.