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The Pressure of Birth Pangs: A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC Nov. 18, 2018

November 18th, 2018

The Pressure of Birth Pangs

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC Nov. 18, 2018, the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost. “Under Pressure” series.

Text:  1 Samuel 1:4-20

Hannah, the central character in our biblical text, is honored by interpreters as a woman of faith, patience, and kindness.  She put up with the taunts of her sister-wife and—as far as we know—didn’t retaliate. She put up with her perhaps well-meaning, but clueless husband who seems to have missed the part in ancient economics and society class when it was explained that to be a childless woman meant that you were shamed and considered useless and worthless in the larger society—regardless of a man’s warm feelings toward you. Hannah has gumption—she goes to the temple and prays fervently to God for help and then talks back to the priest, Eli, who wrongly accuses her passion and embodied, demonstrative presence as drunkenness.  Hannah is an extraordinary woman—if not being a jerk in the face of body-shaming and jealousy, suffering with dignity, crying out to name the pain of her life, and exhibiting an embodied agency in the face of wrongful accusation and injustice is what it means to be extraordinary. 

What I don’t want to do today is to add to the pile of interpretations that make Hannah nothing more than a game piece on the board of history, an object lesson for faith, or an example of “pray to the ATM God and miraculously get your heart’s desire” bad theology.  In the context of the story, it is true that Hannah’s actions, her vow, and her son Samuel all play an important part in the transition within Israel from one political structure to another, from the age of judges to the monarchy. Israel was vulnerable, with both “church” and “state” in turmoil and lacking good and wise leadership. The turning point is with Hannah—with one who was good and wise and, yes, faithful. She certainly does play an important role in the history of our ancestors in faith.

But before we get to that, we have Hannah in her suffering; then and now—for all sorts of reasons—a woman who wishes to give birth to a child and is unable to do so experiences a sometimes crippling, always deeply unmooring, grief and loss.  Before we get to Hannah’s place in history we have this deep grief, her lament; we have her experience of injustice and wrongful accusation, her having to overcome social labels and assumptions to be taken seriously, for her voice to be heard, or her life to be given value and worth.  She may be honored today, but in her own day, she was decidedly not. Hannah’s experience is—to a significant degree—the experience of so many women across time and culture. 

Misogyny—the both subtle and overt prejudice against women—is alive and well in the most intimate of relationships and in the dynamics playing out in our professional, public, and political spheres.  And yet, as the saying goes, “she persisted.”  Hannah persisted.  And woman after woman continues to persist in the struggle to be liberated from the life and body-limiting laws and social and religious constructs that would teach and form us to be less than we are, that try to control and shame us, and to make our worth dependent upon something other than being exactly who we are.  Hannah was an extraordinary woman even if she hadn’t finally gotten pregnant and given birth to Samuel.  She was already an extraordinary woman of kindness and faith and patience and strength.  //

What we’re seeing in this moment in history is pressure being exerted by persistent women and others who have historically not taken center stage. When a female presidential candidate receives 2.8 million more votes than the male opponent, when a black man holds the presidency for eight years, when persistent advocacy results in marriage equality across the land, when women are stepping into leadership within institutions traditionally dominated by men—in science, finance, church, tech, and synagogue, there is tremendous pressure placed upon the old systems and assumptions and networks. We’ve just come through an election in which a record number of women have been elected to congress—among them the first Native American and Muslim women, Lesbian women, Latinas, young millennial women, and a now naturalized Somali refugee.[i]

And the empire will always strike back.  Power and privilege and the comfort of the status quo are rarely if ever voluntarily surrendered. When those who have been under the pressure of prejudice, injustice, and lack of representation don’t remain silent but instead cry out in lament and courage to speak truth to power; when they present themselves to serve alongside others as worthy participants in leadership and shared life, the pressure shifts onto those for whom such an experience is not only aggravating but infuriating—in large part because it is such an unfamiliar experience.  And rage is rampant right now. We see it all over the place. Unchecked rage can take deadly forms—the lyrics of the “Coventry Carol” come to mind:

Herod the king, in his raging,

Chargèd he hath this day

His men of might in his own sight

All young children to slay.

All of us—oppressors and oppressed—can be tempted to destructive rage, to react to change and challenge with hurtful speech or bruising actions.  Hannah chose a different path. She persisted in faith—not joyfully or blindly or without grief—but with a sense that the God who had led the Israelites out of slavery, through the wilderness, and into a new land, would also be with her in her barren place to lead her into new life.

The Gospel companion to our 1 Samuel text from today’s lectionary—the assigned readings for each Sunday—is from Mark 13.  It’s a short passage in which Jesus speaks of the “end” times and of many things that will happen as a precursor.  Jesus says, “Beware that no one leads you astray… When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (Mk 13:5-8)

What strikes me is that the Mark text was likely written around year 60 of the Common Era.  It’s old. And there have been wars and wars and wars and countless earthquakes and famines in all those years… The birth pangs are lasting a very long time.  How long did Hannah wait?  She had no guarantee that anything would change in her lifetime, that her circumstance would change physically. The Israelites didn’t know how long they would need to wander through the wilderness between slavery and promised land.  We won’t know the final duration of any moment of personal suffering or struggle or grief.  We don’t know how long the social pressure and turmoil we’re experiencing in America right now will last. 

The only thing we know is that God is yet at work.  As our United Methodist morning prayer says, “New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world.” And because of that, we also pray that God will “Stir up in us a desire” to serve God, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to Jesus Christ, our Lord.  This is the persistence that comes through faith, through hope, through the love that fuels us to keep pressing on regardless of the obstacles or setbacks.

In January of 2016 Valerie Kaur, a Sikh activist and lawyer, spoke at an interfaith “watchnight” service that was organized to respond to a series of hate crimes. Her core image speaks directly to our texts today. She said: “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ears ‘You are brave?’ What if this is our nation’s greatest transition?  What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then? Push. Because if we don’t push we will die. If we don’t push our nation will die. Tonight we will breathe. Tomorrow we will labor in love through love and your revolutionary love is the magic we will show our children.”[ii]

Our ancestor Hannah is a progenitor of this kind of speech and faith and vision. Standing in that stream of faith, we can boldly proclaim that God is like a midwife at our side and, come what may, she’s not going anywhere; God the midwife is right here coaxing and soothing us, challenging us to push through the pain in order to receive the new life that is available.  God, the midwife, is holding us, our nation, the world and all its people in her strong, capable hands, groaning with us as we hurt and grieve and fear, steadfastly urging us to choose life instead of death, gentleness instead of violence, justice instead of greed, hope instead of despair.  God, the midwife, pushes us to change in ways that will allow new life to be born in the world. God, the midwife speaks words of encouragement, reminding us of how strong we are, how beautiful, how beloved, how important.

Having faith in a loving, steadfast, ever-present, midwife God doesn’t mean that we will get the outcome we desire; it doesn’t mean we won’t fear or doubt or be anxious or suffer.  But it does allow us to bring all of those things into the larger vision of God’s future.  And when we do that, our suffering is given some meaning, our hopes are given content and shape, and we are reminded of who we are and what we can do:  namely, we are children of God who are entrusted with giving birth to God’s love in our own lives, in our communities, in our world. 

[i] https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/07/politics/historic-firsts-midterms/index.html

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/12/lesson-hopeful-ilhan-omar-journey-somali-refugee-us-congress

[ii] https://speakola.com/ideas/valerie-kaur-interfaith-watch-night-2016

The Pressure of Poverty A Sermon Preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC Nov. 11, 2012

November 13th, 2018

The Pressure of Poverty

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC Nov. 11, 2012, the twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost. “Under Pressure” series.

Text:  Mark 12:38-44

In the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, I found myself increasingly concerned about reports of voter suppression in states like Florida, North Dakota, and Georgia—in many cases in districts where the population is primarily poor and black.[i]  I’ve read stories of the only available polling places being located miles from public transportation, of street addresses being required in places where Native Americans generally don’t have them, of “inactive” voters being removed from registered voter lists, of a lack of sufficient voting machines or polling places and wait times upward of 3-4 hours, of hundreds of absentee ballots being rejected, of a group of elderly black voters being forced off a bus that was going to drive them to the polls.  Of course, the populations most impacted by these and other tactics are the poor and disenfranchised—those for whom getting to the polls between two jobs or without a car or without a street address or “an exact match” on every official document—will be difficult.  In the midst of these troubling reports, I also saw stories of folks who were doing whatever it took to vote—and saw images of long lines of people waiting hours to participate.  I wondered what obstacles some of the folks had overcome to be there. 

 

And when I read again the story from our Gospel text for today, I couldn’t help but wonder about the poor widow who stood in a different kind of line to participate in a different kind of civic duty and privilege. The Temple treasury in Jesus’ day consisted of thirteen contribution chests that received a variety of charitable gifts for use and administration by Temple leaders.  The Mosaic Law specified that a portion of the offerings would be used to support those in need—dispersed Levitical clans, resident aliens, orphans, and widows. (e.g. Deut. 14:28)  The treasury chests were located in an inner courtyard—the Court of the Women—so called because that was as far as women could go into the Temple structure.[ii]  This courtyard is where Jesus is often found when he is teaching in the Temple.  And this is where Jesus sees the widow making her way forward.  What obstacles had she overcome just to get there?

 

We’re told this widow is poor. In addition to juxtaposing the treasury line to the voting line, I also thought about the widow’s poverty in light of a recent FaceBook rant from a childhood friend, angry about witnessing a family trying to get a hotel room without the funds to pay for it. The rant was the old saw—if you’re poor it’s because you’re lazy or don’t try or just want a handout and all the other things that folks often say.  What of the poor widow in the story?  What we know about widows in the time of Jesus is that, while all were not poor, those who had no other source of financial support (a son or a brother-in-law of means) were left destitute—without any recourse for sustenance.  Widows, like orphans, had no voice in the legal, religious, political, and social eyes of society.  The Hebrew word for widow, almanah, also means “desolate house” and one resource suggests another meaning is “leftover pieces.” Widows were considered empty places where life is no longer dwells, or as leftovers, the chaff that is thrown away after the important, useful wheat has been harvested. 

 

The poor widow’s condition is not due to any laziness or misconduct on her part. It is the result of the lawcode, the systems of society, and the variability of family connection or status.  Even if there were few obstacles between her and the treasury, just getting there would have required more effort and intention than others. And this unnamed widow steps up to the treasury and offers her gift, a gift that was worth a penny, 1/64 of the daily wage of the time.  She put in everything she had, “all she had to live on.”  Some translations say she gave “her whole living” or “her whole livelihood.”  But the literal meaning of the Greek is:  she gave her life

       

And I wonder why she did it.  Certainly, the temple didn’t depend upon her small gift to maintain its functions.  And those who were charged with caring for her and protecting her didn’t always do so—she couldn’t trust that her gift would earn the care that she needed from the temple authorities.  Perhaps this woman presented herself and her offering as a cry for justice, for inclusion, for her own dignity, for the recognition that she is not worthless, that she, too, has something to offer.  Perhaps the poor widow was giving what she had simply because she wanted to do so, making her offering with joy and gratitude that she had something to contribute.  Or, the more cynical option:  the temple authorities (who were described by Jesus as “devouring widows’ houses” in verse 40) have manipulated this widow and others like her to feel obligated to give more than they could really afford.  In this scenario, Jesus’ words (“this poor widow has put in…all she had to live on”) would be exasperation and disgust rather than the more familiar reading of admiration.

 

But regardless of her motivation, if Jesus hadn’t noticed the woman, no one else would have.  It is possible that Jesus highlights the widow’s gift as an example of profound faith and trust in God’s love and care.  It is also possible that the writer of Mark’s Gospel is using this story to illustrate the life of Christian discipleship as a life of sacrificial, self-giving love.  But I also wonder whether Jesus calls attention to this widow and her gift as a way to highlight the injustice of a system in which some people have so much and others have so little, a system in which laws put people in poverty and then blame those same people for being there, a system in which some receive honor and prestige because of their large gifts that don’t really cost them much (gifts out of their leftovers), while others who give all they have (for good or ill) are ignored, mistreated, and forgotten (I can’t help but think of the number of veterans who are living on the streets), a system in which those responsible for creating or maintaining systems and policies that leave people in destitution simply go about their business as if the lives of the poor have nothing to do with them—as if they bear no responsibility.  Today, we hear Jesus condemn the scribes for their hypocrisy.  They revel in their positions of worldly power and pray “long prayers” so that they will look pious.  But in reality they are not attending to the real work of God.  Through intentional funneling of treasury funds into their own pockets or through thoughtless neglect, they support the system that “devours widows’ houses” rather than work to challenge the system that discounts vulnerable human beings as “leftovers.”  //

 

As I was preparing for today, I did a quick review of statistics for poverty in the United States. We tend to think that poverty in other countries makes American poverty look like extravagance. This is simply not true.  Study after study and report after report documents that all around us there are people who are either caught in generational cycles of poverty or who are falling into poverty not as a result of laziness, but as a result of a variety of societal and political realities, values, and policies.[iii]  Angus Deaton, a professor of economics and international affairs and the 2015 Nobel laureate in economics states simply, “There are millions of Americans whose suffering, through material poverty and poor health, is as bad or worse than that of the people in Africa or in Asia.”[iv] In our backyard, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, “Poverty is higher than a decade ago, workers without a college education have seen their hourly wages fall, and DC has one of the largest income inequality gaps in the country.”[v]  Ed Lazere, Executive Director of DCFPI writes, “our youngest residents are among those most likely to be living in poverty, with 26 percent of DC children growing up in families working hard to make ends meet. The vast majority of children living in poverty are children of color. These are signs that the legacy of racism and current barriers facing residents of color—in our workforce, schools, housing, and more—continue to prevent too many residents from being part of our city’s growing prosperity.”[vi]

Some of us here spend our daily lives working to change this reality, to change unjust policies and to be in solidarity with the poor.  Many of us here will understand the deeply interrelated challenges for a person who is poor—from healthcare to food to housing to education to employment.  Often, the most impoverished among us become invisible.

 

But Jesus sees.  And because Jesus notices the poor widow, we are blessed to know her.  And from this ancient story of her witness, we are given an invitation to do the right thing by her and all like her through the centuries: namely, to work for justice, to care for the least among us, the widows, the orphans, the forgotten, the vulnerable, the oppressed, the silenced.  To do the right thing is to keep our eyes open—to “stay woke”—about unjust policies, dehumanizing laws, and those who are actively doing harm without any sense of compunction.  To do the right thing is to actively challenge these things and to work for a world in which every member of the human family will have enough to live, a world in which no one will be manipulated or coerced into greater poverty by greedy leaders and unjust systems, a world in which no person is systematically denied what they need or denied their dignity or denied their vote, a world in which all persons are lovingly embraced as whole persons—a world in which there are no human “leftovers.”  This is our call as followers of Jesus.  We may have different political philosophies or legislative strategies for how to fulfill this call, but it is very clear in the Gospel that any follower of Jesus should be actively bringing good news of justice, equity, and dignity to the poor.

 

Foundry is actively engaged in this work in a variety of ways.  Our own I.D. Ministry, Racial  Justice Ministry Team, and Sacred Resistance Ministry Team are ways we directly engage and impact intersectional issues related to poverty. Washington Interfaith Network and Project Transformation are just two of our partners with whom we address challenges within our gentrifying city—and today you can join our Racial Justice team for a visit to the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum to raise your consciousness about the changing neighborhoods in DC over time. I encourage you to learn more about how you can participate in these initiatives—to increase your awareness and to see if God might be calling you to do more to serve the poor in our midst.  These critical ministries are also another important piece of what our financial contributions support.  Pastor Ben and his lay leaders are looking for witnesses (those who can show up), listeners (those who can intentionally listen to neighbors), organizers (those who can prepare events and actions), and prayers.  Information about our Social Justice and poverty-related initiatives can be found at foundryumc.org/resist and on a handout available at the Welcome Desk. 

 

Today, Jesus helps us see that the poor widow’s life is on the line.  As you read ahead in the story, you’ll see that less than a week after his encounter with the widow, Jesus gives his own life in solidarity with her.  The question for you and for me as followers of Jesus is: “How am I offering my life for the sake of those who suffer the pressure of poverty?”  What are you doing?  What will you give?

 

 

 

[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/11/01/here-are-chilling-tricks-weve-caught-georgia-using-disqualify-voters/?fbclid=IwAR33pDcmeRu4XO0kHzrw2hDLHqjbWHd1-ZMThLGH9cvamXl7K4l9VQAejdc&noredirect=on&utm_term=.59de78bbd449

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/rejection-of-hundreds-of-absentee-ballots-in-suburban-atlanta-county-draws-legal-challenges/2018/10/16/dafce19a-d177-11e8-b2d2-f397227b43f0_story.html?fbclid=IwAR0hHKhKnckBAcD5wYsGSKzKHLWTYDRFQNWWoPw_A02Yrg2JIkaebyuorm8&utm_term=.1c1535363dc0

https://www.bet.com/news/national/2018/10/18/outrage-after-elderly-black-voters-in-georgia-were-forced-off-bu.html

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45986329

https://www.splcenter.org/news/2017/02/01/systematic-voter-suppression-—-not-voter-fraud-—-real-cause-concern

[ii] https://www.bible-history.com/court-of-women/the_temple_treasury.html

[iii] https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/audit/

http://www.twodollarsaday.com/

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/opinion/poverty-united-states.html

http://www.evictedbook.com/

[iv]Angus Deaton, “The U.S. Can No Longer Hide From Its Deep Poverty Problem,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/opinion/poverty-united-states.html

[v]https://www.dcfpi.org/issue-areas/income-poverty/?_sft_issue=featured

[vi] Ed Lazere, “DC’s Growing Prosperity Is Not Reaching Black Residents, Census Data Show,” https://www.dcfpi.org/issue-areas/income-poverty/?_sft_issue=featured

The Pressure of Grief: A reflection shared by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, November 4, 2018, All Saints Sunday

November 4th, 2018

The Pressure of Grief

A reflection shared by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, November 4, 2018, All Saints Sunday. “Under Pressure” series.       

Text: John 11:32-44

 Grief is like a mercurial companion that draws close to us when our heart is broken, when someone or something precious has died. Grief’s company can settle us into a deep silence and stillness, it can drive us to distraction and to destruction, it can sideswipe us with fierce anger and lay us low with regret. Confusion and exhaustion are often stirred by grief who tends to wrap around us, putting pressure on all our faculties and affecting us in ways we don’t fully comprehend.

Some among us today are walking very closely with grief. Others are intimate with grief from long association, though the relationship has morphed in a variety of ways. Regardless of where we find ourselves today, sooner or later, every human life will know grief. Death touches us all.

Today we have heard part of a story in which death touches Mary and Martha and Jesus—all of whom knew and loved brother and friend, Lazarus.  In the midst of this complicated story, Jesus reveals one of the most important things we will ever know about the heart of God.  Jesus’ own heart broke for the suffering of those around him.  As Jesus cries, we learn that the God whom Jesus came to reveal is not distant from our pain and our grief.  God shares our pain, weeps with us and is deeply grieved by anything and everything that threatens human wholeness and flourishing.

But the point of Jesus’ coming into this situation isn’t only to reveal the compassion of God for our human grief and suffering—though that is certainly a word we need to hear.  It’s not that God feels sad for us but then leaves us to just muddle through.  Jesus’ purpose was to reveal even more than the great compassion of God—he came to reveal the glory of God, the power of God’s love to call forth life that is full and free even in the midst of death.

Jesus comes into a place of death, the point of despair and deep grief, and speaks words of life, words of faith in the power of God’s love, words of freedom from the things that keep human life bound by death.  Jesus’ ultimate purpose here is to offer a great gift to all those who were grieving (who ARE grieving)—the gift not only of a loved one restored for a time, but more importantly, the gift of freedom from the fear of death for ALL time, the gift of knowing that God’s power is stronger than death, that God’s love is fiercer than the grave.  Sooner or later we will all face death—the death of those closest to us and our own death.  And the promise we receive today is that we need not fear death.  For while we may not know WHAT is beyond the grave, we do know WHO is beyond the grave.  God will never leave nor forsake us or any of our loved ones.

This story, given to us on All Saints Sunday, is a proclamation of our astonishing hope: that death does not have the last word, that there is life beyond this world and the saints of our church, the saints in our lives, all the saints who have passed from this world into the next are alive—alive in and through the power of God’s love in Christ.  Grief may be a powerful companion on our journey. But the power of God’s love is greater still. God holds us and our grief and our loved ones in a tender embrace…until that day when “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,” and all things are made new.

 

Fearless Giving: A sermon shared by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, October28, 2018

October 28th, 2018

Fearless Giving

A sermon shared by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, October28, 2018, the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost and Commitment Sunday. “Fearless Generosity” series.    

Text: Mark 10:46-52

 

There once was a man named Bartimaeus who, at one time, had been able to see.  But now he is blind and sitting in a prominent place on a prominent road.  He is a beggar, a “nobody,” discounted by passers-by as one who was of no good to anyone. As he sits, he clutches his cloak.  This, you see, is his comfort, it is his warmth, it is his security.  By day, he spreads his cloak out in his lap to catch the coins that are tossed his way and by night that same cloak is his blanket.  He clings to his cloak, his security blanket; holding on for dear life to the comforting, familiar contours of the thing that defines his way of life.

Over the years, Bartimaeus has come to believe what others say about him.  He has grown comfortable with the “facts” of his situation.  “It is what it is…” I imagine him thinking, “I am what I am…and I can’t trust anyone and I can’t be different than I am today.  I am hurt and rejected, called a sinner because of my state, blamed for my own suffering.  If I move from my spot here, someone else will come and take over my prime position by this road so I’m stuck here.  People come and go in the busy-ness of their lives, all passing me by.”

But one day, Bartimaeus hears that Jesus of Nazareth is setting out for a journey along that prominent road from Jericho to Jerusalem.  And somehow, from somewhere deep in his soul, Bartimaeus remembers who he really is.  Like the son who had ventured far from his father’s home and had squandered all the gifts that he had freely received, Bartimaeus “came to himself.”  He knew Jesus was near and so he cried “Mercy!”  Those who were with Jesus only saw a nuisance, a nobody, a beggar—they were quick to remind Bartimaeus that he didn’t merit any notice, that he didn’t belong in their group, that he needed to keep his mouth shut.  But Bartimaeus called out again to Jesus as the Messiah:  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And then the most wonderful and surprising thing happened.  The surprise is not that Jesus stopped in his tracks or that Jesus heard Bartimaeus’ cries or that Jesus called the man to himself.  No, the surprise—the miracle—is that Bartimaeus threw off his cloak and sprang up. In that moment, this man sheds all the security and comfort and familiarity of his old way of life.  He throws off the cloak of an identity and reality that kept him quiet, that left him feeling resentful and powerless, an identity that was deeply ingrained in his very being.  And when Jesus asks what it is that Bartimaeus wants, the blind man does not ask for a lifetime supply of blankets, he doesn’t ask for a way to continue more comfortably in the life that he is living.  Instead, Bartimaeus presents himself with the strange and faith-filled expectation that he can be changed, that he can become someone not entirely new, but more of who he knows himself, in his heart of hearts to be.  He asks to see again.  Bartimaeus’ faith in Jesus’ care for him gives him the power to reclaim his life, to stand up and to speak out, to take his rightful place in the journey towards Jerusalem, to regain what he had lost.  From this place of faith-filled power, Bartimaeus joins Jesus, following the messiah on the way to the cross. 

The story of Bartimaeus is the story of our lives in so many ways. No matter what our circumstances, all of us have security blankets that, if we’re not careful, hold us back, keep us silent and sidelined, make us believe all those old limiting messages received from people in our past about who we are and what we’re capable of, make us cling to idols we think will save us. And Jesus draws near to all of us—whether we perceive that nearness or not—and is so generous. “What do you want me to do for you?” This is the question Jesus asked of James and John when they came with their demands (Mk 10:36) and it is the question Jesus asked of Bartimaeus when he cried out for mercy (Mk 10:51). I believe it’s the question Jesus asks of us all. Our God is so generous with us, wanting to give us not just what we think we want, but the deepest desire of our hearts—to be free of what binds us, to know ourselves held and loved by God, to have purpose and meaning for the living of our days.

These are the gifts that make it possible to live with less fear.  But to truly receive them means we will have to throw off our proverbial “cloaks,” our false security blankets, and move toward and with Jesus.  These past weeks, Foundry has been engaging with our “extended family” congregations, Asbury UMC and John Wesley AMEZ, in a study of Howard Thurman, the brilliant and influential pastor, teacher, and author who deeply influenced the civil rights and social justice movements of the past 100 years.  In his book Jesus and the Disinherited Thurman speaks directly to our theme for today saying, “Nothing less than a great daring in the face of overwhelming odds can achieve the inner security in which fear cannot possibly survive. It is true that a man cannot be serene unless he possesses something about which to be serene. Here we reach the high-water mark of prophetic religion, and it is of the essence of the religion of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course God cares for the grass of the field, which lives a day and is no more, or the sparrow that falls unnoticed by the wayside. He also holds the stars in their appointed places, leaves his mark in every living thing. And [God] cares for me! To be assured of this becomes the answer to the threat of violence—yea, to violence itself. To the degree to which a [person] knows [that God cares about them], [that person] is unconquerable from within and without.”

Liberation from fear requires “great daring in the face of overwhelming odds.” That’s what we’re after around here.  We at Foundry sit in a prominent place on a prominent road. And we intentionally stand in solidarity with those who live on the edge or are pushed to the margins. And we call out injustice and suffering even when others say we should keep our mouths shut. And we are doing all we can to make sure that folks don’t just pass us by, but have their lives or hearts impacted by our presence here; that the passers-by are challenged and inspired, maybe even drawn to the shared life and work and vision that is available in and through our congregation. And we are laboring to help those whose dignity and identity has been trampled or denied remember and believe that they are beautiful and beloved, that they can live fully and freely in the liberating love of God. And the only way we can do any of it is if we, like Bartimaeus, show great daring in the face of overwhelming odds, trust God’s love and care for us, throw off our security blankets, and get on the journey toward the cross and resurrection.

One of the primary ways we do that is through our giving.  These past weeks, we’ve been talking about generosity, about how children remind us what fearless generosity looks like, about the way Jesus gets all up in our business and pushes our buttons about our relationship with our money and possessions, about the challenge to risk failure for the sake of love and justice.  We’ve learned from our month-long study of the 10th chapter of Mark that giving without fear is a way to practice living without fear.  And today we find ourselves in our prominent place on this prominent road and Jesus is drawing near and calling to us.  We are being called to throw off the cloak of scarcity—the lie that we don’t have the financial resources among and between us to fund the vision for 2019 and keep our incredible forward movement going.  Our fearless giving is what will make it possible to reach more people with the Gospel message of love and inclusion and hope and justice we proclaim.  Our fearless giving is what will make it possible to feed, stand in solidarity, advocate, and serve in even more profound ways.  Our fearless giving is what will make it possible to experience ever more transcendent worship, to support the growing numbers of babies, children, and youth that are all around us, and to be and become true beloved community.

And, yes, I know the markets tanked this past week.  That just makes this moment even more poignant and significant.  Even when the markets are great, giving money is a huge leap of faith.  And in this moment I am asking that each one of us—in an act of great daring—truly gives as much as we can; I’m asking that you don’t just fill out the estimate card on auto-pilot but consider whether you can be one of at least 200 folks who will give for the first time or increase your gift for 2019 in the amount of $2000.  It may be that some of you can cover five of your siblings who are unable to participate by contributing $10,000 or there might even be someone among us who can cover 50 folks with a gift of $100,000.  Others may only be able to give or increase $1000 of $100.  If you want to count yourself among those who will help us raise the additional $400,000 we need for 2019, I invite you to note that by writing “fearless” on your estimate of giving card. //

A story is told of an incredible tightrope walker who would do tightrope acts at tremendously scary heights all over Paris. And he not only crossed the rope, but would do it blindfolded, then he would go across the tightrope, blindfolded, pushing a wheelbarrow.  An American promoter (who didn’t think it could be done) challenged the tightrope walker to do his act over Niagara Falls.  The reply came, “Sir, although I’ve never been to America and seen the Falls, I’d love to come.”  After a lot of promotion and setting the whole thing up, many people came to see the event.  The tightrope walker was to start on the Canadian side and come to the American side.  Drums roll, and he comes across the rope which is suspended over the treacherous part of the falls—he does this blindfolded!  He makes it across easily.  The crowds go wild, and he comes to the promoter and says, “Well, now do you believe I can do it?”  “Well of course I do, I mean, I just saw you do it.”  “No, do you really believe I can do it?”  “Well of course I do, you just did it.”  “No, no, no, do you believe I can do it?”  “Yes, I believe you can do it.”  “Good, then you get into the wheelbarrow.”

Today is the day Jesus asks us to get into the wheelbarrow. Throwing off the cloaks of our old way of living, throwing off the cloaks of our false security and control, throwing off the cloaks of what we’re comfortable and familiar with—these are profound acts of faith in Christ.  It means that we’re willing not just to call out to Jesus, not just to speak the words of faith—“O yes, Jesus, I believe in your power”—but to change our behavior, risk failure and loss, give fearlessly to practice living fearlessly.  It means that we put ourselves in the wheelbarrow, trusting that Christ can and will sustain us.  It means giving fearlessly so that all kinds of new life might emerge…

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Fearless Service: A Sermon shared by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, October 21, 2018

October 21st, 2018

Fearless Service

A sermon shared by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, October 21, 2018, the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost. “Fearless Generosity” series.           

Text: Mark 10:35-45 

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?  I don’t remember the first time I heard that question, but it has stayed with me for years.  It’s a powerful question for me—because one of my biggest fears is failure.  Maybe some of you will relate.  The fear of failure can keep me—or any of us—from stepping out and trying something or doing the thing that we really want to do.  I realized at one point that my ability to even name what I really want had atrophied as a side effect of this fear.  I’ve always been in awe of folks who knew what they wanted and weren’t afraid to ask for it—demand it even—those folks who would just go for it.

 

James and John are those kind of folks.  Hey Jesus, give us cabinet positions in your administration! Jesus—who had just for the third time said that he was going to be arrested, humiliated, killed, and rise again (Mk 10:32-34)—would have had cause to simply respond with a face palm. Really dudes? This is your response to my impending suffering, death, and resurrection?  Maybe James and John just heard the “after three days rise again” part—kinda like lots of us do during Holy Week, thinking that we get to Easter without traveling the road that takes us to and through the tomb…  But Jesus forgoes the facepalm and tries to bring the disciples along.  Even when the others get their backs up over the audacity of their colleagues, Jesus simply reminds all of them what they signed up for: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:43-45)

 

To be clear, there is “glory” in following Jesus, the glory of new life and eternal joy and liberating love—but first comes the agony of defeat, of suffering, of death, of failure.  You don’t get to “greatness” in the Kin-dom of God except by serving others, by humbling yourself, by experiencing loss and emptiness.  I wonder if part of the teaching is that the power of self-giving love is the real power.  And self-giving love will intentionally assume a posture of service and of solidarity with those who suffer. Taking such a posture will mean vulnerability; it will invite ridicule from those who don’t understand such a stance, those who believe the only way to get by in this life is to manipulate, overpower, control, or intimidate others.  But the power of self-giving love is the kind of power that works in mysterious ways, making hard hearts tender at least around the edges and chipping away at crusty prejudices and seemingly intractable injustice.

 

It occurs to me that, living as we do on the other side of the first Easter morning, we might begin to understand that the question to ask is not what we would do if we knew we couldn’t fail, but what failure we’re willing to risk for the cause of love and justice.  Jesus faced into the very worst of the world—took on the full weight of empire’s fury—evidently knowing he would have to lay down his life, in order to bring liberation and new life to all God’s children. Jesus risked absolute failure for the sake of love for the world. This the one we’ve thrown our lot in with.  Our call is to embody the same kind of fearless service as Jesus.

 

I often get push back on this, hearing some version of, “Jesus had that whole ‘being God’ thing going for him and I’m just me.”  But here’s the thing: we know there are people in the world down through the centuries who reflect the self-giving love of Christ and who remind us that fearless service is not just a nice idea, but is really possible through the love and grace of God. 

 

Last Sunday, we officially named three spaces in our physical plant that honor folks who are part of the fabric of Foundry Church and whose fearless service has impacted the life and witness not only of Foundry but of our denomination and larger world.  Norman and Frances Prince, Arthur and Bernice Flemming, and Bill and Vivian Kirk.  I’ve been particularly thinking about Dr. William Astor Kirk over these past months as the United Methodist Church ramps up to the special called General Conference of 2019 that will impact not only the future of the denomination’s stance related to LGBTQ persons, but also the future of the UMC as a whole. Dr. Kirk is one I wish were still around for me to talk with and to receive counsel from about these weighty matters.

 

Dr. Kirk is a breathtaking example of our topic today—the kind of self-giving love and fearless service to which we are all called to aspire. Over a lifetime of fighting for justice, he must have risked failure after failure and yet he persevered.  I encourage you to look him up and see what I’m talking about.  Some highlights of his fearless service:

 

“Upon completing his Master's degree in Government from Howard University in 1974, Dr. Kirk and wife Vivian relocated to Austin, Texas where he assumed the position of professor of Government and Economics at Huston-Tillotson College. Dr. Kirk, active in Austin civic life was an organizer in the local chapter of the NAACP and arranged peaceful protests that led to desegregation of the Austin Public Library and many other public facilities. Dr. Kirk's work against discrimination also focused on the University of Texas where he applied and was

admitted to a PhD Program. Dr. Kirk's refusal to study in segregated classes prompted a lawsuit by the Austin chapter of the NAACP. Subsequently Kirk, in 1958…became the first African American to earn and receive a Doctorate in Political Science from the University of Texas.”[i]

 

Dr. Kirk was the sustaining force in the long but ultimately successful effort to end the “separate but equal” Central Jurisdiction and integrate the United Methodist Church.  He was first Secretary and later Chair of the Committee of Five that set out in 1960 to dissolve the Central Jurisdiction and end the apartheid-like structure of The Methodist Church. “Kirk was chosen as an alternate delegate to represent the church body at the 1964 General Conference of the Methodist Church. At this national meeting, the Church Union Commission voted to maintain its policy of segregation. Kirk was aghast. In his own words he found himself ‘completely dumbfounded. My emotions ranged from deep anger to almost uncontrollable outrage to profound sorrow.’ Kirk responded by passionately and eloquently arguing against this decision. Hours of debate ensued, and finally ‘The Kirk Amendment’ was passed. This amendment established a denominational ‘commitment to end institutional segregation’ within the church. When Southern church leaders challenged this at the 1965 judicial council claiming local autonomy, Kirk argued that the denomination did have the authority to end segregation. His arguments were so effective that the council’s 1965 Judicial Decision No. 232 canonized ‘the creation of a racially inclusive church.’”[ii]

 

Dr. Kirk’s commitment to civil rights in church and society (he served five presidential administrations) extended to all who are marginalized and oppressed. During Foundry’s “Summer of Great Discernment” around Marriage Equality in 2010, I was told that Bill Kirk is singlehandedly responsible for the inclusion of one of the most important lines in our marriage equality statement. After the first draft was painstakingly prepared and proudly presented to the leadership, Dr. Kirk offered a critical piece of feedback.  Here’s what I was told by one of the principle authors of the final statement: “Bill Kirk pointed out that we were focused on the negative parts of The Book of Discipline and had neglected to include the more positive—and controlling—language from the Constitution [of the UMC].  As soon as he said it, I was like “Of course!” It was immediately satisfying not just [to all the legal minds involved] but all the way around.  Because there was a tremendous amount of anxiety at the time about what would happen if we thumbed our nose at the denomination so pointedly.  It transformed the document into a more affirmative rather than confrontational message. It gave a lot of folks some confidence that we were actually on firm ground.  And I still believe that this argument is the one that may lead us home—that the language of the Discipline if not actually ‘unconstitutional’ is essentially so.  But it took a wise and courageous old veteran of prior UMC equality struggles to point out what our strongest point was—what a whole bunch of us, supposedly smart, people had completely missed.  I will always be grateful. And humbled.”

 

As I understand it from my predecessor the Rev. Dean Snyder, Dr. Kirk—from his hospital room in 2011—was working on the presentation he’d been invited to make at the 2012 General Conference entitled, “Ending Discrimination in the UMC: How Can the Past Inform the Future?”

Sadly, he was unable to make that presentation due to his death in August of 2011.

 

To a person, all who knew Dr. Kirk attest to the fact that he was unassuming and simply presented himself as a fellow member of Foundry.  This humble stance in day to day relations and his courageous, “all in” commitment to justice and equality for all people amidst great challenges and entrenched prejudice and bigotry are a powerful testimony to the Christ-like, fearless service in which we can all participate.

 

Dr. Kirk’s witness is an example of the kind of commitment that so many people bring to our shared life here at Foundry.  I am daily humbled to learn of what y’all are out there doing in the world—of the places you go and people whose lives you impact for good and the challenges you face and the sacrifices you make for the sake of doing the right and just and brave thing.  And together as a congregation, we continue to do all we can to offer spiritual sustenance and support for each one of you wherever you serve—whether that is in the classroom, boardroom, bandroom, courtroom, newsroom, studio, backyard, kitchen or street. 

 

Dr. Kirk also embodies our calling as a congregation. Together, as we bring all our experiences, skills, resources, and insights and humbly offer them to God—we are empowered by grace to Love God, love others, and change the world.  Our commitment to social justice and fearless service is a hallmark of Foundry Church and it takes shape in everything from our Great Days of Service to our members and clergy demanding sanctuary for immigrant neighbors, proclaiming Black Lives Matter, promoting common sense gun legislation and climate justice, to feeding hungry people, offering free English as a Second Language classes, tracking down vital documents for unhoused neighbors and decorating the Baltimore-Washington Conference Center with rainbows in protest of unjust treatment of LGBTQ persons.  Fearless service is at the heart of our witness as Foundry church. Our gifts are what fuel this witness of bold service and solidarity.  It’s why I am so proud to tithe—that is give 10% of my income—to Foundry. I’m currently tithing a number between my net and my gross pay with a personal commitment to keep growing the number until, when able, I not only tithe the full amount but surpass it.

 

People from across the connection look to us to support and raise up voices like Bill Kirk and to show up in force wherever there is injustice to advocate for love, mercy, and justice in the manner of Jesus. This is our calling and our commitment and it is only possible to live into this high calling through the generous financial contributions of each one of us. // I’ve been sitting with the thought that trying to increase our budget for 2019 by hundreds of thousands of dollars might be foolish.  But then I think about the calling that we share and the consequences if Foundry Church falters and of the flame that Spirit is igniting among us that I can feel itching to catch fire in ways as yet unknown.  I think about the resources I know we need to keep momentum going and to fuel the growth that will sustain this great institution called Foundry into the next century and I ask myself, “What failure am I willing to risk as a leader for the sake of love and justice?”  What are we willing to risk? Will we try?

 

Are we able to serve as Jesus serves? To love as Jesus loves? To give as Jesus gives? The good news is that we can try—without any fear—because even when we fail miserably or experience setbacks as we seek to serve and love and give, God will always hang in there with us and help us not only move through any loss or suffering, but God will take us all the way to glory, all the way to new life.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CREC-2011-09-15/html/CREC-2011-09-15-pt1-PgE1638-4.htm

[ii] https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fki73

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