Sermon given by Executive Pastor Dawn M. Hand on Epiphany Sunday, January 8, 2017.
Texts: Isaiah 60:1-2, Ephesians 3:1-12
Sermon given by Executive Pastor Dawn M. Hand on Epiphany Sunday, January 8, 2017.
Texts: Isaiah 60:1-2, Ephesians 3:1-12
Pastors Will Green and Ben Roberts engage in a discussion on Herod.
Texts: Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 2:13-23
A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC on Christmas Day 2016.
Text: John 1:1-14
Today we gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the very Word of God made flesh as John poetically writes in our Gospel for today. And I must say that it seems a bit superfluous to spend too much time on words today…The story is about the Word made flesh, not the Word made…more words. And so I’ll just tell a story about one person who shows us how to truly celebrate Jesus birth—someone who knows how to make the Word fleshly, to embody the Word. And who might this person be? Santa Claus!
I love Santa Claus. I’ll admit it unabashedly. One of my favorite memories as a child—and even a teenager—was listening to my mother read that wonderful poem: “On the night before Christmas when all through the house not a creature was stirring not even a mouse…” OK…so I was uncertain about what a kerchief was or sugar plums…but I got the point. The story was about Santa. And Santa is magical and jolly and altogether wondrous and good. Another favorite Christmas memory is of my grandfather, my Pa, reading aloud the Christmas story from the Gospel according to Luke. This story, too, is wondrous and filled with a warmth and love that—even as a child—I “got.” Even if I couldn’t understand all the details, I got the point. The story is about a good God and God’s love for me. It’s about God’s being with me in a new way.
Throughout my life these two stories (Santa and Jesus) have lived together in harmony—two narratives of a magical time of the year. I suspect that this is true for many of us. However, I understand the concerns of some that the Santa story sometimes overshadows the God story, the Jesus story. Certainly, the business interests—which are powerful in our day—count on our devotion to the jolly man in the red suit for their year-end profits. And even I—a great devotee of Santa—worry sometimes that Jesus gets eclipsed by the glitz and glitter and excess that has become dominant for so many at this time of year.
But in order to remain faithful as Christians it’s not necessary to shun Santa Claus. Many of you may know that the name “Santa Claus” comes from the dutch nickname for a Christian saint, Saint Nicholas. The dutch name was “Sinter Klaas” (a shortened version of Sinter Nikolaas). Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop who served back in the 4th century in a seaside town in Turkey called Demre. After his death, Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors, barrel-makers, small children, and Russians.
Sinter Klaas, Saint Nicholas attempted to follow the Christ child by serving others in whatever way he could. He was born to wealthy parents, and was in line to enjoy the glory of earthly prosperity and achievement. But he heard the challenge of Jesus to “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor” (Lk. 18:22), so he used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick and the suffering. He was made a bishop of the church while still a young man, and became known for his love of children and his generosity to those in need. On three different occasions, he gave bags of gold to poor girls needing dowries, and by doing this he saved them from being sold into slavery. He became well known for his goodness, his compassion and his generosity, and was famous for doing whatever he could to protect people who were in danger—especially children and sailors. He did many of these things in secret—the truth being told only by those who’d been recipients of his kindness. THIS is who St. Nick, Santa Claus, really is. One who offers gifts of love and generosity in secret—bringing joy and hope into the world.
The witness of Saint Nicholas is that the glory of God that John writes about, the glory spoken about by the angels in Luke, was not the “glory” we speak of so crassly these days—the “glory” of winning, “glorious” accomplishments, vacations, dreamhomes… Rather, Nicholas knew that the greatest honor, praise and distinction of all time goes to a child who will never achieve material prosperity, a life of leisure, or any of the marks of worldly accomplishment. Instead, Jesus is given glory because he bears the perfect love of God into the world, a love that leads him to serve, to give himself fully even to those who rejected him. // Sinter Klaas lived his life as a servant in the image of the Christ child and because of his love and servant leadership, he is revered through the ages.
On this day when the Christian and secular worlds overlap, we would do well to remember who Santa Claus really is—and that we can follow his example. We are invited to participate in the real glory of God which is service, generosity, and love. We don’t have to give up Santa. We just have to live like him—to make the Word flesh in our own lives. Not just on this day, but all the days of the year.
By the grace of God we will do it. Thanks be to God. Amen.
A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, December 24, 2016, Christmas Eve.
Text: Luke 2:1-20
Seventy-five years ago tomorrow President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill attended Foundry Church for the National Christmas Service. Churchill wrote, “The President and I went to church together on Christmas Day, and I found peace in the simple service and enjoyed singing the well-known hymns, and one, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’ I had never heard before. Certainly there was much to fortify the faith of all who believe in the moral governance of the universe.” This was just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II. In those days of such uncertainty and grave danger, here at Foundry was found—at least by one account—“much to fortify the faith of all who believe in the moral governance of the universe.” The hymn Churchill mentions, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” contains a phrase that has been echoing in my head throughout this season: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” What a thought…every human hope and fear “met” in that little town in the backwater of Galilee.
We couldn’t possibly list the human hopes of all the years behind and ahead of us…because we don’t speak every human language or traverse every culture, because it is impossible to fully know what is in the heart of someone we know well, much less of those of another age altogether. And yet I believe there are some human hopes that transcend time and culture: to love and to be loved; safety for ourselves and our loved ones; sustenance for our bodies; to know that our lives are meaningful, that we matter. Another, I believe, is our hope for a trustworthy leader—someone who will provide guidance and wisdom, someone we can follow with confidence that they—and what they are about—are worth our very best time and effort. We want something to believe in. The anarchists might disagree, but they have leaders too. I looked it up.
Our abiding hopes as human beings are sometimes met and often not. And the “fears of all the years” rise up when our hopes are dashed or seem vulnerable or out of reach. When we fear that who we are or what we have done makes us unlovable; when we fear that we will be alone, that we won’t have enough, that we will be attacked or fall ill or that our loved ones will suffer, that our lives—or life in general—has no meaning and doesn’t matter, that there is nothing worth living or dying for, that there is nothing to believe in and no one we can trust.
O little town of Bethlehem…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
And how did this come to be? The response is found as the hymn continues, “For Christ is born of Mary…” Because Christ is born of Mary, the fears of all the years are met with hope. Because God didn’t abandon us, but instead drew even closer by, the fears of all the years are met with hope. Because perfect love which casts out all fear was born in Jesus, the fears of all the years are met with hope. Because Christ is born of Mary, we are given evidence of God’s steadfast love, abiding presence, and deep regard for us. This allows me to proclaim with absolute certainty: You are loved, you are not alone, you are a person of great dignity whose life has meaning; you matter.
We know that the birth of the child Jesus doesn’t erase the vulnerability of human bodies to hunger, illness, and harm. Jesus was subject to all those incarnate, human realities. We know that the life we celebrate tonight doesn’t magically insure human leaders who are trustworthy, moral, and wise. From the very beginning (and to the end) of Jesus’ life, human leaders responded to his presence in the most ugly and destructive ways.
But because Christ is born of Mary, we know what it looks like to live in love, mercy, peace, and justice; we know what it looks like to be truly human as God intends. Because Christ shows us what God is like, we know the image in which we are made. And that means that we know who we are and what we’re made for: we are siblings of Jesus the Christ, beloved children of God, created to love and live and serve for the sustenance, healing, and protection not only of ourselves and those we love, but of all people. Because Christ is born of Mary, we know we are all one in the human family. That doesn’t mean no harm is done in the world, but it does mean it is possible to live in a way that at least seeks to do no harm—and to live in peace.
Right now, regardless of our location in the political fray, I imagine we can agree it is a challenging time for our nation and world. Just as it was when people gathered in this sanctuary 75 years ago, wars and rumors of wars proliferate, distrust is rampant, and the normal frailties of human life attend… Fear prowls like a hungry animal. But on this night of holy remembrance, we are reminded that love and hope can appear anywhere and often do—taking shape in flesh and blood, through human beings who stand up to fear and do what is right, fueled by a power that flows from God’s own heart. In Aleppo right now there are people risking their lives to save others. In schools around the world there are people pouring themselves out to encourage and inspire children. From Ferguson to Flint, in hospitals and rehab centers, on city streets and in forgotten hollers, in every place where there is human suffering and need, there are people of all faiths and none who are shining with the light of love and true humanity so perfectly revealed in Jesus.
Because Christ is born of Mary and not born of some famous, fancy person; because Christ is born in poverty, under the thumb of oppressive powers; because Christ is born as good news for the marginalized; because even from the manger Christ challenged unjust rulers; because Christ is born as a human like you and me, subject to all that we suffer and celebrate; because Christ is born for the sake of love, mercy, and peace and justice; because of all this and more, we can believe in what Churchill described as the moral governance of the universe. Our God is revealed through Jesus as loving, merciful, generous, and just. As human leaders come and go, our abiding hope for a leader worthy of our allegiance and love is fulfilled in Jesus. “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love.”[i]
Tonight, the fears of all the years are met with hope. For Christ is born of Mary. And Christ is born in every place where the spark of divine love bursts into flame and leads the likes of you and me to make hope real even in the desperate face of fear. May it be evermore so.
[i] “Joy to the World,” UM Hymnal #246
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, December 18, 2016, the fourth Sunday of Advent.
Text: Matthew 1:18-25
When a child is tired or anxious or hungry or sick they will often “act out.” That is, their discomfort or need may lead to temper tantrums, defiance of authority, or fidgety activity. The tendency to act out doesn’t go away as we age, though it may take slightly different forms. As we mature, self-awareness allows us to manage these reactions a bit better. But the truth is, a “problem child” (of any age) is usually one who has a valid, verifiable need and who simply yearns to have that need met.
This Advent we’ve been asking the question: What does it mean to be “prophetic?” As we bring this series to a close, it occurs to me that prophets tend to “act out”—not in a childish way, but in a way that intentionally calls attention to places of pain, hunger, burden, or illness. Guided by the biblical scholarship of Walter Brueggemann in his ever-relevant text, The Prophetic Imagination, we have learned how our Judeo-Christian tradition inspires prophets to “act out.” Prophets are deeply grounded in the particular story of a God who is love, a God of mercy, beauty, justice, and peace, a God who has a stubborn tendency to act for the humanizing of the world through people others might ignore—folks like enslaved people (Israel) and unwed mothers (Mary). This sacred story provides a concrete alternative to the illusions, empty promises, and inherent violence of prevailing culture, and reminds us of what is both desirable and possible through the steadfast, eternal love of God. With the vision and values of this story as a corrective and a guide, the prophetic witness identifies and critiques the inhumanity and injustice of the current reality. To be prophetic is to tell the truth, to name the pain that empire seeks to silence, to allow the realities of human suffering to disrupt the status quo. And it is also to see the beauty and possibility of the world and to imagine a world that seems unimaginable—a world where favor falls even upon the meek, vulnerable and lowly and where love and compassion prevail. To be prophetic is to be countercultural, to challenge the ways of empire—that is, to challenge oppressive “rule by a few, economic exploitation, and religious legitimation.”[i] Prophets and prophetic communities “act out”—not through a temper tantrum, but through the expression of righteous anger fueled by love and the desire for justice—not through mindless defiance of authority, but through principled standing up to death-dealing powers—not through fidgety activity, but through focused organization and action in response to sneaky, systemic oppression.
Prophetic witness is inherently hopeful—for it shatters the illusion that the way things are now will be forever. Prophets are the voice crying in the wilderness of the dominant consciousness, a consciousness that seeks to steal our power. Brueggemann writes, “The [dominant] consciousness leads people to despair about the power to move toward new life.”[ii] Joseph was caught in the dominant consciousness of his time. In our Gospel, we see him trying to act in a loving way without breaking the law. He chose to shield Mary from the worst laws of the day which would have called for her to be publicly humiliated and humiliated and disgraced as pregnant and unwed. But he also chose to follow the law and “dismiss her.” (Mt 1:19) The dominant consciousness both provided religious legitimization for Joseph to abandon Mary and also made him afraid to move toward the new life that was being offered to him. Caught in “the way things are,” Joseph must have feared God’s judgment if he broke the law, he must have feared humiliation, the loss of relationships,—not to mention the difficulty of working through the issues with Mary (that FaceBook relationship status would most definitely be “It’s complicated”!)
But, as the story goes, Joseph fell asleep in fear but encountered a messenger of God, arising from deep in Joseph’s being through a dream. The messenger and message says, “don’t be afraid.” And from the depths emerges the name Emmanuel, the truth that God is with us… And—see! understand!—God and God’s love is more expansive than the God propagated by the dominant consciousness. And, as happens again and again for people throughout the sacred story, the word of God empowers Joseph to wake up with greater clarity and wisdom, and with courage to stand up to the powers that be, to challenge the status quo, to take a risk for the sake of love and in the hope of new life.
“It is the task of prophetic imagination and ministry to bring people to engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God.”[iii] We live in a culture that is so susceptible to fear and that, in these days, is vulnerable to despair and “acting out” in all sorts of destructive ways. The ability to be mindful—that is, quiet enough to listen for the messenger of God—is challenging in this context. But if we are open to receive the word, we are reminded today that we need not fear, that even in the midst of this moment, new life can and will be born; because our God is with us and ignites our power to move toward something new. Even though we tend to be like Joseph, trying to do the best we can within a system that does harm, God is always initiating a new thing. God calls us to not wait for legitimation of that new thing by the dominant consciousness or current system, but rather—in principled defiance—to imagine a new system and begin living in love, compassion, and peace NOW. This doesn’t mean that we abandon our country or our church. Rather, as prophet and Benedictine nun, Sister Joan Chittister says, the prophetic witness is to remain “inside a sinful system, and love it anyway.” She writes, “It is easy to condemn the country, for instance. It is possible to criticize the church. But it is prophetic to love both church and country enough to want them to be everything they claim to be—just, honest, free, equal—and then to stay with them in their faltering attempts to do so, even if it is you yourself against whom both church and state turn in their attempts to evade the prophetic truth of the time.”[iv] Brueggemann suggests that prophets stand within the culture and not only critique the present and imagine a hopeful future, but also let those things energize ways of being aligned with the ways of God revealed in the tradition, actions that embody our hope for the future, and actions that remain open to the truth that God can always do something completely new.
Over the past weeks as deeply disturbing actions, appointments, and revelations have emerged following the presidential election, one of the questions I have seen and heard often is “What can we DO?” I want to let you know that, in addition to all that Foundry already is and does, we are organizing to participate in sacred resistance of what appear to be real threats not only to the most vulnerable among us, but to all of us and to our planet. Under the leadership of Pastor Ben Roberts, Director of Social Justice Ministries, a yet-to-be-named team will convene in early January for the purpose of identifying, vetting, and publicizing weekly actions of protest and resistance. We know there will be an ongoing need to engage and push back on proposed policies or actions; we also know there will be too much to keep track of on our own; we know that many opportunities will flash across our screens to engage—some which may have little (or dubious) impact. In response, the vision is to have a group of knowledgeable, committed folks be a kind of “clearing house” for actions that will have the greatest impact and that are of the highest priority at a given moment in time. These actions will include everything from writing a letter to making a phone call to showing up for an in-person protest. With the weekly action shared on Sundays and through our website and social media, this will be a resource not only for those of us who are active in and through Foundry, but also for anyone who desires to stay awake and engaged in the work of prophecy. Many of you, through your vocational work or personal networks, will have information about things that need attention. Once this new team is organized, we will share how you can share potential actions with the team.
As we began this series I said, “In the present we hope for the future because we know what God has done in the past.” In the past, God has consistently energized people like Mary and Joseph to listen up, to stand up, and to act out for the sake of a more loving, just, and human world. Now is our time. And, thanks be to God, the promise is Emmanuel, God is with us.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, pp. 13-15.
[ii] Ibid., 60.
[iv] Joan Chittister, Joan Chittister: Essential Writings, Selected by Mary Lou Kownacki and Mary Hembrow Snyder, New York: Orbis, 2014, p. 164.