Foundry UMC

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Go and SEE

September 18th, 2016

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry United Methodist Church, September 18, 2016.

 Text:  Psalm 27                                                                  

 

Palestinian-American Poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells this story of an encounter with a Middle Eastern mother and child:  “The little girl at the airport gate in Cincinnati had a tuft of vivid pink ponytail sticking straight up out of her brown-haired head.  I wondered how hard she had to beg to get her mother to do that.  She was about five, wearing a lacy white party dress.  When we boarded the plane she turned up sitting right in front of me.  She poked her cute little face through the crack between the seats.  ‘Do you have a table that comes out of your arm?’…When the flight attendant gave safety instructions over the loudspeaker, the girl chimed out loud responses.  ‘You’re welcome!’ to ‘Thanks for flying with us.’ ‘Hope you have a nice flight too!’ Her mother tried to shush her.  ‘But you told me to answer people,’ the girl protested.  The mama said, ‘That lady’s talking to everyone.  She’s not just talking to you.’ The plane took off toward San Francisco and the little girl looked down on Cincinnati.  ‘Oh Mama!’ she cried. ‘We forget we live in a zigzag world.  Look how it’s shining!’”[i]

 

“We forget we live in a zigzag world,” a shining world…  This little Arab child had the eyes to see the beauty of the world, the light in the world, she saw everyone as a friend.  Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we don’t see.

 

Many months ago now, in a sermon, I lifted up the opening prayer from our United Methodist Order for Morning Praise and Prayer that begins, “New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world.” I regularly post the prayer on FaceBook and many of you have commented about how helpful it is.  But something else I’ve heard in response to the words of this prayer is:  “I have a hard time seeing God working for good in the world.”  // So many people struggle just to get by; the specter of violence haunts our streets, our homes, even our computers; the earth is wrecked to line the pockets of the already wealthy; bigotry, cruelty and injustice not only land upon human bodies with humiliating, deadly force, but also become rallying cries to mobilize the very worst of human nature.  And it feels tiresome to have to keep acknowledging the vitriol and division and polarization that seems so overwhelming in these days.  But this is the soup in which we are swimming.  We can’t escape it.  I’ve been hearing how difficult it is for those of you who are directly involved in the political fray in any way to keep a sense of balance, kindness, and faith.  I have been hearing painful stories about hateful, dismissive, words and actions from family members and friends.  When our own loved ones begin to treat us like an enemy we know that the infection of this particular dis-ease has become pervasive indeed. We may wince to think of the ways that we ourselves have contributed to the ugliness that is determined to get its hooks in all of us.  In the midst of all of this, our vision can get clouded by defensiveness, hurt, self-righteousness, regret, fear, sadness, and more. How can we see the shining, zigzag world, how can we see others as friends, how can we see God in these conditions?

 

Jean Vanier is a Catholic philosopher and the founder of L’Arche, an international organization that creates communities where people with intellectual disabilities and those who assist them share life together. Vanier himself has lived in this intentional community for more than 50 years. He talks about seeing God through “signs” explaining that, “A sign means ‘a great event that is visible and reveals a presence of God.’”[ii]  Vanier isn’t just talking about things we might associate as “miracles”—like walking on water or immediate healing.  Instead he mentions things like the 2010 film Of Gods and Men, a movie that retold the tragic fate of nine Trappist monks in Algeria. The monks lived in deep harmony with their Muslim neighbors until 1996, when Islamic fundamentalist forces ordered them to leave. The monks refused to leave the people with whom they had formed such close bonds and paid dearly for their solidarity. Vanier says that the film reveals God’s presence and, therefore, is a “sign.”  He also mentions things that certain people do—acts of courage, of love, of humility, of service—and says that these are “signs”—great events that are visible and that reveal God’s presence.  I imagine that many of us can get on board with this understanding as an abstract concept.  But is this the lens through which we actually look upon the world?  Are we actively looking for “signs” and, if so, do we have the eyes to see them? 

 

As Naomi Shihab Nye’s story reminds us, children tend to see signs with great clarity.  I am reminded of the moment here at Foundry back in July when this truth was on brilliant display.  On July 17th, author Diana Butler Bass joined us for worship with her family. She wrote about what happened on her FaceBook page: “The pastor (Pastor Dawn) called the little ones forward for the children’s sermon, about a dozen preschoolers gathered on the chancel steps. The pastor asked, ‘Where is the candle? Do you see the candle?’ The children looked around. One sharp-eyed boy said, ‘There it is.’ And the pastor replied, ‘Would you get it?’ The boy retrieved the candle and handed it to her. ‘Where is the white bowl?’ she then asked. And the same happened. ‘Where are the silver and gold beads?’ Repeat. ‘Where is something that reminds you of Christmas?’ Again.  Finally she asked, ‘Where is God?’  The children looked about.  Up, down, all around.  A few bewildered stares, some shrugged shoulders. Then, a small blonde boy in a plaid shirt, about three years old, said, ‘I know!’ The pastor said, ‘You do?’ The little boy looked excited insisting, ‘Yes, yes!’ Then the pastor said, ‘Where?’ And the little boy replied, ‘I’ll go get God!’  He jumped up from the chancel stairs and ran down the center aisle. His father, obviously a bit worried about the open doors at the back of the sanctuary, leaped out of his pew to fetch his son.  Before he got very far, however, the little boy had returned. He was holding the hand of a kind-looking woman in her seventies, literally pulling her down the aisle. ‘Here!’ he cried, ‘Here’s God! She’s here!’ The pastor looked puzzled: ‘Miss Jean?’ And the boy pointed, ‘There she is! God! God!’”[iii]

 

I received an email from Diana later that day saying that her FaceBook stats revealed that her post of the story had reached more than 100 thousand people.  She said “I've never seen people respond so beautifully to something I've put up on social media…People are hungering for goodness.”

 

The signs are all around us.  But, as Vanier writes, “to see signs, we have to be alive to reality, to what is actually happening.”  Perhaps that tempts us to circle back around to all the nastiness and struggle that pervades the world at present.  That, some would say, is what is actually happening.  True enough.  But it is not the only thing happening.  New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world.”  Are we looking upon our lives and the world with the expectation that all day long God is working for good?  Do we have the eyes to see? 

 

“Witness” is our guiding theme for this next year and one aspect of that is seeing. What do we witness?  What do we see?  I’m glad we have the year to explore these questions because there is so much to think about.  But as a beginning—and way of framing this piece of our reflection on the topic—I was drawn to Psalm 27.  It came to mind initially because verse four of the Psalm is part of the daily office I pray from the Celtic Daily Prayer book: 

One thing I asked of the Lord,

    that will I seek after:

to dwell in the house of the Lord

    all the days of my life,

to behold the beauty of the Lord,

    and to seek God in God's  temple.

 

Having prayed this verse every morning for over two years, I have come to understand “the house of the Lord” not as a building—or a physical sanctuary—but instead as an enfolding in God’s presence.  Where does God dwell, where is God present?  I believe God’s “household” is the created world.  Even so, I can have the experience—does this happen to you?—where I become so caught up in my own agenda and so familiar with my surroundings that I forget where I am and can only see as far as the end of my nose.  Therefore, an awareness of where I am—God’s household!—opens my eyes to beauty and reminds me to look for God everywhere.  My experience is that, without the daily reminder of how to fix my gaze—the reminder of what to seek, what to look for—my vision shrinks and becomes distorted and fixed upon distractions, divisions, destruction. 

 

When I went back to read the whole Psalm, I was reminded that in this prayer we don’t find anything that could be interpreted as a denial of the painful realities of the world.  This Psalm doesn’t suggest that if you just go to church regularly all the bad things will go away and your life will get easy and you’ll never get hurt or feel sad or angry.  Instead, we hear of flesh being devoured (v. 2), of war (v. 3), of parents’ abandonment (v. 10), of slander and violence (v. 12).  In the midst of all these realities, the Psalmist seeks the God who is known as a light and guide for the path, a teacher, a source of protection and help.  And finally, the Psalmist’s testimony is: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (v. 13)  If the Psalmist is correct, seeing God in the midst of pain and struggle gives us the courage to stand strong, to resist the forces all around us that would devour us given the chance.  Seeing God even in the presence of injustice and attack also allows us to recognize beauty in the world when it seems there is no beauty to be found.  That is, an awareness of God’s presence gives us the eyes to see the acts of kindness, generosity, tenderness, courage, self-sacrifice, patience, creativity and the like that happen right in the middle of tragedy and struggle.  Seeing God helps us see what God sees…because if we are seeing God’s presence and activity, then we become aware of the people God sees, the ways God is at work.  And if we are seeing that, we will know where we can participate in what God is doing in the world. 

 

There is a lot to unpack about the process and practice and benefits of seeing God—and we’ll have opportunities to do that in the months ahead.  But for today, the invitation is to recognize how important it is to know what you are looking for.  The Psalmist says, “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after”:  to dwell in God’s household every single day and to behold—to see—the beauty of the Lord.  What do you seek?  What do you look for?  Friends, today you are invited to go and SEE God.

 

“We forget we live in a zigzag world.  Look how it’s shining!”  Look!  “Here’s God! She’s here!”

 



[i] Naomi Shihab Nye, “My Perfect Stranger,” You & Yours, Rochester, NY: Boa Editions, Ltd., 2005, p. 78.

[ii] Jean Vanier, Signs: Seven Words of Hope, New York: Paulist Press, 2013, p. 45.

[iii] Diana Butler Bass, FaceBook post, July 17, 2016.

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Go and BE

September 11th, 2016

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry United Methodist Church, September 11, 2016.


Texts:  Matthew 10:40-42                                                      

Today we kick off a new focus that will guide our reflections for worship, study, and service over the course of the next twelve months.  The title is “Next: Witness.”  There is a lot of baggage that the word “witness” lugs around these days.  But it’s too central to the practice of Christian faith for us not to try to unpack it and discover what it means—and doesn’t mean—to be a witness for Christ.  In these days when hate and fear try to claim the name “Christian” it is important for us to be clear about what a faithful Christian witness really is. There’s no way to do that in a handful of minutes on one Sunday. So we’re going to spend the next year really trying to go deeper to discover how we can try to live as witnesses without sacrificing our intellect or our integrity.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a high level look at three aspects witnessing:  being, seeing, and sharing.  And over the coming months, we’ll get into these things on a more micro level. I hope you will come along for this journey.

 

+ + +

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  We say it at Baptism.  Some say it before and after prayer.  What does it mean?  What does it mean when Jesus speaks of welcoming someone “in the name of a prophet” or “in the name of a righteous person?”  There are two primary responses.  First, to say or do something in the name of someone is to act on behalf of that person or by the authority of that person.  This is like being an ambassador, a representative of another.  In ancient cultures, the link between the representative and the one represented was very close and very strong.  In other words, you were to receive the ambassador of a King just as you would receive the King himself.  The second meaning of speaking or acting “in the name” of another is to act in a way that embodies the character or nature of the person or group represented.  For example, if you speak in the name of the company for which you work, you, in that moment, ARE the company.  You are the mouthpiece for the whole organization. 

 

In the verses from Matthew, Jesus is summing up his commission to the 12 disciples.  Jesus has given them authority to do the work that he himself does—authority to proclaim the good news of God’s reign, to heal, liberate, and usher in new life (Mt 10:7-8). Jesus has given them their marching orders; Jesus has spoken of the significant challenges they will face as they serve “in his name”—not small challenges either—things like rejection, persecution, arrest, and flogging!  And then he makes quite explicit the fact that the disciples are not only carrying a message from Jesus or about Jesus to those they encounter, they are embodying Jesus himself.  “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”  In other words, the disciples are to live in the world AS Jesus—for as they speak and live in Jesus’ name, others will identify them with Jesus.  The disciples carry within them not just a word or an example or a set of teachings, but a PERSON—and those they meet will welcome or reject not just an idea, but that person—namely, Jesus, the Christ of God. 

 

What difference does any of this make to you and me?  It doesn’t have to make any difference at all, of course.  There are people who claim the name of God or “Christian” without any intention of even trying to discern who God is…without any intention of actually, you know, being Christian; that is, there are plenty of people who take God’s name in vain!  But if your desire is to align yourself with the person of Christ, if you’re baptized in the name of the Three-in-One God and want to take that seriously, then these lines of scripture give us some guidance. In short, like the first disciples, we represent not only a set of teachings or an example of a way to live, but the person of Jesus Christ.  Our lives, our choices, our actions will tell others something about God, about Jesus.  This may seem the most basic of Christian teachings, but I wonder whether we sometimes forget. We ARE witnesses for Jesus—for better or for worse.  You will have heard the saying that “your life is the only Gospel some will ever read.”  I’d add that “you are the only Christ that some people will ever meet.”  No pressure!   

 

If this seems overwhelming or off-putting, I suggest two things that may help: first, to be Christ in the world doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to try to be someone you’re not, but rather, perhaps, it means you allow who you are—in all your particularity—to be shaped, led, guided, stretched by the witness of Jesus who was fueled by nothing other than love of God and love of neighbor; and secondly, we are only able to be Christ in the world in community with others. It is only by all our various gifts coming together that we are able to accomplish the work that Jesus authorizes: to proclaim the good news of God’s reign, to heal, liberate, and usher in new life. A life shaped by the love, mercy, justice, and hope embodied by Jesus and shared in community with others is what we are responsible for embodying in the world. What that means and how to allow our lives to be shaped by the life of Christ will be taken up in sermons and studies throughout the next year.  But for today, it is enough to simply be reminded that, as you go to work or school or engage with friends and family, in your priorities for how you spend your time and money, in your reactions to what is going on in the world and in your commitments about what to do, insofar as you claim the name of Christ, you represent Jesus Christ.  

 

But, Lord knows, to say we are speaking or acting “in the name of Jesus” is tricky at best—we all know about those who say they are doing things because God told them to… I grew up in Oklahoma in the shadow of Oral Roberts University in the 70’s and 80’s and from a very young age had this vague curiosity and discomfort with Roberts’ claims about what God told him to do.  And so often what people do in the name of God is not only economically or spiritually suspect, but also just weird or downright destructive.  “In the name of God” human beings are attacked, excluded, ostracized, and killed. From kamikaze planes to assassinations at Planned Parenthood, we are painfully aware of the horrors done in the name of God; we have quite rightly grown suspicious of anyone who claims to be “doing what God told them to do.” 

 

It makes sense to be cautious and discerning and to critique and concretely challenge any philosophy or policy or theology or spirituality that does harm to others—even if it gets us into trouble.  After all, we represent a person who did that!  But we are challenged not only to critique others, but to try to discern what God would have us do.  And it’s never been an easy task to discern and truly live in the name of God.  We read the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the prophets and disciples through the ages and see just how difficult it can be.  From Abraham almost killing his son to Solomon building an empire on the backs of slaves to the first disciples’ recurring impulse toward power grabs and violence, we see that even folks who are truly trying to get it right falter and fail.  It is rather comforting to know we aren’t the only ones. But that doesn’t mean we have an excuse to abandon our responsibility to try to live and love “in the name of God.”  It just means we know it isn’t easy. 

 

As I have thought about this idea of living “in the name of God,” two stadium-rock bands have been howling in my head.  U2’s “Pride (In the name of love)”—a song that alludes to Jesus, to Martin Luther King, Jr., and to more non-specific martyrs who gave their lives in the name of love—and who did so with dignity, purpose, and intention.  This song celebrates faithful human witness to God and God’s love. The other song on repeat in my mind?  From none other than Bon Jovi:  “Shot through the heart and you’re to blame…You give love a bad name…An angel’s smile is what you sell, you promise me heaven then put me through hell…”  The Church, those of us called “Christian,” have on occasion been rightly accused of giving love a bad name, promising heaven, but putting people through hell, of saying one thing, but doing another.  Throughout the teachings of Jesus in Matthew, we are warned against hypocrisy.  And we know well enough that hypocrisy turns people away from God and from the Church.  Hypocrisy in politics, in our workplaces, in any area of life engenders disappointment, distrust, and disgust.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just focus on the hypocrisy of others?  //  One reason I don’t have the Christian fish on my car is that my road rage would reveal my hypocrisy on a regular basis!  In response to the person who said that he didn’t go to church anymore because “they’re just a bunch of hypocrites” William Sloane Coffin replied, “You bet we are! And there’s always room for one more.”  The truth is we’re all hypocrites; we don’t get it right all the time; we miss the point over and again; we don’t speak up or take a stand in all the ways and places we are needed; we don’t know how to discern God’s will; we do harm, do things that give our God a bad name. 

 

The good news is that the name we bear is the name of Jesus, the name of the One who loves us beyond measure, whose goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives!  We are forgiven for our failures and given chance after chance because of Christ’s love.  We know we won’t represent Christ perfectly.  But the invitation—and our responsibility!—is to trust God’s love enough to risk getting it wrong.  If we don’t at least try to be Christ, to show Christ in the world, who will?  The steadfast love of God liberates us to try to embody the kind of love revealed by Jesus. 

 

That may take some dramatic, public form.  But, Jesus teaches, even our small attempts can make all the difference. A kind word, an act of patience and compassion, standing up for someone, holding your tongue when gossip would be fun, sacrificing a more prestigious job for the sake of your family, putting your money where your mouth is, practicing humility when it would be easy to throw your weight around, following a seemingly crazy divine calling, responding—or not!—to a difficult FaceBook post, sacrificing yourself or your comfort or your time for the sake of another, offering even a cup of cold water to a thirsty person.  In these and so many other ways, we can go and BE Christ in the world.

 

And, oh my, doesn’t the world need more Christ?  In a world so quick to allow fear to lead to violence and to connect God’s will with that fear and violence, our living in the name of Christ, the very face of love, is not only a nice idea, it is our solemn responsibility.  The Christ who dwells in us is our hope and we who dwell in Christ are hope for the world.  Go and BE Christ…in the name of love… Amen. 

 

A Love Like That

September 4th, 2016

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, September 4, 2016, the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Text: Luke 14:1, 7-14                                                            

Today’s gospel story teaches us something both about being a guest and about being a host.  As a guest, Jesus tells us not to hog the best seat in the house.  As a host, we’re taught not to only invite guests who can repay us, but instead to make a point to invite those who can’t. Both of the teachings could be interpreted as little nuggets of worldly wisdom, designed to get you a reward—in the first case, potential public recognition and promotion and in the second, some mystery prize behind resurrection door number one.  This interpretation meshes with the worldly economy we all know so well.  You know what I mean: quid pro quo, everything has a price, “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”  The worldly economy functions according to merit or popularity or material wealth or having insider knowledge or the wielding of brute strength or simply being born into a certain class, race, or caste.  It is big on pecking order, seating charts, and keeping score.  The questions in this economy are things like:  “What do I have to do to get what I want?” “How much will this cost?”  “What are the rules?”  “Do I have what it takes?”  “What have you done for me lately?” “When am I going to get what’s coming to me?”  We see echoes of this in conversations about immigrants or the poor—about who pays taxes and who has done what they were supposed to do and who deserves support.  We see the worldly economy in this recent business with 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the national anthem in protest of police brutality and racism—when folks say things like, “he owes this country more respect.”  And we can find the deposit of the worldly economy in our own lives when we find ourselves thinking that people owe us—that is, “After all I’ve done… my boss, my spouse, my friend, my child, God owes me…”

 

We learn the ways of the worldly economy early on and see them playing out on school playgrounds and lunchrooms and in the halls; and we see this worldly economy at work as adults—on the playground of the social scene, inter-office dynamics and in the halls of power.  We joust and jockey and dance around these things, trying to figure out how to succeed.  We size one another up and measure ourselves against others and weigh our options and our actions and our choices in what can feel like Game of Thrones—you win or you die.  As we look around there are all the “stock characters”—the bullies and negotiators, over-achievers and slackers, the shy and the outgoing, the risk-takers and risk-averse, the socially awkward and the poised charmers.  But in the end everyone is simply trying to find their way, to sort out how to survive, to live, to connect, be seen to have needs met, to be loved in the messy economy of the world.

 

Perhaps there are several levels to Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel. Perhaps there are some little worldly wisdom nuggets there—about the ways that good manners at a social engagement will end up serving you well, about curbing our entitlement tendencies, about being generous. But it seems there might be something deeper going on here.  For me, the place that kept nudging me is the moment when Jesus turns to the host of the dinner party and says “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.” Jesus says to invite those who cannot repay you.

 

Not to expect repayment from people runs counter to pretty much everything in the worldly economy.  Jesus is advocating a completely different kind of economy, one that draws us into the realm of God’s Kin-dom.  What Jesus suggests is that the Kin-dom of God employs an economy of grace.  That is, all is a gift—not a right, not earned, not a hard, cold fact of material being.  Everything is a gift from God.  You are a child of God; you don’t have to negotiate that, it’s a free gift.  You are loved by God; you don’t have to win that prize through skill or wise choice, God’s love is FREE.  God’s interest in us is unearned (and whoever heard of unearned interest!?), but no less valuable and powerful.  When we open our hearts to receive the gift of God’s love, then we are able to employ the economy of grace, to relate to people and to our lives differently.  When we are willing to live as citizens of the Kin-dom, we are freed from the jockeying and the jousting for position.  As those who know ourselves already to be loved, we no longer have to live by the rules we learned on the playground.  We are freed to simply be ourselves, to respond to an invitation without an expectation that we will be (or should be) the guest of honor or without trying to present ourselves as overly important—but simply to arrive and to share in the gift of the moment.  Of course, the world will continue to tug and pull at you, pushing your buttons of self-importance or insecurity (both of which, by the way, tend to make us try to get or keep the best seat in the house); but as you become more aware of and strengthened by God’s love for you, you gain freedom to be and to share yourself and to enjoy others, regardless of where you are on the seating chart.  And—I must add—you also gain a sense of your own dignity and self-worth and so are able to recognize when someone is taking advantage or harming you and, therefore, can make a decision to resist.

 

When we take up residence in the Kin-dom of God and begin to be guided by the economy of grace, we are freed to be generous, we seek to love as God loves and to give as God gives.  That means recognizing that the bounty of the feast is not reserved for those who already have enough, those who can sponsor a whole table.  Instead, guided by God’s economy of grace, we see that the feast is prepared for all people and there is always enough if we make room for others and share.  To love as God loves and to give as God gives means we let go of our tendencies to judge who deserves this and who deserves that.  Dorothy Day said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”  God doesn’t say to you, “I might give you my love, I might invite you to my banquet table… But…what have you done for me lately?”  God invites you and me to this banquet today, just as we are and not because we have done anything to deserve it.  God invites those who are trampled and hurt by the worldly economy.  God invites those who, in trying to find their way, have gotten lost and fallen into darkness.  God invites all those—all of us—to the banquet, to the feast of freely given love, no scorecards kept. 

 

We mistake the ways of God’s Kin-dom when we make it about rules and about keeping score and about earned interest and love averages.  Part of the mystery in all this is that, having been saved from these fearful, selfish, life-shrinking, enslaving ways of the worldly economy, the economy of grace brings rewards not only into our lives, but also into the lives of those around us.  One of my favorite writers, 14th century Sufi mystic and poet, Hafiz, puts it this way:

Even

After

All this time

The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe

Me.”

Look

What happens

With a love like that,

It lights the

Whole

Sky.[i]

 

As residents with Jesus in the Kin-dom, freely love and give and serve. As residents with Jesus in the Kin-dom, consider the implications of God’s economy of grace on the ways you think about immigration, poverty, taxes, the minimum wage.  Do something for someone “just because.” Include the one others leave out.  Remember that you are a beloved child of God and therefore free to be yourself without games or apology.  Remember that everyone else is a beloved child of God, too.  Enter into this great mystery and receive the reward, the joy, of living –really living—in God’s love.

 

Today as we are invited to the banquet of love, compassion, and mercy, we’re reminded that even after all this time Jesus doesn’t say to us, “You owe me.”  Just imagine what happens with a love like that…

 



[i] Hafiz, “The Sun Never Says,” The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master, trans., Daniel Ladinsky, Penguin Compass, 1999, p. 34.

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Nonconformity

August 28th, 2016

Nonconformity

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC August 28, 2016, the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Text:  Luke 13:10-17

Now Rabbi Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath.

 

And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that made her doubt whether she was welcome since she had doubts and questions about some tenets of the faith. She was hunched over, unable to see (without craning her neck) how important she was in that place.

 

And just then there appeared a man with a spirit that made him cynical about everything, including himself. He struggled to trust, to hope, to believe that things might ever be better. He was hunched over, unable to see the beauty and positive changes happening in spite of constant struggle.

 

And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that made it difficult to manage the anger she felt at the reality of suffering and injustice. She was hunched over, unable to see that she didn’t have to manage her anger alone, that there was a whole community with whom she could lament, rage, and engage in acts of solidarity and change.

 

And just then there appeared a genderqueer person with a spirit that told them that they were crazy and broken. They were hunched over, unable to see that the mystery and beauty of humanity includes a variety of God-given, created natures.

 

 

And just then there appeared a man with a spirit that told him that he was a disappointment, that he was not a man, that he couldn’t be a faithful disciple, because he was gay. He was bent over, unable to see the strength and gifts and vision that he could uniquely offer because of his orientation, not in spite of it.

 

And just then there appeared people with spirits of grief, guilt, fear, despair, loneliness, self-righteousness, numbness, mental illness, addiction, exhaustion…

 

Now Rabbi Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath.

 

And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.  And Jesus saw her and called her and set her free from what, in the original Greek, is described as a spirit that causes weakness.  And the woman praised God at this unsolicited grace!  But the leader of the synagogue was not having any of it—this is the sabbath after all.  He directs his words to the crowd, but is really preaching to Jesus who has just made the mistake of healing on the wrong day.

 

In the two versions of the Ten Commandments found in the Bible (Ex 20:1-17 and Deut 5:6-21), the only commandment with a significant variation is the fourth one—regarding the sabbath.  In Exodus, the sabbath commandment is grounded in creation, recalling God’s own creative activity and subsequent rest.  In Deuteronomy, sabbath is connected to liberation, with the reminder that God led the people out of slavery in Egypt.  Taken together, we learn that Sabbath keeping has to do with both creation and redemption:  delighting in the creation such that we are ourselves re-created and remembering with joy that God frees us from all that is enslaving and harmful to our life. 

 

Sabbath understood in this way makes Jesus’ encounter with the bent-over woman perfectly appropriate.  So why does the leader of the synagogue get so bent out of shape?  Well, evidently, over the years, the one clear prohibition in the fourth commandment—no work—required some further definition; a policy if you will.  In time, according to one commentator, 613 additional rules and regulations were attached to that simple admonition.  The result is that a commandment originally meant to provide a day of enjoyment and renewal became a fearful thing—leading folks to worry all day long that they might mess up and actually do something that could be construed as work.

 

I confess that I feel for the leader of the synagogue.  Like him, I want to get it right and to follow God’s teaching.  I am a huge fan of following the rules—jaywalking makes me nervous as does walking into a place when the sign says “closed” or not using the blinker when changing lanes.  I am a team player—and, having played sports for years, I know that when people don’t know or follow the rules of the game, the whole thing falls apart.  I know through experience that without shared commitments to agreed-upon norms, community breaks down.  I feel for the synagogue leader and can feel the sting when Jesus speaks the word, “hypocrite,” that most painful of words when directed at those of us who are trying to be faithful, to get it right.

 

But part of being faithful is a willingness to receive correction, an openness to learn that we might be getting it wrong.  Jesus points out that, according to the current state of things, an ox has a better chance of being treated well than does a human being; this, due to a provision written into the Sabbath policy that allows for livestock to be given water on the seventh day. Perhaps another amendment is called for.[i]  After all, if an animal can be untethered in order to be cared for on the sabbath, cannot a beloved daughter be set free as well?

 

In this story, we see Jesus breaking some of the finer points of the synagogue’s Book of Discipline for the sake of a woman with a spirit that had crippled her life for eighteen years (what if she is only 18 years old?).  In this case at least, it appears that what is called “nonconformity” by the religious institution is actually much more conformed to the heart and intention of God’s Law.  Jesus’ acts of “nonconformity”—in addition to showing love and mercy—were meant to liberate the faith community from hypocrisy and from a harmful application of God’s law.  Jesus wasn’t trying to destroy his Jewish faith tradition or to cause schism. //  “Nonconformity” has been a word flying around a lot in our United Methodist denomination over the past months particularly with regard to those of us who stand and act in defiance of the discriminatory language and rules against LGBTQ people.  My participation in acts of so-called nonconformity finds inspiration and justification in the story we have heard today and others like it.  That is, I believe I am following Jesus.  But, if I am taking this passage of scripture seriously, I must remain aware that I stumble into the sanctuary each and every week with some spirit or another from which I need to be liberated. I need the healing touch of Christ.  And I also need to come open to a word of challenge, of correction, of conviction.  I need to be open to Jesus who can see me and what in me needs to be…fixed and released…

 

We all come to this place in all sorts of shape, some of us feeling strong and some of us feeling weak and some of us uncertain and some of us more certain than we, perhaps, ought to be.  We are here to worship or to find a place to belong or to hear a word of hope or challenge or to confess or to be healed or without really knowing why we have come.  But you are here.  Now.  And, thank God, Jesus will not conform to even well-meaning human rules that would keep him from seeing you and extending whatever you need to live more fully and to see more clearly.  It may sting, but even that is for the greater purpose of love and liberation.

 

Now Rabbi Jesus is teaching on this Sabbath and says, “You are set free.”  Praise be to God!

 



[i] I am indebted to the work of Scott Hoezee, Biblical commentator for the Center for Excellence in Preaching, for the information on Sabbath referred to in the sermon.  Center for Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, ©Luther Seminary.  The information was confirmed by my colleague, Rabbi Steve Weisman of Temple Solel in Bowie, MD.

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Have You Been ‘Shedding’?

August 21st, 2016

A sermon preached by Rev. Will Ed Green, Director of Connecting Ministries at Foundry UMC, on
August 21, 2016, the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

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