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The Real Sin

March 18th, 2018

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, March 18, 2018, the fifth Sunday in Lent. “Dissonance” sermon series.

Texts: Psalm 51:1-12;  Luke 15:1-2, 11-32



“When God Ran…” It’s the provocative title of a duet I sang in church with my mother circa 1988… When God Ran…  Generally, we think of God as steadfast, a solid rock, never leaving nor forsaking, going ahead of us to guard and guide, an encircler and protector, ever present.  But there was a time when God ran. // “While [the son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” (Lk 15:20)  Jesus’ parable imbues the father with the characteristics of God—generosity, wisdom, steadfast love— and compassion that sends him running.  The father doesn’t turn away or run away. The father has been waiting and watching for any sign of his beloved child’s return and when the son appears, there is no hesitation—he runs toward his precious one and embraces him.


Today we have experienced the story of the prodigal and his brother for the fourth week in a row.  Over the course of our reflections, we’ve gazed upon the two sons—and more than a few of you have shared that you see yourself in one or both of them.  Henri Nouwen has been our companion on this Lenten journey and his insight reveals that both the younger and the elder son were disconnected from their true home.  The younger son intentionally wanders away and breaks all the rules; and the elder son is lost even though he’s remained close and labored to be the good son.  The home they struggle to find is that place where they can rest in the love of their father, that place where they can trust that they’ve always been loved—loved even when they were ungrateful, even when they were making terrible choices, even when they were cruel, even when resentment bubbled over, even when pride held them hostage.  In the midst of it all, home is waiting, God is watching for any sign of return…and God runs to the elder just as to the younger…God goes out to meet the one on the road and the other outside the feast, entreating each to enter into the love and joy and embrace of home.


Jesus tells this story with an open ending.  The invitation and embrace is offered, but we don’t get to hear how it all turns out.  The younger and the elder sons may yet fail to truly get home.  There remains an open end for us as well.  Are we willing to do what it takes to acknowledge and receive what is offered to us?  Everything hangs on our answer. 


Some weeks ago I shared in a sermon a moment in my life when I realized that I was lugging around all this guilt and shame like a weight, a burden I thought I had to carry forever as my punishment for terrible things I’ve done.  Through the grace of God and a good spiritual director I began to release that burden and to move a little closer toward home, toward the freedom that awaits when we can trust that God’s love and compassion are more powerful than even our worst transgressions.  It still stuns me to realize just how unaware I was that I was clinging to all that garbage, all those self-punishing thoughts and feelings.  Guilt and shame are sneaky and sinister temptations.  We get so attached to them—or they to us, like parasites…guilt and shame can start to feel like part of who we are—even though they’re not.  I believe Nouwen is correct when he says that “one of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness.”[i] 


It seems to me there are lots of reasons for that.  First of all, as in my case, we may not even realize that we’re rejecting forgiveness!  Maybe we can’t or won’t admit that we’ve done anything that needs forgiving.  Perhaps we can’t imagine ever being able to forgive someone who did what we did—and so we can’t forgive ourselves and don’t believe anyone else should either.  Maybe we think there needs to be some penalty paid for what we’ve done and being forgiven by God seems like cheap grace.  But those ways of thinking fail to account for the way repentance and forgiveness work.  God desires our freedom from those things that bind us, that hold us hostage, that keep us from living and loving fully and entering into the joy of home.  To repent and receive forgiveness are paths toward that freedom!  And real repentance and forgiveness will mean not only seeing our fault and feeling regret, but—with the help of God (and often the help of other people!)— changing our ways.  In some ways, it’s easier to keep lugging around all that guilt or to be punished and believe that buys you time to keep on living the same way.  William Sloane Coffin said, “It’s hell to be guilty, but it’s worse to be responsible.”[ii]  And the invitation is to step into the freedom of a new way of being, a new way of loving, a new place of trust and generosity—both toward yourself and toward others.  You are invited to take responsibility for yourself, to take yourself seriously, to see the truth that you matter and that you are worth more than a small life bound up with shame and self-loathing and self-destructive behavior. You are invited to grow up, to see yourself not only as a child, identifying with the younger or elder son, but also to begin to identify with the father. Growing up is the goal—growing in wisdom, vision, patience, courage, and love…being and becoming more like God our father and our mother. The elder son is reminded explicitly: “all that I have is yours.”  All the grace, all the steadfast commitment and care, all the generosity…all these gifts are yours for you are God’s beloved child.  And any loving parent wants to see her child grow up and develop the gifts within them; God desires that you grow up into the version of your life that most fully reflects God’s own.


Such an assertion may seem absurd to you.  In fact, a primary obstacle for many of us on the journey home is a deep sense of insecurity and lack of self-worth.  This is often the thing at the heart of alienation in the first place.  Perhaps the thing that has led to addiction or betrayal or debilitating secrets, or violence, or prideful defenses, or hardness of heart—whatever it is that keeps you from going “home”—is a conviction that you are not worthy of love or care, that you are not capable of bravery or creativity or responsibility, that no one would ever be proud of you.  This may have been beaten into you physically, emotionally, or spiritually through the actions of broken people in your life.  Or it may have seeped into you through the manipulations of empire with its consumer economy relentlessly insisting that you need this or that product or experience in order to be cool, attractive, healthy, powerful, or important.  We waste so much time chasing after things that will not satisfy the deep longing at our core.


This is not a new phenomenon.  In the 6th century, BCE, the prophet known as Second Isaiah wrote:

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?...
Incline your ear, and come to me;
    listen, so that you may live. (Isaiah 55:2-3)


Saint Augustine in the 4th century of the Common Era famously prayed these words to God: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee…”


In the 14th century CE, English Anchoress and mystic, Julian of Norwich wrote, “we do not know our God who is almighty, all wise and all good… God wishes to be known, and it pleases [God] that we should rest in [God]; for everything which is beneath [God] is not sufficient for us."


In 1980 CE, country singer Johnny Lee recorded a classic for the “Urban Cowboy” soundtrack that included these lyrics, “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places, lookin’ for love in too many faces, searchin’ their eyes, and lookin’ for traces of what I’m dreamin’ of…”


Throughout the ages, we look for our deepest needs to be met in things that are not God—we look to products and substances, other people, and our own force of will—and in so doing, we stay at a distance from the source of all we need.  We go in search of that which we think will fix us or help us get right or strong; we go in search of meaning, of satisfaction, of love, even of God—and our search itself can become its own idol.  It’s not our search that matters most of all; God’s search for us is what makes the difference; and God is always already looking for us. 


God runs out to you wherever you are and invites you to receive and affirm what is real:  that God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it…that God sees not only your faults, but also your inherent worth—not because of anything you say or do or prove, but simply because you are YOU.  Nouwen contends that when we think of sin we generally focus on our faults and failings but, he says, “the real sin is to deny God’s first love for [you], to ignore [your] original goodness.”[iii]  Does anyone really love me?  Does anyone really care?  How can I keep from being hurt and rejected again?  What if I fail or disappoint or relapse, will I lose the love that’s been given?  These concerns reveal the ways we struggle to trust God’s presence and love. “The parable of the prodigal son is a story that speaks about a love that existed before any rejection was possible and that will still be there after all rejections have taken place. It is the first and everlasting love of a God who is Father as well as Mother.  It is the fountain of all true human love, even the most limited.  Jesus’ whole life and preaching had only one aim: to reveal this inexhaustible, unlimited motherly and fatherly love of his God and to show the way to let that love guide every part of our daily lives…It is the love that always welcomes home and always wants to celebrate.”[iv]


God is always watching, ready to run to you and welcome you home.  The story is unfinished.  Will you reject God’s love and deny your original goodness?  Or will you allow yourself to be found by God, to be known by God, to be loved by God?  Everything hangs on your answer.




[i][i] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 53.

[ii] William Sloane Coffin, Credo, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 18.

[iii] Ibid., 107.

[iv] Ibid., 108-109.



March 11th, 2018

Sunday, March 11, 2018 

Preacher: Senior Pastor Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli

Sermon: "Bound"

Texts: Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22;  Luke 15:1-2, 11-32


Dissonance is a mingling of discordant sounds, a lack of harmony among musical notes. And during this Lenten season at Foundry, we are exploring the dissonance, the lack of harmony, caused by human choices and ways of being. In the traditional language of the church, we’re talking about sin.  Using the parable of the prodigal and his brother, we’ve explored things like being led astray by temptations and the destructive effects of ingratitude and resentment.  The goal of our reflections through this series is not simply to name things that make us feel bad.  The goal is to acknowledge that there are things we need to change—to repent of—in our lives so that we might be more free.  As I said on the first Sunday of the season, “Repentance is meant not to bind us or make us shrink in fear.  Repentance is the path to freedom, the path to living with courage and assurance!...To repent…is to…trust that walking in the way of God’s kin-dom will lead us not only to closer relationship with God, but will set us free to live, really live our lives and, in so doing, to love and serve other people as well.”


Confession and repentance is about liberation from those things that bind us, that keep us living smaller and less loving lives than the lives we’re made for. The past couple of weeks, we’ve looked first at the younger son in the parable and then the elder son.  Today, we’ll reflect on both of them and on one of the things they seem to have in common: pride.  The pride they share is not the healthy kind of pride that allows us to acknowledge our own true gifts, strengths, identity, and God-created nature. The pride they share causes dissonance; its the kind of pride that prances across the world stage and hides out in homes both simple and lavish, leading to tragedy, alienation, and senseless violence.  The pride the two sons share is the pride that leads us to deceive ourselves, to mask our faults, to hide our fears.  Carl Jung, said that even when this pride is most active, “deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune.”[i]  Dissonance…


The brash young son probably felt free as he set out for a distant land.  After all, hadn’t he chosen to seek a home somewhere else?  Hadn't he gotten what he wanted and wasn’t he living on his own terms now?  But is he really free?  What we sometimes think of as freedom—that rock & roll attitude that “I’m free to do what I want any old time”—is in truth not freedom at all, but rather a trap. Selfish pride is deceiving and leads us to make choices that are destructive to ourselves and to others.  Who wants a freedom that means losing everyone and everything that really matters? When this son hits rock bottom, starving, an outsider in his current surroundings, broke, alone except for the pigs, he sees just how his perceived freedom has led him to a prison of alienation.  He has gotten attention from others so long as he had something to offer, but when he is no longer useful to them, he is ignored and given even less than the pigs.  From this place of isolation and suffering, any human might experience the whole world as dark and menacing and cold and untrustworthy.  The son perhaps begins to think that he has never really been loved by anyone. But then he “came to his senses.”  Many translations say, “He came to himself”... maybe that's who he was running away from in the beginning.  We don’t really know of course.  But in this moment, he remembers where he can turn; and turn he does.  But his return is shrouded in ambiguity; for while he journeys back to the house of his father, he still has a long way to go to reach “home”—that is to acknowledge and trust that his father loves him. 


The late priest and teacher, Henri Nouwen describes this saying, “There is repentance, but not a repentance in the light of the immense love of a forgiving God. It is a self-serving repentance that offers the possibility of survival…It is like saying: ‘Well, I couldn’t make it on my own, I have to acknowledge that God is the only resource left to me. I will go to God and ask for forgiveness in the hope that I will receive a minimal punishment and be allowed to survive on the condition of hard labor.’ God remains a harsh, judgmental God.  It is this God who makes me feel guilty and worried and calls up in me all these self-serving apologies.  Submission to this God does not create true inner freedom, but breeds only bitterness and resentment.  One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness.”[ii]


The late pastor and preacher William Sloane Coffin says that “guilt is the last stronghold of pride. ‘Guilty’ represents my opinion of myself. ‘Forgiven’ may represent yours or God’s opinion, and I’m too proud to let others do for me what I cannot do for myself.”[iii]  The younger son, in his carefully crafted confession speech, reveals that he still sees himself as guilty, as someone who should be treated as a hired hand, not as someone who is loved, forgiven, and set free to live a new life.  When he shows up at home, he is clinging to his pride, his sense of self-determination and self-sufficiency, his insistence that he knows what he is (guilty! unworthy!), the sense that it’s up to him to find freedom and life.  He appears, too proud to let his father forgive him when he can’t figure out how to forgive himself.


The elder son, though always at his father’s house is in his own prison of alienation, a duty-bound place, a place where resentment and self-righteous pride make it easy to waste energy on constant comparisons, of sizing everyone up against his own hard work; that work evidently has become shrouded in its own ambiguity.  Perhaps initially driven by a sense of healthy responsibility and good intentions, it is now described—is it a Freudian slip?—as working like a slave.  In that moment, we see that this son, too, has not claimed the freedom that is his.  He isn't freely choosing to work for his father out of love.  Instead, he is bound by his sense of duty and a feeling of being trapped.  This bondage keeps him from entering into the celebration that engulfs his household at his brother’s return.  


He is outside in the dark, seemingly unaware that he needs to be forgiven anything.  He’s the oppressed one here, the overlooked one, the one who deserves everything and hasn’t gotten his!  The elder son holds on to self-righteousness, perhaps out of a sense that it’s not OK to trust someone else’s perspective or actions—even his father’s—since it’s really only him that gets what is real and “right” and “giving in” would be a sign of weakness.  This son is held captive by his pride.  He can’t see anything but himself and his grievances.  He can’t see his brother.  He cannot acknowledge or receive the love of his father.  Like his younger brother, he doesn’t trust that his father loves him and always has.


Pride—the kind that is twisted into control and selfishness—is a primary obstacle to both the sons in the story. For both of them, their pride and their clinging to self-motivated and self-focused ways of seeing the world keep them from being able to fully receive what is so clearly offered: the love and compassion of their father.  Pride bars them from really arriving home, home understood as the all-embracing love of God.  Pride can hold us hostage, too. 


Where does pride and an overactive, unhealthy self-sufficiency get in the way of your return “home”?  Can you hear the still, small voice deep within you that points to where there is dissonance, where something is out of tune, where pride is deceptively holding you hostage?


Listen…look…real freedom awaits.  The all-embracing love of God calls you home.




[ii][ii] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 52-53.

[iii] William Sloane Coffin, Credo, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 16.


Lost at Home

March 4th, 2018

Lost at Home

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, March 4, 2018, the third Sunday in Lent. “Dissonance” sermon series.

Text: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32


I have a tendency to get lost. My discombobulated sense of direction is legendary among those who know me best. I get turned around if I go in one door of a building and exit another. My college friends laugh at how I’d get lost in our then small, university town of Georgetown, TX. In the days prior to a soothing mechanical voice on my phone guiding me to my destination, the struggle was real.  I’ve been told I’d figure out a way to get lost even at home.


That’s where we find the elder son in the parable today:  lost at home.  Unlike his younger brother, this son is not prone to wander, has stayed home, has nurtured his “type A” tendencies, has followed the rules, has gotten it right, has done everything he could to please, to be the good son, to do what was asked, to produce and achieve and succeed.  How could he be lost when he likely is praised and respected by many in his community?  This son never ran off or strayed from the righteous path. So why would anyone suggest that he is lost?


The late priest and teacher Henri Nouwen describes home as “the center of my being where I can hear the voice [of God] that says, ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.’”[i]  When the elder son returns from his work in the fields to find a party underway for his deadbeat, profligate brother, the exchange he has with his father is telling. The father uses an affectionate term in addressing his eldest son:  teknon, my child, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (Lk 15:31)  But the elder son’s initial response reveals that even though he’s stayed at the house where he was raised, he is lost—that is, he doesn’t know where he is—he doesn’t acknowledge the voice of love for him or the gifts always available and already sustaining him.  He’s at his house, but he doesn’t know he’s also home, loved, provided for, and favored by his father.  He’s already got what he needs, but is looking for something else to prove and affirm his worth. “Don’t you see how hard I’ve worked and how I’ve done all the right things and never given you cause to suffer because of me?  Don’t you think your ability to throw such a lavish party even after wasting your money on that son of yours is because of how hard I have worked to make this place successful? Where’s my barbecue?”


Jesus tells this parable in response to the grumbling and disapproval of the “good people”—the Pharisees and scribes, the rule followers, those who are trying so hard to follow God’s wisdom and way. These good folk are concerned that Jesus fraternizes with people of questionable reputation. Ostensibly this concern is because the religious purity laws were clear that to eat and drink with—and even to touch—such folk was against the rules.  So these saints of the church stand outside the halls of feasting and dancing where “those people” seem carefree and are having all the fun and are getting the attention the good folks crave.  And I imagine many try to do the right thing; maybe they even try to be understanding and gracious; but they still find themselves angry and judgey and grumbling, despite themselves.


Jesus’ allegory in the parable presses gently but firmly upon those who want to do good—all the rule-following “elder sons.”  Anyone here have something in common with the elder son?  I, of course, don’t care at all about doing the right thing or being faithful, successful, or liked 😉.  I know so many in this beloved community have worked hard to be faithful, honest, gracious, helpful, committed, loving, patient—doing the work of discipleship for so many years—serving on committees and in kitchens, taking to the streets and kneeling with children in classrooms, rehearsing in choirs, befriending the homeless and poor, and rearranging portfolios in order to make an impactful gift… Does anyone see?  Does anyone remember?  Why all the attention given to these latecomers?  Am I taken for granted?  Where’s my barbecue? 


No one here may ever consciously have any of these thoughts or feelings—Lord knows no one wants to!  And, by the way, it is perfectly reasonable and healthy to need acknowledgement and affirmation in community and in relationship when we are working so hard to be a good friend, a good team member, a good partner, a good spouse, a good daughter or son.  But there is that thing that can so easily sneak in and wreak havoc on our spirits, our perspective, our relationships.  //


That thing is resentment. Webster defines resentment as “a feeling of indignant displeasure or persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or injury.”  Resentment is one of the most destructive realities in human relationship.  What may start as a benign awareness of some need that hasn’t been met or righteous anger at a real injustice can (unchecked) grow into a deadly habit, poisoning our perspective so that we unconsciously lie in wait for the moment we are injured or insulted again; then that injury fuels the growing resentment. This nasty cycle happens in all kinds of relationships—friendships, work relationships, marriages, sibling relationships, and relationship between parent and child.  One psychologist writes about resentment as an impolite house guest who comes in and never knows when to leave.[ii]  Resentment kills relationships.  It can be very powerful. 


Resentment can worm its way into even the most loving people, the most generous people, those trying hardest to do the right things. I am humbled by the witness of the late Henri Nouwen, the lifelong practitioner of the Christian faith, priest, pastor, and teacher. Nouwen writes about his own struggle with resentment saying, “Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being.  My resentment is not something that can be easily distinguished and dealt with rationally.  It is far more pernicious: something that has attached itself to the underside of my virtue…At the very moment I want to speak or act out of my most generous self, I get caught in anger or resentment. And it seems that just as I want to be most selfless, I find myself obsessed about being loved.  Just when I do my utmost to accomplish a task well, I find myself questioning why others do not give themselves as I do.  Just when I think I am capable of overcoming my temptations, I feel envy toward those who gave in to theirs.  It seems that wherever my virtuous self is, there also is the resentful complainer.”[iii]


Perhaps your issues aren’t Nouwen’s, but his insight is powerful.  When we’re trying to do the right thing, to be kind, generous, responsible—precisely then resentment can arise.  That’s the elder son’s story.  And it is often mine.  When I work and work without creating adequate rest or play time, I can get resentful of others who seem to be having all the fun! (like on Friday when Pastor Dawn texts me a picture of her food from Carolina Kitchen while I was still at the computer late in the day writing—who cares that Friday is her Sabbath??)  And why do the dogs favor Anthony when I’m the one getting up at the crack of dawn when the puppy wakes up?  Maybe you know what it’s like when you’re working so hard at home or at work and feel taken for granted.  Who sees how hard I’m working?  Where’s my Carolina Kitchen? Where’s my feast?


It seems there are at least a couple of things we can say or do about the resentments we hold. First, we might try to identify what it is that we really need and then ask for that.  If you need acknowledgement of your work, an explanation of why something happened, a renegotiation of household duties, help with a task, try asking.  I wonder whether the elder son ever thought to ask his father whether they could have a party to celebrate a good harvest or other fruits of his hard work.  It’s also helpful to try to consider what’s going on with the person who may be the focus of your resentment and pray for the grace to have compassion.  Some resentments grow out of deeper or old places of hurt, loss, or lack, and it’s impossible to ask for anything that would satisfy the original injury.  In that case, the thing to consider is forgiveness, difficult as that always is…  But letting go of whatever fuels resentment is so important if we ever want to truly find our way home.


Regardless of where you are today along that journey, God’s voice remains steadfast saying: “Teknon, my child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  My precious child, I see you, I know how hard you are working, I know how hard you are trying.  I am always present and waiting to share with you what you need; you are the Beloved, on you my favor rests.”  Resentment keeps us from receiving this gift, from acknowledging that we dwell in God’s love and favor, that we have been there all along.


There was a feast underway, a great celebration of love and grace and restored relationship, and the elder son refused to go in.  There’s a feast here today, a great celebration of love and grace and restored relationship.  It’s not just for others.  It’s for you.  Because wherever you are on the journey, you are HOME.




[i] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 37.


[iii] Nouwen, 75-76.


Prone to Wander

February 25th, 2018

Prone to Wander

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, February 25, 2018, the second Sunday in Lent. “Dissonance” sermon series.

Text: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32


“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, /prone to leave the God I love…”[i]


Today we begin a four-week deep dive into the parable we’ve heard this morning.  There is a lot going on in this story, there is dissonance, there is disharmony, broken relationships, broken dreams, broken hearts.  Each week we’ll pick up and turn over a different piece as we seek to “remaster” this Christian classic.  For those who hold this parable at your spiritual center, having lived with it for many years, I pray these weeks will provide welcome reminders, moments of deepening awareness, and potential epiphanies.  For those for whom the story is little known or completely new, our hope is that you will find this passage of scripture both challenging and inspiring as has been the case for countless others across the centuries.


Words from the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” capture the particular dissonance that’s our focus this morning. “Prone to wander…prone to leave”… This is embodied by the younger of the two sons in the parable who wanders away from home to a “distant country.”


Of course, wandering isn’t always an expression of dissonance or brokenness.  Having an adventurous spirit, wanting to explore new places and have new experiences can be a healthy part of human life and development; as is the work of growing up and moving into adulthood as an individual, apart from those who have raised us.  Lord knows many of us have wandered far from home to study, to serve, to work, to be in relationships, to live here.  Some of us may have left a place of dissonance in our families or other relationships—a place of disharmony, conflict, or abuse—and wisely traveled to new places where healing can happen. Wandering away can lead us to places of beauty and new life. 


But the wandering in the parable Jesus tells isn’t presented as healthy, loving, or wise.  We have no evidence in the story to suggest that the father was unkind or abusive or that the home the son left lacked anything.  So we don’t we can only imagine what prompts this decision by the younger son.  But we do know based on the culture of the time that the son’s demand is an insult to his father.  When the son says, “give me the share of the property that will belong to me” he is demanding the inheritance what would come at his father’s death.  He might as well have said to his dad, “I can’t wait for you to die!”  Perhaps this is a case of the younger child figuring out how to play his parent, knowing that the father won’t deny his baby boy even a humiliating request.  But for whatever reason, the son is given the death benefit.  He cashes it in, takes the money, runs to “a distant country,” and proceeds to waste the money in “dissolute living.”  What is here translated “dissolute” is the Greek word, asotos—a word that can also be translated “prodigal.” The younger son manipulates and insults his father, wanders off to a distant country, and squanders his inheritance in prodigal—that is, reckless, riotous, destructive, self-indulgent—living.


What happens next is sometimes described as a moment of real repentance.  When the younger son has lost everything, hits rock bottom, and is starving, he “comes to himself” and remembers what it’s like at his father’s house. He compares his situation to that of his father’s hired hands and realizes that he, the beloved baby boy, has less at this point than the servants who’d done the dirty work at his house when he was child. The son formulates what he will say upon his return, carefully planning each word.  Now this may very well be a true moment of repentance.  It may also be further evidence of this son’s manipulation and selfishness.  The moment of coming to himself could be a true waking up to his former manipulation and selfishness or it could be a moment when he simply calculates what it will take to get what he needs to survive, with the only self-awareness being his own imminent destruction if he doesn’t figure a way out.


Whether it is also a factor in his return home, at the heart of the younger son’s initial wandering off is selfishness and ingratitude.  It can be very easy for those who have been provided for in this life to take things for granted.  Whether that care has been found in a child-parent relationship, a partner or marital relationship, or in a friendship, if you have had a roof over your head and food to eat; if you have been given opportunities and support; if you have been given guidance and healthy boundaries; if you have been encouraged and loved…it can be very easy to feel entitled to these things and to focus not on giving thanks for all you’ve received but to always ask the question, “what have you done for me lately?” 


The son’s behavior toward his father was supremely selfish—not only does it take for granted all that the father had provided, it was also cruel.  Inherent in the message of “I can’t wait for you to die” is “I don’t need you!” I need your money, but not you.  Imagine what that would feel like for a parent… (some of you will know exactly what that feels like)


At the point of despair, the son knows he needs his father—perhaps he’s still focused on his father’s wealth, the excess food that even his father’s servants enjoy—but he knows that to survive, to keep from starving, he has to go home, he has to return to his father.

Anytime a story is about a father and son or child and parent, or even simply evocative of “home” we cannot help but get caught up in our own memory and experience, feeling the resonance or dissonance between the story being told and our own.  I imagine that many minds have wandered into distant countries, thinking of people and relationships in your life, or thinking about moments or seasons of wandering or of leaving home.  That is not unexpected and is welcomed.


If you’d like, however, I invite you to return and receive some insights from the late priest and teacher, Henri Nouwen.  In his beautiful extended meditation on the parable, Nouwen explains, “Leaving home is…much more than an historical event bound to time and place. It is a denial of the spiritual reality that I belong to God with every part of my being, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace…Leaving home is living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one.”[ii]


Nouwen highlights the allegorical association of the father in the parable with God. He describes home as “the center of my being where I can hear the voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.’”[iii]  This is what God spoke to Jesus at his baptism, and God speaks those words of love to us all.  Home is that place in each of us, Nouwen teaches, where we are aware of that voice.  He writes, “over and over again I have left home. I have fled the hands of blessing and run off to faraway places searching for love! This is the great tragedy of my life and of the lives of so many I meet on my journey.  Somehow I have become deaf to the voice that calls me the Beloved, have left the only place where I can hear that voice, and have gone off desperately hoping that I would find somewhere else what I could no longer find at home.”[iv]


“Prone to wander…prone to leave the God I love…” 


Money and power and attention, trying to prove ourselves, chasing what we think will be freedom, and all the other things in this world that promise to make us feel like we’re important and worth something—titles and trophies and connections—a boyfriend or girlfriend, a promotion, feeling needed…all those things drop their tasty morsels like breadcrumbs luring us away from the place where we hear the voice of God.  Nouwen says, “Anger, resentment, jealousy, desire for revenge, lust, greed, antagonisms, and rivalries are the obvious signs that I have left home. And that happens quite easily…I find myself wondering why someone hurt me, rejected me, or didn’t pay attention to me. Without realizing it, I find myself brooding about someone else’s success, my own loneliness, and the way the world abuses me …”[v] These are the things that happen in the “distant country,” far from the awareness that all we have needed, God’s hand has provided. 


I don’t know what it is that lures you away from God, what voices tempt you to reject the promise of God’s grace, what leaves you feeling alone and desolate and searching for something to fill the gaping hole in your heart.  It may be something wholly unrelated to anything named aloud today.  But here is the good news for all of us:  regardless of the circumstances of our lives or the state of our relationships, we can return home today.  You can go home—not to a home that may have rejected you or that judges you or that puts “ifs” on love; you can return to the love of God that is always there waiting to embrace you and to flood and fill the emptiness within.  And here’s the thing: you can return to God, you can seek that voice of God’s love within, even if your motivation isn’t entirely pure.  Maybe you’re at your wit’s end and figure this whole love of God thing is your last-ditch attempt to not feel so miserable. God’s love is still ready to embrace you.


The journey home may begin with a true moment of repentance, of waking up, of “coming to yourself;” perhaps that means seeing the destructive, selfish decisions you’ve made or the choices that have done harm to yourself or others; perhaps it means acknowledging how often you take for granted the support and love offered by people in your life; perhaps it means admitting how forgetful you are about what and who matters most of all.  For each of us, as with the younger son, the thing that will draw us home is remembering what it’s like when we dwell with God, to remember the reality of God’s abundant love and mercy—love and mercy to spare.  And then, once we find ourselves on that path, the journey continues with gratitude and praise. 

Come, thou Fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it,
mount of thy redeeming love.[vi]





[i] Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 400.

[ii] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 37.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., 39.

[v] Ibid., 41.

[vi] Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” stanza one.



February 18th, 2018


A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, February 18, 2018, the first Sunday in Lent. “Dissonance” sermon series.

Text: Mark 1:9-15


“Good news.”  I want to begin this sermon about repentance with those words: Good. News.


The beginning of the good news, according to Mark’s gospel, is John the baptizer preparing the way of the Lord, bringing the good news that one more powerful is coming. That one more powerful is Jesus who proclaims the good news of another kingdom that’s come; and make no mistake, when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God, the first to hear know the game of thrones is on.  The kingdom Jesus proclaims is different, it is a kin-dom, it’s the vision and dream of the prophets, a way of living in relationship and in communion with God and neighbor that runs counter to the dissonant, violent ways of earthly kingdoms. Such an alternative kin-dom and its arrival is good news, the way of the Lord that is life in that kin-dom is good news, the one who incarnates the way is good news, the freedom and power the ever-present God gives us to persevere in following the way is good news. “Repent and believe in the good news.”


In the midst of ruthless earthly kingdoms like those of Herod and Rome in the first century and their current counterparts in our own time, can you believe there might be good news?  In the midst of the numbing, manipulative, co-optive powers of empire—powers that sap our sense of agency and threaten to steal our hope that things might change—can you believe there might be good news?  In the midst of dissonance—the discomfort and despair caused by disharmony, injustice, oppression, and violence—can you believe there might be good news?  In the wake of yet another mass school shooting—can you believe there might be good news?  In a world where it is easy to believe that God has left the building, can you believe the counter message?—that God is near and is always at work for good in the world?  That God’s grace enfolds and empowers you to live in the kin-dom?  That Christ is sovereign and the powers of this world are no match?


To “believe” (the way it is meant in the gospel) isn’t about intellectual assent to a list of doctrinal statements or head in the sand happy-clappy denial; it’s about trust and commitment. To believe the good news of God’s kin-dom is to trust God and the promise of God’s counter message; it is to commit to try to serve Christ and to live according to the way of the Lord.


To repent in the context of Mark’s gospel is to wake up to the ways we’re serving earthly empire instead of God’s kin-dom; it’s to return to God from the exile of life apart from God’s wisdom and way.  To return—an image connected to a path or journey—is one way John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg describe Mark’s use of the word repent.  They also point out that “the roots of the Greek word for ‘repent’ mean to ‘to go beyond the mind that you have.’ To repent is to embark upon a way that goes beyond the mind that you have.”[i]  Or, perhaps another way to say it, repentance is to choose to walk in the way God has in mind. Notice that this is active—to “embark” or to “choose to walk” denotes a journey in itself, a process.  To repent isn’t one moment where you pause to feel guilty and then move on.  It may begin with a moment of waking up, seeing something that needs to change, and feeling pain or regret for what you’re doing or have done—but then it entails an ongoing process of changing things in your life that are out of sync with God’s way of love, compassion, and justice.  What’s the point of getting “woke” if you just roll over and go back to sleep?


I imagine for many if not most of us, when we hear the word “repent” or “repentance” the image that pops into our mind is of a yelling, angry, judgmental, ungracious man holding a bible in one hand and a threatening placard in the other…  The rhetoric of sin and repentance has been (and continues to be) used to frighten and to control people, to shame and to silence people.  


It never ceases to amaze me the ways we get things so twisted.  Repentance is meant not to bind us or make us shrink in fear.  Repentance is the path to freedom, the path to living with courage and assurance! “Repent AND believe the good news!”  In our baptismal covenant, we begin with renunciation and repentance so that we can then affirm the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression (in order to turn toward life, we need to turn away from death); we are given freedom and power not to serve empire’s kings, queens, presidents, or dictators, but rather to serve the Lord, the sovereign, the Christ, the kin-dom of God. 


Repentance does call for change in our lives.  It does require acknowledgement and confession that we are on a path that is not the path leading to life.  But the point is that God desires us to have life, our life, the life we were created to live.  To repent and believe the good news, is to return from the exile of empire and to trust that walking in the way of God’s kin-dom will lead us not only to closer relationship with God, but will set us free to live, really live our lives and, in so doing, to love and serve other people as well.


The abusive ways the words “sin” and “repentance” have been used in churches through the ages are painful reminders of the way the greed, control, and negative patriarchy of empire infects the body of Christ.  Barely a day passes when I don’t encounter someone who has been wounded by such abuse, wounded by words and judgments from beloved family, pastors, or friends, those words and judgments seared into the most tender place in their heart.  On the day of the wedding to her wife, the woman who asks, “You’re sure this is OK, right?” The man who loves his rural church ministry and so will not come out, denying his deep desire for relationship and for living more fully the truth of himself. The woman who is told her soul is in jeopardy because she had the audacity to find true love with a Jewish man instead of a Christian one; or the man who’s called a sinner for marrying a woman of a different race. The trans and queer folk who, even in relatively safe places, struggle to be able to fully shake the shame poured into them from their youth.


The words repentance and sin have been weaponized for so long…no wonder the past 50 years have found many mainline churches avoiding such talk.  By the time I came through seminary twenty-five years ago, there was a growing sense that, while such avoidance was understandable, erasing the language of sin and repentance may not be the answer for the long haul.  Why not? (after all, who really wants to think about those things anyway?)


Well, for one thing, sin, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation weigh pretty heavily in the Bible.  According to our scriptures, from the beginning, we cashed in our original goodness for something else we thought would be worth it—control, power, knowledge, the elimination of other people who challenge what we want… And God’s been after us ever since to help us make a different choice.  For another thing, as I’ve already noted, repentance is a necessary step on the journey toward the life in Christ that sets us free—we can’t change something we haven’t acknowledged and nothing will change if, once we know, we do nothing.  To repent and believe the good news isn’t about checking boxes on a list of doctrinal statements we may not even understand or about having sorry feelings and good intentions.  It’s about allowing the pain of what is wrong wake you up and motivate an active turn toward a way of life that is aligned with the way of Christ. 


And the truth is that there are things in our personal lives and in the communities human beings create and maintain that are NOT aligned with the way of Christ.  Willingly and unwittingly we participate in systems of injustice and oppression and white supremacy because we live in an imperial culture saturated with those things.  And our own personal limitations and fears and brokenness lead us to hurt others and ourselves, to fail to love and care for the beauty and gift of this life and of life together.


Jesus was tempted to forego the ways of God’s kin-dom for the ways of empire and resisted. John paid the price for resisting and challenging empire—landing in prison. And, because Jesus resisted evil, injustice and oppression, he too became public enemy number one.  We know that turning onto the path that is the way of Christ is not without cost; it requires something from us. 


One of those things is a willingness to forego our own comfort for the sake of waking up—to look honestly at our lives and to deal with the pain of acknowledging where we need to change course, where we are doing harm, where we are participating in empire’s injustice and oppression without resistance, where we need to try to become more aligned with the ways of God’s kin-dom.


The possibility of our alignment with such an alternative kin-dom is good news, the way of Christ is good news, the one who shows us the way is the good news, the freedom and power the ever-present God gives us to persevere in following the way is good news.


What repentance needs to happen in your life so that you might believe the good news?




 [i] Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, p. 25.