March 19th, 2017
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, March 19, 2017, the third Sunday in Lent.
Text: John 10:1-16
I have my eye on a little piece of land to purchase here in DC. I pass by it regularly when I take our dog, Harvey, out to play. Harvey is a member of the K9 Corp at the historic Congressional Cemetery—a dogwalking program whose annual fees help restore and maintain the cemetery. The land I want to buy is a gravesite and I think it’s perfect. It’s in this city I love so much and is in a nice spot in the cemetery where the walkways cross, where folks often gather to visit. There are always dogs playing there. It has lots of direct light. I feel about this spot the way pastor and writer Robert Fulghum feels of the place he chose to be buried, “I like being there alive. It’s a good place to be dead.”[i]
Anthony (my husband) was a little thrown off when I first mentioned this idea. But over time, he has gotten used to it. Now he just wonders when I’ll actually make an appointment to find out how much a burial plot goes for in this absurd real estate market. I’ll admit it does seem a bit strange to think about such things. Some might consider me too young to give it thought. How old do you have to be to die?
American culture—very generally speaking—has a rather bizarre relationship to death. Images and instances of death are all over the media and the news and a kind of desensitization to death happens as we push buttons on video games or watch scene after scene of stylized carnage in movies or see graphic iPhone videos on the news. On the other hand, when it comes to our own lives, we have very strong feelings; death is seen as an alien invader—something wholly outside what is “supposed” to happen, something to be avoided at all costs, something unnatural and evil. From wrinkle creams and botox to cryogenics, Americans invest a great deal in trying to outrun or control the appearance of age and the reality of death. At the same time, we eat, drink, and work ourselves to death—and we don’t really have much time to ponder how to do anything differently. We certainly don’t have time to contemplate death. So when it comes, it is often treated not as a natural and normal part of life, but as “something that happens when the medical community fails.”[ii] When we are forced to deal with death, it is “managed” in such a way that we tend to have little direct engagement. “Death in our time is given over to institutions”[iii]—the body is visited not in the family home, but rather in the funeral home. Everything is “handled” by hospital, hospice, church, funeral professionals who are often careful to shield us from the reality as much as possible. The astoturf covering the dirt gets me every time… Some of us may be driven to great anxiety out of fear of death. But for a great many of us in this culture we don’t think of death—not really, not as something that has anything to do with us—unless and until we are confronted with it personally.
This is a very different orientation to death from that of the 3rd century Christian Ammas and Abbas, the mothers and fathers of the desert monastic tradition. Upon rising each morning, they would greet death as a friend who would accompany them throughout the day. This wasn’t to be morbid. On the contrary, by acknowledging that their lives were finite, subject to illness and death, life was experienced more fully and with an abundance of gratitude. Perhaps you have witnessed or experienced for yourself what can happen when a brush with death results—at least for a time—in a deeper appreciation for life and a commitment to live each moment to the fullest. The wisdom of the desert spiritual tradition is that life and death are deeply interwoven parts of what it is to be human; that life as we know it is a precious gift—made even more so because it is finite. The daily practice of greeting death as a friend was also a ritual of trust, trust in the love of God who is with us in such a way that even in the valley of the shadow of death, we need not fear.
This is not to suggest that if you just take up the ancient practice of the desert mothers, the reality of death will get easy or be without sorrow and pain. But it does suggest that our faith has something to say about life and death that can make a difference in the way we inhabit time and space and in the way we measure what life is really about.
The Gospel we heard today is one of those that gets taken out of context and twisted in all sorts of ways. These words of Jesus are not a formula for Christians to exclude people (gatekeeper) or permission for the prosperity gospel preachers (abundant life). Rather, they are a pointed response to some Pharisees who have kicked a man out of the synagogue because of the man’s testimony about Jesus. In John 9, we read the story of Jesus healing a man who had been born blind. When the man recounts the simple facts of how his sight was restored, how he listened to Jesus and followed Jesus’ instruction, the Pharisees toss the man out, reminding him that he is a sinner. Jesus has something to say about that. He uses the metaphor of the sheepfold to distinguish his ways from the Pharisees’ ways. They don’t understand at first, so Jesus makes it plain saying, “I am the gate.” Jesus is God’s love, God’s life in flesh (Jn 1). Love is the gateway into a new kind of life with God: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (Jn 10:10) The “gate” isn’t there to exclude anyone. Rather, the gate provides a way to be alive that is flourishing, thriving, joyful; the Greek word perissós, most often translated “abundantly,” can also be translated as “exceeding expectations.” It is a life that abides in and is sustained by God’s love. // Then Jesus assigns himself a different role in the metaphor. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:10-11) A little later in John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:12-13) The “hired hand” doesn’t really care about the sheep so runs off at the first sign of danger. But the good shepherd is willing to face off with the one who would do harm to those he loves, even to the point of death.
We know from the rest of the story that Jesus did in fact continue to face off with those in power who banished people they considered “sinners;” he stood up to those who robbed others of freedom and life, who grew rich on the backs of the poor and vulnerable; Jesus did not run away from the fearful, controlling powers and principalities that sought to kill him because of the ways he cared, but rather stood in the gap, putting his own body between those death-dealing powers and the bodies of the oppressed.
Jesus didn’t want to suffer and die (Mt 26:39), but he didn’t let fear of death keep him from living fully and freely with love and generosity. Jesus didn’t let fear of death shrink his life. Jesus didn’t let fear of death get in the way of his care for and solidarity with the poor and suffering in the human family. On the contrary, Jesus powerfully reveals that abundant life is a life that knows itself beloved and is, therefore, liberated from fear of death. Jesus reveals that abundant life is a life lived with and for others, the life willing to make sacrifices for the sake of what is loving and just.
This Lent, as we seek to align our hearts and lives with the way of Jesus, perhaps we might consider if or how fear is shrinking our lives, how fear is shrinking our capacity to be generous, brave, or creative. Is fear of death or loss driving you to focus more on yourself than on your relationships with others? Is fear of loss keeping you from doing the right thing at work or school? I wonder what some politicians are afraid losing if they go against the flow or stand up for the planet, for immigrant neighbors, for the arts, or for school feeding programs or Meals on Wheels… Are any politicians or business leaders willing to sacrifice their position or their profits to advocate for what is needed in communities wracked by gun violence, opioid addiction, poverty, and hunger? Who will put themselves between “law and order” politics and people with black and brown bodies, between hate-fueled laws and people who identify as transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer?
The question that’s been buzzing around my head is: “Who or what will we lay down our lives for?” If we follow Jesus, it seems that’s a question with which we need to reckon. Right now, almost every headline in the news is a matter of life and death. So many of you are right in the middle of the struggle where you work and live... And we at Foundry have claimed our call to at least try to stand in the gap, to try to listen for the voice of Christ and to follow where Christ leads, to try to be brave and strong and loving and wise, to practice sacred resistance. We know we can’t do everything, but we’re committed to be and to do what we can.
What we’re reminded of today is that we are not alone and we don’t have to figure it out without a guide. Christ the gate has shown us the way into God’s life, into abundant life. Jesus, the good shepherd, loves you and goes to bat for you, stands between you and anything that would do you harm, stands in solidarity with you in the struggle and in your suffering, and lays down his life for you. And because of that and the greater Easter mystery of life that overcomes death, we don’t have to fear. We can be brave. We can take a break when we’re tired. We can trust that we’ll be guided back onto the path when we go astray. We can be good shepherds for others. We can allow God’s grace to fill us when we feel empty. We can start over. We don’t have to be afraid even of the worst the world can do. We don’t have to try to avoid or deny or run away from death even when all the cultural cues around us tempt us to do so.
Abundant life is not about avoiding death, it’s about loving God and loving each other. It’s about being loved by God and trusting God’s love to lead you to green pastures in this life and in the next. Abundant life is loving, caring, giving, serving so that, when death comes—as it surely will—you’ll have few regrets. You might even greet death as a friend. You might even find yourself pointing to a spot and saying, “That’s a good place to be dead”—and, as a result, find yourself…living.
[i] Robert Fulghum, From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives, New York: Villard Books, 1995, p. 32.
[ii] Ibid., p. 202.
[iii] Ibid., p. 201.
March 12th, 2017
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, March 12, 2017, the second Sunday of Lent.
Text: Matthew 5:38-48
I’ve been dreading preaching this sermon for a long time. It is a sermon about what Jesus teaches about violence. It is a sermon about the ways that violence is one of the favored idols in American culture. It is a sermon that challenges our assumptions about what creates, maintains, and assures our security. It is sermon that is impossible to preach without leaving out important context, history, and nuance. It’s a sermon that raises more questions than answers. It’s a sermon that’s impossible to preach without stepping on everyone’s toes; it’s an “equal aggravation” kind of message. In fact, in my preparation, I have found myself profoundly convicted and uncomfortable. But this sermon is important; because it names an often unspoken but constant and pervasive challenge to those of us who try to follow Jesus. And it’s appropriate we acknowledge this challenge in these weeks of Lent, as we seek to identify places where our hearts and lives are not fully aligned with the way of Jesus, the way of life in God’s Kin-dom. So…here goes. //
Violence is pervasive. It lives as a capacity in every human heart. It shows up in domestic abuse, in self-destructive behavior, in gang life, in unjust policies; in kindergartens and movie theaters and Bible studies. Images and instances of violence are everywhere on our large screens and small devices. The devastation of war and drones and bombs are so prevalent in other places that the headlines rarely get a second look here. We swim in a culture saturated with violence.
So what does Jesus teach us about violence? The late biblical scholar Walter Wink writes, “The new reality Jesus proclaimed was nonviolent. That much is clear, not just from the Sermon on the Mount, but his entire life and teaching and, above all, the way he faced his death.”[i] Folks may try to challenge Wink’s claim by pointing to a scripture here or there—perhaps a parable that ends with gnashing of teeth or a hyperbolic teaching about bringing a sword. But Wink’s assessment of Jesus rings true to me. I can’t imagine any scenario in the Gospels in which Jesus did or would advocate doing violence to another person. Can you imagine Jesus carrying a weapon? Can you imagine Jesus beating the body of another person? Can you imagine Jesus calling for an airstrike?
A key scripture is the one we heard today from the Sermon on the Mount. I want us to look primarily at the first verse we heard today as that sets the context for all that follows. When Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” (Mt 5:38) he is referencing Hebrew scripture, what is known as the lex talionis, or the law of retaliation. This was “an attempt to enact fair justice (cf. Deuteronomy 19:21) among the people of ancient Israel. Wherever harm is committed (cf. Leviticus 24:20, Exodus 21:24)…the judges of ancient Israel were expected to authorize the law of retaliation (i.e., “eye for an eye”)…it ensures that the penalty is not arbitrary, making the punishment more severe than the crime.”[ii] Jesus mentions the ancient law and then overturns it saying, “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.” The Greek word translated “resist,” antistenai, is most often used as a military term, a way to describe violent opposition to an aggressor. Wink concludes, “antistenai means more [here] than simply to ‘stand against’ or ‘resist.’ It means to resist violently... Jesus is not encouraging submission to evil; that would run counter to everything he did and said. He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition. Perhaps most importantly, he cautions us against being made over into the very evil we oppose by adopting its methods and spirit. He is saying, in effect… do not become the very thing you hate. The best translation is… ‘Don't react violently against the one who is evil.’”[iii] The examples Jesus gives in verses 39-42 of giving your coat, of going the second mile, of giving to those who beg are culturally specific illustrations of this core teaching of non-violent resistance.
Jesus teaches and models courageous, active, nonviolent resistance to evil, injustice, and oppression in any forms they present themselves. That is our call as well. We are not to be doormats for abusers or to remain in a life-threatening relationship. We are not to passively stand by in the face of injustice. We are to claim our agency and stand strong in our dignity; we are to tell the truth to those with power and to name the pain that we endure or see. But we are not to respond to hate with hate, to violence with violence. Loving our enemies (Mt 5:44) will take many forms, but you can be sure that torturing, maiming, or killing them is not what Jesus had in mind.
It may be difficult but feasible to imagine applying this teaching in relational scenarios or certain political scenarios…But what about war? Are we really not supposed to respond violently when our country has been attacked? Is pacifism—the belief that war and other acts of violence are never acceptable—the only option for followers of Jesus? There are certainly those who believe so. There are also those who “believe that, when peaceful alternatives have failed, the force of arms may regretfully be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny and genocide.”[iv] It is up to each of us to wrestle with where we land on this. The United Methodist Church makes room for both perspectives in our Social Principles, extending support both to conscientious objectors and to those who conscientiously serve in the military. Even so, the Social Principles denounce war as “incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ,” “reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy,” and claim that “militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned.”[v]
While the debates between proponents of pacifist and “just war” perspectives are pretty fierce sometimes, one thing the vast majority of people agree on is that a world without war and violence would be a good thing. No healthy, well-adjusted person likes war. Veterans I know would never suggest that we should have more war. This past week, a colleague who’s a military chaplain confirmed this, saying while military service can inspire acts of great courage, love, and self-sacrifice and while there is powerful camaraderie that often develops among enlisted soldiers, the experience of war is brutal. We know the terrible consequences all too well—physically, emotionally, spiritually, relationally. We know the terrible cost, but it seems we just can’t let go of our reliance upon violence. The justification we use is that of “security”—our personal security, the security of our families, the security of the vulnerable, national security. Do weapons make us safer? Does the promise of violence make us more secure? Have our wars increased our security?
Regardless of what your answers might be, as Christians, we must ask to whom or what we look for security. A temptation is to fall into “practical atheism,” where we claim to believe in God but, in practice, act as though God doesn’t exist or have any real power. We change the world. We are in charge of making things secure. We are in charge of making the world peaceful. We simply have to get enough votes or have the most weapons or build the biggest wall or organize the best protest. Regardless of where we land on any issue, we can fall into the trap of making God superfluous to our Kin-dom building project.
As soon as God is moved into an adjacent position to our own will, then other gods can ascend. The god of violence and war is always ready. The god of violence and war wants to take over security detail. And violence is de facto the god in whom this nation trusts. Police units look like the national guard, the gun lobby is one of the most powerful in the country, and weapons, military might, good old “shock and awe” continue to be our “go-to” response when faced with outside aggression. Can you imagine a response to 9/11, for example, other than what happened? The fact that it seems so difficult and even impossible to imagine a non-violent retaliation is cause for some reflection… I’ll never forget the sign in the back window of the pickup truck I pulled up behind at a red light in Rockville just days following 9/11: “Pray today. Kick [bleep] tomorrow.” I wondered, “What is that person praying for? Who is that person praying for?” I had little doubt who they wanted to kick. And, of course, these many years hence, our Muslim siblings continue to be maligned and harmed.
Jesus teaches us to pray for those who persecute us and to refrain from violent retaliation. Our nation doesn’t really care whether we pray, but consistently—and sometimes in bold defiance of even just war principles—retaliates with violent force and makes us complicit, whether we choose to be or not. Regardless of your conviction about the use of violent force, this presents us with an inherent conflict as followers of Jesus. So what do we do?
I tried every which way to come up with a zinger here, to throw in a clever twist that would tie up all these musings in some satisfying package. But the truth of the matter is that in the world as it is, there is nothing I can say or do that will satisfy. (Thank God, I’m not God…) So I’ll just tell a story.
Once upon a time, in a world at war, in an occupied land, God drew near in fully human form in a person named Jesus. Jesus embodied that quote we love so much—you know the one: hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. Jesus showed us it’s true and shows us how it’s done—most fully on the cross. Jesus proclaimed a new reality—something the world had never seen before and couldn’t even imagine: a reality in which the god of violence and war is overcome by the God of mercy, forgiveness, and love.
Even though we claim to be an Easter people, we still struggle to imagine that reality is truly possible. I wonder why…?
[i] Walter Wink, “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way,” http://www.cres.org/star/_wink.htm
[ii] Emerson Powery, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=840
[iii] Walter Wink, “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way,” http://www.cres.org/star/_wink.htm
[iv] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2012, Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, ¶164.I) Military Service, p. 138.
[v] Ibid., ¶165.C) War and Peace, p. 140.
March 5th, 2017
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, March 5, 2017, the first Sunday of Lent.
Text: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
It is hard to be a Christian in America. I read those words last summer in Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book, New Monasticism, after he had been with us for our July preaching series. Jonathan writes, “almost everywhere I go these days, people agree that something is wrong in American Christianity. Whether I’m talking to Pentecostals or Presbyterians, Democrats or Republicans, academics in a coffee shop or neighbors on their front porch, there seems to be a consensus on this: the church in America isn’t living up to what it’s supposed to be.”[i] He goes on to say that the consensus quickly breaks as soon as he tries to get specific about what the problem is; fingers start to get pointed everywhere…it’s them! He continues, “Unity across dividing lines was what distinguished the early church—so much so that they required a new name. Christianity was a new identity, neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free (Gal. 3:28)…It’s hard for anybody in America to look at the first Christians and feel very proud about where we are now.”[ii] Jonathan wrote those words in 2008. Lord knows things have not improved. The divides are deeper and wider than ever; the Christian witness in the public square is a hot mess.
I want to make a clear distinction: It is not hard to say we are Christian in America—it’s not like we have to hide our faith for fear of getting put on a “Christian registry” or out of fear for our lives or the lives of those we love. No, it’s not hard to say we are Christian in America; but, if being Christian means living in a peculiar way that truly mirrors the life and teachings of Jesus, then being Christian in America is difficult. Kin-dom values and “American” values don’t always line up. And we can’t help but participate in systems of oppression, violence, and injustice as citizens of the U.S. How’s that, you ask? Well, do you purchase goods and services (some of which will be produced with child labor or in ways that pollute the earth or that don’t pay workers a living wage)? Do you pay taxes (some of which pay for instruments of death)? Do you avail yourself of any privilege you’re afforded by way of your race, education, income, ability, gender identity, or sexual orientation (privileges woven into the fabric of American culture)? The life and teachings of Jesus would have something to say about all those things. And, try as we might not to be, we are complicit. It’s hard to be Christian in America.
As we enter into Lent, continuing our year-long focus on “witness,” this sermon series will address some of the places where our Christian witness is most challenged by the realities of American life. God’s call on Ash Wednesday was, “Return to me with all your heart.” (Joel 2:12) Over the coming weeks, we’ll try to be honest about the ways our hearts get led astray.
We begin today with a text from Genesis that doesn’t have much baggage (Just kidding!). The story in Genesis 2 and 3 is laden with centuries of interpretations. It is what’s called an “etiological” story, that is, a story told to try to explain the origin of things; where did humans come from, why do they wear clothes, why is there suffering and death, what is the relationship between humans and earth, between humans and other humans, between humans and God? Alongside the various insightful and helpful explorations of the text over the years, we also get oppressive patriarchal readings that cast the woman as the human villain, that put human sexuality in an exclusively heterosexual box, and that paint God as a kind of controlling tyrant. There is a lot to unpack even in the excerpt of the story we heard today. But today we’re going to zero in on one piece, the issue of freedom.
Americans know something about freedom—after all, we are “the land of the free.” Freedom of speech, religion, assembly, the freedom to travel, the freedom of the press—these freedoms are rightly cherished parts of our history and culture. But as Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility.”[iii] Freedom can be perverted and used in harmful ways; examples are everywhere—any time a person uses their freedom to do violence to another person, to poison the earth to save a buck, or to advocate for prisons for profit (just to name a few examples). One of the most pervasive perversions is the American tendency to use our freedom for selfish reasons. In the words of rock and roll: “I’m free to do what I want any old time…I’m free any old time to get what I want.”[iv]
Freedom is also at the heart of Judeo-Christian faith. The ancient story we heard today reminds us that, from the beginning, our ancestors believed God gave human beings the gift of freedom. God created human beings and placed them in a garden filled with “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” (Gen 2:9) God gave them a meaningful purpose in the garden, to till and keep it. God warned against eating from the tree of good and evil, knowing that there would be painful consequences. The tree of life, also in the garden, was evidently fully available for their nourishment. Notice that in all this, God doesn’t force the humans to do anything. At the beginning of the story, there is no gate around the dangerous tree, no requirements or rent due God for the gift of life and of the garden. The humans were free to live together, enjoying all the fruits of God’s creation. Maybe God, like a parent who is trying to shield her child from harm, overstated what would happen if the humans ate from the tree of good and evil (“eat that fruit and you’ll die!); but that still doesn’t impinge on human freedom. The human beings in the story are given everything they need; they live in a state of pure grace. And, like a child who tests the limits set by her parent as a way to claim power, agency, and a growing sense of “self,” the humans in the story, cross the boundary set by God. And there are consequences. They don’t die (the crafty serpent told half the truth), but their eyes are opened to the reality of deceit, of blame, of regret, and shame. And the way they lived before—unaware of anything other than God’s grace—is gone forever.
Richard Rohr calls freedom “God’s great risk.”[v] It would have been safer for God to be a controlling God who makes us care, forces us to do what is right, compels us to love each other and to love God. In creating human beings with free will, God surely knows that we will do harm—intentionally or unintentionally—to others and to ourselves. Freedom allows us to choose and choices have consequences. We have to choose—at every age and stage of our lives—what to do, whom to trust, where to go, how to be. We are free to love things that do harm, to give our hearts to self-made idols and soul-killing distractions. We are free to “fall” into ways of being, thinking, acting that do harm; things like feeling shame for our bodies and our God-given created natures; fear-driven need for control; selfish ambition; denying our own giftedness and agency; believing “I’m free to do what I want—to get what I want—any old time,”—regardless of the consequences to others. // The consequence of freedom is that we are free to choose that which is not God, that which is not life-giving, that which is not capable of loving us back. We are free to turn away from God. We are free to reject God’s love. We are free to rebel against God’s guidance. God can’t make us love or trust. God can’t make us “return with all our heart.” As C.S. Lewis wrote, “[God] cannot ravish. [God] can only woo.”[vi]
We can make a mess of things because of our freedom. But there is yet another consequence that is most important of all. Freedom makes it possible to truly love. Because God graces us with freedom, we are not robots “programmed” to act like we love each other; if we love each other, we freely love each other. And when we turn to God in love, it is not because of fear or force, it is because our hearts’ desire is to be close to the One in whom we live, move, and have our being. (Acts 17:28) So much energy across the centuries has been expended focusing on how free will is responsible for “the fall” from grace. But the extraordinary thing is that free will is responsible for our capacity to fall in love. John Wesley taught that, as we freely choose to engage in spiritual disciplines and acts of mercy and justice, the love of God will fill us more and more. The goal is a heart perfected in love, a heart that is so saturated with God’s love and grace that it spills over without our even having to try. Imagine being free from having to choose what to do…because the love of God—like breath through an instrument—simply flows. What if the ultimate consequence of freedom—only glimpsed in flashes in this life—is not having to choose between good and evil because our hearts are tuned, impulsively, to good, to mercy, to love, to God?
God’s great risk turns out to be God’s most profound gift. Human freedom—in our nation, in our human relationships, and in our relationship with God—is a terrible, precious thing. It is our responsibility to choose how to use it. Whatever we choose, you can be sure there will be consequences.
[i][i] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church, Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2008, p. 9.
[ii] Ibid., p. 10.
[iv] Rolling Stones, “I’m Free,” http://www.lyricsfreak.com/r/rolling+stones/im+free_20117891.html
[v] Richard Rohr, Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, Ed. John Feister, Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 1995, p. 284.
[vi] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, p. 25.
March 1st, 2017
A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, March 1, 2017, Ash Wednesday.
Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
We need more love in the world. I imagine we might all agree with that. But what kind of love do we need more of? Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, suggests we need more eros. Not the over-sexualized kind of love that is often associated with this Greek word for love, but rather the profound attraction and desire that draws us “towards something beyond [ourselves] which gives meaning—the other person that I love, the God I seek to love.” Williams connects this desire to our yearning for meaning and acceptance.[i] What if our eros was understood not as lust, but as desire for the one who will love us, hold us, be patient with us as we learn to trust, as we learn to let go of control, as we allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to grow as God means us to. Williams points out the ways our thinking about “desire” gets twisted: we spend time trying to decide what we want and forget to ask the more important question—why do we want what we want?
It’s this twisted thinking that leads to all sorts of idolatry, to our focus and obsession with things that draw us in and keep us from connecting to the love, meaning, and acceptance that we truly seek. As the old country song goes, we’re “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.” Throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition, idolatry has been the consistent temptation. The Ten Commandments begin with YHWH saying, “I am the Lord your God…who brought you out of slavery…You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol…” (Ex 20:3-4, Deut 5:7-8) This isn’t because God is a controlling tyrant, but because God knows that idols can seem attractive and powerful, but are actually devoid of the power to give our lives meaning, to hold us, to love us back, to set us free. God’s not a controlling tyrant, but the one whose love never fails. God knows that. God loves you…
“Return to me with all your heart.” (Joel 2:12) God speaks these words through the prophet Joel. Return…This is the invitation for us as we enter the season of Lent. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. But so often, our hearts are given away to things that aren’t worthy to receive them. Jesus taught that loving God and loving neighbor were what would give life (Lk 10:28). So why do we persist in loving things that separate us from God and neighbor; why do we persist in loving things that don’t give life?
The season of Lent is a time for us to take a hard look at the state of our hearts, to be honest about the temptations in our lives, and to seek to align our values, our hearts and our lives with the Kin-dom vision that promises liberation and fullness of life. The traditional invitation—which you will hear me extend in a few moments—is to self examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial (which often includes almsgiving); and reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word. In other words, Lent is a time to give up things as well as take on new life-giving practices so that we might identify and let go of our own selfish desires, so that we might get rid of distractions from God and what matters most of all.
If we take this tithe of our time—Lent is roughly a tenth of the year—and truly try to turn and return to God, to true love, then it is possible that our lives can be changed in profound ways. Some may struggle to believe that things like prayer, self-denial, and studying scripture could have that much positive, practical impact on our day to day lives. But we know, if we think about it even for a moment, that our primary relationships make a profound impact on our lives. If those relationships are healthy, close, supportive, playful, honest, life is good. If not, our days are lonely and sad and we wander into dark places looking for love. All this is to say that our Lenten practices are primarily designed not as a forced march in order to keep from getting punished, nor are they a New Year’s resolution “do-over” (though there’s nothing wrong with wanting to adjust our lives in healthy ways). Rather, the Lenten disciplines are there as a way to be in relationship with GOD—to do our part in the relationship, to nurture the relationship, to make time for the relationship. And relationship with God (more than any other relationship) will have a profound impact on our daily lives.
Every year, I spend a week in silence at a Jesuit retreat house in Pennsylvania. The silence is not that quiet, as any of you who try to practice silence might understand. In addition to all the noise in my own head, I try to listen for God through scripture, through the birds, breeze, trees, and more. It’s a pretty chatty time, my silent retreats. I mention this because in one of the alcoves in the retreat house hangs a print with a famous poem attributed to Pedro Arrupe, a 20th century Spanish Jesuit priest who served as the twenty-eighth Superior General of the Society of Jesus. The poem has become one of the touchpoints for me each year, as I seek out the simple frame and read the words printed there. The words are as follows:
Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read,
whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love,
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.[ii]
As we enter into Lent this year, I invite you to consider what you truly love. Who or what gets your heart? If you wonder how to discern the answer to that, look at how you spend your time, look at how you spend your money, look at what occupies your thoughts. Think about how your Lenten discipline can help you grow closer to God in loving relationship. We repent today because in one way or another, in small ways and large, we reject the extravagant love that God has for us. We repent today because we turn to things that cannot satisfy instead of falling into the arms of God. Why not think about your Lenten discipline this year as falling in love? Because falling in love with the God who is in love with you? That will decide everything.
[i] Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016, p. 32.
[ii] Attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J. (1907–1991)
February 26th, 2017
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, February 26, 2017, the eighth Sunday after the Epiphany and the occasion of Baptism and Covenant Renewal.
Text: John 1:35-51
At a red light the other day, I pulled up behind a car covered in bumper stickers: “Our God is an awesome God.” “Smile, God loves you.” “Do you follow Jesus this close?” My reaction was swift and visceral. It was not positive. And these were benign messages—no “Heaven has extreme vetting” or anything… And yet I had this negative reaction; as I caught myself, I began to wonder why. After all, I believe that God is awesome, that God loves us, that it’s important to try to follow Jesus’s teaching and example. So why the negative response? My apologies to anyone who may have Christian bumper stickers on their cars; but I think I tend to have a reaction to “bumper sticker theology” because I worry that Christianity so often gets portrayed as shallow, cheesy, and irrational—and sayings like “Jesus is my co-pilot” and “God answers knee-mail” don’t easily counter that portrayal. Again, it’s not that I don’t believe that Jesus is with me and I pray for Jesus to guide me every day. It’s just that these sound bites without any context or grounding in what they mean in a lived, human life are so easily mocked and dismissed. And then there is the fact that folks who seem happy to publicly proclaim their love of God or Jesus on their cars or on street corners tend to be associated with a certain type of Christian, the type who is judgmental and homophobic and believes “God ‘n country” is one word. This is surely not fair and not always true, but I imagine it feeds my gut response when I pull up behind a car slathered in Christian slogans.
But Jesus says that we are to be witnesses—it’s currently our overarching, guiding scripture, that place in Acts 1:8 where Jesus says “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.” And we bring our congregation-wide study of A Disciple’s Path to completion today as we think about what it means to say that we will support the church with our witness.
So if I feel uncomfortable when confronted with Christian bumper stickers am I just not committed enough to get out of my comfort zone? Do I have to go there in order to be a witness? Or maybe, these days, in order to be a faithful witness I need to have lots of tattoos and piercings and “dress down” and reject anything that smacks of “traditional church” so that I might be received as “relevant.” Or maybe, in order to be a faithful witness I have to belong to a certain political party—or none. Or maybe what is required is that I never miss a protest or that I serve in a certain role at church or that I eat only organic and fairly traded food… Ugh. What do I have to do? What do I have to be?
Last week, our stop along A Disciple’s Path focused on service. We were reminded that each of us is called to be and to become more fully ourselves. We each have particular gifts and unique ways of contributing to the common good in and through the Body of Christ (the church). In other words, you don’t have to be something or someone you’re not in order to be a faithful witness. Today, we are nudged to think about how we—in all our uniqueness—might intentionally share the good news of God’s love with others. It may or may not involve bumper stickers.
In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the anointed Messiah, “the Son of God,” and the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And when Jesus walks by, two of John’s crew follow him and are the ones who first receive Jesus question: “What are you looking for?” Just think of all the possible human answers…Andrew and the other guy simply stammer, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” That’s perhaps as good a response as any…Where are you? If you really are the Lamb of God who will cleanse the world and make it whole, if you really are a greater Rabbi than John who will teach a way of life and love that is holy and true, if you really are the Messiah, the one who will show us who God is, the one who will bring justice, mercy, freedom, then where do you live? Where can we find you? Where are you in the midst of suffering? In the tragedies of life? In the silences, the questions, the quandaries, the highs and lows?
And Jesus answers, “Come and see.” It is significant that Jesus doesn’t launch into a sermon or perform any miraculous act or argue the finer points of scripture or try to convince anyone to intellectually agree with anything at this point. All we see and hear from Jesus is an invitation: “Come and see.” The invitation is to join Jesus on a journey, to be in a relationship with him, to share in the Christ-life, to follow in Christ’s Way. Jesus says, “Come and see…” Come and see who I am. Come and see where I live. Come and see what it means to abide with me. Come and see how I am with you in both suffering and joy. Come and see that while you seek to understand me, to name me, I am naming you. Come and see who you really are and what you are capable of. Come and see that you have a role in ushering in the vision that you seek, come and see that you are a co-creator with me to bring about an increase of peace, love, reconciliation and joy. Come and see…
Andrew, after receiving this invitation and being with Jesus for a day, found his brother Simon and said, in essence, “You gotta come and see this guy—he’s the real deal!” And after Jesus invites Philip to join him on the path, Philip finds Nathanael and shares what he’s found. Now Nathanael was evidently a bit prejudiced and skeptical: “What good can come out of Nazareth?” Philip simply repeats Jesus’ invitation, “Come and see.” Do you see the pattern in the story? Jesus invites someone to walk with him; that person has an experience on the path that leads them to invite someone else to come along. Notice that Andrew and Philip didn’t go door to door or begin disseminating tracts on a street corner. They reach out to people they know—Andrew to his brother, Philip to his skeptical friend. And their message is one of hope and joyful discovery: Come and see the life I’ve found! Come and receive the love and purpose that can be found in relationship with Jesus. Come and see for yourself!
Folks, this is evangelism; sharing an invitation to experience God’s love through Christ-shaped relationship in community. The word “evangelism” (which simply means to tell the good news) has taken on some serious baggage over the years, as it has come to be associated with a certain brand of Christian perspective, theology, and practice. That association fuels my negative gut-reaction to certain types of outward expressions of Christian witness (bumper stickers). And I imagine that association is among the reasons that many of us don’t really acknowledge our spiritual practices and church engagement outside the walls of this place. But it’s confirmed again and again that the way most folks find their way into meaningful, life-changing spiritual community is through the invitation of a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker. Last weekend, as the women on retreat shared the stories of how they came to Foundry, I was struck by the number who came at the invitation of another.
We are evangelical about all sorts of things in our lives—we get excited about TV shows that touch our hearts, writers who inspire us, technologies that we can’t live without, “must-see” places… These kinds of things we passionately and easily tell others about because we believe they are a gift and will make a positive difference in others’ lives just as they have for us. If a service project, a ministry team, a small group, a Sunday School class, or participating in worship gives you joy, hope, a sense of purpose, an experience of giving and receiving God’s love, why not invite someone else to join you?
I have said that we are currently in a struggle for the soul of the Christian faith. There are those who want to hold Christian faith hostage, equating “orthodoxy” with a list of restrictive rules about what human life, bodies, and relationships can be and making the name of Jesus not that of a God who is with us in solidarity and love, but of a God who’s out to get us if we make one misstep. This makes our evangelism that much more important—to live and share an experience and vision of Christian discipleship that understands orthodoxy primarily in terms of loving God and loving others; that seeks to embody that love in sacrificial acts of prayer, presence, gifts, service, and witness; that does justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly along the path with God. “Come and see…” That is the invitation we have received. And our unique witness—even with those who may be skeptical—can be just as simple. Just come and see…