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Gifts on the Journey

January 7th, 2018

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, January 7, 2018, observation of Epiphany.

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12


Today I unabashedly draw inspiration from a new book I received for Christmas, a book entitled, “Joy.” The book is a collection of 100 poems and editor Christian Wiman’s introductory essay is, for me at least, worth whatever price Anthony paid to put the book in my hands.  The opening lines read, “Paul Tillich once said of the word ‘faith’ that ‘it belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used for the healing of [people.]’ The word ‘joy’ may not be quite so wounded, though I have noticed…that it does provoke some conflicting responses.”[i]  Words can be “wounded”—that is, twisted and misused, abused and made lifeless—and religious words, perhaps, most of all are prone to such wounding. But “grace,” the topic of this new “Grace Notes” sermon series, as a religious word, seems oddly immune to serious damage.  Spiritual writer Frederick Buechner comments on this saying, “After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested anymore. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.”[ii]  Grace is a relational word connected to prayer, blessing, thanksgiving, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, harmonious movement, and beauty.  Theologically speaking, grace can be defined as God’s abiding presence, love, and mercy—always offered as a pure gift, no strings attached.  I love the fact that, in music, the little notes that add emphasis and interest to a melody are called “grace notes.” These notes are “gifts” to the music, accenting the experience of the song.


But, I imagine, even with all this loveliness, the critique may arise: how can you speak of grace or be inspired by joy when Dreamers are under threat, when the loss of the Children’s Health Insurance Program leaves so many children vulnerable, when the planet continues to be polluted and destroyed, when juvenile boasts are made by the leader of the free world about the size of nuclear “buttons” as though the lives of all who inhabit earth are no more than blips in a video game? Shakespeare asked the question this way: “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”[iii]


Grace—and the beauty and joy that often emerge in its wake—are like the star in our Gospel today.  They shine and shimmer in the darkness and provide focus and encouragement for the ongoing journey of life and spiritual seeking.  Wiman says that “Joy is the only inoculation against the despair to which any sane person is prone, the only antidote to the nihilism that wafts through our intellectual atmosphere like sarin gas.”[iv]  //


Today we observe the Feast of the Epiphany.  The word “Epiphany” literally means manifestation or appearance—and this feast celebrates the manifestation of God’s Word made flesh to all nations and peoples. Epiphany is the culmination of the Christmas Cycle that began with the first Sunday of Advent. And the story at the center of this feast is of the Magi (an ancient, Latin-derived term for Persian astrologers and professors of all things esoteric) who follow the star to Jerusalem and then, upon hearing the prophecy from Micah, on to Bethlehem. The story is a powerful illustration of light shining even amidst the encroaching darkness. It is a story of a journey, a quest for a benevolent ruler whose appearance on earth was written in the stars. It’s a journey to find the One who is God’s love and mercy in human form, One who is, in a word, grace.  It seems a fitting place to begin these weeks when we will focus on grace and ways that grace attends us all along our spiritual journey—through the twists and turns, valleys and mountaintops.

The journey of the Magi—and of the holy family they visit—illustrates ever-present grace in a powerful way if we guard against any de-politicized, sterilized version of the story.  All it takes to do that is to read the whole thing.  Reading Matthew beginning at chapter 1 verse 18 through the end of chapter 2, you see that Joseph, before having a change of heart, was planning to abandon his pregnant-but-not-by-him fiancé Mary (but “quietly”).  Herod, described by my colleague Jim Harnish, (referencing the Anchor Bible Dictionary) as “a pathologically insecure narcissist who was obsessively driven by his fear of any threat to his position and power,” schemes and lies to the Magi in order to do the child Jesus harm.  After the Magi find Jesus and heed an intuitive warning NOT to return to tell Herod of his whereabouts, the King goes on a rampage and has all the children in and around Bethlehem who were 2 years of age and younger killed in hopes of ridding the world of any threat to his power.  Having been warned of this heinous plot in a dream, Joseph and Mary take their child Jesus and flee into Egypt as refugees, only later returning to Israel and seeking a safe haven from ongoing political unrest in a town called Nazareth in the Galilee.


This is not a saccharine tale.  It’s a nightmare.  The journey of the Magi was fraught with danger.  The holy family’s safety and survival was at risk from the very beginning.  But notice the grace notes that appear throughout…  Joseph’s heart and mind change, thereby providing support for Mary already full of grace; the Magi have one another as companions on the path, the star to guide them, and the skill to follow that light; dreams and intuitions of danger not only arise but are heeded, thereby allowing escape from harm; and even the duplicitous word of Herod provides necessary guidance pointing toward Bethlehem and the child, Jesus.  In the midst of so much risk and vulnerability, with powerplays and violence lurking in every quarter, with a horrific ruler on a rampage, innocents trampled, and countless lives lost, even in the midst of all that (the Gospel reminds us) there were journeys punctuated with grace, with manifestations and appearances of love and mercy and guidance.  Hatred and cruelty tried to snuff out grace—the love and mercy of God.  But that plot failed. The light of Christ shines and the darkness did not, will not, overcome it.


At this time of year, I’m acutely aware that many of us struggle—the cold, long nights, the emotions and memories stirred by the holidays, the turn of the year highlighting where we are—or aren’t—in our lives, and the pressure to get things “resolved”…  All of this and more can trigger depression, anxiety, and relapse into the false comfort of addictions.  For many, this part of the annual journey is always especially fraught.  And even if we manage these days with relative equanimity, at this or any time of year, it is easy to get caught up in all that is wrong in our lives and in the world.  One of the reasons I’m glad our story for today often calls the Magi “wise” is that they were smart enough to travel with a buddy—to not go it alone.  I imagine that helped when, tempted to shut down in the face of the real dangers and scheming around them, they don’t focus on those things or allow themselves to get thrown off-course by them.   They stay together, know what they seek, keep their eyes focused on the light, and continue to walk together toward their destination.  That kind of focus and perspective reeks of wisdom.  And “When they saw where the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”


On life’s journey, on the spiritual path, on the Jesus-seeking path, there is so much pain, confusion, struggle, disappointment, and injustice along the way.  Those realities have the capacity to draw all our focus, to steal our energy, and keep us from apprehending the grace notes that dance in and among the shadows offering points of light.  On the journey, it is an act of sacred resistance to notice, welcome, and savor moments of joy, to acknowledge, as Christian Wiman writes, “how in the midst of great grief some fugitive and inexplicable joy might like one tiny flower in a land of ash, bloom.”[v]


One poet puts it this way:

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,

we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,

but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have

the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless

furnace of this world. To make injustice the only

measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.[vi]


We are called to praise the Christ child not the Devil.  And today we are given the grace of this ancient story of the Magi and the holy family, a story that reminds us that in a world like the one we know right now—even when illness or circumstance keeps us from apprehending it—light shines.  The story teaches us to seek out companions on the journey and, together, to focus our attention on the places where light shines, where grace is enfleshed.  The fact that we can choose where to focus our attention is itself grace.


Where will you focus your attention in 2018?  How might you attune yourself to the grace notes on the journey?  Perhaps taking a few minutes to reflect on the gifts of each day with gratitude…perhaps a commitment to pause and take in moments of wonder…perhaps an intention to actively appreciate the grace of traveling companions on life’s journey…Seek light.  Seek love and mercy incarnate.  Stay focused on delight and beauty, courage and generosity, tenderness and care.  As you journey with such focus, the primary threat may be that you become overwhelmed…with joy.






[i] Christian Wiman, “Still Wilderness,” Joy: 100 Poems, Yale University Press: New Haven, 2017, p. xi.

[ii] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, p. 38.

[iii] Wiman, p. xi.

[iv] Ibid., p. xxiv.

[v] Ibid., p. xii.

[vi] Jack Gilbert, “A Brief for the Defense,” excerpt, quoted in Joy: 100 Poems, p. xxiii.


Guided By Which Star

December 31st, 2017

A sermon preached by T.C. Morrow, Ben Roberts and Will Green at Foundry Unithed Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, December 31, 2017. 


Opening Night

December 24th, 2017

A homily preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC December 24, 2017, Christmas Eve.

Note: The homily begins at 51:00 in the mp3 file.  

Text:  Luke 2:1-20


Imagine that you are a composer who has gained a faithful audience over the years. Though some haven’t heard or don’t pay attention of your work, the harmony and rhythms, the tension and resolution in your music are loved by many. But you are determined to reach different audiences, to bring people together around your music.  So you break out of the normal mode, you use different instruments, perhaps, or play with old melodic themes in new ways and create a whole new kind of sound and music.  It’s a risk to do something unexpected.  Will people get what you’re trying to do? What you’re trying to communicate? //  Then it comes time for the new work’s big debut.  Opening night.  Your creative vision and passion have been poured into what you will share.  It’s your heart behind the curtain.  And it is pounding…anticipating…hopeful…  And when the curtain rises, what you have conceived in your heart is out there in the world to be received or rejected.  To be taken in and cherished or ignored and forgotten. 


Tonight, we commemorate an extraordinary opening night, we remember when the curtain rose on our creator, composer God’s most ambitious performance ever.  A whole new movement of love.  It’s an inspiring risk.  This opening night is God’s heart laid bare, vulnerable and breathing in the world—and not some ideal world, but this world, the same world we inhabit tonight.  This offering is a profound act of hope…God’s hope that we will receive and nurture the gift, that we will shield it and help it grow, that we will share its beauty and power with others.  The curtain rises tonight on the birth of Jesus, the light of the world, the perfect love of God in flesh, the hope of God for the world…the hope of the world for God… //


The ones first invited to this premiere were out in the fields, shepherds minding their own business when, all of a sudden, the world is invaded with messengers and messages from God. They hear news—good news—about a child who has been born, a child who will be a Savior.  They’re told where to go to find this child.


The shepherds have a choice at this point.  They can either believe the mysterious and wonderful news that they have just received and accept the invitation to go or they can talk themselves out of it…. “after all it was probably just my eyes playing tricks, my ears imagining music, my heart yearning so much for some good news that I made the whole thing up, and why would I be invited to witness such a thing?”….  But instead of allowing mere rationality or cynicism to rule, those shepherds let hope win.  I once read that what happens next is that the shepherds “rush off in pursuit of hopefulness.”


And, as the story goes, they weren’t disappointed.  They found everything just as the angels had said.  In that humble place were Mary and Joseph and a baby boy.  The spot of starlight fell upon the scene. And from the manger, in that new life, there radiated love and truth and hope and grace, the very heart of God on the world’s stage. //


And here we are, responding to the invitation to come and watch the curtain rise once again on this simple and glorious scene, this movement of God’s love for us, the act of God’s yearning and God’s hope.  Why do we come again and again?  I imagine that, like the shepherds, we are in pursuit of hopefulness. 


We want to hope.  We need to hope.  And we live in a world overrun with realities that inspire anything but hopefulness.  Every year we travel the long road from Bethlehem to Bethlehem, those twisting and turning 12 months that separate this night from the next Christmas Eve.  And in the course of that yearly journey, the hope that supposedly “springs eternal in the human breast,” gets battered and bruised and chipped away and used up so that by the time we wander into a sanctuary on Christmas, we need to be filled, we need our hope to be born again so that it can carry us through the journey of another year—or even another day.


The shepherds set out in pursuit of hopefulness with the promise of the angels still ringing in their ears.  They would be given a sign that they had found the source of their hope:  the sign was that baby of Bethlehem lying in a manger.  And they found their sign.  They got to see him, maybe even hold him.  Their pursuit of hopefulness was not a vain search.  Hope came to life in that baby.


Where is our sign?  What will be our sign that our hope-thirsty souls have found what they seek?  On this night, I hear the angel chorus speaking to all of us gathered here saying, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people”…for tonight in Washington, DC and in towns and suburbs and villages and hillsides around the world, people are singing God’s song, are gathering to worship God, to pray for peace, to be filled with grace through Jesus Christ.  And this will be a sign for you:  you will find yourselves in the midst of this world-wide congregation, maybe not even certain of why you are there.


In a world where fear and anger and distrust and greed and brokenness often seem to be the dominant powers; in a world that often seems bent on its own destruction, it is no small thing to pursue hopefulness.  And yet tonight and tomorrow millions of people will gather to sing, to tell the story, and to be filled with the hope that is born in and through Jesus.  This is our sign, our flesh and blood reality that confirms that our own pursuit of hopefulness is not in vain.  Because when people in drought-stricken, AIDS and Malaria-stricken Africa gather in hope; when people in the Middle East gather in hope; when people in South and North Korea gather in hope; when people standing in the rubble left behind from fires and hurricanes and floods sing the songs of Christmas; when people who are standing on the brink of disaster and despair and deportation gather together and light candles and drink from the well of Christian hope even in the face of every other kind of hunger and thirst, then it’s hard not to see at least a glimmer of hope ourselves.  Christian hope does not deny the circumstances of the present, and hope doesn’t help us get out of our difficulties.  But hope does give us the vision for God’s future, a future we can pursue, a song we can sing together.  In the book of the prophet Jeremiah, God speaks to the people when they had lost everything—their homes, their faith, their traditions, everything.  God speaks to them saying, “I know the plans I have for you says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11)


A future and a hope.  That is the promise.  And the claim we make however insufficiently or awkwardly, is that God did not abandon that promise.  God does not abandon hope in the world.  Not then.  Not now.  Instead God entrusts to the world God’s own tender son.  God has enough hope in the world to share the most precious life with us.  And because of that gift, the world has never been the same; because of the transforming power of the love that beats in that baby’s heart, the world has the possibility of hope forever.  Because of the love of God in Jesus Christ, we walk through even the darkest, longest night, across the most uncertain, frightening terrain, clinging to our hope in the God who clings to us.  Don’t give up on hope.  God hasn’t given up hope in us.


All around the world tonight the curtain has risen again, starlight shines, and the movement of love and grace and justice moves out into the world afresh.  Will you receive this most precious offering from our God? Will you, with God’s help, sing God’s song of love not just tonight but throughout the coming year?  O beloved ones, sing…sing and be the sign that others seek.


Let us pray: Loving, composer God, may we have the courage to hope, to receive your outpouring of love, to cradle and shelter the Holy One, to sing your song, and be worthy of your astonishing hope in us. Amen.




Time Collapse

December 24th, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, December 24, 2017, the fourth Sunday of Advent (and Christmas Eve).

Texts: Luke 1:46b-55, Luke 1:26-38 


Time is a funny thing.  I remember the feeling as a child that summer break or even a week at my grandparent’s home was such a long stretch of time…And having to wait for something for a month? Well, that was an eternity!  Somewhere along the line, I heard older folks talk about how, with every passing year, time seemed to fly by faster and faster.  As I’ve aged, I’ve learned I’m not a fan of flying time.  My equilibrium goes haywire when I realize that something I think happened last year actually occurred three years ago!  How can that be?!  Time seems to fold in on itself, to dissolve, to collapse.  At some point, I hope I have the time to read more about the experience of time at different ages and stages of human development.  My guess is that with so many responsibilities and distractions as we age, the minutes get so filled up that they seem smaller—less space in them to linger and breathe…


In preparation for today, I took at stab at reading about the science of time—the space-time continuum, relativity, and the like.  Maybe it’s just because it’s the end of such a challenging year, but I didn’t get very far.  My sense is that there’s something about how all time and space are somehow always “there” at different points on a kind of existence continuum.  Instead of time moving in a forward trajectory, all time exists in some sort of circle of eternal “now.”  Or something.  Maybe? I know there are profound spiritual insights to be had from physics on this topic.  Maybe I’ll have time in the next year to glean them more adeptly.  For today, what I know is that we’re experiencing another kind of “time collapse.”  The fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve exist in this time and space, in this “now.”  This doesn’t happen often and, for me, it feels a bit like we’ve been cheated out of our last week of preparation.  Normally, we’d have at least some days between lighting the fourth candle on our Advent Wreath and the big event.  But not today.  It’s all happening at once.  It’s all happening today. 


But maybe it’s not really a cheat, but instead a gift, an appropriate illustration and ending to our Anacrusis series here at Foundry.  We’ve been exploring the Christian understanding of time throughout the season of Advent using Anacrusis as our creative metaphor.  Anacrusis is a musical term describing the notes preceding the first full measure of a composition; it’s the beginning, the entry point. Advent may be the metaphorical “opening notes” to the Christian year, but the stories and spiritual preparation that mark the season are infused with both the past and the future.  Our vision of God’s intended future is informed by what God has done and revealed in the past.  The future vision is carried upon the wings of Spirit who nudges us in the present moment toward God and God’s way of love.  We breathe in the vision and it gives us life, it gives us guidance, it gives us energy to respond in concrete ways, to scatter seeds of God’s Kin-dom NOW.  You see, even though Advent is known as a time of waiting, a season when we are more aware of time than most others, using daily Advent calendars and weekly lighting of candles on the Advent Wreath, this season is really one in which time collapses—God’s promises and prophecies of generations past burst into the present, into the NOW with Jesus’ birth; and the way of life and love revealed in the flesh-and-blood Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s future.


In today’s familiar story, we hear echoes of past, present, and future in the words of God’s messenger to Mary.  “Now you will conceive,” Gabriel says. The child will—in the future—be great, be called the Son of the Most High, will sit on the throne of his ancestor David without end—eternally.  References to the “house of Jacob” and the “ancestor David” point back in time and history, energizing Gabriel’s visit with stirring memories of God’s activity and presence in the past. This is a moment when time collapses or—perhaps better and more theologically stated—when time becomes full.  The past, present, and future fold in and exist powerfully in one place and heart—in this case, in the heart of a young woman named Mary.


Every time this story comes up in our annual cycle, I stand amazed before Mary. What was her experience of time and space and reality?  I can only imagine the way that time must have stood still when this word came to her from God.  We don’t know about Mary’s past, her life prior to this moment.  But we do know a bit about Mary’s response.  Perhaps we’ve heard this story so many times that we don’t even think about the possibility that Mary could have said “NO.”  I mean, Mary was not like Elizabeth or other women in the Bible who had been praying and longing for a child.  Mary wasn’t even married yet.  However, when given the news by Gabriel, Mary—claiming her own voice, freedom, and agency—says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Mary couldn’t have known all that would transpire in the future; though she surely must have imagined that her acceptance of this baby would mean losing Joseph, her betrothed, and that saying “Yes” to this pregnancy would mean being shunned from her community.  And even though tradition tells us that Joseph went through with the marriage and cared for the child they named Jesus, we would do well to remember that receiving this new life from God meant hardship for Mary for the rest of her life. 


But even in the midst of all the potential hardship and heartache, Mary’s response in the moment is full of courage, joy, gratitude, and deep faith.  Luke records Mary’s song of praise and prophecy—a song we call the “Magnificat.”  She sings:  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed…” (Luke 1:46-55)


Mary’s song acknowledges that God is doing something new in and through her life.  But in many ways, what God is doing is nothing new.  History shows that God has a habit of doing extraordinary things through unlikely people.  King David wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth and wasn’t the obvious choice for that role—he was the youngest of his brothers and a shepherd.  God tends to do the unexpected, to turn things upside down and around so that the world might see things in a new way, so that we might begin to see and understand that what is most powerful just might be the small thing, the simple thing, the least expected…  Mary’s song and story highlights the way God works:  the powerful are brought down and the lowly are lifted up.  Those who are hungry and seeking are filled—and the rich, comfortable folk with full bellies are sent away empty because they already have enough.  (if I had more time this morning, I might elaborate on the point that God’s economy doesn’t include fattening up the rich so that more crumbs might fall from their table to the poor…)


God, the creator of the universe, the Word without whom no thing was made, begins life as a human creature in the womb of a young woman of no standing or account according to the world.  What we learn today is that our God, historically, has chosen to work in the world among lowly handmaids and barren women.  God sees those the world ignores; God knows and God sees gifts and strength and wisdom and power others miss.  It seems this has been true across time, eternally true. God delights to turn things around and to see the world surprised by the gifts of those who respond and bear the vision of love and justice into the world.


So, while much has changed in our world since the time of Mary, the way God comes into the world likely remains pretty much the same.  In a culture that values strength and control and wealth and confidence, in a culture that prizes “having it all together” and nearly constant activity, consider this: that God works in the world not through that part of us that swaggers and struts through life, confident and self-sufficient, but rather that God is most present in those empty places that need to be filled, in the quiet places that can’t find the words.  Perhaps part of the message for all of us is that God has a habit of coming to us in ways and places that we don’t expect—in the broken places, the fragmented places, the places that are weak and insecure and vulnerable to intrusions of the Spirit…  Recently, our nation has experienced the power of women and some men giving voice to the truth of their lives from places of deep pain and fear, naming the pervasive reality of harassment and abuse.  This brave truth-telling, saying “Here I am!” is powerful and has the capacity to turn some things around.  Rich and powerful men who think they can touch anyone and are, themselves, untouchable are thinking twice today—because through the prophetic witness of the abused, “God has shown strength with his arm/ God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts./ God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,/and lifted up the lowly.” (Lk 1:51-52) 

So in the place that feels like a weakness in your life, how is God trying to do a new thing?  What are you being asked to learn, to receive, to offer?  In the broken places in your life, how can your faithful, loving response bring about healing or new life for someone in the world?  How is God trying to use what is or has been difficult for you as a resource or a gift for those around you?  Do you have something to teach?  To share?  How might your own experience of vulnerability or need be directed by the Spirit toward a new ministry or relationship? 


Mary was vulnerable in many ways.  She was, after all, just an ordinary human being, just a woman preparing to be a mother for the first time.  But in her vulnerability, she became strong.  Because she was open to God—she received God—who recognized her strength and her grace and came to her when she least expected such a visit.  She was open and allowed herself to be filled.  Mary’s “Here am I” resounds through the ages, across all time:  Here am I.  I’m just me, but here I am. 


We, like Mary, are called to be bearers of God’s new life in the world.  I don’t know what this might mean for each of you.  But I trust that God’s messengers will visit you to help you figure it out in the fullness of time.  What I can say now is that, because of brave, faithful women like Mary, we are assured that we, in all our imperfection and insecurity, are worthy and probable participants in God’s wild and wonderful work in the world.  Because of Mary, we know that God chooses to use ordinary folks to make things new.  As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. 




Call Time

December 17th, 2017

This is a sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli on Sunday, December 17, 2017 at Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C. 


Text: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11John 1:6-8, 19-28


Update 12/21/2017: We are working to provide a sermon transcript. Thank you for your patience.