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Repent

February 18th, 2018

Repent?

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.

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Perfecting Harmony

February 4th, 2018

Perfecting Harmony

A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, February 4, 2018, the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany. “Grace Notes” sermon series.

Texts: Ephesians 4:1-7, 14-16, Mark 14:12-16, 22-26 

 

“Remember that you’re free and who it is that saved you.” That, in short, is the message of Passover.  Our Jewish siblings celebrate Passover as a commemoration of their liberation by God from slavery in ancient Egypt.  It’s called “Passover” (Hebrew Pesach) because the turning point in the struggle for Israel’s freedom came when God “passed over” the Jewish homes as a death-dealing plague struck Egypt. The Jewish people were to mark their doorposts with the blood of a lamb, a lamb they would then roast and share together equally—and the sign of the blood upon their door “covered” them from death. The sacrament we celebrate and share today is our “passover”—our remembrance that we’re free and who it is that saves us.  The ancient symbolic connections between blood and life, of a sacrificial lamb and liberation still pulsate in the story we tell when we gather at the table.  But when Jesus gathered with his disciples to celebrate the Pesach for the last time, the meal and ritual were transformed and expanded. It was no longer simply a commemoration of God’s saving activity in the past, but also a proclamation of the coming Kindom. It was no longer only a remembrance of what God did in Egypt for Israel at one point in time, but what God would do on the cross for the whole world for all time. It became a feast of remembrance, thanksgiving, communion, and anticipation of what God does in Jesus the Christ out of love for the world.

 

In fact, the “great thanksgiving” prayer recounts the whole story of God’s saving grace from the moment of creation to the incarnation of Jesus to the future return of Christ in glory.  Here’s what we pray when we gather at the Table: We are created in God’s image; when we turn away from God’s wisdom and way, God’s love and mercy remain steadfast; God speaks to us through the prophets and through signs in creation; God draws near to us in Jesus, literally “fleshing out” what our God is like and the vision of who we are called to become; Jesus gives himself fully, in solidarity with the poor, oppressed, and lost—he gives his body to nourish and guide us, his blood to assure life and freedom; Spirit is poured out, just as in Baptism, upon common, earthy elements—here upon bread and unfermented wine—infusing them with the real presence of Christ; when we receive those elements we become one with Christ and our sharing of this meal makes us one with each other; we are then ourselves infused with Spirit, strengthened in our communion, and renewed and empowered to give ourselves to others, just as Jesus gave himself to us.

 

This prayer recounts the whole story, the whole love song that is God’s passionate commitment to us and to all.  And it draws us into the song, calling, empowering, and connecting us to sing together as one, in harmony. It’s a beautiful ritual, a beautiful prayer, a beautiful sentiment, a beautiful vision… And it’s one of the messiest things we do in the church! 

 

Some of the funniest stories church people tell are about things that happen at the Communion Table. And that kind of makes sense—because when people gather around a table to eat and drink together, things happen, things get dropped and spilled, stuff can get stuck in someone’s teeth or dribbled into a friend’s beard; folks may not know the family or cultural rituals and inadvertently “step in it” (awkward!); some may talk with their mouth full or do a “spit take” at something said. Some churches put out mats on Communion Sundays to guard against the drips of wine or juice on sanctuary carpets. Others simply live with the stains. Even the Christian churches who for theological reasons are very careful not to drop or spill any of the elements have mishaps and very human moments at this meal.  It seems to me that the messiness of the meal is also part of the message.  On the journey of life with God and other people, things can get messy. The story we tell around the Table is about how we make a mess and God loves us through it and offers everything to guide and sustain us as we continue the journey. Even though the harmony we are made to sing is never perfect, part of the promise is that Spirit will abide with us, will always be poured out in the sacrament, to continually perfect our harmony as we raise our voices to sing God’s love song.

 

This leads me to the third movement of God’s grace. Over the past couple of Sundays, we’ve reflected on John Wesley’s articulation of the experiences of God’s grace.   The first movement is prevenient grace, God’s presence even when we’re unaware of it, nudging, beckoning, inviting us into a closer relationship.  Next is the gift of justifying grace, the assurance of forgiveness and acceptance that comes when we turn toward God and open our hearts to receive God’s saving and liberating love.  When we have crossed that threshold, we enter into a new life and a new experience of God’s grace, what Wesley called “sanctifying grace.” According to John Wesley, justifying grace is what God does for us through the Son and sanctifying grace is what God does in us through God’s Spirit.[i]  Justifying grace is a beginning assurance of our restored relationship with God; sanctifying grace is the journey of living that relationship out.

 

When meeting with members of the Annual Conference, our previous Bishop Marcus Matthews regularly shared words he’s prayed daily for many years: “Lord, make me better today than I was yesterday.”  This is a deeply Wesleyan, United Methodist prayer.  Because in it is the promise that we can do better, be better tomorrow.  We are not stuck forever in whatever mess the world has made of us or we have made of ourselves.  We are not predestined to be in or out of God’s favor.  We can grow and change through cooperation with God’s sanctifying grace.  Justifying grace says, “God loves us just as we are;” sanctifying grace says, “God loves us too much to let us stay the same.”  

 

John Wesley sometimes referred to sanctifying grace as “perfecting grace.” This reflects Wesley’s central teaching about the goal of God’s grace in human life, namely Christian Perfection.  When United Methodist clergy are ordained, we are asked to affirm that we will teach this—and that we believe ourselves to be “going on to perfection.”  This doesn’t mean that we think folks who call themselves Christian (or United Methodist) believe they are perfect as compared to other people.  It doesn’t mean that we will sing God’s love song in perfect harmony or that we will never make a mess or that we’re magically free from whatever holds us hostage.  It doesn’t mean that followers of Christ will never make a mistake or hurt anyone else.  Christian perfection is not about boasting about our awesomeness and judging others.  It is not about trying to act like we’ve got it all together when we don’t.  It is not about being in control and fixing ourselves.

 

To affirm that we are “going on to perfection” means we believe that, through the grace of God, we are able to grow in love, we are able to grow in holiness, to be better tomorrow than we are today.  Christian perfection is about giving our lives over to the power of God, to be enfolded in that love so completely that our every thought, word, intention, and action reflects—even in some dim, small way—the perfect love of God.  (How we understand that to happen is something we’ll get into next week as we conclude our Grace Notes series.)

Because we know ourselves and the reality of life together, I’m grateful for the promise that sanctifying grace is always in process… The harmony we are made to sing, the freedom we are called to embody, in communion with God and one another, is always “going on to perfection.”  That has always been very good news to this perfectionist that stands before you—even if difficult to fully take in. 

 

Lord knows that in the church we make a mess of things in so many ways.  A crumby, drippy Communion is one outward and visible sign of that reality.  But another outward and visible sign is of people at different places on the journey of discipleship all receiving the gifts of God’s grace at the Table.  United Methodists welcome ALL to the table—you don’t have to be a member of this or any church, you don’t have to know what you believe or doubt, you don’t have to be baptized, be a certain age, or to claim any understanding of what is happening in Communion.  There are no prerequisites for stepping into the story and song of God’s amazing grace, no promises have to be made in order to receive the real presence of Christ in the bread and cup.  And that sign of radical hospitality and participation at this Table, though not as tidy as some would prefer, is a beautiful vision of God’s perfecting grace.

 

I remember a child in one of my congregations saying one time, “I don’t understand why we call this the Lord’s Supper.  This clearly isn’t a supper. They should call it the Lord’s snack!”  It may be more like a snack than a supper, but even still, and even with all the mess, at this Table we are fed, sustained with the food that truly satisfies, the perfect love of God, poured out for us in the body and blood of Jesus our Lord.  As we receive Christ in our own body, we are connected in the one Body of Christ. And bodies are prone to stumbling and drooling, bumping into each other and stepping on toes.  But this body, infused with Spirit and God’s sanctifying grace, is always going on to perfection.  And for that I wholeheartedly say, “Thanks be to God.”

 

[i] https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-5-Justification-by-Faith

 

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Bridge

January 28th, 2018

Bridge

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, January 28, 2018, the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. “Grace Notes” sermon series.

Texts: Galatians 3:23-29, Mark 1:4-11

 

Every year, I go on a 7 day silent retreat during which I speak only to God (and my assigned spiritual director for 30-45 minutes a day).  My first retreat—fifteen years ago—I arrived with my agenda in hand; I had a plan!  It didn’t take long for me to realize that God’s agenda was different than mine, that God knew what I needed better than I.  There came a moment late in the week when, all at once, I realized something quite astonishing:  I was carrying around an extraordinary weight of guilt about some very destructive things I had done in my life—and I was assuming that this heavy, dull, throbbing pain was something I had to carry forever as punishment.  Imagine my astonishment to realize that, even though I regularly taught and preached (and thought I understood!) God’s grace and mercy, I hadn’t fully embraced these gifts. Oh, I spoke about how God loves us all no matter what all the time, but without even knowing it, I’d resigned myself to believing there were parts of me that God could never love.  God’s agenda for me that week was to open my eyes and to invite me to step into a new freedom—the freedom of realizing that even at the very moment I did the things I am most ashamed of—even those parts of me that felt most unlovable—even right then and right there, God was loving me. God never stopped loving me and God’s steadfast love and mercy sought to release me from the weight of sin and shame that clung so tightly. //

 

Some of you may have seen the 1986 film The Mission, depicting the establishment of a Jesuit mission in the remote Guarani tribal lands of South America. Robert DeNiro plays the character of Rodrigo Mendoza, a former mercenary and slave trader—known by the Guarani for his brutality to their people—but now seeking redemption among the Jesuits.  In one of many powerful scenes in the movie, DeNiro’s Mendoza is making the difficult journey up the cliffs to the mission with a group of the Jesuit brothers, carrying a large mesh bag filled with the armor he had worn in his former life. He was determined to carry it up with him, an intentional burden and penalty for his sins—refusing again and again to just let it go.  It is heavy; he stumbles under its weight.  His overwhelming struggle is difficult to witness.  When the Jesuits finally near the mission there is tension as the Guarani recognize Rodrigo Mendoza; they seem puzzled by his appearance and the burden he is carrying.  One of the tribe swiftly moves over, takes out a knife, and holds it to Mendoza’s neck… A tribal Chief speaks to a trusted Jesuit who evidently explains the situation.  Immediately, the Chief speaks to the one holding the knife and, instead of Mendoza’s neck, his burden is cut free, the weight he’d been carrying is tossed off the cliff into the river below. Rodrigo Mendoza dissolves into tears. //

 

United Methodists among us may know the story of John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience.  “In early 1738 John Wesley was at a low point, having just returned from his disappointing missionary efforts at the colony of Georgia in the New World.” He felt like a failure and a disappointment to God. “Wesley reluctantly attended a group meeting on the evening of May 24th on Aldersgate Street in London.”[i]  He writes, “About a quarter before nine, while [the leader] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ. I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[ii] He goes on, “I felt that God loved me. I experienced that God loved me. It was no longer something that was in my head, but it’s something that I felt in my heart.” 

All of the stories I have shared this morning are experiences of God’s grace, specifically, God’s justifying grace.  Last week, we reflected together upon the “first movement” of God’s grace, what we call prevenient grace, God’s presence even when we’re unaware of it, God’s presence nudging, beckoning, inviting us into a closer relationship. The next movement of grace—as articulated by John Wesley—is called justifying grace. “Justification,” said Wesley, “is another word for pardon. It is the forgiveness of all our sins, and ... our acceptance with God.”[iii] Justifying grace is the assurance of forgiveness and acceptance that comes when we turn toward God and open our hearts to receive God’s saving and liberating love.  It is often described as a doorway or a bridge, a crossing over into a new life.  It’s that moment when you know and feel that God’s love for you is more powerful than anything else in your life and, because of that, you know that whatever you’ve done or not done, whatever your faults and failings, whatever it is that you think you have to carry around with you forever, can be released, carried away like old armor in a rushing river.  //

 

In Western popular music, a “bridge” is a contrasting section of a song appropriately found in the middle; it’s a connecting place, a distinctly different moment, a turning point, between the beginning and the completion of the song.  Justifying grace is like that; it’s a connecting point between the opening stirrings of awareness of God and an assurance that our “completion,” our wholeness, is discovered through life in God.  The “bridge” of justifying grace is a turning point that can be experienced at various times throughout our lives as God opens our eyes and hearts to cross over into even deeper experience of divine mercy and love.

 

John Wesley was clear that justifying grace is not something we earn and is not reserved for folks who are all tidied up. My personal experience of justifying grace shared this morning was a new awareness that even when I was right in the middle of making things a mess God was loving me. Rodrigo was liberated from his burden not by his own act, but by the act of mercy shown to him by those he had brutalized and enslaved.  John Wesley had been trying to get everything right and do all the right things so that he might have right relationship with God and yet it was in a moment of despair and surrender that his heart was able to receive the gift of God’s tender love and mercy. Wesley is clear that that justification is not our work, but the work of God, it is what God does for us through the Son.[iv]

 

The only role we play is to respond to God’s amazing love and mercy with an open heart, to allow that love and mercy to carry us across the bridge from an old life into a new life in Christ, to cross the threshold into greater freedom and into participation in God’s way of love in the world.  That leads us into relationship with other people, with the people of God, with the church.

 

In the church, the sacrament of Holy Baptism is a moment when we celebrate the gift of God’s justifying grace and have the opportunity to commit or recommit to our life in Christ. The familiar opening words (UMH p. 33) define the rite beautifully:

Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy church.

We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation

and given new birth through water and the Spirit.

All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

 

When a baby is brought forward to receive Baptism, the grace at work in the child is God’s prevenient grace, the grace that enfolds that baby long before she is able to understand it, and also justifying grace, the steadfast love and mercy of God that is more powerful than sin and that will cover this child throughout her life. The family members who bring a child forward, are asked to reaffirm their own Baptismal covenant, to cross over from an old life (renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and repent of sin), to a new life (accept the freedom God gives to resist evil, injustice, and oppression), and to live that new life guided by the way of Jesus Christ (serve Christ in union with God’s diverse church). In fact, every time we celebrate a Holy Baptism or Confirmation, we are all given the opportunity to remember God’s steadfast love and mercy in our own lives and recommit to a life that is both fueled and guided by God’s amazing grace.

 

Our Gospel today is Mark’s characteristically succinct account of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” (Mk 1:10)  Succinct as it is, there’s a lot going on in this line of scripture. I want to focus briefly on a couple of words that really illuminate the story and give it greater depth and meaning for our own experience.

 

The phrase ‘just as’—euthus in the Greek—is better translated “immediately.”  This is the first of 41 times Mark uses this adverb in the Gospel. The word “immediately” expresses both a moment in chronological time (what the Greeks called kronos) AND “immediately” also expresses what we might call an opportune time or a “full” time (Greek, kairos)—a time when the space between heaven and earth is bridged, a “thin” place where the Kin-dom breaks into our time.

Euthus—immediately—when Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are ‘torn apart’ (Greek, skizo) and the voice of God declares Jesus identity saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1:11)  —An  aside: The Greek word, skizo, appears only once again in the gospel of Mark when the temple curtain is “torn apart” when Jesus takes his last breath from the cross. (Mk 15:38)  In that moment, it was not God’s voice, but the voice of a centurion who declares the identity of Jesus: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mk 15:39)[v]

 

A kairos moment in chronos time, a moment when the heavens are torn apart and Holy Spirit shows up and alights upon a person in a particular way, a moment when a person’s true identity as a beloved child of God is revealed…this is what happens—not just at Jesus’ baptism, but at every Christian baptism since.  In baptism, God draws near in an intimate way and our truest identity is affirmed.  As we pass through the waters—at whatever age that happens—we cross over into a new life, a life forever enfolded in God’s love and mercy…no matter what.  

 

Jesus—beloved Son of God—passed through the waters, suffered death on a cross, and rose from the grave to show us that the very worst the world can do (and the worst that we have done or will do) is no match for the liberating, life-giving power of God’s love.  Justifying grace is experienced in moments when we finally get it—that the bridge is always there, the way has been made, God has done this amazing thing for us through Jesus, and that all we have to do is open our hearts and minds to hear the voice of God naming us:  beloved… beloved… beloved.  And then step into the new life of relationship and freedom that awaits…

 

 

[i] http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/transcript-how-aldersgate-changed-john-wesley

[ii] http://www.interpretermagazine.org/topics/a-wesleyan-understanding-of-grace

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-5-Justification-by-Faith

[v] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1119

 

 

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First Movement

January 21st, 2018

 

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, January 21, 2018, the third Sunday after the Epiphany. “Grace Notes” sermon series.

Texts: 1 John 4:7-12, 16b-21Mark 1:14-20

 

If God
Invited you to a party
And said,

‘Everyone
In the ballroom tonight
Will be my special
Guest...’

How would you then treat them
When you
Arrived?

Indeed, indeed!

 

And [I know]
There is no one in this world

Who
Is not upon
[God’s] Jeweled Dance
Floor.[i]

 

These are words of 14th century Sufi mystic poet, Hafiz who captures in a few imaginative lines a core belief of our Wesleyan spiritual tradition. Namely, everyone in the world “dances” in God’s presence.  Or perhaps better stated, God is the ground of our being, without whom we could not stand, much less dance.  St. Paul once described this reality to the Athenians, using the words of their own poets, saying “in God we live, move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

 

We believe this is true even if you’re too young or infirm to mentally understand it, even you’ve never heard the word “God” or the name Jesus, even if you’ve actively rejected the name Jesus, even if you’ve done selfish, hurtful things. No matter what, we believe that the loving presence of God saturates all creation and is with every person. We can ignore or reject God’s loving presence, but “There is no one in this world/Who/Is not upon/God’s Jeweled Dance/Floor.”  We dwell in God, surrounded by God’s grace.

 

United Methodists are not alone in this belief, sharing it with many other Christian “tribes,” but it is a particular emphasis in our understanding of the way God’s grace works.  John Wesley, the spiritual architect of Methodism, described the experience of God’s grace in three movements—kind of like the “movements” of a formal musical composition—distinct, but related to one another, beautiful as individual pieces, but only complete when taken together.  The first movement is what we call “prevenient grace,” literally the grace that comes before—before we know to desire it, before we know we need it, before we realize we’ve received it. It is God’s presence awakening us to the reality of a “more” in life, to a need to shift course, nudging us in the direction of greater love and compassion, drawing us toward the beauty of God’s wisdom and way.  Wesley understood prevenient grace as the beginning of God’s saving work, “the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart ...”[ii]

 

As I prepared for today, I was delighted to discover one of my predecessor’s sermons on this topic online.  Rev. Dean Snyder reminded me that John Wesley’s favorite verse when he preached about prevenient grace was John 1:9:  “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  The true light enlightens everyone.  “Every [one] has a greater or less measure of this,” Wesley said. Christian and non-Christian alike, he said.[iii]  “There is no [one],” he said, “except [those] who have quenched the Spirit, [who] is wholly void of the grace of God.”[iv]

Today’s Gospel is a Christian “classic,” a familiar story for those who’ve been knocking around church for a while. It is Mark’s telling of Jesus calling his first disciples.  I have often heard this story used as an evangelism story, picking up on Jesus saying, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  Fishing for people can sound pretty unappealing to our ears these days.  After all, hooks can do damage and nets don’t set people free. And who among us wants to get wounded or “caught”?  I don’t doubt that part of the call of the disciples is to share the good news of God love with others. But the idea that this story primarily teaches that followers of Jesus are supposed to go get those people who aren’t in church and haul them “in” misses what I believe to be the beauty at the heart of the text.

 

In this story, we see Jesus draw near to folks who never would have imagined that they would be invited to step into a new way of life.  The way things worked in those days is that if you were a boy with the brains and skill, you’d get to be a disciple of one of the rabbis, following and learning from them.  The fact that Simon, Andrew, James, and John were all busy fishing means their scores hadn’t qualified them for the honor of apprenticeship to a rabbi.  They’d been sent home to spend the rest of their lives in the fishing business.  That was their lot. The fishing vocation wasn’t without honor or meaning, but they certainly weren’t looking for a rabbi.  Jesus found them. 

 

I often hear people talk about how they’ve “found” God or “found” Jesus.  Our understanding of prevenient grace means that this is never the way it works.  Just as Jesus is the one who draws near to the disciples before they knew such a relationship was possible, God’s grace makes the first move in our awakening to God’s love. As it is written in 1 John 4:19, “We love because God first loved us.” Hymn number 341 in our United Methodist Hymnal describes this beautifully.

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of Thee.

I find, I walk, I love, but oh, the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to Thee!
For Thou were long beforehand with my soul,
Always Thou lovest me.[v]

 

// It seems to me that Jesus talks about “fishing for people” not because it is the perfect metaphor to describe the job description of Jesus’ disciples across all time, but because he was, in that moment, talking to fisherfolk.  Here, Jesus reveals the way God comes to us right where we are, in whatever circumstance we are in, and speaks our language to try to make a connection, to relate to us in a way that helps us receive the message. This is grace at work, connecting, drawing us more deeply toward God—not to trick us or limit our freedom or life, but to set us free to live more fully.

 

Jesus beckons the first disciples to join him on a journey, a journey in which they would spend their time not primarily with fish, but with people.  They were called not only to participate in the local economy as part of their family business, but to share in the work of God’s saving love.  They were drawn away from mending fishing nets, and into the mending of all creation that Jesus came to initiate. 

 

It’s not that Simon, Andrew, James, and John didn’t know God, it’s that God wanted to know them more and in a new way.  There’s a difference between knowing that there is a God and knowing God.  Prevenient grace is at work when someone who’s been just going through the motions of faith or of life suddenly wakes up and desires more.  Prevenient grace is at work when someone is on a destructive path and begins to make a turn toward healing.  Prevenient grace is at work when a vision of beauty or compassion sparks someone unfamiliar or hostile to faith to wonder about God.  And what we see in this story is that God draws near even when we’re not looking for God; God wants to share life and ministry not only with those who are deemed the smartest or most accomplished, but with folks from all walks of life—wherever they are on the journey. The good news is that all have a place in God’s Kin-dom, all have the opportunity to live in the freedom of God’s love, mercy, and justice and to share that with others, all have purpose and gifts to contribute to the work of mending and new creation.

 

I see our Gospel story as a beautiful illustration of God’s prevenient grace, a story of the way God appears, calls, reaches out, and shines the light of God’s love in order to help people step more fully into their lives.  Sometimes that grace will be at work in the lives of those who are already aware of God; other times, it will move to awaken persons to divine love for the very first time.  God’s prevenient grace won’t always prompt leaving home and family.  It may not result in an “immediate” response in every life.  But when you become aware of God’s loving presence, you will begin to sense there’s a choice to be made.  God always makes the first move toward us and invites some response—whether through the beauty of the world or its pain and brutality, through a still, small voice, or the booming voice of a prophet, through the familiar rhythms of home or the call of the wild blue yonder, through the pangs of guilt or the experience of reconciliation—God always beckons us, wants (as I say every week) an ever deeper relationship with us. And the more we respond to God’s drawing near, the more we respond to God’s love toward us, as we take even a small step toward God and God’s invitation to a new vision of the world and of ourselves, our lives will change one way or another.

 

This past week, I spent two full days with the Baltimore-Washington Conference Board of Ordained Ministry as we examined new candidates for ordained ministry.  Listening to candidates’ stories, I was again struck by the varieties of ways that God’s grace works in persons’ lives to wake them up to the call to greater life, service, love, and justice.  And I was reminded of the twists and turns on the journey, of how God’s grace attends us all along the way, moving with us as we travel. Prevenient grace is the first movement in God’s love song, it is what draws us onto the path or redirects and reenergizes our walk. God’s prevenient grace makes the first move toward us, inviting us to look around and see that we are already standing in God’s light, that we are God’s beloved, special guests, standing upon God’s jeweled dance floor.  Everyone is there with you.  Everyone.  So why not take the hand of a neighbor and begin dancing?

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Hafiz, The Gift, Trans. Daniel Ladinsky, Penguin Compass, 1999, p. 47.

[ii] Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, Editors, John Wesley's Sermons: An Anthology, Abingdon Press, p. 488.

[iii] 3. Kenneth J. Collins, The Scripture Way of Salvation: The Heart of John Wesley’s Theology, Abingdon Press, p. 39.

[iv] Collins, p. 39.

[v] “I Sought the Lord,” Anon., United Methodist Hymnal, The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989, p. 341.

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Woke Faith: To God Be The Glory

January 14th, 2018

A sermon preached by Rev. Frederick Davie on Sunday, January 14, 2018 at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington DC. 

Scriptures: 1 Samuel 3:1-20John 1:43-51

 

I want to thank your pastor Ginger Gaines-Cerelli for the invitation to speak at this historic church.  I thank her for her leadership and this church for your faithful witness to an inclusive and compassionate world -- leadership and witness needed now more than ever.  I also owe a debt of gratitude to Rev. Dawn Hand, your executive minister, who so warmly welcomed me this morning, and whose family I have known my entire life. I also bring you greetings from Union Seminary and our President Dr. Serene Jones, who introduced me to your senior minister.  And even though Ginger, Serene and I are graduates of Yale Divinity School, I want to encourage anyone here who is considering seminary, to come to Union in New York City.  Thank you for this opportunity. Let us pray.

 

On the morning of Doug Jones’s victory over Roy Moore in the recent Alabama US Senate race, I listened to NPR, as I do most mornings.  In one story about that election, a reporter visited a gathering of young African American voters celebrating Jones’s victory. The first speaker of that group started her remarks with “giving honor to God...” And following a few more remarks from the speaker, the group started to chant “Woke Vote…Woke Vote…” It seems that woke vote had been the rallying cry in some quarters in Alabama as canvassers and organizers rallied their fellow Alabamians, especially black Alabamians, to go to the polls and vote.

 

To be woke, in modern vernacular, as many of you know, is to be conscious.  Conscious of the world around, conscious of your place in it, and conscious of all you bring, especially your internal stuff -- that spiritual, psychological and emotional stuff we bring to the worlds, micro and macro, in which we find ourselves.  To be woke is to understand at many levels the dynamics that swirl around us, to be able to respond in ways where we don’t shut down ourselves, growing sullen, quiet and offended; nor should we shut down others. To be woke is to understand the complexities beyond our particular milieu, to see and experience life and the world beyond our particular station and status with empathetic eyes and compassionate souls.

 

As I listened to those young people on that news report giving honor to God as their source of inspiration that sustained them during their days of organizing and advocacy in the public square, I had my own epiphany – a recognition of something divinely inspired.  I had my own encounter of being woke.  The insight was and remains this: it is faith in an eternal and loving God that is, for those of us who are believers, just about the only thing that will keep us woke and see us through dark and troubled times.  Let me say it again, for those of us who believe, faith in an eternal and loving God is just about the only thing that will keep us woke and see us through dark and troubled times.

 

Think about woke faith represented in the scripture lessons for this epiphany Sunday: the call of Samuel in the Old Testament reading and the call of the disciples, at least some of them, in the reading from the gospel of John.  This is the time of the liturgical year where we celebrate and commemorate the manifestation of God in our midst, highlighted in many Christian traditions with the magi or Wise Men who visit the baby believed to be God made manifest in human form. A mystery so divine, so loving that it requires a response from those who had heard and experienced it.  Epiphany is a time of Woke faith, when we are intensely aware that something extraordinary has occurred in our midst, something otherworldly that requires something of us.  The season of Epiphany.  A time of intense woke faith.  “Speak, Lord, your servant hears” is what Samuel said after being instructed by Eli. Woke faith.  Come and follow me is Jesus’ message to the disciples and their message to others.  Men declaring their allegiance to one they believed to be the Son of God, perhaps even God in every sense, declaring it so, picking up  where they are, turning around, waking up, and following this man called Jesus.  In the Book of Samuel, we hear the story of this little boy Samuel answering the call of God to become a prophet of God, a prophet sprung from Divine Love; a prophet to his people. Woke faith.

 

As I continued to listen to that report about those young African American organizers in Alabama, and their praise of God and chants of “woke vote,” I thought about the faith of the folks who had preceded them.  I thought of my enslaved ancestors, who had every right to be woke and to give up on God.  Theirs was a heavy burden.  You know of the horrors.  We have read of the horrors of slavery in books; seen them depicted in movies, on stage, mini-series on TV.  When slaves could have simply turned their backs and lost faith in everything, they did not fold, because surrender for them was not an option, as the late Derrick Bell wrote in his book “Faces at the Bottom of the Well.”   Even though my slave ancestors labored in anguish under the cutting lash of the whip and the merciless weight of oppression, surrender was not their final answer; faith in an everlasting God was their answer to the horrors of oppression.  In the midst of their often unimaginable and unspeakable circumstance, they remained woke.   You can hear it in the words of Harriet Tubman, who risked her life to free more than three hundred of her enslaved sisters and brothers.  Tubman said: "I always tole God," she said, "'I'm gwine [going] to hole stiddy on you, an' you've got to see me through.'" Theirs was a faith in a God of deliverance, a God of love and a God of justice.  Theirs was a woke faith.

 

It was this same faith that gripped the man we remember and commemorate this weekend: Martin Luther King Jr.  Dr. King was a very young man when he stepped out to lead the Montgomery bus boycott, barely 26 years old.  He was 28 when he because the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; a position he held until he was assassinated 11 years later. For all of his humanness, Dr. King had a consciousness of God we rarely see in our midst, a woke-ness if you will, so woke, that his faith and his response to God compelled him to make the ultimate sacrifice of his life so that I and many others might live a bit more freely.  This type of faith is a challenge to all of us, not just this weekend, but for every day we take a breath on this earth.

 

I see the emergence of this faith in the students who come to Union never having opened a bible or as much as sung a hymn.  We have many students who come as spiritual but not religious.   They come because after all their advocacy and protests, something stirs within them.  Something woke them up and something woke up within them.  I have heard them say they are looking to be grounded in this world but not of it.  They’ve had their epiphany---their faith awakened within them.  After occupying Wall Street and insisting that black lives really do matter, through marching, lying down in the middle of major highways, or sitting in at statehouses and on Capitol Hill, spending nights in jails, these students come to us. They were woke. Many of these students come to us looking for the faith and sustenance that carried Martin Luther King through the trials and struggles of trying to make a dream real.  Woke faith.

 

And I dare say we need woke faith in this age as much as we have ever needed it before.  I came of age in the civil rights movement.  I came of age when there was much hope in my young heart for continued racial, economic and social progress even in this midst of strife.  There were elections along the way and circumstances that befell from time to time to test that hope, but there was always a sense of progress.  Always a sense we were moving forward.  And clearly we have.  The work of Martin King and the thousands who have heard a similar call to action has not been in vain.  The success of people of color in the US is remarkable given where we started.  We still have deep and seemingly intractable issues:  the overrepresentation of black and brown people in prison; underfunded and poorly staffed schools; limited access to healthcare, particularly in many southern states, with little to know access for new medicines to retard and treat the spread of HIV infections.  The killing of unarmed black men by law enforcement, even while we had the nation’s first black president, destabilized the nation.  But the progress of black and brown people in America is real.  I feel like I embody this progress.

 

Yet, something is desperately wrong in these United States of America today.  Not just for black or brown folks, folks from those (expletive) nations like Haiti, El Salvador and of the continent of Africa, but for everybody.  If there was ever a people who needed to be woke and hear afresh the message of the Almighty it is many of those who live and labor blocks from here.  From 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue right up to Capitol Hill, something is wrong.  Too many folks over there ain’t woke.  Scripture says the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light.  Way too many leaders from the Hill to the White House don’t seem to have seen any light at all.  Everyday some new revelation has the feel of plunging us deeper into darkness.  Trampling on the basic standards of fundamental human decency.  Shredding of environmental regulations, gratuitously destroying healthcare for the weak and vulnerable while grotesquely shifting massive amounts of money to corporations and people who have many times more than they will ever need.  Tweeting transphobic and homophobic changes in military policy with little regard for military commanders and even less regard for disrupting the lives of loyal Americans serving in our armed forces. Mysogyny unfettered. Erecting obstacles at every turn to keep people from participating in the democratic process.  That so-called and now defunct voter fraud commission defined fraudulence by its very mission. It all makes implicit bias and microaggressions seem down right civilized.

No. Not woke.  But demonic, diabolical, deliberate walking in darkness, destroying God’s creation and God’s creatures while popping corks of celebratory champagne, clinking bottles of beer in fits of glee, and shamelessly smiling before the cameras.  Something is desperately wrong.

In his final speech 50 years ago this year, the night before he died, Dr King said:  The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period…in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding--something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up…the cry is always the same--"We want to be free."

Yes, in this darkness some are woke enough to see the stars. I have a sense that we are here this morning because we have a notion that whatever is wrong out there, or within us, or perhaps out there and within us, there might be a few woke answers in this place, some enlightened direction, a word from the Lord, even a call from God asking us to follow.  Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, puts it like this:  "Can there be something in life that has power over us which little by little causes us to forget all that is good? And can this ever happen to anyone who has heard the call of eternity quite clearly and strongly? If this can ever be, then one must look for a cure against it. Praise be to God that such a cure exists – that is, to quietly make a decision. A decision that joins us to the eternal. It brings what is eternal into this time. A decision that raises us with a shock from the slumber of monotony. A decision that breaks the magic spell of custom.  A decision that disrupts the long row of weary thoughts. A decision that pronounces its blessing upon even the weakest beginning, as long as it is a real beginning.  A decision that is the awakening to the eternal." 

 

So what is our decision this morning? This is always the question of people of woke faith.  What will be our experience of walking with God? Will we wake up our spirits, minds, souls and psyches?  Will we wake from the slumber of paralyzing monotony and the enslaving spell of custom?  Will we authentically, profoundly, consistently stay woke? Will we hear anew the words of Dr. King as he quoted the prophet Amos when he said “let justice roll down like rushing water and righteous like an ever-flowing stream”?

 

Fifty years ago, on the last night of his life, Dr. King preached his final sermon.  He said: “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

 

 Woke faith…to God be the Glory. Amen

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