Foundry UMC

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In Beath

December 10th, 2017

Publisher's Note: The audio file from this week will be available on Monday, January 18. We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience

 

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, December 10, 2017, the second Sunday of Advent.

Texts:  Isaiah 40:1-11Mark 1:1-8

 

Foundry’s music-inspired annual theme gives us opportunity to lift up a little-known word and concept: anacrusis.  An “anacrusis” consists of the note or notes that are the “lead-in” or “pick-up” notes for a melody before what’s called the first “down beat” of the song. You don’t have to understand the music theory of it to appreciate the metaphor. A musical anacrusis is the beginning, the entry point into a song. Advent is the beginning, the entry point into the Christian year. 

 

Last week we introduced a resource provided for you this Advent season, a weekly prayer card including a scripture verse and invitation to practice breath prayer. Our hope is that the prayer card will be an “anacrusis”—an entry point into moments of mindfulness with God.  This week’s prayer is…

 

Breathe…pray…silence…

 

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Our worship today is filled with music and singing. I learned to sing in the children’s choir of First UMC, Sapulpa, Oklahoma. I learned about harmony and creating a “blend” of sound with other voices. I learned that singing depends on breath and was taught how to use my breath to create and sustain sound.  Brass and woodwind instruments also make sound only with breath—and to make the music we’re hearing today requires highly developed use of the breath!  Some who may not be singers or musicians but practice yoga will have experience with what I’m talking about through chanting “OM”—always preceded by an intentional, deep in-breath… The out breath carries the sound; the deeper the inbreath, the more sustained the chant. The precursor for chanting, singing, for speaking, for crying out is breath. Without breath, there’s no sound, no music.  So the first thing you need to do if you’re going to sing is take a breath IN. //

 

Today we hear the first lines from what is believed to be the oldest account of Jesus’s life—the Gospel of Mark.  And in Mark’s story of Jesus, there’s no Bethlehem or heavenly host or glowing starlight.  As I’ve said before, Mark’s drama is less Hallmark Channel and more independent film.  And the scene picks up with a character whose appearance must have been odd even for his own day.  It’s rare that someone’s attire or menu selection is mentioned in scripture—and yet the characteristically spare language of the author of Mark includes these details.  So it’s unlikely that John’s wildness and weirdness are described only for entertainment value.  Instead, I imagine, it’s part of the point, part of the message.  Just to look at John heralds something different, something jarring, something uncomfortable. And then he cries out. And what does he cry? Repent! Confess! John’s voice is even more alarming than his appearance, it’s a voice crying out for things to change, for hearts and lives to change, for people to get ready for something—someone—who is coming, one who will be even more disruptive still.

 

John is the fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah, is the voice crying out, the one sent to prepare the way of the Lord.  But to cry out with such power requires a deep in-breath. Before John cried out, “Repent!” what did he breathe IN?  Well, in addition to a big gust of the Holy Spirit (in Hebrew and Greek Spirit also means “breath”)--I contend that the “in breath” fueling John’s proclamation, the thing John breathed in is the vision of a changed world, the prophetic vision of God’s reign of peace. The inbreath is the vision of God’s Kindom we pray comes to earth as it is in heaven. The vision is of a reality in which bodies—black and brown bodies, female bodies, trans bodies, bodies of every gender, shape, and ability—are treated with tenderness and respect and not as objects to be used or violated or abused; the vision is a reality in which earth, sea, sky, and all that dwell therein are nurtured in interdependence instead of exploited for financial gain or cheap comfort; the in-breath fueling John’s proclamation is a vision of a reality in which people share their gifts so that children and the most vulnerable are fed and safe, a reality in which provision is made for the stranger and sojourner, a reality in which families are not ripped apart by bad and unevenly applied laws, a reality in which the healing arts are extended to those who are sick regardless of whether they are rich or poor; the in-breath fueling John’s cry is the vision of a reality in which people are not afraid of difference, but delight in the rich variety within the human family, a reality in which guns are transformed into farming tools, a reality in which slavery and the violence that roams in the night is a thing of distant memory.

 

This vision of peace and care is a vision of God’s Kin-dom fulfilled; it’s a certainly incomplete composite of prophetic promises and when the vision will come to fruition is known only to God.  This vision of God’s future is the metaphorical in-breath of John and every prophet before and since. John breathed in the vision of God’s Kin-dom of peace and love and justice.  And then—only then—could he cry out with such strength and clarity: “repent!” Because the wilderness John inhabited is much like the one in which we stand today. And where we stand today doesn’t look like God’s reign of peace.

 

John’s proclamation is not a buttoned up, status quo, eggnog and cheeseball, bought-with-a-credit-card kind of thing. It is, rather, a cry reaching for something very, very different. For a world, for people, to be very, very different. Repentance, a dramatic turn from all that is wrong and a turn toward the ways of God’s love and peace—that is what’s clearly needed. Things need to change. And the prophetic vision—then as now—is both the fuel and the goal, both the inspiration and the focal point for that change.

 

Pastor Ben Roberts, our Director of Social Justice Ministries, shared a fascinating phenomenon with our worship team as we began thinking about how we would celebrate Advent at Foundry this year.  Here’s the upshot: A human being who is blindfolded can’t walk in anything remotely resembling a straight line.  When blindfolded, people end up going in circles and often end up where they started.  Studies show this is true when folks are placed in any context—an open field, a forest, a beach.  Without blindfolds, weather conditions affect the outcome. When the sun is shining, folks go in a straight line; cloudy, foggy days result in more circles. Researchers have yet to find any biological reason for this. As one author writes, “Humans, apparently, slip into circles when we can't see an external focal point, like a mountain top, a sun, a moon. Without a corrective, our insides take over and there's something inside us that won't stay straight.”[i]  So it seems that in order to get to a destination, we need to have a clear vision of where we want to arrive in the future. Having that vision affects each step we take in the present.

 

Our external focal point is the Kin-dom of God, the vision of a world at peace and living with love and justice. That is what gives us direction and a sense of peace—or at least encouragement that going in circles in the wilderness isn’t the only option.  The Kin-dom is our preferred destination and that vision affects the steps and direction of our lives today.  We have a fancy word for this in Christian metaphysics: “eschatology” is the study of how the vision of the future shapes the present.

 

John—in his appearance and his words—won’t let us forget that reaching the future vision requires change, requires repentance—and not just from others.  Unless you have already arrived at the perfect love and peace of life in God’s Kin-dom, free of any temptation, resentment, or apathy then you—like me—need to repent, to change.  But you can count on this: God wants to help you and God’s love and mercy are eternally present.  So breathe deeply today the hopeful vision of God’s reign of peace and love, and allow that in-breath to fuel your life and hope and grant you the ability to lift up your voice with strength, to sing God’s song of humility, justice, generosity, and love.

 

Perhaps we don’t have voices like our soloists today, or the breath and skill to play the instruments we hear; perhaps you don’t have the wild charisma of John the Baptizer; but as people who have taken in the good news of God’s love and the promise of a world transformed, our lives and voices and choices just might become what points others in a direction that gets us all where we want to go.

 

 

[i] Robert Krulwich, “A Mystery: Why can’t we walk straight?” https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2011/06/01/131050832/a-mystery-why-can-t-we-walk-straight

When?

December 3rd, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC December 3, 2017, the first Sunday of Advent.

 

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37

 

Today we begin a new Christian year. Just as there is a unique Chinese calendar and Jewish calendar (and many others across cultures), the Christian community has its own cycle of seasons to give shape and meaning to time and to delineate days of special celebration and remembrance. Advent is the first season—the entry point—of the Christian year and is a time of preparation for the great feast of the Incarnation, what we commonly call Christmas. Advent includes simple practices—like the lighting of candles and the use of sacred symbols like evergreens, circular wreaths, stars, and the like—to stir our senses and awaken us to beauty and to an awareness of God. At Foundry this year, our music-inspired annual theme provides an opportunity to learn what will be, for many, a new word and concept.  An “anacrusis” consists of the note or notes that are the “lead-in” or “pick-up” notes for a melody.  I’ll use a familiar song to illustrate (appropriate for an anticipated birth).  [sing “Happy Birthday” but start with “birthday to you…”] The “happy” at the beginning of the song is the anacrusis. Just as an anacrusis is the beginning, the entry point into a song, Advent is the entry point into the Christian year.  

 

One of the particular practices of this season, is the intentional marking of time. Advent is a time of waiting and watching, of opening our eyes and hearts through spiritual practices. With all the hustle and bustle of the season, pausing for even a few moments to light a candle and say a prayer can be profound. This year, Foundry is providing a resource for each week during Advent, a prayer card drawing from the week’s scriptures. The prayer cards are an invitation to practice breath prayer. This simple prayer practice can be done anywhere. Use it as a mantra, as a brief prayer in the morning, evening or throughout the day. Use it as Spirit leads. I hope the prayer card will itself be an “anacrusis”—an entry point into moments of mindfulness with God.  The cards will be available as you exit worship today…

 

Explain breath prayer and practice it for a few seconds…

 

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What is the world coming to?  Well, I’m afraid it’s coming to a place where empire is strong as ever.  I know there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out next week, and even though there are plenty of narrative resonances between that saga and the world we inhabit, that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is empire as reflected in our ancient texts and experienced right up to our own day.  I’m talking about empire that consists of consolidation of power by a small, wealthy ruling class, the abuse of people and the planet for economic gain, the shameless rationalizations of these practices by religious leaders who are in bed with those pulling the strings, and the public promotion of the voices of those religious leaders to provide legitimation for injustice.

 

Last year at this time, we grappled with our prophetic call, a call to challenge empire, to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.  The words of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann challenged us to understand that living under the conditions of empire threatens a slide into a “numbed consciousness of denial.”[i]  The imperial reality distracts, rationalizes, and drugs the populace so that people fall asleep, so that the awareness of human pain and struggle won’t get in the way of business as usual and a healthy bottom line for those in the top 1%.  Bread and circuses, smoke and mirrors, flash and spin… Empire employs these and many other tactics to tempt us to turn toward ourselves, to be protective of our own comfort, fearful for our own safety, so distracted by all the chaos and shiny objects swirling around us that we lose sight of what matters most of all—so distracted that we lose sight of one another; so distracted that we lose sight of God.

 

What is this world coming to? I see this world cozying up to empire… And, oh, how easy it is to grow numb… How easy to look upon the state of the world with either heartbroken despair or with hatred and blame.  Because it sure seems like the world is coming to a whole lot of more of the same evil, injustice, and oppression that the prophets have been railing against since the earliest recorded prophets back in the 8th century BCE. When will it be different?

 

I just celebrated a birthday—not quite hitting the 5-0 mark, but within close range.  And I find myself thinking a lot about the passage of time.  As I’ve meditated upon the state of the world and of the church, I’ve also thought about folks who’ve been alive a lot longer than me and those whose experiences have been so different from my own due to race, gender, identity, orientation, opportunity, and more—and I wonder what they’ve seen, I wonder what you’re thinking, how you’re feeling now.  As we observed World AIDS day I’ve thought about those of you who lived through the terrifying, devastating initial outbreak back in the 1980s, who lost countless friends and loved ones and those who are living with HIV today.  As I realized it was 62 years ago this past Friday that Rosa Parks stood up for justice and her own dignity by sitting down in a bus, I thought about those of you who’ve been in the struggle for racial equity and justice your whole lives because of the color of your skin and of those who have long labored to be allies in that struggle.  When I feel weary or am tempted to despair, when I become mindful of my own failures, foibles, selfishness, and complicity, it’s helpful to think of you who’ve been at this thing called life and faith for so long, who’ve labored to know God and to know yourselves, who’ve been through so much, and—nevertheless—keep showing up, keep acting up, keep standing up for love and mercy, in faith, hope, and love.

 

In my musings upon time, I’ve also pondered how it will feel to preach on the traditional Advent scriptures twenty years from now.  Today, we’ve heard what’s called the “little apocalypse” of Mark. Those who first heard these words had done their best to resist empire. They had organized and rebelled against the Roman occupying force. And it had ended in disaster and devastation. Their hopes were dashed and the sacred center of their lives—the Jewish Temple—had been destroyed.  It is this context that gave rise to the words we hear today.

 

Apocalyptic is a genre of sacred writing whose function is to respond to moments of crisis with revelation of things to come. Folks tend to think of apocalypse as the end of the world.  That is kind of true, but only if “the end of the world” is understood as the band R.E.M. sang about it—the end of the world as we know it.  As Dr. Karoline Lewis writes, “When apocalyptic shows up in biblical writings, you know time has changed, time is changing, and it’s time to pay attention—not to prepare for the end of time, as this genre is so frequently misunderstood, but to expect the revelation of God in our time. And not just God’s arrival, but God’s ongoing presence and God’s certain reign that transforms our time. God’s control of time. God’s directing of time toward all that is good and perfect and true.”[ii]

 

Apocalyptic speaks of the revelation of God’s presence, the revelation of God’s activity, the anticipation of God’s in-breaking, of God’s drawing near. These writings are usually cryptic and dramatic, poetic and often scary.  But they are meant to evoke awe and to wake people up to anticipate God’s arrival.  Apocalyptic doesn’t ultimately signal what the world’s coming to, but what’s coming to the world—who’s coming to the world.[iii]

 

Apocalyptic writing calls us to expect God to show up and do something good. But, as so many of you have said to me, some days it’s difficult to see or to expect anything good, perfect, or true to appear. That difficulty may be the result of mental or physical illness or struggle against addiction or being worn out and overwhelmed or being in a relationship that feels on the verge of implosion or of the general state of the world and the oppressive tyranny of empire.  In my darkest moments, I worry and wonder: in twenty or forty years, when I stand to preach these texts yet again, will time have been transformed at all?  If not, will I have the faith I see in so many of you?—a strong, stubborn, commitment to compassion and to hope even when things seem hopeless… I worry and wonder: Will the world have come to anything resembling the Kin-dom or will empire continue its mind- and heart-numbing churn, its boot still ground into the necks of the vulnerable as it has for century upon century upon century?  How long, O Lord? When will the times be different than they are today? 

 

“About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mk 13:32-33)

 

That’s just aggravating. But even though we may want something else, we are given something. We are given clear instruction: in a time of crisis and turmoil and all the chaos of empire, stay awake and look for God to show up. And, when I let go of my weariness and worry, I remember—and perhaps you will too—moments that prove that when God shows up, things do change—time shifts from measured minutes and seconds into timeless moments and never-forgotten memories. When God draws near, we find our voice or the strength to keep going, we discover we’re not alone, that even with all our imperfections and fears we possess gifts to share, we see here and there the ways that our choices have made a positive difference.  When God intervenes, love happens, ways get made when there really is no way, death is no longer the end, and despair is overcome with hope.  Our hope is possible because even when it seems the world is coming to no good, God comes to the world.  Every time.

 

[i] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 81

[ii] Karoline Lewis, “Advent Time,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5007

[iii] Jim Harnish, “What’s Coming?” https://jimharnish.org/2017/11/30/whats-coming/

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“Don’t Hold Back”

November 26th, 2017

 

A sermon preached by T.C. Morrow at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC on November 26, 2017.

 

Scripture: 1 Samuel 3:8-18

 

 

Good morning.  We are in the midst of a year long theme of Faith Remastered, a distinctly musically inspired theme playing off of technologies that allow for enhancing sound quality of recordings.  We’re looking afresh at scripture and other practices in our tradition – you may recall our readings from John Wesley’s 1761 “Directions for Singing” –  looking at how they can be dusted off and relevant for the living out of our days. 

 

Our current sermon series theme is on mashups – the sometimes good and sometimes bad blending and merging of lyrics and tunes from two distinct songs.  Our relationships are like that too – bringing together distinct personalities and desires in blends that can have all kinds of results.  In a week with Thanksgiving, whether spending time with family that you grew up with or chosen family, we are perhaps extra attuned to the colorful tapestry woven together from our relationships --- loose threads, spectacular patterns and all.

 

Two weeks ago Pastor Will examined Ruth and Naomi, showing how authentic relationship does not simply commodify our interactions, warning us of the pitfalls of participating in a “consumptive relational economy” as Pastor Will named it.  Last week Pastor Dawn explored the story of Cain and Abel, looking at the messiness of our relationships – and the importance of how we respond, how we rise given the troubles and messiness.  This week we turn to Samuel and Eli.

 

Will you join me in prayer:  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and redeemer.  Amen.

 

Don’t even think about hiding anything from me.  Don’t hold back!

 

Samuel’s maybe ten or twelve years old when he hears this admonition from his mentor, his foster father Eli.  Since he was just a few years old, he has lived with the priest Eli at Shiloh, the main worship site for the Israelite people before the construction of the first temple in Jerusalem.

 

Eli trained Samuel as a priest, though this role was not initially one of Samuel’s own choosing.  While still an infant, Samuel’s mother Hannah made promises for Samuel’s life.  The text says that she decided he would be a nazirite from birth, someone set apart for God’s service with some special rules like no wine and no cutting of your hair.  Surely Samuel could have ignored his mother’s faithful dedication of her first born to God’s service and God’s subsequent call, but sometimes even when we land in circumstances not entirely of our own choosing, we nonetheless embrace them.  Samuel embraces the path before him and goes on to become a prophet and leader, ushering in the transition into a monarchy, unifying the disparate tribes of Israelites.

 

So your mother has dropped you off to live with some guy, whose own sons were engaging in one might call extravagant living – enjoying the company of women who were not their wives and skimming off the best portions of the meat that the people were offering to God.  Eli’s sons corrupted their roles as religious leaders and while it may sound as harsh to you as it does to me, the text says that God punished their despicable, greedy behavior by essentially cursing their family.

 

Samuel has lived with Eli for maybe a decade at this point, but the text says that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord.” (1 Samuel 3:7) He knew his religious duties, but there was something more to know.

 

“Samuel! Samuel!”  It’s the middle of the night when Eli says once and then again, “No, I’m not calling you.” (1 Samuel 3:4-6)  Only on the third time does Eli understand what’s going on.  Eli understands that God is calling Samuel.  In his role as spiritual mentor, Eli guides Samuel into a receptive state to hear from God.  Ironically, in equipping Samuel to understand that it is God calling, Eli empowers Samuel to hear a word against Eli’s family.  Samuel receives a vison that he is afraid to share the information with Eli.  And rightly so.

 

“What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” (1 Samuel 3:17)

 

Eli wants Samuel to hide nothing from the vision.  We manage a lot of our relationships hiding something, or telling part truths or what we think someone wants to hear.  You can imagine Samuel interpreting the vision into something like: Well, the actions of your kids leave a lot of room for improvement. 

 

Eli demands that Samuel hide nothing, and in doing so demands from himself that he pay attention to what Samuel says.

 

Eli gets ahead of any half-truths, insisting that Samuel tell him everything.  Authentic relationship demands the hard work of truth-telling.  When we hide things, we are in control.  On the other hand, truth telling leaves us vulnerable.  Vulnerable to not being believed, vulnerable to attack, vulnerable to being shunned or ostracized.  But the cost of hiding things can be high as well.

 

Authentic relationship also demands the hard work of truth-listening.  To hear someone else’s experience means risking your own comfort, risking the possibility that you will have to adjust your own understandings.  But that is what living in authentic community demands. 

 

In a time of technology allowing for tremendous communications, fake news is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the desire to control messaging.  Both saying and receiving real news, real facts, real feelings takes intention and courage.  When Eli tells Samuel to hide nothing, it means Eli is also telling himself to hear what is being said.

 

In thinking about truth-telling and truth-listening, I can’t help but think about the many women, and some men, who have been moved recently to share their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault.  Even here in 1 Samuel, we read of power dynamics and sexual impropriety.  God holds to account the sons of Eli for taking advantage of their religious roles and having sex with the women who served as greeters at the worship site at Shiloh.

 

I’ve appreciated the “we hear you. we believe you.” messages I’ve seen on social media as people share their stories of surviving sexual harassment and sexual assault.  These are important first steps, but it will take significant cultural change to fully shift away from the vestiges of the notion that women are property.  You don’t need to treat women as you would treat your mother or your sister – though I understand the sentiment – it should not be a radical notion to treat women as human beings.  Gentlemen, a few social media posts, especially of the “well, I respect women” type do not necessarily mean you are fully an ally to women.  I invite you to engage in some truth-listening, you may learn an additional way or two that you can more authentically respect women.  If you have already been doing so, I am at least one woman who says thank you. 

 

Also, I want to emphasize that changing laws does not change behavior and attitudes.  It may do so, and is a vital step, but not decisive.  From addressing pay gaps to comments like “well, what did she expect?”, it will take determination to overcome even the most seemingly benign sexism, not to mention the outright misogyny all too prevalent.  It will take not just truth-telling, but truth-listening.

 

While there are all kinds of truth-telling that take place in one on one relationships, communities and societies, the role of prophet is both naming what needs changed and giving a vision of how things can be ordered to get just a little closer to embodying the kin-dom of God.  Samuel is afraid because he has to tell Eli some really bad news about his family.  However, the content of the vision implies that Eli already knew the bad news.  So other than it being awkward to talk to your foster Dad about the actions of his grown sons, what did Samuel have to fear?  I think Samuel is afraid because receiving a vision from God, receiving a call from God can be really scary.  If this vision came, what else might come?

 

Eli gives Samuel a gift – a clear instruction on what to do with a vision: Don’t hold back!

 

Their relationship allows Samuel to learn to speak the truth from God, to learn to respond to God’s call to share a prophetic word.  Responding to a call from God takes discernment.  The voice of God is all around but do we recognize it?  Samuel didn’t even put together what was happening right away. 

 

This passage illustrates the need for that discernment to take place in community.  Eli is the one who recognizes God, and then gives the encouragement for Samuel to share the message he received from God.  Prophetic leadership requires authentic relationships.  This passage serves as a dramatic introduction to Samuel’s role as a prophet.  The prophets do not only call out what is wrong, what is out of sync, but they name what can be.

 

Of course God speaking aloud doesn’t happen too much these days, but there are those who can testify to receiving a word from the Lord, a vision of what can be.  There are those who we think of like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rev. Dr. William Barber.  But also Bill Kirk comes to mind, a Foundry member for almost 30 years until his death in 2011, who helped end the institutionalized racism of the Central Jurisdiction of The Methodist Church upon the merger into The United Methodist Church. 

 

Several of the ministries of this congregation give prophetic leadership in civil and religious spheres.  Yet even as we strive to be truth-tellers, we must always remember to be truth-listeners as well.  This includes being in ministry “with” and not “to”, building relationships and being open to transformation ourselves.

 

Also, in order to continue to refine how we are best ordering ourselves – and it is nothing like the Israelites’ shift from judges to kings as told in the next few chapters of 1 Samuel  –we are embarking on a period of some structural change here at Foundry in order to even better serve our mission to love God, love each other and change the world.  We are moving toward a new staffing pattern and I invite you to hold the staff and Foundry lay leadership in prayer during this upcoming time of transition.

 

Truth-telling and truth-listening – the mashup of Samuel and Eli shows us that authentic relationships with each other, and indeed with God, requires speaking the truth and listening to the truth.

 

Don’t hold back your hope, your pain, your joy, your torment, your peace, your brokenness. 

Don’t hold back in building authentic relationships, where your vulnerability might allow for another’s vulnerability to break through.

Don’t hold back in naming your own experience. 

Don’t hold back in speaking truth to power. 

Don’t hold back from resisting evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

Don’t hold back in speaking truth in love for the sake of the kin-dom of God. 

Don’t hold back from knowing you are a beloved child of God, just as is baby Anna who is getting baptized today. 

Don’t hold back from being open to the transformative power of the one who shattered expectations and brings new life, the one who we strive to follow on this Reign of Christ Sunday.

Don’t hold back from seeing Christ in the stranger, the imprisoned, the unhoused, the hungry, the naked, those who are sick and need healthcare.

Don’t hold back from responding to God’s call.  God calls you and you and you and me and all of us – individually and together as the Foundry community.

And when God gives you a vision, don’t hold back from sharing that vision.

Don’t hold back.

Amen.

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Love Me, Tinder

November 12th, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Will Green at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington D.C. on Sunday, November 12, 2017. 

 

Text: Ruth 1:7-18

 

Today we begin a new sermon series as part of our "Faith: Remastered" annual theme, pivoting from John Wesley's historic Rules for Singing and thinking together about how our individual voices and ministries harmonize and enliven Foundry's mission and vision, to a decidedly more modern musical concept. Mashups.

          Truly a product of the 20th century, musical mashups fuse the harmonies, lyrics, and melodies of two separate musical pieces into a third, new composition. While retaining individual elements unique to each, a mashup in its truest form has an altogether different identity, oftentimes having rhythms or sounds which serve as the glue that holds sometimes very different songs or genres in vital tension with one another.

          Done well, mashups bring new life to otherwise tired melodies and create space for us to hear things we've heard before in a new way. Done poorly, mashups are a gibberish of lyrics and sounds which fail to maintain the integrity of the original pieces involved and result in a confused and...if their like me, consternated, audience (think Will trying to watch "Glee").

          There’s perhaps no other musical styling which best fits a focus on the relationships we share with one another and with God. Like a musical mashup, the spaces that exist between us are rife with creative potential, holding in them the opportunity to change and transform us whether in a passing smile on the street or a life-long partnership with one we love. Every relationship is an opportunity to honor the beauty of our individual identities while together becoming  something unique and beautiful unto itself.

          Likewise, our relationships are equally prone to being problematic, as rife with the potential for chaos and consternation as creativity. Like a bad mashup, relationships turn toxic when we fail to honor another's individuality, slip into patterns which sees each other, in the words of philosopher Immanuel Kant, “as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves,” or fail to remember the importance of every voice in God's song of grace and of life.

          And so, over these next few weeks as we consider the biblical mashups between Ruth and Naomi, Cain and Abel, and Samuel and Eli I invite you to bring your whole self to the conversation, honoring the beauty with which you've been created and called Beloved of God, and keeping your eyes open for new opportunities to blend your song, our song, and God's song into a new proclamation of God's love for the world. Let us pray:

 

          The irony of asking a single, gay, 30-something to preach the inaugural sermon in a series about relationships isn't lost on me, especially given the monumental shifts occurring in the ways we date and build relationships with each passing year. Apps like Bumble, Tinder, Hinge, Chappy, OkCupid, and Her, not to mention websites like eHarmony, PlentyOfFish, Match, Compatible Partners, and apps of an even more…dubious…intent like Grindr or Scruff, are used—in theory—to help the overbooked user more easily sort through potential matches than the “old fashioned” way of meeting folk in person.

Take Tinder, for instance. Users create a profile which other users view images  they’ve shared and POSSIBLY read a biography, swiping right for if they hope for a match or left on if they hope for a…well, an absence of that person in their dating pool. It seems, these days, that the most pressing theological question we need to ask is what Jesus would have in his Tinder profile. Given that our sanctuary comes pre-set with a profile picture (of dubious accuracy, mind you), I took a stab at writing one on his behalf:

 

30-something who loves wild, wine-fueled wedding parties with Mom. Enjoys hiking, camping, and fishing with my 12 guy friends...everywhere...all the time. We’re actually kind of a package deal. Takes  long walks ON the sea. Adores feet...washing. Feet washing. Just a mostly normal guy who wants to save the world...well, kind of already did, so let's just talk about you![1]

 

          Now, before we dismiss this theological rabbit hole as inconsequential or irreverent, hang with me for just a second. Because in a world where, according to a recent Pew Research Study use of online dating apps and sites has tripled in the last 5 years among populations 18-24 and 55-65, and in which 41% of Americans know someone who actively uses online dating to meet potential partners (and you all do because you're looking at one), there might be something here for us to learn.

          Followed to its natural conclusion, I believe it's safe to say that Jesus would have been a profound failure at online dating, not because his credentials would fail him or his stories wouldn't make any first date fascinating, but because it the potential to so quickly reduce the value of human life and wonder of our individual complexity to easily consumed sound bytes and images, allowing those who do use it too often to peruse the concept of another—participating in relationship insofar as it fits our needs, expectations, or desires—without ever actually knowing who the person on the other side of the screen is.

          Indeed, the ways in which users feel forced to curate ourselves--picking the perfect picture or even being one of those 53%[2] of users who admit to lying about their weight, height, age, or work on their profile--polishing our self in the hopes of being selected in the great online dating game, denies the beauty of our created being and reduces us to items served up for consumption by a hungry…thirsty, depending on who you're talking to…world. Let alone the fact that multiple studies have revealed an overwhelming increase in judgmental behavior among users both on and off the apps as we constantly engage in the "swiping or scrolling game," shopping while emotionally hungry for some relational fix with a smorgasbord of options and willing to reject at a moment's notice someone who's hair doesn't fall in the right way or who's stats appear to be off-putting.

          Now, believe it or not, this is not a sermon against online dating, app culture, or social media. Far from it, these simply provide an easily accessible example of a much more sinister system operative within the human psyche. The temptation, as it were, to reduce ourselves or one another to easily consumed objects who's primary purpose is to satisfy MY desire, fulfill MY need, support MY sense of self, insulate MY perspective, present in almost every facet of our society. This, what I like to call consumptive relational economy, reduces our relationships to transactions which make of our being—physical, emotional, spiritual—commodities to be traded at the expense of authenticity and the Imago Dei, the image of God, we believe each of us bears.

          And it's nothing new. Just take our reading today. Sometime after Naomi and her family, who were Isaraelites, had moved to and settled in the land of Moab, all of Naomi's male relatives, including her sons who'd married Moabite women, died. This is critical knowledge for the reader, both because Moabites had been expressly written out of the covenant of Israel for 10 generations following their opposition to the entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land. This is important, both because it meant that Naomi was--due to the death of her husband and sons--left alone in a foreign land which was hostile toward her people and in which her daughters-in-law had very little obligation or reason to care for her, and because the social constructs of the day meant that women were completely dependent upon men in their lives to care and provide for them.

          Our pericope pics up with their confrontation of this predicament. On the one hand, Naomi can return to her homeland, abandoning relationship with her daughters in law, and potentially finding protection with her family's husband while Ruth and her sisters in law return to their families and leave behind the family they'd come to know, or they could choose to remain in relationship and run the risk of economic hardship, hunger, homelessness, and rejection from their mutual spiritual and religious communities.

          It's no wonder that Naomi so arduously encourages her daughter's in law to return to their mother's homes, and it makes all the more shocking Ruth's steadfast refusal to do so.

 

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go… your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

 

          I don't know how you cannot hear this as a clear rejection of the consumptive relational economy of her day and an assertion that together the creative and generative potential in their relationship was of far greater value than what they could have apart. Insisting on a new way, she refused to allow herself to fall victim to a world which would reduce her worth the kind of man she was married to, overturned the norms that insisted women were second class players in society, and forged with Naomi a new life which valued equally her worth, their worth, and the opportunities available to them together.

          In taking a risk on relationship and rejecting the temptation to treat Naomi as a means to an end or abandon their relationship when the end seemed no longer worth the means, Ruth offers us a new relational economy which honors our individuality the image of God in, and insists the foundation of our human connections must always be the divine potential present in the spaces between us.

Her decision had world-altering implications. The story ends, not with her eventual marriage to Boaz, but with genealogy which links her to King David and, through him, to Jesus Christ. All this, despite the convention that Moabites were supposed to have been rejected from the covenant community with God. Something only possible because she chose the potential of relationship over the transactional engagement the world expected of her.

          Like Ruth and Naomi, we are routinely presented with opportunities to participate in consumptive relational economies. From Tinder and the ways we are formed to date and build life-long relationship, to the ways our political, social, and oftentimes religious institutions function, the pressure to perform, to consume, to commodify ourselves and one another is ever present.

          It's the way we justify the little white lies and social media performances to attract just one more like or elicit just one more response. How we justify remaining in relationships which are long past a point of health, pretending we're ok out of a fear of what might happen if we weren't. It's the social pressure to forget who we are, what we value, and where we want to be in favor of being seen as part of the in crowd, simultaneously in all of these instances losing ourselves, ignoring our own worth, and using the others around us to create a sense of self just as readily as they are using us.

          It's the way well-intentioned white people will proudly proclaim "Black Lives Matter," consuming the struggle and suffering of black and brown peoples in a way that makes us feel good without ever doing the work to deconstruct the white supremacists structures in which we participate and implicitly support. It's the men on my Facebook page who'll post in support of #metoo and then go right back to embodying toxic masculinity which insulates them from being implicated because "they're just not that kind of guy," happy to make themselves feel better in a moment by supporting a 'movement' but unwilling do what it takes to make the change the movement is calling us to make.

          And y'all, I don't want to step on any toes here or anything--but y'all know I'm about to--when I say we fall into that same trap playing the game of identity politics, using those on the opposite side of the aisle as a foil to sharpen our wit and insulate us from perspectives other than our own. Reducing individuals into a singular identity which simultaneously serves as justification for our personal political leanings and justifying our own recalcitrance in engage those with whom we might disagree.

          Here's the thing: this consumptive relational economy, friends, is tempting. It eliminates the need for vulnerability. It minimizes the risk we take. It allows us control. It makes us feel more secure. It makes the world, and all its peoples and beauty and brokenness much more navigable. And it is entirely counterintuitive to the way we know God to work in the world.

          Ruth's refusal of a commodifying, consumptive relationship with Naomi and embrace of the potential that existed between them is simply an example of God's relationship with creation that as Christians we believe culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Jesus, what we find is a revelation of divine relationship which rejects the way that world would have us reduce and shape ourselves to fit the needs of others, that celebrates the unique and beautiful way in which we EACH and ALL play a role in the kingdom of God, and in which insists, insists, that all are worthy as they are, where they are, of God's grace, love, and mercy.

          Refusing to participate in the transactional, consumptive relational norms, expecting them to curate an identity which was socially acceptable, Jesus met people where they were, as they were. Rather than reducing those around him to their social strata or religious standing, he remained open--even to those who opposed him--to meeting each to what God might do in that encounter. In other words, Jesus was so busy swiping right there was no time to swipe left. Jesus was too busy talking to people to get lost in the endless chatter of messages sent across telephone screens. Jesus was too concerned with creating relationship to get caught up in consuming it.

          Jesus' ministry, if it teaches us nothing else about the way we build and sustain relationships, teaches us that we are created for more than the consumptive, constricting, transactional relationships this world attempts to lure us into. Do you know that? You have been created for more. You who are God's beloved, each beautifully made and uniquely known by God. You are worth more. Worth more than a world which would reduce you to a profile picture and 300-word bio, that would constrict you according to your stats or consume you based upon your worth at that next networking event. You are not your title...or the lack thereof. You are not your network or your net worth. You are are a beautiful, beloved child of God, adopted by grace despite all social convention and accepted norm, and capable of world-changing things. And there is no thing in this world, no matter how many swipes left, no matter what boxes the world might tell you check, no matter how often you might feel coerced into curating yourself for the sake someone else's consumption, that will change the fact that you are sufficient, special, and absolutely loved by the One who's lovesong holds the world together.

          Rooted in God’s love for us, and ready to insist, as Ruth, on relationships which are more than transactional, we are called to relentlessly reshape our own relationships to do the same. Like Ruth we must allow our very lives to proclaim with clarity and conviction that we who are loved by God will not allow ourselves, or those people whom we meet, to any longer be abused by the consumptive relational economies of this world. This means that we will commit ourselves, as people of faith, to always and in every encounter see one another not as a means to an end, but an end in and of each self. It means we must commit to the kinds of self-examination and personal emotional interrogation that carefully consider why we are engaged in the relationships we have, why we seek to form new ones, and how it is we encounter each other as someone of equally sacred worth to ourselves. Most of all it means that in our swiping and in our scrolling, in our politicking and networking, in our advocacy and in our works of mercy insisting on, investing in, and striving for a life which affirms and reaffirms the Imago Dei in every person we meet.

 

[1] Many thanks to the help of Rev. Melissa Meyer, MJ Jean, and Breanna Dahl for helping to workshop this idea.

[2] accessed Nov 9, 2017: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mating-game/201609/the-ugly-truth-about-online-dating

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Bright Morning Stars

November 5th, 2017

A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC November 5, 2017, celebration of All Saints Day.

Text:  Ephesians 1:11-23

 

“Bright morning star”—what a beautiful phrase.  Each word in itself radiates light:  bright…morning…star.  The “star” referred to in this phrase is actually a planet (Venus) that can be seen in the East brightly reflecting the light of the Sun just before dawn.  Down through the ages star gazers have noted this phenomenon.  There is an Appalachian folk song [we heard this morning] that picks up on the image, connecting it to the next life—the resurrection life—promised through Jesus Christ.  The song both mournfully and hopefully cries—“where are our dear fathers, mothers, children? They have gone to heaven, dancing, praying, shouting…day is a’ breakin’ in my soul…” Maybe it’s the strong strain of Ozark roots in my blood, but this lyric and melody always comes to mind as we near the celebration of All Saints Day.  Resurrection, new life, day breaking to bring light into the darkness…  The bright morning star is our sure sign that the sun will rise, giving us another day, another chance; the sun will rise assuring us that we are not destined to live in darkness; the sun will rise to bring light even into troubled times, even into the shadows of death, leading even those who have left this life into the promise of a new day, a new life beyond the veil. 

 

In other words, the bright morning star is a sign of hope.  Our reading from the epistle of Ephesians speaks of hope saying:  “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ… may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.  God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…” (Eph. 1:17-20). 

 

On this day we celebrate All Saints and, above all, this day is about hope.  All Saints is an observance that began as a commemoration of all those martyrs from the early persecutions of Christianity whose names were never recorded and whose memory was in constant peril of being lost. Over time, this celebration was extended to remember all who have lived and died in the faith and now rest eternally and triumphantly from their labors. We continue this aspect of the celebration when we name those persons who have died in the last year and live now in the glory of God.

 

A second dimension of the word “saint” was added through the years by reclaiming the New Testament confession that all those who have been baptized into Christ and declared righteous by grace are, in fact, living saints of God.  If we pay attention to Paul’s writings, we will quickly understand that this doesn’t mean that “living saints” are perfect in any way—Paul addresses even the Christians in Corinth, those whom he has rebuked and castigated for many and various moral offenses, as saints, or holy ones (1 Cor. 1:1-9).  This understanding of what a “saint” is has more to do with what GOD does for us and less to do with what WE are able to do ourselves…that is, to be a “saint” is to know ourselves beloved and embraced by God’s grace.  This aspect of what it means to be a saint—to be one who is so deeply beloved that Jesus was willing to die in order to show us that we need not fear the grave or any darkness—allows us to see and celebrate our union with those for whom Christ died in every time and every place:  we are among the living saints of God who are connected in God’s love to all God’s beloved…Communion of the Saints!

 

What will come to mind for many when we think of “saints” are those exemplary persons throughout history who have acted with such courage, love, mercy, and wisdom that they inspire our deep admiration and our desire to emulate their lives.  Just as we ask people in this life to pray for us, there are many who ask that saints living the resurrection life pray for us as well…

 

In all of these understandings of saints, the common denominator is hope.  And that hope is made possible through Jesus Christ who proves to us that God’s love is stronger than death, stronger than any shadow or darkness.  Jesus is the Son who rises to bring light.  We can celebrate today that our loved ones who have passed into the next life are living in the light of God.  We can celebrate today that Christ’s light so permeates our world that there are those whose lives show forth God’s mercy, love, and wisdom—proving our own capacity to do the same.  And we can celebrate today that because of God’s love, poured out for us freely and fully in Jesus, we live in hope for our own lives and for the life of the world—we need not live in fear.  God’s grace shines on us and through us, granting each of us a new beginning, a fresh start, a new life each and every day!  Bright morning star is rising!  Not only on the other side of death, but day is also breaking in our own souls.  We celebrate today that a new day will dawn when our Communion with God and with all the saints, our Communion with generations past and generations yet unborn, will be brought to fruition around the banquet table of God.  Oh what a day of reunion and communion! 

 

Today, as we gather at the Table of Communion with God, we join our voices to the unending chorus of faith and praise.  And the beautiful promise is that standing and speaking and singing with us are all those who have sojourned with us on earth and now continue their journey with Christ in the heavenly places.  All are one in thee, O God, for all are thine!  Thanks be to God!

 

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