Foundry UMC

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Believer

April 22nd, 2018

Believer

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 22, 2018, the third Sunday after Easter. Polyphony sermon series.

Texts: Psalm 119:64-74, Acts 5:12-21

 

Describing the process of an infant learning to communicate with the sounds of her voice, author Kathleen Norris writes, “Eventually the rudiments of words come; often ‘Mama,’ Dada,’ ‘Me,’ and the all-powerful ‘No!’ An unqualified ‘Yes’ is a harder sell, to both children and adults. To say ‘yes’ is to make a leap of faith, to risk oneself in a new and often scary relationship. Not being quite sure of what we are doing, or where it will lead us, we try on assent, we commit ourselves to affirmation. With luck, we find that our efforts are rewarded. The vocabulary of faith begins.”[i]

 

It’s easy to make things more complicated than they are.  And when we are talking about God things can really get out of hand. So I love Norris’s reminder that faith—at least its vocabulary—begins with simply saying “yes.”  We “try on assent” and “commit ourselves to affirmation” and this risky leap of faith is done in the context of relationship.  We all know something about this.  Someone says “yes” to me—am I willing to respond with my own “yes?”  Someone reaches out to me in relationship, will I affirm that action and that person by reaching back?  Such a move will change your life, will lead to new experiences—and to places you’d never imagine.  Through the experience of human relationship, we learn about love, trust, commitment, friendship. We also learn the pain of betrayal when our trust is broken, we learn the frailty of our own constancy when we fail to be a good friend or partner, we learn the heartbreak that follows when one we have loved deeply must be released into the arms of death.  These experiences teach us about real love and commitment and help us identify what and who is worth risking our “yes” for.

Folks have often said that Jesus is God’s “yes” to us and to the world—that is to say, Jesus is God’s affirmation of us and the sign that God believes in us even with so many good reasons to just pack it in.  God, it seems, loves us and is determined to hang in there with us even when we’re at our worst.  God, it seems, continues to reach out to us to offer encouragement, friendship, correction, and guidance along our journey.  God evidently will forgive us time and again to help us live and love more freely, wisely, and lovingly in relationship with others. That is the Gospel, the good news of this life we share as followers of Jesus.

 

Kathleen Norris says, such news, such love, such a God “is not readily understandable.”  I imagine many would find that an understatement.

 

One of the great perversions within the Church is the teaching—either explicit or implicit—that if you have doubts you’re supposed to pretend you don’t, that if you struggle with teachings of the faith or with issues in your life, then you don’t really belong in the Church.  I can think of nothing further from the truth.  Sadly, there are those who stay away from the life-giving experience of Christian community because no one has ever convinced them that they don’t have to have all the answers—or that they don’t have to blindly go along with what they’ve heard or been taught about the Church, about Jesus, about the Bible.  Also, sadly, there are those who have been part of the Church for years who have never felt it was OK to admit what they don’t understand.  And so they never ask their questions and so they are never able to develop or deepen their faith.

 

Every week you hear me say “no matter what you believe or doubt” you’re welcome to come and bring it!  And even though I say that pretty much without fail, I imagine there are still folks who struggle to trust that their doubts and beliefs are really welcome.  There are plenty of good reasons for this difficulty.

 

Norris writes, “The word ‘belief’ has been impoverished; it has come to mean a head-over-heart intellectual assent. When people ask, ‘What do you believe?’ they are usually asking ‘What do you think?’ I have come to see that my education, even my religious education, left me with a faulty and inadequate sense of religious belief as a kind of suspension of the intellect. Religion, as I came to understand it, was a primitive relic that could not stand up to the advances made in our understanding of human psychological development or the inquiry of higher mathematics and the modern sciences.” She goes on to share “When I first stumbled upon the Benedictine abbey…I was surprised to find the monks so unconcerned with my weighty doubts and intellectual frustrations over Christianity…I was a bit disappointed—I had thought that my doubts were spectacular obstacles to my faith and was confused but intrigued when an old monk blithely stated that doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive and ready to grow.”[ii]

 

This is quite different from what lots of folks will imagine or experience of the Christian perspective on doubt and belief.  So many who write Christianity off do so because they think, as Norris did, that it requires them to believe ridiculous things.  Others reject or abandon the faith because they get a taste of a form of Christianity that is so narrow and legalistic that there is little or no room for questions, for freedom to explore the depths of a wondrous God, for space to wrestle with themselves in the safety of divine love.  Some Christian tribes do emphasize strict adherence to their understanding of the Bible or theological concepts as a requirement to be counted among the “believers.”  This more legalistic approach can lead to a great deal of fear and guilt that you aren’t thinking right or feeling what you’re supposed to feel or doing the right things.  It can end up feeling like a very dysfunctional—if not abusive—relationship.  But the word most often translated “believe” in the Bible—pisteuo in the Greek—is not defined as only what you think or as blind surrender to a questionable relationship

 

Pisteuo means several things including “thinking to be true,” “place confidence in,” and “entrusting or being entrusted with a thing.”  One resource says, “The verb πιστεύω works two ways like the English verb ‘commit.’ If you commit yourself to someone, then you are entrusting yourself to them… At the same time you are supporting them. The two sides are really the summary of a covenantal relationship.”[iii]  (“I believe in you”…)  Kathleen Norris says that “at its Greek root, ‘to believe’ simply means ‘to give one’s heart to.’ Thus, if we can determine what it is we give our heart to, then we will know what it is we believe.”[iv]

 

What I want to suggest today is that to be a “believer” doesn’t mean you are without doubts or that you’ve sacrificed your critical thinking.  To be a believer doesn’t require you to pretend you understand things that baffle you or to act in ways that challenge your sense of integrity. A believer is one who as a result of thinking there is something somehow True about the Gospel message, places confidence in God, and entrusts their heart to God.   A “believer” is simply one who—in one way or another—has been drawn to the love of God and has decided to say “yes” to the journey. 

 

The book of Acts in the Bible is the story of the people who first risked saying “yes.”  The lives of those who traveled with Jesus had a first-hand experience of what it feels like to be perfectly loved and forgiven.  Lord knows the apostles had asked questions, had doubts, missed the point, failed spectacularly in trying to do what Jesus did.  And yet because Jesus believed in them and didn’t give up on them and loved them, they kept walking the path, kept trying to follow and to learn.  They witnessed the wonders of the risen Jesus who appeared to them, proving they didn’t need to be afraid, even of death.  Their changed lives and the story they had to tell and the power of love that flowed from Holy Spirit through them was powerful and healing.  It must have been amazing to see them, these simple, uneducated people—without title or standing in the community—risk so much (even jail!) to share their story and to care for those whom others ignored or cast out.  This is what the apostles did and, through them, other people learned of the good news of God’s love and mercy and meaning and came alongside to travel the way of Jesus.  

 

An angel (literally messenger) of God comes to the rescue of the imprisoned apostles and relates this charge: “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.”  Notice, the angel doesn’t set them free to go and tell the “rules” or the “ideas”…they’re encouraged to tell the whole message about this life. 

 

“This life” is the life they had been given—a life of loving and just relationship with God and other people, a life that is meaningful and purposeful.  It’s a life that says “yes” to love, that says “yes” to compassion, that says “yes” to forgiveness, that says “yes” to vulnerability, that says “yes” to risk and trust and generosity and solidarity… For centuries it is this life that has drawn people to embrace the Christian spiritual path.  That path is well-worn and there are sign posts along the way in the form of spiritual practices, theologies born out of the crucible of experience, prayers, songs, and stories, all resources to help you grow more strong and free, more wise and kind, to help you discern the ups and downs, twists and turns of this life.  We are encouraged to bring our intellect and questions to all of it, to engage the resources and words and images of our faith with the curiosity of an explorer and the wonder of a child.  

 

What if we perceived a “believer” not as someone who has all the answers but who trusts God enough to sit in the ambiguity and frustration of the questions?  What if we perceived a “believer” not as someone who thought a certain way, but rather as someone who lived a certain way, as someone who loved a certain way?  What if being a “believer” is a willingness to entertain Spirit as a companion along your journey, to make yourself available in the spaces where Jesus reportedly shows up (along the margins, among the poor and disenfranchised, with the sick and grieving), and to sit in the discomfort of uncertainty that is guaranteed when we stumble into places like this one?

 

What if?  I don’t have all the answers.  Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

[i] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 1.

[ii] Ibid., 62-63.

[iii] http://www.torahtimes.org/NewTranslation/concordance/pisteuo_definition.html

[iv] Kathleen Norris, 62.

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Abomination

April 15th, 2018

Abomination

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 15, 2018, the second Sunday after Easter. Polyphony sermon series.

Texts: Proverbs 6:16-19, Luke 16:13-15

 

When you hear the word “abomination” what immediately comes to mind?  I imagine that for many people in the general population the word abomination conjures something related to sex or intimate relationships.  There are heavy religious overtones to the word and, in my experience, in Christian contexts, it is most often used by those who are uncomfortable with or downright hateful toward LGBTQ people.  There will be many here today who have been told directly or indirectly that their attraction to persons of the same gender or their own gender identity is abomination or—even worse—that they themselves are “an abomination.”  So what comes to mind when these beloved ones hear the word may be a painful memory or a sharp pang of anger, fear, or clinging shame. 

 

The temptation for me today is to attempt a full-scale apologetic treatise against the mis-interpretations and applications of scripture related to LGBTQ folks—to highlight the ways that the Bible has been used as a sword instead of a plowshare, as a “weapon of oppression rather than as a tool for liberation.”[i]  But, thankfully Pastor Will has, at the ready, a list of books for personal study, and there is currently a Wednesday evening class you can join here at Foundry exploring this very topic—and in a way that will be much more helpful than what I could manage today.  My goal instead is to help us look at this one word “abomination” and explore whether there is any good use for such a dangerous word that has been used to do so much damage.

 

I began my study by looking at all 113 instances of the word translated “abomination” in English in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  In both Hebrew and Greek (it appears mostly in Hebrew) the word means something like “detestable or loathsome things or acts.”  I decided to organize my findings into categories of context including 1) any direct reference to sex, 2) religious impurity, 3) idolatry, and 4) injustice/harm.  In which of these categories do you think the word “abomination” shows up most frequently?

 

The runaway winner is idolatry.  Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that the first of the ten commandments is to “have no other God before me.” (Ex 20:3-4) For some, that may sound kind of scary and controlling—like jealousy of the icky kind.  But here’s the preface to that commandment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Ex 20:2) That, not to mention the full sweep of the biblical story, clues us into the fact that God’s jealousy is not about holding us hostage but setting us free.  God knows that the promises of life, mercy, and hope are fulfilled as we receive God’s love, love God back, and love others as God loves us.  Idols are dead, their promises are empty.  And yet, our religious history reveals that the rulers of Israel consistently turned to idols, putting their trust in wealth, foreign powers, military might, pagan gods, and themselves instead of God.  It generally didn’t end well.

 

In 2 Chronicles we read of one king who tried to remedy this, “Josiah took away all the abominations from all the territory that belonged to the people of Israel, and made all who were in Israel worship the Lord their God.” (2 Chr 34:33)  The abomination here are the idols.

 

And the prophetic texts are clear on this point as well.  Jeremiah writes, “the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.” (Jer 7:30-31)  In the context of idolatry, abomination refers to both the idols themselves and the practices related to idol worship. 

 

Our Gospel passage today is a direct descendent of this ancient struggle.  The temptation to make wealth and prized possessions an idol is a perennial challenge.  Jesus taught simply, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Based on this teaching here are some contemporary idols and practices related to idol worship: greed, the hoarding of wealth, the sacrifice of workers’ health and the health of the environment on the altar of shareholder profits, tax policies favoring the rich, payday lenders taking advantage of the already struggling, the usury of credit card interest rates, advertising schemes that convince us to spend money on things we don’t need, health insurance companies who drop coverage for those who need it most, somehow finding plenty of money for sports and bombs and not enough for education and senior services and mental healthcare, and on and on it could go. Human possessions that become idols promise life and hope and joy and all the while steal those things. That idolatry and the practices of wealth worship are detestable… abomination.

 

The second highest category in which the word “abomination” appeared is in passages related to injustice and unrighteousness.  Our passage from Proverbs is a good example of how this shows up in the Bible. Here are the seven things listed as abomination to God:

 haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
   and hands that shed innocent blood,
 a heart that devises wicked plans,
   feet that hurry to run to evil,
 a lying witness who testifies falsely,
   and one who sows discord in a family.

 

Did any of that come to mind when you heard the word abomination?  And where are all the folks who say they are fundamentalist and “Bible-believing” when it comes to calling out those who are arrogant, who lie, who do violence to the innocent, who scheme in back alleys and backrooms, who don’t resist but embrace evil, who slander others and stir up conflict? The bible clearly says these are abomination.

 

Coming in third on the category list is religious purity—this is the usage in heavy rotation in the book of Leviticus.  It is that book to which folks often turn when they want to assign the word abomination to LGBTQ people.  But what is abomination really about in Leviticus? 

 

“Leviticus 20:25-26 captures the meaning of ‘abomination.’ It reads:  ‘You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; you shall not bring abomination on yourselves by animal or by bird or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples to be mine.’ Evidently, ‘abominable’ is just another word for ‘unclean.’  An ‘abomination’ is a violation of the purity rules that governed Israelite society and kept the Israelites different from the other peoples.”[ii]

 

There are a variety of things that contributed toward something being categorized in ancient Hebrew culture as clean or unclean, pure or “dirty”—perhaps some of them based on the social norms of the day, the perception of primitive science, the understanding of health or safety, or the association with pagan rites (not all of which were benign dancing about with flowers in your hair, but rather could be brutal).  Regardless, the general concern of these ancient purity rules seems to be keeping Israel different from the Gentiles through adherence to a set of norms derived from a worldview that is beyond our full comprehension today.  

 

We may recoil at that and want to focus on what brings us together rather than what makes us different.  But healthy communities do have boundaries and practices that give shape to shared life. The early church stood out in the culture in which they lived because they were trying to be different in a good way.  Grace, mercy, forgiveness, love, generosity, the valuing of women and children, the boundary crossing welcome and embrace of Gentiles, the emphasis on the dignity and value of every member of society regardless of class or caste or ethnicity, covenantal marriage relationships that were loving and just—all of these things were particular marks or at least aspirations of early Christian community—things that made Christians different than other groups.  The old rules governing a person’s inclusion in the people of God shifted dramatically among Jesus’s disciples. In the book of Acts, Peter has a vision clearly shifting the Levitical purity rules around food (Acts 10:9-16) and then later declares, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)  Why do some Christians still call other people “unclean” or “abomination” when the Bible is so clear that’s not OK?  It seems to me that behavior is what steps outside the boundaries set by Jesus; calling another person abomination makes one impure in the technical sense if “impure” is that which sets you at odds with the Christian identity embodied by Jesus.

 

So, abomination in the Bible is most often associated with idolatry, then with injustice and doing harm, less with impurity, and finally…at the bottom of the list and with only the paltriest number of references is anything to do with sex.  I imagine that most folks would find that surprising.  It is true that pagan practices likely included sexual activity, temple prostitution, unjust and manipulative sexual relationships between adults and young servants or slaves. So this might be inferred in some passages related to idolatry. The few direct references however are found in the concern over what is clean and unclean.  As one scholar points out, we might be able to wrap our heads around this by thinking of what we call “dirty.”  “What a culture considers dirty is usually something that makes its members uncomfortable.” Uncomfortable feelings can arise for all sorts of reasons—something is different from what we expect, a thing stirs something within us that we don’t understand, we witness others become uncomfortable… “Being ‘dirty’ does involve uncomfortable feelings—and those feelings [can be] learned…”[iii]

 

The sad truth is that in our culture lots of us are uncomfortable with our bodies and with sex and so from an early age we pass on the idea that parts of our bodies and sex in general is “dirty.”  And when you then add to that an awareness of the reality of sexual attraction outside the historically accepted cultural “norm,” you multiply the level of discomfort.  Let’s face it, our Christian tradition has not done a good job of helping us claim our human sexuality as “clean” and as a gift. Wittingly or unwittingly our supposedly incarnational spiritual tradition has created discomfort around physical intimacy and desire and then not done a good job of helping folks work through that discomfort. Christianity hasn’t helped us engage what Carl Jung termed our “shadow” or understand (much less embrace) the variety of created natures human beings embody.  And so we zero in on the fear and “abomination” gets assigned to the thing that makes us most uncomfortable…And then some people pick up the word and use it as a weapon to keep the fearful thing or person away or separate or ashamed.

 

This behavior, however, is abomination.  It is doing harm.  And as is so often the sad, exhausting case, Christian people expend precious energy hurting members of their own family instead of turning together toward the clear source of concern, that is, toward the biblical revelation of what abomination really is:  a culture marked by rampant idolatry that manipulates our priorities and values, separates us from intimacy with God, and leads to gross injustices and harm toward others and the planet. //

 

It was enlightening for me to do even this cursory biblical study of this word. Abomination is never going to be considered a beautiful word like “grace” or “love.”  But there is a good use for it in all its challenge. When we speak of abomination at Foundry let’s be clear that, as a Bible-believing congregation, we’re speaking about idolatry and injustice.  And that any other use is, well…abomination.

 

 

 

 

[i] Marilyn Bennett Alexander and James Preston, We Were Baptized Too: Claiming God’s Grace for Lesbians and Gays, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), xvii.

[ii] Daniel A. Helminiak, Ph.D., What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, (New Mexico: Alamo Square Press, 2000), 56.

[iii] Ibid., 62.

Righteousness

April 8th, 2018

Righteousness

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 8, 2018, the first Sunday after Easter. Polyphony sermon series. Sunday following the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination.

Text: Mark 10:35-45

 

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  What a pile of hooey.  This old saying is just so…untrue.  Words can hurt us deeply, leaving wounds much more difficult to heal than even the worst broken bone.  As we journey through this Easter season, we’re going to think about some words from the Christian spiritual tradition that have been used in very hurtful ways.  We’re calling this series “Polyphony,” a term describing music that includes many parts, voices, or sounds.  The words we will explore—abomination, believer, saved, evangelical, born again—are words that get spoken by many different and disparate voices.  Our goal is to reclaim some of these words, to listen for the sound the words make when spoken in the context of God’s grace and mercy.

 

Today we begin with the word “Righteousness.”  Growing up as a teenager in the 1980’s I heard the word “righteous” used alongside words like “awesome,” “rad,” “gnarly,” and, I’m slightly ashamed to say this, “tubular.”  It generally meant “great” or “neat” or “cool.”  But the word “righteousness” in the Christian context has been spoken in ways that are not awesome.  Here’s the first definition that popped up in an online search: “Righteousness is the state of moral perfection required by God to enter heaven.”  If this is true, we’re all in trouble.  That particular site did hasten to add that we are not able to achieve this moral perfection on our own; and then launched into a very legalistic explanation that Jesus’s blood “satisfies God’s justice” by paying the debt for all our sins—like a bloody “get out of jail free” card.  I take issue with this theology and, if you are interested in my alternative take, I encourage you to look online at the Good Friday homily I preached last year entitled “Ultimate Witness.” The thing I want to lift up today, however, is the way “righteousness” becomes a tag for the “in” and the “out” crowd the “good” and the “bad” people. If I am righteous, I can judge another for not being righteous.  When righteousness is understood as saying certain words or showing up in a certain place at certain times, when righteousness is strict adherence to a list of “do’s and don’ts,” then it is very easy to smoothly slide into self-righteousness.

 

I submit that righteousness is not about figuring out how to get into the “righteous club,” but rather about faithfully nurturing loving and just relationships that reflect God’s wisdom and way.  In the Hebrew scriptures (aka the Old Testament) righteousness is connected to God’s nature and covenant with Israel; in the New Testament, righteousness has to do with the kin-dom of God and life in Christ.  Covenant and kin-dom are the ways of living in right relationship with God and with one another.  Righteousness is about right relationship.

 

And that brings me to our text for today.  James and John ask to sit at the right hand and the left hand of Jesus in his kingdom.  At this point, they don’t understand that Jesus isn’t going to establish the kind of kingdom that the Hebrews had been longing for, an earthly kingdom that would set them free from Roman oppression, that would reestablish the throne of David.  They wanted to have cabinet positions in the new administration; after all, they’d earned it, leaving everything to follow Jesus, being devoted and hard-working.  Why shouldn’t they sit at his right and left hand in the throne room?

 

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously preached on this text, pointing out how quickly we might want to condemn James and John for their selfish request but that, if we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that we have the same basic desire to put ourselves forward so that we can be seen and recognized, so that we can get attention or praise, so that we might feel important.  This instinct to be “out front,” to be first, is what King called “The Drum Major Instinct.”  You may not want to stand up in front of people to speak or to be in charge of an event or movement or to lead the marching band.  But, even for those who are more shy or who like to work behind the scenes, in one way or another, the need for attention and praise and recognition is part of us all.  In ways both overt and subtle we try to get the attention that we desire, to put ourselves forward in whatever way we know how to be acknowledged and to feel that we matter.

 

It is perfectly human to need attention and affirmation, but the drum major instinct can easily become perverted and get in the way of right relationship with God and others. Pitfalls include comparing ourselves to others and being driven to outdo others through our material possessions, through our appearance, through joining this group and that group, through collecting letters after our name or striving to always come in first. A personality distorted by the drum major instinct will begin to boast or may become an “influence peddler,” dropping names and manipulating situations to try to seem more important.  King goes on to say, “when one fails to harness this instinct…you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up.”[i]

 

King also points toward “snobbish exclusivism,” that self-righteous energy that wants to be “in” at the sake of others being “out.” And he calls out the church for the tendency to become focused on the so-called “important people” who attend—the doctors, lawyers, business leaders, presidents, and so on—as if the other folks don’t really count.  But he goes on to say, “When the church is true to its nature, it says, ‘Whosoever will, let him come.’ And it does not propose to satisfy the perverted uses of the drum major instinct. It’s the one place where everybody should be the same standing before a common master and savior. And a recognition grows out of this—that all…are [siblings] because they are children of a common [parent].”[ii]

 

The failure to see this and to embody it in our lives, puts us out of right relationship. This failure opens the door to the destructive tendencies of the drum major instinct, the need to feel superior over others.  Dr. King says this “can lead one to feel that because he has some training, he’s a little better than that person that doesn’t have it, or because [she] has some economic security, that [she’s] a little better than the person who doesn’t have it.” And this uncontrolled, perverted use of the drum major instinct also leads to “tragic race prejudice.” King says it “is a need that some people have to feel superior…to feel that they are first, that their white skin ordained them to be first” and that is a perversion of the instinct that leads to the “most tragic expressions of…inhumanity”[iii]  toward one another.  Perversions of the drum major instinct leads nations to endless war and violence, to selfish and cruel policies against other nations and peoples.

 

Now considering all of this, you’d think that Jesus would lay James and John out for their selfish request.  But he doesn’t do that.  Instead, Jesus takes the opportunity to offer a lesson, to help these faithful followers grow up a bit more and learn what it really looks like to be in right relationship.  Jesus teaches that the relationship we seek should not be that of ruler, but rather of servant. It is the relationship of kin-ship, of mutuality, of humility.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to abandon the drum major instinct.  Here’s how King imagines Jesus responding to the brothers:

 

“‘Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.’ But he reordered priorities. And he said, ‘Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right.  It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it.  Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first.  But I want you to be first in love.  I want you to be first in moral excellence.  I want you to be first in generosity.  That is what I want you to do.’”[iv]

 

Righteousness, right relationship with God and others, is achieved through the grace of God that helps us to understand that we are all kin, all beloved children of a loving God. Righteousness is about relationships marked by humble service, compassion, and love.  Righteousness is about relationships that are just—that are not marred by prejudice, greed, ego, and insecurity.  This righteousness isn’t something we can achieve without God’s help.  It is so easy to slip into destructive attitudes and actions when we feel even the slightest hint of fear or insecurity. 

 

But the heart of the message from our Gospel is that we are all on the same playing field when it comes to greatness in the kin-dom of God—because all that is required of us is a loving, servant heart that seeks to embrace each and every other as kin.  That’s the long and short of it.  Anyone can serve.  Everyone can serve.  Some will choose not to, but the door is open to all. The kin-dom’s message is “whosoever will, let them come.”

 

It has been intentional to lift up some of the teaching and insight of Dr. King on this Sunday following our remembrances and recommitment to the work he championed for racial and social justice and for an expression of the Christian gospel that truly has integrity.  And, as a closing for this reflection, I’ll share some of the final words from his sermon:

 

“Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something we call death…Every now and then I ask myself, ‘What is it that I would want said?’ And I leave the word to you…

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day…I’d like somebody to mention…that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others…tried to love somebody… tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked…to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness…Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right side or your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your best side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition, but I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.”[v]

 

 

 

 

[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct,” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperOne, 1986), 262.

[ii] Ibid., 263.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., 265.

[v] Ibid., 267.

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Moving to finished

April 5th, 2018

 

Moving to Finished

A sermon preached by Rev. Dawn Hand at Foundry UMC, April 30, 2018, Good Friday

Text: John 18:1-19:42

 

It doesn’t take a lot of words to complete a sentence. Three selective words can make all the difference in the world.  

 

A few days ago, one of the bishops in our connection posted this on her Facebook: – 3 words Vacation Begins Today!!! – I suppose the three exclamation points were to give thanks to the triune God.

 

How many of you remember as a kid hearing or now if you are a parent remember saying these three words – Go to Bed. And then a little voice yells out – ‘I’m thirsty,’ – ‘Go to Bed.’ The little voice – ‘but daddy, I need a snack’ – I said – ‘Go to Bed!’

 

I remember as a kid playing hide and seek. After the count – the seeker would yell these three words - Ready or Not – followed by another three words  – Here I Come!

 

Then there is an expression of these powerful words that many of us crave to hear, to receive, to feel, to sense, to believe – I love you. When the right person, the person we long for to hear these words from – says, I love you – …. (it’s everything)

 

God knew something about these words – I love you… For God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus.

 

We are in the final days of Jesus’ journey more than 2000 years ago. He made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem – a place that forever connected the last week of his life.  – the Last Supper, the betrayal, the arrest, the judgement and the crucifixion. It was in this place on a cross that Jesus uttered three words that made all the difference in the world – It is finished.

 

These words beg the question – what is finished?  

 

On the onset, we could answer with – the betrayal, the mistrust, the brutality of the physical pain that Jesus endured, the pain of his closest confidants. Now that Jesus was on the cross, he would no longer have to endure any more pain. Is that what Jesus meant by saying – It is finished?

 

The Greek word for it is finished is teleho – meaning to bring to a close, to complete, to fulfill, paid. If for a few moments, we focus on the words to fulfill and paid, in this context, we now more fully understand when Jesus uttered the words it is finished he was saying that everything that he had been asked to do everything that he came in the form of a human to do has been fulfilled.

 

The fulfillment of the prophecies of the ancient texts, the foreshadowing of the coming Messiah. In Isaiah 53 – we read of the suffering servant - he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;

 

We understand in the New Testament that Jesus’ work and witness was about saving humanity, reconciling humanity for our sins, and bringing us into a full relationship with God.

 

Luke’ Gospel, chapter 19 -  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

 

In John’s record of the Gospel, chapter 10:9 – Jesus says I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved... I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

 

In Paul’s letter to Romans, chapter 3 he reminded the community - for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…

 

For some of us, sin is a word that we may not like to talk about, think about or touch. As Christians we believe the sins of the world could not be paid by any other means. Jesus made it possible by absorbing and taking away the sins of the world.

 

In Paul’s second letter to the community in Corinth, he writes - All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…

 

When Jesus was on the cross and uttered those three words – It is finished – Jesus was testifying to God – all of this is fulfilled, the debt is paid.

 

Jesus conquered death. And God’s love was again poured out for us. There is nothing that we can do to erase, erode or escape God’s love for us. Yes, even with all our faults and failures. We know this also through the writings of Apostle Paul – “I am convinced that neither death nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

 

Jesus came to this world, fully divine and fully human. He came to be the incarnate Truth. ------ Fulfilled – Paid.

 

My friends, what are we to do about this? How are we in our lives moving to finished?

 

Even though Jesus’s earthly life is over as a human, he fulfilled what God set out for him to do. Now, the work of his heart continues through this day and the next and so on and so on.

 

As I sat quickly yesterday, I imagined myself hearing the cries and shouts of the crowd as Jesus endured the injustices inflicted by the political leaders of the Empire.

 

Might the words that Jesus uttered on that cross give us hope and propel us to commit ourselves a fresh and anew to transform our work and witness through our actions.  

 

Today, we hear the cries and shouts of children and youth calling for political leaders and the Empire to protect them from the injustices of gun violence in their schools.

 

We know all too well the stories of black and brown people being brutalized by the establishment. Today I hear the gut wrenching cries of Stephon Clark’s brother and grandmother and other family and friends in Sacramento, CA for justice over the brutality inflicted on Stephon by the establishment – unarmed and 20 bullets piercing his body, killing him.

 

I deposit in your spirit today, - in moving to finished – we keep employing ourselves in acts of love, justice and mercy in our communities and beyond.

As we look back at Jesus’ journey, his was the work of ministry with the poor, the suffering, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised, the discounted and the disregarded.

 

Might we keep showing up to participate in rallies for our lives, sanctuary movements, sacred resistance, black lives matter. Join with people of faith and good will to Unite to End Racism. Why? Because in Jesus’ earthly life, he showed us the way.

 

Moving to finished is hard work, it’s painful work, it’s necessary work. And most of all because we know Jesus is with us, it’s liberating work.

 

This is the work of Good Friday. What’s so good about a day that is so dark and painful? Because on this day, we wait and hope. And we realize that the crucifixion helps us to know that resurrection would not be possible without a stop on the cross.

 

 

 

From Mourning to Dancing

April 3rd, 2018

From Mourning to Dancing

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 1, 2018, Easter Sunday.

Text: John 20:1-18

 

While it was still dark… Not while the sunrise sparkled and waking birds sang. // While it was still dark… Not when confusion had cleared and clarity had come to light. //  While it was still dark… Not when it’s a beautiful mornin’ when everythin’s going my way… Not while the warmth of sunlight drew out the fragrance of fruit and flower… Not when self-confidence was mastered and the way forward sure. // While it was still dark… Not when life and health was all we knew and death seemed far from us…  Not while power finally failed to corrupt and justice and love reigned. // While it was still dark…  While it was still dark Easter happened.

 That strikes me as very good news today.  While it is still dark, Easter happens.  Because if the message is that Easter only happens in the light, is only possible when things are going well, when we feel strong and certain, when suffering and death hasn’t touched our lives, when the powers of empire have been defeated and justice is consistently done—if that’s the only context where Easter happens, then our celebration of Easter today would be a farce.  We would all be in certifiable denial.  Because the truth is that it is still dark.  Do I need to line out the darkness and dissonance in our nation and world, in our relationships and our own lives?  The litany of human struggle and suffering, of injustice and scarcity, the list of persons and populations and species constantly at risk of harm—these have become in my own mind like white noise because of how often I’ve repeated that litany and list in sermon after sermon and prayer after prayer.  The darkness is heavy and disconcerting.  All the realities and stages of grief press upon us in the dark.  Shock and anger, denial, depression… It’s hard to function well in that space.  It’s easy to lose perspective, to get confused, to act out.  It is still dark.  And for some both near and far, there is no escaping the visceral awareness of the darkness because grief for them is daily bread, insecurity and violence prowl around every corner. Others of us may be privileged such that we can forget or deny the darkness; but sooner or later in one way or another it touches us in a personal, painful way.

 

On August 29th 2015 I entered what was for me a long journey through darkness.  It wasn’t through an act of senseless violence, but rather through the mundane and universal experience of illness and death.  My dad died after a long, painful struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.  I had begun my ministry here at Foundry about a year earlier and so was still trying to find my way in this community and ministry role.  Checking out to deal with my grief wasn’t an option.  In fact, ten days after I spoke at my dad’s funeral, I stood in this space and welcomed record crowds, news media, and former parishioners Hillary, Bill, and Chelsea Clinton to Foundry for the closing worship celebration of our Bicentennial Year.  There were things to attend to, both then and in the year to come:  the 2016 General Conference, visioning the second phase of our multi-million dollar Mission Possible Capital Campaign, a redesign for our Sunday experience at Foundry and a not insignificant presidential campaign season and election…  But I was in the dark.  I’ve described the 12-18 months following my father’s death as my “cave-dwelling” period.  I ventured out of the cave to do my public ministry, to try to be present and creative and brave and all the things… But when I wasn’t doing that, I crawled into my basement den and under a blanket.  I binge-watched shows I don’t much recall now (except maybe for True Blood).  I struggled to keep track of things, my temper was often short, my moods mercurial, my posture sedentary. Grief makes us do weird things.

 My experience of grief—not just over my dad’s death but also over the state of things in this beautiful broken world—has made me wonder about the weird details of today’s story in a new way. Perhaps all those specifics about the linen grave wrappings—where they were and how they’re folded—is an example of how grief and stress cause certain images to lodge in our memory so that we find ourselves turning those images over and over in our minds.  Perhaps the fact that Peter and the other disciple take in the shocking scene at the tomb and then “return to their homes” (??!) simply reflects our human tendency to not know what to do when all is lost, so we just go home and crawl under a blanket.  Maybe Mary’s words to the gardener (aka Jesus) weren’t gentle pleading, but rather a sharp retort to what’s perceived as a silly question: “If you’re the one who took him, stop messing with me and just tell me where he is!” Perhaps this is simply the lashing out that can happen when our resources are low and our hearts broken.  Maybe Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus because it’s still so dark and her eyes are filled with tears or because when we’re in distress, it’s so easy to not see what’s real, especially something good that we’d never expect.  The weirdness and weight of grief does seem to explain some of this strange story…  //

 While it was still dark Mary Magdalene came to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty.  She didn’t know that Easter had happened.  She assumed foul play, insult to injury, more of the same cruelty from a world that wouldn’t learn how to be gentle or just.  She was shrouded in the darkness, shattered by grief, deep in lament and mourning.  She stood there and cried.  What else was there to do?

 In the Psalms (our biblical prayer book), a common pattern is for the prayer to begin in lament, naming the pain, the fear, the suffering of life, railing against God for seeming far away…and then, with the Psalmist’s heart broken open in all its raw, truth-telling grief, something shifts.  Is it memory that causes the turn? Or grace? A ray of light in the darkness? Whatever it is, the prayer that begins in rage or grief ends with words of praise and gratitude.  The Psalm Jesus quotes from the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”—is one of these Psalms, and I imagine that if Jesus’ breath had held out long enough, he might have continued praying words from Psalm 22:

 Praise God!
    Glorify God;
    stand in awe of God…
For God did not despise or abhor
    the affliction of the afflicted;
God did not hide his face from me,
    but heard when I cried out…

    and I shall live for God.  (Ps. 22:23-24, 26, 29 adapted)

 

You see the God of Jesus, the God of Easter, is a God who hears when we cry out in the midst of whatever darkness breaks our heart, who does not turn away from our affliction, but rather draws near.  That, after all, is why Jesus came to us in the first place.  Jesus came into the world to bring the love, compassion, and justice of God up close and personal, to meet us in our grief and to help us move through it to a new place.  Jesus knows your grief, your worry, your pain, your fear, your rage, your exhaustion, your confusion…Jesus hears your cry, draws near, and speaks your name.

And while it was still dark, Jesus draws near to Mary; she hears her name spoken by a voice she thought gone forever.  “I am here, Mary. Easter is here.”  And Mary’s weeping, her Psalm of lament turns to praise and proclamation:

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
    you have taken off my sackcloth
    and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
    O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever. (Ps 30:11-12)  //

 

The image of Jesus I see every Sunday is the beautiful window that faces 16th Street, the image of the risen Jesus in the garden, arms extended out in a gesture of invitation as if to say, “Shall we dance?”  Oh yes, please, Jesus. Turn our mourning into dancing.  Take off my sackcloth and clothe me with joy.  While it is still dark, show us how to dance even at the grave, to trust your love enough not to hold on, but to let go.  Take our hand and lead us to the dance floor, the place of grace or of freedom, the space of release and joy. Show us how to move, how to flow, how to catch your groove, how to follow your lead so that we begin to shine in the darkness with a fraction of your light.  Draw us close to you in the dance so that, even from deep under a blanket of grief, we can feel the beat of your heart for us and know that you won’t let us go until we have emerged, not unscarred, but—by your grace—maybe a little wiser or more compassionate. Show us, Jesus, how to dance in the dark! 

 

Easter is not about “pie in the sky when you die” promises that have nothing to do with real life.  It’s about the way that God teaches us to dance the great dance of resurrection right here and right now, to bring a little bit of heaven to earth instead of remaining on the sidelines, fearful, believing that only beyond death can we live free.  Easter is not about pretending that all is well when it isn’t.  Easter is not an excuse to ignore the litany and the list of suffering and injustice.  Easter is about dancing in the dark.  I can’t help but think of those who continue to gather on the dance floor of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando—dancing in the very place where hatred and violence pierced the bodies of 102 people and killed 49 just over one year ago.  Those LBGTQ siblings and allies are dancing in the dark, not allowing hatred to destroy their communion with love and hope and the possibility of liberation.  I think of parents standing at the open graves that will receive their slain children and then turning toward the work of healing, community organizing, protest, and advocacy.  That is mourning turned to dancing in the dark.  I think of those whom Rowan Williams describes as dancing “the useless dance of love for its own sake… Mother Teresa [and]…all who work with the hopeless, the incurable, the dying, the wretched.”[i]  That is dancing in the dark… mirroring the movements of the one who turns mourning into dancing.

 

It may seem overwhelming or impossible to dance. You may feel stuck or clumsy or ill-equipped—less like Gene Kelly singing and dancing in the rain and more like Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein, puttin’ on the Ritz or poor Elaine on Seinfeld; you may feel embarrassed to step out so freely; you may feel too weary to move, you may be in too much pain.  When I was in that place, I not only watched trash TV, I also watched the dance of resurrection through you, Foundry. The dance wasn’t all up to me, thank God, and one day I woke up and realized that I could step back onto the dance floor with you more fully and joyfully. Was it memory that helped me make the turn? Grace? Yes. And the risen Christ.  Way back in the ‘70’s Bette Midler (The “Divine Miss M”) sang that “It’s the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance.”  The song of Easter is that when your heart is broken—by devastating loss or betrayal, pain or despair for the world—Christ will come to you, arms outstretched, and teach you to dance into a new place of life.  It’s OK if you need to watch the dance for a while. Jesus knows.  And will stay near, ready to ask at just the right time:  “Shall we dance?”  Thanks be to God.

 

[i] Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), 63.