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Actions Speak

November 24th, 2019

Actions Speak…
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, November 24, 2019,

Reign of Christ Sunday, “Becoming Beloved” series.

Text: Luke 6:27a, 31, 46-49

 

“But I say to you that listen…Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Throughout this Becoming Beloved series we have heard those two lines from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. Listen…Do… And while we have not focused on these words specifically, they have been a common thread throughout all the teachings of Jesus that we’ve explored. Today, the final section of teaching in Jesus’ sermon makes the connection between listening and doing explicit. Jesus calls out those who call him “Lord” but don’t do what he teaches. This seems an appropriate text for this day traditionally celebrated as “Reign of Christ” Sunday and on a day when many among us will affirm or reaffirm the promise to “serve [Jesus Christ] as Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, orientations, and races.” What does it mean to call Jesus your “Lord?” It’s a “walk your talk” message we receive today in the Gospel. And walking our talk, of course, is a matter of integrity. Are you taking the teachings of Jesus to heart, into your inward center, and allowing them to shape and inspire your outward actions? Do your words—what you say you value and desire—match what you actually do with your self and your stuff?

I can’t help but think of Stephen Colbert’s statement that “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.” As I recall, these words were spoken in the context of those who assert that the United States is “a Christian nation.” Colbert’s words highlight one of many disconnects between our stated values and our actions as a nation—we could name what’s been happening at the border, environmental policy, voter suppression, children going hungry in our backyards, and on and on. Colbert’s words also shine a light on people who call themselves Christian but ignore the teachings of Jesus, acting in ways that directly contradict them.

Whether it is a nation, a church, or an individual, actions speak louder than words.

The metaphor Jesus uses to get the point across is a foundation for a house. Those who listen and act upon Jesus’ words are like one who is willing to do what? Notice that the first thing Jesus says it that the one who acts on what they hear is willing to dig deeply. This is no quick or shallow activity requiring no effort or time. In order to get to the solid place, there’s some digging required, some excavation, a willingness to keep at it and to go deep. This is much of what we have been thinking about together over these past weeks. It is the work of paying attention to how our circumstances affect our hearts. It is the excavation and extraction of bitterness and hatred and prejudice and blinding fear from our inward center, trusting God to do within us what we can’t do ourselves. It is a willingness to get real and own our stuff—as citizens, as faith community, as persons. And all this is not the stuff of shallow study or proof texting scripture or checking a “went-to-church” box. It is the work of allowing the Word of God revealed in Jesus to cut through all our rationalizations and defenses and to change our lives. In the process, the bedrock is discovered, offering a firm foundation. A firm foundation is a foundation based on something real and true, not illusions or empty promises or lies. And, Lord knows, there are plenty of temptations, voices urging us to throw up a house on a shiny patch of sand with a nice water view and to buy the sales pitch that the spot hasn’t been stolen from others and the waters here never rise and the grace of this plot is cheap and will satisfy all you need to thrive without your ever having to do any maintenance or further investment of yourself.

Jesus honors us enough to believe that we’ll see through that garbage. And says in essence, “Listen deeply and let my words and my love and my mercy and my grace give you the courage and strength to be real, to face the truth, and to act in ways that build something that lasts, to build a life on the solid rock of justice and compassion and gentleness and stewardship of the earth and love of God and of neighbor.”

This all matters because when flood waters come—when we’re paddling as fast as we can but can’t keep up, when powerful forces are overwhelming us, when the stuff of life makes us feel like we’re drowning—the house built on that solid foundation will stand; when the waters ebb, we will have come through it whole. Blowing off the words of Jesus, being unwilling to do what it takes to “build our house well,” leaves us vulnerable and weak when trouble comes near.

It’s not that living by the teachings of Jesus to be loving, non-retaliatory, merciful, generous, forgiving, humble, self-aware, and persons of integrity will keep us from getting hurt, disappointed, or damaged. It’s that no matter what happens, our foundation will hold us, our sense of meaning and purpose will help us keep perspective, our “inward center,” full of the love which has been lavished upon us by God, will be solid, keeping us from completely falling apart. Think of anyone you’ve seen persevere with grace and love in the face of persecution. Think not only of the fact that they are able to stand fast with the waters breaking against them, but also of the way that their witness inspires others.

I also think of the Gospel-inspired teaching of MLK who famously taught that “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate… Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Our hateful actions multiply hate… What we do is like fuel. Where we put our energy is like gasoline on whatever fire we throw it on. We can stoke the light and warmth of love and justice and peace or we can stoke the destructive fires of hatred, fear, and greed. Our actions, what we do with our time and energy, affects not only our own selves and household, but also the communities in which we live. Our actions affect the integrity of the household of God. We can burn the house down or light and fuel a warming fire at its center.

Our goal here at Foundry is to create and nurture beloved community—a community that is fully inclusive, anti-racist, anti-colonial, humble, joyful, committed, faithful, generous, peacemaking, just, sacrificial—a community of integrity where love is not just a word we speak but the beating heart of all our actions. We know that in community, this is the work of lifetimes, of generations. Across years, every generation has to make sure the foundation remains sound, needs to check for fissures or erosion, needs to make sure the foundation is solid and sure enough to hold the new structures and challenges and revelations of the age. That is our work in these days. Each one of us has a role to play. We do our part by doing our own work on ourselves and having integrity around our own promises to participate fully in this shared life with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. We do our part by showing up when we are called to stand in solidarity and advocacy with our neighbors. We do our part by taking seriously our mission to love God and love each other. Simply showing up here in community is an important piece of all of these things.
We may tend to think of coming to church or being in worship as something we do for ourselves—and, my hope is that what happens in this place any day of the week is nourishing for your life and growth. But I was recently reminded that our active participation in faith community isn’t ultimately something we do for ourselves. Writer Kathleen Norris remembers a pastor once saying that we “go to church for other people. Because someone may need you there.” Someone may be encouraged just to see your face or to share conversation over coffee or to connect about things you’re trying to manage at work or at home or a health issue, or the complicated realities of the dating scene. Someone may need you to see them, to receive them, to remember their name or to offer a handshake or a hug even if you don’t know their name. Our act of getting ourselves here to Foundry—or whatever faith community we call home—is a concrete act of love for God and for each other. Someone may need you here. If our collective commitment is to show up for each other, it means that others will show up for you. And if all of us come willing own our own stuff, do our work, and offer ourselves in love to God and each other, letting love and justice flow into all our actions in the world then we might be able, with integrity, to call Jesus “Lord,” we might, with integrity, claim we’re actively becoming beloved community. And that kind of community is one that withstands all the storms that rage across the years. That kind of community is one that offers hope and nourishes lives in every season. That kind of community changes the world. By God’s grace may it be so.

 

 

i.  https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/327220-if-this-is-going-to-be-a-christian-nation-that

ii.  [1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 203-204.

Heart Disease

November 17th, 2019

Heart Disease

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC,

November 17, 2019, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, “Becoming Beloved” series.

Text: Luke 6:27a, 31, 43-45

 

Many years ago, I learned to scuba dive. At first, I was worried whether I would be able to do it—because I tend toward claustrophobia and feared that once I had on all that gear and was surrounded by the water I would feel closed-in and panic. What a surprise it was the first time I descended beneath the choppy waters at the surface and had the opportunity to look around. There was a whole world beneath the surface—a landscape that stretched out as far as the eye could see. Parts of it looked like the sands and drifts of an ocean-y desert and then outcrops of hills and mountain ranges would appear in stark contrast. Whole ecosystems live within this world. I should have known this was the case, of course—I watched Jacques Cousteau and the Little Mermaid! (At that point in my life, Nemo and Dory weren’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eye).

You and I are like the ocean, holding so much beneath the surface. Much of our lives are spent focused on the outward appearance of things. But over these past couple of weeks as we’ve studied sections of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain the focus has been on “the world beneath the surface,” on our hearts, our “inward center” as Howard Thurman calls it. This introspection helps us become aware of our stuff, it helps us become more awake. But it’s not only self-serving—because, frankly, it would be easier in some ways to ignore what’s going on under the surface. The point of our introspection, ultimately, is to adjust our outward behavior—what we “do unto others.”

The teaching we receive today begins with the metaphor that a certain kind of tree produces a certain kind of fruit. You’re not going to get figs from thorns or grapes from brambles. It’s a matter of integrity—the nature of a living thing conveys that which is inherent to its nature. Having said this, let’s be clear that the metaphor has its limits. We—and our hearts—are not static things; our “human nature” can mature and change; our attitudes can be adjusted; our hearts can grow in love. This, of course, is very good news because we know there are things that need to be different in our lives. We know that things under the surface are complicated and often messy. We know there are ways we hurt others and ourselves in word and deed. We know that—in the traditional language of our faith—we sin.

Once we identify some of what needs to change in our hearts, attitudes, and actions, the question becomes, how does this maturing, adjusting, growing occur?

We live in a country and culture that places a high premium upon individualism, personal responsibility, and initiative. In this context, it should come as no surprise that all the self-help shelves overflow with ways for us to launch a full, frontal offense on whatever it is we want to change. The idea is that by sheer willpower—and whatever strategy whatever guru outlines—we will change. There are several problems with this approach. First, as Richard Foster writes in his book Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, “the moment we feel we can succeed and attain victory over the sin [or whatever we need to change] by the strength of our will alone is the moment we are worshiping the will.” You see, even though we may try to do the right thing by fighting against the behaviors that do harm, we can easily fall into the idolatry of “will worship.” That is, we make our own will our god, believing in the almighty power of the self to “fix” our heart or our lives (or the life of someone else, God help us!).

A second problem with the “full, frontal offense” approach is that it may encourage isolation, a kind of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “heal thyself” mode. And the truth is that we cannot heal ourselves alone. We come to know ourselves and are given help to learn and grow through relationship and in community. I can think of so many times in my life when another person helped me see myself—sometimes in painful ways, things I had been denying, was ignorant of, or was doing that were hurtful, and sometimes in hopeful ways, things I was taking for granted or could offer more fully to the world. Without other people around to wake us up, it would be even easier to live in denial and persist in inner attitudes and outward actions that are harmful. And without help from people who love us and will hang in there with us, we have no accountability for when we get lazy and stop trying to do better. The spiritual genius of John Wesley’s organizational model was the formation of small accountability groups where people shared with their peers what was really going on in their hearts and their lives! Consider a few of the questions these groups used regularly: What known sins have you committed since our last meeting? What temptations have you met with? Have you nothing you desire to keep secret? It’s hard to ignore what’s “under the sea” when confronted with questions like those. We need each other to get real, to keep trying, for encouragement and for help.

The third problem with our “willful” approach to fixing our hearts and behaviors is that we may end up in a masquerade. We can figure out a way to make ourselves appear patient, compassionate, generous, inclusive, just, sober, whatever, but at the heart of the matter nothing has really been changed. Today we hear Jesus say, “… it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” Richard Foster, makes the connection this way: We can willfully “make a good showing for a time, but sooner or later there will come that unguarded moment when the ‘careless word’ will slip out to reveal the true condition of the heart. If we are full of compassion, it will be revealed; if we are full of bitterness, that also will be revealed. It is not that we plan to be this way. We have no intention of exploding with anger or of parading a sticky arrogance, but when we are with people, what we are comes out. Though we may try with all our might to hide these things, we are betrayed by our eyes, our tongue, our chin, our hands, our whole body language. Willpower has no defense against the careless word, the unguarded moment. The will has the same deficiency as the law—it can only deal with externals. It is incapable of bringing about the necessary transformation of the inner spirit.”

So we see that our own willful choices and striving will not necessarily “fix” us. When we really get this, we are in a position to understand why the news that we speak about as Christians is called “good.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ is “good news” especially for those who recognize that they cannot save themselves. I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded of this over and over again. I can’t save myself, I can’t fix other people, I can’t heal a broken denomination, I can’t make gentle this beautiful, broken world on my own. And as we are learning today, we are incapable of saving ourselves from those destructive things that live deep under the surface. The good news is that the healing of any “disease” in our hearts, and growth in love, compassion, and justice, are the free, gracious gifts of God. Where we are not able, God is able. We need God’s help. In our call to serve, to care, to do all the complicated and important things we do in our lives every day, to persevere, to stand with and for others for the sake of love and justice, we need God’s help. In the short sermon we’re studying this month, we’ve already been challenged to do such hard things. How can we do these hard things without the help and grace of God? How can we love our enemies, have the strength not return violence for violence, stand in the face of persecution without becoming the thing we hate, forgive someone who’s left scars on our heart or body, or have the courage to grapple with our own faults, failures, fears, and shortcomings? Spoiler alert: we can’t do it on our own. Our own willpower isn’t going to get that job done. Patient and loving friends and family can help, but won’t ultimately be enough. Only the grace of God can transform us from the inside out.

Now, at this point we may assume that because our best efforts don’t bring about the result we want and because inner transformation is the gracious work of God alone, that we have no part to play in our growth in holiness. “God will fix me! Thanks be to God!” we cry, as we sit around watching television or busy ourselves with tasks. This is a very real temptation. We can swing from one extreme to another, from “will worship” to abdication of all responsibility. You know that story about the person sitting on the roof of their house in a flood and their neighbor comes by in a canoe and the person says, “God’s going to help me, I’m good.” And then a police boat comes and then a helicopter—all being given the same response until the floodwaters overtook the person and they died. God’s response when asked how this could’ve happened—was: I sent you a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter! You didn’t get in! [For years, I knew that somewhere I had information about the frequent flyer program I’d signed up for—which, if used, would have been very helpful in getting to my family across the country. But for whatever reason, I didn’t keep up with the program, lost the information, the frequent flyer number and all that, so I never got the miles credited to my account. So there was this free gift waiting for me, a benefit, something that would help me. But I was too disorganized or lazy to follow through and receive the gift. It is the same with God’s grace and help.] The grace of God is offered to us freely AND we have our part to play in receiving it.

We may not be able to heal our spiritual heart diseases or change our internal center—even as strong as our willpower may be. But we can use our will to receive and use the good gifts God gives us to live and to serve. We can use our will to surrender to God’s help and put ourselves in the path of God’s grace every single day. We can turn to God in prayer and gratitude. We can worship every week. We can give generously. We can work for justice alongside others. We can be present with folks who are experiencing suffering. When I recognize thoughts and attitudes in myself that are unloving and harmful, I practice confessing in that moment in prayer and asking God to heal my heart and my thoughts, to change and purge those things in me that would lead me to harbor such shadows. We can commit to telling the truth in our small group or in the Rooms of AA or NA or other support groups. In these and so many other practices of will we can turn to God for help, for grace, for healing.

Today, you are invited to spend a little time reflecting on what needs to be healed or held in your inward center. Where do you need to invite God in to help you? What are you trying to carry alone that you can offer to God to hold? What heart sickness needs the Great Physician’s love and healing power today? We’ll spend some time now in prayer and song. You’re invited to come forward to the altar rail to pray and, if you desire, to receive anointing with oil, an ancient symbolic act of healing and divine mercy. Come as Spirit leads.

 

 

 ________________________________

[1] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978, p. 5.

[1] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, pp. 5-6.

 

Know Thyself

November 10th, 2019

Know Thyself

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, November 10, 2019, 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, “Becoming Beloved” series.

                                  Text: Luke 6:27a, 31, 37-42                                                         

 

“I’ve seen better eyes on a potato!” I remember that particularly descriptive critique hurled at a referee during one of my high school basketball games.  It’s fun and doesn’t cost a thing to sit on the sidelines and criticize what others are doing. Sometimes the critiques might have some merit. In the case of that ref, he did in fact—in a critical moment in a critical game—call a foul on me I know I didn’t commit.  But nevertheless, everybody thinks they could do better than the one in the hotseat when they’re sitting in their comfy chair or even their uncomfortable bleacher with no real skin in the game. 

 

It seems a rather persistent human pastime to look out at the people around us and assess, size up, critique, judge.  It might be their behavior, their appearance, their leadership or perceived lack thereof, what they say or don’t say…really, we’re generally equal opportunity judgers.  And today we get some truth bombs on this subject from Jesus in this next section of the Sermon on the Plain.

 

Before we get into that, though, a brief recap:  Last week, we wandered into Jesus’ sermon, touching on the difficult teaching to love our enemies, to be merciful as God is merciful and to love as God loves. Key questions were “What do you allow your circumstances to do to your heart?”  and “How does the state of your heart affect what you ‘do unto others’?”  Today’s teaching flows from those “heart questions” that are really at the core of all the wisdom Jesus imparts in this sermon.

 

Howard Thurman, in his interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth, explains that “[Jesus’] message focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of the people. He recognized fully that out of the heart are the issues of life and that no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them. ‘To revile because one has been reviled—this is the real evil because it is the evil of the soul itself.’ Jesus saw this with almighty clarity. Again and again he came back to the inner life of the individual. With increasing insight and startling accuracy he placed his finger on the ‘inward center’ as the crucial arena where the issues would determine the destiny of his people.”[i]  This focus on the inner attitude is not about disconnecting from the real suffering and injustice of the world, but is rather a way of not being utterly destroyed by it. It is a way of maintaining dignity and agency when everything around you wants to steal or destroy those sacred gifts.  Thurman highlights Jesus’ focus on our heart, our “inward center,” as the locus of our primary spiritual work.  Regardless of our outward circumstances, we have agency of our inner attitude. Our inner attitude affects our outward response and action.  

 

The thing is, we can be pretty clueless about much of what’s swimming around in our “inward center.”  In addition to all the shiny, happy people parts of ourselves we more easily claim, there are old hurts, ingrained, unchecked perspectives, cultural assumptions, deep prejudices, resentment, ignorance, unacknowledged complicities, blinding fears, unmet expectations, regrets, longings and all the rest. There’s a lot going on in there. 

 

So before we start identifying someone else’s limitation or trying to remove another’s “issue,” perhaps, Jesus says, we should do what we can to deal with our own stuff.  “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” 

 

“Know thyself” is an ancient maxim that has been interpreted in loads of ways—some helpful, others less so. For today’s purposes, my translation of “know thyself” from the ancient Greek is “Own your stuff.”  A second translation might be, “Find the courage to face some hard truths.” And a third option, “At least try not to be a hypocrite.” 

 

It has been said that truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.  Why is that? Because some truths about ourselves are icky.  This is true for us as a nation, as a church, and as individuals. 

 

Shall we start with our nation?  The struggle for the soul of America continues as the realities of our historic brutality against Native peoples, enslaved Africans, and earth’s resources manifest in new ways, ways that come into conflict with the well-worn, white-washed narratives that have allowed us to imagine that we are a nation that truly desires life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.  I hope you are aware of the New York Times initiative entitled “The 1619 Project,”[ii] whose aim is to examine the legacy of slavery in the United States, timed for the 400th anniversary of the arrival in America of the first enslaved people from West Africa.  The 1619 Project is a provocative and powerful resource to explore and wrestle with for anyone as yet unaware of big chunks of history that have not been generally acknowledged or taught beyond black churches and schools—and are even now being labeled by imperial powers as propaganda.[iii] We as Americans—particularly white Americans—need to own our stuff, have the courage to face hard truths, and at least try not to be hypocrites.  And that’s just one place that we as a nation need to tell the truth.  Because not telling the truth means death and suffering for beloved children of God, members of our human family, our American family.  Other questions we could grapple with include: What do we worship in this country? Are policy decisions made based on the needs of the vulnerable or the common good? What really turns out the vote?  How can we as citizens embody a patriotism that honors our highest ideals instead of champions imperial domination?  The Rev. Dr. William Barber, II has famously preached about the heart of our nation needing a “moral defibrillator.”  Are we willing as a nation to “know ourselves” fully, not just the good—of which there is much—but also the bad and the ugly?  I understand this isn’t a feel-good word about our country on this weekend when we honor our veterans. But here’s the thing, I’d rather have our veterans serving and dying for a country that has at least tried to live up to its lofty vision instead of pretending that all our actions are somehow moral just because we overlay them with the Stars and Stripes.

 

When it comes to “the church,” there is no shortage of things we could consider on the topic of judgmentalism and hypocrisy—just imagine all the “specks” we could identify!  But it’s “know thyself” day so I’m going to focus on Foundry. “Becoming Beloved” is our theme this month and it reflects our call to beloved community in the Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr. mode.  In various ways over many years, Foundry has sought to do the hard work of communal self-awareness, consciousness-raising, and relationship building. This congregation has a long and proud history of social justice advocacy and solidarity.  These commitments are at the heart of our shared life.  But if we think there isn’t more work to do we aren’t paying attention. And if we truly want to become a fully inclusive, anti-racist, anti-colonial faith community—beloved community!—that will require that we go deeper into our own communal “inward center” to see what gets in the way.  Earlier this year results of a congregational survey revealed that in an area that we are known to be “all about”—inclusion—there are concerns that some may not feel included or welcome among us…based on political affiliation, economics, and a variety of other things.  How do we truly hold respectful space for persons to have vastly differing theological and political beliefs?  This past year, we’ve told again the shameful part of Foundry’s history of full participation in the white supremacist policies of the Methodist Church that led to the formation of Asbury United Methodist Church and John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal, Zion Church. And while we celebrate the relationships and possibility of our current partnership with those churches, there is so much work for us to do to uncover, acknowledge, repent and repair the past and present racism that persists among us. Part of our work in 2020 will be undertaking a significant process to begin that deep work.  If we are to be a church that calls for a reformation of the whole UMC as fully inclusive, anti-racist, and anti-colonial, let’s try not to be hypocrites.  If we say we love God and love each other, when people walk in our doors, God help us if they don’t see that in flesh. Let’s try not to be hypocrites.

 

And that of course, leads to our personal lives. We each have to take responsibility for our own stuff, for how we think of others, treat others, speak to others. We need to take advantage of opportunities to learn and to be stretched, to practice receiving information that is painful and uncomfortable, to look honestly at the state of our hearts and seek to uncover the things that try to hide—or that we’ve hidden out of fear or shame or pride. 

 

Many if not most of us are likely intentionally or unintentionally ignoring some stuff in order to feel ok about ourselves or to maintain a narrative about our life we’re comfortable with. Where does racism or colorism hide?  Where do we want to deny our personal complicity in the privileges of empire?  Where are the unacknowledged gaps between our stated values and our investments of time and money?  What does all this do to your heart, to your “inward center”...and to your outward actions?

 

Years ago, a familiar voice sang the call of the Gospel today in words I imagine many of us still remember:

I'm gonna make a change,
For once I'm my life
It's gonna feel real good,
Gonna make a difference
Gonna make it right

[As I, turn up the collar on
My favorite winter coat
This wind is blowing my mind
I see the kids in the streets,
With not enough to eat
Who am I to be blind?
Pretending not to see their needs

I've been a victim of a selfish kind of love
It's time that I realize
That there are some with no home, not a nickel to loan
Could it be really me, pretending that they're not alone?]

I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change[iv]

 

Michael Jackson sang those words; and Jesus said, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

 

“Knowing yourself”—owning your own stuff, facing hard truths, and trying not to be a hypocrite—is life-long work.  The good news is that Jesus begins his sermon by saying, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.”  Jesus isn’t saying that your efforts to not judge and condemn will mean other people reciprocate that effort.  We know better and so did Jesus. In the teaching, Jesus uses the future passive form of the verbs, indicating that the action here is God’s.  When you are trying to be merciful and patient, to refrain from judgy ugliness, God sees you.  God knows your heart. God knows when you’re trying. God is merciful. God will not condemn.  God loves you.

 

If you know yourself to be a beloved child of God with inherent dignity and worth you will not need to tear others down in order to build yourself up. If you know yourself to be a beloved child of God, you will know that every other person is God’s beloved, too.  If you know yourself to be the beneficiary of an unlimited grace and mercy, you won’t need to deny those gifts to others because you’ll know it’s not a zero-sum game. If deep in your heart you know yourself to be loved by God, you know the most important thing. And that will make all the difference.

 

 

[i] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, Boston: Beacon Press, 1976, p. 11.

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html

[iii] https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/8/19/20812238/1619-project-slavery-conservatives

[iv] Source: LyricFind, Songwriters: Glen Ballard / Siedah Garrett, Man in the Mirror lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, BMG Rights Management, Songtrust Ave

 

Losing My Religion

October 20th, 2019

Losing My Religion

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC October 20, 2019, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost. “Fearless Generosity: Deepening Faith” series.

Text:  Jeremiah 31:31-34, Luke 18:1-8

                             

 In 1991, a song called “Losing My Religion” was a gigantic hit for the alt-rock band R.E.M. I wasn’t one of those super cool people who already knew the band—but I loved this song and became a fan. It became a thing to try to figure out the images in the music video and what in the world the lyrics meant. There are lots of theories. But this past week, I did some intentional digging to see if there was insight into the original meaning of the lyrics. What I learned is that lyricist Michael Stipe simply wrapped evocative religious and poetic imagery around an old southern expression—“I’m losing my religion.”  The expression means being at the end of one’s rope, and the moment when politeness gives way to anger.[i]  Imagine a friend recounting an experience at the DMV, for example, in which they’ve carefully prepared all the documents they need to accomplish their task, they explain how they waited in line for over an hour, got checked in, waited in the holding area for an hour, and when their number is finally called, are blandly, dismissively told that they need a document that hadn’t been mentioned anywhere on the website; and your friend closes by saying, “by the time I demanded a supervisor’s intervention, I was losing my religion!”

 

It is interesting to me that in this southern idiom religion is associated with being polite, with not being angry, with a sense of propriety. Merriam-Webster defines “polite” in these ways: a: showing or characterized by correct social usage bmarked by an appearance of consideration, tact, deference, or courtesy cmarked by a lack of roughness or crudities…

I’m all for being polite when it is in order. But there are times when being polite is decidedly NOT what is needed. A politeness that is more concerned with avoiding conflict than addressing injustice is not religious. Furthermore, a fake “politeness” when what is going on under the surface is judgment and hatred is hypocrisy. And about that the Judeo-Christian prophets, including Jesus, had some choice words. 

 

But it doesn’t surprise me that there is a strain in our culture that would connect religion to being polite. Even though scripture doesn’t support it, so often religion—that is the communal practices and organized gatherings and beliefs of persons of faith—settles into club mentality, a place where the goal is primarily to avoid anything that might create conflict, to be affirmed in already-held positions and ideas, to feel warm feelings, to check some box that is disconnected from any other noticeable part of our lives. We know that what we profess as “religious” people often doesn’t show up in our priorities. How do we spend time? How hard do we work to see others as beloved children of God?  Where do we spend our money? Who gets our support and advocacy? With whom do we stand?

 

Lord knows we’ve got some easy targets in the public square right now on this stuff—it’s enough to make me “lose my religion!”  But I want us to be careful to acknowledge that none of us can claim we get it together all the time. Even when we have the best of intentions we fall into the old Pauline conundrum: we don’t do the good we want, but rather the bad we don’t want. (cf. Romans 7:19) We always need to own our own stuff, but we also need to call out the injustice we see around us. The teachings of Jesus to bring good news to the poor, lost, captive, vulnerable, and oppressed—and to do so through solidarity and with humility and generosity—these teachings are being perverted or completely ignored by many “Christian” voices who are influencing masses of people.  On top of that too many churches still support theologies and practices that harm people and the creation.  Currently on display all over the place are those who publicly tout their hypocrisy and practice serious theological and biblical malfeasance.

 

I think that these issues contribute in a significant way to the latest studies showing that people really are, literally, losing their religion. The Pew Survey released within the last few days says, “the U.S. is steadily becoming less Christian and less religiously observant as the share of adults who are not religious grows.” The percentage of American adults who describe themselves as Christian has gone from 77 percent to 65 percent, representing a 12 percentage point decrease over the last 10 years. Not only has the number of those who identify as Christians decreased, the number of people who identify as either atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” has risen from 17 percent to 26 percent over the past decade.[ii] 

Politeness that translates into dishonesty and avoidance, hypocrisy, injustice, spiritual violence, and outright scandal—all of this makes it pretty tempting to join those who don’t want to claim the name “Christian.” That name has become, in so many places, a codeword for bigotry, imperial values, and oppression.

Of course, that is the direct opposite of what we find in the Gospel. //  Our text from Luke immediately follows a very challenging description by Jesus of false prophets, turmoil, temptations, and distractions, of suffering and confusion both present and to come. “Then,” the story goes, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  The parable Jesus tells highlights a widow who is in the midst of suffering herself.  And this woman is not hiding behind politeness or propriety. In fact, she breaks all the rules. Understand that at the time Jesus tells this story, the widow would have had no rights and simply because she was a woman wouldn’t have access to a judge in a formal procedure of law. Women were restricted to roles of little to no authority; we weren’t supposed to talk with men who weren’t part of our family, or sometimes even appear in public without a husband or father…With all this background we see that the story Jesus tells is “loaded with ironic fantasy. This woman can only cry out to the judge unofficially. Perhaps she calls to him as he passes her on his way to the city gates to judge the disputes and charges of the men for the day. The cries of the woman eventually sway the cold heart of the judge who gives in to her request.”[iii] 

 

The woman’s actions—I call it her “religious practice” of claiming her sacred worth, claiming her voice, and then breaking the rules and advocating for justice even when things were disheartening and seemingly hopeless—that is what Jesus features in this story.  By doing so, Jesus affirms the woman’s worth, her voice, her perseverance, and her demand, deeply undermining the unjust exclusions of the time. In addition, this short parable of Jesus highlights the faithfulness of God to respond.  That point is made by comparison—if even a jerk will respond to persistent cries, how much more will our God—who loves us!—respond when we are in need?

 

It seems to me that if more churches included and affirmed among their religious offerings the kind of subversive, life-affirming, justice-seeking practice we see in our Gospel today, some of the growing numbers of folk who “love Jesus but not the church”[iv] might happily reconnect; some others might discover that religion isn’t, in and of itself, a dirty word…some might even find that religious practice becomes a life-giving and encouraging thing.

The larger question bubbling under the surface for me throughout my reflections is this: what is the connection between religion and faith?  As I’ve already mentioned, “religion” that does harm or is hypocritical or makes no connection to their daily lives, has led many people to step off the faith train altogether. For others, they’ve held onto faith, but left the church—sometimes not out of wounding but simply because it seems they can practice their faith without the hassle of “going to church.”

 

I firmly believe that God is with us wherever we are on the spiritual journey, that detours and spiritual dryness along the journey are to be expected, and that we can experience God and grace in ways that deepen our faith in a wide variety of contexts that have no discernable connection to “religion” or church.  AND I’m also stubborn when it comes to my insistence that the church matters. I believe that the regular, intentional, organized/disorganized religious gatherings, observances, and practices of a Jesus-centered community gathered around our sacred story, Baptismal Font, and Communion Table are a powerful and even primary way that persons learn how to love and be loved, to take risks and discern when not to, to forgive and be forgiven, to be humble and powerful.  And the fact that church is always messy and imperfect and full of a wide diversity of people is part of the way we practice being and becoming more human and able to function in the world as people of real faith and not just politeness. The yoga I have studied over the years talks about practicing the asanas or postures on the mat, but then taking the practice “off the mat” into your life. Church—our shared, public, communal religious life—is the “mat” where we practice so that we can take that practice off the mat and into the world.

 

Weeks ago as we were making preparations for this Fearless Generosity: Deepening Faith series, I wrote these words: “My heart’s desire is for Foundry to be for you a wellspring of spiritual nurture, challenge, insight, growth, and encouragement—like waters that go deep to the roots of a tree—to help you stand firm in the face of the storms of life and to feel grounded and strong in moments of calm. Whether you receive sustenance through music and worship, service and advocacy, study and exploration, or trusted friendships and community, Foundry offers resources—concrete practices and opportunities—to help you deepen your faith.” That is one vision of how I understand the connection between religion and faith. It’s not that faith can’t exist outside of communal religious practice, but rather that faith may not receive the full range of sustenance required to go to the deepest levels and highest heights without it.

 

My hope is that our continued strong support of Foundry will allow this congregation to practice and embody the kind of religion that people don’t “lose” but rather seek out when they’re at the end of their rope. I pray that we will financially and prayerfully support Foundry’s efforts to be impolite when we need to speak truth to power and to resist evil, injustice and oppression. I hope our financial support will strengthen Foundry to even more consistently offer opportunities for persons to come to know that they have sacred worth and are beloved children of an ever-present and faithful God.

 

I believe that there are so many times when people who have “lost their religion” all of a sudden find themselves needing the church. When that time comes, will they find one that isn’t an embarrassment?  Will they find ways to learn and practice faith on earth?  What will they find here?

 

 

[i] Evan Schlansky, “What is the meaning of R.E.M., ‘Losing My Religion,’” https://americansongwriter.com/2019/10/behind-the-song-r-e-m-losing-my-religion/

[ii] https://churchleaders.com/news/364277-latest-pew-survey-christianity-in-america-is-declining-still.html?fbclid=IwAR3SFah1UYoJmIClBNPNY8_zGVXYG_L0-4tLxupv5x1frlK6S8vAI5J7vmE

[iii] Peter Woods, https://thelisteninghermit.com/2010/10/11/why-god-doesn%e2%80%99t/?t%2F

[iv] https://www.barna.com/research/meet-love-jesus-not-church/

Reception Perception

October 13th, 2019

Reception Perception

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC October 13, 2019, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost. “Fearless Generosity: Deepening Faith” series.

                                                            Text:  Luke 17:11-19                                                             

 

I have been what I call “under water” for several weeks.  What began about a year ago as a carefully curated calendar that included exciting things here at Foundry as well as a couple of outside gigs I was really looking forward to got blown up by the necessity of meetings and responsibilities related to the issues facing the United Methodist Church.  It may go without saying, but being under water is not a comfortable place to be—unless you’re equipped with scuba gear!  I didn’t have the oxygen mask.  Being under water doesn’t inspire or allow me to be “my best self.” And this last little while is just a more intense version of what life tends to be like these days on the regular—not just for me but for many of us.  We have schedules that are full of important things, meaningful things, necessary things—with other things we really want to do crammed in where we can manage them.  And in the midst of it all, we can struggle to give the people around us—family, friends, even co-workers—the time or attention that they deserve or need.  If we’re not careful, we can end up taking people for granted; and as is often the case, those closest to us can be taken for granted most easily because we figure they’ll always be there and they know what we’re going through after all...

 

I once asked the folks in a church gathering what words or phrases they most longed to hear. Of course “I love you” was up at the top. Coming in a close second was “thank you.”  “Thank you.”  Such small words that hold such power…  While doing some reading for today, I was struck by one commentator’s reflections on the ways that saying “thank you” can make a profound difference.  Here is what he shares:

 

“In the film The Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins plays a butler to a super-rich family. While researching this role, Mr. Hopkins interviewed a real-life butler. This butler told Hopkins that his goal in life is complete and total obsequiousness—a skilled ability to blend into the woodwork of any room like a mere fixture, on a par with table lamps and andirons. In fact, Anthony Hopkins said one sentence he will never forget is when this man said that you can sum up an excellent butler this way: “The room seems emptier when he's in it.” The room seems emptier when he’s in it. The goal is to do your work, fill your wine glasses, clear the plates and silverware without being noticed, much less thanked. But that's just the problem with routine ingratitude: it makes people disappear. You are the center of your own universe and others don’t warrant entree into that inner sanctum of yourself.  But a simple word of thanks makes people visible again, it humanizes them.”[i]

 

To say “thank you” is to acknowledge gratitude for what someone does or who someone is.  But at an even more basic level, to say “thank you” is to see someone, to perceive their presence, it is to acknowledge them as a fellow human being, as a human being who is part of your life.  When we get too wrapped up in our own stuff and take others for granted, the ones we take for granted can begin to feel invisible.  And, I contend, even those who aren’t keen on being in the spotlight still need to feel seen, acknowledged, appreciated by those closest to them.  Children who are starved for attention will act out in order to get what they need.  And, quite frankly, so will adults.  When we say “thank you” to another person, the other person becomes visible, they become more real, more human—and I would argue that when we offer thanks we, ourselves become a little more truly human as well.  An example:  when I get so busy and wrapped up in my work or my own projects that I fail to say thank you to Anthony for the ways that he supports and cares for me and for our shared life, then it is easy for me to forget all the ways that he supports and cares for me and our shared life.  I can begin to feel “on my own” and put out and weary… I can grow self-righteous and resentful—ways of being that do not expand my humanity, but rather wear me down to a nub.  Gratitude is life-giving for all involved; saying “thank you” is no small thing.

 

There is a lot more than an example of saying “thank you” going on in our Gospel passage today—issues of purity codes, insiders and outsiders, divine healing, and more are all wrapped up in this little story.  Lepers were “unclean” according to the law and therefore were forced to live outside the boundaries of human community.  They suffered what theologian Simone Weil calls “affliction”—a complete suffering that includes the physical, social, political, emotional and spiritual dimensions of their lives.  There was little comfort for lepers, little hope that anything would ever change for the better.  When they cry out to Jesus for mercy—even while keeping their distance as they had been taught to do—Jesus responds by telling them to go and show themselves to the priests.  It amazes me that they did as they were told—considering that as they set off to present themselves for the purity inspection they were still leprous.  What an act of faith—or desperation—to head off in the direction of hope before they saw any change in their condition!  But, as they went on their way, they were made clean—that is, they were healed of their leprosy.  Then, in a surprising turn of events, the one among the group who was especially afflicted—the Samaritan (despised by and ostracized from the orthodox Jewish establishment) doesn’t just keep going on his healed, merry way to present himself to the Samaritan priest. Something in him wells up and needs to be expressed.  Perhaps this Samaritan’s different choice from the others is precisely because he was likely looked down upon even within the little community of outcasts.  Someone who has known such deep rejection will be much less likely to take it for granted when healing and justice comes.  For whatever reason, what the Samaritan does first is change his schedule—he changes course and turns back; he praises God, then he bows before Jesus and thanks him.  Jesus notices that it is the foreigner, the outsider, who is bowed before him in gratitude and then he says a curious thing, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”  Wasn’t the Samaritan already healed?  Evidently to be made well as Jesus means it is more than to be cured of a physical ailment.  The Greek word translated “made well”, from the root sozo, can be translated to be made whole, to be restored, to be cured, to be saved.  I mentioned before that the lepers suffered total affliction—cut-off from hope in every possible aspect of their lives.  To be healed of the physical ailment of leprosy would allow them entry back into human community and many aspects of their lives would be restored.  However, there is something else that is going on between the Samaritan and Jesus in this story:  “Your faith has made you well” seems to point to a deeper restoration, a broader connection, a more holistic healing. 

 

The Samaritan acts upon an impulse—an impulse of praise and gratitude to God.  In essence, in this story, the Samaritan is the only one who we can be sure didn’t take God’s love and mercy for granted.  By his praise and thanksgiving, the Samaritan shows that he knows his physical healing was an unexpected gift of grace from God.  His vision and concern is larger than just his own immediate, personal relief.  He doesn’t just get what he wanted and then move on as though it had been his persistence or his own strength that had brought about the radical change in his circumstances.  [I noted at the beginning that I was under water without what I needed…but the truth is that if I hadn’t had what I needed, I wouldn’t be standing here right now… “morning by morning, new mercies I see…!]  This one’s expression of gratitude puts his life and his relationship with God in proper perspective.  The Samaritan is the beloved child, dependent, humbled, held and ultimately healed by the loving Lord of all life.  He perceives the One in whom he has found life.  His perception and turning to God in gratitude brings about healing and wellness beyond the merely physical—he becomes more whole in his body, mind, and spirit—he becomes more human—that is, he becomes more closely who God has created him to be. The Samaritan—the outsider and the afflicted—by his perceiving, his turning, his praising, his thanksgiving, becomes for us a sign of the coming Kin-dom of God—a sign of what is possible:  restoration and wholeness, lives transformed by encounter with the Holy One.

 

Perhaps today—in addition to committing to perceive and say “thank you” to the people in our lives—we might also consider the ways that we acknowledge God as the source of our lives, as the sustainer of our lives, as the source of grace and strength, as the One who holds us and helps us to stand in times of trial and challenge.  Perhaps we might also consider the role Foundry plays in helping us stay connected to God, providing ways for us to participate in God’s work in the world, and to practice love and forgiveness and grace and justice in community. When and how do you say “thank you?”  In the midst of good, full, busy lives, it’s important to be intentional about these things.  One of the ways we can return our thanks is through our generosity. Last week we reflected on how the spiritual practice of giving is a primary way for us to practice the leap of faith. This week, I want to suggest that giving is a powerful way to express gratitude. What if you made a commitment that, every time you write a check or see the recurring gift to Foundry show up on your statement or put money into the offering plate, you consciously say “thank you”—thank you God, thank you Foundry.  This practice can help us not take God’s love and grace for granted. It can help us not take Foundry for granted.  It can help us perceive all that we receive.  Our invitation is to travel the way of gratitude…for it is on this way that we become more human, more connected to God and to those we are given to love in this life.

 

At the end of the story, Jesus tells him to “go on his way”—and I like to think that this extraordinary event in the Samaritan’s life might mean that his “way” will now forever be the way of gratitude.  The temptation, of course, is that somewhere along the way, the healed Samaritan gets overly comfortable with God and his life once again becomes filled with a restored social calendar and various other human concerns; the schedule gets changed less and less to include an intentional turning to God in praise and gratitude; and God begins to fade out of the picture.  Do you suppose this could happen?

 

 

[i] Scott Hoezee, This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php