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A Story of Fear and Promise

August 11th, 2019

 

A Story of Fear and Promise

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC August 11, 2019, the 8th Sunday after Pentecost.

 

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

 

A few Sundays ago, Pastor Ben prayed a prayer that seemed a direct line both to the human heart and to God. It was a prayer of lament and a call for God to come down with holy fire to consume all that consumes us. It echoed the Psalmist’s cries, how long, O Lord, do we have to live in fear, to wait for the promises of peace and freedom and justice and life abundant? It echoed the prophets who critiqued human reliance upon anyone but God for security and answers.  This crying out to God for help—sometimes in anguish, sometimes in exhaustion, sometimes in impatience or anger or grief—has always been part of the biblical story, our faith story.

 

Somewhere between the years 60 and 95 of the Common Era, a group of “second generation Christians” were crying out. They had experienced years of persecution (Heb 10:32-34). They were weary and disappointed that the promise—the fullness of God’s Kin-dom—had not yet appeared.  Some, we are told, were dropping out of participation in the community as a result of the experience of suffering, confusion, uncertainty and perceived lack of divine response (10:25).  What they received in response to their cries is the letter to the Hebrews, with its encouragement to have faith and live with hope, love and patience in the midst of persecution.  They are reminded of the faith of those who came before them. 

 

Abraham and Sarah and the ones we hear about today.  For those who may not know the story, Abraham was led by God to leave his familiar home without having any clue about where he was going—but he is assured the mystery place holds promise. Abraham wandered as a pilgrim for years, never putting down stable roots.  And when he was 99 years old and his wife Sarah was 90, God promised the couple that they (who had been unable to conceive a child) would now have a son.  They both found this particular promise hilarious; seriously had a good laugh over it.  However, Abraham and Sarah did conceive and bear a son—Isaac—even though, as the writer of Hebrews so delicately puts it, they “were as good as dead.”

 

Abraham and Sarah are praised for their faith.  And, for me, the question is:  what is faith?  Based on their story we see that faith isn’t the absence of doubt or laughter in the face of what seems an unbelievable promise.  I also don’t think faith requires us to literally believe Abraham and Sarah conceived a child when they were pushing100 (in the way we think of time). Furthermore, I don’t think faith is something that frowns upon my own aggravation at being given story after story of miraculous births to preach about when no such miraculous occurrence happened for me or for many others. Faith doesn’t mean we don’t question things or that we ignore science; nor is it dependent upon bad theology that says “everything happens for a reason.” Faith doesn’t require us to check our brains, our hearts, or our emotions at the door.

 

The faith being lifted up is more like what Rev. Rachel Cornwell preached a couple of Sundays ago: it’s about remembering the context of God.  That might be as specific as recounting biblical stories of God’s liberating love and mercy or practicing disciplines that keep you mindful of God’s grace. Or it might simply be grasping a stubborn thread of belief in the power of love or beauty or truth in this world—when everything seems hopeless. This latter seems to me to be much closer to the real faith deal—or is certainly where it is forged. //

 

Simone Weil was an extraordinary woman whose life and writings have influenced many, including myself. I haven’t time to recount even a brief biography today, but she comes to mind because of her experience of what she calls “affliction”—the experience of utter pain, despair, and suffering—and her reflections upon it. She writes:

Affliction makes God appear to be absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent than light in the utter darkness of a cell…During this absence there is nothing to love.  What is terrible is that if, in this darkness where there is nothing to love, the soul ceases to love, God’s absence becomes final.  The soul has to go on loving in the emptiness, or at least wanting to love, though it may only be with an infinitesimal part of itself.[i]

 

In affliction, Weil says, persons are “nailed down to the spot, only free to choose which way we look.”[ii]  She insists that even in the worst moments, to continue to direct our gaze at God, to continue to hope, to continue to want to love, in the midst of absolute despair and suffering—when “there is nothing to love”—is faith.  “Faith is the conviction of things not seen,” the conviction of things not perceived, not understood, not experienced… (Heb. 11:1)  Faith is to “see” no end in sight of affliction and yet, perhaps with only an “infinitesimal part” of yourself, to hold on to a small stubborn thread of hope.

 

The spirituals that wrap our worship in depth and grace today are woven from such threads. These words and melodies were composed and sung by enslaved Africans and their progeny whose lives were marked by constant and unyielding affliction. These songs of lament, of faith, of hope, have nothing but a promise to go on—that God will do something sooner or later, that God is a God who receives the cries of enslaved people and cares, a God who has led people out of bondage before and will do it again. For some, the promise may have been understood as freedom only realized in death—because all they had ever seen in this world was cruelty and enslavement.  But the spirituals, composed in blood, sweat, and tears, are songs of faith.

 

The main character in Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, is an enslaved woman named Cora who risks everything to find freedom. Cora has no use for God or religion, thinking that “waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you” was foolish and that prayer “put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.”[iii]

 

Cora had these thoughts, and yet she made choice after choice seemingly fueled by something larger than just herself. Her choices reveal her focus, where she was looking, her determination to overcome fear and to seek and find something that might be called freedom, something that might be called true life.  And following another crushing blow, in a moment of apparent breakthrough, on a magic-realism railroad handcar deep underground, Cora tells a salvation story, a story of a community laboring to build hope, sacrificing, dying for the sake of others, a story that not only looks back but looks forward.  And she sees herself in the story—even in that moment, continuing to make a way to freedom. Reflecting on the wonder of the underground railroad, she muses:

Who are you after you finish something this magnificent—in constructing it you have also journeyed through to the other side. On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light.[iv] 

In the darkest hour and a moment of untold suffering, when she was “as good as dead,” Cora saw the promise from a distance and greeted it. It was a promise of new life and liberation. Seems like a God thing to me; maybe even like faith.

 

Beloveds, in our suffering, in our waiting, in our fear, when there is nothing to love and you cannot see any way out or forward, by all means, cry out, question, rant, and lament. But also remember that even bound and gagged you can choose where to look…and to whom.  Our story indicates that choice makes all the difference.

 

 

[i] Simone Weil, The Love of God and Affliction, in Waiting For God, 70.

[ii] Ibid., 73.

[iii] Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, New York: Doubleday, 2016, p. 251.

[iv] Ibid., p. 304.

“How Much More,” by Rev. Rachel Cornwell, guest preacher at Foundry UMC on July 28, 2019

July 28th, 2019

Rev. Rachel Cornwell

“How Much More?” Sermon at Foundry UMC, July 28, 2019

Psalm 85 and Luke 11:1-11

 

Thank you, Foundry church for the invitation to be with you this morning.  It is a joy and privilege for me to be in worship with you, and to step into this pulpit where many a powerful sermon has been preached before!  And even though this is called a guest preacher series, I do not entirely feel like a guest here at Foundry because this is my Charge Conference—which in Methodist-speak means that as an ordained minister, Foundry is my church home, my connection to the Baltimore-Washington Conference.  When I moved from congregational ministry to an ecumenical ministry of stewardship work with congregations and non-profit organizations two years ago, you gave me a place to call home.  Thank you for that, and for being the kind of church that makes me still proud to call myself a United Methodist.

 

Would you please pray with me….

 

Imagine a warm summer day like today, and when you come to church, someone at coffee hour offers you a glass of fresh squeezed lemonade.  They had just made it themselves, they assure you, handing you the full glass, ice clinking the frosty sides.  Perhaps you are parched from the walk to church or from singing in worship, so you take a big swallow, only to realize that it tastes terrible.  The lemonade, as it turns out, is made with salt, rather than sugar.  How do you think you would react?  Would you choke it down, thank them, and place the glass down as quickly, but discreetly as possible?  Or would you cough, spit it back in to the cup, and let them know how it really tasted? 

 

Now apparently, this is a classic psychological “empathy” experiment, that was recently tested out on a group of pre-schoolers on the British documentary TV show “The Secret Life of 4 and 5 Year Olds.”[1]  On the show, the children were divided into two groups by gender, and their teacher, making sure the children knew that she had made the lemonade herself, just for them, served the boys first.  “Ugh, DISGUSTING!” one boy said.  “I’m going to be sick!” said another. 

Then they brought out the girls. 

The teacher handed each one a glass, and as they sipped the salty lemonade, one girl responded, “Oooh I love it!  It’s just a bit too lemony for me.”  “It’s delicious,” said the second, “but could I please have some water?  I am really thirsty.”  The child psychology experts watching the video of the children’s reactions said that these responses were predictable.  Because research shows that by the age of 3-4 months, female babies are more attuned to people’s feelings than male ones, and as they grow, girls are typically more empathetic than boys. Because the girls didn’t want to hurt their teacher’s feelings, they weren’t being truthful about how awful the lemonade was. They just swallowed it and smiled.  But the boys were less inhibited and they spoke up, sharing their honest feelings, regardless of how their teacher would feel. 

I find this experiment particularly fascinating, perhaps because I am the parent of three children—a daughter and two sons, and one of my sons is transgender.  And it was around this same age that my transgender son started clearly expressing his gender identity.  I have asked his permission to share this with you, that starting at the age of 4, Evan didn’t really care what other people thought about his short hair, refusal to wear dresses and his dream of owning a truck AND a motorcycle and marrying a girl when he grew up.  And it isn’t a lack of empathy—in fact, Evan is one of the most emotionally intelligent people I have ever known—but he was clear and unapologetic about who he is. And I am thankful for that—for his consistent insistence and persistence—which allowed the rest of us in the family to learn and grow and adapt and has changed all our lives for the better.  

So, naturally, I am personally curious about this “empathy” experiment and the ways in which we are socialized in a highly gendered society.

But there’s something else here that’s deeply troubling to me, and perhaps to you, too: of course it’s important for all of us to be thoughtful and considerate of others, but do we really want people, regardless of their age or their gender, to be socialized to accept something that’s not right, just to preserve someone’s feelings? 

There are a lot of ways in which our culture gives the message to certain people that they should not speak up for themselves.  That they should just take what comes and not make waves about it.  That it’s not that important to make a fuss about. He should just be grateful for the opportunity. She should keep it to herself, because no one cares or will believe her anyway.  This is the message that the culture sends in a million different ways to girls and women, to people of color, to young people and old people, to people with disabilities or recent immigrants or queer people.  Just smile and drink the lemonade.  After all, YOU are lucky you have anything to drink at all, right? 

But then we come to church this morning and we hear Jesus, telling his disciples, and us, that we can ask for whatever we need. That we should seek, and ask, and knock, and if we don’t get an immediate response, we should keep it up.  Keep asking—demanding, even—to be heard, to have our needs met, for the door to open for us.  Because that’s the kind of God we have—a God who listens, who hears, who responds to all of us, to everyone.  No exceptions. 

Now it may be hard for us to believe this, given the ways of the world.  But it’s true. The gospels are filled with examples: of persistent widows and loud lepers, of Canaanite women who refuse to be equated with dogs and hemorrhaging women who boldly reach out to be healed. And in all of these encounters, not only does Jesus see these people, hear them, touch them, respond to them, he praises them for their faith, for their persistence, because they refused to stay in the shadows or on the margins of society any longer. 

Jesus makes it clear: God’s not offended by people who speak up. In fact, this is what God wants from us.

And so, this is what Jesus tells his disciples when they ask him to teach them how to pray. 

First, he says, God is your parent—your Father, your Mother.  You don’t need a temple or any religious professional to talk to your parent.  Just speak. God’s ear is already inclined toward us, listening for our voice.  And like children, we can ask for what we want, ask for what we need.  We may not always get everything we ask for, because what we want may not be the best thing for us, but we can always, always ask. 

Jesus teaches his disciples this prayer that we have come to call The Lord’s Prayer, and has been incorporated into Christian worship around the world for thousands of years.  But it’s not the specific words of this prayer that are so important, it’s the pattern, the permission that Jesus give us to speak directly to God about our physical and spiritual needs. We can ask God for bread when we are hungry, for forgiveness when we have sinned, for protection when we are afraid.  Because God cares for us, loves us, listens to us, and wants these things for each and every one of us. 

And to further emphasize this teaching, Jesus tells his disciples a story: imagine you had a friend who had dropped in on you unexpectedly after traveling for many hours, and you had no food to offer them.  The stores are all closed because it’s the middle of the night (there’s no UberEats; no 24 hour store to run to) so you go knock on your next door neighbor’s door.  He’s sound asleep, his kids are asleep, the lights are out and the door is locked.  He doesn’t answer, so you send him a text and he’s extremely annoyed. “DO YOU KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS?,” he writes back (in ALL CAPS), “what do you want?”  You explain the situation you’re in and he responds by telling you he’s got to get up early in the morning, he’s got a big day tomorrow. But you keep asking and finally he comes to the door and gives you a loaf of bread so you can feed your guest.  He doesn’t do this because he’s such a nice guy and you are such close friends.  No, he does it because you won’t give up. In the New International Version, verse 8 says that it’s because of your shameless audacity, he finally responds.  This, by the way, is not an analogy for God.  This is not how God responds—with annoyance or irritation, finally worn down by our incessant prayers.  No, this is how we would respond if a neighbor came to our door in the middle of the night.  And if we would get up and help our neighbor, in spite of our own desire to stay in bed and not be bothered…if we, even though we are evil, will feed our children when they are hungry…how much more would God, our mother and father, who loves us, who can anticipate our needs, who sits up and waits for us to come knocking, how much more would God do for us? 

For us, the question, “How much more?” is usually one of limitations: how much more is acceptable?  How much more is possible?  How much more do I dare expect or ask for, knowing that we live in a world of scarcity, where some one always has to go without.   

But in God’s economy of abundant grace, how much more is just the starting point.  How much more will I give you?  How much more do I love you? 

More than you can anticipate, or imagine, more than you can comprehend. 

Our Psalm this morning reminds us that even when God seems distant, even if it appears to us that God does not hear our prayer, our needs, God is listening. This a Psalm of collective lament, one in which the writer comes to God on behalf of the community to say—where have you been?  Why have you not responded to us?  Sometimes it only takes one person to give voice to what many of us are feeling.  And the response that the Psalmist receives is a reminder to look back and look forward to see the proof of God’s love. It is in God’s very nature to provide for us abundantly.  Though we may not see it immediately, God has always been there for us and God will continue to be in the future.  And in the meantime, we can come to God with our hopes and dreams, our wants and needs, and be assured that God is listening.

And when we come to worship and hear these words, when we enter the sanctuary and pray to God with one voice and collectively ask for what we need, when we have a spiritual practice of lifting our voices to boldly and with anticipation without reservation for ourselves and for the needs of the world around us here in this holy place….may this give us the hope and courage to also speak up out there, in our homes and workplaces, in our schools and streets, in the places where powerful people make decisions and where justice is meted out.   

Because it’s one thing to know that we have a God who hears us, whose love is limitless and who wants us to speak up.  But does that change the way in which we live out there?  Can our faith in a God who tells us to speak up in prayer, give us the courage and strength, the shameless audacity, to speak up in other places in our lives as well? To tell the truth, even if it’s hard?  To speak up for what we want and need?  To say what we believe is right, even if it makes others uncomfortable or even angry? 

There are times when what we need, what we seek, what we deserve, is not God’s to give.  We must demand it from the powers of his world.  We must speak up in our families, our workplace, our church, to our elected leaders.  And we do this knowing that God has heard us, gives us the power to speak up, to speak out.  

Like when the USWNT demands equal pay to their male counterparts, or when Serena Williams refuses to be silent about the intersections of race and gender and oppression that she has experienced first-hand. 

As when LGBTQIA+ people in the UMC will not be as a problem to be solved, rather than an integral part of the Body of Christ. 

Or when lawyers and journalists and human rights activists and people of faith demand that we treat the people crossing our Southern border with compassion and dignity and are even willing to be arrested to make their voices heard in the halls of Congress.

When the citizens of Puerto Rico take to the streets to force the resignation of their governor, or when community leaders and journalists out against the racist and classist attacks on our neighbors in Baltimore city. 

And what about us?  Where do we need to make our voices heard?  Where do we need to stop being silent, accepting what has been handed to us, and speak the truth, even, as they say, even if our voice shakes? 

Perhaps you have privilege or a platform you can use to speak loudly and boldly.  Or maybe you just need to share your true feelings with someone close to you.  Either one can feel incredibly vulnerable and scary, but we have a God who wants us to speak, to use our voices to say what we need and want.  And maybe, when we speak up, the response will surprise us:

Last month, Verizon partnered with PFLAG and released a commercial last month with the tag line: It’s never too late for love to call back.[2]  The video showed LGBTQ young people calling home after many years to reconnect with family members who first rejected them when they came out.  With shaking hands and quivering voices, they would pick up the phone and call.  “Hi Mom…it’s me.”

These young people had found love and acceptance and pride with who they are, who God made them to be.  And it gave them the courage to reach out and ask again for their family’s love and acceptance as well.  Perhaps not all the conversations went well.  There are some relationships that remain broken and estranged. But there were others where the response was beautiful:

One mother said to her daughter: “When you first told me, I should have told you how much I love you then.”

A brother said, “I really don’t want you to feel that I am not there for you.”

Another mom told her son, “You count in our life, in our family.” 

And when one young woman hung up the phone she repeated what her mother had said to her: “She just wanted to call and tell me she’s proud to have me as her daughter.” 

If can we accept God’s permission to speak up, to speak out for what we need, what we deserve, what’s right, then how much more can we ask from another person?  Or from the powers and principalities of this world?

Would you please pray with me, these words of A Disciple’s Prayer by Rev. Anna Bladel:[3]

Mother of us all,
who dwells within and beyond,
Sacred is your name.
May your holy vision for collective flourishing
come to fruition among us.
May your dreams of justice, love, compassion, and connection be enfleshed on earth.
Provide us today with what we need to be nourished in body, soul, and heart.
Forgive us for the harm we cause as we seek to forgive those who have harmed us.
Lead us away from everything that destroys and liberate us from the hands of evil.
For you are the ultimate source of hope.
Your power-with exceeds all power-over.
Your presence incites eternal wonder.
All praise to you, our comfort and strength.
Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://youtu.be/KD9-jnLD4lY

[2] https://youtu.be/IBrvOfYxlBY

[3] https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/2234/3733/files/lordsprayer.pdf?2915648027795659359&fbclid=IwAR3XLf1Dliznc9wjSn9SNnzZi53RDrfK6W4WHoCTUsjfD94H0whJ-4Yg7vc

“Neighborly Love,” a sermon by guest preacher, Rev. Michael Anderson II, at Foundry UMC on July 14, 2019

July 16th, 2019

A sermon delivered by guest preacher, Rev. Michael Anthony Parker, II

at Foundry United Methodist Church, on Sunday, July 14, 2019.

 

Growing up, one of my favorite television shows was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and the reasons I loved this show were vast. For one, Mr. Rogers wore some great sweaters. Mr. Rogers was also willing to address, head-on, deep issues that society grappled with at that time. Unfortunately, society is still grappling with some of those issues today. And I’m sure you’ll agree with me that Mr. Rogers has one heck of a fish tank! But one of the reasons at the top of my list is because of the theme song. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood; a beautiful day for a neighbor; would you be mine; could you be mine..” Well, if you’ve checked your Twitter feed or any news or social media outlet recently, then you know we aren’t necessarily living in Mr. Rogers’ “beautiful day.” Statistics say that 2.5 million children went to sleep last night without a place to call home. NABD. Already this year, 85 families in DC have had to hear a homicide detective tell them that their loved one isn’t coming home anymore. NABD. Senior citizens, some of our nations most vulnerable individuals, still have to decide between overpriced groceries or overpriced medicine. NABD. Even the church, in 2019, finds ways to discriminate and accommodate for less than Christ-like behavior that’s coupled with a large check. NABD. This, Beloved, is the world in which we live, the world in which God expects us to confront with radical, condition-less, somewhat reckless love. This, people of God, is our mission field. And yes, it’s very similar to that road between Jerusalem and Jericho, but we have been granted the grace and gifts to always and at all times, regardless of the situation, to extend neighborly love.

In today’s text, Jesus employs a morbid that has become a norm in his practice of ministry. He’s teaching a spiritually-grounded life principle by using a parable. This particular use of this form of teaching was brought on because Jesus has found himself in a position where he is being tested. In other words, yet again, somebody is trying Jesus. A lawyer, the Bible says, stands to test him, asking Jesus to share the requirements for entry into God’s Kingdom. As hospitable as Jesus is, he is certainly no fool, and he throws the question back on the lawyer, stating to him, “You can read. In fact you’ve read the Law. How do you interpret it?” Bro. Attorney provides a correct response, and Jesus makes every attempt to let him out of the conversation. He affirms his correctness, and leaves it there. But the lawyer wasn’t satisfied yet. He even takes it a step further and asks Jesus well just who is this neighbor I am supposed to love? It’s here that Jesus walks into this parable. Jesus tells a story of When hospitality and ministry collide. Unfortunately, what started out as a probably normal trip for a man, a man who’s position and station in life is unknown, a man who’s political affiliation is u known, a man who’s race is unknown, a man who’s social connections and musings are unknown, in fact we don’t even know this brother’s name, but we do know this tip wasn’t good to or for him. Somewhere along the 15.9 mile journey down to Jericho from Jerusalem, which actually sits above Jerusalem on a map, a life-threatening situation arose. This man, again whom we don’t know much about, somehow ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time and the wrong things happen to him. He’s beaten. He’s stripped of his clothes, and dare I say his dignity, and as if that’s not enough, he’s left all by himself to die. Luckily, it must be peak travel time because another sojourner comes along the road. Not just anybody, but this traveler we know a little about. Jesus identifies him as a priest, a preacher, one whom has had the out-of-this-earth experience of hearing his name called by God to care for God’s people. Great, one would think. Certainly, this devout, public figure would be able to assist this man who’s in need and within death’s final grip. But the Bible says, the man of God doesn’t just ignore him, he has the sanctified audacity to cross the street, never even getting close enough to the pain and affliction of this brother for his own heart to be pricked long enough for him to care. NABD. A little later, another brother passes by, this one just as socially honored as the last, as this brother is a Levite, one who’s life has been dedicated to assisting those who serve God’s people. Well, he must have been late for ministry staff meeting because he didn’t stop either. He, too, allows this brother, who at this point may even be unable to articulate his own needs, to lay there and continue to die. NABD. A third man comes along, this man a Samaritan. And you’re good church people, so you know that Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along. But this man can’t allow what his eyes sees and his heart feels to go unaddressed. We don’t know if these brothers know each other or not, and it really doesn’t matter. The Samaritan stops to help. He becomes his own Patient First on-site and provides medical care and treatment to this brother. He puts him on his donkey, and takes him to a local hotel where he might appropriately and in a safe environment heal from his attack. He even pays the bill, telling the innkeeper that if there’s a bill, he’s got it. Jesus then asks the lawyer who’s the neighbor in this story, for which the lawyer responds correctly. Jesus tells him, “You do the same thing!”

Mr. Rogers said, “would you be my, could you be my, won’t you be my neighbor!” The reality Beloved, there’s a neighbor is each of us, a willingness and a yearning to help the least, the lost, the left, and the left out. Jesus, the perfect model for exhibiting neighborly love, shows us, not just through his teaching but through his footprint, how to love other folk, even folk that don’t look like us, don’t think like us, don’t love like us, don’t vote like us, don’t live near us, even those that don’t understand nor life us. Yes, being a Christ-like neighbor means there are no conditions to your love. When you’re exercising neighborly love, you will...

Stop long enough to see the needs of those around them.

Use what God has blessed you with to bless others.

Even when those that should do right and know better than to continue to practice wrong, you do what is right!

Keep the faith,

Reverend Michael Anthony Parker II, M.Div.
Pastor

Bells United Methodist Church
6016 Allentown Road
Suitland, Maryland 20746

Office: 301-899-7521
Mobile: 410-900-3535
Join us Sundays @ 8:30am!

United Methodist Church of the Redeemer
1901 Iverson Street
Temple Hills, Maryland 20748

Office: 301-894-8622
Mobile: 410-900-3535
Join us Sundays @ 11:00am!

“Pain and Promise” by Guy Cecil, guest preacher at Foundry UMC on June 23, 2019

July 3rd, 2019

Spirit and Fire

June 30th, 2019

Spirit and Fire

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC June 30, 2019, the third Sunday after Pentecost. “Confronted by Call, Gifted for Service” series.

Text: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

 

  1. Scott Peck once wrote, “When I am with a group of human beings committed to hanging in there through both the agony and the joy of community, I have a dim sense that I am participating in a phenomenon for which there is only one word...‘glory.’” I deeply resonate with this because building, nurturing, and mending community is at the heart of my call to ministry. What I love and long for is a local faith community—a congregation—whose words and acts match, a congregation that has integrity, that is loving and just, that is alive and motivated, that is full of laughter and music and children, that is generous and humble and powerful, that reflects the beautiful diversity of God’s human family, with all members showing up and doing their part to strengthen the Body of Christ.  And what I know is that for this to be even a remote possibility, people have to make a commitment to “hang in there” through a lot.  There is great joy in communities of faith to be sure—the joy of friendship, encouragement, insight, working together toward a shared goal, assurance, meaning, inspiration, purpose, and more.  But there is also “agony.”  People leave for new jobs or opportunities, beloved members suffer and die, conflict and disagreement cause distress and pain, the way forward isn’t always clear and rarely without struggle. As with any human body, there are times when the body is relatively healthy and times of acute distress. But always, the body has to figure out how to respond to new realities.

 

Human community is a living organism; and living organisms adapt to changes in their environment so that they continue to grow and thrive. Those unable to adapt, risk extinction. The phrase “adaptive change” has been in wide circulation for years. It points to the interconnected nature of human community and the need for every member to engage constructively and be open to new ways of both thinking and acting if healthy change is to happen. The thing is, change happens one way or another—but healthy change is only possible if folks are willing to not just “hang in there” but intentionally bring their particular gifts and skills along with gracious and patient open minds, hearts, and hands to the table.  Making healthy adaptive change happen takes practice.

 

In our United Methodist system, we have built-in opportunities to practice—in the form of the appointment system, that system through which clergy are annually assigned to serve local congregations.  It was five years ago tomorrow that I began my appointment here at Foundry. What had already been years of change and transition in the congregation through my colleague Dean Snyder’s tenure has continued in a big way as day by day, month by month, and year by year, we build on healthy foundations, address problems, adapt to new realities, and faithfully engage the significant questions and crises of our time.  It is never boring around Foundry! 

 

This year Foundry receives a new Associate Pastor, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Grimes, who will serve as our Director of Hospitality and Congregational Care.  Pastor Kelly is excited to join our community in this role and brings gifts and graces that will bless us!  And, as with any new leader, Pastor Kelly will bring change and newness and her own particular sense of call and personality to our shared ministry.  Our work is to receive and welcome Pastor Kelly and to support her as she navigates the complexities and wonder that is life at Foundry Church!  Together, we are called to adapt to this change in our environment in ways that strengthen our life and mission. //

 

The strange story we heard today from 2 Kings is a story of someone stepping into a new role; it’s a story of transition and change.  The prophet Elijah served in the time of great upheaval following the division of Israel into the northern and southern kingdoms; his prophetic work is the stuff of legend. Following Elijah’s encounter with God on the mountain, he is instructed to seek out Elisha to be his apprentice (1 Kgs 19:16). These two travel together until the moment we read about today.  Some will hear today’s story and get distracted with the impressive special effects—some biblical writers do a lot with divine wind machines and pyrotechnics!  I tend to see this story as a very human moment when everyone knows that Elijah is dying and preparing to pass his mantle to his successor, Elisha.  A “mantle,” by the way, is a cloak that symbolized the prophet’s authority and power—like a superhero cape or a monk’s outer robe.  Elijah’s was a big mantle to fill.

 

The few verses that are omitted from our lectionary text include the pair journeying by stages from Bethel to Jericho and then to the Jordan. At each stop along the way, two things happen.  First, a local “company of prophets”—like a town prophetic guild—tell Elisha what he already knows, that Elijah is going back to God; and Elisha basically says, “I know! Please stop mentioning it!”  //  I think of all the times I have said to colleagues and parishioners who are leaving that I don’t want to hear about it! Because it is painful to say goodbye to folks, whether the departure is a geographical move or a death.  Elisha knew what was coming, but he didn’t want to hear it. His love for Elijah and his grief at his leaving are clear when he tears his clothes as a sign of mourning.  This is part of the story we hear today; it’s part of the “agony” of community, part of the change that happens in due course.

 

Second, at each stop along their journey Elijah says, “Stay here,” and Elisha replies, “I will not leave you.”  Some suggest that Elijah’s repeated command was a test of Elisha’s loyalty. That may be. I wonder, too, whether it was an acknowledgement that Elisha has a choice, that “taking on Elijah’s mantle” was a difficult and costly thing to do.  Being a prophet in any age is not an easy gig.  But evidently the call Elisha felt was clear and he’d been around long enough to know that he was signing up for both joy and agony.  So much so that he asks for a “double share of Elijah’s spirit.”  This isn’t being greedy or asking for more spirit than Elijah has. It refers to the legal provision that a firstborn son shall receive a double portion of the inheritance.  Elisha knows what he needs! In order to receive this difficult gift—a gift granted by God alone—Elisha must keep his eyes firmly fixed on his beloved mentor.  He didn’t look away and I imagine got more than he bargained for—as they were walking and talking together, a fiery chariot and horses “separated the two of them” and then Elijah got swooped up by a whirlwind and carried into heaven.

 

I’m here to tell you that, while there are plenty of educated conjectures, no one knows what the fiery chariot business is all about.  But I’m simply going to point out that where there is fire and wind in the same place, Spirit is up to something big, usually new-life-creating big, often setting-folk’s-hearts-on-fire-with-a-new-call big.  Think of Pentecost, the day when wind and fire were signs of a new anointing, a setting on fire to share the good news of God’s love and justice.

 

I doubt it’s an accident that this whole dramatic thing happens at the Jordan river, the place of crossing over from slavery to freedom, from one life to another.  And Elisha crosses over there too, as he steps into life without his mentor by his side. He steps into a new role, takes up the mantle left by Elijah and begins to discover how he will hold it.  He asks where God is, and God is with him, to make a way through the waters and into the new life on the other side.

 

We see in this story that adaptive change involves acknowledging our loss and expressing grief; every change involves loss. It involves being clear about our own call and what is required to fulfill that call.  It then requires that we pick up the proverbial “mantle” of our call—that we do what we are called to do or be who we are called to be.  Finally, it will require trust in the God who is always with us to make a way even when we feel lost or not ready.

 

As people of God, it is important for each one of us to consider our unique call in the midst of an ever-changing world.  What is the mantle you’re being given?  What is your role, where are you being asked to be open to something new?  There may be changes in your body or your family or your relationship or your workplace that present you with a new role or way of being.  There are always changes and new opportunities to practice adaptive change in and through Foundry.  In the face of all that is swirling around us in the world, the suffering and conflict and the need for prophetic witness and loving-kindness and acts of tenderness and bold confrontation, what sets you on fire? Where are you called to serve? What are you called to give?  We can talk talk talk about being a congregation committed to social justice and covenant community, but that only matters as we do our part, day by day, to keep our eyes focused on the One we follow so that we experience the winds and fire of Spirit who is always calling us to something new—and then do the work of adaptive change: grieve, discern, act, trust.

 

May our prayer be bold as Elisha in asking for the inheritance of Spirit due a beloved child.  In the words of 19th century Episcopalian Priest, Phillips Brooks: “Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger people! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle.”

 

Change is hard. Community is challenging. Foundry’s call to love God, love each other and change the world isn’t one person’s call, it is upon all of us; and it involves both joy and agony.  But for those willing to respond to the call….  Glory awaits on the other side.