Foundry UMC

Foundry UMC header image 1

Stay the Course: A Sermon Preached by T.C. Morrow- Sunday, March 17, 2019

March 18th, 2019

This Lenten season, we are exploring “Traveling the Redemption Road”.  As we journey in these days leading up to Holy Week and Easter, it is a period of particular invitation to open ourselves to growth in our relationship with God.  As Pastor Ginger reminded us two weeks ago, Lent is not simply a time to pick up failed New Year’s resolutions.  Rather, Lent is an invitation to do something just a little differently than your regular routines, in order to open yourself more fully to God’s grace.  Now it doesn’t mean you are necessarily going to come to Easter worship having had a huge a-ha movement. But don’t discount that possibility.

 

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

 

Invitations to silence are a hard thing for me.  During the last two years, I have had spurts of trying to schedule a time for silent retreat.  I guess I should get that on my to do list again, since I often find that what I avoid in terms of spiritual practices is often exactly what I need the most.

 

So it is with some trepidation that I come today to testify to a word I received recently during a time of silence. 

 

On Saturday three weeks ago, I sat in a football stadium and accepted an invitation to be in silent prayer for a few minutes.  No, I wasn’t in packed stands at a big revival.  But I had started the day committed to engaging as fully as possible in the Day of Prayer starting off the special session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church.  The invitation came for ten minutes of prayer in silence, though I don’t think it even end up that length.  I know I fidgeted some, though fortunately my mind didn’t wander to the Eagles loss in the same spot in the 2002 NFC championship game.

 

I prayed and as we were invited to open our eyes after the time in silence, a phrase popped into my mind: Stay the course. And I mean, seared on my mind in block letters: STAY THE COURSE.

 

Steadfastness is a theme in today’s Lectionary scripture passages.  Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a thank you for their support of his ministry mixed with his encouragement to them to keep on keepin’ on.  From the very beginning of Christianity, there have been disagreements over what it takes to be a Jesus follower.  Some of Paul’s other letters show the disputes of the first century in greater detail.  Here in today’s lesson in chapter 3, we read of enemies of the cross of Christ.  For Paul, this includes people focused on the wrong things.  For Paul, it is people focused too much on conformity to religious and cultural norms and not enough on the transformative power of Jesus Christ.  In the face of opposition, Paul encourages the community at Philippi: “Stand firm in the Lord.”

 

Back to that Saturday three weeks ago in St. Louis.  A few hours later, I had the pleasure of meeting in person for the first time someone who I had worked with over the phone.  He looked me in the eye and said, “Stay the course.”

 

I don’t normally take things as signs from God, but twice in one day with a phrase I can’t think that I ever use!  This Lent I am pondering what all it means to Stay the Course. 

 

First a note on the context in which I process this message from the Holy Spirit.  I want to speak a word to the deep pain and grief and anger so many LGBTQ United Methodists are feeling right now.  I know our allies feel it too, and my wife and I appreciate the outpouring of love and support from allies - and I am sure we are not alone in that appreciation.  But a brief word to my LGBTQ siblings.  Maybe like me you have been transported back in time to the months or years that you spent time reconciling your faith, or at least your participation in organized religion, and your sexuality or gender identity.  As I wake up at two or three AM too many times in these weeks, my mind flashes back to my dorm room in the second semester of freshman year, pleading with God to let me know if I am not supposed to be in any leadership at any level in the church, since the last thing I want to do is lead anyone astray.  Those days of wrestling in the spring of ’96 are so far away from my current reality, but weeks like these last few trigger the memories.

 

And these last few weeks, even when I get enough hours of sleep, I wake up exhausted.  It hurts literally and figuratively. 

 

We need to be gentle with ourselves and give ourselves permission to grieve continued injustice and denominational harm.  Lent is maybe the best time of the liturgical year to pause and sit with whatever we are feeling or not feeling right now, especially before we make big decisions.  It brings to mind what the disciples might have gone through in those days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, when maybe they could affirm there would be more to the story but did not yet know what new life was going to come forth.

 

One immediate thing that Stay the Course meant was submitting paperwork to the District Committee on Ministry.  Due two days later, I sent it on the Tuesday morning prior to heading over to the Conference, knowing that likely the day would bring passage of the so-called Traditional Plan.  The paperwork is part of an annual process to remain a certified candidate for ordained ministry, one of the various steps needed as I continue to make myself available for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. 

 

I phrase it that way on purpose because part of Staying the Course is continuing to engage in ministry regardless of what any denominational body says or does.  I would love to be able to put on a clerical collar and attend rallies I’ve helped organize outside the White House.  But I show up in those spaces with the same authority from God regardless of what title is in front of my name or what I can use to accessorize my wardrobe.  That authority is as a follower of Jesus Christ and it comes before any institutional blessing.  Now do not misunderstand me, I am a rule follower at hear and I have great respect for our ordering in human institutions.  Yet I know I cannot wait for an end to sinful institutional homophobia before responding to following Jesus and striving to faithfully live my baptismal vows.  We cannot let the sins of racism or ableism or sexism or transphobia or homophobia or anything else stop ANY of us from responding to God’s grace and God’s desire for ever deeper relationship with each of us.

 

Staying the Course means not allowing anyone or anything to derail the values and commitments and actions and ministries of this congregation.  Not knowing what is going to emerge in or from the United Methodist Church means we are living in a time of great uncertainty and tension.  But even as we care for ourselves, we continue to plan summer youth mission trips, we engage in the ID Ministry, we make sandwiches, we teach Sunday School, we engage in advocacy in our city and beyond, we partner with the congregations of Asbury UMC and John Wesley AME Zion.  We continue to stand up to the hatred of white supremacy all too evident this week in the mosque attacks in New Zealand.

 

As a lesbian and as a Christian and as a lifelong United Methodist born to two cradle Methodists, Staying the Course for me today means I’m not picking up my canoe right now and heading to another river, though I have heard from some across the denomination who are doing so.  Right now I’m not headed to another river, but I acknowledge that I don’t know exactly where the course goes down river.  After all, Methodism sprung forth as a renewal movement.  John Wesley died a priest of the Church of England, but we along with many other branches in the Wesleyan family are heirs to that renewal movement.

 

In today’s Lectionary Gospel lesson in Luke 13, we see religious leaders keen on maintaining the status quo trying to get Jesus to stop his community organizing and transforming lives outside the confines of the religious norms.  “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”  In the face of forces meant to pressure him into inaction, Jesus remains resolute in his work of kin-dom building.  He continues to teach and heal and defy expectations.

 

In Philippians Paul asks the Christian community similarly to remain resolute in their work of kin-dom building.  In chapter 3 verse 20, Paul says, “Our citizenship is in heaven.”  In other words, where we ultimately put our loyalties and energy is in the kin-dom.  We are to live as though we are part of an outpost of the kin-dom – living the kin-dom now. 

 

As we seek to live as citizens of the kin-dom and travel the redemption road, we are invited to open ourselves to the places where we need transformation.  We are invited to community with fellow travelers on the journey.  We are invited to stay the course of the journey, knowing that there will be bends in the river, streams merging, and occasionally a river even bifurcates, or splits.  But we are not alone.  We have each other through small groups and shared ministries, Bible studies and coffee hour, worship and mission.  And most importantly of all, we have God alongside us on this journey.  In our times of deepest pain and in our times of greatest joy and everything in between, God is with us.  Open yourself this Lenten season to where the flow of the Spirit may be guiding you.  And amidst it all, stay the course in growing ever closer to God.

 

Amen.

Brought Through A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC March 10, 2019, First Sunday of Lent

March 11th, 2019

Brought Through

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC March 10, 2019, First Sunday of Lent. “Traveling the Redemption Road” series.

Text: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

 

Where have you come from?  Where are you now?  And what have you come through to get there?

 

And as we begin this season of Lent, our focus is on the journey. We are traveling the redemption road, seeking to move from one place to another.  We’re all at different places along the way. We have a variety of challenges, broken places, regrets, and more from which we hope to be redeemed—which is to be released, set free. 

 

There are times when we may struggle to see how we will ever get free of the things that weigh us down and keep us stuck. It may be difficult to imagine a life free of guilt, free of destructive behaviors—or free of abuse and oppression that we experience from others. It will sometimes be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel or to hold fast to the promise on the other side of the wilderness or the new life on the other side of the tomb.

 

This isn’t only true for us as individuals, but also for us as communities—our churches, cities, states, and nation have much from which we need to be redeemed. We have sinned and done great harm over the course of history.  Sometimes we have knowingly done hateful, exclusive things and sometimes even our good intentions have brought about suffering and death for others.

 

Lent is the time set apart in our faith tradition to focus on these painful truths—the brokenness of our own lives and the sins of the communities of which we are a part.  We don’t focus on guilt in order to wallow, but rather to get free, to do better, to move along the road toward redemption.  This season is also a time when we are reminded of our dependence upon God to help lead us there. //

 

Our text today from Deuteronomy is toward the end of what is written as Moses’ long farewell speech to the Israelites as he prepared for his death. It is a description of the worship ritual to bless the “first fruits” as a remembrance and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness. Embedded in the ritual is the ancient core of our faith story:

 

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deut 26:5-9)

 

The core of our faith is that when we are lost, wandering, exiled, enslaved, afflicted, hungry, and in despair, God hears our cries and sets us free. God leads us through the wilderness. God wants to get us through the rough places and into a green pasture and beside a still water. God is about bringing life out of death. Of creating new life where we can only perceive decay.  And—don’t we know it?—God has brought you through. God will bring us through. //

 

One of the most important conversations happening right now in the midst of the horrific outcome of the United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis is around intersectional justice and inclusion.  I sense that this is a place that God is determined to lead us to and through.  It’s a messy conversation, but so deeply important as we turn toward the future in our congregation and denomination.  For some, there is concern that, in our denomination’s focus on LGBTQ persons’ inclusion or exclusion, other marginalized persons in our church and society are being silenced and their suffering ignored by the church.  Systemic racism and white supremacy, violence against immigrant populations, poverty, climate change, and devaluing the voices and leadership of our young people are getting named as places where the church is overwhelmingly silent.  Some local congregations and some of our United Methodist agencies focus a lot on these matters.  But some are pressing for more.

 

Generally, folk are so conditioned in “either-or” thinking that it’s difficult to hold the tension of “both-and.”  For example, we’re either engaging the struggle for LGBTQ equity or racial equity.  

 

Intersectionality theory highlights how either-or thinking sets us up to leave people out and even make them invisible. We who want to love as Jesus loves will at least try to figure out how to perceive, include, and honor all among us, those at the margins and those who live at the intersection of multiple margins; might we train ourselves to lift up the sibling who, for example, is black and trans and poor? As I read the Bible, my guess is that’s a person Jesus would see in a crowd when no one else was paying any attention.

 

There are moments when we need to focus on one part of the human family because of acute assault—that’s what drives our advocacy for LGBTQ inclusion in the church right now. It’s also what fuels our consistent focus on racial justice.  But if we’re not careful, we can trample the most vulnerable on our well-meaning quest. That’s the outcry from the margins in this moment of denominational crisis. If we’re going to try to do something for justice and inclusion, let’s really try to do justice.

 

Here at Foundry I am increasingly clear that part of the redemption road we need to travel includes moving toward a much greater understanding of intersectionality—the ways that power and privilege can functionally silence and “erase” partners in the struggle for justice (we’ll talk about that a bit in my upcoming class on Sacred Resistance). And I’m committed more than ever to a vision for Foundry that includes a robust effort to create beloved community—in the Howard Thurman mode. We are a both-and congregation and part of a Wesleyan spiritual tradition that is also both-and. In this moment of disruption in our denomination, I encourage us to move away from any temptation to either-or exclusions and journey toward the place where we acknowledge our struggle to perceive and honor the most vulnerable among us.  This is the time to let go of any tendency to compare sufferings or to think that if we’re oppressed, we don’t oppress others.  This is the time to take up the call to reflect in our membership the full range of beautiful diversity of our city.  This is the time to actively engage in work that presses each of us to confront whatever privilege we have and to be honest about the ways white supremacy, patriarchy, and other systemic oppression functions within our congregation even though we desire that it isn’t so. 

 

I encourage you to read books from our racial justice reading list, to engage in the conversations about LGBTQ inclusion, participate in the monthly Sacred Resistance studies and events, or join in the exciting vision emerging between Foundry, Asbury, and John Wesley AMEZ.

 

This work is so hard and getting free of our stuff is not easy.  We will likely wander in confusion and be held captive by old thinking again and again.  But we’re not on the journey alone.  The redemption road is frequented by a God who wants to take us to a place of freedom, a place of promise, a place where we keep moving but do so with a greater awareness of who’s on the journey all around us and who may need a helping hand to keep moving at various points along the way.

 

The exodus story is a journey story, a redemption story, an Easter story. It’s our story. Thanks be to God.

 

 

About Face: A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC March 3, 2019

March 4th, 2019

About Face

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC March 3, 2019, Transfiguration Sunday. “This Is Us” series.

Texts: Exodus 34:29-35, Luke 9:28-43

Jesus has been loving people back to life since he emerged from the temptations in the wilderness, calling women and men from all walks of life to follow in his way of compassion and justice. Signs and wonders have been witnessed, especially along the margins, with the outcast, among the tombs, in the places where people come out—out of hiding, out of shame, out of death. Healing and feeding, liberation and restored life are what Jesus brings.  And from the very beginning Jesus is opposed by those with a different plan.  Jesus’ radical, boundary-crossing, expectation-smashing, life-changing love is rejected by proponents of the status quo.  Jesus knows his God-given identity, the way he loves, and his choices of where and with whom to stand are making the powers and principalities track his every move, watching and waiting for a time to do him in, to stop the mighty flow of God’s grace that splashes all over every time Jesus tears down another dividing wall of hostility. (Eph 2:14)

Jesus, knowing the score full well, told his followers that “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Lk 9:22) About eight days after saying this Jesus went up to a high place, a thin place, to draw near to God, likely needing some encouragement and guidance for what only he knew was brewing. As Jesus prays, something extraordinary happens. Luke doesn’t use the word “transfigured” to describe it, as both Matthew and Mark do, but rather says “the appearance of [Jesus’] face changed”—it was like Moses face shone after talking with God on Mount Sinai. (Ex 34:29).  And then Moses—lawgiver and liberator—and Elijah—prophet and persistent presence to God’s wayward people—appear and have a little talk with Jesus.

Both Moses and Elijah spent time with God on mountains. Both were on the public enemy #1 lists of their day. Both were called by God to speak truth to power. In other words, these are two people who had some real experience to share. Their words must have been a balm and encouragement for Jesus in this moment when no one around him had a clue of what was going on. They talked together about Jesus “departure.”  I’ve always found this word in Luke’s account of the story rather jarring and odd. I wonder what it means that the word translated “departure” is the Greek word exodos—the word used to describe the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery to freedom...

It is often suggested that the departure is Jesus’ death and resurrection—bringing freedom from sin and death as a result.  I don’t disagree, but I can’t help but notice that Jesus—his face shining like Moses—is preparing to march into the center of power—not to confront Pharoah as Moses once did, but to confront the hypocritical religious leaders of the day who hold people captive through neglecting justice and the love of God, who load people with burdens hard to bear but don’t lift a finger to ease them, who present themselves as shiny on the outside (like a washed cup) while on the inside they are filled with greed and wickedness (Lk 11:37-52).

The story we read today is a moment of strategic prayer and preparation for the new exodus drama to play out. Jesus was given encouragement in the moment he was turning his shining face toward Jerusalem where the forces of control, fear, exclusion, greed, and abused power coalesced in sinister ways. //

When I read this story after returning from the General Conference in St. Louis, the word “departure” struck me for new reasons. I thought of those delegates hell-bent on passing so-called “gracious exit” plans, those determined to leave or to force others to do so, those fixated on departure from the denomination and at the cheapest rate possible.  And the Greek word exodos stirred thoughts of slavery; I thought of those determined to hold us hostage, to trap LGBTQ people and allies in bonds not of love and friendship, but rather with cords of control and coercion and fear and mandatory penalties and narrow thinking and threatened expulsion.

Some may hear my words today and cry “foul” at my implication. I readily acknowledge that there are people of deep love and faith who, out of a desire to please God and a cherished interpretation of scripture, cannot affirm same gender marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons. These folks who with real compassion seek to do no harm are not who I’m talking about. They are not the ones who drafted the heinous legislation called the “Traditional Plan” (even if some of them voted for it). Let me simply say that, in this struggle, there are those who I believe truly, deeply, fervently wish to rid the church of LGBTQ persons and their allies and who feel and say truly awful things about us in private and then couch their plans to kick us out in terms of grace.

Jesus has seen all this before. Jesus has seen beloved siblings get all tied up in fear and hatred and the need for control and, as a result, do great harm. And because of his steadfast love for the most vulnerable and also for those inflicting the harm, he didn’t avoid confrontation with the perpetrators, but walked right into it. There’s that classic moment in the story when Peter, not knowing what he’s saying, decides he should build some tabernacles for everyone so they can stay there in that shiny, happy place on the mountaintop. And it was then that the cloud rolled in and made it clear that something else needed to happen. Wake up! Listen up! Face up to who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing and where Jesus is going. //

Before General Conference, I experienced an old, familiar feeling. I felt like I was literally “gearing up” for a big game—like when I played basketball back in high school.  There’s a certain kind of energy that comes with prepping for a contest. I felt myself putting on my “game face.”  From time to time over the past weeks it made me feel guilty. I prayed my “beast mode” competitive drive wouldn’t overwhelm the light and assurance of Christ’s love I so wanted to bring into the General Conference space.

As I prayed with our text today, I saw Jesus being given a changed face, a face that could turn toward the struggle and pain to come with light and with compassion and with courage and with love. Maybe that is a kind of “game” face—not in a frivolous way, but a certain kind of face given for a certain kind of engagement.  The face Jesus consistently showed was the face of love and patience, the face of forgiveness and peace, the open and inviting face that beckons others to turn toward love of God and love of neighbor—not with platitudes, but with concrete acts of care, justice, solidarity, and provision.

I don’t know what kind of face I showed in St. Louis. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty on any number of occasions. But the question that emerges for me in this critical moment following General Conference is: what face will we show the world?

In our story today, we see the disciples at the top of the mountain show sleepy faces. Is that the face we want?

In our story today, we see the disciples’ impulse to put on shiny, happy faces by staying on the mountaintop and avoiding the pain and struggle of the valley. I imagine some would want to cut Foundry off from the mess of our denomination and stay in the relatively happy place of our local experience. What about the countless clergy, laity, and congregations who look to us for leadership and hope as part of their beloved church? Can we truly put on a happy face if we abandon our siblings who look to us for support?

In our story today, we see the disciples shut their faces, remaining silent about the wonders they have witnessed. Will we do that? Or will we continue to proclaim the wonder and life-giving power of God’s inclusive love even in the face of challenge?  Will we seek to expand our proclamation to always acknowledge the complicated intersections that emerge among God’s beautiful and varied human family? Will we show a face that is loud and proud and diverse?

In our story today, we see disciples in the valley showing a powerless face—unable to meet the needs of a suffering child. Is that the face we wish to project? Or will we serve and advocate and care boldly, trusting in the power of God’s saving grace and love to be at work in and through us?

There are those over the past number of days who have wanted to press or provoke me to show a face of fear. Friends, the perfect love of God casts out fear! Can we show our face with confidence and assurance in God’s love and protection?

Will we hide our faces by turning and running away in this moment?

What will be the face of Foundry in the days, weeks, and months ahead?  If it’s anything like the Foundry I saw show up in St. Louis as we marched into that place of deep struggle together, it will be a face shining with faith even under assault, with compassion even in pain, with eyes-wide-open courage, with patience, with endurance, with fearless generosity, with determination, skill, grace, radical hospitality, humor, creativity, and a love so deep it takes my breath away.

Jesus turned his face to God and was given everything he needed to do the loving thing, the just thing, the brave thing, the saving thing. For the sake of the hurting ones and all who are oppressed, for the sake of our congregation, for the sake of the United Methodist Church everywhere, for the sake of this beautiful, broken world, let’s turn our face to Christ, so that face is reflected in ours...

Known By What Name? Preached at Foundry United Methodist Church—February 24th, 2019—William E. Green

February 25th, 2019

Known By What Name?

Preached at Foundry United Methodist Church—February 24th, 2019—William E. Green

 

          What names are you known by? Are there pet or nicknames your closest friends and family call you—names that help you know you’re deeply loved? Are there titles and relationships —Doctor, Dad, Aunt, Pastor—that help you know that you’re part of something more, establish for you a since of space and place in the world? Are there names that cause fear and isolation? Socially ascribed categories like ‘addict’ or ‘unemployed’ or ‘divorced’ or ‘refugee’ that injure and undermine your sense of self?

           To name something is to practice a special kind of social magic. Names carry the weight of our expectations—and establish boundaries for how we relate to others.  Our name can set us free—to know that we are loved, cared for, respected, desired. Or they can enslave us—consigning us to a single way of seeing ourselves and relating to other people.[1] In other words our names, both those we choose and those we’re assigned, matter.

           In the cultures which gave rise to the biblical texts, names were not just used to identify a person or place, but to capture something of the essence of the person or place who bore them. And our poor friend, Jacob, well…in some ways he was doomed to fail.

His name, meaning ‘heel-grabber’ or ‘supplant-er,’ was assigned to him when at birth he emerged clinging to his older brother’s heel[2].  Its suggestion—that he was set from the beginning of life to be at odds with others—is something he spent the next several decades really living up to. To make a long—and soap opera-worthy—story short, Jacob does the following in a few short chapters:

  1. Tricks his hungry brother into trading his rights to an inheritance as the first-born for a bowl of lentil soup;

 

  1. Tricks his dying and blind father, Isaac, into thinking he was his much hairier brother Esau—by wrapping his arms with lamb’s skin;

 

  1. Flees to his mother’s cousin, Laban—Esau wasn’t exactly happy about 1 and 2—where he himself is tricked into marrying the sister of the woman he loved and then working seven more years to marry the woman he was originally supposed to;

 

  1. Uses questionable husbandry skills to swindle Laban out of the majority of his own flocks before—at God’s direction—fleeing Laban in the middle of the night to return to the land of his father where, oh by the way, big brother was still waiting to make good on a few death threats.

 

           True to the expectations set forth by his name, Jacob’s relationships with everyone around him were toxic. And he was left alone, even absent his family as they left him there on the banks of the Jabbok to await the arrival of his brother. Then God shows up. And Jacob, the heel-grabber, the leg-puller, the one consigned by his name to wrestle for his place in the world wrestled yet again…with God. Clinging to one another, with neither able to prevail, Jacob and this divine being engage in a bruising battle that ends with Jacob yet again asking for a blessing. One is

           But this time, rather than birthright, wealth, or status, his blessing is a change of name. longer the heel-grabber or supplant-er, Jacob becomes Israel, or ‘one who struggles with God and prevails.’ And although Jacob-now-Israel’s name change alone is not particularly important—such name changes are common in the Bible—the way he and God clung to one another in the struggle, and resulting transformation, are. Our story ends in the verses following our reading when Israel—even him—faces his brother, without fear, and proclaims with joy “to see your face is to look upon the face of God[3].”

           One gets the sense, at least I do, that part of what Jacob was really wrestling with that night on the banks of the Jabbok was the question of his place and space in the world. The ways in which his name defined him, and places where he desperately longed to be free from it. And the blessing he received as he clung to God and God clung to him is just that. The freedom from the defining characteristics of his former name. Freedom to find healing in broken relationships and envision a new way of relating to the world.

           Like Jacob it is easy to become victims of the names we assign to others or have assigned to us. To find ourselves caught in the tension between who we deeply know ourselves to be and the script set forth in the way others say we are.  To limit our worth or value in the world to easily to the easily understood categories of our immigration status or political preference. To allow words like “incompatible with Christian teaching” define our sexuality and ability to give and receive love.

           Jacob’s story reminds us God joins us in our brokenness and wrestles alongside us, with us, in us. That God clings to us for dear life saying over and over again: You are mine. My beloved. Hold on. Do not let go. No matter if your family is against you and your relationships in shambles—I will be with you.. No matter if your country is against you and your homeland feels unsafe—I will not abandon you. No matter if your church will not welcome you or honor you or receive your ministry—I have already chosen you.. You are mine and I am with you in this battle. I will not let you go.

           And why? Because God does not desire our conscription to the broken names and definitions placed on us by the world, but our freedom—freedom to be healed and whole through God’s love so that we might become agents of the world’s healing through God’s love. Imagine how much freer we would be to love ourselves. To release the anxiety and worry and work of fighting for our place or demanding recognition. Imagine how much freer we would be to love one another. To let go of the names that define and divide us from one another so that we can truly look upon the face of everyone we meet—even those with whom we have disagreement, discord, and strife—and proclaim with joy “to see your face is to look upon the face of God[4].”

           I adopted the name “Will Ed” in the months leading up to the 2008 General Conference in Dallas, Texas. I’d begun a term of service on the Reconciling Ministries Network Board of Directors, alongside Foundry’s own Ralph Williams, with another queer, clergy-to-be named—you guessed it—Will Green. Ostensibly this change in my signature line was because Will the Lesser, as I’d come to be known, was just not cutting it.

           In retrospect, this shift in the way I asked people to identify me was as much, however, about signifying a shift in my own identity. In the months prior to my ‘name change’ I was outed my process toward ordination in the Arkansas Annual Conference. In the weeks that followed, it was made clear by my bishop and clergy mentor that, though my service was appreciated and my leadership as a local pastor valuable, that should I want to pursue ordination I’d have to find another annual conference to do it in. I was forced to ask—by the Church that called me their own-- in what I place the most value—the state and family and people I loved—or the God and Church that I knew deep in my soul I was called to sacrificially serve.

           Today, I stand before you not because I had the strength to hold on myself, but because in those moments God held on to me. In the voices of people throughout our connection who reminded me over and over that I was called, gifted, and worthy. In the hope of congregations—just like Foundry—who were in principled defiance creating spaces for queer folk to serve. They were, in the moments of a great vocational struggle, the voice of God saying in the heat of battle, you are mine. My beloved. I will not let you go. And Will Ed, as simple and silly as it may sound, was the cry of my heart proclaiming, I won’t let go either.

           Today, in St. Louis, Missouri, elected delegates and those witnessing to a variety of perspectives and positions have gathered to begin determining a ‘way forward’ for The United Methodist Church and it’s acceptance—or not—of the faithful work and witness of LGBTQ+ persons who for the last 40 years of our life together have been named “incompatible with Christian teaching.” We bear in our bodies, and in the bodies of our congregations, the bruises and broken places of queer lives lost, of congregation members now absent, of calls left unrealized and communities left unreached. We hold in our memory the pain of hateful words and hurt left to fester in our hearts. For those of us who’ve been holding for ever, it may indeed feel like our strength is growing thin—like maybe, just maybe, it’s time to let go.

           But, do you know what else is happening today? Today we will gather around water and we will baptize two people into the life of the Church. We will speak their true name, Child-Of-God, as we celebrate the abundance of God’s grace which was available to the whole world long before the church ever thought to exclude anyone at all. We will remember the faithfulness of God, who enters into this beautiful, broken world and who promises to journey with us every day of our lives. We will profess vows of support and care, creating a covenant community for these persons which guarantees to them here, in this place, that we will walk and worship and fight and pray and love right alongside them, even as we recommit ourselves to being the same for each and every person who calls Foundry Church home. And today, even if just today, we will be the Church. Not an institution on the brink of potential schism. Not a congregation caught up in a fight over an inclusive love we already know to be the Gospel. But the Church united across time and space through whom God has spoken the same truth again and again—you are mine, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. There’s no vote or structure or stance that can take that which God has already proclaimed over us away. And that, at least for me, at least today, is something I can cling to.

           I do not know what will happen at the conclusion of General Conference next week, and friends I will confess my own deep pain and concern. And it may feel as if we, like Jacob, are standing on the banks of the Jabbok waiting on the world we’ve known to fall apart. But what I do know is that the Church can’t change in baptism what God has already done. That we will continue to gather at the font and baptize and name God’s children at every age and stage who they are: beloved, beautiful, gay and straight, young and old, black and white, progressive and conservative, hopeful and fearful, believing and doubting children of God who’s place in the Church has already been established. That whether at the end of this week our name is United Methodist or not, we have another name which no one, no vote, no action can take from us. No matter what our institutional church might look like, the body of Christ who is the church finds its life not in Book of Discipline but in the vows taken at baptism. And above all, I know that God goes with us into the fray—though the journey may be yet long and tiring, though the road have no end in sight. And that where God is, there is hope still—even for The United Methodist Church—to step into the light of a new day free.

 

Hold On, Church. Because God’s holding on to you.

 

 

[1] https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/the-power-of-names

[2] Genesis 25:22-23

[3] Genesis 32:9b

[4] Genesis 32:9b

Tested Minds, Searched Hearts A Sermon Preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC February 17, 2019

February 17th, 2019

Tested Minds, Searched Hearts

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC February 17, 2019, the sixth Sunday after Epiphany. “This Is Us” series.

 Text: Jeremiah 17:5-10 

 

Jeremiah’s prophecy reveals that God will “test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.”

If God were to test your mind and search your heart today, what would God find?  Where are you putting your energy?  What or who gets your love and your trust? 

One of the most consistent messages throughout the Bible is that where you place your trust and devotion determines so much about your life.  And the unwavering call is to trust God above all else—not because God will get mad at us if we don’t, but because trusting God will set us free to live even in the most threatening circumstances.

We know from human experience that without trust, life is a small, fearful thing. Or, said positively, trust is what allows freedom, courage, and growth.

If I trust you, then I will be willing to go with you into something that would otherwise make me nervous.  If you trust me, you will believe me when I explain that the words I said weren’t meant in the way you heard them—and you’ll allow me to explain.  When a trusted teacher, boss, or coach is hard on you, pushing and expecting more and more of you, it is possible to believe they aren’t punishing you, but believing in you and encouraging you.  If I trust my doctor, my whole being will be more receptive to healing.  In these and so many other instances, trust is what makes it possible to step into new things, nerve-wracking things, challenging things. Trust frees us from the fear that would hold us back. Trust helps us be vulnerable and brave. Trust expands our horizons.

We also know from human experience that sometimes trust is difficult.  Our family histories and cultural experience may make it challenging to extend trust to anyone.  Our hearts get broken and betrayed in so many ways in this life, making us guarded and shy to share ourselves again.  From parents to politicians to pastors to partners, human beings are fallible and finite. We can really do numbers on each other…  And while it is one of the greatest gifts in human life to be able to trust our heart with another person, we know, if we’re paying attention, that there is no person—and certainly no thing—that can meet all our needs or sustain our whole life or keep from hurting us or letting us down at some point.

Jeremiah prophesies, “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.”  Throughout the Bible, we hear God calling us to turn away from false Gods, calling us to stop putting our trust in things or in earthly leaders that will not give life.  Those who make themselves “lords” over others and who look to their own strength and wealth and power and control as the locus of their trust will find themselves, sooner or later, in a painful place. Jeremiah’s image is of a parched place, a “salt land” where nothing can grow, and the “shrub” in that place isn’t even able to see when something hopeful is on the horizon.

Jeremiah describes the alternative in this beautiful way: “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”

The good news is that we’re not asked to trust God without evidence that God is trustworthy. Our Judeo-Christian family history has shown that God can be trusted. God receives the cries of God’s people and journeys with us from slavery into freedom.  God calls people from every walk of life and grants grace and power to participate in mighty acts of mending and saving.  God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love.  God has promised to never leave us nor forsake us and has shown us again and again—and supremely in Jesus—that the promise is kept. 

God knows what we need.  God longs for us to thrive, to be free from anxiety, and to bear fruit. And God alone is the one who can be trusted to lead us and feed us and ground us in the kind of perfect love that is life and health and peace.  It’s not that we cannot or should not trust one another, it’s that we cannot expect any human being to be God, to be able to perfectly love us, to see us in our fullness, to know our whole capacity, to hold us accountable and push us to grow, to give us everything we need to thrive, to never break our trust.

When we are able to put our trust in God’s love, mercy, and providence, we are free to risk trusting others, knowing that even when we get hurt, God will be there to hold us and wipe away our tears.  When we experience the trustworthy presence and love of God, we learn something of how we are called to be in relationship to others. We know we can’t be God for others, that we will fail and will hurt others…but God will give us grace to grow in integrity, patience, and courage, and care.  God will help us be the kind of persons with whom others will trust their hearts…

As [some of us enter covenant with this congregation today], as we move into this week’s General Conference—and any other challenge you may be facing in your life—the invitation is to let God test your mind and search your heart.  Let God show you—and help you release!—things that don’t deserve your attention and energy and trust.  Let God work within you to help you trust God’s love and providence more than anything else.  Let God help you trust God more than you distrust anyone else!

As we put our trust in God we’ll have no need to fear when heat comes, and we won’t need to be anxious in a moment of drought.  We don’t need to fear a vote or a distressing possible outcome.  We don’t need to be anxious about what others will do or say.  We don’t even need to fear suffering and death.  Because our trust is in a God whose love flows, a river of life in which we all are invited to play, from which we are all invited to drink, upon which we are all carried into a future life that is assured. Because our trust is in a God who holds us and loves us and guards us and goes before us, as a shield and encircle, we can be bold and brave and alive in love and compassion.  This trust gives us peace beyond all human understanding.  This trust sets us free.