Foundry UMC

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The “I” in Sing

October 15th, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC October 15, 2017, the second sermon in the series: “I Am Foundry: Voices in Harmony.”

Texts:  Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

 

“Who do people say that I am?”  Have you ever consciously stopped to ask yourself that question?  If not, think about it for just a minute…who do people say that you are?  What do you suppose guides others in their perceptions of you?  What guides you in your perceptions of others?  Who do people say that I am? is a question of identity and relationship and how it gets answered makes a difference in our lives.

 

One of the great needs of all humans is to be understood, to be accepted, to be loved just exactly for who we are.  The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen speaks of this as the need to be “fully received” or unconditionally loved.[i]  Most of us spend our whole life searching for a person with whom we can risk sharing who we really are, trusting that we might finally be “fully received.”

The journey toward being “fully received” involves a maturing awareness of our own sense of who we are—of our own identity.  In other words, part of our spiritual work is to answer the question, “Who do I say that I am?”  Who am I?  If you desire deep and mutual relationship with anyone, you will need to be able to offer yourself as a gift—just as you will try to receive the other as a gift.  If we are to give ourselves to each other in love, we need to know the “self” that we are giving—otherwise, the relationship can get twisted and we lose ourselves instead of finding ourselves in relationship.

 

I’ve observed that we often depend upon what others say to define our identity.  To fulfill societal, religious, parental, or professional expectations of who we are, we may focus on the outward appearances of our lives.  Or we may try to make ourselves into something we are not.  Reasons for this are many: fear of not being enough; fear of disappointing others; fear of ridicule or rejection.  We may get so focused on others’ real or imagined perceptions of us and their expectations of us that we forget that we are more than the perceptions, expectations, or labels that others give us.  There is an “I” that is you.  And that “I” is who we, at Foundry, want to help you celebrate, nurture, and share. Because you are God’s beloved.

 

As we continue in our “I Am Foundry: Voices in Harmony” series, today’s focus is on the “I.”  Your unique voice is important and encouraged.  John Wesley’s “Directions for Singing” that we began exploring last week are, at their core, about inviting and valuing every voice.  We read the fourth direction earlier in our worship today.  And the first part of that—just as a recap—is: “Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.”  This is a clear invitation to bring yourself fully, to add your voice to the voices of others without fear and with courage.  The second part reads, “Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, then when you sung the songs of Satan.”  This is simply a reminder to bring yourself as fully and freely to life with God and the church as you do in the other places and communities.  Much of what we are working on at Foundry as we lean into our third century, are ways to help you do just that—to help people connect to their true identity as unique, beloved children of God, to create opportunities for each one to connect with God and others in mutuality and trust, and to remove obstacles to full participation in servant leadership and generosity.  Foundry exists to care for each “I.” And without each one of us, there is no Foundry; without “I” there is no singing.  Every voice, every unique individual, every gift of service, kindness, and money contributes to the song we are called to sing.

I find it fascinating that Jesus asks his disciples this question:  Who do people say that I am?  Jesus is aware of the ways that people label and pigeonhole according to their expectations, based on their wishes, their half-baked self-awareness, their prejudice, or their preconceived notions.  He knows that it is profoundly human to see only in part, to misunderstand and to misjudge.  So he is curious:  Who do people say that I am?  And the responses are that he is John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or another prophet.  And I wonder whether the disciples are being kind by not mentioning the other things that people are probably saying about Jesus—things like “he’s a weirdo” or “a magician,” or “a troublemaker.”  But Jesus seems unmoved by what he is hearing (though I imagine he might have been amused), and quickly shifts the question to the disciples themselves.  “Yes, yes, that’s what they are saying, but who do YOU, my closest friends, say that I am?”  The writer Kathleen Norris talks about how sometimes our words are wiser than we are.[ii]  That is, sometimes when we speak out of a place of intuition and spiritual impulse, the words that come out of our mouths have a truth and power that we don’t even fully understand.  In response to Jesus’s question, Simon speaks with words that are wiser than he is: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  In that moment, we see that Simon son of Jonah has tapped into one of his gifts, a part of his truest identity:  an openness to the wisdom and revelation of God. 

 

Notice what happens in this exchange between Simon and Jesus:  Simon sees through all the labels and pre-conceived notions heaped upon Jesus—and names the deepest, truest identity of Jesus.  And Jesus does the same for Simon—Jesus gives Simon a new name, a true name, a revelation and affirmation of his identity.  The new name was “Peter” which means rock or stone.  Jesus names this disciple’s strength, affirms his gift of openness to God’s wisdom and proceeds to place in his hands some hefty authority and responsibility.  With gifts always comes responsibility…

 

We may yearn for a clear and direct word from Jesus telling us or affirming who we are.  I imagine many of us would be at least curious to know how God sees us, what gifts God sees in us, what work God has for us and whether our lives as they are today have anything to do with who God knows we are.  Some might get a little frustrated that Peter gets such unmitigated direction when we, so often, are unsure...  But I would remind us that Simon didn’t get his new name and divine direction while he was just minding his own business.  He had responded to the call of Jesus and had given his life to follow and learn and serve according to the Way of Christ.  That is to say, if you find yourself wondering what name Jesus would give you, wondering how God sees you, what gifts God discerns in you, maybe you might consider how open you are to Christ, how close you are in relationship, how willing you are to metaphorically add your voice to God’s song, to “put yourself out there” to try to follow the spiritual path of Jesus. 

 

What we learn from Simon Peter today is that, in the midst of living with Jesus—and for us that is through service, participation in faith community, and spiritual practices—we may begin to utter words that are wiser than we are, we may find ourselves connecting with our gifts.  Something about journeying with this One who is truly and beautifully human helps us discover the beauty and truth of our own humanity; as we come to know Jesus more deeply and personally, the mystery is that we come to know ourselves more deeply.  Think about being in a mutual, loving, trusting relationship with someone…in that relationship you are not diminished—but rather you discover even more of yourself.  Being in a close relationship with Christ, the one who loves you perfectly, you will come to know yourself most deeply and fully.  It’s like as we gaze upon the light that is Christ, that light shines back upon us enlightening our hearts and minds so that we can see more clearly… So as Jesus the Christ shines upon you, who is revealed?  Who does God say that you are? 

 

The answer may very well be something different than who others say that you are. It also may be different than who you say you are.  If you look into the mirror and only see your brokenness or past mistakes, if you see a person who has no purpose or direction, if you see a person who is too weak or ill to matter, if you only see a disappointment, if you only see the labels or messages or slurs that others have placed upon you, if you see a person who believes the abuse is deserved, if you see a person who has no gift to offer, then (I will be bold to say) you are not seeing as God sees.  While Christ certainly sees our brokenness and our pain, Christ also sees us put together, sees us whole, integrated, and free to live and lift up our voice as who we truly are with courage and confidence.  Christ sees beyond all the labels, the masks, the roles we play and knows who we truly are.  Christ is the one in whom we are “fully received,” fully known and loved beyond measure.  Who do you suppose Christ sees in you?  Who does God say that you are?

 

I don’t know the answer for you, but as you journey with Christ, I believe you will find that you have always known, deep in your center.  The trick is clearing away all the layers of labels and expectations, the depression and fear, to see and listen to the voice of Christ within.  This is the most important work we are given to do.  It is important because God created us to be who we are; and who we truly are is meant to be a gift to others.  We have been given gifts…and with gifts come responsibility to use and to share those gifts.  God needs you to be who you are; the world needs you to be who you are; Foundry needs you to be who you are.  To hear Christ calling your name and to live from that place of deepest truth will not always be easy, but there is a peace and freedom that comes from knowing who calls you and from trusting that, in Christ, you are “fully received.” 

 

Sing lustily and with good courage…lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid…

 

Let us pray:  Loving Jesus, speak to each person here today from deep within; reveal our true identities; and grant us courage to BE who we are, to offer the gift of ourselves fully and freely to one another and to the world, just as you offer yourself to us.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

[i] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of  Love,  New York, NY: Doubleday, 1998.

[ii] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, A Vocabulary of Faith, New York, NY: Berkley Pub., 1998.

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Tension and Resolution

October 1st, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, October 1, 2017, World Communion Sunday and the final sermon in the series “Composition 101.”

Text: Exodus 14:10-16, 21-31

 

Tension. It’s something we all experience regardless of age or situation in life. An infant feels tension between need and satisfaction of that need. As we grow, we experience tension in relationships, often as the result of disagreement, confusion, resentment, or hurt feelings. Tension exists in our bodies and in our thoughts. There are places of tension in our church and denomination.  And then there is the world around us. There’s tension… between nations, between parties, between regions, between races, between competing priorities, between the NFL and the president of the United States.

 

Tension is everywhere and affects us all the time.  And tension isn’t always bad.  It can be value neutral, as in the tension that arises when you know something’s inevitable but don’t know when; or in the midst of unpredictability—the tension of now knowing how things will turn out.

 

And tension can also be healthy and positive. For example, to “hold perspectives in tension” as you discern how to move forward is a healthy practice.  There will always be tension in times of growth and change—whether that’s in an individual’s life, a family, a congregation, or a culture.  Just as the tension of a rubber band increases as it is stretched, so when we are stretched to learn new roles, skills, or capacities, there is tension.  There is always tension in the becoming, in the in-between times, in moments of waiting and anticipation.

 

The more aggressive, destructive tensions in our lives and world can be devastating if not resolved or relieved in some way.  And while other tensions can be neutral and even ultimately positive, acute tension is generally not a comfortable place to dwell for the long haul.

 

Tension also shows up in music.  One theorist suggests that musical tension is analogous to tension in general. Things like disharmony in relationships, inevitability, and unpredictability find their way into compositions, creating a feeling of tension.  The most obvious way this shows up is in what’s called harmonic tension—a relationship between pitches that creates a sound or feeling of dissonance.  Stanley gave me a couple of examples of this—what’s called the minor second or major seventh (have him play these intervals).  This is a form of harmonic tension that can be very dramatic.

 

A piece of music can employ harmonic dissonance or tension throughout, creating sometimes a sense of dread or discomfort, sometimes a feeling of melancholy, other times a sense of mist and mystery, the unseen, unknown… and, often at the very end of the piece, the harmonic tension—the dread, sadness, or confusion—“resolves,” the relationship of pitches shifts, creating a different sound and experience, like light breaking through the cloud, like scales falling from eyes, like a clenched fist opening to receive a gentle gift. (Stanley plays/choir sings an example)

 

This is called “resolution.” In my quickfire study of musical tension and resolution, I was struck by what I learned about something called the “tonic” note.  The tonic note is like the hub on a bicycle wheel, it’s the center around which the rest of the composition is built, connected, and held secure.  The tonic note is the pitch on which the music sounds finished.  (speak to Stanley) Can you play middle C on the keyboard? That will be the tonic note. Now play C- F - G - F in a loop. Now see what happens if you simply stop after the final F.  It doesn’t seem finished, right?  It's ‘hanging”… it is unresolved.  Stanley, how about the traditional “Amen” chords at the end of hymns?  (play…) This is simple, subtle, resolution.

 

Resolution in music is that moment when tension is relieved, when there is a sense of rightness, of completion.  It is achieved by bringing the piece of music into relationship with the “tonic”—the homebase, the center.[i]

 

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve talked about musical composition, applying it as a metaphor for the life that God creates, the life we share.  In that metaphor, life and the whole creation is God’s love song.  God’s creative love is the “melody,” God’s saving grace is the “rhythm,” and God’s empowering, eternal presence with us is the ostinato, the “stubborn” repeated reality undergirding the whole thing.  We are made to sing and dance, to live, love, and serve in harmony with God, others, and earth.  God’s love is the “tonic note” in the song.  God’s overflowing love, wanting to be shared, powerful to create and recreate life, to wake us up and set us free—that love is the center of the song, the center of life, the hub around which everything connects and is held.  But as with almost every musical composition, there is tension in the song.  To illustrate, we look to our text for today.

 

Last week, we met Moses and witnessed the moment when God called him to return to Egypt and lead the enslaved Israelites to freedom.  Between that moment and today’s story, Moses brings God’s simple message to Pharoah: “Let my people go.”  Pharaoh refuses.  Pharaoh is given 10 different opportunities to relent—plagues are showered upon Egypt, but Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he refuses to free the slaves.  Finally, following the last plague—a plague that takes the life of Pharaoh’s son—he tells Moses to take the people and go.  But once Israel has gone, the Pharaoh changes his tune, “What have I done letting Israel leave?!” And he mounts up in his chariot and leads all the chariots and armies of Egypt to recapture the freed slaves. (Ex 7-14)  

 

Our “classic” story today picks up right there, at the moment of the Israelite exodus when the sea is in front and the Egyptian army is closing in behind.  The people are quick to cry to the Lord in fear and to doubt Moses.  They even argue that it would have been better to remain in slavery than to meet this fate.  But, as the story goes, God is with the Israelites and brings them to safety, moving the waters aside so that they can cross on dry ground. The mighty Egyptians—following a leader who could have made a different choice—get stuck in the mud and perish.

 

There is tension all over this story. There is the dissonance of broken human relationship, of oppression. There is the dissonance of the inhuman impulse to enslave other members of our human family, of hearts hardened against compassion and care. There is pride and greed, the senseless commitment to violence that leads to seashores covered with the broken, lifeless bodies of God’s beloved ones.

 

There is also the tension created by the unpredictable, the unexpected—the thing we don’t really understand and can’t explain in the story.  Did the waters really miraculously “form a wall”—in the Cecil B. DeMille kind of way? Was that some fluky weather event—like the mysterious fog and wind that allowed General Washington’s Hail Mary move in 1776—the crossing of the East River—to go undetected by the British?  Or perhaps it was a natural ebb and flow (like the tides of Lindisfarne) that occurred right on time…

 

There is the tension of the people moving from slavery to freedom—and the fear, uncertainty, and vulnerability that ensues when stepping out of the dark, out of the closet, out of shame, out of destructive relationships, and into a new identity, a new reality, into freedom from the familiar bondage.

 

Tension abounds.  Where is the resolution?

 

Some might think that resolution is found in the destruction of the enemy.  “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”  But that is not God’s song. God’s song—remember!—is a song of love that creates and recreates, a song of grace and mercy, a song of steadfast presence, a song that calls us to risk joining in.  There is healthy tension in God’s song—a natural result of growth and change and newness.  Unhealthy tension is added when God’s own children seek to silence the song, to dehumanize and demonize others, to shut the mouths of prophets and poets, to bind the little ones so they cannot dance, to beat down the vulnerable so they cannot step into freedom.  But whatever the tension, the resolution in God’s song will always be tuned to the tonic note of love and will always result in liberation, in greater freedom.  Freedom to love more, to forgive, to be brave, humble, sacrificial, generous, gracious, honest, freedom to be more truly and fully ourselves as God creates and calls us to be.  The resolution in the story—and in God’s song—happens in the crossing over—from slavery to freedom, from fear to trust, from hatred to love, from death to life. 

 

The resolution in God’s song is like emerging from deep under water and taking a full breath, like stepping out of the chill and confusion of a fog into the warmth and illumination of the sun, like glimpsing—even for a moment—what is possible if we were to truly drink in the tonic, the originating note that is God’s love.  What a song we are created to sing!  The melody is God’s creative love, the rhythm is God’s gracious love, the ostinato is God’s ever-present love, the resolution is God’s liberating love.  We might name this song, “Communion.”  

 

 

 

[i] Grateful for the following sites that provided info and insight on musical tension and resolution: https://www.quora.com/What-is-tension-in-music-and-how-do-you-teach-it; http://www.bluesguitarinsider.com/learn-to-play-blues-guitar/tension-and-resolution-the-essence-of-the-blues-and-all-music; https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tonic_(music); https://www.britannica.com/art/tonic-music

 

 

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Ostinato

September 24th, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, September 24, 2017, the third sermon in the series “Composition 101.”

 Text: Exodus 3:1-12

 

To compose is to create. Composers create music. God creates life. Musical compositions employ different elements to give them depth, interest, texture. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve talked about the common musical elements of melody and harmony, time signature and rhythm—in more common parlance, the tune and the beat of a song. We’ve applied musical composition as a metaphor for the life that God creates.  In that metaphor, life and the whole creation is a song, God’s love song. God’s creative love is the “melody” and God’s saving grace is the “rhythm” of the composition.  Out of overflowing love, God creates and recreates. And we, together with all creation, are made to sing, to love, to live, in harmony with God, with one another, and with the earth, dancing to the rhythm of grace.

 

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been mindful that the metaphor of music is both rich with creative possibility AND may be or feel inaccessible to siblings who are deaf and to those of us who “aren’t music people.”  My hope is that folks who think of themselves as not very musical will be open to learn some new concepts along with me!  And, as I researched engagement with music within the deaf community, a whole universe opened up around how people experience music.[i]  Visual and tactile engagement, sensitivity to vibrations in some kinds of music, and making music with others, dependent not on hearing the music, but through learning its structure and process, its technique and rhythm.  One of the things I read is that sometimes children who are deaf remove their shoes during band or orchestra practice in order to be able to feel the rhythm of the other instruments.  One particularly helpful commentary reminded me that folks (and I imagine that is primarily the hearing community) often “forget how multi-sensory music can be, what a physical act it is for our bodies to absorb sound.”[ii]  As we talk about different elements of music and composition throughout this year, I pray that there will be ways for all of us to engage, have new insights, and make new connections on our spiritual journey; and if there are ways that might help that happen for you, I hope you’ll let us know.

 

Today, we learn a new element of musical composition—it’s a term I didn’t know well before preparing for today, but after a little study, I realized that while the word may seem intimidating, what it represents is very common and familiar.  Ostinato is the term, from the Italian “stubborn”—think of our English word “obstinate.”  In music, the ostinato is a continually repeated motif or phrase.  It is a “stubborn” pattern that continues throughout the entire song. With everything else going on around it—it just keeps on keeping on.  Often, the bass guitar in a band is the one to play the ostinato.  Here are a few examples (I wish we had a bass guitar so that the notes could be felt!):

“Another One Bites the Dust” (Queen)

“Thriller” (Michael Jackson)

“Under Pressure” (David Bowie/Queen)

 

Sometimes the ostinato appears in other ways, like in “Bittersweet Symphony” (The Verve).

 

These are some pop music examples of what appears in every form of music—how about this from a different genre? (play “Pachelbel’s Canon in D” bass line)

 

So…ostinato. A stubbornly repeated phrase in music… Today, we’re going to identify the ostinato in God’s love song and the Christian “classic” we’re using to do that is the story of Moses at the burning bush.

 

First, just so we’re all starting on the same page, a little background on Moses:  Moses was born around 1400 BCE to an Israelite slave in Egypt; when then-Pharoah ordered all Israelite baby boys killed, Moses’ mother put him in a basket in the river, Pharoah’s daughter found and rescued him, and he was raised as an Egyptian prince.  As a young man, Moses saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating one of his Israelite kin and proceeded to kill the Egyptian.  Moses then fled for his life and settled as a shepherd and husband in the land of Midian.  That’s where we find him in our story today.

 

In verse 1, we learn that Moses was “beyond the wilderness”—he was way out there, on the edge, as far from Egypt as he could get.  Moses was not looking for a vision, was not looking for a divine encounter.  He was looking for a place to pasture his sheep.

 

And then a flame appears—not the destructive fires we’ve been reading about on the West coast, but a fire that did no harm.  The bush burned but was not consumed.  Some would describe this moment as a numinous experience—and whether supernatural in fact or in perception, the vision gets Moses’ attention.  Notice it’s only “when” Moses makes the decision to turn toward the vision, to respond to the mystery, that God speaks and calls Moses by name.  God tells Moses to take off his sandals, to allow his feet to touch the hallowed ground, the place where this divine encounter is taking place. 

 

God let’s Moses know that the God who is speaking is the God of Israel.  Moses is afraid—perhaps because it was already believed at that time that looking at God was fatal…or perhaps Moses hid his face out of shame for what had happened in Egypt or because he’d abandoned his people there.  God continues, saying, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.  Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Ex 3:7-8)  At this point, Moses must have started to feel encouraged. First, it doesn’t seem that God is interested in smiting him—Yay!  And furthermore, God is going to do something about the suffering!  God has come to bring liberation!  God is promising ice cream! 

 

And then God—in a particularly chatty mode—continues, saying to Moses, “So come, I will send you…”  At which point I imagine Moses went blank… **record scratch/screech** full stop**come again?!  What do you mean: “I will send you?”  God, on the other hand, doesn’t miss a beat. The promise is that God will be with Moses and that when—not “if”—Moses has brought the people out of Egypt, they’ll meet back up in that very spot. It’s like those movies where lovers promise to meet again at some future date in the place where all the magic first happened.  //

 

So what is the ostinato in God’s love song? How does this classic story of the faith provide clues?  Here are several things I notice.

 

God meets us wherever we are.  Moses wasn’t looking for God and yet God is there.  The thing that got Moses’ attention was a beautiful, strange vision.  How many of us can attest to the ways that beauty and wonder attract and turn us toward God?  There’s a reason so many people will say that they “experience God in nature.”  Another angle on that is when we witness people being wonder-full—when someone does a beautiful thing for another (is patient, forgiving, generous, thoughtful), or gracefully perseveres in a painful moment, or is brave in the face of harm; when a child laughs or reaches out to give you a hug… These things—these wonder-full visions in creation—are not God, but if we are paying attention they can turn us toward God.

 

This awareness of God, this curiosity to see and explore, is modeled by Moses in our story. Moses could have missed the burning bush entirely, could have been so focused on sheep herding techniques and where to set up camp for the night, that he passed right on by.  He could have seen the burning bush but, because it was unlike anything he’d seen before, he could have turned away due to fear or distrust.  Instead, Moses turns toward the vision, draws near, and encounters God.  This encounter doesn’t take Moses out of himself in some Gnostic way.  Rather, the divine encounter leads Moses to connect his body even more directly with the dirt, with the earth, to feel the vibration of the divine rhythm of grace beneath his feet—just like young musicians learning to play instruments. // God meets us where we are, invites us to draw near, and grounds us in our context, helping us to perceive that the very ground beneath us pulses with divine presence.

 

God is paying attention to us.  While we may miss the invitations to wonder and encounter and may not always pay attention to God, God is always paying attention to us.  In the story, this is made very clear.  The God we worship—the God of our ancestors, the God of Jesus—observes, hears, knows, responds.  God perceives the suffering and oppression of the enslaved Israelites and is determined to do something about it.  We can—and do—argue that God seems to wait a long time to get involved.  That is a fair argument and worthy of conversation—and beyond a nod to the fact that God’s vision and experience of time is likely not our own—this is beyond the scope of what we can dive into today.  Today, the critical piece to learn is that the God of the Bible is represented not as a distant, aloof God who doesn’t care.  Some people suggest that there’s a God, but after making the world, God disengaged.  Everything in our Christian tradition suggests just the opposite.  We may experience distance from God, we may wonder whether God cares or is paying attention.  But again and again, as in our story today, God shows up and says, “I see, I hear, I observe, I care…”

 

God calls us to participate in God’s life and mission.  Like Moses may have thought, it would be lovely if God would show up, fix everything, and take us for dessert.  But instead, God shows up and sends us—you and me—to be agents of love and liberation, of hope and mercy, of tenderness and justice in places of injustice, pain, and need.  Moses didn’t want to go where God was sending him.  He pushes back in all sorts of ways—“Who am I to go?!” “What if they don’t believe you sent me?” “I’ve never been good at public speaking” (Ex 4:1, 10)—and finally: “God, please just send someone else!” (Ex 4:13)  But God is not deterred.  God knows that Moses is the one through whom this work of liberation can be accomplished.  Along with perceiving the suffering of the people, God also perceives gifts in Moses—gifts that Moses may have known nothing about.  Moses is aware of his shortcomings—he is a murderer who abandoned his people to save himself and has a speech impediment.  God is aware of Moses’ gifts and potential.  And just as throughout the whole story from the beginning right up until today, God calls and sends us, with all our “stuff,” to participate in what God is up to in the world.

 

God meets us where we are.  God is paying attention to us.  God calls us to participate in God’s life and mission.  These are the clues that lead us to identify the ostinato, the consistent, repeated motif in God’s love song.  The ostinato is attentive, engaged, empowering relationship between God and creation.  God is with us. God cares for us.  God is engaged in the world and in our lives.  God’s presence calls us beyond ourselves and into the larger reality of God’s mission of love, justice, and reconciliation.  And as we turn toward the God who is always turned toward us, we are assured God will go with us into whatever breach we are sent.

 

In God’s love song, God’s creative love is the “melody,” God’s saving grace is the “rhythm,” and God’s empowering, eternal presence with us is the ostinato.  It repeats again and again.  God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” (e.g. Gen 17) “I will not leave you nor forsake you” (Deut 31:6).  Mary’s child is Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.”  Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned.” (Jn 14) “Remember, I am with you always.” (Mt 28)  The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, “as he lay dying, his friends gathered around him…cried out, ‘The best of all is, God is with us,’ lifted his arms and raised his feeble voice again, repeating the words, ‘The best of all is, God is with us.’”[iii]

 

 

 

[i]http://gapersblock.com/transmission/2010/07/22/beyond_vibrations_the_deaf_musical_experience/, http://www.matd.org.uk/, https://prezi.com/mytgnnnj614d/hearing-impaired-and-music-education/, http://blogs.jwpepper.com/index.php/teaching-music-to-deaf-students/,

[ii] Aharona Ament, “Beyond Vibrations: The Deaf Experience in Music,” http://gapersblock.com/transmission/2010/07/22/beyond_vibrations_the_deaf_musical_experience/

[iii] http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/

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Time Signature

September 17th, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, September 17, 2017, the second sermon in the series “Composition 101.”

Text: Genesis 6-9 (excerpts)

 

I thought long and hard about whether to reveal my secret in this public way. But it seems important to share on this day when the heart of our reflection is about sin and grace and the grounding story is the story of Noah and the ark. Here it goes (and I ask that you show a little grace): I once sang and danced a cha-cha on stage, donned in a wet suit and scuba gear, complete with mask and flippers. The play was a children’s musical called “The Rainbow Express,” I was about 13, and my character was “Noah’s conscience.” The song was a caution against procrastination. “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Don’t you know that by tomorrow all this could float away?”

 

Though it’s usually funny to think about that memory, today we cannot fail to acknowledge that, right now, beloved members of our human family are reeling from floods caused by hurricanes. The destruction is widespread and, for many, the devastation is complete. When our worship team developed this series months ago, we couldn’t have known the upheaval in the earth that we would be experiencing right now.  But in some ways, it brings a greater sense of reality and perhaps urgency to our reflection.  At the heart of the story of Noah and the ark are big questions about human life, God, and what kind of world we live in. New York Times columnist, David Brooks (who is increasingly using his platform as a public theologian), reflected at length on the story of Noah in his most recent column[i], noting that it is one among many “flood myths” that circulated in ancient cultures around the world.

 

I remember when, as an undergrad, I first learned of the ancient Near Eastern parallels to and influences upon the Noah story—like the Epic of Gilgamesh.  It was a good lesson about how God’s wisdom is woven across cultures as human beings seek to make sense of the realities of life—including the often harsh realities of flood, fire, and wind. Some scholars believe that in response to a verifiable, historical, catastrophic flood the various myths emerged as an attempt to explain the “why?” of it all. In ancient cultures, the tendency was to believe that different gods controlled the various elements (sun, rain, fertility, wind, sea) and that when the gods were angry, they would produce or withhold natural elements as a form of punishment.  Emerging as it did in a multi-cultural context, it should come as no surprise that the ancient Hebrew version of the flood story in Torah and Christian Bible retains a heavy emphasis on that old understanding of God.

 

There is no way we will unpack all the challenge and blessing of the story of Noah and the ark today. But, this story is a “classic” of our faith and therefore fair game for our “Faith Remastered” theme.  And there is a primary thread in the story that makes it important to include in this “Composition 101” series.  Over the course of these weeks, we’re looking at the essential elements of our faith—the things that make up or “compose” our faith story; and we’re doing that using the metaphor of musical composition. Last week, we thought together about melody and harmony and the love song that is God’s creative love. That love song is the first foundation of our faith story. Out of overflowing love, God creates and recreates. And we, together with all creation, are made to sing, to love, to live, in harmony with God, with one another, and with the earth.

 

In addition to melody and harmony, a primary building block of a musical composition is beat or rhythm. These elements are organized within the framework of what’s called a composition’s “time signature.” A piece of music is divided into “measures” and within each measure there are a certain number of beats. There are time signatures with four beats, three beats, two or six beats per measure.  Each has a different feel and allows for different rhythms.  Time signature and rhythm connect with melody and harmony as key elements in a musical composition.

 

The composition of our core faith story includes these key elements: the “melody” of God’s creative love with which we are designed to sing in harmony; and the “rhythm” of God’s response when we fail to join the song or seek to silence the song.  We’ve explored the melody of God’s love through the story of creation found in Genesis 1.  And today we’ll think together about the rhythm of God’s response when we stop singing—through reflection on Noah, the flood, the ark, and the rainbow.

 

The beginning of the story of Noah and the ark is marked by God’s observation that “the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Gen 6:5) God sees that the earth is corrupt and filled with violence. (Gen 6:11) Clearly, God’s creation is not singing the song of love and harmony. Imagine the worst expressions of human violence, corruption, cruelty, sadism, and dehumanization through history and then imagine that as the reality in every corner of the world save one. According to the story, that’s the scenario God sees. And the storyteller draws upon the then-common understanding of how things work—of how gods work—spinning the tale of God’s broken heart, disappointment and regret, the story of God’s terrible decision to wipe out all living things and all but one “righteous” family by sending the waters of a flood. Water fills and covers the earth for a very long time. But as the water recedes and the remnant people and animals leave the ark, the story takes a turn.

 

“God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’” (Gen 9:12-16)

 

There may be other versions of the flood myth that include a similar divine turn. The ones I’m most familiar with don’t highlight such a shift in God. 

 

In the column I mentioned, David Brooks focuses a lot on Noah, highlighting his rabbinic critics—mostly that Noah is passive and doesn’t push back on God or advocate for others.  I am not smarter than the rabbis and scholars Brooks mentions and I guess I generally agree with their assessment of Noah.  But it occurs to me that this story isn’t really about Noah in the largest sense—Noah isn’t lifted up for any just or wise action as a way to offer an example for other people to follow.  This story is trying to work something out about God.  God is the prime actor: God sees, sends, says, directs, remembers... And we can still get angry at the idea that God would do such a thing as wipe out almost all life on earth—even after acknowledging the ancient cultural influences on the narrative.  We can be outraged that, if God was going to wipe everything out, God should have completely started over with new human creatures who wouldn’t keep hurting each other and the earth (instead of stubbornly holding on to the original models). We can disagree with the way God allowed the creation to evolve, including as it does, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, the fact that life is so vulnerable, and that we humans are given so much responsibility.  God can take our anger and disappointment, by the way, so don’t worry about that.  A great deal of freedom comes once you realize, as Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches, that we can both be angry at God and forgive God for the way things are.[ii]  What our story today is working out is that, ultimately, our God may become angry or hurt or disappointed in us, but forgives us again and again.

 

In the beginning of the story, I imagine an even 4/4 time signature, perhaps played evenly and urgently like the beat of a war drum. It’s that old way of understanding God, that steady beat of punishment continuing as rain falls and water rises. But after the storm, the story moves into a new time. Perhaps it feels more like a waltz with its swirling 1,2,3—1,2,3...but whatever the new time, it is no longer the drum beat of violence, it’s no longer the beat of divine vengeance or capriciousness.  One commentator explains, “The sign of this covenant, God’s bow in the clouds, is precisely the bow of battle. Ancient depictions of a deity armed with bow and arrow are not unusual. To hang up one’s bow is to retire from battle. That bow in the clouds is the sign of God’s promise that whatever else God does to seek our restoration, destruction is off the table.”[iii]

Perhaps the shift was not so much in God, but in the evolving human understanding and experience of God.  Somehow our ancestors, in their telling of the flood myth, were moved to shift the time signature of God’s song, to experience a new rhythm, the rhythm of grace.  The rhythm of grace animates the melody of God’s creative love; this is the primary composition of our faith—God’s love and grace.  God makes a covenant promise to shower the world not with what we deserve, but with second chance after second chance after second chance.

 

Because God knows that the world could once again be filled with corruption and violence. God knows the price of allowing the human creature to endure, endowed as we are with the gift of free will that’s so easily tempted and turned toward ourselves and against the other. But God decides never again to respond to our selfishness with selfishness, to our power plays with power plays, to our destruction with destruction.  In response to our fault and frailty and sin, our God chooses to sing and dance to the rhythm of grace, to move in time signed with a rainbow and, ultimately, a cross.  Thanks be to God.

 

 

[i] David Brooks, “Harvey, Irma, Jose…and Noah,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/12/opinion/harvey-irma-jose-and-noah.html

[ii] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People

[iii] Elizabeth Webb, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1222

 

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Melody and Harmony

September 10th, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, September 10, 2017, kicking off the new program year and annual theme.

Text: Genesis 1

 

 

Music is one of the most powerful unifying forces around. Melodies from across the years continue to resonate and, often, allow disparate voices to sing together. As we enter into this fall with new opportunities for study, service, and engagement, the language of music will provide creative inspiration. These days, musical classics—from pop songs to sonatas—get “remastered” so that they sound better than ever. Over the course of the next year our guiding theme is “Faith Remastered” and we’re going to highlight some “classics” of our faith tradition. Key stories, rituals, and theology of Christianity will be lifted up—so that we experience them in new and life-giving ways.

 

Today we kick off the “school year” with a new sermon series: “Composition 101.”  To compose is to create. And any creation is made up of essential elements. A written composition uses elements like words, sentence structure, punctuation, and so on. A musical composition is created with different elements: notes, rhythm, and our focus for today, melody and harmony. The melody of a song is a memorable series of pitches…commonly called the tune. It is a primary building block of a musical composition.  Harmony is comprised of notes that support the melody.

Today our children helped us experience the story of the first composition ever. In Genesis chapter one, we experience God’s voice singing a brand new song. Out of the chaos of “a formless void,” God created harmony.  Each day, another stanza gets added, day and night, sky, water and dry land, sun, moon, and stars, vegetation, animals, and human beings…like an ancient chant, God calls things into being; there was evening and there was morning, again and again, and it was good. God observed that it was very good. The composition was a new creation. Every day a new creation. The new creation was interwoven. The new creation was mutually dependent. The new creation was made to live in harmony. The new creation was a love song, God’s love song, a melody that saturates everything that is, seen and unseen.

 

At the beginning of time, the melody of divine, creative love was sung and became the first foundation of the world and of our faith. The song of creative love is what we are created to sing—in harmony with God, with each other, with animals, plants, water, air, and all creation. The power of overflowing love to create something new is at the heart of our understanding of God and of creation and of what it means to share life together as children of God.

 

It is not lost on me that as we gather here, talking about creation and a loving God, the people of Houston are reeling from the effects of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma has made landfall in Florida after doing extraordinary damage to the islands further south. Let me be clear. It is because of our faith in the power of God’s love at work in us and in the whole world that we reject any notion that devastating storms are divine punishment. I’ve read a long list of possible causes folks think worthy of divine punishment—everything from America’s choice of current president, to the sexual orientation of Houston’s former mayor.  That’s just bad theology.  In moments of disaster and destruction, we are called not to look for scapegoats, but rather for opportunities to care and to love and to participate in restoration and renewal.

 

That is not to say that we cannot name where wrongdoing has led to harm. Scientists have helped us understand that the earth has shifted and changed dramatically over thousands of years. We know that the planet is both beautiful and powerful. Natural disasters are nothing new—they are part of the way the creation has evolved over time—ice and volcano, tectonic shifts, floods, and drought—all of this has been part of natural history. Human beings, like all living things, are vulnerable to injury and death in the wake of powerful, elemental forces of the planet. That has always been so—simply part of the deal for those gifted with life on this amazing earth. Just days ago, Anthony and I found ourselves on a back country hiking trail in the Wasatch Mountain Range in northern Utah. As we hit a particularly rugged point several miles in, with no other humans in sight, the mountains dwarfing us, strange sounds echoing from the forests alongside, and a dark storm cloud rolling in, Anthony said, “We are guests here.” There are places in nature when our vulnerability—and smallness!—is startlingly clear. 

 

And yet even as small as we are, scientists have also taught us that human actions are doing damage to the planet. While natural disasters are not new, current data reveals that the rising temperatures in air and water—caused primarily by human activities like burning fossil fuels, clearing land for industrial use, agriculture, and more[i]—are making what would have been bad storms even worse.[ii]  We were created to live in loving partnership with the earth, to tend and to care for the creation of which we are a part. We and the water and trees and mountains and air and earth and animals were meant to sing together in harmony. But our shortsightedness as a human family has and is doing harm.

 

And it’s not only the planet we’ve wrecked.  Human pride, greed, fear, and hate continue to do harm to the bodies and spirits of other people.  The capacity for human cruelty is breathtaking.  Our failure to see beyond our own pain or perspective or need or desire cuts us off—as though separated by a vast canyon—from those with whom we might share life, or laughs, or even love. Our faith calls us to name the harm that we see, to take responsibility for our own culpability, and to actively participate in acts of recreating love.

 

What we call “the creation story” in Genesis 1 is only the beginning of the story of creation. Across the ages, things are renewed, recreated, and resurrected by the power of love. Just as God created something new day after day in Genesis 1, God is still at work creating new things every day. Every time we gather here in worship, God is creating us anew as community, as church, as the body of Christ. I love the image of a Godmother for me in the church, who would say that in worship God scoops us up and pats us back into shape so that we can go back into the world to embody more closely the life we’re made for. New every morning, God’s love is active and working to restore, to recall, to recreate, to renew.  It is that ongoing, ever-loving, creative power that gives us hope in the midst of the storms, hope not that there will be no destruction, but hope that whatever happens, God will be at work to restore and renew the face of the earth and to mend broken lives and hearts.  It is God’s love—the source and power of all creation!—that gives us hope even in the most difficult and confusing moments of life. 

 

What we see and experience right now is not all there is. If you are in turmoil in your personal life, God’s love is with you and has the power to bring you through this present suffering into new life. The blatant racism, prejudice, saber rattling, and more that we see being supported by so many in our nation and world simply uncovers what has been there all along in more furtive form—and therefore may have the capacity to wake more people up to the call to respond with love and justice. That’s not to say that we are marching forward on some idealistic, even trajectory toward a “kum bah yah” utopian vision.  New creation is often borne out of a crucible moment. Bringing new life into the world is painful and messy. Amazing strides forward for the cause of justice are often met with devastating backlash and retreat to old ways of violence and control. The recent cases in point in our nation and others are too numerous to name.  The promise of new creation is not Pollyanna. It is gospel.

 

The first story—the creation story—in the Bible reveals an essential element of our faith. It is the story of God’s desire and God’s power to create life out of nothing, to bring new life out of death.  It is the story of Easter and the story of so many of our lives.  When we couldn’t see a way through, when we didn’t know how we’d do what we had to do, when we were so deep in the shadows we figured we’d stay lost forever, when we were so hurt or sad or angry that we couldn’t imagine ever recovering ease or joy…something happened… a faint or forgotten melody emerged…the melody of love and hope in new life.  Catholic Priest Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Hope means to keep living amid desperation and to keep humming in the darkness.”[iii]  Perhaps, in your life, the melody you began to hum in the darkness emerged in the sound of a bird or crickets on a summer night, perhaps in the image of light through trees or light in another’s eyes, perhaps in the witness of courage or solidarity in unlikely places, perhaps the melody emerged in the stubborn love of a parent, partner, or friend, in a piece of art, in the smile or kindness of a stranger, the sloppy kiss of a dog, the memory of what matters most of all. 

 

Life, death, new life. Cross, tomb, and resurrection. Chaos, creation, and harmony. God’s creative power is always at work, singing, singing, singing, the melody of love. The animals and rivers and trees and plants sing along better than we do most of the time.  But the good news is that we are created to harmonize, to hope, to hum along. And God will carry the tune—and us!—until we’re able.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/

[ii] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-06/hurricane-irma-was-made-worse-by-climate-change-scientists-say

[iii] Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands, Ave Maria Press, 1995.

 

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