Foundry UMC

Foundry UMC header image 1

She Calls!

June 16th, 2019

She Calls!

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC June 16, 2019, first Sunday after Pentecost. “Confronted by Call, Gifted for Service” series.

 

Text: Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31

 

Wisdom calls! She calls to all that live, calls us back to the beginning, to what matters most, calls us to wake up and to pay attention.  Why? So that we can live as we are meant by God to live!  

 

Proverbs 8, the ancient text we focus on today is, according to Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, “one of the loveliest and most important biblical texts that respond to the question: ‘What is the world like? How does it work?’”[i]  As we read in our passage, Wisdom was present with God at the creation of all things and, Brueggemann says, “is implicated in the act of creation and in the continuing sustenance of creation.”[ii] 

 

Wisdom calls not Israel, not one tribe or family, but all that live back to the basic truth that life is interconnected and has at its core what Brueggemann calls a “moral coherence.”  In short this means that within the interconnected reality of creation, our choices matter. What we do, how we live, how we are affects other people and, really, the whole created order.  There are consequences in the short or long term for every move we make—or don’t make.  This is reflected in the natural world—the climate crisis being a glaring negative example.  Predictably, destruction of habitat and introduction of chemicals into the earth, water, and air have negative consequences. Some things are less predictable—as illustrated by the theory of the “butterfly effect”; oversimplified, this is the idea that one small change in an interconnected system can have unpredictable effects on the whole system.[iii]  Others of you will know about the extraordinary science developed by now deceased Dr. Masaru Emoto. Dr. Emoto experimented with the effects upon water of negative and positive words and energy. One experiment had some water prayed over by priests and other water had negative, disparaging words (“you fool!”) spoken over it. When the water was frozen, the water crystals of the prayed-over sample were fully formed and beautiful (like perfect snowflakes), the other water crystals were incomplete and deformed.[iv]

 

These are simple examples of how creation—science!—affirms Dr. Brueggemann’s scholarly insight from the biblical text. The world is interrelated and deeply affected by the choices we make every single moment.  One reason Wisdom calls so urgently is that human choices continue to rip life apart instead of mending wounds.  We can find the money and ingenuity to make a hand-held device recognize and respond to our face and voice, but can’t find the political will to recognize and respond to the faces and voices of traumatized asylum seekers at our borders and children crying out for care as they are held in overcrowded detention cells.  We allow budget talks to get derailed by the potential financial benefits or “bread and circus” offerings of another sports stadium in our city, while public housing for DC’s most vulnerable residents stands in need of $2 billion worth of repairs.  And, as my colleague the Rev. Dr. Anthony Hunt recently wrote: “The race problem in America can be most vividly seen in the fact the more than half of all white Americans continue to support (and probably will at the ballot booth in 2020) a leader of these yet to be United States who has consistently, persistently and unashamedly demonstrated - over numerous decades - in word and action - that he is a racist.”[v]  These are just a few of so many places that human choices shun the call of Wisdom.  She calls!  And she has no time for this destructive foolishness!

 

 

Wisdom calls us to align ourselves with ways of being that generate peace and wholeness and beauty—in the Hebrew context what is called shalom. Brueggemann teaches, “Wisdom is not a moral code, but a force that is creative and willing creation to its true fulfillment. ‘Being wise’ is bringing one’s life, conduct, and policy into coherence with that generative resolve for shalom.”[vi]

 

It would be easy to miss the fullness of Wisdom’s call if we were only to read the excerpt from Proverbs 8 that is assigned. However, when you take a look at verses 5-21, the call becomes much more clear.  Listen to these other words of Wisdom from the paraphrased version of the Bible called The Message:

Don’t miss a word of this—I’m telling you how to live well,
    I’m telling you how to live at your best.
My mouth chews and savors and relishes truth—
    I can’t stand the taste of evil!
You’ll only hear true and right words from my mouth;
    not one syllable will be twisted or skewed.
You’ll recognize this as true—you with open minds;
    truth-ready minds will see it at once.
Prefer my life-disciplines over chasing after money,
    and God-knowledge over a lucrative career.
For Wisdom is better than all the trappings of wealth;
    nothing you could wish for holds a candle to her.

“I am Lady Wisdom, and I live next to Sanity;
    Knowledge and Discretion live just down the street.
The Fear-of-God means hating Evil,
    whose ways I hate with a passion—
    pride and arrogance and crooked talk.
Good counsel and common sense are my characteristics;
    I am both Insight and the Virtue to live it out.
With my help, leaders rule,
    and lawmakers legislate fairly;
With my help, governors govern,
    along with all in legitimate authority.
…You can find me on Righteous Road—that’s where I walk—
    at the intersection of Justice Avenue,
Handing out life to those who love me,
    filling their arms with life—armloads of life!

 

Do you see? Wisdom calls us to right relationship and to justice, to turn away from pride and arrogance and crooked talk and greed, to turn toward discipline and common sense, and to practice the virtues that don’t steal life but set us free to live more fully.  Wisdom calls us to align with the things that make for shalom—wholeness, peace, a world where we and all that live have what they need.

 

As feminist theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson writes of this text, Wisdom “is a beneficent, right-ordering power in whom God delights and by whom God creates; her constant effort is to lure human beings into life.”[vii] Johnson’s image of Wisdom “luring” us into the life we are called to live makes me think of this excerpt from a poem by Hafiz:

We have a duty to befriend
Those aspects of obedience
That stand outside of our house
And shout to our reason
“O please, O please,
Come out and play.”

For we have not come here to take prisoners
Or to confine our wondrous spirits,

But to experience ever and ever more deeply
Our divine courage, freedom and
Light!

 

Wisdom lures us into life—freedom, joy, courage, and light!—the things that make for shalom.  Wisdom calls us to come out and play!  O please! Come out and play! A fascinating note about Wisdom and our passage today is that there are two wildly different translations of verse 30. In what we heard read today, Wisdom says I was beside God “like a master worker.”  The other translation: I was beside God “like a little child.” The Common English Bible translation for verses 30-31 is:

I was beside him as a master of crafts.
    I was having fun,
    smiling before him all the time,
    frolicking with his inhabited earth
    and delighting in the human race.

 

All of a sudden, I see Wisdom not just as a powerful female co-creator with God, but also as God’s childhood playmate, luring and calling us to come out and play, to play with the crafts that build a better world, a world that is more like it was originally created to be—maybe full of macaroni necklaces and popsicle stick structures and painted rocks…I can just smell the Elmer’s glue and glitter…  I see Wisdom as both lamenting the deep brokenness in the world and also finding ways to enjoy it, to recreate it, and to delight in the human family! 

 

This mix of powerful woman and playful child seems somehow resonant with Wisdom’s character.  I have heard many talk about the wisest persons they know—from famous ones like the Dalai Lama or Jean Vanier to the ones known only to those lucky enough to travel in their orbit—exhibit a mix of deep strength, discipline, and self-awareness and also a childlike playfulness and self-forgetfulness.  This has been my observation as well.  Perhaps there is something there for all of us to consider.  If you follow me on FaceBook you might have seen my recent post about an ongoing struggle I’ve been having to hold things a bit more lightly.  I feel like Wisdom has likely grown hoarse from all the calling She’s done to try to help me lighten up.  Maybe you, like me, hear the call daily to mend the world, to care and to serve and to give… but struggle with the “childlike playfulness” part.  For me, the issue isn’t that I don’t take care of myself—I practice Sabbath, have regular time with friends and colleagues, maintain healthy boundaries, have actually started working out multiple times every week, and pray every morning.  It’s not so much about what I do with my time but how I hold the responsibilities and realities of life and of the world in which we live—my temptation is to hold it all with heaviness, intensity, seriousness.  I struggle to release the sense of over-responsibility for the “weight of the world” that isn’t really mine to carry.  Wisdom calls saying, “Remember that you are not alone in this work! Remember that God holds the weight of the world so you don’t have to.  Recognize you cannot do everything and be wise in your decisions of where to put your energy.  Do what you can do and be honest and humble about your limits. Look around at the beauty of the world and delight in the amazing diversity and wonder of the human family.  And for God’s sake, Come out and play! Laugh! Explore! Enjoy the gift of this life! Soak up the adventure!”

 

Wisdom calls to us to choose wisely, each and every moment for the sake of love and justice and the common good. We know that our choices matter, that people depend upon us, that our actions affect life and death of siblings in the human family and creatures and habitats in the natural world, that there are real consequences for how we live our lives.  And that is serious business and can feel heavy and exhausting. But what we’re reminded of is that powerful, playful divine Wisdom is woven into all that is; she is eternally available as our energetic guide, giving instruction, reminding us that we have wisdom at our core, calling us to play, to be awake to what is, to respond with intention and love, to perceive the beauty and goodness all around us, luring us to LIVE as we are meant to live. As we close these reflections, hear the words of Wisdom calling to you from the final verses of chapter 8:

32-36 “So, my dear friends, listen carefully;
    those who embrace these my ways are most blessed.
Mark a life of discipline and live wisely;
    don’t squander your precious life.
Blessed the [one] who listens to me,
    awake and ready for me each morning,
    alert and responsive as I start my day’s work.
When you find me, you find life, real life…”

 

New every morning, She calls!  Will you receive what she has to offer?  Will you share it with others?

 

[i] http://day1.org/7294-on_scripture_walter_brueggemann_on_wisdom_proverbs_814_2231

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect

[iv] https://www.masaru-emoto.net/en/masaru/

[v] Anthony Hunt, FaceBook post

[vi] http://day1.org/7294-on_scripture_walter_brueggemann_on_wisdom_proverbs_814_2231

[vii] Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist in Theological Discourse, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996, 88.

What is the Pentecost Miracle?

June 9th, 2019

What Is the Pentecost Miracle?

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC June 9, 2019, Pentecost Sunday and Pride weekend. “Questions Along The Way” series.

 Text: Acts 2:1-21

 

“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” St. Catherine of Siena, the 14th century laywoman, activist, and mystic who first said these words to challenge and embolden, might be discouraged to see that you can now find them floating “along on a vast sea of comforting spiritual quotes on Pinterest…and available for purchase as a framed, floral watercolor on Etsy.[i]  Don’t get me wrong, I love a pithy, meaningful quote. But framed in these ways, St. Catherine’s words become domesticated and easily misunderstood.

 

In her context and understanding, to be who God means you to be isn’t about mastering all the self-help books or setting out on an “Eat, Pray, Love” journey of self-discovery, but rather to be so close to God that some of the divine image—that image we are meant to reflect—begins to shine out of your perfectly unique life. And to set the world on fire isn’t to have your blog or post go viral or have your name in lights or glowing headlines, it’s to spread the fire of God’s love and grace in a way that is so compelling that others’ hearts and lives are changed for the better because of you.

 

Once upon a time, a rather ragtag group of women and men—Acts 1:15 suggests there might have been around 120 of them—were gathered together in one place.  They had been on an extraordinary journey with Jesus both before and after his death. They witnessed and participated in signs and wonders, and at this moment they are doing what Jesus told them to do (Lk 24:49); they are waiting in the city for the baptism of Spirit.

 

I wonder if they had any idea just what was in store. I wonder if they thought the Spirit would show up gift-wrapped or floating in with the gentleness of a dove.  If so, they were wildly mistaken.  Holy Spirit pours Herself out upon the gathering—just as Jesus had promised. But this is no framed watercolor scene. Spirit comes (in the Greek) aphno—suddenly—and biaias—mightily or even violently—think wind and fire that sets off alarms, that wakes people up, that cannot be ignored, that requires some kind of response. Spirit (a person of the Trinity and not a thing—hence my intentional omission of “the”) comes like a wind and fire storm and fills the congregation with power and ability to not only communicate with one another, but to be immersed in something so disruptive—so far outside the norm—that those outside the house gather around to see what in the world is going on.  This crowd includes many immigrant Jews—those who likely were reared in various places of Jewish diaspora and had returned to Jerusalem, bringing with them the diverse cultures and languages of the tribes and nations surrounding Palestine.  Spirit blows into the house, sets the disciples on fire so that they begin proclaiming God’s deeds of powerful, liberating love, mercy, justice, and peace, and the fire starts to spread; the word is received by people of all ages, nations, orientations, and races—we are told the number that day was around 3,000 (Lk 2:41)!!

 

“What is the Pentecost miracle?”  The miracle is that for a bright, shining moment, the people of God were who God meant them to be—available to a disruptive and surprising Spirit, filled with love and courage and freedom, and instrumental in a great conversion to love and justice and generosity and peace and mutuality and the formation of a new community with those things at the center.

This is the beginning of all the stories we’ve been exploring since Easter—all the signs and wonders, all the life-changes and reconciliations, the humanizing moments, boundary-crossings,  and heart-openings are fueled by this mighty moment of Spirit’s anointing, filling, and fueling people like you and me to go into the world to be instruments of God’s love and grace—that is, to be who God means for us to be.  When we first stepped into the Acts of the Apostles 50 days ago, I shared how this book ends on a cliff-hanger—and I believe that’s to remind us that the story is still being written by those of us willing to continue to show up expecting Spirit to fill us and set us on fire.

 

The Pentecost miracle isn’t something that happened once a long time ago.  It is an ongoing miracle—that even with all the ways that the human family gets it wrong down through the centuries, Spirit continues to touch hearts, to disrupt the status quo of our lives and communities, to stir people to gather, to empower once timid followers to take risks for the sake of the Gospel. At least one part of the ongoing Pentecost miracle is that the church continues to exist at all with the mess we’ve made of it over and over again. 

 

But the church’s survival shouldn’t surprise us since, from the very beginning, there were forces who stood in opposition, forces and voices who sneered and jeered, who saw barriers broken and, instead of celebrating the amazing beauty of a diverse human family sharing an experience of God’s liberating and reconciling love, labeled what was happening as bad behavior, they assigned blame, twisting this beautiful moment into debauchery.  And yet this perversion of the truth could not stop the life and community-creating power of Spirit from flowing—not then, and not now.

 

We are in this very moment experiencing a fresh Pentecost moment in the United Methodist church—a moment when Spirit is setting off alarms, waking people up, stirring discomfort, disrupting what has been, creating confusion, leading people into new configurations of community, inspiring boundary-crossings among persons used to dwelling in discrete tribes, and empowering once timid Jesus followers and justice-seekers to stand up, to take a risk, to speak out about the love and grace of God and the imperative for inclusion and justice in the church and world.  It is not a cozy time, a familiar time, a time when we have a clear path, much less a map—because we know something new is coming, but don’t know where exactly Spirit is leading!  It’s like the Israelites in the wilderness having been liberated from bondage in Egypt but on an uncertain journey toward a promise they couldn’t fully perceive or define.  Like them, we are traveling the Way of Jesus right now without the comfort of one clear plan and without a firm timeline.  We don’t know how long this journey is going to take.  Like our spiritual ancestors in the wilderness and in the chaos of the first day of Pentecost, we are surrounded by folks who are processing the experience very differently. I know we have folks here at Foundry who are angry, confused, tired, sad, hopeful, energized, afraid, curious, and more. On most days, I feel most of that stuff all at once!  Across the Methodist connection, I assure you that folks are “having ALL the feels!”

 

But Spirit is truly up to something.  Openly LGBTQ candidates are being commissioned and ordained not just in Northern Illinois and Baltimore-Washington and New York, but in Michigan and Texas!  If we can stay open and available and engaged, we will have a front seat to something happening that is certainly historically significant and potentially spiritually extraordinary. I am under no illusion that those who have so clearly rejected the invitation to remain in communion will change their minds—so please understand that’s not what I’m talking about. But among the large contingent of United Methodists across the country (and world) who are NOT aligned with the Confessing/Good News/WCA movements, I see the church connecting and supporting one another right now in beautiful and powerful ways. The more intentional connections and collaboration that emerged after the General Conference in 2016 have continued to mature and are bearing fruit in annual conferences everywhere. Boundaries all along the spectrum of culture and belief continue to be crossed in order to find places of mutuality and solidarity.  The work is painful and trust is often in short supply and there are places of struggle as this new level of intentional connection emerges, but it is happening.  

 

I know that we want things to be done, that we want justice already, that we want things to be quick, that we want things to be simple and clear and well-defined.  And there may be some of us who are ready to check out, to give up on this thing, to turn away from the moment we are being given to participate in whatever extraordinary and surprising work God is up to. We may feel like nothing we do matters, we may feel small and insignificant and powerless. We may be tired of this part of the struggle and long to focus on other things. The sneers and jeers from without and within may discourage us to the point of apathy, resentment, and depression.  But as I have said before, many folks look to Foundry for leadership and take their cues from our witness. This is not a time for us to retreat but to bring the full force of our experience and advocacy, our commitment to intersectional justice, our deep faith, and our bright hope for tomorrow to bear in the struggle.

 

And we are not without help!  That ragtag bunch all those years ago didn’t develop a 10-point plan and a comms strategy for spreading the love of God as they sat in the house in Jerusalem. The church didn’t explode in numbers because of human ingenuity.  It exploded because of the new-life giving power of God’s love, manifest in Spirit. That power has continuously stirred and stormed to help the church rise up and keep going, to boldly proclaim God’s love and mercy and compassion even in the face of hatred and violence of all kinds. It’s the power that gave passion to the prophets, that calmed the seas, that fuels forgiveness and humility; it’s the power that has torn down literal and relational walls, inspires the greatest music and art, gives words to those who fear having nothing to say, brings new life out of ashes and resurrection even from the cross.

 

I can’t help but remind us of the words of Annie Dillard who calls us out with this challenge: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”[1]

 

We are in the midst of a Spirit wind and fire storm!  She’s not playing!  No wonder we may feel uncomfortable and agitated! The power of God is among us and is moving and is calling and is stirring and is challenging us to stay awake and to stay open and to stay engaged and to stay prayerful and humble—so that God’s power will be able to fill us, move through us, and lead us into the promise that has been made.

 

Is Annie Dillard’s suspicion correct?  Does no one believe any of this?  Do we believe that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all flesh and that we are all tinder, just waiting to go up in flames of love, praise, commitment, and proclamation?  Do we believe that Spirit has the power to shake us from the status quo, from the familiar paths, from the unjust systems, from our desperate need to control the journey?  Are we “sensible of conditions?” 

 

I once heard this definition of miracle: it’s not when God’s actions align with our desires, but when our actions align with God’s desires.  That’s the kind of miracle that seems worthy of our contemplation.  And that’s the Spirit-instigated Pentecost miracle.  So if you want to be a part of it, put on your crash helmets, grab a signal flare, find a traveling companion for the wilderness crossing, and get in on whatever amazing new thing Spirit is stirring in and through us for the sake of the larger work of new creation and promise that is to come.  Let’s be who God means for us to be and—together—set the world on fire!

 

 

[1] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

[i] Br. Jordan Zapac, O.P., https://www.dominicanajournal.org/a-patron-for-pyros/

What Gift Can We Bring?

May 26th, 2019

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC May 26, 2019, the sixth Sunday of Easter.

Acts 16:9-15, John 14:23-29

 

Watching birds has always been a favorite pastime for me.  Over the years, one of my favorite things has been to observe the birds making nests.  In one parsonage we lived in there were shutters on the windows and the sparrows nested behind one of the shutters—complete with bits of candy wrapper, long, draping weeds poking through the shutter, and colorful scraps of trash.  That little nest hatched at least 4 sparrows that spring. 

 

Often, birds build their nests in places that are quite guarded, with openings or entrances only accessible to the little family who inhabits the nest.  Part of the warmth and safety of the nest is in being closed-off to others who may want to come in.  We know that this is with good reason.  The natural world is full of predators just waiting to take advantage of the small and the vulnerable.  Even though it was messy, that nest poking through the shutters on my home gave me comfort.  I was glad the chicks were not out in the open, that they were guarded and safe.

 

I must admit, there is a part of me right now that would very much like to find a guarded place, a place shielded from critiques and attacks, from overwhelming responsibilities and tensions that are not readily eased, a place where I could retreat and only allow those whom I love and trust into my hiding place.  It would feel much safer if I could fortify my heart, creating a barrier to keep it from being broken.  Anyone with me?

 

So, of course, our scripture today has as its center an open heart.  Lydia’s open heart to be precise.  [But before we get to Lydia, I want to catch us up.  We’ve been hanging out with Peter for most of our time in Acts—with a detour onto the road to Damascus with Paul. A lot of territory gets covered between last week’s lectionary story in which Peter had a “bed, bath, and the great beyond” vision that broke the circle of God’s saving activity wide open, and today’s encounter at the river. Between Acts 11 and 16, Paul gets commissioned as a missionary, he and Barnabas have gone on a long mission trip, the apostle James has been killed by Herod, Peter has been imprisoned and freed by an angel, and there’s a big church meeting in Jerusalem to come to agreement on requirements for Gentile converts (known as the Jerusalem Council—#WayofJesusNext?).  In Acts 16, Paul has set out on his second missionary journey joined first by Silas and then Timothy. It’s during this trip that Paul has the vision and call to go to Macedonia, a Roman province in the northern region of the Greek peninsula.

 

That’s the written story.] The unwritten backstory of Lydia, the woman at the center of today’s encounter, must be inferred by details in the narrative.  Lydia is from Thyatira—across the Aegean Sea from Philippi—so she is a resident alien. She is the head of her household and a business woman, selling one of the most precious and expensive dyed cloths of the time—purple.  She is described as a “worshiper of God” and is leading a group of women in worship outside the gates at the river. In a place and time in which women were generally second-class citizens, with narrowly defined roles in society, they often gathered at the river or at wells, places to use their voices and create communities of solidarity and support.  We don’t know how Lydia came to have the means to create and sustain her business or how she came to be a leader in her new city, but we can assume that she is a strong, capable, savvy leader who has overcome many odds and crossed a great distance to be where she is—economically and socially. I can only imagine what she endured in order to survive and to thrive.

 

Paul and his companions meet Lydia and the other women at the river on the Sabbath day and share their message of God’s liberating love in Jesus Christ.  And the miracle of today’s story is that after everything Lydia has been through, her heart is open to eagerly receive it.  And from that open-hearted place, she invites strangers into her home. If you read to the end of chapter 16 you will see that the mission in Philippi begins and ends with references to Lydia. She was “homebase,” providing shelter and likely financial support for Paul, Silas, and Timothy throughout their stay.  Lydia’s open heart led to an open hand and open door. She shared the gifts she had to support God’s work of love and liberation.  Lydia May be the official saint of cloth dyers, but I see her as a saint of all those folks who have to overcome the odds just because of who they are to take their place among the beloved community—those who kept their hearts open even when it would have been easier to check out, to rage, to be on the defensive, to shut others out: Women in leadership who keep showing up and offering their gifts even though they are slandered, dismissed, and objectified; Persons of color who keep showing up and offering their gifts even though they are stereotyped, attacked, and demonized; LGBTQ folk who keep showing up and offering their gifts even though they are rejected, judged, and mocked; Immigrants, the poor, the unhoused, those who battle mental illness or addiction... If we had the time I could name so many who inspire and lead with an open heart even in the midst of hardship and attack.

 

On the Way of Jesus, we are consistently called to be open—to be open to new insight, to new directions, to new people, to new opportunities.  We are called to open our hands to share what we have, to open our doors to offer hospitality and sustenance for others, to open our hearts to both receive and give love.  I think of the big news this past week of Robert F. Smith’s extraordinary announcement during Morehouse College’s commencement ceremonies that, in addition to his already promised $1.5 million gift to the school, he would pay off all the student debt of the class of 2019. It also makes me think of the equally powerful witness of so many working families who save and scrimp to support their children—many of whom also work in addition to taking classes—so that they graduate with little or no debt.  Both of these are examples of bringing the gifts we have and using them for the sake of others. This is an open heart leading to an open—and generous—hand.

 

Because it’s been my resting place and self-care the past couple of days, I think of the life-changing gifts of the Fab 5 of the TV show Queer Eye. The men who are receiving support and guidance almost always have places in their lives that are overly guarded or closed off.  It is revelatory to watch how TLC, honesty, vulnerability and fabulosity help them begin to open up—their minds, their homes, their hearts.  If you’ve never seen the program, each of the five (gay) hosts has a particular skill they offer to the person seeking help. Even though it’s a television show, I find the relationships and human encounters that happen to be signs of hope and a witness to the power of open-hearted generosity and what can happen when we share our expertise to empower others to live more freely and fully.

 

And I think of the “UMC Next” gathering that happened this past week in Leawood, Kansas.  I knew the more than 600 people who gathered would bring all sorts of perspectives and attitudes and feelings with them.  I knew that there were more than a few folks struggling to keep an open mind and heart.  Some were determined not to.  There are good reasons for why this is so.  Hearts that have been offered and rejected or hurt over and over again are shy at best, well-defended to the point of untouchable at worst.  What I observed is that, for the most part, folks tried. There were moments when it felt like Spirit opened hearts to receive the gifts that were being offered through personal testimonies and invitations to be the church we long to be. It was a gift to observe the ways that persons engaged in meaningful and challenging conversation, bringing the gifts of their own insight and skill and experience to the work.  I want to let you know we are working on strategies to share information and engage with you about what happened in Minneapolis at the UM Forward gathering, in Leawood at the UMC Next gathering, and at our upcoming Annual Conference session.  For today, let me just share that this past week I witnessed extraordinary gifts being brought forward for the sake of a more loving, just, inclusive expression of Methodism in the future. This happened because, like Lydia, persons allowed their hearts to be opened, their minds to be opened, their skills and ultimately themselves to be shared.

 

We human beings are quite good at developing what psychologists call emotional and relational “defense mechanisms” (and sometimes these serve us quite well).  But we know the commandment of Jesus to love others as he loves us—with reckless abandon, with an openness of heart and spirit that doesn’t distinguish between clean and unclean and that leaves our hearts, in their openness, completely vulnerable and exposed.  In the Gospel text assigned for today Jesus has the nerve to say:  “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  Be open and don’t be afraid.  Sure.  No problem.

 

Jesus also says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.”  What does the world give?  The world gives plenty of good reasons to have troubled and afraid hearts!  And what’s the difference between the world’s peace and Christ’s peace?  The world’s peace is of the kind that placates and soothes by drawing lines in the sand, by creating dividing walls both concretely and emotionally.  The world’s peace is like that sparrow’s nest, protected, guarded, closed-off, defensive, and even sometimes violent so as not to be hurt.  Christ’s peace is peace in the midst of suffering, not in absence of it.  Christ’s peace is a peace that comes from being open to the power and presence of God.  And when Jesus tells us not to be troubled or afraid, I think in part he is telling us to be open, like Lydia, to God’s knocking at the door of our hearts, to be open to the message of Christ’s word of love, to be open to the possibility that we are safe in our relationship with God, even as we may continue to be vulnerable in so many ways in the world. 

 

Many years ago now, I heard of an art contest run by a religious organization.  The contest asked artists to contribute images of peace drawn from the natural world.  Scores of photographs, paintings, and drawings were entered with pictures of pastoral scenes:  wheat fields gently blowing in the wind, a strong, solitary oak tree surrounded by a field of flowers, gardens, grazing animals, etc.  But the winning entry was not one of these images.  Rather it was a photograph of the raging, pounding rapids of a deep and powerful river, the water crashing around great, heavy boulders on its way downstream.  Reaching out over the swirling, destructive waters was the branch of a tree.  On the slender, lonely end of that branch was perched a bird’s nest full of small, vulnerable chicks.  This image is one in which the presence of danger and vulnerability are right there in your face, but in which the presence of being held in the embrace of home provides deep peace.

 

Resting in the peace of Christ, we are nurtured and fed and strengthened.  Resting in the peace of Christ, we are given the confidence to be who we are and to take risks and to care and to choose, because we know we are safe and we aren’t alone and we are loved.  Even when we know we are vulnerable, when we face illness or pain or challenge, and when we open ourselves up in ways that are scary, the peace of Christ is available to us to give us courage and peace of mind.

 

The more we are open to God, the more of God’s love and peace will overflow from us into the world, the more of our resources and skills and SELF we will be able to share for the sake of others’ flourishing.  As we open ourselves to the love and presence of God, we become instruments of God’s love and peace.  As we do that together, we become a congregation—and I pray a Methodist movement—that builds a nest for others suspended above the destructive realities of the world, a nest that provides an environment that nurtures and sustains new life and that values the gifts that each one brings, a nest that keeps growing to include any and all who seek the nurture of a family who knows that the river is crashing with great destructive power and that life is fragile and that love is vulnerability, but who have the courage to believe that hope and peace are real, too.  And that being open is worth it.

Are We Obstacles or Instruments?

May 19th, 2019

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC May 19, 2019, the fifth Sunday of Easter. “Questions Along The Way” series.

                                                Texts:  Acts 11:1-18, (John 13:31-35)                                               

 This Spring season has been such a gift for me this year.  The birdsong, the breeze, the growing green, the waves of flowers, have all been like medicine for my weary spirit.  Perhaps you know what I mean.  Those of you who follow me on FaceBook may have seen the pictures of flowers in my yard…medicine!  Such beautiful diversity of color and texture in the garden… Diversity in a garden is beautiful and desirable and takes some work and planning but is fairly straight-forward to achieve. Diversity in human community is also beautiful and desirable… and makes everything harder.  Creating a healthy and just diverse human community is decidedly NOT straight-forward to achieve.

 

Today we read of an extraordinary moment in the early church as it tried to figure out how to live as a community according to the Way of Jesus:  The story opens with Peter being challenged by the Jewish Christians in Judea because they’ve heard that Peter shared the gospel with Gentiles and baptized them!  You see, the United Methodist Church is not the first community of Jesus followers to struggle with issues of diversity and to have conflict over who is “in” and who is “out.”  In the earliest days of the church, there were great disputes about who could be included in the church’s ranks; one main issue was whether to be a member of The Way, one needed to be circumcised—that is, either a born Jew or a Jewish convert.  Prejudice on this point was as virulent as any prejudice we are familiar with today. 

 

Peter defends his actions by sharing a vision he had received while still in Joppa and recounting what happened as a result. Peter’s vision is odd (as visions often are) and came to Peter while he was praying and distracted by hunger. At that moment “something like a large sheet” descends from heaven (a sign that the vision is from God). The sheet holds all kinds of animals—in fact, the list is a conventional classification of creatures for the literature of the time—“four-footed creatures and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air.” A voice from heaven urges Peter to kill and eat up!  Peter protests, citing his interpretation and practice of orthodoxy—“I’ve never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”  And the voice gives a correction, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This animal-laden sheet appearance, the voice, the protest by Peter, and the corrective repeat three times.

 

One of our Foundry folk (Lorrea Stallard) has given me a new shorthand for Peter’s vision encounter: it’s “bed, bath, and the great beyond!”  But what is going on here?  It is important to remember that, like Jesus, Peter and all the original twelve apostles were observant Jews.  There were very strict rules about food—what was “kosher” and what was considered “unclean.”  Peter reacts to the animals on the sheet as if all were unclean—though that’s not the case. Some of the animals listed would have been OK to eat according to the food laws.  So there’s something “off” about Peter’s perception or interpretation of either the religious law or of what he was seeing displayed on the sheet.  What Peter thought was the right thing to do was corrected not once, but three times.  Peter was puzzled. //

 

Now another vision occurred the day before Peter’s—received by one Cornelius of Caesarea, a Gentile.  Cornelius is described as a devout man who “gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10:2). The message he received in his vision was to send for Peter. Cornelius dispatches some from his household to fetch Peter from Joppa.

These are the messengers who appear as Peter is trying to make sense of his “bed, bath, and the great beyond” vision.  And what Peter recounts to his up-in-arms colleagues in Judea, is that when the messengers from Caesarea arrived, “the Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”  Once he arrived in the home of Cornelius he shared the good news of Jesus Christ, the news of peace and power and healing and release from oppression and new life and forgiveness (Acts 10:34-43).  And then, he reports, “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.”  Acts 10:45 records, “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter (to Caesarea) were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles…” Astounded. God’s grace, God’s Spirit, God’s love was not reserved only for them. God’s gifts were shared with those who were different from them.  Astounding.

 

This story contains one of the most important tenets of our faith:  The good news of Jesus Christ is for ALL…the Holy Spirit is a gift for ALL…the saving love and power of God is for ALL.  Followers of the Way of Jesus are called from the very beginning “not to make a distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us,’” to cross boundaries in order to share the love, mercy, and justice of God with everyone. 

 

This story marks a turning point for the early church, a new way of understanding what God is doing.  For it becomes clear that God, in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit has expanded the saving territory beyond the boundary of the “chosen people” the Jews and truly beyond any boundary!  Peter, seeing that the Holy Spirit was received by the Gentiles he met in Caesarea, says this astonishing thing:  “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 

 

And this gets us to our question for today:  Are we obstacles or instruments?  God is always trying to draw the circle wider, to do something new in us, to expand hearts and minds, to bring reconciliation and justice, to tear down the walls of division.  And we can so easily get in the way; wittingly or not, we can hinder what God is up to.  Any of the persons in the story might have been an obstacle to God’s movement.  Cornelius could have been an obstacle to his household receiving the good news of God’s love in Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit—if he had ignored or rejected the message he received in prayer.  The messengers could have been obstacles by not agreeing to relay the invitation to Peter.  Peter could have been an obstacle by refusing to receive the correction to his limited and likely erroneous perception of the religious law or by refusing to go to Caesarea.  Peter’s companions could have been obstacles if they had tried to keep those in Cornelius’ home from being baptized.  But all along the way, these folks allow God to work in and through them; they are like what the 14th century mystic poet, Hafiz, describes when he says, “I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through.”  They are not obstacles, but instruments, open to Spirit to move through and move them to embrace, include, and love.  I think of the prayer of St. Francis that begins, “Make me an instrument of your peace…”

 

In the story, there is a moment of truth: will the “apostles and the believers who were in Judea”—those who hadn’t had a personal experience of these Gentiles—will they be obstacles to what God is up to, holding fast to the old rule, clinging to the well-known requirements as gatekeepers of their tribe?  Or will they be instruments, allowing the breath of Christ to move through them and open their minds and hearts to the expanded community God is offering?  The story makes it sound so easy!  Peter and the others tell the story…and those in Judea who are opposed to this radical shift in “the way we’ve always done it” are silenced in their objections and give praise to God.

 

We know it’s not so easy, though. Letting go of the familiar and comfortable is never easy. Letting go of what has given us a sense of order and identity is never easy.  And the call of God to “make no distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them,’” while beautiful and powerful, isn’t easy either.  To make no distinction between “them” and “us” is not to erase the real differences that exist in the human family.  Human beings come from different places, have different strengths and weaknesses, and have different cultural, racial, political, theological, and sexual and gender identities.  We communicate in very different ways, we have different love languages and priorities and perspectives and preferences—from music to food to art to sports team loyalties…  This is the way it is.  And to be Christian doesn’t mean that we are to ignore these diversities or to try to make everyone the same.  Far from it.  A community in which everyone looks, thinks, acts, and reacts the same way would be a boring fiction—and might describe the goal of some human political factions, clubs, or even church communities.  But that isn’t what authentic Christian community is—and it is not the way God created the creation.  To make no distinction between “them” and “us” in the church means that we recognize that, regardless of who a person is, where they come from, how they act or think or love—that person is a child of God, that person has received (or has the capacity to receive) the Holy Spirit, that person is a fellow member WITH US of the Body of Christ. 

That is not easy—not ever—and especially not in these polarized and anxious days in which we live.  It’s one reason why so many Christians and churches find themselves being obstacles instead of instruments of God’s grace and love.

 

Right now at Foundry and across the United Methodist Church, we are grappling with all of this—really at every level.  Here at Foundry we are committed to practice healthy relationships with one another, to extend grace and compassion, to be accountable with each other, to do justice, to be humble, to listen, to honor the beautiful diversity within our community and to try to remove obstacles that get in the way of greater diversity and creation of true beloved community.  We are engaged directly and meaningfully in all the conversations happening locally and nationally to create a church that is fully inclusive of LGBTQ persons.  I hope you read last month’s Forge piece that shared the resolution by the Board—to more deeply and intentionally address issues and opportunities to strengthen our practices for racial equity and justice.  And this next issue will share an excerpt from and link to an essay I wrote for The Circuit Rider online journal that reflects on what I see as the opportunities God is giving us right now as a denomination.  I believe God is calling us to repent of an unjust past—related to everything from race to colonial practices to gender inequity to exclusion of LGBTQ folks.  And I also believe God is calling us to reset for a revitalized, faithful, dynamic, fully inclusive, anti-racist, anti-colonial future that draws upon the best of our Wesleyan tradition. 

 

The challenge for us is that to practice the Way of Jesus is to love like Jesus.   Jesus knows how to love the beautifully diverse human family.  We continue to struggle to get it quite right.  But we can choose to be open, to be responsive to God’s movement in our lives, to be instruments through which Christ’s breath can create something new, something beautiful.  By God’s grace, we might be like those in Judea whose concern and anxiety was turned to praise for the surprising, amazing grace of God that melts away the walls that divide people into clean and unclean, praise for the love of God that is poured out on all so that abundant life might be a possibility.  Who are we to hinder God??  Today I invite you to consider where you might be— intentionally or not—hindering God…where you need to get out of the way… and where you are being invited to be an instrument of God’s peace, hope, compassion, justice, and love in the world…

 

We are at a turning point in our communal life as the United Methodist Church and at Foundry as a result. Will you be an obstacle or an instrument for God’s leading?

 

 

 

 

What Is Our Role in Healing?

May 12th, 2019

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC May 12, 2019, the fourth Sunday of Easter. “Questions Along The Way” series.

 Text: Acts 9:36-43

One of the things I’ve been aware of as we’ve been telling the stories in Acts the past few Sundays is how full of miracles they are! It makes sense in terms of the flow of the narrative, since Acts is about the beginnings of the Jesus movement, a movement fueled by the awe and wonder of Jesus’ resurrection—kinda the miracle. And the trajectory of the story in Acts is that the same resurrecting-new life-giving-power of God that was in Jesus is at work in Jesus’ disciples through the power of the Spirit.  And today we get a whopper of a story: Peter brings Tabitha back to life!

 

This isn’t a sermon about miracles per se, but I imagine that some of you wonder about it.  Let me just say, for full disclosure, that I tend to believe things that seem impossible or supernatural have happened or can happen.  This, for me, is not a rejection of science, it’s humility before the power and ever-unfolding mystery of creation and of God.  However, there have been some perversions of our theology about miracles that lead to deep suffering—particularly when it comes to what we are capable of doing or what we should even want or try to do.  A powerful and formative moment in my early ministry came in relationship with a retired man whose wife had died of cancer. This deeply faithful man simply could not reconcile the fact that he had prayed and prayed for his beloved wife’s healing and it didn’t “work.” She died.  He felt he had failed—that he didn’t have enough faith or didn’t know how to pray the right way.  If Peter could do it like in our story today, if “the prayer of faith will save the sick” as it is written in the biblical letter of James (5:15), then why didn’t his prayer work?  His grief was compounded by his sense of failure and powerlessness. I don’t think adding suffering to suffering is what God desires…

 

There are also assumptions often made in biblical interpretation that persons with bodies that are differently abled automatically need or want to be “healed”—that is, to see, hear, walk, or whatever. Sometimes in the Bible—and in our current context—people ask for something about their body or life to be changed, but not always.  To assume that a person needs to be “fixed” is to miss the inherent gifts that person offers precisely through their particular, embodied experience.

 

I don’t believe that the point of our scriptural stories and teachings about prayer, healing, and miracle is that we are supposed to be able to keep people from dying or “fix” people to fit some human-determined vision or standard.  That way of thinking seems pretty dehumanizing to me.  Further, while some amazing and truly life-giving things are being accomplished in medicine and reconstructive surgeries and prosthetics for traumatic injuries, some of the current scientific and cosmetic efforts to control life and death or to “preserve” or modify bodies also seem deeply dehumanizing. //

 

And that is really where I want to focus the rest of our reflection together today.  In this present moment of chaos and crisis (in society, in politics, in the environment, in the church), dehumanization is rampant—causing deep rifts in the fabric of communal life.  Stereotypes are in high circulation, people are objectified, groups are labeled less than human, persons get played like pawns on a game board by those with power, polarization and exclusion and the resurgence of active hate groups are both the effect and the fuel of all kinds of reptilian brain reactivity, including fear, mistrust, anger, and violence.  Loneliness, isolation, overwork, and the pressures of a culture that prizes unhealthy standards of achievement or appearance leave many feeling disintegrated, depressed, and discouraged—like there’s something wrong with them or like they’re failing all the time. 

 

In this moment of deep demoralization and dehumanization what is needed most of all are people who are at least trying to be less “reptilian” and more human.  What I have observed in my life and in communities that are experiencing great anxiety and brokenness is that the simple presence of a person or persons whose hearts are open, calm, loving, compassionate and responsive in the moment without anxiety can be an incredibly powerful and healing thing.  Perhaps our first role in healing is to try to be and to become more like that, more human. //

 

This past week, Jean Vanier died. Jean Vanier was a Catholic philosopher and the founder of L’Arche, an international organization that creates communities where people with intellectual disabilities and those who assist them share life together. Vanier himself lived in this intentional community for more than 50 years.  His writings are among the most poignant and powerful I have ever read when it comes to Christ-like living. I commend to you anything he wrote. It will bless you. One of his best-known books is entitled Becoming Human. In the introduction he writes,

Aren’t we already human? How can we become what we already are?...We humans are conscious of our growth from the nakedness of birth to the nakedness of death, and we are conscious of the freedom we have to orientate our lives in one direction or another. This freedom can lead us into anguish and a fear of becoming, or it can lead us into growth and new life.[i]

 

Throughout the book, Vanier makes a connection between becoming human and new life. And this work begins in the heart—yours and mine.  He says,

The heart, the metaphorical heart, the basis of all relationships, is what is deepest in each one of us.[ii] …To speak of the heart is not to speak of vaguely defined emotions but to speak of the very core of our being. At the core, we all know we can be strengthened and rendered more truthful and more alive.[iii]

 

What Vanier teaches is that doing work that heals our own hearts—work that liberates our heart from chaos and loneliness, from fears that lead us to exclude and reject other people—this heart-healing work helps us grow mature and move away from self-centeredness and a focus on our own inner hurts towards a capacity to perceive our common humanity with others.[iv] The point is not only to experience life more fully and freely for ourselves, but also to become agents of healing and liberation for others.  Vanier says:

Our hearts can become hard like stone or tender like flesh. We have to create situations where our hearts can be fortified and nourished. In this way, we can be more sensitive to others, to their needs, their cries, their inner pain, their tenderness, and their gifts of love…It is only once a heart has become mature in love that it can take the road of insecurity, putting its trust in God. It is a heart that can make wise decisions; it has learned to discern and to take risks that bring life…The free heart frees others.[v]  …To have an open heart that lets the waters of compassion, of understanding, and of forgiveness flow forth is a sign of a mature person. Maybe once in our lives we will be fortunate enough to meet such a person; we will feel cleansed, affirmed... Then we, too, will walk towards greater freedom and let waters flow onto others, healing them and finding healing through them.[vi]

 

What we encounter in our text from Acts today is a story involving two persons with hearts that have been freed and healed by the love of Jesus Christ. The disciple Tabitha had clearly made a profound impact in her community through her acts of generosity, caring, and love toward those who were vulnerable in society. When she dies, Peter is summoned—without any request other than to come and be with those who grieve. When Peter arrives, the widows—often among the most vulnerable—show and tell of the one they know as Dorcas and of her kind deeds.  It reminds me of so many wakes, visitations and receptions, when photos and stories get shared about the person whose life has touched so many others. 

 

And Peter—historically hot-headed and impulsive (the one, I imagine, who would show up and make everyone anxious!)—has, through his journey with Jesus both before and after the resurrection, become a powerful preacher and source of healing for others. I’m always moved in this story to notice Peter’s simple, humanizing actions in the room once he’s alone with the body of Tabitha. He kneels and prays. Following his prayer, perhaps having received some leading from Christ, he turns toward Tabitha and speaks to her directly. Peter is there when Tabitha opens her eyes—perhaps a bit startling, but also reassuring. And then, my favorite, “He gave her his hand and helped her up.” (Acts 9:41) I have not witnessed a literal resurrection, but I have seen persons whose simple acts of faith, presence, and kindness have made another person’s heart beat in a new way that has led to new life.

 

Tabitha and Peter are both persons well on their way toward becoming human, their hearts are freed by love to share love.  Their actions convey compassion, tenderness, and a sense of common humanity with others, including those whom others would discount or marginalize.  All these things are signs of liberated, maturing hearts! And one such heart in the room is pretty darn powerful. But what happens when you’ve got two in the same space? Something like a miracle. New life. Resurrection and restoration. Imagine what might happen with more than two! //

Our question today isn’t Do we have a role in healing… Our call as followers of the Way of Jesus is to participate in the healing and mending work of God in the world. How do we do that?  We begin by attending to our own hearts, acknowledging the illusions, prejudices, hatred, and lies that harbor there and then, with God’s help, working to become liberated from them. We are called to do the hard work of admitting our vulnerability and our fears and our hurts. It’s the work of knowing yourself, of taking off your masks, of trusting God, of knowing yourself to be beloved and forgiven. It’s the work of becoming more truly human.  The more we attend to that work, the greater chance we will have of showing up in healing ways in moments of crisis in our families or our church, the better chance we’ll have of showing up in healing ways alongside a dying loved one or a struggling friend—not for the purpose of fixing them, but simply to connect, one human heart to another, to say “I see you and honor you and am with you in compassion and love. Let’s try to be human together in this moment of pain or struggle.”  God has a habit of bringing new life out of moments like that.

 

As a closing word, I share this from Jean Vanier of blessed memory:

Wherever we may be—in our families, our work places, with friends, or in places of worship or of leisure—we can rise up and become agents of a new land. But let us not put our sights too high. We do not have to be saviours of the world! We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time.[vii]

 

May it be so. Amen.

 

 

[i] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, New York: Paulist Press, 1998, p. 2-3.

[ii] Ibid., p. 85.

[iii] Ibid., p. 87.

[iv] Ibid., p. 5.

[v] Ibid., p. 87.

[vi] Ibid., p. 102.

[vii] Ibid., p. 163.