Foundry UMC

Foundry UMC header image 1

Submit Your Feet

March 30th, 2018

Submit Your Feet

A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, March 29, 2018, Maundy Thursday.

Text: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

 

Let’s talk about feet.  Feet are among the humble members of the human body, for most of us they are weight-bearing, callused, veiny, sweaty, smelly, and frequently dirty.  In general, feet are not considered among the flashy or beautiful parts of the body.  We don’t tend to think about feet (unless we’re a Reflexologist or podiatrist) and we don’t even think of our own feet except, perhaps, if we can’t use them or unless they hurt—and this, even though in the design of the human body, feet are extraordinarily hard-working and important. 

But tonight we hear the word “feet” eight times in our Gospel passage.  Jesus was focused on feet.  I wonder if Jesus had secretly given the regularly-scheduled servant the night off as his group of friends gathered for a meal.  And I try to imagine what the disciples must have thought or felt as Jesus—the one with all the power, with all the acclaim, with the ability to calm storms and raise Lazarus from the dead—takes up the role of servant to them, kneeling and washing their feet.  Peter gives us one response arising, I imagine, from a place of reverence for Jesus or, perhaps, from a place of outrage and disbelief:  “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  This is our primary question tonight.  Jesus, are you really going to wash my feet?! 

Yes.  Jesus is going to wash your feet—that is, that part of you that you consider unsightly, unworthy, embarrassing...  And, more than that, if Jesus doesn’t wash your feet then you “have no share with” him, or (according to other biblical translations) you “can’t share life with” him or you “can’t be part of what [he’s] doing” or you “won’t belong” to him.  Jesus is determined, it seems, for you to share life with him, to belong to him, to be part of what he’s doing.  And so tonight, along with Peter, you are invited to put aside your outrage, your discomfort, your embarrassment, or your delicate piety and submit your feet.

 Submit your feet to the waters that Jesus offers.  Submit to this different kind of Baptism.  Submit to enter into the life that Jesus models for us, a life of service, a life of true humility, a life that gently cares for the lowliest of members with reverence, that holds the burden-bearing, dirty members with as much love as those members that are free and clear of conscience.  Jesus washed Judas’ feet as well as Peter’s, you see.  And if Jesus, the King of endless glory, has washed our feet, then who do we think we are that we should be exempt from doing the same for others?  

Submit your feet.  When you do, you’ll find yourself kneeling before others’ feet, towel in hand.  What does that mean?  It means that as one who shares the life of Jesus, you engage in your various vocations with humility and with a servant heart.  No matter whether you are the janitor, the computer programmer, or the CEO, you are called by Jesus to do your work in a spirit of service.  If you have a role in the church—with responsibility for a whole ministry area or one part of it, you are called by Jesus to offer yourself as a servant leader.  This doesn’t mean that you surrender your authority—it was Jesus’ authority that made his humble act so transformative and powerful—it means that you don’t clutch or use your authority to lord over or control others.  To be a servant leader doesn’t mean that you surrender your dignity, it means that you recognize that all persons have just as much dignity as you…and therefore all are worthy of patience, care and compassion.

Submit your feet.  When you do, you’ll see where you are standing and with whom.  Standing with others in the places of grief and suffering, standing with others who are lonely or afraid; standing in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable, standing firm as an advocate for the sake of mercy and justice even in the face of persecution—this is where you’ll find yourself standing once you submit your feet to Jesus. 

To submit your feet to Jesus also means allowing your feet to carry you into the place God calls you, to use your feet to walk into the future God has in store—even when that future may bring uncertainty, challenge, and grief.  In the United Methodist Church we talk about our clergy being “itinerant” ministers—meaning we move from place to place, we are appointed and sent into different situations. Tonight I remind us that all of us are itinerant. We’re all on a journey. We all have feet; and God wants us to use them to walk forward into a future that God, and God alone, fully sees and knows.  Submit your feet and walk into God’s future for you.  Trust that the way will be made plain for you.  Pay attention to where your feet carry you, for where your feet take you matters.

Tonight, your feet (literal or metaphorical) have carried you to this place.  We are all going to be given the opportunity to submit our feet to a ritual washing tonight.  You are here in the presence of the living Christ.  And he is taking up your feet, washing them, and asking you the same question he asked Peter and all the disciples:  “Do you understand what I have done for you?”  Jesus has shown us what it means to share in his life, to belong to his Way, to do what he does.  Namely:  Serve one another with humbleness of heart; love one another, even those who do you harm; and pay special attention and offer your strong and loving presence to the ones who bear extra burdens, are calloused, bruised, ignored, or are deemed ugly or insignificant. 

If you submit your feet to Jesus, then you share in his life.  If you submit your feet to Jesus, then you stand, like him, with one foot in this world and one foot in the Kin-dom of heaven.  Your feet, washed and beloved of Christ, are what carry you forward to receive the gifts of bread and new wine that are our sacrament of Christ’s saving love.  Remember that Jesus loves and blesses your feet; and use them well in service of the Kin-dom.  For where your feet take you reveals not only where you are, but who you are…and whose you are.  Where your feet take you shows who and how you love.

 

Sacred Resistance

March 26th, 2018

Sacred Resistance

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, March 25, 2018, Palm Sunday.

  Text: Mark 11:1-11 

 

It seems like a day that’s all about dramatic gestures.  A charged political march, an impending face-off with the ruling administration, dramatic symbols—donkey, palm branches, chanting crowds— carrying the message and the hope.  But it occurs to me that driving this scene we commemorate on Palm Sunday is something very simple: a commitment to do the right thing.  The grand gesture is only necessary because those with the power and influence won’t do the right thing.  The right thing takes so many forms—from legislation that shapes communal life for millions of people to small, everyday acts of kindness. But, as novelist Laura McBride writes, “It all matters.” She shares that little things like someone who “pays at the unattended lot…acknowledges help…wipes the counter…tips the maid…accepts the consequences…lends a hand…goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying…removes the splinter, wipes the tear… touches the lonely, is the whole thing. What is most beautiful is least acknowledged. What is worth dying for is barely noticed.”[i]

 

In the face of so much fear, violence, chaos, injustice, and uncertainty in our lives and world, I’ve observed folks over the past year or so more intentionally naming the power of simple acts of intentional care and commitment, those things that often get taken for granted. Choosing to do the right thing, the generous thing, the thoughtful thing, the kind thing…choosing to do the loving and just thing with and for others, no matter whether the gesture is large or quite small—this, in our age of slander and spin and selfishness is sacred resistance.  To see otherwise unacknowledged beauty, to notice what is truly worth living and dying for, this is sacred resistance.

 

That is what Jesus is doing as he rides into Jerusalem. The beauty and suffering of the poor and oppressed weigh heavily on his mind and heart. His whole life has been spent seeing, noticing, caring, healing, touching, encouraging those with their backs against the wall, those with others’ boot upon their necks, those simply trying to survive. I imagine that Jesus could tell story after story of his encounters—the look on the face of Simon’s mother-in-law when the fever left her (Mk 1:30), the joy of the leprous man restored to health and who found his voice (Mk 1:42), the energy in the house when the one who’d been lowered in through the roof got up and walked out through the front door (Mk 2:12), that dinner party with Levi and his tax collecting buddies (Mk 2:15), the bleeding woman’s desperate faith that became part of her healing (Mk 5:34), the determined sass of the Syrophoenician woman who was willing to talk back and teach Jesus something for the sake of her child (Mk 7:28), the man who lived in the tombs whose transformation changed not only him but the entire community, Jairus and his daughter, Bartimaeus, the children brought to Jesus for blessing, the faces of the crowds who pressed upon him everywhere he went, hungering and thirsting for healing, for hope, for bread, for someone to see them and to extend any sign of encouragement.

 

These are the faces, names, and experiences that Jesus carries into Jerusalem on that day so long ago …beautiful and tragic stories of God’s beloved ones…those forgotten on the margins of society and those caught in the snares of privilege, pride, and power.  Jesus had the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the heart to understand the realities of this world that crush hope and leave people in desperate situations, to have compassion for those who respond to desperation by doing harm to themselves and others and for those who at least try to be just and kind even when no one is watching.  Jesus is determined to do the right thing by them all. 

 

And the creature who carries Jesus into Jerusalem is no accident. A humble king riding the foal of a donkey is not only the fulfillment of a prophecy from Zechariah (9:9), it is a sign of solidarity with the simple, with the poor, with those who bear the burdens that make life possible for others. The donkey is, after all, a simple creature, often called a beast of burden.  It is clear from the text that Jesus planned how he would enter the city; I imagine that after the bystanders were told what was happening, word of mouth started to spread and the grassroots organizing kicked in to plan the march. The stuff of this march was what folks could bring from home…cloaks and cut branches…simple things of the people, by the people, and for the people…

 

Historical studies suggest that another march was taking place on the other side of Jerusalem on the day Jesus arrived.  A carefully planned, well-funded military parade, complete with pomp and circumstance, banners flying and shining armor, mounted golden eagles and weapons glinting in the sun.[ii]  No donkey here, but rather mighty warhorses streaming in procession. According to scholars, “Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology…it was the standard practice of the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for the major Jewish festivals. They did so not out of empathetic reverence for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects, but to be in the city in case there was trouble. There often was, especially at Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire.”[iii]  

 

If we think that empire exists only in the texts of the Bible, the annals of ancient history, the mind of George Lucas, or the drama of Lucious and Cookie Lyon, we are not paying attention.  Empire may change faces over the centuries, but its contours remain consistent:

  • political oppression (ordinary people are manipulated and suppressed with little or no voice in shaping society)
  • economic exploitation (systems and policies keep the wealth flowing to the wealthy)
  • religious legitimation (religious leaders assert that the status quo reflects the will of God)[iv]

When voting is suppressed and propaganda goes unchecked, there is political oppression; when legislation favors the rich and money buys votes there is economic exploitation; when religious leaders hypocritically support people and policies that sanction cruelty and oppression there is religious legitimation.

 

I have lived all 48 years of my life in this country I love, a country that against all its best aspirations has been consistently if not increasingly imperial.  This is not a politically partisan statement.  Some leaders across disciplines and industries and parties have tried to resist and reform.  Not all folks with privilege, wealth, and power are all intentionally oppressive and exploitative.  My assertion is that the overarching dynamics, values, and systems that have evolved through human choices across time and have created in our day—as of old—the need for a face-off with the ruling, privileged classes.  So we see the peaceful protest vs. the militarized show of force; the traumatized children vs. the radicalized gun lobby; we see Emma González bearing the burden of that trauma, standing before the whole world for 6 minutes of silence as if to say with the biblical prophet, “Look upon the one whom they have pierced” (Zech. 12:10, Jn 19:37); we see T.C. Morrow faithfully walking forward year after year and presenting her life and ministry to a church that continues to say “no”…we see the already iconic image of Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge in the summer of 2016, calmly and proudly standing before a line of police in riot gear, her long dress gently blowing, her feet firmly planted, as two officers urgently approach as if afraid.  Across the ages, in this land and around the world, in one way or another, we see metaphorically the humble, burden-bearing donkey facing up to the powerful warhorse… We see the continued struggle between God’s kin-dom and earthly empire…

 

And out amid and beyond the crowds swarming at the dramatic events, we see those who are acting with kindness and generosity, who are doing the tasks that are literally “thankless,” who are being patient and present in the midst of flared passions and the misbehavior resulting from despair… If we are paying attention, we will see those unnamed, unsung public servants laboring in government and law enforcement who are trying to do the right thing; we’ll see teachers, school counselors and social workers trying to close the gaps of need, we’ll see journalists who keep at it even as others seek to discredit them, we’ll notice the ones who can’t turn out for the big, dramatic events because they can’t afford to take off work, the ones who bear the burdens of the tasks that make life bearable: trash collectors and those who clean the bathrooms (and all those port-a-potties!), food harvesters, packagers, and preparers, nurses and doctors and hospice staff, help desk staff and administrative assistants, and on and on it goes.

 

The dramatic face-off captured in iconic photos and unsung service by unnamed people are both sacred resistance insofar as those engaged seek to embody the way of God’s kin-dom.  That is our call—to stand for God’s way in the face of all that is not God’s way… To do that when others are looking and when no one but God sees.  We are called to see who and what is worth caring about, who and what is worth risking it all for. 

 

That’s what Jesus does for us.  Jesus has been #saying her name, his name, your name and mine forever.  Jesus, long ago and today, sees the faces of all the children—those living and dead—and knows their story.  

 

Today may seem like a day of dramatic gestures, but let’s be clear about what’s really going on.  Jesus doesn’t march into Jerusalem to call attention to himself or for the videos of the march to go viral.  Jesus rides into Jerusalem to say to those in power, “See Jairus’ daughter.  See Bartimaeus. See Jaelynn Willey and Nikolas Cruz, see Stephon Clark and his two young children. See the victims of gun violence in Newtown and the surviving students and families who carry scars. The victims of gun violence in Parkland and the survivors who carry scars.  See the families being ripped apart by inhumane deportation policies, those who are on the edge of losing their homes because they can’t find enough work, those who are spiraling into depression and addiction…”  Jesus rides into Jerusalem to challenge the violent ways of empire that leave beloved children vulnerable to trauma and starvation, that steal dignity and hope from those on the margins, that destroy God’s creation for economic gain; to challenge the forces of empire that think they can overpower or outspend the love and mercy of God.  Jesus came to remind those in places of religious influence to love God and to love their neighbor as themselves. 

 

Why does it seem radical to simply do the right thing?  Because the way of God’s kin-dom flies in the face of what gets sold to us as “just the way it is.” Sacred resistance is what Jesus embodied on this day all those years ago and sacred resistance is what is needed for the living of all our days.  It doesn’t mean you have to do anything dramatic. It only means that you have to take seriously your intention to follow Jesus who embodies the wild notion that kindness and care and tenderness and justice and friendship and solidarity and love are the things matter most of all.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Laura McBride, We Are Called to Rise, this excerpt was shared on FaceBook by a friend.

[ii][ii] Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 3.

[iii] Ibid., 2.

[iv] Ibid., 7-8.

00:0000:00

The Real Sin

March 18th, 2018

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, March 18, 2018, the fifth Sunday in Lent. “Dissonance” sermon series.

Texts: Psalm 51:1-12;  Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

 

 

“When God Ran…” It’s the provocative title of a duet I sang in church with my mother circa 1988… When God Ran…  Generally, we think of God as steadfast, a solid rock, never leaving nor forsaking, going ahead of us to guard and guide, an encircler and protector, ever present.  But there was a time when God ran. // “While [the son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” (Lk 15:20)  Jesus’ parable imbues the father with the characteristics of God—generosity, wisdom, steadfast love— and compassion that sends him running.  The father doesn’t turn away or run away. The father has been waiting and watching for any sign of his beloved child’s return and when the son appears, there is no hesitation—he runs toward his precious one and embraces him.

 

Today we have experienced the story of the prodigal and his brother for the fourth week in a row.  Over the course of our reflections, we’ve gazed upon the two sons—and more than a few of you have shared that you see yourself in one or both of them.  Henri Nouwen has been our companion on this Lenten journey and his insight reveals that both the younger and the elder son were disconnected from their true home.  The younger son intentionally wanders away and breaks all the rules; and the elder son is lost even though he’s remained close and labored to be the good son.  The home they struggle to find is that place where they can rest in the love of their father, that place where they can trust that they’ve always been loved—loved even when they were ungrateful, even when they were making terrible choices, even when they were cruel, even when resentment bubbled over, even when pride held them hostage.  In the midst of it all, home is waiting, God is watching for any sign of return…and God runs to the elder just as to the younger…God goes out to meet the one on the road and the other outside the feast, entreating each to enter into the love and joy and embrace of home.

 

Jesus tells this story with an open ending.  The invitation and embrace is offered, but we don’t get to hear how it all turns out.  The younger and the elder sons may yet fail to truly get home.  There remains an open end for us as well.  Are we willing to do what it takes to acknowledge and receive what is offered to us?  Everything hangs on our answer. 

 

Some weeks ago I shared in a sermon a moment in my life when I realized that I was lugging around all this guilt and shame like a weight, a burden I thought I had to carry forever as my punishment for terrible things I’ve done.  Through the grace of God and a good spiritual director I began to release that burden and to move a little closer toward home, toward the freedom that awaits when we can trust that God’s love and compassion are more powerful than even our worst transgressions.  It still stuns me to realize just how unaware I was that I was clinging to all that garbage, all those self-punishing thoughts and feelings.  Guilt and shame are sneaky and sinister temptations.  We get so attached to them—or they to us, like parasites…guilt and shame can start to feel like part of who we are—even though they’re not.  I believe Nouwen is correct when he says that “one of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness.”[i] 

 

It seems to me there are lots of reasons for that.  First of all, as in my case, we may not even realize that we’re rejecting forgiveness!  Maybe we can’t or won’t admit that we’ve done anything that needs forgiving.  Perhaps we can’t imagine ever being able to forgive someone who did what we did—and so we can’t forgive ourselves and don’t believe anyone else should either.  Maybe we think there needs to be some penalty paid for what we’ve done and being forgiven by God seems like cheap grace.  But those ways of thinking fail to account for the way repentance and forgiveness work.  God desires our freedom from those things that bind us, that hold us hostage, that keep us from living and loving fully and entering into the joy of home.  To repent and receive forgiveness are paths toward that freedom!  And real repentance and forgiveness will mean not only seeing our fault and feeling regret, but—with the help of God (and often the help of other people!)— changing our ways.  In some ways, it’s easier to keep lugging around all that guilt or to be punished and believe that buys you time to keep on living the same way.  William Sloane Coffin said, “It’s hell to be guilty, but it’s worse to be responsible.”[ii]  And the invitation is to step into the freedom of a new way of being, a new way of loving, a new place of trust and generosity—both toward yourself and toward others.  You are invited to take responsibility for yourself, to take yourself seriously, to see the truth that you matter and that you are worth more than a small life bound up with shame and self-loathing and self-destructive behavior. You are invited to grow up, to see yourself not only as a child, identifying with the younger or elder son, but also to begin to identify with the father. Growing up is the goal—growing in wisdom, vision, patience, courage, and love…being and becoming more like God our father and our mother. The elder son is reminded explicitly: “all that I have is yours.”  All the grace, all the steadfast commitment and care, all the generosity…all these gifts are yours for you are God’s beloved child.  And any loving parent wants to see her child grow up and develop the gifts within them; God desires that you grow up into the version of your life that most fully reflects God’s own.

 

Such an assertion may seem absurd to you.  In fact, a primary obstacle for many of us on the journey home is a deep sense of insecurity and lack of self-worth.  This is often the thing at the heart of alienation in the first place.  Perhaps the thing that has led to addiction or betrayal or debilitating secrets, or violence, or prideful defenses, or hardness of heart—whatever it is that keeps you from going “home”—is a conviction that you are not worthy of love or care, that you are not capable of bravery or creativity or responsibility, that no one would ever be proud of you.  This may have been beaten into you physically, emotionally, or spiritually through the actions of broken people in your life.  Or it may have seeped into you through the manipulations of empire with its consumer economy relentlessly insisting that you need this or that product or experience in order to be cool, attractive, healthy, powerful, or important.  We waste so much time chasing after things that will not satisfy the deep longing at our core.

 

This is not a new phenomenon.  In the 6th century, BCE, the prophet known as Second Isaiah wrote:

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?...
Incline your ear, and come to me;
    listen, so that you may live. (Isaiah 55:2-3)

 

Saint Augustine in the 4th century of the Common Era famously prayed these words to God: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee…”

 

In the 14th century CE, English Anchoress and mystic, Julian of Norwich wrote, “we do not know our God who is almighty, all wise and all good… God wishes to be known, and it pleases [God] that we should rest in [God]; for everything which is beneath [God] is not sufficient for us."

 

In 1980 CE, country singer Johnny Lee recorded a classic for the “Urban Cowboy” soundtrack that included these lyrics, “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places, lookin’ for love in too many faces, searchin’ their eyes, and lookin’ for traces of what I’m dreamin’ of…”

 

Throughout the ages, we look for our deepest needs to be met in things that are not God—we look to products and substances, other people, and our own force of will—and in so doing, we stay at a distance from the source of all we need.  We go in search of that which we think will fix us or help us get right or strong; we go in search of meaning, of satisfaction, of love, even of God—and our search itself can become its own idol.  It’s not our search that matters most of all; God’s search for us is what makes the difference; and God is always already looking for us. 

 

God runs out to you wherever you are and invites you to receive and affirm what is real:  that God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it…that God sees not only your faults, but also your inherent worth—not because of anything you say or do or prove, but simply because you are YOU.  Nouwen contends that when we think of sin we generally focus on our faults and failings but, he says, “the real sin is to deny God’s first love for [you], to ignore [your] original goodness.”[iii]  Does anyone really love me?  Does anyone really care?  How can I keep from being hurt and rejected again?  What if I fail or disappoint or relapse, will I lose the love that’s been given?  These concerns reveal the ways we struggle to trust God’s presence and love. “The parable of the prodigal son is a story that speaks about a love that existed before any rejection was possible and that will still be there after all rejections have taken place. It is the first and everlasting love of a God who is Father as well as Mother.  It is the fountain of all true human love, even the most limited.  Jesus’ whole life and preaching had only one aim: to reveal this inexhaustible, unlimited motherly and fatherly love of his God and to show the way to let that love guide every part of our daily lives…It is the love that always welcomes home and always wants to celebrate.”[iv]

 

God is always watching, ready to run to you and welcome you home.  The story is unfinished.  Will you reject God’s love and deny your original goodness?  Or will you allow yourself to be found by God, to be known by God, to be loved by God?  Everything hangs on your answer.

 

 

 

[i][i] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 53.

[ii] William Sloane Coffin, Credo, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 18.

[iii] Ibid., 107.

[iv] Ibid., 108-109.

00:0000:00

Bound

March 11th, 2018

Sunday, March 11, 2018 

Preacher: Senior Pastor Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli

Sermon: "Bound"

Texts: Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22;  Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

 

Dissonance is a mingling of discordant sounds, a lack of harmony among musical notes. And during this Lenten season at Foundry, we are exploring the dissonance, the lack of harmony, caused by human choices and ways of being. In the traditional language of the church, we’re talking about sin.  Using the parable of the prodigal and his brother, we’ve explored things like being led astray by temptations and the destructive effects of ingratitude and resentment.  The goal of our reflections through this series is not simply to name things that make us feel bad.  The goal is to acknowledge that there are things we need to change—to repent of—in our lives so that we might be more free.  As I said on the first Sunday of the season, “Repentance is meant not to bind us or make us shrink in fear.  Repentance is the path to freedom, the path to living with courage and assurance!...To repent…is to…trust that walking in the way of God’s kin-dom will lead us not only to closer relationship with God, but will set us free to live, really live our lives and, in so doing, to love and serve other people as well.”

 

Confession and repentance is about liberation from those things that bind us, that keep us living smaller and less loving lives than the lives we’re made for. The past couple of weeks, we’ve looked first at the younger son in the parable and then the elder son.  Today, we’ll reflect on both of them and on one of the things they seem to have in common: pride.  The pride they share is not the healthy kind of pride that allows us to acknowledge our own true gifts, strengths, identity, and God-created nature. The pride they share causes dissonance; its the kind of pride that prances across the world stage and hides out in homes both simple and lavish, leading to tragedy, alienation, and senseless violence.  The pride the two sons share is the pride that leads us to deceive ourselves, to mask our faults, to hide our fears.  Carl Jung, said that even when this pride is most active, “deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune.”[i]  Dissonance…

 

The brash young son probably felt free as he set out for a distant land.  After all, hadn’t he chosen to seek a home somewhere else?  Hadn't he gotten what he wanted and wasn’t he living on his own terms now?  But is he really free?  What we sometimes think of as freedom—that rock & roll attitude that “I’m free to do what I want any old time”—is in truth not freedom at all, but rather a trap. Selfish pride is deceiving and leads us to make choices that are destructive to ourselves and to others.  Who wants a freedom that means losing everyone and everything that really matters? When this son hits rock bottom, starving, an outsider in his current surroundings, broke, alone except for the pigs, he sees just how his perceived freedom has led him to a prison of alienation.  He has gotten attention from others so long as he had something to offer, but when he is no longer useful to them, he is ignored and given even less than the pigs.  From this place of isolation and suffering, any human might experience the whole world as dark and menacing and cold and untrustworthy.  The son perhaps begins to think that he has never really been loved by anyone. But then he “came to his senses.”  Many translations say, “He came to himself”... maybe that's who he was running away from in the beginning.  We don’t really know of course.  But in this moment, he remembers where he can turn; and turn he does.  But his return is shrouded in ambiguity; for while he journeys back to the house of his father, he still has a long way to go to reach “home”—that is to acknowledge and trust that his father loves him. 

 

The late priest and teacher, Henri Nouwen describes this saying, “There is repentance, but not a repentance in the light of the immense love of a forgiving God. It is a self-serving repentance that offers the possibility of survival…It is like saying: ‘Well, I couldn’t make it on my own, I have to acknowledge that God is the only resource left to me. I will go to God and ask for forgiveness in the hope that I will receive a minimal punishment and be allowed to survive on the condition of hard labor.’ God remains a harsh, judgmental God.  It is this God who makes me feel guilty and worried and calls up in me all these self-serving apologies.  Submission to this God does not create true inner freedom, but breeds only bitterness and resentment.  One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness.”[ii]

 

The late pastor and preacher William Sloane Coffin says that “guilt is the last stronghold of pride. ‘Guilty’ represents my opinion of myself. ‘Forgiven’ may represent yours or God’s opinion, and I’m too proud to let others do for me what I cannot do for myself.”[iii]  The younger son, in his carefully crafted confession speech, reveals that he still sees himself as guilty, as someone who should be treated as a hired hand, not as someone who is loved, forgiven, and set free to live a new life.  When he shows up at home, he is clinging to his pride, his sense of self-determination and self-sufficiency, his insistence that he knows what he is (guilty! unworthy!), the sense that it’s up to him to find freedom and life.  He appears, too proud to let his father forgive him when he can’t figure out how to forgive himself.

 

The elder son, though always at his father’s house is in his own prison of alienation, a duty-bound place, a place where resentment and self-righteous pride make it easy to waste energy on constant comparisons, of sizing everyone up against his own hard work; that work evidently has become shrouded in its own ambiguity.  Perhaps initially driven by a sense of healthy responsibility and good intentions, it is now described—is it a Freudian slip?—as working like a slave.  In that moment, we see that this son, too, has not claimed the freedom that is his.  He isn't freely choosing to work for his father out of love.  Instead, he is bound by his sense of duty and a feeling of being trapped.  This bondage keeps him from entering into the celebration that engulfs his household at his brother’s return.  

 

He is outside in the dark, seemingly unaware that he needs to be forgiven anything.  He’s the oppressed one here, the overlooked one, the one who deserves everything and hasn’t gotten his!  The elder son holds on to self-righteousness, perhaps out of a sense that it’s not OK to trust someone else’s perspective or actions—even his father’s—since it’s really only him that gets what is real and “right” and “giving in” would be a sign of weakness.  This son is held captive by his pride.  He can’t see anything but himself and his grievances.  He can’t see his brother.  He cannot acknowledge or receive the love of his father.  Like his younger brother, he doesn’t trust that his father loves him and always has.

 

Pride—the kind that is twisted into control and selfishness—is a primary obstacle to both the sons in the story. For both of them, their pride and their clinging to self-motivated and self-focused ways of seeing the world keep them from being able to fully receive what is so clearly offered: the love and compassion of their father.  Pride bars them from really arriving home, home understood as the all-embracing love of God.  Pride can hold us hostage, too. 

 

Where does pride and an overactive, unhealthy self-sufficiency get in the way of your return “home”?  Can you hear the still, small voice deep within you that points to where there is dissonance, where something is out of tune, where pride is deceptively holding you hostage?

 

Listen…look…real freedom awaits.  The all-embracing love of God calls you home.

 

 

[i] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/pride

[ii][ii] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 52-53.

[iii] William Sloane Coffin, Credo, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 16.

00:0000:00

Lost at Home

March 4th, 2018

Lost at Home

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, March 4, 2018, the third Sunday in Lent. “Dissonance” sermon series.

Text: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

 

I have a tendency to get lost. My discombobulated sense of direction is legendary among those who know me best. I get turned around if I go in one door of a building and exit another. My college friends laugh at how I’d get lost in our then small, university town of Georgetown, TX. In the days prior to a soothing mechanical voice on my phone guiding me to my destination, the struggle was real.  I’ve been told I’d figure out a way to get lost even at home.

 

That’s where we find the elder son in the parable today:  lost at home.  Unlike his younger brother, this son is not prone to wander, has stayed home, has nurtured his “type A” tendencies, has followed the rules, has gotten it right, has done everything he could to please, to be the good son, to do what was asked, to produce and achieve and succeed.  How could he be lost when he likely is praised and respected by many in his community?  This son never ran off or strayed from the righteous path. So why would anyone suggest that he is lost?

 

The late priest and teacher Henri Nouwen describes home as “the center of my being where I can hear the voice [of God] that says, ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.’”[i]  When the elder son returns from his work in the fields to find a party underway for his deadbeat, profligate brother, the exchange he has with his father is telling. The father uses an affectionate term in addressing his eldest son:  teknon, my child, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (Lk 15:31)  But the elder son’s initial response reveals that even though he’s stayed at the house where he was raised, he is lost—that is, he doesn’t know where he is—he doesn’t acknowledge the voice of love for him or the gifts always available and already sustaining him.  He’s at his house, but he doesn’t know he’s also home, loved, provided for, and favored by his father.  He’s already got what he needs, but is looking for something else to prove and affirm his worth. “Don’t you see how hard I’ve worked and how I’ve done all the right things and never given you cause to suffer because of me?  Don’t you think your ability to throw such a lavish party even after wasting your money on that son of yours is because of how hard I have worked to make this place successful? Where’s my barbecue?”

 

Jesus tells this parable in response to the grumbling and disapproval of the “good people”—the Pharisees and scribes, the rule followers, those who are trying so hard to follow God’s wisdom and way. These good folk are concerned that Jesus fraternizes with people of questionable reputation. Ostensibly this concern is because the religious purity laws were clear that to eat and drink with—and even to touch—such folk was against the rules.  So these saints of the church stand outside the halls of feasting and dancing where “those people” seem carefree and are having all the fun and are getting the attention the good folks crave.  And I imagine many try to do the right thing; maybe they even try to be understanding and gracious; but they still find themselves angry and judgey and grumbling, despite themselves.

 

Jesus’ allegory in the parable presses gently but firmly upon those who want to do good—all the rule-following “elder sons.”  Anyone here have something in common with the elder son?  I, of course, don’t care at all about doing the right thing or being faithful, successful, or liked 😉.  I know so many in this beloved community have worked hard to be faithful, honest, gracious, helpful, committed, loving, patient—doing the work of discipleship for so many years—serving on committees and in kitchens, taking to the streets and kneeling with children in classrooms, rehearsing in choirs, befriending the homeless and poor, and rearranging portfolios in order to make an impactful gift… Does anyone see?  Does anyone remember?  Why all the attention given to these latecomers?  Am I taken for granted?  Where’s my barbecue? 

 

No one here may ever consciously have any of these thoughts or feelings—Lord knows no one wants to!  And, by the way, it is perfectly reasonable and healthy to need acknowledgement and affirmation in community and in relationship when we are working so hard to be a good friend, a good team member, a good partner, a good spouse, a good daughter or son.  But there is that thing that can so easily sneak in and wreak havoc on our spirits, our perspective, our relationships.  //

 

That thing is resentment. Webster defines resentment as “a feeling of indignant displeasure or persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or injury.”  Resentment is one of the most destructive realities in human relationship.  What may start as a benign awareness of some need that hasn’t been met or righteous anger at a real injustice can (unchecked) grow into a deadly habit, poisoning our perspective so that we unconsciously lie in wait for the moment we are injured or insulted again; then that injury fuels the growing resentment. This nasty cycle happens in all kinds of relationships—friendships, work relationships, marriages, sibling relationships, and relationship between parent and child.  One psychologist writes about resentment as an impolite house guest who comes in and never knows when to leave.[ii]  Resentment kills relationships.  It can be very powerful. 

 

Resentment can worm its way into even the most loving people, the most generous people, those trying hardest to do the right things. I am humbled by the witness of the late Henri Nouwen, the lifelong practitioner of the Christian faith, priest, pastor, and teacher. Nouwen writes about his own struggle with resentment saying, “Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being.  My resentment is not something that can be easily distinguished and dealt with rationally.  It is far more pernicious: something that has attached itself to the underside of my virtue…At the very moment I want to speak or act out of my most generous self, I get caught in anger or resentment. And it seems that just as I want to be most selfless, I find myself obsessed about being loved.  Just when I do my utmost to accomplish a task well, I find myself questioning why others do not give themselves as I do.  Just when I think I am capable of overcoming my temptations, I feel envy toward those who gave in to theirs.  It seems that wherever my virtuous self is, there also is the resentful complainer.”[iii]

 

Perhaps your issues aren’t Nouwen’s, but his insight is powerful.  When we’re trying to do the right thing, to be kind, generous, responsible—precisely then resentment can arise.  That’s the elder son’s story.  And it is often mine.  When I work and work without creating adequate rest or play time, I can get resentful of others who seem to be having all the fun! (like on Friday when Pastor Dawn texts me a picture of her food from Carolina Kitchen while I was still at the computer late in the day writing—who cares that Friday is her Sabbath??)  And why do the dogs favor Anthony when I’m the one getting up at the crack of dawn when the puppy wakes up?  Maybe you know what it’s like when you’re working so hard at home or at work and feel taken for granted.  Who sees how hard I’m working?  Where’s my Carolina Kitchen? Where’s my feast?

 

It seems there are at least a couple of things we can say or do about the resentments we hold. First, we might try to identify what it is that we really need and then ask for that.  If you need acknowledgement of your work, an explanation of why something happened, a renegotiation of household duties, help with a task, try asking.  I wonder whether the elder son ever thought to ask his father whether they could have a party to celebrate a good harvest or other fruits of his hard work.  It’s also helpful to try to consider what’s going on with the person who may be the focus of your resentment and pray for the grace to have compassion.  Some resentments grow out of deeper or old places of hurt, loss, or lack, and it’s impossible to ask for anything that would satisfy the original injury.  In that case, the thing to consider is forgiveness, difficult as that always is…  But letting go of whatever fuels resentment is so important if we ever want to truly find our way home.

 

Regardless of where you are today along that journey, God’s voice remains steadfast saying: “Teknon, my child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  My precious child, I see you, I know how hard you are working, I know how hard you are trying.  I am always present and waiting to share with you what you need; you are the Beloved, on you my favor rests.”  Resentment keeps us from receiving this gift, from acknowledging that we dwell in God’s love and favor, that we have been there all along.

 

There was a feast underway, a great celebration of love and grace and restored relationship, and the elder son refused to go in.  There’s a feast here today, a great celebration of love and grace and restored relationship.  It’s not just for others.  It’s for you.  Because wherever you are on the journey, you are HOME.

 

 

 

[i] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 37.

[ii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-forgiving-life/201703/why-resentment-lasts-and-how-defeat-it

[iii] Nouwen, 75-76.

00:0000:00