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Can Enemies Become Friends?

May 5th, 2019

Can Enemies Become Friends?

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC May 5, 2019, the third Sunday of Easter. “Questions Along The Way” series.

 Text: Acts 9: 1-20

 

What is your definition of “enemy”? As I thought about it, I realized from just how many perspectives and contexts we may come at our question today. Enemies may be groups, or individuals. Enemies may be persons who have done harm to loved ones or to us directly. Enemies may be bullies or those who threaten us. The threat might be to bodies (physical harm) or even to ideologies or ways of life. Enemies may also be personal things with which we struggle—spiritual, physical, or emotional (“depression is the enemy”). We may see others as enemies because of who they are, what they say, or what they do.

 

It’s common across cultures and centuries for people to grow up being told a story about “those people” as our enemies—that family, town, religion, race, tribe, nation…  All the deep-seated and systemic human “isms” and phobias fuel enemy-making movements.  What all this has in common is that anything or anyone deemed an enemy, we’re against.

 

For those of us who’ve spent some time in the Gospel stories and teachings of Jesus, you will know that some of the most radical words Jesus spoke are these: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28)  And, as usual, Jesus walks the talk. He didn’t allow violence to be done against those who were threatening violence to him. Jesus prayed for mercy and forgiveness for those who killed him—not after he was all new lifey on the other side of death, but while he was dying. The shock and challenge of this teaching of Jesus never really eases, even after all these years.  It’s hard.  I mean, we struggle to even comprehend what it means to love a neighbor—remember the one who wanted Jesus to give him some kind of justification for loving only certain people? (Lk 10:29ff.)  Jesus followed with a story of a despised—enemy—Samaritan caring for the wounded one along the road. Jesus wasn’t playing.

 

Our story from Acts today focuses on a known enemy of those who “belonged to the Way” of Jesus. (Acts 9:2)  Saul of Tarsus was like the KKK Grand Master of his time and place except instead of racial violence (justified by a perverse claim to Christianity), his violence focused on the followers of Jesus’ Way of life (driven by a twisted version of his Jewish identity).  Saul first appears in the story giving approval of the stoning of Stephen for his witness to Jesus (Acts 7:58); and is then described as “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women,” and committing “them to prison.” (Acts 8:3)  Saul is a known killer, a nasty piece of work, the villain of the story. Today’s story recounts Saul traveling to Damascus, some sixty miles from Jerusalem, to hunt down people of the Way who live there.

 

As Saul makes the journey, the storyteller gives us several common literary cues to know that God is up to something—it’s like the background music in a film that lets you know to brace yourself.  We get three classics:  “suddenly a light from heaven flashed,” Saul “fell to the ground,” and a voice speaks using the double name address: “Saul, Saul.”  This is all serious God stuff!  The voice is that of Jesus who doesn’t condemn Saul, but simply asks the question: Why?  Why are you doing these terrible things? 

 

I want to pause for just a moment with this question Jesus asks: Why? Why do we persecute one another?  Why do we seem to intent on nursing our grievance or prejudice or defensiveness against others?  Is it fear?  Revenge for some slight or injury from the past? The need to exert control over others or to make ourselves feel better than others?  These are questions that could be asked at any time throughout human history.  The days in which we live are extraordinary insofar as it’s not only the normal interpersonal stuff or the current, obvious divisions and heinous injustices that stir the pot.  There’s a new dynamic I’m unable to concisely define, but that I perceive with growing regularity and intensity.  My sense is that it grows out of the shattered public trust in just about anything coupled with great anxiety.  I’ve spoken to folks who do counseling and coaching across both religious and secular communities who are finding that even folks who are on the same team for good purposes are turning on one another in ways that are disturbing. So-called liberals or progressives have been great at this for a long time. It is worse than ever. We’re not just dealing with the question of whether enemies may become friends, but whether friends will keep from becoming enemies.  I hear Jesus asking, “Why?? And—while I’m asking, why are people who claim my name among the worst perpetrators of hateful judgment and persecution?” 

 

In our story, Jesus who endured all the worst human nastiness and violence and returned to assure us that God’s love remains steadfast even so—that is the one who appears to Saul.  I find it curious that the only direction Saul is given is to get up, continue to his destination, and trust that someone will tell him what all this is about.  He follows instructions even though he is”—literally and figuratively—“in the dark” for three full days.  Maybe, through this divine encounter, Saul realized those he was killing might be telling the truth about Jesus after all.  Maybe, in the light of Jesus’ presence and question, Saul became aware of the absurdity and shame of his hatred and violence.  Maybe Saul was changed because the one he was persecuting appeared to him without revenge or judgment, but with grace and an invitation to a new possibility for life. Whatever it was, Saul’s journey may have continued to Damascus but it was an entirely new path.

 

Saul isn’t the only one, however, who was called to do something confusing and life-changing in this story. In a vision, Jesus visited Ananias, a disciple who lived in Damascus, and told him to go and minister to the infamous persecutor, Saul of Tarsus. And not only that, but Ananias learns that Saul—who hunts down and does in followers of the Way—has seen in a vision his face and knows his name! (Acts 9:12) That alone would have made many seek cover. But Ananias fulfills the call of Jesus and crosses enemy lines. Ananias shows up in both vulnerability and power. He knows what Saul has done, knows what Saul could do to him and those he cares about; but the call and presence of the living Christ gives him power to be both brave and compassionate in this moment. Saul had set out to do violence against Ananias and instead of running away or hiding or—worse—doing violence to Saul, Ananias brings restoration and healing for his enemy.

 

Human community, history, international relations, and interpersonal relationships are complex and full of nuance. There’s no simple or singular answer to our question today of whether enemies can become friends. I might venture to say that sometimes enemies can become friends.  But even when it is not possible for an enemy to be a friend, the call is still to love.  And, as a reminder, that doesn’t mean having warm, positive feelings about the enemy.  It does mean, at a minimum, doing no harm to them.  Sometimes, it may mean doing some good.

 

What we learn from our story today is that the call of love and compassion, so perfectly embodied in Jesus, has a way of setting us on new paths of relationship and reconciliation. Sometimes this may take dramatic form—as with Saul and Ananias or like the well-documented stories of victims of violent crimes becoming friends with the incarcerated person who committed the harmful act.[i]  But I imagine most of the time, our experience will be much smaller in scale, though no less life-changing.  Because when we are able—by God’s grace and mercy—to release our hatred or anger or defensiveness or prejudice toward someone and move toward reconciliation, our lives change.  It’s like a cleansing, a healing, a liberation.  It just feels better—body and soul.

 

What we learn as we travel the Way of Jesus is that we are not created to be against one another, but rather designed to live with and for one another.  Why is that so difficult?

 

 

 

[i] http://www.unlikelyfriendsforgive.com/about

When is Disobedience Faithful?

April 28th, 2019

When Is Disobedience Faithful?

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC April 28, 2019, the second Sunday of Easter. “Questions Along The Way” series.

Text: Acts 5:27-32

As we turn a corner into a new stretch of spiritual road—from the Lenten journey to what our tradition calls “The Great Fifty Days of Easter—we are jumping into the book called “The Acts of the Apostles” or “Acts” for short. This book is part two of the Gospel according to Luke.  It was written by the same author, provides the sequel to Jesus’ life, and is a narrative about the early experiences of the communities formed in the way of life taught and modeled by Jesus.  These early followers of Jesus were known as people of “The Way.”  Something you might consider between now and the end of the Great Fifty Days (June 9th) is to read Luke and Acts as you would any short(ish) story. If you’d like some occasional reflections on the texts, check out the CEB Women’s Bible—I wrote the introductions and reflections for these two books in that volume. Through that work, I came to more fully appreciate the way that Acts—Part II—is unfinished. It’s like a movie that ends on a cliffhanger that never gets resolved. I’m pretty sure this is intentional, since the author of Luke and Acts is a skilled storyteller. The point seems to be that the story is still getting written, chapter after chapter written through the lives of followers of The Way from the time of the original apostles up until today…

 

In order to set today’s text’s showdown between the apostles and that sect of the Sadducees in proper context, let me highlight a bit of what has transpired before.  The Acts of the Apostles begins with Jesus still among the people. Before he leaves, he orders them to stay in Jerusalem and gives them this promise/commission:  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The apostles and key women leaders do as they are instructed, and in Jerusalem on the day of the Jewish festival of Pentecost, Jesus’ promise is realized: God’s Spirit descends upon them, enlivening them and empowering them to be brave and bold in proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ liberating love and resurrection.

 

The story continues as Peter preaches boldly about Jesus’ life and resurrection and calls people to repent—to turn away from deathly things and toward life in God. The apostles are reported as accomplishing signs and wonders and the people as living together in disciplined and peaceful mutuality (Acts 2:43-47). People flock to the apostles seeking healing—and they receive it! The ruling classes become concerned about this message of new life and liberation that is mobilizing the people and so they bring Peter and John in for questioning.  The story makes the point that the political power brokers saw Peter and John were “uneducated and ordinary” men and were amazed that these were the people responsible for what was happening. (Acts 4:13) The followers of The Way of Jesus are doing radical things like not claiming private ownership of anything, but sharing their possessions to care for the needs of all the members of the community. (Acts 4:32-35)

 

Throughout all of this, the message is that it is not the apostles themselves accomplishing signs and wonders, but God at work through them. They were being obedient to The Way of Jesus, they were making themselves available, staying close to God through prayer, stepping out with boldness, and allowing the life-giving power of God to flow through their lives for the good of others. They were telling the story of Jesus—of his life, his unjust death, and his resurrection—and were calling upon the name of Jesus to bring liberation and healing to people who cried out for care.

 

This leads the apostles to be put in prison. But the story goes that during the night an angel of God (literally “messenger”) snuck them out during the night and told them to “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.” (Acts 5:20)

 

This brings us to our story today. Certain leaders within the religious establishment had given orders—they had perhaps even passed legislation—outlawing the invocation of Jesus’ name and the proclamation of Jesus’ teaching.  But Peter and the others were clear that no human decree would keep them from obeying the word and Way of Jesus. They were commissioned by Jesus to be his witnesses and they were empowered by the Spirit to do just that. And so they proclaim, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”  Their disobedience almost got them killed, but thanks to the intercession of a wise Pharisee named Gamaliel, they were flogged and released.  The story ends with them rejoicing that they were deemed worthy to suffer for the sake of the name of Jesus. (I’m not suggesting an equivalency, but I remember the way I felt when the folks from Westboro Baptist gleefully spat hateful words at me every time I walked past them outside General Conference in St. Louis. I literally rejoiced when they called me a “nasty woman!”). The last line of this story reads, “Every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.” (Acts 5:42) From the beginning right through to the end of the book of Acts, those who follow The Way of Jesus refuse to be silenced by persecution.

 

Now all this can be easily coopted by persons or groups from a variety of perspectives. As one biblical scholar says, the idea of obeying God rather than the will of human beings is an important principle, but “has a bad and a good history.  Some of the problems facing the world today arise from people’s conviction that they need to obey God—and not listen to reason or see the effects of their actions. On the other hand, some of the world’s problems also arise because people obey the dictates generated by the interests around them instead of by what, before God, they know is right. Getting people to see and do what is right remains extraordinarily difficult—both at a personal and at a political level.”[i] 

 

Our debates over “religious liberty” fall firmly in this territory. (To bake or not to bake?) And certainly our current situation in the United Methodist Church lives here as well.  There are those who think that obedience to God means excluding LGBTQ persons from ordination and covenant marriage.  There are those who may be sympathetic—and may even desire full inclusion for LGBTQ persons—but who believe obeying the human crafted rules in the Book of Discipline is the faithful thing to do.  Others may be uncomfortable with breaking the rules or the agreement made at ordination, but feel compelled to do so because prayerful discernment leads them to believe that some rules are in conflict with the word and Way of Jesus. This is the grounding for the sacred resistance movement Bishop Mel Talbert coined as “Biblical Obedience.”  

 

The latter is where I—and we at Foundry—clearly stand. We are not called, commissioned, and empowered by Spirit to be witnesses to harmful church law. We are called, commissioned, and empowered by Spirit to be witnesses to the power of God poured out upon ALL flesh (Acts 2:17), the liberating power of Jesus working through ALL those who God calls (Acts 2:39), and the life-giving power of God’s love for all God’s beloved children. 

 

The thing is, figuring out how to be obedient to God’s Way of life and love isn’t always clear. Breaking rules, engaging in civil or ecclesiastical disobedience, and practicing sacred resistance—all of this requires discernment. It isn’t something to be taken lightly. When is disobedience faithful? 

 

As people of The Way of Jesus, it makes sense for us to look at Jesus’ teaching as the model.  My shorthand for this:  God loves the world. God desires life to flourish, God heeds the cries of the suffering, and always works for good in the world. God empowers us to participate in caring for the life of the world. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus embodied all of this in his life on earth and in his death on the cross.  Jesus’ obedience to God’s law of love and justice set him in opposition—disobedience—to the human laws that literally and figuratively stole life from people—and ultimately stole his human life. 

 

We are called to be witnesses and to obey Jesus, the crucified one. And this means that we identify with those who are “crucified” in our own day—the innocent victims, the scapegoats, the ones crying out for justice. As another scholar says, when “the powerful of the world have gone too far…When the powerless are victimized—whether this means powerless people or powerless creatures of any sort, and whether this means physical victimization or more subtle types of oppression—then the faithful church resists.[ii]

 

It is obedience to the crucified one that helps us stand firm as we disobey harmful church law and participate in actions that disrupt the unjust status quo in our civic and political life.  It is our obedience to the crucified one that fuels our proclamation that it is faithful to disobey any voice that tries to convince you that you are not beautiful and beloved, that you are less than someone else, that you’re a “nobody,” that you don’t matter, that you don’t have something to offer, that you deserve to be treated as a second-class citizen or second-class church member.

 

As I was thinking about our topic for today, a line from one of our prayers of confession kept floating through my mind:  “Free us for joyful obedience.”  And then I thought of the early followers of Jesus rejoicing even when their obedience to God meant disobedience to the earthly powers and how that, in turn, led to persecution and violence against them.

 

Those early followers of The Way were filled with Spirit and with love and with boldness and with courage. They, like Jesus, wouldn’t be controlled by the powers that denied healing, liberation and new life for those on the margins, for the suffering, and oppressed.  These weren’t superheroes who worked wonders of God’s love. They were “uneducated and ordinary.” They were people like you and me who prayed together, studied together, shared their resources with one another and with those in need, dealt with conflict and challenge together, ate together, and then—having discerned the best they could—stepped out into the world to disobey anything that was counter to The Way of Jesus, no matter the consequence. May we write the next chapter in that story…

 

 

 

 

[i] William Loader, http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/CActsEaster2.htm

[ii] Douglas John Hall, The Confessing Church, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996, p. 133

Breaking Into Life

April 21st, 2019

 Breaking Into Life

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday.

Text: Luke 24:1-12 

 

When someone dies our expectation is that they will stay dead.  And when they are dead and buried, it is our custom to return to the burial place, the place of death.  We care for the grave, perhaps we bring flowers, or stones, signs of honor and remembrance.  At dawn, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James came looking for a dead body to anoint, came to care for the old expectation.  They would have been deeply weary on that early morning, worn out from the events of the previous weeks and from grief.  They would have expected nothing more than a sealed tomb, Jesus’ dead body, and the slow but certain return of business as usual.  That would mean no more hopeful speculation about relief from the imperial powers or talk of the Kin-dom of God breaking in, promising dignity and justice for all (even them). Business as usual would be the familiar sense of powerlessness, of being invisible, and maybe some nagging sense of how foolish they’d been for getting their hopes up.  Nothing is going to change.  Same old, same old… // 

 

Like the women on that first Easter morning, pain in our personal lives or the overwhelming brokenness of our society and world may lead us onto a familiar path of hopelessness, of expecting nothing more than the same old cycles of suffering, greed, exploitation, violence and death.  Our cynicism and fear and exhaustion and grief—our experience of the world that disappoints us over and again—all this tempts us to trot back again and again to the familiar place, the stuck place, the place of death. This can look many different ways: self-medication that leads to addictions, losing ourselves in soul-killing work, maintaining habits that isolate and depress us, doing nothing to change relationships that are stagnant or abusive, doing the same thing again and again expecting a different outcome, obsessing over things that do not give life or joy, and on and on it goes.  We know how to run ourselves into the ground.  We know the paths to the grave quite well.  Poet Wendell Berry says, “The question before me, now that I / am old, is not how to be dead, / which I know from enough practice, / but how to be alive…”[i]

 

How to be alive is the question.

 

The story we tell today gives us some clues to the answer. When the women arrived in the grave, they encountered something unexpected, something altogether new.  Not only is the stone rolled away, but the tomb is empty!  And then, two well-dressed men show up saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  Things are getting seriously weird now. But all signs in this moment point to the astonishing notion that Jesus is not dead. Jesus must know how to be alive—even when all the worst-case scenarios have not only happened but landed solidly upon his body and mind and heart. How does Jesus live after all that he endured?

 

I have been meditating on a part of the narrative that comes before the women’s arrival at the tomb as I ponder the wonder of Jesus’ resurrected life.  I imagine that many of us think of resurrection as something fairly simple—like waking up after a nap, a painless, easy stroll into a life filled with beauty and goodness. But consider these words of poet, Denise Levertov who writes:

… there must take place that struggle
no human presumes to picture:
living, dying, descending to rescue the just
from shadow, were lesser travails
than this: to break
through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud; to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that if mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home.[ii]

 

This makes me consider that, for Jesus, resurrection was perhaps more difficult than dying.  Far from a simple, painless getting up and stepping out, I think of how hard it would be for Jesus to choose to return to us when all he wanted to do was go home, to break through “earth and stone of the faithless world” that had rejected and killed him, to travel back through the acutely painful memory of shroud and tomb, to be “closed into days and weeks again” with his world-inflicted wounds gaping for everyone to see—in some ways more vulnerable and exposed than ever.

 

This shifts my perception of resurrection. And let me be clear: the resurrection I’m focusing on today is not the resurrection that happens “when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease,” though that is certainly a glorious part of the Easter promise. The resurrection I’m inviting us to consider today is the day-in/day-out question of how to be alive, of how to break out of the daily, deathly temptations to apathy and cynicism and fear and hatred and rage and selfishness and addiction and isolation and emotional numbness.  To break out of death is to break into life.  And what Levertov’s image offers is a reminder that breaking into life—at least if Jesus is our guide—is not a walk in the park.

 

Why did Jesus do it? For the same reason Jesus did everything: LOVE.  It might have been the hardest thing he did to break through and to come back to us, but Jesus did it freely out of love.  He must have known that we needed his return if we were to have any chance of breaking out of death ourselves. Otherwise, we’d never believe it’s possible. We desperately need to know how to be alive and on this day Jesus shows us how it’s done.

 

And how it’s done—breaking out of death and into life—is only possible through love—through God’s love for us gives live and helps us see that we are worthy of love and our love for God and for others. Love is what gives us the power to overcome our desire to just check out, to abandon who or what needs our attention; love is what helps us let go of grudges and rage and negativity.  Love is what helps us break through things that are hard, that want to hold us hostage, that want to diminish us, that want to keep us scared, that want to keep us stuck, that want to keep us dead.  If Jesus is our guide, we see that breaking into life will likely involve some self-sacrifice, deep patience, and lots of forgiveness.  Don’t you know?...breakthroughs take a lot of work and are often a long-time coming…  //

 

We know if we’ve been paying attention that there’s no detour to Easter, no way to get there without traveling the redemption road that takes you directly through the cross and the tomb.  Breaking into life will require a willingness to descend into the places of our grieving and shame and shadow and fear and pain.  The old expectation would be that all that stuff is there to stay and so best to just avoid it since we have to lug it around forever, letting it steal life from us day by day, letting it lure us into numbing behaviors that deaden our senses and our lives. But the Easter promise is that when we are willing to be honest and to confront the place of death—the pain and grief and mindless rut in our core—Jesus meets us there every time and will take us by the hand, call us by our name, forgive us, heal us, set us free, and help us break through into new life, again and again.

 

But breaking into life does not offer an escape from the hard things of the world.  The world Jesus broke back into was a world still unable to trust the good news of resurrection proclaimed by those who had experienced it first-hand; the eleven male disciples called the women’s testimony a Greek expletive (“idle tale” is the G-rated translation…it’s more like what organic farmers put on their gardens).  It was a world that still struggled to perceive who Jesus was, as evidenced by the story on the road to Emmaus that immediately follows. We know all these years later that resurrection doesn’t make the world any less unjust, dismissive, violent, clueless, or greedy.  Breaking into life will mean stepping back into a world that is cold and hard and has hurt us and scares us and disappoints us and gets it wrong again and again.

 

So why do it? Why do this hard work instead of just binge-watching Netflix or losing ourselves in distractions and addictions? Because it’s how to be alive—truly alive in the way that Jesus shows us life is meant to be.  Because it promises meaning and joy even in the midst of the struggle. Because it is the way to grow in love and courage and peace and freedom and justice.  

 

The resurrection moments experienced in this life don’t lead us away from the world, don’t help us escape the world, but lead us into the world changed.  Through the grace and love of God, we, like Jesus, start to be “lit from within” and, little by little, find that we are able to live,  to rise!, even in the face of our worst fear, even when things go wrong, even when we totally screw up, even when everything has crumbled around us. By the amazing grace and resurrection power of God, we find that we are able to love even in the midst of pain, that we are able to forgive even when we are under attack, that we are able to serve even when we are weary and worn, that we are able to be humble when it would be easy to strut about, that we are able to accept our limitations with grace, that we are able to be more and more fully alive through participation in the life that Jesus has revealed, a life of love and service shared freely with and for others.

 

On this Easter day, the power of God’s love resurrects Jesus and all the old expectations get smashed to pieces. And, because Jesus breaks into this life, in your life, we are not abandoned to hopelessness, we are not abandoned to fear of death, we are not abandoned to cynicism or powerlessness or isolation. We are not left only with faded memories of a dead teacher.  The living Christ breaks into the world and into our lives to journey with us, to love us, and to show us how to be alive…today and forevermore. Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

[i] Wendell Berry, “2001:VI” This Day: Sabbath Poems Collected and New 1979-2013, Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013, p. 222.

[ii] Denise Levertov, excerpt, “Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell” https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/ikon-harrowing-hell

What’s With the Blood?

April 19th, 2019

What’s With the Blood?

A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 19, 2019, Good Friday.

Text: John 18-19

In so-called “progressive” Christian circles, there’s many a joke and aspersion directed toward what are often called the “blood hymns.” For ages, Christians have sung with gusto about the wonder-working power of the blood of the lamb, about being washed in the blood, nothing but the blood of Jesus that will cleanse me from my sin, and on it goes. For some the concern with these songs is theological, for others, they just find the whole concept and focus distasteful or weird.

 

But the truth is that blood is at the center of our faith story. It is important to consider why.

 

In the ancient world, blood was a powerful symbol of life itself. Our spiritual tradition from ancient times until now holds that God is the source and sustainer of life, so the symbolic connection between blood, life, and God is deep.

 

The Passover our Jewish siblings observe beginning tonight commemorates their liberation from slavery in Egypt. The Seder (ritual meal) recounts the story of the Exodus (Ex 12:3-11) including the ritual of the “Passover lamb” whose blood was wiped on the doorpost as a sign calling for God’s mercy—for those inside the house to be passed over or spared from the final plague that would strike Egypt; that plague is sometimes described as the angel of death. In the story, the blood—the power of life given by God—is protection against death.

 

Embedded in this archetypal story of our faith, are themes of oppression, liberation, God’s saving love and presence, sacrifice, and…blood.

 

It’s not hard to understand why we make a connection between the sacrificial lamb of the Passover and Jesus. Both the lamb and Jesus are innocent.  Both the lamb and Jesus are killed. Both the lamb and Jesus are involved in a larger story that has to do with oppression and liberation. And—the way the equation often gets presented—just as the blood-marked doorposts provided protection for the enslaved Israelites in Egypt, being “washed in the blood” of Jesus marks us for mercy—saves us from judgment and from death and brings liberation.

 

I believe there’s truth in that, but—oh my—can it get twisted. 

 

The familiar phrase “Jesus died for me” makes it sound as though I don’t have to die even though Jesus both taught and modeled that to follow him required “losing our life.”  “Jesus died for my sins” makes it sound like I don’t have to take any responsibility for my sins—including my complicity with the kind of sin that put Jesus on the cross in the first place. “Jesus came to die” makes it sound like God’s “plan” and focus is death when, in fact, the whole point is life, life, and more life—and not just for “me” but for the whole creation. 

 

Jesus didn’t go to the cross so that we could bathe in his blood in some macabre way, or magical way, in order to get out of suffering and accountability. Jesus didn’t go to the cross so that we could wear the cross as an ornament instead of carry it as a calling to mercy and justice for all people. //

 

Jesus’ blood represents Jesus’ life. Jesus’ life is a life that showed us what God’s love looks like when it is fully human. That love is seen in gentleness, courage, humility, wisdom, radical inclusion, justice, and in solidarity with the suffering and oppressed. Jesus’ flesh and blood were offered to us not just on the cross but from the moment of the Incarnation. Jesus’ blood—Jesus’ life!—had “wonder-working power” from the beginning!

 

What if every time we think about the saving power of Jesus’ blood we think not only of the blood at the cross but of when the blood was flowing through Jesus’ body as he reached out to embrace and include women in his inner circle, as he perceived the persons around the edges who no one else gave any notice, as he went toe to toe with the most unstable, violent, power-hungry leaders of the local Roman empire for the sake of justice for the poor, as he gathered the children around him with gentleness and joy, as he taught that all people (not just certain tribes or classes) have dignity and worth and the capacity to participate in God’s mighty acts of salvation, as he moved through conflict with strength and clarity but without violent retaliation, as he had compassion for both the outcast poor and the outcast rich, as he showed us how to truly love God and love neighbor.

 

The reason his blood flowing from the cross matters so much is that it is the blood, the life, the love that revealed God’s perfect love for us. Jesus had blood the whole time. And who he was and what he said and did before he was killed is what makes the cross in any way sensible and saving.  Jesus’ blood, freely shed, is a confirmation and affirmation of everything Jesus had done in his life. It proves that he wasn’t just trying to win a popularity contest or to show how awesome he was…He wasn’t just saying he loved us, wasn’t just pretending that he was in solidarity with the poor and with all the innocents who are slain, not just pretending that justice and mercy were at the heart of his ministry. The blood proves it all, proves God’s love for us because while we were yet sinners, Jesus’ love and solidarity remained steadfast and that meant suffering and death.

 

The blood of Jesus is both convicting and hopeful.  It is convicting because it reveals our own capacity to do violence, to kill, to reject love and the call to justice and mercy.  But the blood also gives hope—because the self-sacrifice of Jesus shows that even when you are at your very worst, even when you have betrayed love, denied love, hurt others, slandered someone, failed to acknowledge your participation in the systems of injustice in which we swim—even then, God loves you and will stand up for you even to the point of death. The compassion, love, and mercy Jesus showed in life is the same compassion, love and mercy that flows from his head, his hands, his feet…

 

The “blood” of Jesus—the Jesus way of life, the Jesus way of love, the Jesus way of forgiveness, the Jesus way of self-giving, the Jesus way of communion with God—when that “blood” is what marks you, you move toward liberation and toward a life free from the fear of death. When the blood—the life—of Christ marks you, you will begin to understand what it means when Jesus says you have to lose your life to save it. And you will give thanks for the dignity and challenge of so great a call, you will give thanks for the gift of this wonder-full, wonder-working new life. May it be so.

We Could Have Had It All

April 14th, 2019

 A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 14, 2019, Palm Sunday.

Text: Luke 19:28-48

 

Anthony and I recently spent a few days in Philadelphia, the fulfillment of Anthony’s Christmas gift—he, as a history buff, wanted to explore the Museum of the American Revolution, visit Independence Hall, and soak up the American history that lives everywhere in the old city. I was interested, too, though I must admit that a more contemporary piece of history made me giddy: getting to traverse Rocky Balboa’s triumphal steps and experience that iconic view from the top of the Philadelphia Art Museum steps in person.

 

A number of things struck me as I took in the history of how we came to be a nation. I noticed that debates then and now are the same: big or small government, state’s rights and individual liberty relative to federal laws, tensions between those in industrial, urban centers and rural, farming communities…I was sad to see how opportunities to do right by Native American communities and enslaved Africans were either not recognized or dismissed, how the manners and customs and culture of the day were so ingrained that even in a time of great upheaval and revolution, some things were placed outside the bounds of what might be even discussed, much less changed.

 

The critical questions of the American revolution also sound very familiar to me in the context of what is happening in the United Methodist Church. My colleague, James Howell, made the connection between the American Revolution and our current church struggle explicit in a recent article in The Washington Post as he spoke of the current increase of sacred resistance and protest against the exclusion without representation forces as our “tea party moment.”[i] He says this moment is just beginning.

 

Like the days in this country following the “Boston tea party,” we United Methodists find ourselves in a moment of new creation, of radical change, of looking toward forming a new expression of Methodism for the future that might offer an inspiring opportunity to be the church we believe we’re called to be, a new way of living together that is more inclusive and just, and that can potentially encompass all those who, for whatever reason, stand against the action of General Conference. Just as those debating how to create something new at the beginning of these United States, I’ve heard the following questions arise:

  • Who is included in the conversation and in leadership?
  • Who’s writing the story? Who is controlling the narrative?
  • Will we be loosely affiliated or centrally governed?
  • What will our relationships be internationally?
  • Who are our allies? And are we using them or truly engaging as mutual partners?
  • If we become a new entity, what current practices will we want to change?
  • How do we care for those who have been abused? Will we recognize and honor the full humanity of all people?

 

How these questions get answered makes a difference not only in the moment they are initially asked, but in all the days to follow. The weight of our decisions lands heavily on generations to come—for better or for worse.

 

Some of you may be wondering what any of this has to do with Palm Sunday. Well, it occurs to me that Jesus came into the world—and into Jerusalem on this day—because some things needed to be different. Jesus came with a vision for how to live together in peace with justice, a vision that challenged the status quo, a vision that was revolutionary in its emphasis on humble service, mercy, solidarity with the poor and oppressed, and liberating love. The Jesus movement was always a peaceful resistance movement, a sacred resistance movement, a movement focused on the real human lives encountered at any given moment; a movement that challenged the power-mongering, cruel, dehumanizing, greed-serving policies of imperial Rome and also challenged a religious institution that seemed to focus on human rules and hierarchies in such a way that it brought harm to the vulnerable and ignored the cries of the needy.

 

Jesus came preaching good news of God’s Kin-dom. And at the center of that good news is the “omni-vulnerable” love of God (as Bishop Robinson preached several weeks ago)—a love that is so vulnerable and so steadfast and so determined to never let us go, that God will suffer disappointment after disappointment—really will suffer anything—to stay close to us. And Jesus shows us this in person.

 

In two places in the book of Luke, we hear Jesus lament over Jerusalem. The first is found in chapter 13, where Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!...And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Lk 13:34-35)

 

Today, the crowds cry out this refrain—Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!—but Jesus knows that he is still entering a community unwilling to receive what he offers. He weeps over the city saying, “If you… had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes… you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Lk 19:42-44, excerpt)

 

When Jesus came to Jerusalem it was a moment of decision, a time when those in power, those doing harm, those not paying attention, those sitting on the sidelines—when those and all people could have turned toward Jesus with open hearts and minds and arms. It was a revolutionary moment, a moment when something different could have happened. A new creation was being offered. A new vision of loving and just community was revealed. Jesus offered us the very heart of God. We had it all in that moment. And we didn’t recognize it. We weren’t willing to receive it. Long before he entered the city, Jesus knew what he was walking into, knew the outcome. I wonder, though, if he kept hoping that he might be wrong, kept hoping that maybe people would finally see that money and violence and status and control were truly no match for the power of love and mercy and humble service and friendship. // Any hope Jesus may have held seems to dissolve when, as he rode into town, some of the religious leaders demanded that he silence the cries of hope rising from those on the margins… It was after that, we’re told, that Jesus wept.

 

I have this fantasy of Jesus lamenting for a third time, a lament that emerges as he remembers what happened on that day he rode a donkey into Jerusalem and in the week that followed, as he remembers those who claimed to love him and yet turned away and denied him, those to whom he had entrusted the most who fell away and fell asleep… And I hear him in my mind picking up the broken-hearted words of Adele and making them his own: “The scars of your love remind me of us / They keep me thinking that we almost had it all / The scars of your love they leave me breathless, I can’t help feeling / We could have had it all / Rolling in the deep / You had my heart inside of your hand / And you played it to the beat”[ii]

 

This imaginary third lament is, in some ways, even more heartbreaking than the first two because it is not only directed toward those days we read about in the Bible, but continues right up until today.  Because imperial values of money, violence, status, and control are still seen as the superpowers in most quarters. Because religious institutions continue to do harm to the most vulnerable and ignore or try to silence the voices of those on the margins. Jesus’ third lament continues because, even though we know all that transpires during Holy Week, even after thousands of Easters, we still find ourselves in moments of new creation and revolution and sacred resistance—in the church and in society—having to wonder whether we will finally this time recognize the visitation of the Lord, whether we will perceive God’s alternative vision for a new thing, whether we will honor the full humanity of all God’s beloved children, whether we will do things not just differently, but more justly and thoughtfully and lovingly than we have done in the past, whether we will stay awake and not fall away from the vulnerable and the brave or from the hard task to which we are called, whether we will encourage rather than silence those whose voices have not been heard, whether we will risk following Jesus even into the most dangerous places of confrontation because God has put God’s own heart inside our hand and it’s up to us to hold it with tenderness and fierceness and courage.

 

We are in a moment here at Foundry and in the UMC and really in the nation, when we are being confronted with the brokenness of our world in very clear ways—we’re being challenged to grapple with the ways that religious institutions have driven people away from God, with the continued scourge of white supremacy, with the apathy toward the plight of the poor and of the creation gasping for air, and with the determination of well-funded hate-mongers to deny and punish the beautiful created nature of LGBTQ people.  I believe God is up to something in this crucible time… In moments like the one we’re in, we have a beautiful possibility to participate in God’s loving and saving work of mending and making new. We—collectively—have a history of blowing it.

 

The good news, however, is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow: no matter how we falter and fail, God’s love, revealed to us most fully in Jesus, remains steadfast. God is going to keep loving us and reaching out to us and trying to get through to us until Christ comes again in final victory, love, and justice and we truly “have it all.”

 

We hold God’s heart in our hands. What are we going to do with it this time? I pray we don’t crucify.

 

 

[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/03/29/us-methodist-leaders-lay-plans-resist-anti-gay-marriage-vote/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.3afdcfb60e9f

[ii] Adele Adkins, Paul Richard Epworth, https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/adele/rollinginthedeep.html