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

February 17th, 2019

Tested Minds, Searched Hearts

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

 Text: Jeremiah 17:5-10 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Call and Response A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC February 10, 2019

February 11th, 2019

Call and Response

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC February 10, 2019, the fifth Sunday after Epiphany. “This Is Us” series.

Text: Isaiah 6:1-13

 A long time ago, in a place called Judah, there was a King named Uzziah who reigned for 52 years. During and after good King Uzziah’s reign, Judah rebelled against God’s ways (Is 1:2).  Injustice, greed, hypocrisy, lies, arrogance, and power grabs were everywhere (Isaiah 1, 5).  Still, while Uzziah was alive there was relative stability—at least you knew what to expect.  But then Uzziah died.  That year must have felt like things were falling apart, like nothing made sense, leaving people in shock—like when airplanes fly into the World Trade Center or when a gunshot ends the life of a prophet or a president.

In the year that King Uzziah died—around 738 BCE—a guy named Isaiah went to worship…maybe because he was a regular attendee or maybe because when everything is hitting the fan sanctuaries tend to get full.  Whatever brought Isaiah to the temple, I wonder if, looking back on it, he ever wished he’d have skipped church that day…

Why?  Well, first of all, Isaiah experiences God’s glory and a flying choir whose “Holy, holy, holy” seemed to make the whole temple shake and fill with smoke. We might imagine this would make Isaiah bliss out or get his praise on.  Instead this vision elicits a searing awareness of Isaiah’s own lostness and unclean lips (another word for “hypocrisy”).  Isaiah comes face to face with his smallness and sin. That’s never fun.

And that un-fun awareness is met with the divine-vision-version of a common scene in movies, in which the villain of the piece plucks a burning coal from a fire with tongs and draws near the person’s face in a menacing way. In this instance, the coal is not meant to do harm, but to symbolize a purification from sin—it’s a sign of mercy!  Remember the refiner’s fire?  All I can say is, “ouch!”

And then, if all that weren’t enough, convicted and forgiven Isaiah (bless him, this was some day in church!) hears a question from God that likely haunts him for the rest of his days:  “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  This is like the template for bad church servant leader recruitment through the centuries:  God doesn’t provide a position description. There’s no term of service or goal clarity or outline of supportive relationships and feedback loops, no clarity around the budget for the ministry. 

 Even so, Isaiah—all purified up and ready to speak—blurts out “Here I am, send me!”

Only then does the picture start to emerge:  Isaiah is called to speak to the people of Judah in such a way that they will not open their hearts and minds and arms to God.  Instead, they will continue along their merry way—their way of denial, hypocrisy, greed, injustice, and self-destruction, hurtling toward ruin…

We see Isaiah start to wake up to what he’s signed up for as he asks, “How long, O Lord??”  And the answer comes: Until nothing but a tiny, holy seed of the nation is left…

Sometimes things have to get to a very bad place before we are ready or able to change, to turn toward a new way of life, to do things differently, to repent. [Hello, United Methodist Church!]

And Isaiah, before he even knew what he was doing, signed up to prophesy to a people seemingly intent on self-destruction…

Isaiah shows us so much of the prophetic call. //  That call begins with being humble enough to know our own sinfulness and weakness—and the systemic sin in which we swim (“among a people of unclean lips!”)—and to allow not only God’s light to reveal it but also God’s love and mercy to heal it.  Humility keeps a prophet from thinking she’s somehow better than “them” and always aware that “There, but for the grace of God go I…”  Isaiah also shows that the prophetic call is to keep reminding people of God’s love, God’s way of justice, God’s faithfulness, God’s desire for relationship—even when people can’t or won’t receive the message.  It’s to continue doing the hard and loving and just thing even when we find ourselves crying “How long, O Lord!” or—with Fannie Lou Hamer—“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!”

And as we continue our “This Is Us” series, I want us to claim and respond to our prophetic call as Foundry Church, starting from a place of humility.  We know we are far from having it all together as a community.  There are gaps and gaffes that happen here and there and now and again in all sorts of ways and places—at every level of our fellowship.  And, thanks be to God, as United Methodists, grace is a centerpiece of our theology and so we believe, by grace, we are  always “going on to perfection!”  We are humble enough to never claim that we are already there…even as we re-commit to do and be better today than we were yesterday.  We also call upon the power of Spirit not only to reveal our hypocrisy and sin but to heal it and to show us how to truly repent.

And while we know that we are always working our growing edges as a congregation, we also claim the power God gives us to speak and witness in prophetic ways.  Our strategy at Foundry is to focus on several key initiatives, realizing that focused resources can make larger impact.  We make long-term commitments, are determined to go deep in the work of effecting systemic change, and only put ourselves fully “out there” once we know what we are willing to risk and sacrifice for the sake of those with whom we stand. 

One of our long-term commitments is to stand in solidarity with our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer siblings and to provide leadership within the United Methodist Church in the fight for full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life and ministry of the church.  Foundry has long sought to create a welcoming and safe space for persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities through what we say, how we look, by adapting our physical spaces, and   through advocacy and public witness.  In 2010, Foundry made a deeply-discerned commitment to practice marriage equality in principled defiance of the restrictive rules found in the United Methodist Book of Discipline.  At Foundry, families representing a rainbow of configurations are truly and fully part of this family. And while we celebrate this as a gift, we also proclaim this as simply the way it should be everywhere.  But it’s not this way everywhere.

Currently, the only members of God’s family who are systematically, legislatively excluded from certain roles and blessings within the United Methodist Church are LGBTQ persons.  This is not to say that systemic racism doesn’t still plague our denomination at every level.  This is not to say that gender and culture and ability bias is not present within our congregations.  It is simply to say that since 1972 statements and rules within the Discipline have denied ordination and Christian marriage to our siblings who are LGBTQ.  Pastors are officially prohibited from performing same gender weddings and congregations from allowing these ceremonies in their buildings—under threat of trial.  And, regardless of gifts, graces, and clarity of God’s call, LGBTQ persons are excluded from Elders and Deacons Orders—they officially “shall not be” ordained. 

We all know that you can’t legislate morality—if we could, the United Methodist Church would be purged of racism, sexism, and lots of other things.  We have clear statements denouncing such prejudices and legislating inclusion and affirmation for every part of the human family…except LGBTQ family members.  We can’t legislate changed hearts and minds, but legislation—laws—provide protection and preserve dignity.  As a wise colleague and civil rights leader said to me as we talked about this yesterday, “Laws fix behaviors immediately, and attitudes eventually.  If a law changes, behavior changes.  If it’s illegal for me to deny you a seat on the bus, then when you get on the bus, I can’t keep you from sitting down.  If I don’t want to sit next to you, I can stand up.  The bus is going to keep on rolling and I may get tired; I may eventually realize that I’d rather sit back down, that sitting next to you doesn’t mean whatever I was taught.”[i]

One critical objective for Foundry over many years has been to remove the discriminatory language related to LGBTQ persons from the United Methodist Book of Discipline. Leading up to the 2012 General Conference, there was great hope this would finally be accomplished. What followed was one of the most bruising and discouraging General Conferences folks remember.  In 2016, things came to a head with the movement to exclude and deny exerting the full strength of its power…I—together with the more than 30 lay people from Foundry who were there—witnessed what felt like the church careening toward a very bad place.  And then, in what could only have been movement of Spirit, the body took a breath and voted to do something new. The Commission on a Way Forward was the result, a diverse group charged by the bishops to study and discern a way forward that allowed for as much contextuality in ministry as possible and as much unity as possible. And then came the special called General Conference that will begin in 13 days in St. Louis, Missouri.  I am one of six clergy delegates along with six lay delegates from the Baltimore-Washington Conference who will join a body of 865 elected delegates from the U.S., the Philippines, Europe, and Africa to vote on how we as a denomination will be in ministry with and for the LGBTQ members of our churches and of our local communities in the future.  Knowing this historic moment would occur this year, Foundry’s Management Board named our engagement with this work among our strategic priorities for 2019.  Today and next Sunday there are opportunities to learn more about General Conference, The Book of Discipline, and Foundry’s engagement in this work over many years. I encourage you to participate, to write your prayers on a prayer flag that will be taken by members of Foundry as a visual witness in St. Louis, and to pray…

What I want to say to all of you today is that our commitment to remove the discriminatory language and provisions from the Book of Discipline is strong as ever.  Along with this objective, I also believe that holding the denomination together as much as possible is also critical to our solidarity with LGBTQ family members; church unity is important not for the sake of “saving an institution,” but so that churches like Foundry can continue to be lifelines for United Methodist children, youth, and adults who may be members of churches that don’t fully embrace them or, worse, that actively reject them.  I am encouraged by the ways that faithful United Methodists are working together across what have been previously uncrossed boundaries to move us toward a more inclusive, grace-filled, and just Church, grounded in scripture and in our true Wesleyan theological heritage.  I am hopeful for what might be accomplished at the special General Conference at the end of this month. 

And I also want to say that no matter what happens in St. Louis, Foundry will still be Foundry. Our ministry will still embrace and support all people, we will continue to worship God with our whole being, to ground and guide our witness in challenging study, to care and pray for one another as one family in Christ; we will continue to speak love into places of hate, to practice inclusion even if bad church law demands exclusion, to risk our own security for sake of the oppressed, to give fearlessly to support those who are denied what they need to thrive.  We have been called to offer a prophetic word and witness to the world and we will continue to respond—humbly, peacefully, and in the power of God’s love.  No matter what.

How long?  Even to the point of nothing being left but a seed…and if that be the case, we will roll up our sleeves and till the soil, trusting God for the rest.

 

 

[i] Rev. Jesse Jackson

Always More: A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC February 3, 2019

February 4th, 2019

Always More

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC February 3, 2019, the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. “This Is Us” series.

Text: Jeremiah 1:4-10

Keeping a healthy perspective in life is difficult.  In fact, it’s very easy to function with a skewed, radically limited perspective. For example, I often perceive there is only one option before me in any given moment when, in fact, there are many.  Only one option leaves me feeling stuck or trapped—not a good feeling.  Some of us may function with a very limited vision of our identity or capacity, based on perception of experiences or messages received from others in the past.  These old mental “tapes” can hold us captive within perceived limitations. We may forget that our feelings are not the sum total of who we are. Once, at a spirituality training event, a participant shared a personal struggle that focused on being overwhelmed with a strong, negative emotion. The teacher, a woman who oozed wisdom and spiritual depth, said in a simple but very passionate way: “But you are so much MORE.” We may have moments when our feelings are so strong that it seems that’s all there is; but we are more than our feelings. Finally, we all know (I imagine) the snap judgments we can make of a person or a situation based on preconceived notions or limited data. Our perception of others through the lens of our prejudices and preferences can lead us to miss out on so many gifts in experience and relationship.

These kinds of limited perception are—in theory—within our control. But as finite, human creatures, we do have limits to what we can readily or easily perceive.  One writer learns this lesson from the natural world. She writes, “The physicist I’ve been talking to all winter says if I look more widely, deeply, and microscopically all at once, I might see how springlike the whole cosmos is.  What I see as order and stillness, the robust, time-bound determinacy of my life, is really a mirage suspended above chaos. [My physicist friend tells me], ‘There’s a lot of random jiggling going on everywhere’...”[i]

We don’t see the movement, the power, the life that is always there, but it is always there. In everything we perceive—in people, in communities, in nature—there is always more.

As people of faith, we believe that the source and sustainer of this more is God. God’s voice, God’s Word, God’s love, God’s breath, these are the gifts that create energy, power, life. God is the one who calls creation into being. God is the one who calls humankind into communities of love, mercy, and justice. And when human love becomes limited and misdirected, when justice morphs into vengeance, when community is perverted into tribalism or nationalism, God is the one who lifts up prophets “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10)

This is the heart of the call upon the prophet Jeremiah, who evidently received a divine call while still a youth and who served in an extraordinary period in the history of Judah from around 627 to 580 BCE. Empires were falling and rising all around them and Judah’s kings during this period—Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah—tried, and mostly failed, to lead revolutions both cultural and political.

Into this swarming upheaval, God brought Jeremiah into the world for the purpose of being a prophet to the nations. And, as it always goes, the call to be a prophet is not a moment of “happy happy, joy joy.” Most of those called, try their best to get out of it. And who can blame them?

Prophets are asked to do hard things, to put themselves in risky situations, to stand up to the powers of hatred and violence and greed and apathy—to speak words that no one wants to hear.  Prophets are given the capacity to perceive what is broken, places of pain, the injustices in society, and lack of love for God and others.  Prophets are given the capacity to stand up and put these things front and center—they force the issue!  Prophets are given the capacity to see the proverbial—and depressing!—writing on the wall if things don’t change.  Prophets pull idols down and pluck up invasive roots. Prophets call for destruction of systems and practices that do harm and for an overthrow of those who abuse their power. Prophets also perceive God’s hope and vision for the world and call for new creation, for activities of building up and planting what will nourish and sustain.

Jeremiah gets this call and doesn’t want it. Scholars tell us that the phrase translated “Ah, Lord God!” introduces a complaint against God. Jeremiah’s complaint is this: “I don’t know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  And God replies, “Do not say ‘I am only…”

It’s not that Jeremiah’s wrong. Jeremiah is young, likely lacking experience, confidence, and perhaps even skill.  But like Moses before him—who also used his imperfect speech as an excuse—Jeremiah receives an assurance that God will be with him and will give him the words and all he needs.  It’s not that Jeremiah isn’t a boy, it’s that Jeremiah is more than only a boy. Jeremiah is a prophet, too—and that isn’t something he has to become through his own striving; that part of who Jeremiah is is activated and supported and fueled by God’s presence and voice. God is clear: “I have put my words in your mouth…” All Jeremiah has to do is say “yes,” offer the gifts he has, limited as they are, be available, be willing to do the hard thing.

I can’t help but think of young people who have been called to prophetic work in our own time. On February 1st, 1960, four black college students—who came to be known as “the Greensboro Four”—“sat down at a whites-only lunch counter at an F.W. Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., and ordered coffee. They weren’t served. They nevertheless stayed there until the store closed that evening. Earlier, the four freshmen, who were enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, had purchased toothpaste and various school supplies. One of them [said]: “We believe, since we buy books and papers in the other part of the store, we should get served in this part.”[ii]  The Greensboro Sit-In continued in increasing numbers over weeks and was the beginning of a movement that swept across southern college towns, fueling engagement with the Civil Rights movement and creating change in segregationist policies.

In Ferguson, Missouri following the murder of Michael Brown in August of 2014, those at the center of leadership for the resistance were young, queer people. The “March For Our Lives” movement against gun violence is being led by children and teens who are saying “enough!” Young people here at Foundry are writing and organizing and providing leadership for justice in the places they live and study.  These young leaders said and are saying, “yes.” They are willing and available to pull down and pluck up, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.  Thank God they haven’t said, “I am only a child…”

In moments of grief, violence, injustice, and struggle of all kinds, it is very easy for each of us to settle back into the old refrain, “I am only…” Only my feelings, only my assigned role in the family system, only a kid, only whatever.  It is tempting to feel that we are “stuck” with few options before us. And, while it may be unlikely that you will be called to the kind of prophetic work as Jeremiah or the Greensboro Four, there is always more that God perceives in you, always more that God wants to do in and through you, always more that God knows about you—things you don’t know about yourself and your capacities and your call.  “I am only” is an excuse. Because if God is calling you, God will give you whatever “more” you need.

[Jeremiah is an example that in ourselves, in every person, in every situation, in every relationship, there is always more than we readily perceive.  There is always a lot of random jiggling going on! Spirit moves, activating new energy in some, pricking the conscience of others, giving visions to some, providing courage to others, forming strategies of resistance in the minds of some, enlivening the prayers for peace of others, placing words in the mouths of some, drawing others to finally just be quiet. God is always at work for good in the world.]

You may or may not have a sense of the ways God is at work through you, or of the “more” that God wants to give you or the hard thing to which you are called. You may have great clarity about that, but feel afraid or ill-equipped. But whether you perceive it or not, if you open your mind and heart to God, you will be given all you need. God’s love and mercy for you—for us!—never runs out…There is always more. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

[i] Gretel Ehrlich, Islands, The Universe, Home, Viking Press, 1991, p. 13.

[ii] Andrew Glass, “Black students mount lunch counter sit-in, Feb. 1, 1960,” https://www.politico.com/story/2019/02/01/greensboro-sit-in-1960-1135789

Anointed: A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC January 27, 2019

January 31st, 2019

Anointed

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC January 27, 2019, the third Sunday after Epiphany. “This Is Us” series.

Text: Luke 4:14-21

 

Many years ago, I sat in a one-room house in a Dalit village in South India with the woman of the home sitting behind me combing my hair. In a sign of radical hospitality, she poured coconut oil on my head and combed the sweet-smelling, cooling oil into my hair, which she proceeded to braid and pin fresh flowers into. This was a moment of anointing, the kind of anointing that folk in certain regions and cultures have used for centuries to care for their hair and skin—a kind of care that is extended to others as a sign of hospitality, respect, and friendship.

This kind of anointing appears in the Bible—one example being Psalm 23: “You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows…”[i]  But this isn’t the only meaning or purpose of anointing in our faith tradition. Anointing appears in scripture as a rite of inauguration or “setting apart” for the Jewish offices of prophet, priest, and king.[ii]  Sacred objects are anointed for their appointed use.[iii] In the letter of James, we see that anointing with oil was used in ministries of healing for the sick.[iv] And then there is the anointing with Holy Spirit. This spiritual anointing is not necessarily disconnected from the other kinds of anointing, but seems to imbue a divine power and to convey a divine calling.

Our Gospel for today picks up just after Jesus spends the proverbial 40 days in the desert grappling with the devil (Lk 4:1-13) and he emerges from that contest “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus goes to the Galilee and news of his presence and teaching “goes viral”—it spreads quickly! When he gets to his home “church,” the synagogue in Nazareth, he reads from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (year of “jubilee,” a time of economic justice and debt forgiveness[v]).”  These words found in the writings of “the Third Isaiah” echo the earlier Isaiah traditions that speak of a servant, a chosen one, an anointed messiah, upon whom God’s spirit will rest in a particular way to bring light and justice to the nations.

Sitting there in his home church, Jesus said, “Today the prophecy of this anointing is fulfilled…this call is being fulfilled. Here I am. I am the one. This is me.” 

Our lectionary text doesn’t include what happened next that day in Nazareth. But let me tell you, the hometown crowd was none too happy when Jesus made it clear they wouldn’t be getting special treatment. They evidently didn’t like his reference to Israel’s failures in the past or God’s prophets offering care to those on the other side of Israel’s borders.  Jesus’s own people—his parents’ friends, his own childhood friends, and probably a bunch of aunties and uncles and cousins—ran him off and tried to kill him. 

He came as the promise, as the anointed one, as the one who would bring good news of salvation for those who had suffered so long—and for all people.  And, it seems, fueled by some sort of tribal jealousy or irrational fear they wanted to kill him.

I have been thinking again about how we human beings love prophets after they are dead but try to silence, control, undermine or kill them until they are.  Every year when we, as a nation, honor Martin Luther King, Jr. there are reminders that spring up about how folks who now quote MLK with such ardor and appreciation would have tried to run him off a proverbial cliff when he was alive. It makes me wonder who is getting targeted and threatened in these days who will someday be recognized as the shining light that they are…

As soon as Jesus arrived in this world, certain parts of the world conspired against him. And yet the light in Jesus shone so brightly that it cut through the darkness and drew many to God’s wisdom and way. The good news Jesus proclaims and embodies of God’s love, mercy, and justice—this good news has continued to spread all over the world—it’s been shared, studied, and celebrated because it’s the hope of every human heart. It holds both a vision of beloved community to work toward and the traveling mercies to get there. And many, like you and me, continue to try to both receive this good news and to share it.

There are also many who continue—out of ignorance, fear, and pain—to conspire against the love, mercy, and justice of God, those who would undermine the vision of God’s Kin-dom, who reject and disrupt the vision of God’s beloved community.

During this sermon series in which we reflect on those things that shape our personal priorities and our communal witness, it’s important to name that we at Foundry understand that to follow Jesus means to engage in sacred resistance.  And sacred resistance, first and foremost, is to ground ourselves in the love of God, to rejoice in spite of the facts, to let others laugh at our hope, to not allow the fear mongers to knock us off course, to keep our eyes fixed on Christ and on the ways of God’s Kin-dom and to claim our primary loyalty in that country. We know that our Baptismal covenant calls us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves; it calls us to stand up to those who would undermine God’s vision of peace with justice.  We know that our faith as Jesus-followers is not disconnected from the debates occurring in the public square at every level from the white house to the condo association, from Congress to local school boards, from FaceBook pages to face to face engagements across a kitchen table, from Bible study groups to General Conferences. We know that when we stand in principled defiance to unjust laws and practices in the world and in the church, there will be backlash.  We know that if we happen to stumble into the kind of faithfulness and sacrificial love that in any way embodies the way of Jesus we can expect someone to come for us.  We know that Jesus’ Way is not an easy way, but that it’s the way that leads to a life that is truly human, that is truly life. (1 Tim 6:19)

As I was praying and preparing for today and this word was forming in my heart and head, I thought of how tired so many of us are.  I thought to myself, “The last thing any of us needs is to be told again of our responsibility and how heavy it is and how difficult it can be…”  But then I thought of that experience all those years ago in India; I thought of the cooling coconut oil, the nourishing and strengthening oil so lovingly applied, dripping down my neck and face…  And it made me remember that we are anointed! Anointed by Spirit!

Just as God’s voice affirms both Jesus AND all of us at Baptism with the words “You are my beloved”; just as God’s voice speaks through both the prophets AND all of us as we “find our voice” as Bishop Palmer preached last week; so too, God’s anointing falls upon both Jesus AND us as we receive the Holy Spirit who grants us freedom and power to resist, to do our part in the work of mending this beautiful, broken world. As members of the Body of Christ, the church, you and I are anointed—given a divine calling and imbued with divine power.

 In the heat of struggle, Spirit anoints us with calming grace like cooling oil. In moments of faltering, Spirit anoints us with grace that fortifies and bears us up. When we fear having no word to speak or don’t know what action to take, Spirit anoints us with what we need. In times of weariness and frustration, Spirit anoints us with delight and surprise in-breakings of joy. When it feels like it’s all a big waste of time, Spirit anoints us with encouragement and visions and dreams. Again and again.

We pray at the Baptismal font for Spirit to be poured out upon the water and the one baptized. We pray at the Table for Spirit to be poured out upon the elements and upon us. We remember that, at Pentecost, Spirit was poured out upon all who were gathered, breaking down barriers of all kinds. We remember that we are part of the anointed community formed at Pentecost, empowered by Spirit. And all of this anointing with Spirit, all of the Spirit being poured “upon us” is for a purpose: to be and to become fully ourselves, to be and become more truly human, to be and become more like Jesus.  Our anointing as Foundry Church—along with so many beloved communities around the world—is to be and become those who prompt the questions from the world, “Who is this who keeps showing up with patience and love and light and hope?  Who is this who’s determined to preach good news to the poor?  Who is this who shows up like Moses demanding release of the captives? Who is this whose witness startles others into fresh seeing? Who is this risking life and livelihood to set the oppressed free? Who is this who will make personal sacrifices for the sake of economic justice?” Who is this?  By the grace of God, may we be and become those who say, “THIS IS US… the beloved, the called, the liberated, the empowered, the anointed. This is us. Here we are. We’re the ones. Today God’s way is being fulfilled…”

 

 

 

[i] Ruth 3:3 ; Micah 6:15, Luke 7:46

[ii]1 Kings 19:16 ; 1 Chronicles 16:22 ; Psalms 105:15, Exodus 40:15 ; Numbers 3:3; Exodus 29:29 ; Leviticus 16:32 ; 1 Samuel 9:16 ; 10:1 ; 1 Kings 1:34 1 Kings 1:39  

[iii] Genesis 31:13 ; Exodus 30:26-28

[iv] James 5:14

[v] Leviticus 25.8-12

Water Washed and Spirit Born: A Sermon Preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC January 13, 2019, Baptism of the Lord. “This Is Us” series.

January 13th, 2019

Water Washed and Spirit Born

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC January 13, 2019, Baptism of the Lord. “This Is Us” series.

Text: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

 

Water stories in the Bible are always important and dramatic. From the very beginning when God’s Spirit moved across the waters and spoke all creation into being; to the flood, ark, and rainbow; to the parting of the Red Sea and the passage of the Israelites from slavery to freedom; to the water pouring from the rock in the wilderness providing sustenance to God’s people; to the miraculous healing of General Naaman in the Jordan at the hand of the prophet Elisha; to the stormy sea that took Jonah down meet that big fish; to the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan and many more… Water is a powerful and creative force in these stories; it can represent both chaos and healing and restoration.

And water is not only metaphorically powerful, it is concretely powerful. It’s one of the primary elements without which life cannot thrive. For many of us, it’s easy to take water for granted. Turn the knob, water appears. But then there’s Flint, Michigan and so many countries around the world in which having any water, much less clean water—is a central issue of justice—a daily matter of life and death. 

In America, our history with water and justice is dicey (at least the sliver of our history I know). First of all, we’ve polluted our water with disastrous results to ecosystems and human health. Our nation’s collective contribution to climate change is significant, affecting water temperatures and levels with looming catastrophic effect.  The people of Flint continue to grapple with the water crisis there—with the poor bearing the brunt of the struggle.[i] And as we enter 2019, I’m mindful (thanks to the Rev. Jesse Jackson)[ii] that this year marks 400 years since the first 20 African slaves were transported to our shores by white slave traders. And as I thought about water in this country, I couldn’t help but think of segregated water fountains and swimming pools. I thought of stories I’ve heard of “dirty” Italian and Irish immigrants also being excluded from public pools. When you’ve been denied such a basic human right as access to clean water and the dignity of being received as 100% a human being, these things become much less easily taken for granted.

For those of us who’ve been knocking around the church and its stories and rituals for a long time, we may be tempted to take the waters of Baptism for granted.  In some ways, it may seem like a fairly benign and simple thing.  A little water, a little prayer, often a cute baby.  But, like all the other water stories in the Bible, this one is so important. 

In the story we learn that John’s water baptism is a ritual of repentance, of turning from an old way of life toward a new one. John’s water baptism is a washing of the body—the body that participates in systems of injustice willingly or not, the body that often gives into destructive temptations, the body that has not walked gently in relationship or creation; John’s water baptism is a cleansing from what we’ve stepped in; and it also soothes the wounds and aches of human life—a softening and scrubbing of all that would cling to us and keep us in the old life. For infants, the water washing is a ritual of that same turn toward God’s life… the child is carried on the waters of Baptism into a community in which love, grace, and mercy is the chosen and desired way to be in relationship. The story of God’s steadfast love will be the child’s family story from the very beginning, and the community that tells that story, their “tribe.”  

There is more to the narrative than just John’s baptism. The story we tell is that Jesus—in solidarity with us—enters the waters of our human need. And after, while he’s praying, Spirit appears at the water, accompanied by the voice of God.  The presence of Spirit, water, and God’s voice call to mind another story—the story at the beginning of all things, when Spirit moved over the waters of chaos and God’s voice said, “Let there be…”  The presence of Spirit, water, and God’s voice signal new creation, you see, new life. And in our story today, the voice speaks to Jesus saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This affirmation is for Jesus to be sure, but we believe it is also for us.  And this word of love gives life—new life—every time it is received; some might call it a second birth through Spirit’s love.  “You are my child, the Beloved; with YOU I am well pleased.” We are born anew every single time we open our hearts to receive this profound affirmation: You are my child, the Beloved; with YOU I am well pleased. With YOU—the you you are, the you you’re becoming…with YOU God is pleased. God loves YOU.

The longer I live on this planet, the clearer it has become that most people struggle to truly believe they are lovable or loved.  Several years ago, a video was making the rounds on social media that has stayed with me in a powerful way. A student named Shea filmed classmates—some known to her others, not—as she explained her project to photograph things she finds beautiful.[iii] Every time I watch the video I cry. The varieties of responses—both spoken and communicated through body language—reveal so much about our common human desire to be seen, to be valued, to be loved, to know we are beautiful.  As those who follow Jesus into the waters of Baptism, claiming to desire a life that resembles God’s way, it is our call to not only look in the mirror and see a beautiful and beloved image but also to look around and see beauty in each face. //

Today’s Gospel story tells us that we who are Baptized are water washed and Spirit born.  The things of life—all the mess and beauty—are metaphorically or literally submersed in the water to be cared for as may be needed—and as God knows is needed.  And our core identity as beautiful and beloved children of God is named and celebrated.

The other piece of today’s story we simply must not overlook is that the waters of Baptism are not restricted. There is no “separate but equal,” no segregation in God’s love.  There is no exclusion in God’s love. There is no keypad code, code word, or season pass required to enter the waters of God’s grace and mercy. There’s not a registration fee, pedigree, or I.D. needed to be water washed and Spirit born. All that’s required is a desire to turn toward a new life in God’s love… And if we really go in and allow more than our forehead to be touched by the waters—if we allow our whole selves to feel the effects of the baptismal waters, then our our hands will be moved to action, our feet moved to stand up in solidarity, our hearts softened with compassion and patience and self-sacrificial love; and the new life we turn toward will lead us deep into relationship with others who also seek God’s love and God’s life, whoever they are and wherever they come from and whatever their history or politics or identity or orientation or ability or anything.

The Church’s history with water and justice is dicey. We play around in the water without letting it really touch or change us, mouthing the words of resistance and freedom without changing any of our behaviors. We bring our kids to get “done” without following through on our promise to raise them in the faith and life of Christ’s love in the community that seeks to follow Jesus. And we so quickly forget the truth that the waters of Baptism flow freely and welcome and wash anyone, no restrictions.

The waters of Baptism flow from the heart of God’s justice, God’s radical hospitality, God’s sacred resistance…God shows no partiality, God receives ALL of us just as we are.  And God resists any urge to abandon us when we start trying to toss people out of the pool or when we forget who we are or that we are beautiful and precious in God’s sight or when we fail to see the beauty of a sibling in God’s family.

Friends, water stories in our tradition are always important. And the one we tell today is kinda everything. Let’s try not to ever take it’s life-giving and justice-making power for granted.

 

[i] https://www.post-gazette.com/news/health/2018/10/20/Flint-water-lead-crisis-michigan-neurotoxin-legionnaires-miscarriages/stories/201810150196

[ii] Jesse Jackson, “White Churches Have a Moral Responsibility to Stand Up,” https://chicago.suntimes.com/columnists/white-churches-have-a-moral-responsibility-to-stand-up

[iii] https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=SHEA+VAUGHAN-GABOR&qft=+filterui%3auserpage-ucn5jhfaz9hijq0fqlpauhgq&view=detail&mid=7E1BCBB57CF66DBD784A7E1BCBB57CF66DBD784A&&FORM=VRDGAR