In Breath

Sunday, December 10, 2017


A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, December 10, 2017, the second Sunday of Advent.

Texts:  Isaiah 40:1-11Mark 1:1-8


Foundry’s music-inspired annual theme gives us opportunity to lift up a little-known word and concept: anacrusis.  An “anacrusis” consists of the note or notes that are the “lead-in” or “pick-up” notes for a melody before what’s called the first “down beat” of the song. You don’t have to understand the music theory of it to appreciate the metaphor. A musical anacrusis is the beginning, the entry point into a song. Advent is the beginning, the entry point into the Christian year. 


Last week we introduced a resource provided for you this Advent season, a weekly prayer card including a scripture verse and invitation to practice breath prayer. Our hope is that the prayer card will be an “anacrusis”—an entry point into moments of mindfulness with God.  This week’s prayer is…




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Our worship today is filled with music and singing. I learned to sing in the children’s choir of First UMC, Sapulpa, Oklahoma. I learned about harmony and creating a “blend” of sound with other voices. I learned that singing depends on breath and was taught how to use my breath to create and sustain sound.  Brass and woodwind instruments also make sound only with breath—and to make the music we’re hearing today requires highly developed use of the breath!  Some who may not be singers or musicians but practice yoga will have experience with what I’m talking about through chanting “OM”—always preceded by an intentional, deep in-breath… The out breath carries the sound; the deeper the inbreath, the more sustained the chant. The precursor for chanting, singing, for speaking, for crying out is breath. Without breath, there’s no sound, no music.  So the first thing you need to do if you’re going to sing is take a breath IN. //


Today we hear the first lines from what is believed to be the oldest account of Jesus’s life—the Gospel of Mark.  And in Mark’s story of Jesus, there’s no Bethlehem or heavenly host or glowing starlight.  As I’ve said before, Mark’s drama is less Hallmark Channel and more independent film.  And the scene picks up with a character whose appearance must have been odd even for his own day.  It’s rare that someone’s attire or menu selection is mentioned in scripture—and yet the characteristically spare language of the author of Mark includes these details.  So it’s unlikely that John’s wildness and weirdness are described only for entertainment value.  Instead, I imagine, it’s part of the point, part of the message.  Just to look at John heralds something different, something jarring, something uncomfortable. And then he cries out. And what does he cry? Repent! Confess! John’s voice is even more alarming than his appearance, it’s a voice crying out for things to change, for hearts and lives to change, for people to get ready for something—someone—who is coming, one who will be even more disruptive still.


John is the fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah, is the voice crying out, the one sent to prepare the way of the Lord.  But to cry out with such power requires a deep in-breath. Before John cried out, “Repent!” what did he breathe IN?  Well, in addition to a big gust of the Holy Spirit (in Hebrew and Greek Spirit also means “breath”)--I contend that the “in breath” fueling John’s proclamation, the thing John breathed in is the vision of a changed world, the prophetic vision of God’s reign of peace. The inbreath is the vision of God’s Kindom we pray comes to earth as it is in heaven. The vision is of a reality in which bodies—black and brown bodies, female bodies, trans bodies, bodies of every gender, shape, and ability—are treated with tenderness and respect and not as objects to be used or violated or abused; the vision is a reality in which earth, sea, sky, and all that dwell therein are nurtured in interdependence instead of exploited for financial gain or cheap comfort; the in-breath fueling John’s proclamation is a vision of a reality in which people share their gifts so that children and the most vulnerable are fed and safe, a reality in which provision is made for the stranger and sojourner, a reality in which families are not ripped apart by bad and unevenly applied laws, a reality in which the healing arts are extended to those who are sick regardless of whether they are rich or poor; the in-breath fueling John’s cry is the vision of a reality in which people are not afraid of difference, but delight in the rich variety within the human family, a reality in which guns are transformed into farming tools, a reality in which slavery and the violence that roams in the night is a thing of distant memory.


This vision of peace and care is a vision of God’s Kin-dom fulfilled; it’s a certainly incomplete composite of prophetic promises and when the vision will come to fruition is known only to God.  This vision of God’s future is the metaphorical in-breath of John and every prophet before and since. John breathed in the vision of God’s Kin-dom of peace and love and justice.  And then—only then—could he cry out with such strength and clarity: “repent!” Because the wilderness John inhabited is much like the one in which we stand today. And where we stand today doesn’t look like God’s reign of peace.


John’s proclamation is not a buttoned up, status quo, eggnog and cheeseball, bought-with-a-credit-card kind of thing. It is, rather, a cry reaching for something very, very different. For a world, for people, to be very, very different. Repentance, a dramatic turn from all that is wrong and a turn toward the ways of God’s love and peace—that is what’s clearly needed. Things need to change. And the prophetic vision—then as now—is both the fuel and the goal, both the inspiration and the focal point for that change.


Pastor Ben Roberts, our Director of Social Justice Ministries, shared a fascinating phenomenon with our worship team as we began thinking about how we would celebrate Advent at Foundry this year.  Here’s the upshot: A human being who is blindfolded can’t walk in anything remotely resembling a straight line.  When blindfolded, people end up going in circles and often end up where they started.  Studies show this is true when folks are placed in any context—an open field, a forest, a beach.  Without blindfolds, weather conditions affect the outcome. When the sun is shining, folks go in a straight line; cloudy, foggy days result in more circles. Researchers have yet to find any biological reason for this. As one author writes, “Humans, apparently, slip into circles when we can't see an external focal point, like a mountain top, a sun, a moon. Without a corrective, our insides take over and there's something inside us that won't stay straight.”[i]  So it seems that in order to get to a destination, we need to have a clear vision of where we want to arrive in the future. Having that vision affects each step we take in the present.


Our external focal point is the Kin-dom of God, the vision of a world at peace and living with love and justice. That is what gives us direction and a sense of peace—or at least encouragement that going in circles in the wilderness isn’t the only option.  The Kin-dom is our preferred destination and that vision affects the steps and direction of our lives today.  We have a fancy word for this in Christian metaphysics: “eschatology” is the study of how the vision of the future shapes the present.


John—in his appearance and his words—won’t let us forget that reaching the future vision requires change, requires repentance—and not just from others.  Unless you have already arrived at the perfect love and peace of life in God’s Kin-dom, free of any temptation, resentment, or apathy then you—like me—need to repent, to change.  But you can count on this: God wants to help you and God’s love and mercy are eternally present.  So breathe deeply today the hopeful vision of God’s reign of peace and love, and allow that in-breath to fuel your life and hope and grant you the ability to lift up your voice with strength, to sing God’s song of humility, justice, generosity, and love.


Perhaps we don’t have voices like our soloists today, or the breath and skill to play the instruments we hear; perhaps you don’t have the wild charisma of John the Baptizer; but as people who have taken in the good news of God’s love and the promise of a world transformed, our lives and voices and choices just might become what points others in a direction that gets us all where we want to go.



[i] Robert Krulwich, “A Mystery: Why can’t we walk straight?”