The season of Lent offers us an opportunity to ponder the paths we’re traveling. What are we doing that is life-giving and where are we wasting time? What are we doing for justice? How are we sharing our gifts and what is holding us back? Who are we relying on for help? What gives us joy and what is draining our energy? Our lives of faith are an ongoing journey. God consistently calls us to turn and open our hearts to God’s love and mercy. God guides us along the road that leads to liberation and meaning, hope and purpose. This Lenten season, we invite you to join us on the journey and discover where God is leading us in community— and where God wants to take you.
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC March 10, 2019, First Sunday of Lent. “Traveling the Redemption Road” series.
Text: Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Where have you come from? Where are you now? And what have you come through to get there?
And as we begin this season of Lent, our focus is on the journey. We are traveling the redemption road, seeking to move from one place to another. We’re all at different places along the way. We have a variety of challenges, broken places, regrets, and more from which we hope to be redeemed—which is to be released, set free.
There are times when we may struggle to see how we will ever get free of the things that weigh us down and keep us stuck. It may be difficult to imagine a life free of guilt, free of destructive behaviors—or free of abuse and oppression that we experience from others. It will sometimes be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel or to hold fast to the promise on the other side of the wilderness or the new life on the other side of the tomb.
This isn’t only true for us as individuals, but also for us as communities—our churches, cities, states, and nation have much from which we need to be redeemed. We have sinned and done great harm over the course of history. Sometimes we have knowingly done hateful, exclusive things and sometimes even our good intentions have brought about suffering and death for others.
Lent is the time set apart in our faith tradition to focus on these painful truths—the brokenness of our own lives and the sins of the communities of which we are a part. We don’t focus on guilt in order to wallow, but rather to get free, to do better, to move along the road toward redemption. This season is also a time when we are reminded of our dependence upon God to help lead us there. //
Our text today from Deuteronomy is toward the end of what is written as Moses’ long farewell speech to the Israelites as he prepared for his death. It is a description of the worship ritual to bless the “first fruits” as a remembrance and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness. Embedded in the ritual is the ancient core of our faith story:
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deut 26:5-9)
The core of our faith is that when we are lost, wandering, exiled, enslaved, afflicted, hungry, and in despair, God hears our cries and sets us free. God leads us through the wilderness. God wants to get us through the rough places and into a green pasture and beside a still water. God is about bringing life out of death. Of creating new life where we can only perceive decay. And—don’t we know it?—God has brought you through. God will bring us through. //
One of the most important conversations happening right now in the midst of the horrific outcome of the United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis is around intersectional justice and inclusion. I sense that this is a place that God is determined to lead us to and through. It’s a messy conversation, but so deeply important as we turn toward the future in our congregation and denomination. For some, there is concern that, in our denomination’s focus on LGBTQ persons’ inclusion or exclusion, other marginalized persons in our church and society are being silenced and their suffering ignored by the church. Systemic racism and white supremacy, violence against immigrant populations, poverty, climate change, and devaluing the voices and leadership of our young people are getting named as places where the church is overwhelmingly silent. Some local congregations and some of our United Methodist agencies focus a lot on these matters. But some are pressing for more.
Generally, folk are so conditioned in “either-or” thinking that it’s difficult to hold the tension of “both-and.” For example, we’re either engaging the struggle for LGBTQ equity or racial equity.
Intersectionality theory highlights how either-or thinking sets us up to leave people out and even make them invisible. We who want to love as Jesus loves will at least try to figure out how to perceive, include, and honor all among us, those at the margins and those who live at the intersection of multiple margins; might we train ourselves to lift up the sibling who, for example, is black and trans and poor? As I read the Bible, my guess is that’s a person Jesus would see in a crowd when no one else was paying any attention.
There are moments when we need to focus on one part of the human family because of acute assault—that’s what drives our advocacy for LGBTQ inclusion in the church right now. It’s also what fuels our consistent focus on racial justice. But if we’re not careful, we can trample the most vulnerable on our well-meaning quest. That’s the outcry from the margins in this moment of denominational crisis. If we’re going to try to do something for justice and inclusion, let’s really try to do justice.
Here at Foundry I am increasingly clear that part of the redemption road we need to travel includes moving toward a much greater understanding of intersectionality—the ways that power and privilege can functionally silence and “erase” partners in the struggle for justice (we’ll talk about that a bit in my upcoming class on Sacred Resistance). And I’m committed more than ever to a vision for Foundry that includes a robust effort to create beloved community—in the Howard Thurman mode. We are a both-and congregation and part of a Wesleyan spiritual tradition that is also both-and. In this moment of disruption in our denomination, I encourage us to move away from any temptation to either-or exclusions and journey toward the place where we acknowledge our struggle to perceive and honor the most vulnerable among us. This is the time to let go of any tendency to compare sufferings or to think that if we’re oppressed, we don’t oppress others. This is the time to take up the call to reflect in our membership the full range of beautiful diversity of our city. This is the time to actively engage in work that presses each of us to confront whatever privilege we have and to be honest about the ways white supremacy, patriarchy, and other systemic oppression functions within our congregation even though we desire that it isn’t so.
I encourage you to read books from our racial justice reading list, to engage in the conversations about LGBTQ inclusion, participate in the monthly Sacred Resistance studies and events, or join in the exciting vision emerging between Foundry, Asbury, and John Wesley AMEZ.
This work is so hard and getting free of our stuff is not easy. We will likely wander in confusion and be held captive by old thinking again and again. But we’re not on the journey alone. The redemption road is frequented by a God who wants to take us to a place of freedom, a place of promise, a place where we keep moving but do so with a greater awareness of who’s on the journey all around us and who may need a helping hand to keep moving at various points along the way.
The exodus story is a journey story, a redemption story, an Easter story. It’s our story. Thanks be to God.