Stepping Out: Traveling Mercies

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC January 22, 2017, the third Sunday after the Epiphany.

 Texts: Isaiah 9:2-4, Matthew 4:12-23  


“Traveling mercies…”  These two words are often shared as a kind of blessing prayer as someone steps out upon a journey.  “Traveling mercies.”  I love to travel and always want to explore something new.  But I also get very anxious about leaving home—I worry about Harvey and AnnieRose (my dog and cat), I worry that my house is going to catch on fire (an old imagined nightmare).  I tend to manage anxiety pretty well most of the time, but, in addition to taking long trips away from home, two other things I really struggle with are gridlock and getting to the airport to catch a flight.  Both of those things require serious deep breathing exercises.  When gridlock is part of my journey to the airport to catch a flight, all bets are off.  I go into full-on give me paper bag to breathe into mode (at least on the inside).  All that is to say, I welcome prayers for traveling mercies.  I imagine we all do. Because making a journey is fraught with separation anxiety, with potential obstacles, hassles, and dangers.  Depending upon the terrain and events beyond our control, our very lives could be changed or lost. 


This weekend our country has experienced a peaceful transition from one president to another. We are stepping out onto a new stretch of road. And Lord knows we need traveling mercies for the journey.  Some of us are already experiencing separation anxiety.  Many of us are planning to encounter obstacles and dangers as we move forward.  We are organizing and mobilizing to do all in our power to make a way for all people to keep walking and moving forward—particularly those most in danger of being kicked aside or left behind or beaten along the road. 

But, as I and many before me have said: the journey we are on is not new.  John Lewis could remind us that this road we’re walking, this story we’re seeing unfold, is not new.  The nations of Standing Rock could remind us that this road we’re walking, this story unfolding, is not new.  Our sister, (newly consecrated United Methodist) Bishop Karen Oliveto, would most certainly remind us that this is not a new path we’re blazing. The survivors of Auschwitz and other “ethnic cleansing” massacres will affirm that this road we’re on is not new.  Factory workers, coal miners, folks who feel stuck in underpaying jobs or unemployment because their work has gone away know good and well this road we’re traveling is not new.  Immigrants and refugees across the world, organizers, union workers, the oppressed down through the ages would proclaim this journey is not only just beginning.  Our current moment is but one moment in, one location of, the ongoing struggle for God’s Kin-dom to be manifest on earth as it is in heaven.  It is the movement for justice and for peace and for reconciliation among all God’s people in all the earth.  It is a journey that always has its obstacles and dangers.  This has been true throughout our nation’s history. It has been true throughout the whole history recorded in our sacred texts. 


The prophet Isaiah—referenced in our Gospel passage—writes in the late eighth century B.C.E. along a particularly challenging stretch of the journey.  Israel was Assyrian-occupied territory.  Zebulun and Naphtali, tribes associated with the northern region of Galilee, are in anguish. Their home had been invaded by a hostile power, the rod of oppression was upon them, the other tribes of Israel had been scattered and overwhelmed.  The days seemed very dark indeed.  // When Jesus came into the world and onto the scene, Israel was Rome-occupied territory with a “game of thrones” struggle for power and control as the backdrop. That stretch of the journey was marked—as is always the case in such contexts—by the poor and vulnerable straining under injustice and prophets like John the baptizer get locked up for telling the truth.  In Matthew’s account, Jesus wasn’t even out of the manger and those wielding power and control in the world already want to kill him.


The journey we are on is not new and it has never been easy.  God knows it has never been easy.  It is not easy to be human. It is not easy to stay strong when things are hard. It is not easy to grow up.  It is not easy to let go.  It is not easy to trust or forgive.  It is not easy to keep getting up when others keep knocking you down.  It is not easy to live together in unity.  It is not easy to do justice.  It is not easy to love those who are difficult to love.  It is not easy to walk in the way that leads to life.  God knows.  And so God decided to get real with us, to get all human, to come into the world in solidarity to walk with us awhile. 


Today, that’s what Jesus is doing and as he walks, he came across some fisherfolk at their nets.  These were not guys who had signed up (or been qualified by the standardized tests of the day) to follow a Rabbi.  They were among the laborers, those of the daily grind, the family trade.  We don’t know how old Peter, Andrew, James, and John were when Jesus called them to follow. We don’t know their motivation for leaving their nets and stepping onto the path with Jesus.  Maybe they thought that by following a Rabbi they’d finally get some respect.  Maybe they thought that a different life, a different path would be easier than casting and mending nets every day. Whatever their motivation, what we know for certain is that when Jesus called them to follow, they joined him on the journey.  We also know their lives did not get easier.  I imagine there were extraordinary moments of joy and astonishment along the way. But, in many ways, following Jesus is more difficult than not following Jesus.  Because stepping out with Jesus means stepping out of your comfort zone.  It means stepping out of your blissful ignorance and the illusion of self-sufficiency.  It means stepping out of believing that the needs of others have nothing to do with you.  It means stepping out of the fiction that it’s all about you.  It means stepping out of paralyzing fear and despair.  Stepping out with Jesus means stepping onto a path of wisdom gained through pain, freedom gained through surrender, dependence learned through experience of our limit, and the piercing awareness that suffering and injustice anywhere is a threat to wholeness and justice everywhere.  Stepping out with Jesus is not easy.  But it is good.  It leads to a life that is more truly human, more meaningful, more whole.  The journey with Jesus will change your life, it will lead you to the life that is most truly yours, the one you were created to live.


I was just sharing with some folks the other day that I never imagined or wanted the role I’m in today…  I think of the young woman who was among the original organizers for yesterday’s Women’s March who, holding her infant onstage yesterday, said that before this, she’d never done anything like this before. You can bet Peter and Andrew and James and John didn’t sit around fantasizing about being community organizers, teachers, healers, preachers, martyrs.  They fished.  That’s what they did.  And yet Jesus came by and knew that they were capable of so much more; Jesus knew that they were not only capable, but desperately needed for the mission of the Gospel, to bear the light of God’s love to those who walk in the darkness of fear and oppression and despair.  Jesus comes by and sees you and me, too, knowing what we’re capable of and where we’re needed and what role we need to play wherever we find ourselves on the journey. 


Our spiritual tradition provides practices that help us listen for God’s voice, discern our calling, and guide and strengthen us as we walk the path with Jesus.  In the coming weeks, we’ll explore those practices together.  If you haven’t already signed up for our congregation-wide study of A Disciple’s Path I encourage you to do so—or just drop in to the class today.  This past week, it occurred to me that as we turn into this new and challenging era in our nation’s history I’m so grateful that we are going deeper as a community of faith into our understanding and practice of discipleship.  The practices of prayer, study, worship, community, generosity, service, and witness are what will fuel our ongoing work of sacred resistance.  And these practices will also help us walk the journey with love, patience, courage, gentleness, and wisdom.  It will be easy and tempting to travel through the coming days and years without those things. It will be tempting to walk in arrogance, anger, hatred, and fear.  Amidst so much beauty, inspiration, and vision at yesterday’s march, I did notice that when speakers would call for love for folks on the other side of the vote, when folks would speak of fighting for the dignity and justice and needs of people on all sides of the issues, it got silent… We as God’s people have to step out into that gap. We are called to be a people of love.


Jesus calls us to follow his lead…to love God, to love each other, and by the power of that love, to change the world.  That journey is not new. It is not easy. But God walks with us, holds us, nudges us, guides us, opens our eyes, softens our hearts, releases our grip, gives us courage, turns us around, wakes us up, loves us…God loves us, loves the world, loves you, God is with you…a light to guide and liberate us, a light that shines in the darkness and will always prevail.  In other words, God grants us traveling mercies.  So…let’s go!