Sermon: Are We There Yet? by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli

October 31, 2021

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, October 31, 2021, the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost. “Prepare the Table with Justice and Joy” series.
Texts: Psalm 23:1-3, Mark 12:28-34

We are taking our time on our journey through the 23rd Psalm. Two and a half verses have taken us 4 weeks and we’ll get through the final three verses by Thanksgiving. Today, we are in the middle of the journey, verse 3b: “God leads me in right paths for His name’s sake.”

We live in a culture that isn’t always so good at taking our time. Waiting is generally not high on “favorite things to do” lists. The path we tend to want is one that gets us where we are going as soon as possible. I think about how excited I am when my navigation app interrupts regularly-scheduled programming to announce I could save 4 minutes by taking a different route! Yes! Of course I want to do that!

I often wish God was more like my navigation app. I wish I could plug in my preferred destination in life and get not only turn-by-turn guidance, but an ETA. Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve reflected much about the extreme disorientation caused by not knowing how long a thing is going to last. Early on it was how long do we have to stay in quarantine and when will there be a vaccine? Then how long until we can safely gather in worship? When will it be safe to sing without masks? How long until our children will finally be vaccinated? Added to that, of course, are the questions about when we as a nation might finally grow the collective moral spine to put into policy and practice the high ideals we profess in our words. How long will it take to not just talk about, but truly live “liberty and justice for ALL?”

If God the good shepherd is leading us on a path, I want both the illustrated picture with turn-by-turn guidance AND an estimated time for when we’ll reach the longed-for destination. Whether the uncertainty and waiting is related to pandemics or relationships or vocation or clarity of direction or spiritual growth or health or whatever, the not knowing how long is beyond difficult. …I hear my brother, sister, and me as children in the back seat on one of our many trips to Arkansas or Texas to see our grandparents—you know the refrain: Are we there yet? How much longer?

Where is God with the directions for how to accomplish what we’re trying so hard to do and to get us to the finish line? Where is God with the time-saving option to get us where we want to be? Because we want to get there NOW.

Rabbi Harold Kushner says, “There is a story in the Talmud about the traveler who asks a child, ‘Is there a shortcut to such-and-such a village?’ The child answers, ‘There is a shortcut that is long and a long way that is short.’” Kushner then shares that the Hebrew phrase in verse 3b is more complex than can be easily captured in translation. He says “right paths” “literally means ‘roundabout ways that end up in the right direction.’” So, as the child says, there may be shortcuts or “easier” paths to our destination, but they could end up taking longer, being harder, and costing more in the end.

I was curious about Kushner’s translation of “right paths” and discovered that the Hebrew word translated “path” (בְמַעְגְּלֵי־—ma’aglei –mah-awg lah) literally means a circumvallation, an entrenchment—or figuratively, a wagon track. And the word shows up in biblical stories as the “circle of the camp.” Some resources translate the word simply “in circles.” Kushner’s nuanced Hebrew helps us understand that the “path” is not a straight line from point A to point B. It has a circular tendency, is a “roundabout way that ends up in the right direction.” It is “dug in”—not in the sense of stubbornness, but of being an intentional path, a worn path, a path with a purpose. //

Today we celebrate Holy Baptism. This is not the beginning of God’s love in Lillian-Pierce’s life, but it the beginning of an intentional journey as part of the Body of Christ, the church. It is the beginning of a life-long path, a long and winding road of learning and growing in God’s love and grace. Every person’s journey is deeply unique and the promise is that God is with each of us to guide us. Everything we go through from the highest joys to the experiences that, in the moment, we find unbearably painful, disappointing, or even dull are all things that shape and form us and—with God as our guide—can provide us with resources for living more wisely, with greater self-awareness, humility, and strength. Our commitment to one another as Foundry family is that, at every age and stage – all along the “roundabout” path of our lives—relationships and resources will be available to nurture, explore, and sustain our spiritual journey. No matter what.

And just as with any one person, every community of faith has its own unique twisty, turny journey of growth and development. For more than 207 years, through challenging seasons, moments of conflict or tension, big decision points, times of great change and times when it seemed nothing much was happening or we were just getting through—in and through all of that, God has been at work, guiding and calling and offering opportunities for the people of Foundry to be curious, to wonder, to wrestle with things, to learn and to grow as a congregation. Foundry Church has been in the midst of culture change for many recent years, seeking to be adaptive and responsive to the shifting landscape of the world, to the experiences of persons around us, and the needs of this generation of the Foundry family. To be a midwife of new life through culture change in congregations is the work God has given me again and again. The work is messy, surprising, and not accomplished in a day, a year, or even several. While there are signposts along the way for those who know where to look, culture change is a largely unmapped sojourn of unknown duration—often through wilderness places—where I inevitably join the chorus of God’s people who’ve long cried, “How long, O Lord? Are we there yet??” As with our lives, the promise—and my personal experience—is that, when we truly seek God’s guidance, the Good Shepherd, who is always at work in our midst, will bring us around to an experience of greater health and flourishing. God will get us where we need to go. There will likely be construction delays, accidents, and a variety of other things that will slow our roll to orange or red…but God will get us through.

It often feels or appears that things aren’t moving or changing at all. The “circular tendency” of the “right path” can simply leave us feeling like we’re going in circles, stuck in cycles that will never really change. Recently, I’ve heard more than one reaction to reading Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital expressing some level of despair over the way that the more things change in the world, the more racial inequity and injustice stays the same. And I remember a conversation with a close friend who expressed frustration that he seemed to be going in circles, thinking he had made some progress but then grappling with the very same issues over and over again.

The spiritual practice of traveling the labyrinth path is instructive here. The labyrinth is not a maze, a puzzle, or a trap, but rather a continuous path that twists and turns, eventually leading to the center. There are no dead ends. It is a circular journey that continually invites you to meet yourself at the same place, yet not quite. It feels that you are going in circles as you find yourself meeting a familiar issue again, but with every revolution, the path is taking you deeper toward the center of the circle. Every revolution changes you because you have taken another turn. And even though you can’t perceive it, you have come a long way. One of my mentors, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., is good at reminding all of us that the challenges to achieving racial equity and justice are the same as always, but significant things have been achieved, things have changed, we are dealing with the same issues, but at a whole new level. With each revolution, we grow closer to the center we seek.//

It has been interesting to see how the Gospel passages from the lectionary have paired with our focus text from Psalm 23. Today, we receive from Jesus the words that give shape to Foundry’s mission and vision, the words of the “great commandment”—to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The center of the Gospel, the center we seek is simply this: love. The center into which God guides us “in roundabout ways” is love. The right path is love.

Loving God and neighbor is not a short-term project or a simple, obstacle-free line from point A to point B. It is not without its wilderness places and unknowns, its conflicts and disappointments. Loving God and neighbor requires work and commitment, grace and forgiveness. Learning to love as God loves is the work of a lifetime.

Are we there yet? By God’s grace and with the guidance of the Good Shepherd, we are on the path of love, humility, compassion, mercy, and justice in our lives and as Foundry Church. And so, on that path, even when we don’t know how long it will take or what to expect, we can receive with assurance the words spoken by Jesus to the scribe: You are not far from the Kin-dom of heaven. God, our shepherd, guides us on right paths…we are not far. So for God’s sake, for our neighbors’ lives, and our own, let’s keep going.