February 20, 2022
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC February 20, 2022, the seventh Sunday after Epiphany. “Shine On!” series.
Text: Luke 6:27-38
Even after all this time,
the sun never says to the earth,
“You owe me.”
Look what happens
with a love like that:
it lights the whole sky.”[i]
This poem attributed to the Sufi poet Hafiz is a beautiful illustration of what Jesus says in our Gospel for today. Again and again, Jesus names things that, according to the world, would expect or require a certain “payback.” In the world, if someone hurts you, hurt them back. If someone speaks ill of you, you give your version of a smear campaign right back. If your property is taken, take it back. The worldly relational economy is tit for tat, an eye for an eye, an economy of gifts only on loan, always with fine print, an economy of debts to be paid and always with interest.
But, as Pastor Kelly pointed out last week, in Jesus’ sermon “on the plain” what Jesus says is directly counter to worldly expectations. Not only does he teach not to seek “pay back” for harm. He says love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Like the sun who never says to the earth, “you owe me…” This is a whole different economy. This is a Kin-dom economy.
These provocative teachings of Jesus can easily get twisted. And “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” have been used to encourage persons in abusive relationships to stay and continue to take the blows. That is not the point and it must always be spoken aloud when these verses are shared in public. Jesus isn’t saying that to be a good Christian you have to be a doormat for abusers or remain in a life-threatening relationship. Jesus is teaching an ethic of love based on the love of God for us. This ethic of love calls upon each of us to claim their own sacred worth, voice, dignity, and agency such that we know we deserve to be treated with gentleness and care; AND, when we’ve been hurt, to not “go low” by retaliating in kind. But to “go high,” maintain dignity, and choose not to return evil for evil, hate for hate, or violence for violence.
It’s also easy to twist these teachings of Jesus such that we focus on the “reward” that’s promised. Upon quick review, it may sound like Jesus is saying that if you don’t judge other people, they won’t judge you; or if you don’t condemn others, they won’t condemn you; or if you give, without expecting anything in return, you’ll get it all back because you’ve been so good. But let’s be serious. You can hold your tongue, work hard to be gracious toward others, give generously of yourself and your resources to other people and they can turn around and betray, hurt, and judge you. Sometimes others might do unto you as you’ve done unto them. But so often in the world, it’s harm that gets reciprocated. Mercy, generosity, and kindness, aren’t as regularly given back. So what do we do with that?
Notice in verses 35 and 36 that the reward isn’t coming from other people. The reward comes from the grace of God present and active in you. The reward for following the teaching of Jesus is that you aren’t living beneath your dignity. Or, said positively, the reward is that by allowing the love, generosity, and mercy of God to be manifest in your life, you are reflecting God, you are being merciful as your Mother/Father is merciful, you are living as the child of the Most High that you are.
This is among the powerful insights Howard Thurman illuminates in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman is painfully aware of the ways that Christian teachings about heaven, forgiveness, love and the like can sound like a call for Black Americans and others with their backs against the wall to stay there, to forgive their oppressors 70-times-7, and wait for liberation in the great by and by. But Thurman is insistent that Jesus’ teaching is “a technique of survival for the oppressed”[ii] and calls for “a radical change in the inner attitude of the people.”[iii] Thurman claims that “anyone who permits another to determine the quality of [their] inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to [their] destiny.”[iv]
When others “go low,” what do you allow that to do to your inner attitude? This focus on the inner attitude is not about disconnecting from the real suffering and injustice of the world, but is rather a way of not being utterly destroyed by it. It is a way of maintaining dignity and agency when everything around you wants to steal or destroy those sacred gifts. Thurman highlights Jesus’ teaching that, regardless of our outward circumstances, we have agency of our inner attitude. Our inner attitude affects our outward response and action.
Over the past number of weeks, through both sermons and witnesses from siblings in the Foundry family, we’ve been focusing on the spiritual practices that are part of our covenant as Foundry UMC. These practices are all ways that we attend to, nourish, strengthen, and form our “inner life” and attitude. You don’t just wake up one day and have the inner resources to persevere in peace, love, and dignity in adversity. You can’t just click your ruby slippers and grow in love or capacity to trust. Because everything in the world around us trains us for retaliation, for defensiveness, for quid pro quo.
Part of John Wesley’s genius was creating a system and method to assist human spiritual growth, to create spaces and intentional community where people like you and me can regularly put ourselves into the flow of God’s unending grace, love, and mercy and, as a result reflect more of God in our lives. Practices and partners with whom to share the journey are key. We need one another. Prayers and scriptural reflection, presence in worship and small groups, generosity and faithful financial stewardship, service of all kinds, and being and sharing a witness to God’s grace are practices we promise to share as part of this beloved community. Foundry is only as strong as these practices among us. When any one of them is neglected, the strength and vitality of our communal life is diminished. Over the past number of years, we have worked to systematically strengthen the resources that help us practice and live out all the parts of our shared covenant.
As part of that work, the Foundry Board has set as an ongoing priority that we work to deepen our understanding of generosity as a spiritual practice and to increase awareness of the ways that we can practice faithful financial stewardship. I like to remind us that financial giving is one of the most profound ways we practice Jesus’ Kin-dom economy instead of the worldly economy. The worldly economy is transactional, an economy where the Sun would throw the moon in debtors prison and jack up the interest rates just because it was possible. There are some who bring this way of thinking about giving into faith community. They figure that if they are giving, they should get to stay in control. “I’ll give, IF…”
But part of the spiritual practice of giving is to loosen our grip. When we give to support the shared life, mission, and ministry of Foundry, we do so in relationship with one another. It is an interaction, not just a transaction. As a member of the Baltimore-Washington Conference delegation to General Conference, I’ve been engaged in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training. Our trainer, Dushaw Hockett, highlights this distinction between interaction and transaction. Interaction is being in mutual relationship with someone we perceive as a sibling and fellow child of God. Transaction is using someone, more like a thing, to try to get what you want or think you need.
When we give, it’s in the context of mutual, covenant relationship. We allow our gift to flow into the community of which we are part and within which we have a voice and agency. We can participate in crafting and creating vision and mission. But the gift we make isn’t ours to control. It isn’t given to hold the community hostage. It isn’t about only getting what we ourselves need. It’s about creating community that provides for the needs of the whole family as much as possible—and that then reaches out beyond the family to do justice and kindness in the world.
The spiritual practice of generosity in financial giving is risky. It can make us feel vulnerable and afraid that we won’t have enough. So much in the world’s economy trains us to be afraid and to do whatever we can to assure our own comfort and sense of safety. The Kin-dom economy—the upside down way taught by Jesus in the sermon on the plain—encourages us to practice being uncomfortable and vulnerable for the sake of others, for the cause of love and justice, for the common good. It encourages us to trust that, together with God and one another, we will always have enough.
Just look at what happens when our gifts shine with the love, grace, and generosity of God. They give light to the whole world!