Sermon: Loving Presence by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli

January 30, 2022

 A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry United Methodist Church on January 30, 2022, the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. “Shine On!” series. | Texts: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30            


Do you have to “go to church” to be a Christian? Evidently there was quite the robust conversation on this topic amongst our last confirmation class. There are at least a couple of solid responses. First, I would pose a follow up, slightly more specific question: Does showing up for worship and other church activities on a regular basis make you a Christian? If, by Christian, we mean (as we say in our Baptismal liturgy) “a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life” then the answer is a resounding, “no.” Going to a church makes you a Christian as much as going to a garage makes you a car. It is quite possible to be a card-carrying Christian whose life has little resemblance to Jesus—and perhaps even does damage to Jesus’ good name.


The story of what happens when Jesus goes back to his “home church” in Nazareth is a good example. Jesus reminded the people of that congregation that God’s prophetic work focused on those considered “outsiders” or “other,” implying this would be the case for Jesus’ ministry as well. The hometown crowd couldn’t stand the thought that he wouldn’t just share his gifts with them, they were enraged at Jesus’ implication that the miracle of his love would be offered to people whom they deemed enemies, to people they despised. When Jesus went to his home church to visit the adults with whom he had grown up, perhaps folks who had taught him the Torah, and played with him as a child, perhaps adults whom he had admired…what happened?  They didn’t just damage his name, they tried to kill him. They had somehow missed the part in scripture about caring for the stranger and sojourner, doing justice, and walking humbly with God. They wanted what they wanted for themselves, for their own “tribe”—they were looking out for themselves.


But, as Jesus points out and models, the Judeo-Christian story provides a stark contrast to this human tendency. The story we tell is not just about us as individuals, not just about “me.” It’s about “WE.” Our faith is all about relationships, it involves caring about more than just my own needs or desires, it involves being part of a community, it involves caring not just for my own tribe, my own congregation, my own nation, my own faith tradition, it involves attending to the needs of the most vulnerable ones in God’s creation. These relational, communal, other-focused aspects of the faith are not peripheral to our practice of Christian faith. They are at the very core.


And here is where we get to another response to the confirmands’ conversation. In short, “there is no such thing as solitary Christianity. Being a follower of Jesus means being in community with other followers of Jesus. We can be…spiritual without the presence of other people in our lives, but we cannot be growing disciples of Jesus Christ without the encouragement, guidance, wisdom, and accountability of other disciples.”[i]


I often talk about the community of the church as the “lab” or training ground for the rest of our lives. It is in our faith community that we get to practice mercy, compassion, leadership, courage, speaking up, holding our tongues, sharing our gifts, honoring others’ gifts, and all the rest. The 1st letter to the Corinthians was focused on helping that congregation get clear about where they needed to do better in their practice. As Pastor Ben pointed out last week, Paul is speaking to the ways that some gifts were being valued more than others, some people being valued more than others. Paul encouraged them to practice a more excellent way of living in relationship and community, the way of love. We practice when we are present with one another.


Weekly gatherings for worship are our most regular, broadly shared communal experience of relating to God and to one another. For those who are new among us on any given Sunday, what they see, hear, and do as part of our worship tells them a lot about who we are and what we’re about. For those of us who worship as Foundry regularly, everything we do in worship is an occasion for rehearsing our faith. One writer says that “the repeated patterns and practices of Christian worship over time shape us in ways of being with God and one another. In the repeated patterns and practices of Christian worship, we are formed and fashioned into the values and vision of the gospel.”[ii]  “Repeated patterns and practices,” it is suggested, are necessary in order to be formed into the shape that more closely resembles the Kin-dom of heaven. 


Think of a body-builder: if he wants to change the shape of his body to emphasize certain aspects of his physique, then regular, repeated patterns and practices are required. The same movement, over and over, builds strength and definition. If we want our lives to look a certain way, to have particular characteristics and reflect particular values, then repeated patterns and practices—disciplined habits—are required to help our lives take that shape. We might also think about a sports team. Individuals can practice the fundamentals on their own, but the team won’t play well together or accomplish its goal unless each person is consistent in team practice and utilizes each team member’s different strengths.


The repeated patterns and practices of Christian worship, meant to be lively and life-giving can certainly become formulaic, boring, and, well…deadly. The founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, was deeply concerned that the 18th century Anglican Church of which he was a part had devolved into empty ritualism, seemingly cut off from the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit. His response was to organize small groups to study the Bible, pray, support one another in the faith, hold each other accountable, and serve the poor. These small groups provided a context within which folks nurtured a faith that was really connected to their everyday life and deepened their relationship not only with others on the disciple’s path, but also with the God they worshiped when they showed up on Sunday morning. Wesley remained an Anglican priest his whole life and always expected members of the small groups within the Methodist societies to worship at their parish church, bringing their spiritual awakening with them into the pews to enliven the ritual with a vital and living faith in a living God! 


Our spiritual heritage as United Methodists, therefore, is rich with a model for small group community, with worship patterns and practices of the Anglican Church out of which we grew, and an intentional focus on the movement of the Holy Spirit who is always at work in our daily lives and in our worship to challenge, transform, inspire, and make us new.


There is a basic pattern and movement—gathering in prayer and praise, being encountered by the Word of God, responding to the Word in acts of faith, generosity, sacrament, and commitment, and being commissioned and sent forth. And we are repeat this pattern again and again and again… Within the basic pattern, those of us who plan worship may add something creative or different at the prompting of Spirit. And in any given week, something may happen “on the spot”—something unplanned or uncontrolled. The regular pattern and practice of communal worship creates the trusted “container” in which Spirit can move in surprising ways.


I will never forget the Ascension Sunday when, after preaching a sermon inspired by an image of Christ dancing into heaven, I planned to have my friend sing the song “I Hope You Dance.” I knew I would invite the congregation to respond during the song, but wasn’t sure what form that response would take—whether it would be an invitation to pray at the altar or in the pews, or—well, I just didn’t know ahead of time. When the time came, I simply invited folks to respond however they wanted to…they could pray, they could just ponder, they could dance, whatever. And, lo and behold, people got up and started dancing together, right there in church!


Communal ritual—whether in worship or participation in a small group—helps create trust that allows taking risks like that. It’s also important because of its consistency. It helps us remain in relationship to God and to one another through the varying conditions of our lives and the inconsistencies of our feelings and moods; this is why I encourage those who are grieving—or those struggling in their faith—to get back into regular worship or connection with their small group as soon as possible; the ritual helps provide something constant, a place to be held.


It has also been said that ritual practice is necessary for us because of our persistent amnesia—our forgetting who we are, whom we live for, and why.[iii] And so we gather in small groups to remember, to share what’s real in our lives and to receive encouragement, support, and prayer for the journey. We are present with one another in worship to pray, listen, and ponder, to sing our praises to God, to speak words full of poetry and mystery that call us to remember the story, to remember who we are and who God is and why we are here anyway—that it’s not all about “me” or just looking out for Number One, that there is something larger of which we are a part and that there is hope for our lives no matter what the circumstances.


Perhaps the most poignant example for me of the power of communal ritual to form and shape us and to become so much a part of us that it lives in our bones is the experience of praying and singing with folks who suffer from Alzheimers Disease or dementia. Somehow the Lord’s Prayer, the favorite Christmas carol—whatever was repeated and enlivened through the rituals of the Church for that person—those things remain when so much else is lost. The disease can’t touch that part of them; they can still recite those prayers… Those rituals live in very deep places in us. They form us; and they remind us who we are even when so much else of our lives is forgotten.


And, of course, the thing that matters most of all in life is the love we give and receive. Cultivating relationships, caring for one another, sharing life in all its complications, and highs, and lows, working shoulder to shoulder for things that matter, laughing, crying, and persevering together—this is the heart of it all. Our worship and our intentional connections in relationship with one another in small groups, classes, ministry teams and committees provide the place for us to practice living faith, hope, and love. Only when we’ve been at it awhile, will we be able to create enough trust to do the really difficult things and work together in ways that truly honor every gift and member. It is in these contexts we are formed and grow in the love and compassion that reflects the life of God revealed in Jesus.


Do you have to “go to church” to call yourself a Christian? No. Do you need to be part of intentional covenant community—even with all its challenges, needs, disappointments, and foibles—to be fully shaped and formed over the course of your life in the perfect love of God in the image of Jesus? Well… yes. The good news is there are so many ways to connect intentionally in ways that help us grow. The great news is that God’s faith in us, hope for us, and love for us abide. And that loving presence will guide your steps…and always on a path that leads to life.

[i]James A. Harnish, A Disciple’s Path: A Guide for United Methodists Companion Reader, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012, p. 38.

[ii] E. Byron Anderson, “Introduction,” Worship Matters: A United Methodist Guide to Ways to Worship, Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1999, p. 9.

[iii] Daniel T. Benedict, Jr., “Worship at the Heart of theCongregation’s Ministry System,” Worship Matters: A United Methodist Guide to Ways to Worship, Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1999, p. 21.