Sermon: Sacred Tenderness by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli

March 27, 2022

A homily in three parts preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC March 20, 2022, fourth Sunday in Lent. “Roots of Resistance” series, special music Sunday.

Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32                                        


“Sacred Tenderness: Love”


Throughout Lent we’re focused on our call to practice sacred resistance and searching the scriptures to deepen our understanding of this way of being and acting in the world. In the years after I wrote the book Sacred Resistance, a related phrase has persistently danced around in my head and my heart: “sacred tenderness.” It has become ever more clear to me that how we understand God—who God is, what God is like—will set a course for all our thinking, feeling, and action. It affects everything. And our culture continues to be inundated with the idea that the Christian God is more about control, judgment, and punishment than about liberation, mercy, and new life. This is fueled in part by news media generally persisting in narrowly using “Christian” as shorthand for the more legalistic, exclusive, fear- and control-based version of the faith.


The well-known parable we receive today, however, presents a different vision, highlighting the tenderness of God. Tenderness may evoke weakness for some, but I believe it is the fuel for true strength. I believe that the strength to resist evil, injustice, and oppression, the strength to practice sacred resistance comes from the sacred tenderness of God and in a very precise way.


Sacred resistance begins in the tender heart of God. It is the result of God’s love and our response. Out of an overflowing love desiring to be shared, God creates the world and all that is. Out of love, God seeks relationship with humankind. Out of love, God provides everything we need to live in peace, joy, and wholeness. And when we, God’s children, turn away and our love fails, God’s love remains steadfast. God resists abandoning us!


God could have chosen at any point along the way to let us go, to write us off. Across the ages, God’s people make promise after promise, only to get distracted and wander off into the emptiness of self-made idols and the conflict that inevitably results as the fruit of injustice. God loves us and wants to be close to us. We pay lip service to God and want to be close to our stuff. It’s an old story that gets repeated through the ages. But here’s the thing: God consistently resists leaving us alone! God—like the Father with his two sons in the parable—chooses to stay with us, to never give up on us, to keep calling us to live into the image that is our birthright. God loves us with an everlasting, stubborn love. That fierce, tender love is the model and the fuel for sacred resistance. Resistance is only sacred when it is fueled by love, love that looks upon each person with a desire for their wellbeing, love that looks upon human community with a desire for healing and peace with justice, love that looks into all creation with a desire for mending and reverence, love that is compassionate and merciful, love that is stubborn and sacrificial. This sacred tenderness is how God loves the world. This is how God loves you. This is how God created you to love.


“Sacred Tenderness: Home”

While [the son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” (Lk 15:20)  Jesus’ parable imbues the father with the sacred tenderness and stubborn love of God. The father doesn’t turn away or run away. The father has been waiting and watching for any sign of his beloved child’s return and when the son appears, there is no hesitation—he runs toward his precious one and embraces him.


Henri Nouwen gently teaches this parable using the image of seeking our true “home.” In the parable, both the younger and the elder son were disconnected from their true home. The younger son intentionally wanders away and breaks all the rules; and the elder son is lost even though he’s remained close and labored to be the good son. The home they struggle to find is that place where they can rest in the love of their father, that place where they can trust that they’ve always been loved—loved even when they were ungrateful, even when they were making terrible choices, even when they were cruel, even when resentment bubbled over, even when pride held them hostage. In the midst of it all, home is waiting, God is watching for any sign of return…and God runs to the elder just as to the younger…God goes out to meet the one on the road and the other outside the feast, entreating each to enter into the love and joy and embrace of home.


Jesus tells this story with an open ending. The invitation and embrace is offered, but we don’t get to hear how it all turns out. The younger and the elder sons may yet fail to truly get home. There remains an open end for us as well. Are we willing to open our hearts and lives to the sacred tenderness of God? Can we believe that God will forgive us, that God loves us even when we don’t love God back, even when we’ve done our worst, when we’re at our worst?


“Sacred Tenderness: Sacrifice”

Our story today reveals the tenderness of God, our loving parent. Based on the culture of the time, when the son says, “give me the share of the property that will belong to me” he is demanding the inheritance what would come at his father’s death. He might as well have said to his dad, “I can’t wait for you to die!”  This is a supreme insult and the father would have been seen by his peers as weak and disgraceful for granting the younger son’s insolent demands.


But when that son appears at the end of the road, the father is out the door like a flash… Regardless of what would be considered appropriate behavior, the father just loves the son—offers grace and embrace and forgiveness. The extravagance of the father’s love for this son is symbolized by the sacrifice of the fatted calf, a gesture reserved for the VIPs of the time—this feast was an all-out bash! And when the elder son throws his temper tantrum about it, the father extends the same love and tenderness to him.


At the heart of the Gospel is the promise that God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness are extended to everyone—even those deemed unworthy. The reason Jesus tells this parable is that, because he was giving the good stuff to people who didn’t “deserve it,” some religious folk started grumbling, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:2)  Before we make ourselves saints, thinking we’d never take such issue, just consider our potential reaction if Jesus accepted an invitation to eat and drink with certain, current senators ahead of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. It’s difficult for us not to make God into a God who should only show love and mercy to those we think deserve it. Jesus welcoming sinners, having mercy on sinners, loving and forgiving sinners is the point.


Sinners don’t deserve the fatted calf. We don’t deserve the fatted calf, we don’t deserve embrace, we haven’t earned the family name “Beloved,” we haven’t done anything to warrant God’s sacrifices of love. We don’t deserve the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world through love and humility and friendship and embrace and solidarity with us even unto death on a cross. But our tender, loving God—just as any loving parent—makes sacrifices to help us thrive and bears with all of us, doesn’t give up on us, keeps believing in us, resists abandoning us, just keeps loving us no matter what. That kind of love has saving power. That kind of love has the power to take away the sins of the world. And, ultimately, to give us peace. Thanks be to God.