A Prodigal Worship homily by Rev. Ginger Gaines Cirelli
A Sermon prepared by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli
Saturday, April 21, 2012
Text: Ephesians 5:8-9
“Forget the Church, Follow Jesus”…Newsweek cover story on April 9th.
(Impossible. Because if you follow Jesus you love and cherish the church. The Jesus I know indwells the church, prays for the church, and died for the church…)
The author suggests (and is not the first) that that church is in crisis, that “Christianity has been destroyed”… There’s a lot of anxiety and hand-wringing… data based on the aging church show that “death-tsunamis” approach and “decline” is all too familiar... Clearly things are happening. Clearly things are challenging. Pastors are stymied and exhausted and congregants are frustrated. Easy to feel that we’re getting it all wrong.
But what if the church is simply in the crucible of new life…what if God is doing something new through the heat, the pressure, the rapid changes all around and within us? Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t want to panic (and I’m tired of feeling so tired and like I’m getting it wrong). I want to trust Jesus who promises that we will not be orphaned, that the Christ will be with us to the end of the age. In this Easter season, the primary promise (it seems to me) is that we need not be afraid of death, that new life emerges on the other side of suffering and loss and the tomb whenever God is involved.
If this is the case, if all the difficulty within the church these days is a sign of God’s bringing new life and vision into the world, then our job is to try to get in on that new life, to participate in the birthing of what is coming, to shine and share that light and tell that story—or at least to stay out of the way.
(I trust that later today we’re going to get some guidance on what to DO so I just want to throw out some very basic thoughts.) In order to do that we need to wrestle with several questions:
- Do we really believe the Easter promise that God is alive and working to transform the world? (or do we think it is all up to us?)
- Do we really want to follow Jesus and live as “children of light?”
Do we really believe the Easter promise that God is alive and working to transform the world?
The temptation in our culture is to fall into “I can do all things. Period.” I can self-help my way to a brighter future …I can get what I want…I can save myself… This individualism and self-sufficiency permeates everything. We who are disciples of Jesus want to say something different, we want to say “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” But, truth be told, I worry that we often get infected with the “I can do all things” bug. It then becomes extraordinarily frustrating when we can’t figure out why we can’t do what it is we are trying to do or be who we are trying to be. The answer is right in front of us: we have forgotten our power source, gotten disconnected from our source of light. If I’m wrong about this, then all of us and our churches are spending at least as much time in prayer, spiritual discernment, and Bible Study as in putting together goals, action plans, and gathering data.
In order to see and hear and live in the Light of Christ, we have to cultivate a real relationship with Christ, we have to look and to listen—that means we have to expect something. And then we have to surrender our self-sufficiency and draw ever closer to God in prayer and scripture and sacrament. We have to believe that God is doing something even when we can’t see it, that we are part of the unfolding story of God’s loving transformation… The invitation is to hold what is happening or not happening in the/your church in the context of believing—really believing—that God is at work and ask Christ for the eyes to see and the hearts to perceive and understand whatever is needed to be learned or let go… We can’t share what we don’t have, what we haven’t experienced or what we don’t believe…To be light you have to know and dwell in the light!
Do we really want to follow Jesus and live as children of light?
“What is to give light must experience burning.”
If the light we are to be and share is the Light of the world, Jesus the Christ, then what do you suppose we might be called to do or be that could burn?
- humility, surrender, failure (according to the ways of the world), uncertainty, sacrifice, unrequited love, risk, doubt, vulnerability.
- Solidarity with those on the edges,
- suffering for the sake of others,
- giving sacrificially,
- Being honest about our prejudice and racism and homophobia and praying for God to grace us with a more perfect love
If we want to BE Light, to reflect the Light that is Christ, then we have to remember that “those who would give light must experience burning…” There’s a reason the most powerful and memorable testimonies so often come from someone who’s been through it…who has suffered.
There is something that happens when folks persevere with faith and love in the midst of the “burning”…the light and heat transforms them, purifies and strengthens them.
A group of women who were studying the book of Malachi came to verse three of chapter three, which says, "He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver." This verse puzzled the women. They wondered what they could learn from it about the character and nature of God. One of the women offered to find out about the process of refining silver and report back to the group at their next Bible study. She phoned a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him work. She didn't mention anything about the reason for her interest other than her curiosity about the process of refining silver. As she watched, the silversmith held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that he needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire, where the flames are hottest, in order to burn away all the impurities. The woman thought about God holding us where the "flames" are hottest. She remembered that the verse says God "sits" as a refiner and purifier of silver, so she asked the silversmith if it's true that he has to sit by the fire the whole time the silver is being refined. The man answered that, yes, he not only has to sit there holding the silver, but he must keep his eyes on it the entire time because if it is left even a moment too long in the flames, it will be destroyed. The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked, "How do you know when the silver is fully refined?" He smiled at her and said, "Oh, that's easy--when I can see my image in it."
What if it is really true? What if we don’t need to be afraid? What if we really can trust that even in the midst of this moment of challenge and pressure and attacks from without and within in the church—what if we can trust that a living and loving God is steadfast in watching us, will not let us be destroyed, is just busy as ever bringing about a new creation…refining the church so that we more clearly reflect the divine image? What if our frustrations and sacrifices and energies are all offerings in service to God’s emerging vision? It doesn’t relieve us from a sense of urgency, but to claim this Easter stuff and to really live it might mean that we are, at the very least, less cynical and defeated and distrustful and at best that we are a more faithful, engaged, loving, and grace-filled church—the kind of church no one could forget…or would want to.