“This is our spiritual context for today,” said the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli after she stuck her fingers in her ears and began to chant, “La, la, la, la, la.” The congregation repeated “La, la, la, la, la.”
“We are people who will not hear the instructions of the Lord,” she said.
Gaines-Cirelli was preaching at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “In — We Trust,” and the Scripture text was Isaiah 30:8-18.
Gaines-Cirelli has both an older and younger sibling who have significant hearing loss. They both found a way to thrive through lip-reading, hearing aids and hard work.
“They found humor to be good medicine,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “One day my sister sat in class with her hand cupped against her ear, making her hearing aid whistle. The substitute teacher did not know what was going on, and she delighted her classmates.”
Her brother and sister also had the option of just ignoring people by saying that they did not hear them.
“They called putting in their hearing aids ‘putting in their ears,’ ” Gaines-Cirelli said. “If only we could find a way to put in our ears, we might hear what God is saying in these disturbing, difficult days.”
She said she longed for a word from the Lord, even if that word was hard to hear. To have “ears to hear” means to fully receive the message being shared, “to take it in and let it change our lives. We have proven that we are spotty at best in doing this, and that is what makes it so difficult for God’s word to get through.”
Her Scripture text, Isaiah 30, was written in the eighth century B.C. in Jerusalem after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel. Assyria was trying to conquer Judah, and King Hezekiah looked to Egypt for an alliance. Isaiah said this was a “covenant of death.”
Isaiah called the people of Judah “rebellious children” who carry out a plan that is not God’s and make alliances, but not the ones that God wants.
“Why is Isaiah so upset? He has seen what Assyria had done and Judah was vulnerable,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “He knew that Hezekiah was just trying to be a good king, but that is the crux. From whom did Hezekiah seek help?”
Isaiah saw that Hezekiah paid lip service to God, but he was paying attention to human counsel and looking for strength in a quest for safety. But the people of Judah knew where to find help — in doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God and loving their neighbor as themselves.
“They knew that to put their trust in humans was idolatry,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “They were a people formed by a liberating God who had heard their cries in slavery, and given them an identity through a sacred story. But when Isaiah reminded them of that, all they could say was ‘blah, blah, blah.’ ”
The people did not want to be bothered with a word from the Lord; they preferred to put their heads in the sand and make a covenant of death and “hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.”
“This is the same old story, the same old choice from age to age,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “Moses set life and death before the people in giving them the covenant and said to choose life. Joshua in the wilderness called on the people to renew their covenant with God. Jesus, tempted by the devil in the wilderness, had to choose. You and I have to choose every day.”
It matters where we put our trust, she said.
“Who and what we worship shapes who we are and shapes our action,” she said. “And your choice of news outlet shapes you; your choices have consequences and these are life and death.”
Isaiah called out Judah because the people were trusting oppression and deceit. Their needs were being met by bullying greed, and they saw lying and scheming as the most effective form of relationships.
“What happens to our minds, souls and spirits when our leaders put their trust in oppression and deceit? What happened to the people?” Gaines-Cirelli asked. “You know the answer. It is an old story that you have seen again and again.”
She quoted columnist Michael Gerson, who wrote that this oppression creates an “ethos in which victory matters more than character.” When leaders indulge in stiffing contractors, lying to students, nepotism, self-dealing and oppressing women, it rallies the worst angels of human nature.
“A faith that makes losing a sin will make cheating a sacrament,” Gerson wrote.
A culture that is saturated with making losing a sin is directly opposite what God wants, Gaines-Cirelli said.
“Wealth and fame are the promises of idols,” she said. “God is trying to wake us up. Those promises can’t be trusted and the cost is everything.”
She described a “Pearls Before Swine” cartoon, where Pig and Rat are trying to develop mottos to live by. Pig’s is “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Rat’s is “Crush the little people.” After a pause, Rat says, “Just trying to be realistic.”
“Being realistic means doing whatever we think will give us comfort, power and wealth and that exploitation is unavoidable,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “It seals a covenant with oppression and deceit because that is the way the game is played and it is the little people — the children, the poor, the sick — who suffer.”
Author David Walsh wrote a book in 1996 called Selling Out America’s Children: How America Puts Profits before Values — And What Parents Can Do, which described the values he said were endemic in media. They included: happiness is everything, get all you can for yourself, get it quickly, win at all costs, violence is entertaining, always seek pleasure and avoid boredom.
“This is the content of our current cultural religion,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “We may have ‘In God We Trust’ on our money, but our money serves other gods. There are many who call themselves Christians who worship at these altars and who would not admit it. Consider the ways we remain deaf, how our lives are co-opted by these cultural claims.”
The good news, she said, is that as strong as these claims are on our lives, “our God is just as persistent even after centuries of willful rejection. God waits for you and will show you mercy; God is determined to get through your steadfast stubbornness.”
God wants to save us from the devastation of idols. Once upon a time, “God got up in our face with a face just like ours to say that love is the most powerful value.”
“Not the love that they have talked about in White House news conferences this week,” she said, “but the kind of love that is patient, kind, not envious or boastful, not arrogant or rude, doesn’t insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful, does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.”
She concluded: “That love has drawn near in Jesus Christ for whom denial, betrayal, back room deals or even death, were no match for the love God had enfleshed. Love is spoken eternally. Are your ears in? Are your ears in? I pray it may be so.”
The congregation rose for a standing ovation.
The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr., director of the Department of Religion, presided. Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the Chautauqua Choir. Pati Piper and Peter Steinmetz served as cantors for Responsorial Psalm 100, “We are God’s People,” setting by David Haas. The Chautauqua Choir sang anthem “Bogoroditse Devo,” by Sergei Rachmaninov from his “All Night Vigil,” in high church Slavonic. The offertory music was “How Excellent Thy Name,” by Howard Hanson, a longtime Chautauquan who served as head of the Eastman School of Music for 40 years. The organ postlude was “Toccata for Grand Organ, 0p. 39,” by Camil van Hulse. Van Hulse lived in Tucson after moving from Belgium for his health, and presented Jared Jacobsen with the score while Jacobsen was in graduate school. The Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund and the Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy Fund provide support for this week’s services.