When the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli was serving as a youth minister, she was asked to preach one Sunday. One of the youth, Phil, wanted to see her before the service.
“I knew Phil liked me and he had been on mission trips and retreats and was aloof, as fitted a 16-year-old,” she said. “He asked if I was preaching and I said yes. He said, ‘Make it interesting.’ ”
Gaines-Cirelli was preaching at the 9:15 a.m. Monday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “Hear and See,” and the Scripture reading was Isaiah 30:8-18.
“That is such good counsel if you have ears to hear,” she said. “To invite people to receive God’s love and liberating grace, to share God’s life.”
This message has always been a challenge to be truly received.
Hearing is more than physical; it is not just intellectual assent or an emotional response. To truly hear “adjusts the core of our being and we are changed from the inside out.” Gaines-Cirelli said the most difficult journey is from the head to the heart and it is a round trip — a quote she attributed to 20th-century preacher William Sloane Coffin.
The prophet Isaiah had fully received God’s message and a vision had taken root in his heart of a community living in covenant faithfulness. It would be a community that rescued the oppressed, beat swords into ploughshares; it would be the vision of the peaceable kingdom.
“This vision of peaceful living and interdependence guided all he did; it was his grounding and he invited others to live it,” Gaines-Cirelli said of Isaiah. “He looked at Judah in crisis and saw it rejecting the vision and turning toward oppression and cunning that brought increased suffering and the presumed necessity of violence.”
It is only in quiet and trust that Judah could remember who was able to liberate them.
“In response to this blessed assurance, they said, ‘No thanks, we are good with oppression and cunning,’ ” Gaines-Cirelli said.
Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, calling it the city that killed the prophets and stoned those sent to it. Jesus longed to gather the people of Jerusalem under his wings like a mother hen, but they were not willing.
“Why? Why did they reject the words of God’s prophets?” she asked. “They were unwilling or unable to receive the word and change course.”
The prophet could see the writing on the wall if things did not change, but his announcement of destruction made no impact. The people told Isaiah to stop telling the truth, to quit speaking of God all together and “tell us what we want to hear.”
“Why?” Gaines-Cirelli said. “What is your answer?”
She imagined that for some, in a message-saturated culture, they want to keep their illusions because they are tired. People just want to get through the day; they have enough to do and are not interested in doing more, or learning more or caring more. They are on information overload.
Others “prefer to keep their illusions about their life, relationships, country, world or culture because the truth is too painful, too overwhelming.”
“They grow complacent and think things aren’t so bad and that it will all work out,” she said.
This is only possible, she continued, for those who live in relative safety or ease.
“They will resent those who threaten their relative comfort,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “This is called privilege, and it works overtime to prove those who are suffering wrong, even in the face of data. What would be required of the privileged would be too costly if the vision took root.”
Prophets tell inconvenient truths that require real change.
“There are things in my life I need to change, that if left uncared for will have negative consequences,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “I know I need more rest and exercise, so I decided to do ‘vigorous sitting.’ I don’t have a primary care physician because I don’t want to deal with the insurance company.”
She said that there are difficult conversations she needs to have, and her husband tells her to do what needs to be done.
“I could kill him, metaphorically,” she said. “But exhaustion, guilt and regret are things that keep me from doing what needs to be done and when I don’t want to see, I lash out.”
Smart, accomplished people who care can inadvertently miss what God is trying to do or say, she said, because “they think they understand the situation and can handle it themselves, with no assistance from God, because they know what the problem is and it is up to them to solve it.”
She gave the example of the statue of Atlas in front of Rockefeller Center, holding up the world on his shoulders.
“He is the most powerfully built man in the world, and he can barely stand,” she said. “That is one way to live.”
Across the street, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, is a statue of Jesus as a boy holding the world up with one hand.
“We have a choice,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “We can try to carry all the injustices, hurts, doubts, confusions, fears and anxiety — that is, it is up to us, we know best — or we can let God help us. I can just see Atlas saying ‘no thanks’ to God’s offer of help.”
She told the congregation “our overactive sense of knowledge keeps us from seeing God’s saving love and mercy.”
“The prophets made the message interesting and painful to get our attention,” she said. “We have heard God’s call to love, serve, give, live with the creation. We know this stuff, right?”
We cannot do it by ourselves, she continued. It is one thing to know something intellectually and “another to change our lives. Where are you on the round trip journey from head to heart? God is with you on that journey and holding you and all this beautiful, broken world.”
God’s love is at work in, through and all around you in quietness and trust, she said.
“God is waiting to help grant you mercy and grace in what work is yours to do in the living of these days,” she said. “Hear. See. Receive. God bless you, amen.”
The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr. presided. The Rev. Susan McKee, founder and executive director of Knitting4Peace, read the Scripture. She is a United Church of Christ minister, working on interfaith relations in Denver. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the Motet Choir, which sang “We Shall Walk Through the Valley,” arranged by Undine Smith Moore. The Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund and the Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy provide support for this week’s services.