“It’s a poor religion that can’t provide a sufficient curse when needed,” said the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, quoting the poet Wendell Berry. She was preaching at the 9:15 a.m. Tuesday morning worship service. Her sermon title was “Stop Saying Smooth Things,” and the Scripture reading was Isaiah 30:8-18.
Another poet, Isaiah, called the people of Judah “a rebellious people, faithless children … who will not hear the instruction of the Lord,” who did not want to hear any more about the Holy One of Israel.
“They said, ‘speak to us smooth things,’ smooth talk that is soothing and affirming so they could be comfortably sated in their cozy opinions and practices,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “They ignored the inherently political implications in prophetic truth. We will have fake news, they said, that asks nothing of us and sounds good. ‘Never say what makes us shift in our seats,’ the people told the prophet. … We have a language to judge others as ignorant and immoral without acknowledging our own complicity in saying yes, tell us what we want to hear.”
Yet God’s prophet will not oblige us. The prophet’s inconvenient provocations are mind-blowing, life-changing and can be pretty rough.
“But they are core words we need to hear and be willing to speak and live in a world that is weak and wounded and in need of God,” she said. “It is possible for rough words to be healing words.”
Gaines-Cirelli quoted one of Otis Moss III’s 2014 Beecher lectures,“The Blue Note Gospel: Preaching the Prophetic Blues in a Post-Soul World.” He asked if preaching could recover a “blues sensibility and speak with authority to a world that was living a stormy Monday while the church is preaching ‘Happy Sunday.’ ”
Moss called the church “capitalism in drag” and asked why it had a personal ethic that was congruent with the current cultural structure, but did not have a public theology that was weeping with the people and informed by the blues.
“I have a colleague who says that people who find their way into a congregation who have little experience of church or have long lapsed from church, come looking for fraud,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “They don’t expect church to be life-giving or honest, to tell the truth about racism, our dependence on the military-industrial complex, the indignity of being unemployed or underemployed.”
She said these people “expect little action in dealing with the complexity of pain that marks their experience.”
“They see lip service given to hope, reconciliation, resurrection and social justice, with little hope that it was be backed up by action,” she said.
This critique of religion is a constant one. She said if you Googled “Why are Christians so … ” the most frequent response is “hypocritical,” followed by “crazy.” The seekers also use the excuse of hypocrisy to keep God away.
Isaiah, in the eighth century B.C., called out the people on their hypocrisy. He called on them to wash themselves, to remove evil from their midst and learn to do good. God called on them to seek justice, rescue the oppressed and provide relief to the widows and orphans.
“This is a vision that sets hypocrisy in sharp relief,” Gaines-Cirelli said. The prophet not only provides a critique, “but in light of God’s vision, shows them how life should and can be. They have been given a vision to live together in mutual trust, dignity and love. They are to be caretakers of each other and creation. The vision provides wisdom and a way.”
Jesus, she continued, is the fully enfleshed vision of God and he is our goal as people and as a human family.
“When the vision of life that is inclusive, loving and just is trampled, mocked or denied, it is time to stop speaking smooth things,” she said.
When brothers and sisters of different faiths or orientations are condemned, when the habitat we live in is destroyed, “when a sick person is told to give up their cellphone by someone who makes $174,000 a year and is given health care by the government, it is time to stop speaking smooth things.”
When violence and war are accepted as natural, it is time to stop talking smooth things. Gaines-Cirelli quoted Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Year Begins With War,” from his book This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems, 1979-2012. It says, in part, that “bombs fall day and night/ Folly, and greed at home/ No lovely thing can last/ … we live the death/ Of liberty, become/ What we have feared to be.”
This was written in 1991 during the Gulf War but, Gaines-Cirelli said, “it could have been written during any administration since.”
What is a sufficient curse?
“Perhaps it is nothing more than telling the truth,” she said. “The prophets call us to turn and return. Each of us can do something in service to God’s vision.”
God will give us the graces to equip us, to participate in God’s work in the world, she told the congregation.
“You might not have a prominent public platform, but you can seek to live with integrity, to see and hear the complex realities, the need for healing, the cries for justice, to give more than lip service to the call to love God and your neighbor,” she said. “You can try to offer an alternative to the culture of polarization and demonization.”
What do you do in a “purple” church?
“What a gift it would be to not find fraud, but a community that is honest about its differences, that risks telling each other truth and continues to love each other in the unity of the Spirit and the bonds of peace,” Gaines-Cirelli said.
Saint Teresa of Avila said that now that Christ had “no body on earth but yours,” your hands will bless the people.
“Christ has no body, no mouth to speak truth to power except yours,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “Call your Congresspeople every day. I am not kidding. Make this part of your spiritual discipline. Tell them what you like or don’t like about what they are doing. Use your voice; that makes a difference. Never being honest while the poor are dying in the streets ain’t gonna cut it.”
Devotion to God’s wisdom and way may lead to the cross, she said, but “we know the story. If we are not hypocrites, we will have the courage to speak out with assurance that there is new life on the other side. Thanks be to God.”
The Rev. Susan McKee presided. Sallie Holder, who first came to Chautauqua Institution in 1950 to visit her grandparents and carried the CLSC Class of 1950 banner for her grandfather’s graduating class, read the Scripture. The Motet Choir sang “And the Word Became Flesh” by Walter L. Pelz. Rebecca Scarnati provided oboe accompaniment. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the choir.