Acting Out

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, December 18, 2016, the fourth Sunday of Advent.

Text: Matthew 1:18-25


When a child is tired or anxious or hungry or sick they will often “act out.”  That is, their discomfort or need may lead to temper tantrums, defiance of authority, or fidgety activity.  The tendency to act out doesn’t go away as we age, though it may take slightly different forms.  As we mature, self-awareness allows us to manage these reactions a bit better.  But the truth is, a “problem child” (of any age) is usually one who has a valid, verifiable need and who simply yearns to have that need met.


This Advent we’ve been asking the question: What does it mean to be “prophetic?”  As we bring this series to a close, it occurs to me that prophets tend to “act out”—not in a childish way, but in a way that intentionally calls attention to places of pain, hunger, burden, or illness.  Guided by the biblical scholarship of Walter Brueggemann in his ever-relevant text, The Prophetic Imagination, we have learned how our Judeo-Christian tradition inspires prophets to “act out.”  Prophets are deeply grounded in the particular story of a God who is love, a God of mercy, beauty, justice, and peace, a God who has a stubborn tendency to act for the humanizing of the world through people others might ignore—folks like enslaved people (Israel) and unwed mothers (Mary).  This sacred story provides a concrete alternative to the illusions, empty promises, and inherent violence of prevailing culture, and reminds us of what is both desirable and possible through the steadfast, eternal love of God.  With the vision and values of this story as a corrective and a guide, the prophetic witness identifies and critiques the inhumanity and injustice of the current reality.  To be prophetic is to tell the truth, to name the pain that empire seeks to silence, to allow the realities of human suffering to disrupt the status quo.  And it is also to see the beauty and possibility of the world and to imagine a world that seems unimaginable—a world where favor falls even upon the meek, vulnerable and lowly and where love and compassion prevail.  To be prophetic is to be countercultural, to challenge the ways of empire—that is, to challenge oppressive “rule by a few, economic exploitation, and religious legitimation.”[i]  Prophets and prophetic communities  “act out”—not through a temper tantrum, but through the expression of righteous anger fueled by love and the desire for justice—not through mindless defiance of authority, but through principled standing up to death-dealing powers—not through fidgety activity, but through focused organization and action in response to sneaky, systemic oppression. 


Prophetic witness is inherently hopeful—for it shatters the illusion that the way things are now will be forever.  Prophets are the voice crying in the wilderness of the dominant consciousness, a consciousness that seeks to steal our power.  Brueggemann writes, “The [dominant] consciousness leads people to despair about the power to move toward new life.”[ii]  Joseph was caught in the dominant consciousness of his time.  In our Gospel, we see him trying to act in a loving way without breaking the law.  He chose to shield Mary from the worst laws of the day which would have called for her to be publicly humiliated and humiliated and disgraced as pregnant and unwed.  But he also chose to follow the law and “dismiss her.” (Mt 1:19)  The dominant consciousness both provided religious legitimization for Joseph to abandon Mary and also made him afraid to move toward the new life that was being offered to him.   Caught in “the way things are,” Joseph must have feared God’s judgment if he broke the law, he must have feared humiliation, the loss of relationships,—not to mention the difficulty of working through the issues with Mary (that FaceBook relationship status would most definitely be “It’s complicated”!) 


But, as the story goes, Joseph fell asleep in fear but encountered a messenger of God, arising from deep in Joseph’s being through a dream. The messenger and message says, “don’t be afraid.”  And from the depths emerges the name Emmanuel, the truth that God is with us… And—see! understand!—God and God’s love is more expansive than the God propagated by the dominant consciousness.  And, as happens again and again for people throughout the sacred story, the word of God empowers Joseph to wake up with greater clarity and wisdom, and with courage to stand up to the powers that be, to challenge the status quo, to take a risk for the sake of love and in the hope of new life. 


“It is the task of prophetic imagination and ministry to bring people to engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God.”[iii]  We live in a culture that is so susceptible to fear and that, in these days, is vulnerable to despair and “acting out” in all sorts of destructive ways.  The ability to be mindful—that is, quiet enough to listen for the messenger of God—is challenging in this context.  But if we are open to receive the word, we are reminded today that we need not fear, that even in the midst of this moment, new life can and will be born; because our God is with us and ignites our power to move toward something new.  Even though we tend to be like Joseph, trying to do the best we can within a system that does harm, God is always initiating a new thing. God calls us to not wait for legitimation of that new thing by the dominant consciousness or current system, but rather—in principled defiance—to imagine a new system and begin living in love, compassion, and peace NOW.  This doesn’t mean that we abandon our country or our church.  Rather, as prophet and Benedictine nun, Sister Joan Chittister says, the prophetic witness is to remain “inside a sinful system, and love it anyway.” She writes, “It is easy to condemn the country, for instance.  It is possible to criticize the church.  But it is prophetic to love both church and country enough to want them to be everything they claim to be—just, honest, free, equal—and then to stay with them in their faltering attempts to do so, even if it is you yourself against whom both church and state turn in their attempts to evade the prophetic truth of the time.”[iv]  Brueggemann suggests that prophets stand within the culture and not only critique the present and imagine a hopeful future, but also let those things energize ways of being aligned with the ways of God revealed in the tradition, actions that embody our hope for the future, and actions that remain open to the truth that God can always do something completely new.


Over the past weeks as deeply disturbing actions, appointments, and revelations have emerged following the presidential election, one of the questions I have seen and heard often is “What can we DO?”  I want to let you know that, in addition to all that Foundry already is and does, we are organizing to participate in sacred resistance of what appear to be real threats not only to the most vulnerable among us, but to all of us and to our planet.  Under the leadership of Pastor Ben Roberts, Director of Social Justice Ministries, a yet-to-be-named team will convene in early January for the purpose of identifying, vetting, and publicizing weekly actions of protest and resistance.  We know there will be an ongoing need to engage and push back on proposed policies or actions; we also know there will be too much to keep track of on our own; we know that many opportunities will flash across our screens to engage—some which may have little (or dubious) impact.  In response, the vision is to have a group of knowledgeable, committed folks be a kind of “clearing house” for actions that will have the greatest impact and that are of the highest priority at a given moment in time.  These actions will include everything from writing a letter to making a phone call to showing up for an in-person protest.  With the weekly action shared on Sundays and through our website and social media, this will be a resource not only for those of us who are active in and through Foundry, but also for anyone who desires to stay awake and engaged in the work of prophecy.  Many of you, through your vocational work or personal networks, will have information about things that need attention. Once this new team is organized, we will share how you can share potential actions with the team. 


As we began this series I said, “In the present we hope for the future because we know what God has done in the past.”  In the past, God has consistently energized people like Mary and Joseph to listen up, to stand up, and to act out for the sake of a more loving, just, and human world.  Now is our time. And, thanks be to God, the promise is Emmanuel, God is with us. 


[i] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, pp. 13-15.

[ii] Ibid., 60.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Joan Chittister, Joan Chittister: Essential Writings, Selected by Mary Lou Kownacki and Mary Hembrow Snyder, New York: Orbis, 2014, p. 164.