Beautiful Broken World

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC December 4, 2016, the second Sunday of Advent.


 Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12 


Why do we have to feel pain?  Our physical bodies are designed to alert us when there is danger; when we touch something hot, pain causes us to protect ourselves.  Ignoring chronic physical pain allows whatever is causing the issue to get worse.  Emotional pain is less straightforward perhaps, but wisdom reveals that there are similar dynamics at play.  Loneliness, betrayal, fear, disappointment, insecurity, guilt, loss, grief…these things have to be named and addressed or the pain of them will continue unabated.  We know that denial or suppression of our emotional pain does not make the source or the pain disappear, but rather can lead to all sorts of nasty, destructive behaviors.  In order for any healing or freedom to happen, we have to allow ourselves to feel the pain; we have to acknowledge the pain, be in it, go through it…  And that just stinks.  It is hard. We generally don’t want to do it. We try to get out of it in all sorts of ways:  distractions, addictions, rationalizations.


There is a sinister way in which this human aversion to pain becomes systemically magnified in human societies.  Our guru for this series on what it means to be a prophetic witness, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, describes empire as oppressive “rule by a few, economic exploitation, and religious legitimation.”[i]  And he says that this reality leads to a “numbed consciousness of denial.”[ii]  Brueggemann says, “Imperial economics is designed to keep people satiated so that they do not notice.  Its politics is intended to block out the cries of the denied ones.  Its religion is to be an opiate so that no one discerns misery alive in the heart of God.”[iii]  In other words, the imperial reality distracts, rationalizes, and drugs the populace so that the awareness of suffering and human pain won’t get in the way of business as usual and a healthy bottom line for those in the top 1%.


Brueggemann insists that part of what it means to be prophetic is to name the pain, to cry out in grief, to allow the realities of human suffering to disrupt the status quo.  He writes, “The replacing of numbness with compassion, that is, the end of cynical indifference and the beginning of noticed pain, signals a social revolution.”[iv]  Just as in our personal lives, the beginning of societal healing and liberation is to tell the truth, to name the source of our pain, to acknowledge that there is hurt, and to begin to address it with love and compassion.


Several years ago I came across a collection of “Poetry for Peace” written by kindergarten through 8th grade students.[v]  You can imagine how sweet some of the entries were.  A kindergarten class wrote, “…PEACE is when we can work together in our class and in our world…PEACE is when we can listen quietly on the learning rug…PEACE is when we take turns and share without being told to.”  But just when I started feeling sentimental about how wise children are in their prophetic vision of how the world should be, I came across seventh grader, Skye Green’s poem simply entitled “Peace”:

My belly starved

Unhappy, I eat once

Muddy streams I drink

Evil invades my house

Takes me, my sisters

They slap my mother beloved

Sorrow, pain.

Can’t do anything

Dark weeps,

Gunshots, crying

“God, why us?”

Hard life, pain,

All over again,

Father died,

Killed by evil.


I am a man.

Where’s my childhood?


This is (also) prophetic speech. To be prophetic is to cry out, to name what is real in all its messiness and pain and disappointment and anger and fear.  Brueggemann suggests that poetry, lyric, and metaphor is the primary language of prophecy.  Not that we have to be able to rhyme, write poems, or know meter and music to be prophetic.  Rather, the point is that the common prose is often unable to keep us awake.  Skye Green and prophets through the ages get to the center of things, to the truth of things in words that don’t go together in the day-to-day way of writing articles and briefs and reports and action plans. 


Did you hear John the Baptizer out there in the wilderness this morning?!  He shows up bathed not only in the waters of the Jordan river, but also up to his eyeballs in the flow of prophecy:  John employs the prophetic poetry of the past to point toward God’s future—all the while calling people to change their ways in the now.  And when the Pharisees and Sadducees appear to make a show of their populism—to show that they are “down with the people,” John uses a killer metaphor—brood of vipers!—to critique and break through their rationalizations. “Vipers are mostly nocturnal creatures, seeking their prey after dark.  In the daytime, vipers camouflage themselves and, if encountered, may appear sluggish; but they can lash out in a split second when provoked. Vipers have limited stores of venom; they may bite humans without poisoning them, saving their venom for the smaller creatures on which they can more easily feed.” So, metaphorically, vipers hide—like the religious elite who want to hide behind their tribal pedigree; vipers do the most damage to the “little” ones, those perhaps considered “non- or sub-human  in society—those least able to contribute materially to the economic cycle on which the empire depends.”[vi]  


John shows us what a prophet looks like:  Grounded in and guided by the sacred story, a prophet publicly speaks up—using language that quickens the heart and cuts to the core of things— to name what is real, to critique what is inhuman and unjust in the world, to notice the pain and to give it voice.  Prophetic witness will always cry out in grief over the suffering of innocents, the callous inhumanity of so many in power, the greedy destruction of what is good and true and beautifulBecause a prophet looks upon the world and sees beauty and goodness, love and harmony…sees both what is and what can be.  But a prophet also sees that things are deeply broken, sees that we all participate through capitulation to the culture, and sees that things—that people—must change.  So a prophet will always name the pain of our lives and of our world because that is the beginning of social revolution.  A prophet—and, by God’s grace, this prophetic community—will tell perhaps the hardest truth:  there is a limit to what we can do; that truth brings its own pain and calls for humility and surrender (talk about countercultural!).  But a prophet proclaims: in the face of death and the worst the world can do, when human powers fail and human community breaks down, God shows up ready to do something new.  The prophetic witness—whether that is your own voice or the collective witness of this congregation—will always say: “One more powerful than I is coming…” who will gather up all the broken pieces and make us whole.


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

[ii]Ibid., p. 81.

[iii] Ibid., p. 35.

[iv] Ibid., p. 91.

[v] Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT conducts an annual “Poetry for Peace” contest, receiving submissions from K-8th grade students. The winning selections are brought together into a small publication.

[vi] Thanks to my colleague, David Lott, for his “brooding about vipers” commentary on FaceBook! I am quoting his good research here.