The Past is Present

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, November 27, 2016, the first Sunday of Advent.

 Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44



In the fantastic 1987 film The Princess Bride, self-proclaimed genius, Vizzini, says for the umpteenth time, “Inconceivable!” and the sobered up-revenge-seeking swordsman, Inigo Montoya, replies, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”


As we enter into this new Christian year and the season of Advent, our focus here at Foundry is on prophecy—and particularly what it means to be a prophetic witness.  The word “prophetic” gets used a lot these days, assigned to all sorts of words and actions.  Sometimes I wonder whether that word doesn’t mean what we think it means.  For example, some will say that pastoral ministry isn’t prophetic ministry.  Some will think of “prophetic” as something mainly done outside the bounds of traditional churches.  Others might think of prophetic action as always being driven by anger and public protest; and still others as something that mostly proclaims future judgment.  Foundry Church’s call includes transforming the world through “prophetic leadership.”  So it is important for us to have clarity about what it really means to be “prophetic.”  Over these next several weeks, we will explore this together and today we make a modest beginning.


Renowned Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann describes what he calls “tired misconceptions” about prophecy this way:  “The dominant conservative misconception, evident in manifold bumper stickers, is that the prophet is a fortune-teller, a predictor of things to come (mostly ominous), usually with specific reference to Jesus…While the prophets are in a way future-tellers, they are concerned with the future as it impinges upon the present.  Conversely, liberals who abdicated and turned all futuring over to conservatives have settled for a focus on the present. Thus prophecy is alternatively reduced to righteous indignation and, in circles where I move, prophecy is mostly understood as social action.”[i]   Brueggemann goes on to say that prophecy is BOTH about pointing to a faithful future AND about faithful critique and action in the present.  But he says that even holding the conservative and liberal tendencies together doesn’t capture the fullness of what biblical prophecy is really about.  “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”[ii]  To be a prophetic witness is to concretely live, speak, believe, and choose in ways counter to the dominant culture.


Understood in this way, things like practicing Sabbath, tithing, and humility are prophetic acts right along with acts of social justice and belief in a living, radically free God. Brueggemann insists that the most difficult and crucial thing for the people of God to do is to resist being co-opted by illusions, to resist becoming enthralled with the claims, values, powers, and principalities of the world that cannot keep their promises.  Listen to some of those voices: “If you work all the time you will be rewarded with success and meaning and respect…Be afraid that you won’t have enough—and make sure you have plenty for unchecked spending on yourself…Come on—you know how things really work—throw your weight around and show ‘em who’s boss!...” Our culture of consumerism, self-help, virtual reality, and might-makes-right is like a siren-call that can lure even the most well-meaning among us into capitulation, numbness and apathy, as if this is simply the way things are and we can’t do anything but go along with it.


But if we’re paying attention, if we stay awake, we will be able to resist. How do we stay awake?  Active participation in a community that tells “the old, old story” not as nostalgia, but as a grounding, energizing shared history is a place to start.  Brueggemann suggests that a prophetic community is one in which “a long and available memory…sinks the present generation deep into an identifiable past that is available in song and story.”[iii]  This doesn’t mean that prophetic witness is stuck in the past, but rather, that our story grounds us in what is real, provides a concrete alternative to the illusions of prevailing culture, and reminds us of what is possible through the steadfast, eternal love of God.


On election day this year, Foundry offered morning, midday, and evening prayer services. At noon, we sang what is traditionally called the Gloria Patri—“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”  I sang this every Sunday growing up.  It’s ingrained in me—like the Lord’s Prayer— in that way that makes it easy to just say the words without paying attention.  But on that Tuesday, singing the familiar words, I found myself brought to tears.  What was going on? What had touched my heart and mind was hope—the awareness that no matter what happened in the election, no matter what happens ever, the God who is at the beginning of all things IS now and ever shall BE.  Awareness of the steadfast, eternal presence of God brought (and brings!) the assurance that no matter what mess we humans make of things, no matter how lost we become, no matter how much damage we do to one another and to the creation, God has been, is, and will be at work to restore, renew, resurrect.  This assurance is not just wishful thinking or simple human optimism.  Christian hope in the presence and life-giving power of God is based on a lived history of a flesh and blood people.  The story we tell—a story of a God who creates all that is by the power of a loving word, who draws close to humankind in loving companionship, who is radically free to act in unexpected ways through and for unlikely people, who is passionate and unyielding in the quest to make us truly human (yet always without sacrificing our burden of free will), whose heart is literally broken by our stubborn, selfish rejection, and who has the power to bring life out of death—this story and this God is real, revealed to us through the scriptures, the prophets, and most fully in Jesus.  It is our history.  It is our story.  We are the people of God, the people of this particular, historically engaged God.  In the present, we hope for the future because we know what God has done in the past.


This is our “long and available memory… available in song and story.”  The past is present as a living memory and as a living hope.  Hope in God’s loving presence and life-renewing power allows us to believe that things will not always be the way they are today.  And our story affirms that as God’s people we have work to do as we lean into an alternative future.  Hope in a God revealed as with us and for us empowers us to live NOW in a way that is in line with the Kin-dom vision that will one day be brought to fulfillment.  That is really what our Gospel passage is about today.  At first glance, it seems a bit scary—and the whole of chapter 24 is pretty challenging, apocalyptic stuff.  But the basic theme of the passage is to keep alert—to watch and pray and persevere in living the life we’re made for right now.  We are to guard against being lulled to sleep or satiation by the sirens of the age.  Alert and awake, we are called to live in the hope and freedom and love of God as revealed by Jesus.  


Advent and Christmas is a time when memory and story is so powerful.  So many symbols—objects, songs, rituals—remind us of people and experiences that have shaped us and given our lives meaning.  I don’t know of any time of the year when my own past feels so palpably present.  And the old Christian story we tell at this time of year is a story that we are aching to experience in our world today: the appearance of God’s love in flesh, the promise of a world restored, the gifts of wonder and wisdom, beauty and joy, peace with justice.  Amidst the co-option and commercialization of our story, over the siren call to make the first coming of Christ saccharine and nostalgic, the jarring apocalyptic words of our tradition shake us and wake us to tell and to live the real story every day of our lives until Christ comes again and all things are truly made new.  The story we tell in this holy season is a story we need—it is a message the world needs: God loves you. God is with you. God is for you. God will not leave nor forsake you. God comes to you in ways both simple and profound. The Kin-dom of God is as near as your own breath. Look! Listen! Wake up!


We are God’s people, people with a particular history, grounded in a peculiar way of being that, from age to age, runs counter to the prevailing culture.  The temptation is to fall asleep, to check out, to give in to the self-serving, self-satisfied, self-defensive, self-made ways of the world.  But a prophetic community—this prophetic community—will not allow that to happen.  Today we claim the prophetic work of telling a story of love, mercy, compassion, and new life made possible in and through a God who has proved again and again that the way of abundant life is found not in selfish, defensive control, but rather in self-giving, vulnerable freedom.  Our shared, sacred story not only gives us solid ground upon which to stand, it provides a community with whom to walk and work and points us, together, in the direction of God’s promised future for all people. That is the work of our whole lives—not something only undertaken in this place.  Foundry is simply a prophetic community that, by the grace of God, tries to keep us awake.


[i] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 3.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., p. xvi.