© Becky Gunn 2005
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 16, 2005

Call to Worship:

The sermon this morning is about a call to prophetic imagination. A modern classic by John Lennon speaks to imagination...

Imagine there's no heaven,
It's easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today...

Imagine there are no countries,
It isn't hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace...

Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer,
but I'm not the only one,
I hope some day you'll join us,
And the world will live as one.

This is a song of imagination, of a world of justice, compassion, equity, love. Prophecy starts with the ability to imagine difference...a different sort of world...join me today in considering what modern prophecy might be for each of us. God is watching us from a distance.


Last spring while still a student at Starr King School for the Ministry I participated in a workgroup the responsibility of which was the revision of one of the statements in the school's countering oppression position papers. Very simplistically, this particular statement said that we, as future ministers, were called to 'counter oppression' through prophetic witness. Prophetic Witness...I asked at the time...what is it? How can one be a prophetic witness in our culture and time? I had the image of the old testament prophet in a horsehair robe with wild hair, shouting in the wilderness and I had a somewhat difficult time imaging Starr King students that way.

What became apparent is that a definition of prophetic witness was not particularly clear within that community. We actually got into quite a discussion as to whether most of us as white middle-class well educated people - people of the privileged class - whether we could be prophetic witnesses...some believed only those on the outside of the dominant culture could be witnesses to oppression, only those who suffered oppression could be prophetic. That, then, by definition meant that most of us at Starr King would be excluded from this least this prophetic witness stuff. It ended up that we on the committee didn't really resolve anything and threw the statement back to the community as a whole...we simply couldn't come to any agreement.

At the time I decided that I personally must come to understand the concept of prophecy - What defines the prophet? What defines prophecy? Are there any prophets among us? Can I be a prophetic witness? Can I have some part in prophecy if I am a beneficiary of the privileged class?

I went to a book by UCC scholar, Walter Brueggeman entitled The Prophetic Imagination as a resource for the definition of what a prophet is.

Underlying the definition is the fact that there is a need for prophecy. Let me emphasize the word need here. That need is the result of cultural, political, and/or societal oppression or the various other kinds of oppression that exist in our societies. The society or culture crying for, needing, prophecy is one where there is little justice, little compassion, no equity, and little diversity. There is a need for change in order for the world to be a better more compassionate place, where there will be no more oppression.

So how does Brueggeman define a prophet?

First, a prophet is an individual who is part of the community.

Second, the prophet is one who, although a part of the community, chooses to live on the edge or the margins of the community.

Third, the prophet is able to IMAGINE an alternative vision to the culture.The culture in which the prophet lives is oppressive and needs to be changed. The prophet imagines an alternative possibility.

Fourth, the prophet is willing to take the message to the masses, to 'cry out in the streets' articulating the alternate vision. Fifth, the prophet truly believes that the alternative vision is possible.

The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception different from the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. The different consciousness serves to criticize in order to dismantle the dominant consciousness. Those who become aware now understand that there are alternative perspectives - first the dominant, oppressive cultural perspective or an alternative non-oppressive vision. This awareness, this commitment to a new vision serves to provide the resources to engage in a rejection and delegitimization of the present order of things. On the other hand, that alternative consciousness to be nurtured serves to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community may move. So a prophet not only criticizes, a prophet also energizes - with passion, and with grief.

Underlying the prophetic imagination is the realization that the dominant culture, now and in every time, is grossly cannot tolerate serious and fundamental criticism, and will go to great lengths to stop it. Conversely, the dominant culture is tired, numbed, and nearly unable to be seriously energized to the new possibilities. In other words, the dominant culture resists criticism, and at the same time is numb to it.

Brueggeman holds that God is at the center of prophecy - that God provides the imagination necessary to the alternative vision. Since I believe that we each are born with that spark of divinity within, I also believe that we, as humans, are quite capable of using our imagination to center our prophetic issues. We as humans are metaphorically manifestations of God and as a result, we, through God, as God, can have prophetic imagination.

So, let us consider a biblical prophet within Brueggeman's model. Moses qualifies.

Moses was first, a part of the cultural and political system. He belonged through adoption to the political and social power structure. Through birth he was part of the marginalized within that power structure. When those in power became aware of the association with the oppressed Israelites, he was cast out of the power structure. This fact also is part and parcel of prophecy. If you were once part of the power structure, as a prophet you will lose even your implicit status within the power structure. The power structure will not tolerate any potential criticism. That is, the dominant culture is afraid that the criticism will disempower them...and their fear is quite grounded in reality.

Moses through the course of events developed an imaginative alternative to the oppression with which the Israelites were living. He recognized that things must change and that there is a way to change it. The story is a convoluted one using mythological plagues among other things to draw the attention of the pharaoh to the problems. The pharaoh tried to deny the oppression - actually the oppression was what kept his dynasty prosperous. Moses persisted and what he imagined is actualized. Not every prophet is quite so lucky...but Moses then is the protypical model for a prophet.

Moses meets the definitional requirements as a prophet. So what...we all knew that Moses qualified. What about Jesus. Does he qualify as a prophet? I think so yes. He was part of a community of marginalized people - Jews under the oppression of Rome. He was an 'edgy' person - in other words, he was on the fringes of that marginalized society. He used his prophetic voice to generate an alternative possible reality...he criticized the dominant authority structure and proposed another way. He suffered the ultimate sacrifice as a result - he paid for his imagination with his life. But during his life he also suffered compassion; he grieved during his life for the oppression of his people. He associated with the under layer of Jewish society - the unclean. He proposed that for those people there was an alternative reality - a world where riches, education, status did not define the worth of a person.

This weekend we celebrate the life of a modern prophet - Martin Luther King. At least I define him as a prophet. He was part of a society in which he saw the problems, chose to articulate them, was willing to be placed at risk. In his I Have a Dream speech given in 1963 he speaks to the then current situation: "But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languising in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition."

He continues in that speech to clarify his dream. He dreams that this nation will live out its creed of 'all men are created equal'; he dreams specifically freedom and equity in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, and finally he dreams that the recognition of worth will not be based on skin color but instead by the content of the character.

In a speech later he speaks of the cost: "Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disadvantaged black people. White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo. When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process. Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate health care - each is a bitter component of the oppression that has been our heritage. Each will require billions of dollars to correct....this fact has not been fully grasped, because most of the gains of the past decade were obtained at bargain rates..."

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was a prophet and paid the ultimate price for his prophecy.

And, part of his prophecy was that unless the dedicated white minority truly supporting his prophetic vision of an equal and just society continued its advocacy, it would not happen.

And, that prophecy has come true. While there have been gains, it is my witness here that racial equality does not exist. I may have known this to be true in the past, but my recent experiences have raised my awareness. The church at which I am doing my internship is in an economically challenged area...that's a nice way of saying it is an area where only slum lords buy property, where people of color live who cannot afford to live elsewhere, where there are drug deals occurring on most corners, where mothers won't let their children walk alone to school, where teens die on the street. I have been working with the neighborhood ministerial association to develop a much needed community center. At a recent meeting where the ministers - both African American and white - were discussing the center, one neighborhood activist pointed to each of us white folks and reminded us of our privilege - educationally and where we live - and reminded us of our complicit contribution to racisim. I did not like hearing these words - I don't consider myself a racist - but the reality is that I am complicit, because I have not dealt with my attachment to my privilege.

From a gentleman who has suffered from economic and cultural oppression; from a neighborhood where people do without food, heat and safety...where they do without the basic needs...I see a need for prophetic witness to oppression...a pervasive oppression. And, it is absolutely appropriate for we who are predominately from privilege to take a look at our oppressive society, then IMAGINE the alternative - a society that is just, compassionate, loving, equitable - and then become part of a prophetic community. IMAGINE - move to the edge and voice your concerns - be heard - Help solve the problem. Know that the problems will not be solved over night - that it takes time and dedication.

The reality is that there are many issues - forms of oppression to both people and our environment - and I do not want to suggest which issues you might address...we cannot solve all of the problems at once. I perhaps should here include methods of activism - ways to become prophetic witnesses...and I am chosing not to...not enough time and the intent here instead is to raise awareness - awareness that there is oppression of which we are a part and the awareness that we can have the imagination as a community and as individuals within this beloved community to become prophetic witnesses promoting change. There is a need and as part of the human community which sees the needs, we must raise our voices.

This Mission Peak Community is actually in the process of becoming a prophetic community. By choosing to support and become part of the community ministry of Barbara Meyers, you are supporting a vision of equity in dealing with issues associated with mental health. This afternoon after this service you will be conducting a Globization Ritual in support of a self-sustaining, non-oppressive economic system. This community is expressing through such rituals its prophetic voice.

This past holiday season we celebrated the abundance in our lives. And today I have spoken of those who have little to celebrate. I ask that we include those who live with oppression in our thoughts. I ask us to imagine what it would be like to live with such oppression. And, then I would like us to IMAGINE what it would be like to live without it. Let that be our prophetic vision...and then let us acknowledge that along with awareness of how awful things might be is the knowledge that we can make a difference, this community - you.

Prophecy is as much bounded by hope and belief that things can change as it is by criticism and awareness. To some degree we must believe that we can build the world that we dream...even if we will not live to see the end result...we will have believed that we started the process of ridding the world of oppression.

Justice, compassion, equity...these are all dreams...dreams particularly to those who suffer oppression. Today I ask that we raise our awareness through prophetic imagination...we can see the oppression, we can begin to feel the oppression, we can lament, we can grieve for those who are oppressed. And with this raised awareness we can dream a substantive dream...a substantive prophetic vision...a substantive alternative reality. We can hope, we can believe that the prophetic vision is possible. We can be witnesses to a new culture...Participate in change...Imagine...

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