Imagination – Sun. May 19, 2019
“It is a great grief for people, when the Jesus they knew is taken away.” This was one of the lines in one of the incredible sermons I had the privilege of hearing this past week. I was at the Festival of Homiletics, held this year in Minneapolis. It is the “signature” annual preaching conference of mostly mainline Christian churches. It has grown to bring together upwards of 1500 priests and pastors from across North America to hear and learn from established and up incoming preachers. This was my second year attending and I’m not sure if it was me, or the event, or that I was with friends this time, or perhaps how the theme connected with me, but whatever it was… I had a truly remarkable, inspiring week.
As the opening worship service was ending Monday night, I already felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth of inspiration and encouragement. We were led in song mostly through call and response and shared communion with a thousand others. By the end of the sermon by retired preaching professor Barbara Lundblad, I was in tears. She preached about the parable of the unjust judge and the widow whose concerns were ignored, again and again. Nevertheless, she persisted. And she received the justice she sought so faithfully. “Don’t give up,” Lundblad encouraged us. Persist in faith. And the conference was off and running.
The theme of the conference this year was “Preaching as Moral Imagination.” On Tuesday morning, famed African American preacher William Barber II brought the house down, or rather up, with an altar call following a sermon beaconing us to “preach to the *death* of our times.” The day continued with Claudio Carvalhaes considering the theme of moral imagination through Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. It was listening to him that morning that I started to notice an important shift. Carvalhaes focussed on the main challenge, in Jesus’ parable, in our world and in our lives… the challenge of fear. “Fear paralyzes us… fear causes us to hide our talents… Fear wants us to protect what we have, even though it results in us losing it all.” “Fear shrinks imagination, drains our strength, risks our faith.” When we’re afraid, we keep our talent buried, where it’s safe. But “our moral imagination can only be sparked when we aren’t afraid.” I heard a call to risk and to love… to risk love and faith. “Fear thrives on fake news,” he said, “Love wrestles with truth.” Love risks faith in truth… truth beyond denial.
The next day I became more aware of the significant shift I noticed the day before. On Wednesday morning, I heard a stunning sermon from Episcopal Bishop Rob Wright from Atlanta about the hero midwives Shiphrah and Puah. There are only 6 verses in Exodus telling the story of these two women who were the saviours of their entire people. Because… they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them. They did not kill all the baby boys born to the Hebrew women as directed. Shiphrah and Puah’s disobedience to one with great power over them, meant their people, the Hebrew people, multiplied and became very strong. Shiprah and Puah, along with all the Hebrews, were in a terrible circumstance. They were enslaved in Egypt. They had little cause for hope. Indeed, they had much reason to despair. But they believed in a God bigger than their oppressors. They feared God more than the Egyptian king and through their faith, Shiphrah and Puah show us how “insurmountable odds give birth to unimaginable moral courage.” Darkness is the precondition for light.
The shift preached at this conference is a shift from fear to love and from despair to imagination, held together with persistence. The greatest problem of modernity, began Bishop Wright that day, is not arrogance as many have said, but despair. “Every optimist is only 3 disappointments away from being a cynic.” He spoke aloud our own questions: “Is faith an archaic, declining practice of an aging few? How do we fend off despair?” Optimism is empty and denial doesn’t help. One answer, though… the answer I heard over and over again this week… is imagination. “We need an imagination infusion… [for] there is a proportional relationship between the size of the God we imagine and the size of the Pharaoh we endeavour to defy.”
At the Festival of Homiletics last year, I heard a level of fear and despair about the state of the US in particular that surprised me. I have been hearing and personally experiencing something similar here at St. Andrew’s and more broadly in our city, province and country. One of the significant issues expressed in our community conversations back in February was about increasing polarization, and our collective lack of ability to talk about issues that matter. The terrible state of politics these days, close to home and around the world, is felt by everyone, regardless of what side you find yourself on. I visited a church last Sunday that has only a 20 year history and has been known, lauded, as one of the unique emerging churches… that is now struggling mightily. At a simple dinner after church, one person said to me, “maybe people just aren’t interested in church anymore.” And I thought: “where have I heard *that* before!?!” There is so much cause for concern, on so many levels, in so many communities.
Later last Wednesday, Brian McLaren spoke about the limits to our imagination like a dome over us, that keeps us confined. He asked us to have a 3-minute meeting with a person next to us to identify what domes limit our imagination. We talked about people not having enough time or enough money, about churches that feel too small or too old, and how we’re so divided on the right and the left. And then he talked about being abducted from our domes; breaking through denial to see more reality; and freeing our imaginations to dream bigger and better.
This week I heard a corner being turned… from the prison of fear to the risk of love; from insurmountable odds to incredible moral courage; from the depths of despair to the inspiration of imagination. And on Thursday afternoon, Bishop Yvette Flunder of the United Church of Christ preached resurrection. She reflected how we tend to want to keep Jesus where we put him, in the tomb, so we know where to find him when we need him. “It is a great grief for people, when the Jesus they knew is taken away.” That is what happened at Easter. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed… so she ran to ask ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’” (John 20:1-2) Even so many decades, millennia later, we forget, or have never known, to look for Jesus where he is, now, which is not in a graveyard. “The living Christ can’t dwell long where death is a lifestyle… once death had tasted life, no grave can hold it long… Jesus is up now. And he’s out.” And so, Bp Flunder implored us, “drop your religion and get your Jesus back.”
Today we heard a story from the Acts of Apostles about dropping religion and finding Jesus. Gentiles… outsiders… accepted the word of God. And Peter has to explain, step by step, to the insiders, the first believers, the circumcised believers, how it came about. In a nutshell, Peter broke the rules. Peter encountered the Risen Christ, the Living God, and realized “who was I that I could hinder God?” The turn described in our Acts story today comes about not from education. Peter didn’t need to know more. It is, rather, a story of transformation. Peter let go of the dome holding back his imagination, risked breaking the rules, persisted in faith, encountered the living Christ, up and out of his tomb. And the church was born in a new way, against all odds.
Earlier this year we began a series of conversations motivated in large part from a desire to build greater long-term sustainability as a parish. We have had a really good start. We connected with each other in new ways and surfaced some important issues and experiences. But we are not done yet. There is a further journey yet. I wonder if we can bust through our dome of seeking survival to imagine more… to imagine a bigger God and more abundant life… to imagine thriving as a community and bringing God’s love to more people who need it.
My prayer today is that we too turn the corner… from the prison of fear to the risk of love; from insurmountable odds to incredible moral courage; from the depths of despair to the inspiration of imagination; from the confines of a tomb to the freedom of a journey of faith. The Jesus we know may have been taken away, but the living Christ is up and out and beaconing us to follow.