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Gospel Imagination

March 22, 2012

“Gospel Imagination” Ephesians 2:1-10 Lent 4B © 3/18/12 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Near the end of the 15th century, a publication called The Nuremburg Chronicle reported that Europe was depressed, with no sense of the future. We might say the whole culture was stuck in a rut, or to change the metaphor, barren of possibility, unable to conceive anything new. But the following year, the Chronicle noted how everyone was “all agog.” A transformation in outlook had somehow occurred that spurred a remarkable process of change the like of which had not been seen before.

Fast forward to sometime in the 20th century and the dilemma of a well-known company traditionally noted for its cake mixes. They needed to expand their product line and gain more customers, but the man who made a number of decisions about such matters saw little future for products that required busy women to expend a substantial amount of time in order to make a tasty and attractive cake. So, instead of selling mixes, he thought, the company would sell goods which required no other preparation than popping them in the microwave. The market did grow, but not in the way the executive suggested.

These two stories, though separated by centuries and drawn from different contexts, have something in common. One scholar has called it “a change in the frame of reference.” In other words, a different view of the world. A new lens. Or to use the clichéd phrase, “a paradigm shift.” When from their point of view Columbus discovered America in 1492, the limited horizons of the Europeans were greatly expanded. The removal of boundaries on a map and dismissal of language about dragons and the flat earth brought a new way of thinking about reality in general. Surely it is no accident that the century following gave us Michelangelo and Raphael, Luther and Calvin, Copernicus and Tycho.

And when a woman took charge of the famous baking giant, she brought her different and more relevant experiences to bear on the search for new markets. The company listened to her and found that what women wanted was more convenience, not just prepared foods. So complete kits including icing, mix, and sprinkles began appearing on supermarket shelves.

For both Europe and the corporation, the future opened up because somebody had imagination. Walter Brueggemann defines the word like this: “the capacity to host and embrace a world other than the one that is in front of us” (“On Out-Imagining,” Vantage, Spring 2011 http://vantage.ctsnet.edu/Feature.aspx?ID=87). Rod Serling famously defined imagination as “a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man….as vast as space and timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge” (The Twilight Zone, opening narrative, 1963). The 18th century poet Phyllis Wheatley wrote that riding on the wings of imagination we can “surpass the wind and leave the rolling universe behind” (“On Imagination,” 1773). Or we may simply define imagination as the courage and the capacity to ask new questions, especially ones like “Why not?” and “Who says?” When a family, a company, a church, a nation or a whole world has imagination, the ruts get filled in, the wheels roll free, and the road ahead looks clear.

Every one of us needs such imagination, because whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all stuck. And Ephesians says it’s Death itself that’s holding us in place. The writer doesn’t mean the cessation of brain and heart function. Rather, Death here is the power of nothingness, the sense that life is void, vain, hopeless, without a future. It is the way the world was described in the very first words of the Bible: “without form and empty.” We’re among the walking dead whenever we crave the approval of our culture, accept its standards for success, its judgment on who and what is important. Death is at work in our nation and world today where meanness and greed trump kindness and justice. Death wins out whenever our distractions become what we live for, and we refuse to grapple with the real issues that face us. The Grim Reaper tightens his grip when war and violence are the norm, when people cannot engage in civil conversation, when the earth itself is in danger.

It doesn’t matter what nation or ethnic group you’re from. It’s inconsequential what gender you are or what sort of lifestyle you enjoy, how old or young you are, how rich or poor, what section of town or what sort of house you live in, whether you’re progressive or conservative, what religion you profess. Everyone is subject to the suffocating, noxious vapors of a toxic atmosphere. We all inhabit a world where we sin as naturally and easily as we breathe. Thoughts and actions are poisoned by human rebellion against God as surely as lungs are by pollution or chemical weapons. As the noted preacher Tom Long says: “we are captive to cultural and spiritual forces over which we have no control,…they have drained the life out of us,…we are unable to think or feel or crawl our way free, and…we are in urgent need of a God who comes to rescue” (http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-03/life-force).

If only we were so honest as to admit that. But to us and our neighbors everything seems to be as it should be. We have become used to our surroundings and don’t notice that something is just not right. We are all frogs in our respective kettles.

The image comes from church researcher George Barna. He observed in one of his books that if you put a frog in a kettle of water, and slowly heat the water, the frog will adapt to the changing surroundings, and won’t notice anything is wrong until it’s too late, and he dies. Like that frog, we’re used to this world, and we are aware of no other where sin does not reign. We can conceive of no different way of thinking and acting than that to which we have become accustomed, so prevalent is the death that surrounds us like a cloud.

Given such a situation, surely there is no hope for change. If we were the only reality in the universe, that would be true. But we are not alone. There is One beyond and above us, who not only holds us accountable, but helps us in our misery. We resist this One’s intervention because we love our deadly ways. We fight his purposes because we want to be our own bosses. We refuse to open ourselves to his creative power because it would mean this formless emptiness that has taken hold on us would be filled and ordered. We would rather be dead or dying than submit ourselves, open ourselves, to another’s rule and will, no matter how loving and helpful the it may be.

But thanks be to God, his grace overcomes. The author of Ephesians put it this way: “…God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us…made us alive together with Christ….” God made us alive! Someone has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. That is the definition of grace. God has not waited for us to come to him. He has come to us to save us, to bring us over from death to life, to “raise us up.” The author of the Gospel of John, as we heard, put it this way: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

This God has intervened, stepped into, human life. He did that in Christ so that we might be brought into the divine life. These first three chapters of Ephesians are part of an ancient service of baptism. The author pictures believers upon their baptism as being transported into the heavenly throne room where Christ has gone before them. Our Lord is reigning there now, with power over every death-dealing force in the universe, from despair to disease, from worry to war. From the vantage point of heaven, we see who is truly in control. We are given a new frame of reference, like those Renaissance Europeans or the marketing executives in that baking company. We can now imagine an alternative to our world, the world we thought had to be this way, could only be this way, would always be this way.

Anytime we worship, but especially when the people of God gather to begin the week together, the new reality is glimpsed and proclaimed. For an hour or so on a Sunday, we step into the presence of God in an intentional, intensive way. In our time together, we are moved once more from death to life. In praise and prayer, in hymn and hug, in communion and baptism, we are raised up to heaven. The result is that our self-seeking gives way a little more to community, our greed and tight-fistedness to sharing and generosity. Our anxious attempts at self-sufficiency begin to look foolish, and we learn to depend more and more on God. Our idolatry is replaced by the worship of the One who alone deserves our praise and service.

This thing we’re doing together this morning called “liturgy” brings heaven down to earth. Or better, it serves as a window into heaven. It fires our imaginations to believe that there is another way of doing things, that this world is not the final reality. We understand afresh that we are part of something grander than the trivialities and even the very real and pressing needs of our daily lives. We are given a broad vision of what is and is to come as we look through a portal into another dimension, the alternative world of gospel imagination. In this sacred space, we know ourselves as creative, fully alive, and full of wonder as we give glory to God (cf. the description of such space by Donald Winnicott and Ann Bedford Ulanov in Bill Harkins “The Light of Imagination” [http://vantage.ctsnet.edu/Feature.aspx?ID=84]).

Every force that wants to control people and turn them into things to be used will set its sights on the church, destroying worship, discrediting faith. That’s why totalitarian regimes on left and right restrict freedom of worship and assembly, along with censoring the arts, the press, even science. Because if folk can imagine an alternative world, they just might act to bring it into being. If they get together and sing and talk and pray and shout about freedom and justice, such may come to be! It was the churches in Eastern Europe and in South Africa back in the day that were instrumental in bringing an end to oppression in their nations. They relentlessly pursued a vision, even in the face of repression and violence. They and so many others proclaimed and still preach the one Word of God we have to hear in life and in death, the Word who is Jesus Christ.

What I have called “gospel imagination,” educator Craig Dykstra terms “ecclesial” or “church” imagination. He writes about the difference such imagination makes in our lives: “Ecclesial imagination is the way of seeing and being that emerges when a community of faith, together as a community, comes increasingly to share the knowledge of God and to live a way of abundant life—not only in church but also in the many contexts in which they live their daily lives. Ecclesial imagination emerges among the people themselves, fostering a way of seeing and being that is in some ways different in content, quality and character from that which prevails in the culture surrounding them. The people talk just a little differently than most. The assumptions they make about themselves and others are not quite the same as the conventional wisdom. They do not pretend to know too much—about others, about themselves or about God. They are more eager than most to listen and to learn. They possess a kind of humility before reality that enables them to be truly attentive to it. Thus an imagination that is at its heart a seeing in depth—seeing reality truthfully—turns out to be an imagination full of creativity, an imagination that sees what is not yet and begins to create it” (“A Way of Seeing: Imagination and the Pastoral Life” http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3523).

It is only through such rediscovered, renewed, redeemed imagination that we move from death to life. It is only when we are made alive together with Christ and raised up in our hearts to heaven that we get a new perspective. And new power and courage to do things differently. It’s only when you and I have been touched by grace.

Imagine. New life. New hope. A new future. It can happen. It has happened in Christ. Thanks be to God.

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