Imagine

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, December 11, 2016, the third Sunday of Advent.

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11

 

How much of your life do you spend feeling disappointed?  If I’m being honest, I will tell you that disappointment has been my close companion all my life.  During this season, it is perhaps especially easy to be disappointed.  Maybe we have a vision of how things will go this year…and, so often, things just don’t turn out like we envisioned.  And this is true not only of the season, but of life in general; anyone who’s lived a while knows that human life is always more and less than we hoped for.  It’s the “less” that we tend to get stuck in. 

Today we encounter John the Baptist again.  We see him not out in the wilderness being his dreadlocked, camel-hair-wearing, locust-eating, charismatic, fire and brimstone self, but rather ten chapters ahead where he’s landed in prison.  John is evidently disappointed.   He dispatches some of his disciples to ask Jesus a doozy of a question:  “Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?” (I hear subtext: “You know, someone better?”)  Jesus isn’t the kind of person or leader that John had envisioned.  “When John announced the coming of God’s kingdom and proclaimed Jesus as God’s anointed…he expected the world to change; now, some months (or even years?) later, things seem all too dreadfully the same…”[i]  The kind of Messiah John was looking for was the one who would clean things up, make things better, get rid of all the problem people and the injustice of a world not in our control.  Today we see John wondering whether his hopes about Jesus have been misguided. 

I don’t know about you, but I can relate to John’s disappointment.  Sometimes all the talk of hope, peace, and joy seem empty when, even after all these years, all these Advents, after all these Christmases “the more things change, the more they stay the same”—dreadfully the same. 

Walter Brueggemann says that prophets challenge that kind of thinking.  He says, “it is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing” alternative futures.[ii]  The ways of empire make us feel stuck.  The masters of empire try “to banish all speech but their own”[iii] and offer bread and circuses to keep people distracted and sated. As a result, Brueggemann says, “we have neither the wits nor the energy nor the courage to think freely about imagined alternative futures.”[iv]  John pointed to a future messiah; and Jesus affirms John’s powerful, countercultural prophetic ministry. But even John couldn’t fully wrest himself from the expected future to imagine what God was up to.  Jesus is not the expected “same old, same old” but rather is God doing a new thing, something people couldn’t imagine would ever happen.

What Jesus reports to John (and to us) is that he has come to be with the vulnerable, with those who for centuries have little reason to expect that anyone would go out of their way to care for them; Jesus has come to those who thought their situation was hopeless.  Counter to what John may have wanted, there is no celebrity face-off between Jesus and Herod on cable news; no flashy sign of a big ax whacking away at the root of the tree, chaff getting thrown into unquenchable fire, the known world instantly, miraculously sorted into the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Instead, simple and amazing things have happened in people’s lives, things that bring surprising, unexpected, unimaginable newness. Jesus is living and loving counter to the prevailing way, counter to the prevailing expectation!  // I wonder whether John could let go of his disappointment in order to see that.  As satisfying as it might be for Jesus to have breathed fire in some awesome, Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark-kind of way, getting rid of the chaff in every life and heart, that’s not really his style.  And, therefore, we learn that’s not really God’s style.  It seems that God insists on taking a smaller, quieter, simpler, more vulnerable approach to salvation. 

Jesus comes to human beings—to us—in our need in order to inaugurate a new life.  And, if he’s paying attention as he sits in the darkness of a prison cell, John just might have the ears to hear this as good news of great joy.  At the end of his résumé, Jesus adds “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  In other words, Jesus says, “This is who I am and this is what I do…I come to you in your need and meet you in your brokenness, I touch your hearts and minds to open your imagination to new possibilities, I offer unconditional love and mercy…and this is the nature of God and of God’s saving grace.  Some will find it unsatisfactory and disappointing.  But blessed are those who can hear and see the gift being offered…” 

To be prophetic is to have the imagination to hear and see God’s grace and to imagine a world that seems unimaginable—a world where favor falls even upon the meek, vulnerable and lowly and where love and compassion prevail.  (If we can’t imagine it, how can we work toward it?)  Prophetic imagination is what allows us to live in hope, peace, trust, and joy—even when it seems absurd. To be prophetic is to let the world laugh at our hope.  It is to persevere in peace.  It is to trust that new every morning is God’s love for us and that all day long God is working for good in the world.  To be prophetic is, as prophet/poet Wendell Berry says, to “be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”[v]  It is to sing in the face of all that is wrong: “Glory to God in the highest and, on earth, peace to all people!”

 

[i] David Lose, “Disappointed with God at Christmastime,” published on WorkingPreacher.org, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2911

[ii]Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 40.

[iii]Ibid., 65.

[iv]Ibid., 40.

[v]“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1973. Also published by Counterpoint Press in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1999; The Mad Farmer Poems, 2008; New Collected Poems, 2012.