Today we are going to challenge a popular understanding of “imagination.”
Webster’s has three definitions:
“…the ability to imagine things that are not real.”
Or more specifically: “the ability
to form a picture in your mind
of something that you have not seen
The second definition is, “something that only exists or happens in your mind.”
And the third, “the ability to think new things.”
“I imagined it,” in our world, is more often
than not construed as, “I made it up.”
In popular parlance, imagination
has to do with movies
and fairy tales and make believe –
“pretend” as we call it with children.
“Use your imagination,” we might say,
“and pretend you were there.”
But as a way to kick off Lent this year,
I want us to reverse the order of those definitions
and claim that the dominant definition of imagination, should be:
“the ability to think of new things.”
To think new things
is what humankind is all about.
More often than not, scientific and technological discovery begins with imagination.
If we think of all those great
Leonardo da Vinci drawings of helicopters
and tanks centuries before they could be built,
we can see how imagination outstrips technological abilities by light years.
The imagination usually travels ahead of us,
or takes us to places we cannot go
in the immediate moment.
Our imagination is a basic,
essential human faculty –
it is one of our primary senses
and it informs life
rather than a trick of the mind that deludes us.
not only shines a light on the way forward
and allows us to use our creativity
to discover ways and means
we never had before,
but human imagination also reveals
what we believe…what we believe in our bones.
Good theology is always a cocktail
made from two parts of imagination,
one part revelation,
and one part experience –
shaken not stirred.
This special power we have
that often gets dismissed as child-like fantasy,
is in fact essential in order for humans to thrive.
Mark’s story of Jesus in the wilderness
leaves a great deal to the imagination
and is NOT the basis for the season of Lent.
Jesus in the wilderness
is a one-sentence story in Mark’s gospel,
so Luke and Matthew re-imagined Mark’s story
and it was upon their accounts
that the season of Lent was formed.
But the point is,
we get to choose how to imagine Lent
and we get to choose
how to imagine our own narrative
and we get to choose
how any of this fits into God’s imagination.
You and I have been given,
by history and circumstance,
the task of re-imagining Christianity.
But we are in a long line of folks
who have had to re-imagine their religion –
allow me just two examples.
Twenty-five hundred years ago,
give or take a couple of generations,
there was a society of several thousand people
who were violently taken from their cities,
and who were then enslaved
in another country hundreds of miles away.
I want us to think about that in personal terms, which means activating our imaginations.
So, imagine the residents of the Finger Lakes (NY)
were invaded by the fierce tribes
of the Five Boroughs
of that city-state with tall buildings.
Once captured, we were all to be forcibly taken
to a fate worse than death –
meaningless existence on Long Island.
But some of us put up resistance,
so right away a third of us were killed
That resistance infuriated the Manhattans
so they skinned the rebellious leaders alive,
and hung strips of skin from a flag pole
at the courthouse in Canandaigua.
Then, just to makes sure the rest of us
got the message and were pacified,
they cut off the heads of several hundred
of our leading citizens.
But that still wasn’t enough,
so they strung those severed heads
around the necks of wives and mothers
and made them march to Brooklyn that way.
You get the idea. Brutal. Very brutal.
(And by the way, this horrid scenario
is not so imaginative, because that is what
the Babylonians did).
Anyway, back to the Invasion of the Finger Lakes. Those of us who survived the ordeal, and end up
in meaningless existence on Long Island,
begin to ask ourselves, “Why us?”
“What did the Finger Lakes ever do
to deserve this?”
And then, then we began to remember
all the things we have ever been ashamed of.
We begin to catalogue all the mistakes
we ever made, and all the secrets we ever kept.
Then, we remembered
so hard and so vigorously,
that we started remembering things
that never happened –
that’s because we reached for anything
to make sense of our terrible tragedy.
The more we remembered our failures
and the more mistakes we recalled,
the worse we felt about ourselves,
which, given our predicament,
makes our exile and slavery all the worse.
In the midst of our despair
we start to tell stories that give us hope.
We imagine how we might get out of this fix.
We imagine how God might get us out of this fix.
We tell stories
about how it was back in the Finger Lakes,
even though, by this time,
none of us actually lived there.
But we remember the stories our moms and dads
and grandparents told us
about the beautiful Finger Lakes and vineyards.
One of our favorite stories,
as we slump in our Long Island exile and slavery,
is about how God had warned us ahead of time,
and tried to get us to stop our evil ways.
In that story, God kept looking for some way
to turn it all around,
but we kept ignoring the warnings
until God finally found someone who would listen.
His name was…Noah.
We know the rest of the story.
That is how such stories,
as powerful acts of imagination,
came to be meaningful spiritual narratives.
The story of Noah and the Ark
did not evolve until seven hundred years
Maybe even longer.
A lot of people assume the Book of Genesis
was chronologically the first story in the Bible –
since it is at the first book in the Bible.
But Genesis is not the oldest book of the Bible,
and the story of Noah
is a story from when Israel was exiled in Babylon.
By the time Noah and the Ark was told,
in the imaginative version it is told in Genesis,
Israel had already had a civil war
and been conquered
and would never be heard from again
as a sovereign nation until modern times.
So, you see, Noah and the Ark
was an act of imagination
on the part of people in exile
who were trying to figure out
what went wrong
and how they could ever get back on track.
Such an imaginative interpretation
of actual historical circumstances
was powerful for those marginalized people.
Here is the second, and a brief example,
of powerful imagination.
It is thirty years since Jesus died.
He is dead and gone.
For thirty years, the people who had known him,
and the people who had been attracted
to his teachings
but never knew him, have been predicting
he will show up again.
But he hasn’t.
Now new people are showing up
and they want to know what all the fuss is about.
Who was this Jesus?
Why are people in this secretive cult
risking their lives
to follow the teachings of a dead man?
If you were a Roman citizen telling other Romans about Jesus,
you don’t want to tell them
Jesus was like Hercules.
Your guy is different.
Everyone knows the Roman religions are dying,
and everyone knows that even the people
who still go to the temples
don’t really believe all those legends and myths.
So you don’t want to compare your guy
to all those old, pale
domesticated Greek and Roman heroes.
You want something more exotic –
So, you excite your audience
with stories from the ancient and mysterious religion of Israel.
You tell them about how Noah
endured forty days of rain
and battled the elements to survive,
and how he saved all humankind.
You tell them the story of Moses
and the escaped slaves
and how they survived forty years in the desert,
and how they battled every temptation
known to humankind on their way
to the Promised Land.
You tell them about the terrifying flight of Elijah who just barely escaped into the wilderness
after all the other prophets
were beheaded by the king.
You tell them he survived forty days
with the help of angels who fed him,
and then went on to save Israel.
Then you tell them about Jesus.
You tell those Romans about Jesus driven
into the wilderness by a whirlwind just like Elijah.
You tell them that while he was there,
John the Baptist was arrested
just like the prophets in Elijah’s day.
And you tell them about that Jesus too,
who survived in the wilderness for forty days
with the help of angels, just like Elijah had.
And you tell them how, like Elijah, Jesus
re-emerge from the wilderness
more vigorous than ever
and saved all of humankind
just like Noah had.
What you have done, through an act of imagination, is compared Jesus
to the greatest of the greats: Like Noah,
there was no one greater to compare Jesus to
and it was a brilliant act of imagination
on your part,
to weave into Jesus
all those other spiritual heroes.
And that is how imagination works.
It is not pretending but rather, the ability
to think new things
and move forward into new places.
Israel, exiled and desperate for understanding,
had the courage to re-imagine their situation.
The story of Noah re-interpreted their religion, and by re-interpreting their past
they also re-imagined their future.
Likewise, the followers of Jesus
were faced with the same challenge.
All those who followed Jesus in the beginning were Jews,
but they soon found themselves
cut loose from Judaism,
even as they tried to export their old religion
into an alien Gentile culture.
So, they were faced with re-interpreting Jesus
for a new generation,
and re-imagining their future
because the assumptions of the first generation
turned out to be wrong (Jesus did not return).
Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John were brilliant,
each with their own flare and agenda
took to the task
of re-imagining Jesus.
But here we are, so many generations later,
and so few with the courage to re-imagine Jesus.
We are still working off theologians
and story-tellers from a 2000 years ago,
people who did their job with gusto and power.
But they did the work of imagination for their day
and their generation
and their circumstances.
So, our task is to re-enter the text
and roam around in it
with the wisdom of our own experiences,
and discern what is going on.
All we need to do is turn on our imaginations.
We know wilderness, you and I,
we’ve been there.
We know the depths of depression
or the pain of deep loneliness
or the grief of terrible sorrow
or the despair of hopelessness.
We know the fear of abandonment
or the burn of rejection
or the darkness of self-hate.
We know the prison of addiction
or the cave of self-centeredness
or the trap of blind ambition.
We know the cusp of poverty,
the hand of brutality,
the grip of illness.
We know wilderness, you and I,
and we know every beast of temptation
that hawks its promises of freedom
from the desert inside us
as well as the desert around us.
We know what it is to succumb to temptation
and we know what it is to rise above it.
Jesus did not do anything
we have not done
or could not do.
What Jesus does
is show us the way through.
Like all the people who came before us,
sometimes we forget the way
or deny that we know the way
or refuse to choose the way.
So, Jesus, in this ancient, sacred text
is like the lighthouse on the shoals
helping us get through the fog
which is usually a fog of our own making.
What I am talking about here
is not rocket science, it’s imagination.
We know the wilderness,
we know the temptations,
we know which way to go;
and if we forget
and if we deny
and if we obfuscate,
there is always Jesus in the ancient text
to show us which way to go.