Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sermon: Fully Alive Imaginations

Matthew 5:17-48
Fully Alive Imaginations
James Sledge                                                                                       March 1, 2015

As a general rule, I’ve learned not to engage Facebook “friends” who post provocative items, but every now and then I can’t help myself. It happened the other day when someone shared a colorful, poster-like picture that read, “You know you have gone blind when you can ‘see nothing wrong’ with something that God has called sin.”
I took the bait and commented, “Such as?” My “friend” responded, “Look at this world , sin is everywhere and people think it’s normal!”
I’d started this so I thought I would see it through. I responded, “Again, such as? Are you referring to lending money at interest or failing to care for the poor or welcome the immigrant? Or do you speak of things such as eating shrimp?”
This time my “friend” got more specific. “Homosexuality is one, killing is another, no fear of God, drugs, child abuse, animal abuse and I could go on. but don’t get me wrong I care for the people just not the sin. I don’t look down on anyone.”
At this point my better judgment started to kick in, and I decided to disengage, but not before leaving what seemed an appropriate quote from Father Richard Rohr. “Either you allow Holy Scriptures to change you, or you will normally try to use it to change--and clobber--other people. It is the height of idolatry to use the supposed Word of God so that my small self can be in control and be right. But I am afraid this has been more the norm than the exception in the use of the Bible."[1]
I suspect that most everyone who takes the Bible seriously occasionally falls into the idolatry that  Father Rohr mentions. All of us can read the Bible selectively, using it to support what we already think. That’s true of both conservative and liberal Christians, though I fear that progressive Christians are sometimes more prone simply to dismiss the Bible whenever we don’t like what it says.
It’s not a perfect fit, but I wonder if the differences between conservative and liberal Christians don’t have something in common with those between the “traditionalists” and “nontraditionalists,” the “compliant” and “defiant” that Brian McLaren suggests make up the audience when Jesus gives his Sermon on the Mount. But, “According to Jesus,” writes McLaren, “neither group was on the road to true aliveness.”[2]

At first, Jesus seems to side with traditionalists. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away,  not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from  the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
“Yesss!” go the Pharisees, and “Yesss!” goes my Facebook friend. “See, Jesus says that it all still counts. There’s no throwing any of it away.”
That’s true. Jesus does not come to start a new religion. He insists that he is a part of a tradition, and that tradition is essential to understand what it means to live as a child of God.
But before the Pharisees and traditionalists can break into their happy dance, Jesus makes clear that the tradition does not exist in order to keep things as they are. Traditions of every sort tend to be invested in some sort of status quo. But using the formula, “You have heard it said… But I say to you…” Jesus points out how traditionalists fail to appreciate the full meaning and intent of their own tradition, and he radically reimagines that tradition.
Traditions, all traditions, tend to get coopted into an easy morality and status quo that benefits those who run things. “Follow the rules, law and order, the way we’ve always done it, you get what you deserve.” But such use of the tradition does not build the world God hopes for, the new community Jesus proclaims. Thou shalt not murder? Of course not. But do not be angry? Do not insult another? Jesus says these are of one piece.
An eye for an eye? The status quo turns this into a justification for punishment, but Jesus remembers the command’s original intent, to limit retaliation. And he fulfills and expands this intent with his call to meet evil with unexpected kindness. Some of the examples Jesus gives are unfamiliar to us. Roman soldiers can’t compel us to carry their packs for them, but people in authority still abuse their power. To comply is to be oppressed. To fight back sometimes makes matters worse. But Jesus suggests an alternative where we seize the initiative by acting with unexpected kindness to those who wrong us.
Brian McLaren writes, “Neither the compliant nor the defiant typically imagine such creative responses. Jesus is helping their moral and social imagination come alive.”[3] Our moral and social imaginations coming alive. I like the sound of that. I often operate without much imagination, sometimes blindly following or defending the rules, sometimes fighting against what provokes me or seems unfair. I could use a bit more in my repertoire.
Jesus says it’s all about learning to love, especially those who you don’t want to love. Becoming true children of God is about becoming like God, who sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous, who looks after and cares for those who “deserve” it and those who don’t. That is what perfection, completeness, maturity, or full aliveness looks like, says Jesus, and it requires our imaginations being reanimated. It requires a newness about us, a newness that Jesus invites us to discover by following him.
I suspect that by day’s end most of us will have been “wronged” by someone. Perhaps a few will make it till tomorrow. Someone will make our lives unnecessarily difficult, accuse us of something we didn’t do, lie to us, take advantage of us, or just be plain mean to us. And most of us will react in predictable fashion. Maybe we’ll stew inside; maybe we’ll lash out; maybe something else. But what if our moral and social imaginations came alive?
I want us to engage in a bit of imagination. Imagine someone has wronged you, leaving you justifiably upset. Now consider how you are inclined to act. Then imagine how you might act if your actions emerged from a love like God’s, from Christ like love. Take a moment and imagine. (I might add that for someone being physically abused, a creative response might involve calling and following through with authorities.)
The apostle Paul once wrote, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” O God, send your Spirit to us. Awaken our imaginations, and help us step into that new life, that fully alive life Jesus invites us to live as your children.

We Make the Road by Walking. The practice begun in Advent continues through summer of 2015. Scripture and sermons will connect to chapters in Brian McLaren’s book. This week’s chapter is 28, “A New Path to Aliveness.”

[1] From Fr. Rohr’s February 11, 2015 daily meditation, “Finding the Golden Thread”. Available at the Center for Action and Contemplation website:
[2] McLaren, Brian D. (2014-06-10). We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (p. 131). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[3] Ibid. (p. 134).

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