4/2/17: Learning How to Imagine, Ezekiel 37:1-14
Learning How to Imagine
Fifth in the series: Learning How to Love
First Lesson: Romans 8:6-11
Second Lesson: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Rev. Scott Dickison
Our focus in worship over these weeks in Lent has been Learning How to Love.
Love, we’ve said, is on the one hand one of the most natural things in the world for us to do—we’re natural born lovers, our hearts are drawn to things and to people and “visions of the good,” and these loves, these deep longings of our heart, have a way of shaping what we do; how we live our lives, and thus, who we are. (1)
So we can’t help but “love,” but the challenge is to love in the right way—or as we’ve said, to love the right things, rightly. Which for a follower of Christ means to love the things and the people that Jesus loved. This is what it means to be a disciple: to love what, who, and how Jesus loved—and this is not natural. In fact, it’s quite hard, but while it’s something we can never hope to master completely, with enough practice, the support of others, and more than a little help from the Holy Spirit, we can begin to slowly turn our hearts in a new direction.
And as we said weeks ago when we first started this journey, there are certain virtues and values that manifest themselves in habits or practices that help us to make this slow, hard turn to loving the way that Jesus loved.
We’ve considered the practice of confession—of learning to live with and in light of the truth; letting go of our past mistakes, the things we’ve done and left undone, and doing the work necessary to make amends; freeing up our hearts to love God and each other. We then looked at the practice of gratitude, of learning how to “remember,” the ways God has been present with us in our lives in the past so we can have a wider view of the present and the future. Last week we considered the practice of learning to see what God sees: learning to resist the world’s assumptions of who and what is whole and who and what is not, letting policies and procedure get in the way of people. Learning to see the world—the whole world—as God’s creation broken but beautiful, at times beautifully broken, creation.
And this morning we turn our attention to something that we’ve hinted at over these last several weeks, and in the end may be the most important practice of them all—in fact, it may be what allows us to do all these other things, which is learning how to imagine.
Walter Brueggemann, who’s been walking with us through Lent this year, says there’s a dialogue set up in our faith that we see time and time again in the Bible and know deeply in our own hearts, where one voice says, “Can you imagine!” While the other voice says, “Yes, but.” (2)
“Can you imagine!” and “Yes, but”— this is the tension, the drama of faith. “Can you imagine?” is the voice of God that invites us to consider something far different from the present. To imagine possibilities that currently seem closed—new alternatives, new futures that presently may seem like long shots at best, and at worst, careless, even offensive figments of our dreaming.
“Yes, but” is the voice of fear that reminds us how far fetched the promises of God can seem. It’s the voice that points to the inevitability of the present, and shames us to instead give in to the hopelessness of the way things are. “Can you imagine!” and “Yes, but,” the voice of God and the voice of skepticism, we see these two voices through the story of Scripture.
God promises Abraham and Sarah a son in their old age—children! A future! Suddenly a hope! And Abraham’s response to this good news is, Yes, but can a child be born to a 100 year old father and a mother in her 90s?
God promises Moses and the people of Israel that they will be delivered from slavery and that this mixed multitude of people without a home, without a future, will become God’s chosen ones—the light to the nations. And Moses says, Yes, but Pharaoh’s armies are so great. Out in the wilderness, the people say, Yes, but we’re hungry.
And here as the people of Israel are in exile, their homes and lives having been laid to waste by the Babylonians, God sweeps the prophet Ezekiel down into the valley of dry bones and says to him, Mortal, can these bones live?
Ezekiel, a bit more guarded than Abraham or Moses, answers, Lord you know. And the Lord tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. I will breathe life into you and you shall live. I will put flesh on your bones, and cover you in skin, and you shall know that I am Lord. And suddenly there was a great rattling, and ’dem dry bones came together “bone by bone”—the toe bones connected to the foot bone, the foot bone connected to the leg bone, and so on. And there were sinews on them and then flesh, and skin, and then the breath of life, and suddenly these formally dry, dead bones are now fully incarnated bodies, walking around, breathing, seeing, living again.
Then the Lord says to Ezekiel, Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say that their bones are dried up and their hope is lost because they’re cut off completely—but tell them the Lord is God. The Lord will open their graves, and bring them out and back to the land of Israel. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and you shall know that the Lord has spoken and will act.
There in the valley of the dry bones of exile, God invites Ezekiel into God’s own imagination. God invites him, and all God’s people, to look ahead, to imagine a new future far different from the one they might expect. To imagine a return home. To imagine a new life. And remember, Jerusalem had been laid to waste decades ago. Most of the folks who were there had already passed on. God is speaking to their grandchildren, asking them to imagine a place they’ve never been but somehow know deeply from the hymns their grandmothers used to sing.
God’s holy imagination didn’t begin in the story of Jesus Christ—in the drama of the passion, the “Yes, but” of Good Friday giving way to the “Can you imagine?” of Easter morning. That may have been its fulfillment, but it wasn’t the beginning. The story of the Bible from Genesis all the way through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and beyond is the story of God inviting us to imagine something more. To consider what we would do, who we would be, if there were possibilities outside of our current line of sight—possibilities that were reveals as promises? Promises of a new life? A new home? A new future? Promises that what appears to be dry and dead in our bodies, in our spirits, in our hearts, in God’s holy imagination still holds the potential to live again? What would we do differently? Who would we make time for? What would we risk?
Some weeks back, Jim Wallis, the noted preacher, speaker, and founder of Sojourners Magazine delivered the keynote at Mercer’s Beloved Community Symposium—an endowed series for the study of racial reconciliation.
He was phenomenal, and had so many things I wish I could pass on to you, but he told one story in particular that’s stuck with me. Many years ago before the fall of Apartheid, he was part of a US delegation that went to support the religious opposition to that oppressive system which was led by archbishop Desmond Tutu—now known the world over as one of ourmost important religious leaders.
They were at an ecumenical service at the Cathedral of St. George, in Cape Town, this beautiful Anglican church, when the African Security Police—that branch of the government charged with enforcing the brutal apartheid—stormed into the church during his sermon. As Wallis tells it, Desmond Tutu stopped preaching and just looked at the intruders as they lined the walls of the cathedral, armed with guns, yes, but also writing pads and tape recorders to record whatever he said and thereby threatening him with consequences for any bold prophetic utterances he might care to speak. They’d already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before and kept them in jail for several days to make both a statement and a point: Not even religious leaders were above the consequence of questioning the status quo. Now Tutu met their eyes as they surrounded him in the church and said to them, “You are powerful, very powerful, but I serve a God who cannot be mocked!” And then he continued, in an extraordinary challenge to their tyranny—extraordinary, or utterly crazy. He looked at the armed men with their symbols of power, smiled with his typical warmth, and told them, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”
The people went ecstatic. Wallis says the crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s challenge to power. They had been cowering in fear at the sight of the heavily armed security forces that greatly outnumbered the worshipers, but in that moment they found themselves leaping to their feet, shouting praises to God and—get this—began to dance. They danced! They danced past the police that lined the sanctuary, out the doors of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces outside, who hardly expected a confrontation with a group of dancing worshipers. Not knowing what else to do, they backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.” (3)
Since you have already lost!
Of all the—
Holy imagination. The forces of evil all around and yet the archbishop reached down within his spirit—a spirit formed by the story of our faith—our faith—a story of God delivering the helpless, the vulnerable, all those suffer for righteousness sake—a story of God drying tears from eyes, putting flesh on dry bones. A God for whom even resurrection is a possibility—more than a possibility, a promise. It was this story that he remembered which allowed him not only to imagine the future that was surely to come, but to see how it was already there in the present—Since you have already lost! Soldiers with guns and helmets, surrounding them—Since you have already lost! I invite you to come and join the winning side!
Can you imagine?
There will always be “Yes, buts,” and in truth, that’s not always a bad thing—sometimes we need a little skepticism to keep us honest. A little honest doubt is necessary to any serious faith. But ultimately the voice of “Yes, but” is the voice of not-quite abundant life. The voice of “Yes, but,” in the final analysis, stands impotent against the God who makes possible the impossible—the God in whom not even death is the end. And the people of God—the people of God— cease to be the people of God the day we stop being a people of wild, risky, dangerous, insensible, incredulous, fanciful, extravagant, absurd, ridiculous, laughable, potent, purposeful, powerful, prophetic, precious, mysterious, miraculous, heart softening, spirit warming, joy increasing, peace producing, grace amazing, hopeful, hopeful, hopeful, imagination.
Can you imagine? This is the question of faith! Can you imagine.
The holiest week of our year is but one week away. The beating heart of our faith waits for us at the end of it.
So we can start asking the question now: Can you imagine?
Can you imagine?
(1) Again, this broader point made throughout this series was inspired by James K.A. Smith’s fantastic book, You Are What You Love.
(2) Walter Brueggemann, from “A Demanding Long-Term Miracle,” in A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent, 62
(3) As told by Jim Wallis in God’s Politics