September 20, 2009, 16th Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 20, 2009
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20
Jeremiah11:18-20, Ps 54, James3:13-4:3,7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

Have you ever experienced being a non-person? By that I mean, being viewed as invisible or without social value? Or visible but with a negative, harmful social value? Most of us have on a small scale: the time we were teased and cast out for a day or week at school, the relative that dismissed us or has cut us off. Some of us have experienced it socially depending on our station in life and the way we are identified. Most women have known a time when they were treated as a non-person in a world still struggling with equality and rights for the female sex. Some current non-persons in our collective life are illegal immigrants, the homeless, convicts and in all too many places those who constitute the group called GLBT. Non-persons are at the bottom of the social scale of least to greatest. And most of us don’t want to be at the bottom end for good reason. The system is founded on enshrined maltreatment, from neglect to killing (think of Matthew Shepherd, James Bird and the homeless man called Pac-man who was beaten to death here just a few months ago) of those on the lower end of the spectrum.

Jesus today not only turns that system on its head, but subverts it. None of us would consider children non-persons. Children are valued and treasured in our culture. They are seen as full of wonder and innocence, human beings to be formed and nurtured. And while our understanding and the reality on the ground with the number of children living in poverty and need continuing to grow may not be in synch with each other, none of us would simply not see a child as a human being. It’s a truism in fund raising that people can’t say no to children and we see that used in appeals and campaigns all the time. And that is likely due to this Gospel today.

In Jesus’ time children were non-beings. The world of antiquity didn’t begin to take notice of offspring until they reached adolescence and were thus nascent adults. The Roman world, which Palestine was a part of at the time of Jesus’ life, was clearly a non-child focused culture. This is not to say that children were unloved or neglected, but that children simply didn’t signify in public life. So, when Jesus puts a child in the midst of the disciples as an illustration, his followers are gob smacked. A child had no business hanging out with a bunch of adults and a respected teacher. In fact, this child might even have been a household slave. Even more scandalous!

When Jesus tells the disciples that those who want to be first must be last and servant of all he isn’t simply saying let’s shake up the distribution pattern. Let’s just switch people’s places within the same structure. That really isn’t changing anything is it for the structure remains the same. He effectively calls for a re-creation of the structure with the words “servant of all”. When we are being a servant to all we aren’t basing our decisions on who is greater and who is lesser. We aren’t being kind to someone because they have power and influence and this is a chip we can call in later. We aren’t being helpful to someone who is lesser to get an advantage over him. Servant to all is an equalizer of worth. It flattens the curve and the line points directly to God. Why is this so? Because Jesus makes the explicit connection that a servant child is a reflection of God, of the Holy One. To receive this non-person with welcome and care is the exact same thing as welcoming God. Now talk about a radical notion.

The only thing that limits us is our thinking. Today’s Gospel is the perfect reading for an impassioned social justice sermon, and boy was I tempted! Jesus had a vision of radical love and inclusion of all that takes us to a place beyond right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, to a transforming way of being with each other that shapes us to love and heals us of our sin. We start from a place where first all our welcome and all persons reveal in themselves the image of God and then move from there to construct our relationships, our right relationships, with each other. In our world, we tend to start by first sorting and then building, which keeps us spinning in circles. But this isn’t going to be a social justice sermon per se.

And here is why. The first disciples upon hearing this were dumbfounded. They couldn’t wrap their minds around this notion. They had a failure of imagination and the ability to rethink things. Before social justice, before any truly real change, Jesus shows us we need to fire up and engage our imaginations!

The early church was a shock to the world around it because men and women worshipped together and shared the gifts of the Spirit. Slaves and free shared a meal. It was a radically different grouping of people and people couldn’t imagine it. But the earliest Christians could and did because of the imagination of Jesus, drawing on the very best, the very heart of his Jewish faith. In his world and the vision he shared there were no non-beings. No one was superfluous or expendable. The early Christians had to open their minds and imaginations to understand the resurrection, the meaning of the cross and the presence of Christ still among them. Were they scared? Yes, we hear it in today’s Gospel. Yet, their re-born imaginations were able to find a way to express this new hope to others and capture their hearts.

Imagination is the locus of creativity, revelation, flexibility and possibility. It is the home of hope. As we grow up our imaginations calcify, ossify, and we begin to only believe that the way of the world is possible. We become practical to the point of resignation. But life and the life of the spirit are living, active, pulsing things that needs our imaginations to work. Perhaps Jesus put a child in the midst of the disciples to remind them of the amazing gift that children’s imaginations are. Imagination spans the gap between what is and what can be—that vision of the divine kingdom that embodies the love of Christ and the essence of the beatitudes: blessed are the merciful, the hungry, the peacemakers…

Here are a few samples of what the spirit-filled imagination of the early Church was able to envision and make real. Though there was never an explicit command for it, many in the early Church quickly understood that slavery was incompatible with the life of Jesus. Manumission of slaves was a common occurrence in the early Church. Women served as deacons, teachers, leaders and probably even priests in the earliest days. For the first three hundred years the Church was pacifist for it could not reconcile Jesus’ hard command to love our neighbors and our enemies with war. The desert fathers and mothers laid the groundwork for the monastic option of life that grew within the Church. Most of us don’t realize that the option for a woman to live a theologically and socially valued life as a single, unmarried person was a revelation in antiquity. To become a nun was to gain an amazing freedom over one’s person and life. Hospitals and orphanages were fruits of the early Christians’ imagination and so much more. In time, the Church began more and more to accommodate the world as is so clearly seen, for example, even in the Epistles where woman are quickly put back into their old social place.

But the imaginative work of Jesus still has lived on. Whether recognized or not the idea of universal human rights comes from Christian roots. Every great movement for change that has lifted up the non-beings and the poor and the ignored has been a great act of imagination. The first abolitionists were considered crazy. It was impossible for America to survive without slavery. The movement to end segregation and legal disenfranchisement was likewise met with disbelief. But the imagination that is lit and sustained by the vision of Jesus can dream great dreams and not only dream them but find the way to get from what is to what is possible. That is the great task of our faith in God; not to make God fit into our world, but to call our world forward into God’s kingdom. And not only our faith in God, our love of Jesus the Christ, and our trust in his teachings are needed, but our imaginations as well. That is essential. Without it our churches too begin to ossify and calcify. They begin to look just like the world around them instead of being the leaven, the carbonation, the electrifying place where our souls come to be given the power to act for the future and the hope of God’s kingdom.

The invitation in today’s Gospel is, I think, that call to fire up our imaginations. As we read the Gospel, hear the Good News, what dreams does it spark in us? What impossibilities does it invite us to think just might be possibilities? What might it let each of us imagine for our own lives and for our common life together? What dream might it hold for the larger world in which we live that is struggling so hard now in the systems and relationships it has created? Ponder the texts. Pray with them. And in our prayer may we let our imaginations run wild and unfettered. May we let our convictions about what can’t be or what is impractical be put aside so the holy one can crack through our set patterns to the deeper creative wells still flowing underneath. And while it was said by Paul Valery, I think Jesus would agree: “To return what exists to pure possibility; that is the deep, the hidden work.” Amen.