Sunday, July 18, 2021

Sermon: "Imagine the Kindom", Jeremiah 23:1-6/Mark 6:30-44 (July 18, 2021)

*NOTE: I use the word "kindom" instead of "kingdom" in order to emphasize the dynamic relational aspect of the world that we create with God more than the dominant/submissive relationship that "king"dom implies. The two words refer to the same idea.*


I have to admit that if you asked me my favorite story, it probably wouldn’t be one from the Bible. If I had to pick, I’d probably say Peter Pan. There’s just something so relatable and poignant about the stubborn desire to stay young and carefree forever. I’ve read the original novel, seen the musical adaptation (of course) and many versions of the movie; every single interpretation does a beautiful job playing with the tension between the gifts of childhood and the expectations of adulthood.

Arguably, few movies do this more creatively than Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film, “Hook”. This movie asks the question, “What would happen if Peter Pan actually DID grow up?” The answer, apparently, is “become a corporate lawyer.” Peter has grown up and completely forgotten about his former life. When his two children are kidnapped by Captain Hook, Wendy (whose family he married into) breaks her silence and reveals to Peter that he is, in fact, Peter Pan, and must go to Neverland to rescue the children. Peter, being a very reasonable sort of man, is unconvinced, but Tinkerbell drags him away to Neverland anyway.

When Peter first arrives among the Lost Boys, they’re dismayed to find that their erstwhile leader has surrendered his magical abilities to the tedium of adulthood: he’s forgotten how to use his imagination, and he’s completely powerless in Neverland without this gift. As Tinkerbell explains, “If you can’t imagine yourself being Peter Pan, you can’t BE Peter Pan.” Nevertheless, they set out together to free Peter’s children from the clutches of Captain Hook.

Later, they all sit down together to a feast, but Peter is unable to take part. You see, the food at this feast is imaginary and grownup Peter thinks the whole thing is silly. As the rest of the Lost Boys dig in, Rufio (the Boys’ acting leader) begins to mock Peter relentlessly. Rufio’s insults are eye-poppingly colorful and inventive (at one point he calls Peter “A week old maggot burger with everything on it and flies on the side”), while the best retort that Peter can muster is, “Someone has a severe ca-ca mouth, you know that?” Eventually, though, Peter gets caught up in the verbal slug-fest, with increasingly creative taunts, until, in a moment of uncharacteristic playfulness, he spoons up a helping of imaginary food and flings it at Rufio.

To everyone’s surprise, Rufio is hit in the face with some very real (presumably edible) goop. As they survey the rest of the table, Peter and the Boys suddenly see an abundant banquet where previously there was none. The smallest boys reverently explain what’s happened: “You’re doing it, Peter…You’re using your imagination!” He still has a long road ahead of him, but Peter had taken the first step towards rediscovering his identity by being able to imagine it.

Tinkerbell knew what she was talking about—“If you can’t imagine yourself being Peter Pan, you can’t BE Peter Pan.” Imagination isn’t important simply for its entertainment value; imagination is the most vital first step in ANY transformation. As people of faith, we can learn something from Tinkerbell’s profound assertion: just as Peter Pan’s identity hinges on his ability to first imagine it, we can’t become who God calls us to be unless we’re able to first picture ourselves that way. We can’t bring about God’s kindom unless we first believe it’s possible.

Scripture tells us that the disciples are chronically afflicted with the same imagination problem that plagues Peter. One could argue that Jesus’ entire ministry is an attempt to help them imagine a different life, a better world, so that they can start to make it happen. But it’s consistently an uphill battle. In today’s gospel reading from Mark, the disciples have just returned from their first missions out in the world where they’d successfully cast out demons and healed sick people in Christ’s name. You’d think that such experiences would open their minds to the unexpected possibilities of God’s kindom, but their imaginations somehow remain stubbornly stagnant.

When the crowd that Jesus “adopts” as his flock become hungry, the disciples are apparently incapable of imagining a solution beyond sending the people away to fend for themselves. In the mission field, they’d instantly cured illness with no more than the authority given to them by Christ, yet they couldn’t conceive of a situation where they could meet this particular need. Jesus gives them a second chance to get it right, suggesting, “YOU give them something to eat,” but their lack of imagination prevents them from taking the hint.

When Jesus instructs the disciples to seat the people in groups “as though they were having a banquet,” I imagine them feeling rather like Peter in the feast scene from “Hook”. This was obviously no banquet. What could possibly be the point of pretending to feed five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish? They didn’t understand the importance of imagination for transformation. Like Tinkerbell, Jesus knew that if you can’t imagine something happening, then you won’t even try—and Jesus needed the disciples to try. If you can’t imagine being Peter Pan, you can’t BE Peter Pan. If you can’t conceive of feeding 5000 people, then you can’t succeed at feeding 5000 people. If you can’t picture God’s kindom, you can’t bring about God’s kindom. Imagination is a vital tool for living out our faith.

When we neglect this tool, the results are more than just problematic; they’re downright destructive. That’s what Jeremiah is warning about, from his perspective in literal exile. When we can’t imagine the world that Christ envisions and calls us to create, we become an active hinderance to God’s kindom. We don’t just prevent others from sharing in the banquet or stop the sheep from entering Jesus’ pasture, we actively (if accidentally) drive them away. In our well-intentioned desire to be “realistic” about how we minister to others, we, like the disciples, try to send them away to have their needs met elsewhere—by themselves, by their family, by a charity, by another non-profit. We ignore Jesus’ voice commanding US to give them something to eat, and we shrug and say, “I can’t imagine anything that we can do. Good luck!”

We may think that we’ve never participated in this kind of cruel sheep banishment, but we’ve all done it. A lack of imagination more often manifests as perceived powerlessness than outright malice. It’s not, “You don’t deserve help;” it’s “We can’t help you,” when Jesus says, “YOU give them something to eat.” It’s not, “We hate change;” it’s “We’ve always done it this way,” when God says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing!” It’s not deliberately opposing God’s plans; it's being unable to imagine our place in God’s vision. This sort of thinking is just as destructive to God’s kindom as intentional malevolence. Without imagination, we can’t understand God’s dream for creation. And if we can’t understand it, we can’t take part in it.

Imagination is far more powerful than we realize. It’s the tool that allows us to move past our limited human experiences and preconceptions to catch our very first glimpse into the divine mind. Without imagination, we could never recognize the sacred when we see it unless it exactly matches our assumptions—and God isn’t known for operating according to human expectations. So in order to use this powerful tool to the fullest, we not only need to open our minds to the unexpected, we need to be willing to let go of some closely held beliefs.

As a young churchgoer, I assumed I had a pretty good idea of what God’s kindom would be like. All creatures would live together in peace, the wolf lying down with the lamb and all that, and there’d be no hunger or want anywhere. Actually, I thought John Lennon’s song, “Imagine” came pretty close, except for one problem: surely, it’s heretical to dream of a place where there’s no heaven and no religion. This couldn’t be describing the kindom of God; it made me too uncomfortable. So, I mentally recategorized the track as a nice pop song with very little to teach me.

But as my theological imagination has developed over the years, I’ve become convinced that Lennon had a far better grasp of God’s intention for the world than the rest of us do. It may make me feel uneasy to envision a divine kindom that looks different from the mental picture that I’d pieced together based on my own assumptions, but maybe that’s exactly what I need to do. After all, if we all lived together in the peace and fellowship that God dreams for us, an instructive religion teaching an aspirational heaven would be irrelevant: we’d already be exactly where we need to be, doing exactly what we’re meant to do. It turns out that God’s kindom is so much more than the limits I’d unwittingly imposed on it.

We’ve all demonstrated a profound lack of imagination at one time or another for different reasons. The disciples struggled with holy imagination because it conflicted with their understanding of logistics and personal responsibility. Peter struggled with imagination because it was at odds with his ideas of maturity and rationality. I struggled with imagination because it made me uncomfortable. We couldn’t imagine because we couldn’t let go of the things that stood in the way. What’s standing in the way of YOUR holy imagination? What’s keeping you from reaching beyond your mortal limits towards the divine kindom?

Imagination is a sacred gift that allows the seemingly impossible to become possible. Contrary to Peter’s initial belief, it’s more than a discarded relic of childhood; it’s an essential tool that can free us from the seemingly immutable limits that we impose on the world around us. Holy imagination offers us the opportunity to try newer, bolder, more outrageous ways to bring about God’s kindom—and to find hope in possibility. Which is exactly what Christ has called us to do. With God’s help, these holy dreams can become sacred reality…if only we can first imagine it. Believe in the good news; believe it not only with your heart and soul and mind, but with your imagination. Imagine the kindom—not how it is, but how it COULD be. And then, make it happen. Amen.

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