Sermon at St. Ann's 150th Anniversary, Nashville, TN
I was struck by reading the words of
Shaking off fossilism â maybe shaking off hopelessness, like his crazy idea that Sewanee might be rebuilt from a log cabin and nothing else following the Civil War. Or perhaps he meant the fossilism that says that once weâve taken care of the people immediately around us, the ones already here, that weâre finished doing Godâs work. Fossilism has something to do with what the prophets call a heart of stone, unmoved by the lament of Godâs people or the call of Godâs spirit. As a physician, Bp. Quintard undoubtedly knew something about the disease of hardened hearts.
Fossilism is a chronic hazard in the church â that we dream too small or have too narrow a view of where God is calling us. Itâs connected to what Jaroslav Pelikan said about tradition being the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism the dead faith of the living. I donât think fossilism has had much chance to settle in around here â somehow your second bishop fanned a fire thatâs still burning, and your current bishop is still fanning, still warming the dry bones around here, reminding them of the breath of God enlivening each one. That warm breath turns fossils into living flesh, ready for partnership in Godâs mission.
And mission is why weâre here. Emil Brunner said, âthe church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.â These readings are the ones âfor social service,â or in this frame, ministry with the larger community â one larger than weâre usually ready or willing to imagine.
Zechariah invites us to dream about a city where the streets are safe enough for elders to sit sunning themselves on benches, while little children play around their feet. And not just to dream about it, but to begin to put that hope to work, to let those bones live, to make real Godâs intent for us all. Hear the word of the Lord, âthere shall be a sowing of peace, the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground its produce, and the sky its rain: I will give all these things to the remnant.â
That remnant is old bones that have begun to fossilize, out of fear or hopelessness or the absence of imagination. Can you imagine a city where all children have several interested adults ensuring that they live up to Godâs dream for them? Can you imagine a city where itâs safe for old ladies and little children to walk down the street at ? Can you imagine a city where nobody has to sleep under bridges? Where each and every human person has an opportunity to put his or her gifts to work in creative and dignified ways? Can you imagine that?
Imagination or dreaming or creative possibility is one of the ways we reflect the image of God. Both image and imagine come from the Latin, imitatio, which also gives us âimitate.â When we live into the image of God we mirror or imitate Godâs qualities. Thatâs what Thomas a Kempis was getting at in The Imitation of Christ. And when we turn away from Godâs possibility because we just canât hold it, we actually commit sin â maybe even that sin against the holy spirit. God is always up to more than we can hold. And the world is always pushing back: âIncarnation? No way!â âResurrection â not in my frame of reference.â âFree the slaves? No, God intended slavery. Hereâs where it says so in the Bible.â
The imagination of prophets is always nudging or prodding us to open a little wider and let the breath of God blow in. It can be frightening and painful to endure that stretching, but the promise is always, Immanuel, God is with us.
Thatâs what goes on with Bartimaeus, this âson of honorâ who is nevertheless blind and begging. Jesusâ word to him evokes the courage to claim the boldest possibility he can imagine â seeing again. And the response comes, âgo, your faith, your willingness to imagine, has made you well and whole.â Thatâs Bartimaeusâ sending, his commissioning. And the gospel says, âhe followed Jesus on the way.â
Following Jesus on the way â and the way is what early Christians called it before the word Christian was ever invented â following Jesus is about imagining that healed world that moves beyond dead fossils.
But youâve followed Jesus on the way that leads out that door, which is probably the hardest thing of all. Even this service out here under a tent is a statement to all those folks driving by. Youâve imagined a city where children and elders can thrive in the streets, and begun to make that a reality. Where else is Godâs image becoming flesh within you? What are you imagining about Godâs possibility? How is the great dream becoming flesh and blood reality?
Thatâs your challenge in the next 150 years: how to keep imagining a future that looks more like the reign of God. You will need both the prophets who can speak the vision into concrete words and the quieter prophets who read to children and feed the hungry. You will need some who will speak Godâs truth in tight places, like city councils and state legislatures and even ecumenical gatherings, inviting them to stretch their collective imagination, and build a society that reflects the divine. You can encourage prophets like the one I read about a couple of days ago, who teaches business skills in the poorest communities in
And in all the imagining work you do, you will need the nurture of the mystics like Thomas a Kempis, like the pastoral leaders here, who keep calling you back to prayer. Thatâs where the warm, moist breath enters, that turns fossilizing bones into flesh-covered ones.
Blessings on your imagining. Be bold, be creative, be brave and faithful, and you will indeed bless many.