Our Ministry of Imagination: Sermon at St. John’s UCC

Our Ministry of Imagination: Sermon at St. John’s UCC August 20, 2019

Recently, I was in Columbus and was blessed to preach at St. John’s UCC. Below is my sermon:Rev. Jen Butler preaching at St. John's Columbus

Long before Darth Vader and Mordor, Babylon was the ultimate symbol of evil and oppression requiring miraculous resistance from the faithful. Psalm 137, written 2,500 years ago, captures the agony and resistance of a people carried into exile by one of the most brutal Empires in all of history. Nearly 70 percent of the Bible wrestles with this cataclysmic event. As Rachel Held Evans put it in Inspired: “One of the most important questions facing the people who gave us the Bible was: How do we resist Babylon, both as an exterior force that opposes the ways of God and an interior pull that tempts us with imitation and assimilation?” 

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy ” (Ps 137: 1-2 NIV).  Throughout history this particular psalm has inspired oppressed people to seek liberation. Among them was the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass who asked on independence day in 1852: “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? Being expected to celebrate American independence while his people were still enslaved, he said, was akin to the Judean captives being mockingly coerced to perform songs in praise of Jerusalem. Echoing verses five and six of the psalm Douglas said, “If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, ‘may my may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!’”

Imagine if scripture were taught as the manual of resistance that it was truly meant to be! By Frederick Douglas’ measure, the tongues of white Christians should now be cleaving to the roof of their mouths. We white Christians have not resisted Empire well at all. I am well aware that many of us here were not taught about the Bible is a handbook for resistance. Growing up in the South I was taught a gospel of personal piety, advancement and salvation; a gospel infused with whiteness and privilege that led us to spiritualize the Gospel and fail to take it at its literal word. Jesus’ mission to “bring good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed,” did not ring loud and clear in my large Methodist Church on Peachtree Street. Somehow, everyone there was perfectly comfortable sitting in the white, well-heeled pews on Sunday morning while withdrawing their kids from newly integrated public schools; barring African Americans from their Christian private schools and voting for candidates who subtly advanced segregation under benevolent sounding names like “school choice.”

The psalmist tells us that Jews hung their harps on poplar trees by the river rather than sing the songs to empire. Similarly, Hebrews 11 reminds us that the heroes of scripture were foreigners and strangers on earth. How different this is than the posture of one of a pastor of First Baptist of Texas who wrote and sung a hymn called “Make America Great Again” to welcome President Trump to their congregation!

Ministry of imagination

The theologian Walter Brueggemann wrote in Prophetic Imagination that “the task of ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” He called this the ministry of imagination. The question I ask us today: given the fact that our holy texts call us to resistance, is what leaps of imagination can we encourage our communities to take in moment to resist dominant culture? One wing of Christianity was hijacked by white nationalists and another wing of Christianity is content to focus inward, complacent and unsure of itself. Our work is to conjure and propose futures alternative to the ones Babylon wants us to think is the only viable one. 

You may at times think our vision is not powerful enough. And yet consider that the Christian vision for humanity is so radical and unique, our opponents fear us. A White Supremacist group wrote recently that “Christianity is like acid that burns through the ties of kinship and blood.” I marvel at how white supremacists actually understand the power of Jesus’ liberative teaching with greater clarity than we sometimes do. We have felt small. Embarrassed by our faith. Uncertain of our public voice and theological power. Afraid of conflict. But yes, Christianity does burn through the ties of white supremacy demanding instead love of neighbor that has no bounds– national, racial, religious or sexual. When put into practice Christianity is a deadly threat to the white nationalist project and they know it even if we don’t.  

When Adolf Hitler consolidated power by replacing the head of the German Church with a Nazi party leader the theologian and resistance pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer moved immediately to establish a seminary. A seminary, you might ask? This was the man eventually executed for participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler but yes, his first organizing strategy was to create a library of theological works and save the church. Bonhoeffer knew what we sometimes forget: that theology is key to defeating fascism. That the most powerful and long lasting action he could take was to preserve the radical nature of Christianity from the dehumanizing belief system of Fascism. He invested in theological leadership. He trained hundreds of resistance clergy until the Nazis discovered it and took pains to burn his library.

Empires rely on our being lulled to sleep by false promises and a consumer culture or paralyzed by fear and hopelessness. Our call is to act with prophetic imagination to conjure and propose futures alternative to the one Babylon wants to urge is the only thinkable one.

This is what the author of Hebrews asserts to the oppressed community, writing: “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The word “confidence” here comes from the Greek word Hupostasis, a word that means “the underlying reality.” This nuance fits well with the authors next assertion that this underlying reality is often not visible to us. No matter what the world looks like at any given moment, we remain committed to the underlying reality of a liberative God at work in our midst. In other words, faith gives us the ability to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. 

What Does Our Ministry of Imagination Look Like?

When faith leaders learned that the Republican Party was going to cut millions of Americans off health care, we declared a moral state of emergency and mobilized religious leaders against “the death bill.” Everyone said we had no chance of stopping the bill. Even so a vanload of Ohio faith leaders on short notice drove all the way to Washington DC to oppose it. They challenged and prayed with Senator Portman at breakfast and, by late morning, joined us for a rally of hundreds of religious activists. After the rally fearless and morally outraged we decided to march on Speaker Paul Ryan’s office where we all stood before his locked door and began our lament. One by one we stepped forward to lift up the stories of those who would suffer. One by one we read the vision for our world called forth in scripture. As each read, we laid their story and holy text in front of the Speaker’s door. When we left a tower of holy books lay by his office.

Leaving the rally I met a woman looking dazed in the hallway. I asked how she was doing and she looked at me stunned and said, “I feel like I am learning to speak from a place of hope and faith again. I’m finding my faith voice.” I knew in that moment that our lament outside a Congressman’s door was already calling a new reality into being. Several months later after scores of worshipful protests all over the country we actually defeated the death bill. What if we had never tried? Our faith calls us to act for what we hope for, not for what we know will absolutely succeed. And in the moment of acting in hope, we make change a possibility.

When children were being separated at the border I led a delegation of women to the front lines to bear witness to suffering and lift up the hope of our moral teachings. There I met Sister Norma who runs a respite center for migrant communities coming out of detention. They arrive traumatized, dehumanized, physically ill. On the day I was there I saw about a hundred families walking over from detention looking tired and weary. I zeroed in on a six year old boy who sat slumped over and exhausted on his father’s shoulders. As they came close, the staff of the center burst into applause and cries of bienvenidos, welcome! I watched as that boy sat up, burst into a tremendous, toothy smile and waved with his whole body. Above Sr Norma’s door hangs a sign: “Restoring human dignity.” With that small ritual of applause, which is integral to Sr. Norma’s work, the road to healing for a handful of families had begun. But this daily act of cheering migrant families is also a radical act of hope in a country hell-bent on criminalizing God’s children. In that act of compassionate defiance the prophetic pathway to change in this country is bursting forth, making it possible that the motto that hangs over Sister Norma’s door– Restore Human Dignity — might one day overcome the slogan of Make America Great Again.

Revolution starts with small acts of prophetic imagination. It starts with our public acts of defiant worship in the halls of power, it starts with our small acts of compassion that make real the anti-Empire project of God.

The author of Hebrews reminds us that God’s liberated world is an underlying reality for which we fight and that it might not always be visible. By lifting up the vision of what God desires we open up the possibility that justice will advance. 

“The change that counts in revolution takes place first in the imagination” wrote the peace activist Jonathan Schell (qtd Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit). 

“This is what the ancients were commended for,” says Hebrews.  “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” In living out the commands of a God who despises tyranny, we make a new reality possible. We birth the invisible into being.

I am heartened that every day across this country people of faith are rising up  like the prophets of scripture to oppose hatred with prophetic acts of love and justice. I see such a faith here in Ohio. Faith is courage to go ahead and drive from Ohio to Washington, DC to oppose a Republican plan to take 20 million people off health care EVEN when our only certainty is that we are not even close to the votes we need to defeat it. Faith is the will to risk arrest and possible jail time EVEN when you think it might all be for naught. 

Faith is the ability of a congregation like this one to embrace the Gospel call to liberation even in the face of internal conflict; faith is the ability to invest in the homeless even if it means not perfecting your own building; Faith is putting banners with spotlights on the highway saying ALL are welcome here; Faith is bringing in a Honduran family in need of safety and support while they pursue asylum, knowing that going against the President and Congress may put you in hot water. 

Faith is knowing that when you act, your action is advancing justice EVEN on days that you cannot see it; even when the storm clouds roll in.  

The New Testament gives us the letter of Hebrews. But one day the letter of Ohio will one day be written. And when it is, it will read:

By Faith Just North United Church of Christ refused to be known as the church of Pharaoh. They did not go the easy path, they instead chose to lean into the Gospel call to do justice and love mercy. Just North UCC went against the grain of culture by welcoming the stranger, the migrant, the LGBTQ community, the hungry, those addicted to drugs. Some of them did not see change in their lifetime. But it was the beginning of a new Christianity, it was the start of a great awakening that transformed the world. 

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