Mark, the first gospel chronologically, goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour within the first half of his first chapter. Mark opens with an immediate quote of stirring words from the 4th century BCE prophet Isaiah announcing the appearance of a divine herald–”prepare ye the way of the Lord. Clear a straight path for him.” That herald is John the Baptist, baptizing crowds in the Jordan River and forgiving sins. John predicted that another one like him, but greater, was coming. Indeed, Jesus appears and is baptized, when the skies open and the voice of God declares, “You are my beloved Son.” From there, Jesus is driven into the desert by the Devil for 40 days and 40 nights to be tempted. Already only 14 verses in, when Jesus returns, John the Baptist has been imprisoned, and Jesus takes up preaching, “The time has arrived, the kingdom of God is upon you–repent and believe the gospel.”
So far, Mark has used up only 15 short verses, and we are way into the meat of the story. The pace really quickens now. Jesus goes about teaching and encounters men fishing in the Sea of Galilee to whom he calls out, “Follow me,” and four of them do. They go into the city of Capernaum, where they attend the Sabbath services. Jesus teaches there, too, and people listened, astounded. Mark says, because he taught as one with authority. So, very quickly, very quickly in Mark’s version, we see Jesus take up his calling and take hold of his audiences. He appears and takes the public stage immediately in this gospel.
“He taught as one with authority.” What did he teach? He taught God’s Word from the scripture he knew, the Hebrew Bible. And by what authority? Was Jesus credentialed and vetted to speak in the Temple? The gospel says he was baptized by John and divinely adopted. Was he of the priestly class, raised to read and interpret scripture–No. Was he even literate, or had he absorbed everything he knew of scripture from hearing oral recitation? We don’t know. But he taught as one with authority.
The theological explanation given by scripture and tradition is that Jesus was God or the Son of God. Be that as it may, in human terms what would this mean? What would make him so persuasive? First, it was the content of his message–it replicated very closely what was in Hebrew scripture and law. Jesus was clear that he did not come to abrogate the law but to fulfil it. Jesus rendered teaching that everybody already knew, but in a way that entered their hearts as never before. Again, how does that happen? Do we accept it as part of the miraculous, that Jesus was Jesus? Or is there something to learn here about our Savior that may engrave him in our hearts as he entered their hearts?
Let’s look at Mark’s report again–he taught as one “with authority.” It was not necessary to say he taught with “great authority,” it was enough to say “with authority” because that raised Jesus to a recognized level of public worthiness. I think it is legitimate to wonder, what did that entail between speaker and listener? No cinematic treatment has ever portrayed this mystery other than by close-ups of transcendent blandness. Because, they didn’t solve the problem.
No, but we can turn to the word “authority” itself for our clue. The word is related to “author” via the Latin “augere,” which means to increase, to augment. What does an author do but to increase and augment knowledge, to add and enrich what we know? And we know how scholars do this through research and so forth. But only after they have rendered past knowledge “in their own words.” An author’s authority comes from conveying and enlarging past or existing knowledge “in their own words.” What is important about that?
Here’s proof. If all Dr. Elizabeth or I did was to quote pages of the Bible or pages of commentaries or pages of experts, the letter would fall dead on the floor between us. But no, we augment what we have learned and quoted with understanding and words of our own–by which you feel that she personally owns this knowledge and takes it to greater depths. She has attained authority when you are moved to thank the preacher for something in the message. It is all due to the fact that it all came out “in her own words.” She personalized the truth of scripture by taking it off the printed page and lifting to your ears “in her own words.” You probably felt she was speaking “with authority.” Anyone is, when they are the author and speaking their own words.
In Jesus’ case, he took what he learned from the sacred texts, which were printed texts, and spoke them by memory and “in his own words.” He did introduce a certain augmentation, enriched it with his personal ownership. When you do that, you are not regurgitating formulas in a conventional way, but giving life to the words.
Hearing the words, as people exclusively did until the advent of the printing press, was a kind of magic. The Bible was known mainly auditorily. When people read a text, they did not do so silently, but speaking the words out loud. Here we are, a people of the Book, and yet its power is auditory.
You have probably experienced the truth of this. Let’s do an experiment. Let’s see what happens if we do with Jesus’ teachings what he did with Hebrew scripture. Take a piece of notebook paper. Then take 45 minutes and write down as much as you remember of Jesus’ teaching. You may fill the page before time is up–that’s ok. Time may run out before you have thought of much–that’s ok too. The goal is to see how our memory of scripture stands up in this modern age when we depend too much on the printed text. Do we experience Jesus in our ears at all?
Our theme today is imagination and the life of faith, and what this has to do with you, the Bible, Eliot Church, and the Annual Meeting. Imagination, and the life of faith.
Jesus is yours to imagine.
I. I have served Eliot Church as your Interim for almost exactly two years, to the day today. Two years is about an average length of tenure for interims, maybe a tad longer. Covid slowed us down somewhat, so we still have a little way to go together. But there is a Search Committee on the case!
All this puts me in a reflective mood. It makes me sad that I won’t be in your future--it feels like being the date who was fun but not meant for the long haul. It has been my principal assignment to get you from one ministry to the next, and that involves keeping the glue in the Eliot community with programming and worship. I have had Dr. Elizabeth and Monique as partners in that spiritual work, which has been a dream. And I hope there’s been some fun in it for everyone!
It has never been my calling to make people have faith. I have seen it as my calling to activate what faith you may have, be it very little or much. Your faith is personal. Faith is something individually held and owned. Like anything else in life, though, religion can be borrowed, imitated, faked, or have been forced upon you. However, authentic, life-giving faith arises from engagement with God and with the Word of God, active engagement and not passive reception. Jacob wrestled with the angel, remember! He was marked in the process.
We engage the Word of God by means of the Imagination. God gave you Jesus to imagine. Were it otherwise, God would have given us Mt. Fuji or the Grand Canyon for revelation. But no, God gave us someone who spoke and didn’t write, God gave us someone who taught and didn’t organize, God gave us someone who healed people and didn’t build buildings. All God gave us are the residues of residues of other people's memory of Jesus. From those residues, we must imagine Jesus. The operative faculty is the imagination. God gave us Jesus to imagine. Faith is an act of the Imagination! I know you may not have heard faith described this way before.
What else but Paul’s imagination was at work when he declared in the letter to the Colossian church: Jesus himself is the image of God. Jesus is the image of what creates creation and gives it its character. God is in Jesus and works through him for the perfection of creation through forgiveness. Paul put the experience he had of Christ on the road to Damascus together with the inspirational elements of Jewish and Greek thought at hand, combining, collating, weaving many different teachings into the Christ articulated in his letters. These are not doctrines, they are imaginings. You can feel Paul straining and reaching passionately to convey his Jesus to us, the Jesus of his faith is the Jesus he imagines.
What else but his imagination was at work when John of Patmos declares: God and Jesus rule over everything from their throne in the middle of the street of the heavenly city of Jerusalem, from which throne flows the river of the water of life, on either side of which grows the Tree of Life with fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations. John of Patmos, in what has been called the most Jewish book in the New Testament, has made a brilliant, dazzling picture of Jesus for the church--the Lamb on the Throne, whoever said that before?
What are these words but imaginings, visualizations, re-conceptions fashioned from the story of Jesus by the spirit of God’s forgiveness? What have Paul and John done but to imagine Jesus? Now you are definitely thinking, imagining is to pretend, to invent, to falsify. No. Paul and John have only done what everyone who meets Jesus is called to do--make my particular sense out of this blinding flash of light, to make continuities out of discontinuities. Now that they have done their brilliant work, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we must do ours. A spiritual experience is bound up in their startling words. We must enter into their words and phrases, engage the scenes and stories of Jesus actively to make sense for ourselves. You’ve got to wrestle with that angel. Either that, or take somebody else’s word for it--and that is not faith.
Imagination activates the life of faith. Without it, all you have is somebody else’s Jesus, the Jesus of your parents or Sunday School teachers, or MY Jesus. Or it’s the Jesus of Cecil B. DeMille or Mel Gibson. But what about your Jesus? Have you imagined Jesus, for yourself? Do you think of faith this way? Have you put aside time in your day, in your life, to compose your picture of Christ out of your experiences in this church or any other, your reading of scripture? It would be an indispensible faith exercise to have that kind of talk with yourself--it would be like meeting Jesus again for the first time (!). The result is faith. People always say, “Just have faith”--as long as people remember that it is an active endeavor--not like waiting for the bus.
I wonder today if I have lived up to my personal calling here? In 104 Sundays, have I, have we three, prompted you to imagine Jesus for yourselves? Perhaps you have, and I won’t ever know about it, or need to. But it’s an honest question I ask myself. And it’s a pertinent question for the day of our Annual Meeting. Because, the business we are called to do here, takes the same imagination. The elements are pretty basic--numbers, dates, reports, dollars, and so on--but are they commingled with all that we have learned in two years? Do we actively remember and bring into this moment with each other all the insights of our experience over two years of prayers, meetings, joys, disappointments and frustrations? Is the Christ we collectively imagine present to us here today? Do you bring with you this morning a Jesus in whom you have faith? Do enough of us have the faith necessary to see around the next corner way down there? That’s precisely the human challenge, of course--we can never see around the corner. But we can imagine. And what do you imagine here today? Do you imagine a church, a community of Christ, its congregation and its minister?
II. To open this Annual Meeting in the year of Covid 2021 is to participate in an act of faith--to activate our faith, a faith in the Jesus that Eliot Church imagines. If all we’re going to do is to balance the budget, that’s already been done for us, and we’ll be done in 10 minutes. Aren’t we a church, though? Aren’t we supposed to see how all of this holds together, how this building we own, the assets we control, and the history we have inherited, actually adds up to a ministry for Christ on this corner? And what do we conceive that ministry to be, how do we imagine the unfolding of ministry at Eliot Church?
Let’s review for a moment. Do we remember the lessons of the Soundings we did? Do we remember the Discernment process today, how we weighed the promises of alternative models of ministry. Does our community remember . . .
Is this not a day when a flash of light is possible, when it is revealed to us what’s beyond that corner, even though we can’t see around it? We arrive here with many elements swimming in the air over our heads. Will our imagination unite them into congregational resolve? A huge ship takes a huge crew--we still have the ship, but less crew. That’s our challenge in this meeting today. Nevertheless, we chose a Family Church Model, we set about right-sizing ourselves, we will be hiring a Building Manager, we are completing the Sanctuary Acoustics project, we are going through every room (Josephine and Rich have just emptied out the Parlor Kitchenette), the store rooms are next. We are preparing the soil for new seeds to be planted.
But there is more that we could do before a Settled Pastor arrives, and that time will be here sooner than you think. Based on what I have seen over two years (and the agenda of today’s meeting will prove me right), namely 1) Eliot could afford to take itself to Parliamentary procedure school, 2) hold a summer retreat about Endowment policy, 3) study what Partnership means. I’ll just suggest these for our summer menu, as part of preparing the soil for the planting of new seeds with your Settled Pastor.
I wonder, can anyone have a church without Imagination? You know the answer is: No. Jesus is yours to imagine. And Eliot Church’s future is yours to imagine, and embrace together, today.