A New Imagination: Sermon by Laura, 9.1.13 Pentecost 15 Acts Sermon Series

Scripture: Acts 17

British author Sir Ken Robinson tells the story of a little girl at a drawing lesson. “She was six and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention, and in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated and she went over to her and she said, ‘What are you drawing?’ And the girl said, ‘I’m drawing a picture of God.’ And the teacher said, ‘But nobody knows what God looks like.’ And the girl said, ‘They will in a minute.’”[i]

Don’t you just love that little girl’s confident creativity? The marvelous, natural creativity of young children is often remarked upon. But alongside her gift of imagination, I want us to notice this child’s relationship with her teacher. Their conversation shows that the teacher made a form in which imagination can flourish, a classroom, where there is space, time, and tools for drawing–in which the child can manifest her freedom.

I’m using the word “freedom” here to signify the barrier-breaking power of creative imagination, inspiring newness and making the unknown known.  By “form,” I mean the structures, choices and commitments which ground imagination in a world of substance, of earth and flesh. Both the freedom to dream and the form to contain it are necessary for the child’s revelation of God, and for ours as well.

Today, we are wrapping up our sermon series on the book of Acts, and one of the greatest insights I’ve received from it is an awareness of the dynamic tension of freedom and form. We see it throughout the book, beginning with Pentecost, when the rag-tag band of Jesus’ disciples receive the amazing gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will free them, again and again, to a new imagination, guiding them to see and hear God’s will in Jesus Christ, gathering and sending out the creative community which becomes known as the church. Luke tells us the story, how God’s imagination, God’s dream, finds form and flesh in this community seeking and struggling to share the good news of new life in Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem and onward to all nations.

As the discipleship community grows, they confront obstacles within and without. There is the challenge of sustaining the community, supporting the ministry of the apostles but also caring justly for the needy in their midst. There is the pain of division, as the believers are rejected by the Jewish communities of their roots. Persecution forces some to flee Jerusalem, and they learned to share the message cross-culturally, welcoming Gentiles as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Time and again, the church bumps up against the brokenness of the world and the limits of previous understanding, but the Holy Spirit imagines a new way and sends them out. The faithfulness of the church is found on a Way fraught with dynamic tension,  as the dream of God marches always onward in forms previously unimagined.

And who could have imagined the way God’s Spirit takes form in Paul, the rabbi known for persecuting Jesus’ followers who becomes the preeminent apostle to the Gentiles? Not even Paul himself. In Chapter 17 we catch up to him when he seems to be bumping up against the limits of his own imagination. He’s been commissioned to the primary task of sharing the good news with Gentiles. But his pattern entering a new city is always to enter the synagogue first, arguing for three successive Sabbath days how the scriptures witness to Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah. But in Thessalonica, his practice angered some Jews so much, they not only incite a riot there, but follow him to Beroea. Sent away for his protection, Paul makes an unexpected visit to Athens. Forced out of his usual patterns in this legendary city, Paul at last finds his voice as apostle to the Gentiles.

Waiting for Silas and Timothy, Paul takes in the sights. Intellectuals, culture-makers and philosophers of the ancient world, no one could fault the Athenians for lacking imagination. Indeed, if the word “imagination” combines the words  “image” and “nation,”[ii] then Athens was exemplary, for it was a “nation” populated by every conceivable image of god. There was even one shrine honoring a god the Athenians could not conceive of, a shrine to “the unknown god.”

Paul’s monotheistic sensibilities are offended by the prolific graven images, and he begins conversations about them in the synagogues and the public forums. Eventually he finds himself sharing the good news of Jesus with philosophers, who bring him to the Areopagus, the preeminent council of Athenian elders, to explain his “strange ideas.” It is Paul’s first opportunity in Acts to speak to a completely Gentile audience of non-believers.

Now we might expect Paul to lambast the Athenians about their idolatry. But as he has wandered Athens and dialogued with its people, he has been learning about them. Paul’s come to recognize that the statues of Athens represent a restless and imaginative searching for the divine. And so he begins, carefully, respectfully, with common ground: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” he says, pointing to their “unknown god” as witness of their seeking.

Then, he begins to share a form to ground their imagination. He tells the story of scripture, as sensitively as he can for those who have never heard it. That unknown god they honor is the Creator of all peoples, who can never be fully captured in any human-conceived shrines or sculptures or ideas. But while God cannot be pinned down to just any form, God can be known by all peoples. This God is “not far from each of us,” Paul says, quoting one of their own philosopher-poets: “in him we live and move and have our being; for we too are his offspring.”

This is the good news of the Spirit, my friends. Imagination is the common heritage of all human beings, created as bearers of God’s image, a powerful gift for seeking God. But God is as near to all of us as the breath of life within us. Therefore we are called, as one author put it, “to rejoice and to discover, to dialogue and to enjoy the common life of the Spirit,” listening for her voice with all those who grope for the divine ground of all being.[iii]

It is good for us to dialogue, as Paul did, with people whose religious imaginations are radically different from ours, attuning ourselves to the Spirit in their midst. For the Spirit is free as the wind is free, to be present wherever and with whomever she chooses. Making use of the imaginative powers she gives us, we will encounter her in places we never expect. The Spirit of creation from chaos, the Spirit of resurrection, is always and everywhere breaking through the barriers to new life.

But Paul’s speech does not stop there, because even as we embrace creative freedom of the Spirit, we must also recognize how subject we are to confusion. The Spirit’s restlessness does not feel comfortable or secure, and we are always tempted to tie her down, fixing for ourselves objects of worship, centering our lives on the images, shrines, dogmas, and ideologies we ourselves create.

That’s why Paul calls the Athenians to repentance, boldly proclaiming the even better news, that God does not leave us restlessly searching, but has revealed the form of divine grace. The pattern of God’s gracious loving ways has been written and can be known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All our human longings to touch, to know, to experience divinity, all restless imaginings of God’s goodness, beauty and truth, find form in the man God raised from the dead and appointed to judge the world in righteousness. As Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

“No one knows what God looks like;” “They will in a minute.”

I’m curious to know what that little girl unveiled to her teacher that day. But there’s something I’d like to know even more.  How would you draw the image of God? For here’s the thing: we are each and all, like that little girl, called to use all our imagination and all our creativity, to reveal the image of God we are uniquely created to bear. The Spirit longs to reveal God’s goodness, beauty, and truth in us. Sometimes a fresh wind of the Spirit must first blow through and blow away the faulty imagery cluttering the landscape of our imagination, so that we may discern the true outlines of God’s image by looking to Jesus Christ, self-giving love incarnate, God’s dream in human form.

I believe we are in just such a time, when the winds of change are inviting us to a new freedom of imagination. We must pray for the discernment to shape forms of the faithful life which can reveal Christ to a new generation. Like Paul, our first task is to get to know the world we find ourselves in, to look deeply beneath its obvious idolatries and recognize the common life of the Spirit. And then we are called to hold onto the form of God’s dream with a conviction that is always ready for repentance, a faith always seeking new understanding.[iv]

Our country has been honoring the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which gave us the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream,” King declared, tracing the outlines of a world that had not yet come into being, a world where the idolatries of racial prejudice and discrimination had been cleared away to make room for the rights and dignity of all people. Let us remember that the nonviolent demonstration of that day, and the words of King’s speech were grounded in the form of a dream much older than 50 years.

It was the dream of the free and restless Spirit, spoken first through the prophets King quoted, saying, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”[v]

It is the same dream which called the church into being forming a people for powerful witness, the same dream which sent Paul to Athens, across the barriers between Jew and Gentile, to proclaim the nearness of God’s presence, the dream which still sends you and me, out from all our tiny, comfortable shrines to carry the reconciling love of Jesus Christ starting right here and marching onward to all the nations of the world until that appointed day when Christ comes again. Amen


[i] Sir Ken Robinson speaking in 2006 at TED (Technology-Entertainment-Design) on  the topic of creativity and schools. Speech can be found here: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html#205000

[ii] I think I got this idea from Julia Cameron, but I can’t find the location in her books.

[iv] “faith seeking understanding” was the “motto” of St. Anselm of Canterbury

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