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January 22, 2017

 

I have more than a few friends who attended the Women’s March in Washington on Saturday. 

Friends who are seminarians at Wesley, where I attend, and friends from up here in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. 

If you’re not familiar with the Women’s March, well, hundreds of thousands of women gathered in more than 100 locations around the world — in all 50 states and in 32 countries — to have their voice heard on women’s rights issues. 

The largest marches were in Washington, DC, where an estimated 500,000 people gathered, and Los Angeles, which reported 750,000.  

Why do so many people — women and men — believe a statement this big is needed? 

Clearly, there has been much rhetoric and unfortunate expression during Donald Trump’s campaign that has evoked a fear of eroding the work that so many women and men fought for, and even died for, when it comes to women’s rights in this country. 

That fight continues, and many strides have been made through the years. Yet, still, there is a very long way to go.

 

Motivational fear

You see, there is a fear. A real fear that is present. 

And regardless of where you sit today, we have to acknowledge that people — our sisters and bothers — are afraid. 

And so the choice is to either ignore the condition and maybe it will pass, or take action to ensure the condition doesn’t worsen through empathy or ignorance.

And Saturday, hundreds of thousands of women and men chose the latter. 

And I’m glad. You see, we can become quite complacent and inwardly focused — even as followers of Christ — in our culture and in our American affluence.   

 I’m thankful for all the abundant gifts that we have, but I also recognize that our work isn’t finished and we cannot rest on our laurels. 

We are called to invite all people to Christ’s love. 

We are called to see people — all people — as redeemable children of God. 

And we are called to be Christ’s light in a world that can look quite dark at times. 

 

Prophetic Imagination

In his book The Prophetic Imagination, theologian Walter Brueggemann writes: “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” 

In other words, we are called to be aware of the condition of our world in light of Christ’s teachings, to call out its injustices, but also imagine what God calls the world to look like and go out and make that a reality. 

Is this some new line of thought, some new-school philosophy or a post-modern theology? 

No. 

It is exactly what God was doing when he called his people out of Egypt. 

Israel was the alternative reality. And God needed people to think imaginatively and then go and make that imagination a reality. 

And so we saw Moses lead God’s calling in the Old Testament.

And in today’s reading, Matthew 4.12-23, we see another example of this great prophetic imagination put into action. 

It falls under the title Jesus Begins His Ministry in Galilee, as the subheading points out in our New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. 

Just before this chapter, John baptizes Jesus, then Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness. 

And when that’s done, he is spurred into his ministry. 

What a wonderful parallel for us to begin our New Year, amen? 

That’s fuel to keep those resolutions going. 

 

 

Ministry begins

In our reading today, two things are happening here.

The first is that Jesus feels the urgency to begin this prophetically imaginative ministry after he learns that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been murdered by King Herod, a Roman pawn. 

You see, the evil is represented by the Roman Empire, whose violent and extreme expansion engulfed all of Judah and forced the Jews to be servants to Caesar. 

All the work they do goes to fill Roman coffers and fuels Roman expansion.

Like God calling his people out of Egypt to an alternate reality, Jesus is calling his people to him — Jesus is the alternate reality to Rome. 

Jesus is the reality to the evil. 

It’s not a far stretch, of course. We know this. But you see, in Verse 17 — at the end of this first part of the reading, he states the urgency: 

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 

Who is he addressing here? 

His people. 

Who are his people?

Listen: ALL people. 

See, in the passage right before, Jesus quotes from the book of Isaiah. 

And Isaiah, like Moses’s prophetic imagination for God’s people in Egypt before him, Isaiah is calling God’s people back into Israel after being exiled after Assyria took over Israel.  

Verse 16, “…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light … light has dawned.”

And now, in a land occupied by the Romans — the Gentiles — Jesus is calling people to him. To the prophetic imagination. 

And so this sets up very nicely the second half of the reading in Matthew — as long as you understand that the first part is why Jesus is calling followers, as we just discussed. 

Verse 18’s subheading is Jesus Calls the First Disciples.

See, the motion is set into place first by the prophetic imagination — the need to act. And now, Jesus needs people to make that alternative reality happen. 

And so in Verse 18, he calls Peter and his brother Andrew, and James and his brother John. 

What is so significant about these four men? 

The easy answer was that they are fishermen, and there is a great metaphor in Jesus’s statement in Verse 19, “I will make you fishers of people.”

But consider again the culture in which Peter, Andrew, James and John — and Jesus lived in.

First, fishermen were a bit despised. It was a dirty job, and among the low rungs of society. 

And so the contrast presented is stark: From the physical dregs these men would come to pull others from the spiritual dregs. 

The other aspect is that by calling these men, Jesus is beginning a shared, or communal way of living. This is very alternative to what the culture represented at the time.

Identity would become united. One’s family or genes isn’t going to be currency any longer. Identity is in an alternate reality. 

So the whole thing is rich with metaphor and imagination. 

And that’s how the imagination becomes reality.

 

Our prophetic calling

So what does Jesus do? And what does the Jesus movement do?

The last verse, 23, tells us:

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

That’s awesome, right?

But that statement right there says more than what it is at face-value — which is a whole lot, absolutely… 

What it says is that Jesus is a challenge — a threat — to Rome. 

That is Jesus is good; Rome is evil. 

Jesus frees God’s people; Rome oppresses them. 

The idea of the Roman Empire was that everyone was taken care of. But that wasn’t at all true. 

Rome’s propaganda was that it blessed the world with good health. 

The reality was that Rome’s control was a hazard to people’s health. 

Rome claimed everyone could be employed. 

The reality was that every fish caught by Peter, Andrew, James and John went to support the Roman Empire.

Jesus curing “every disease and sickness” was Jesus ridding God’s children of the disease of Rome and the idea of the Royal Consciousness that Brueggemann discusses. 

This is what the prophetic imagination looks like and it is exactly, through Christ’s ministry, how it is manifested. 

And, as we learn later in Christ’s ministry, this imagination and this healing isn’t only for the Jews, it’s for all people — Jesus heals Jews AND Gentiles. 

The teaching is for ALL people, Jews and Gentiles alike. 

 

We are called to be prophetic imaginers

So, we can ask, what is the oppression and sickness in our world today?

What cultural beliefs and practices today need a healthy dose of prophetic imagination? 

This shouldn’t take long to name… and if it does, we’re not really doing our jobs, are we? 

We’re not really following Christ the way Christ intended us to.

When Jesus reaches out to us and says “Follow me,” is it so that you can have your own personal relationship with him and be happy in the life that you have?

That’s a part of it. 

But clearly, he is showing us in our reading today — and in all his teaching — that we are bigger than just ourselves. 

When we are called to follow Jesus, what we are really being called to is to look at the world — not just our own little worlds — and first imagine how it can be better — the way Christ wants it to be. 

That takes a lot of soul-searching. It takes undoing a lot of what this world tells us to do: To take care of ourselves first, to expand our interests, to line our wallets and to ensure our own satisfaction before considering other people, or even animals or environmental practices. 

In other words God’s Creation. 

Then it calls us to begin to change the world to the place we prophetically imagined. 

Why prophetic?

Because that prophecy is divine. We are created in God’s image and have the Holy Spirit within us.

The voice in the wilderness becomes the Spirit guiding our own consciousness, not to be usurped or ignored, but enabled and united. 

That is what the body is for. That is what the body of Christ is for. 

We proclaim the good news. That is the prophetic imagination part. 

Then we cure all the sickness in the world, as Jesus did. 

That is how we move from imagination to reality.

 

For those of you who grew up and had a social conscience in the 1960s and ‘70s recall so many protests and action committees. 

Has that need changed? I could argue that we’ve just become desensitized and complacent. 

Because I know there is a world in need of prophetic imagination. 

There were more than 200,000 people in need of prophetic imagination down on the National Mall just yesterday. 

I’m glad they are imagining a better world. 

But it’s not entirely up to them; they are a mere fraction. 

No, it’s up to all of us to engage in a dialogue and in an imagination that puts God first. 

And then we can move in the full confidence of Christ to make that imagination into reality. 

 

 

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