Imagine That!

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Sometimes I think we preachers confuse information and imagination. Many of us tend in our sermons to give people significant and salutary information about the biblical passage we are preaching on, when I suspect what the people listening need is for us to kindle their imaginations. Certainly that is the case in today’s reading about Jesus’ calling of the disciples.

Mark Allan Powell, in a gem of a little book called What Do They Hear: Bridging The Gap Between Pulpit and Pew, explores the significant difference between how preachers and listeners approach the biblical text. Each seeks to understand the meaning of the text, but they do so very differently. When preachers are asked about the meaning of a passage, we typically and unconsciously assume we are talking about cognitive explanation: that is, what did Matthew intend to convey in his description of Jesus’ call of the disciples? When everyday Christians are asked about the meaning of a passage, however, they typically assume we are talking about emotional impact: that is, what does this story of the call of the disciples mean to me?

Because of this difference between these two legitimate ways to approach meaning, preachers often end up sharing all kinds of interesting information about a biblical passage instead of helping hearers imagine what difference this passage makes in their daily lives. In order to help remedy this, I’ve often counseled preachers to shift from asking themselves “What does this passage mean?” to “How might this passage be meaningful to me and to my hearers?” This subtle shift not only orients us from cognitive explanation to emotional impact, it also moves us from the past to the future. Which is itself a vital shift to make.

“Meaning,” understood as explanation, is focused on the past: What did Matthew intend? What was this heard by the Christians Matthew was writing to? What do the differences between Matthew’s treatment of this scene and Mark’s tell us? And so forth. These are important questions, but their answers are all located in the past. Wondering about how a passage may be meaningful, however, shifts our focus to the present and, even more, the future: “How will Joe, who is recently unemployed, here this account of the call of the disciples?” “How might the members of our youth group imagine themselves to be called by Jesus?” “Could this story inspire Lisa, as she concludes her career in business, to imagine that God has a lot of work for her yet to do?” These kinds of questions are about the future, the future this passage might kindle and create when opened up in the pulpit.

This can be a surprisingly challenging move for many of us to make. It’s not that we don’t hope our sermons impact our hearers — of course we do! It’s more that we’ve been so conditioned to understand meaning in cognitive terms and our task as fidelity to the biblical author’s original intention (assuming we can figure that out!), that it’s very difficult for us not to give at least priority, if not our exclusive attention, to the past of the text instead of its possible future. We’ve been trained by the Enlightenment to respect the temporal gap between the biblical authors and ourselves. For this reason we’ve learned to color between the lines by following the rules of proper biblical exegesis, a discipline forged from Enlightenment convictions. Consequently, we’ve come to believe that reading too many of our own concerns into a passage is to commit that greatest of biblical sins, eisegesis. But I suspect that while information is helpful to faith, ultimately faith — at least when understood as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1) — is essentially an act of imagination. And kindling imagination may just require us to break some of the rules the Enlightenment taught us and risk coloring outside the lines. For as the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said, our “Life in God is more like a Japanese picture that does not end at the margins.”

So here’s the choice before us, Working Preacher. We can certainly talk about the significance of “fulfillment” in Matthew’s gospel. Or of the similarity between Jesus’ and John’s message of repentance. Or of the nature and shape of the kingdom of God in Matthew’s treament. Or even of the socio-economic locale of the first disciples and the implications of this for our understanding Jesus’ mission. All of these are legitimate, viable paths of interpretation. If you choose any of them, please make the leap from explanation to impact, from past to future, and help us imagine what tangible difference this makes to our lives.

At the same time, however, we might shift the order of our exegetical ruminations and begin, rather than end, with the question of how this passage might impact our hearers. If so, here’s what struck me this week: the ones Jesus seeks out to be his disciples are so incredibly ordinary. No education, wealth, or social status to boast of. No particular experience or characteristics that would predict their success. No. Jesus seeks out ordinary, everyday, even mundane people to be the bearers of his message of reconciliation and redemption. And if them, why not also us?

Can we, that is, imagine that Jesus continues to call ordinary, everyday persons from all walks of life to bear Jesus’ word and continue Jesus’ mission. That mission may take the shape of proclamation and evangelism, as we often understand it, but it may also take the shape of mercy to the vulnerable, of care for the ill, of fidelity to our everyday responsibilities and neighbors. If so, then our focus on the disciples of Jesus’ day might be only fleeting in this sermon in order to allow us to give greater attention to the disciples of today — that is, to those to whom we are preaching — so that we might imagine how God is calling all of us to lives of faith, meaning, and purpose here and now. If so, then all of the venues of our life — yes, in the church, but also in our relationships, jobs, places of volunteering, and beyond — become the arenas in which we hear and respond to God’s call.

Yes, I know, this may be a leap of imagination from our typical lines of responsible exegesis. But here I side with George Bernhard Shaw’s Joan of Arc when she says, “How else can God speak to us except through…our imaginations.” And so I think our primary task this week is to help our hearers imagine and believe that they are worthy of God’s call; that, indeed, God is calling them wherever they are to be God’s disciples. If we can do that, we might just also see it happening in our very midst. Imagine that!

Thank you, Working Preacher, for all of the good work you do so regularly and faithfully, and this week especially for imagining that part of your task is to whisper the Word of God to us through our imaginations.

Yours in Christ,