Happy new year! Well, happy liturgical new year. Advent is the start of a new liturgical year. Our custom is to celebrate communion to mark the beginning of advent so if you don’t have your bread and cup near by now, you will want to have it by the end of the sermon. Our advent theme this year, along with many churches in Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, is “Dare to Imagine.” After 20 months of covid worry and anxiety, illness and death, unemployment and hunger, seclusion for some and too much closeness for others, rising substance abuse and rising homicide rates, it is time to do some imagining of a brighter future.
This theme, dreamed up by Mennonites in Manitoba, invites us to look at the biblical text through the lens of imagination. Of course not all of the biblical text is imaginings, some parts are history, some parts are poetry and hymns. But surely the prophets and the parables are imaginative portrayals of God and God’s visions for the future. We are invited to imagine, along with the prophets and Jesus. We dare to imagine that God’s hope is present in the world.
Last year, when stores shut down and people lost their jobs there was great fear that there would be widespread food insecurity. Some local people had a vision of helping their neighbors. They imagined what it could look like for neighbors to help neighbors. They turned their wonderings especially toward people who are undocumented and might not have access to the government aid that was being dispersed. As the need grew, the vision grew.
In previous years (and decades) our congregation’s energy around food has often focused on our monthly potluck, making meals for each other when someone is sick or when a baby arrives, making meals for Warm Nights, periodically gathering food for the food bank and sharing communion every few months. But our imaginations and hearts have also been poked and expanded during this covid time. Through our work with Congregation Action Network, we became part of the work that is now known as Food Justice DMV. It is run by volunteers, funded by donations and feeds hundreds of families, thousands of people, in the DMV. It is immigrants helping immigrants, neighbors working alongside new friends.
This past week, the week of Thanksgiving when a lot of energy is spent buying and preparing food, people in this congregation paused preparations for their own feasting and helped make sure there was food on tables of Neighbors they don’t even know. Monday and Tuesday HMCers volunteered at San Mateo Episcopal Church, unloading trucks, packing bags of produce, rice and beans, exercising their muscles, joy and love. Other HMCers prepared food for Day Center guests so they could have a hot, homemade Thanksgiving meal. And yet another family of HMCers helped serve that meal on Thanksgiving Day at the Day Center. Two years ago I would not have imagined that our congregation could gather that much energy to work in the community the week of Thanksgiving. Clearly I need to practice expanding my imagination!
The prophet Jeremiah has a. grand. imagination. One of his visions is that there will come a time when blessings will flow on both Israel and Judah. From prison, Jeremiah sees a better future for all the Jews, for the people of Judah – and Israel, who have been at war with each other (and other kingdoms like Assyria and Babylon) for years, and years. Though he is captive, Jeremiah imagines that there will come a time when Judah will be safe and Jerusalem will be secure. Instead of fighting they will unite and call the land “YHWH is our justice.”
Jeremiah looks back to look forward. He looks back hundreds of years to David’s kingship and imagines that peace will come, will be possible, through the line of King David. Jeremiah’s vision joins those of other prophets looking for Messiah who will save them from political leaders that treat them with contempt and violence. Jeremiah imagines, along with Isaiah, that a shoot will come forth from David’s family tree that will finally bring justice and integrity to the land.
We too hold onto this far-off hope, that one day there will be peace. If we truly want people to live safe and secure we need to get specific, like Jeremiah did with the ever-conflicted Judah and Israel. We might think of groups that are endlessly fighting like the Hatfields and McCoys, the Sharks and the Jets, MS 13 and the 18th Street Crew, Republicans and Democrats, Israel and Palestine, North Korea and South Korea, Taliban and Islamic state. We might try to imagine what it could look like for there to be peace between white nationalists and the many people groups they hate.
Some of these examples of peace between warring groups seem absolutely impossible but we must stretch our imaginations toward what a “land of justice and integrity” can look like. Because we know that if we don’t imagine it, it will not happen. But if we do imagine, it might. A dreadful example would be white nationalists. They have imagined, continue to imagine, all kinds of wild, degrading and dangerous futures and we see them trying to live into that.
But white supremacists are not the only ones with imagination. My eldest, Cecilia, told me recently about a resource called Creative Interventions. Listen to this vision dreamed by women of color in Oakland, CA in 2004:
We call on social justice movements to develop strategies and analysis that address both state AND interpersonal violence, particularly violence against women. Currently, activists/movements that address state violence (such as anti-prison, anti-police brutality groups) often work in isolation from activists/movements that address domestic and sexual violence. The result is that women of color, who suffer disproportionately from both state and interpersonal violence, have become marginalized within these movements. It is critical that we develop responses to gender violence that do not depend on a sexist, racist, classist, and homophobic criminal justice system. It is also important that we develop strategies that challenge the criminal justice system and that also provide safety for survivors of sexual and domestic violence. To live violence free-lives, we must develop holistic strategies for addressing violence that speak to the intersection of all forms of oppression.
What follows is over 500 pages of fleshed out ideas for how this can happen. Talk about daring to imagine! This is the kind of imagining that gave birth to Life After Release, the local group that also dreams up ways to challenge the criminal legal system and imagines freedom, justice and dignity for the Loved Ones it serves.
I wonder if you have any wild hopes or dreams that seem absolutely impossible today but might be possible some years in the future if you (or we) start now. Feel free to put your wild imaginings in the chat.
Luke’s Jesus, as he gets closer to his own prison experience, has a very different imaginative vision of what the future might look like. Reading it today, it sounds like the effects of climate change as they become increasingly pronounced: signs of distress from the skies; nations in anguish because of too much, or not enough, water; people so afraid for their lives that they die as they flee in terror. But Jesus’ fire and brimstone vision is not without hope. Jesus says when these dreadful things happen, that is when we have a chance to change our perspective, to expand our imaginations, to catch sight of the reign of God.
The parable of the fig tree, which really isn’t much of a parable, reminds us that there are common signals in nature that we know and understand. We know what to look for on fig trees as we wait for the fruit to ripen; in the same way, we can learn to watch for the reign of God.
It makes sense to see God’s reign in the beauty of nature. The surprise is that even in times of fear and anguish God’s reign shows up though it takes some discipline, imagination and practice to see it.
But because we are human, in times of threat and danger, it is simpler to choose seclusion and self-protection. Luke’s Jesus recognizes this, that in times of trouble the pull toward self-indulgence and drunkenness is strong. Another temptation is to become indignant at indignities, to get self-righteous about injustice. But that is not where the reign of God is seen, that is not where we catch glimpses of beauty, that is not the imaginative vision of Jeremiah or Jesus. Self indulgence and concentrating only on our anxieties will not move us past crisis.
None of this is to say that anxiety and depression aren’t real, or shouldn’t be taken seriously. They are real and can be dangerously paralyzing. I am not talking about a clinical diagnosis here. I am talking about when we just don’t want to engage with the hard stuff of life because we are privileged enough to be able to avoid the injustices and what causes us anxiety. But when we name our privilege – knowing we have the option of running away (or ignoring the injustice all together) – we can make a different choice. If we want to follow the Jesus path, we stand up, we look around and we seek the reign of God. We pray to escape the tribulations but hang onto the promise that in the midst of trouble we may actually have a sighting of God’s Reign.
In our own case, as Hyattsville Mennonite Church, the sudden restrictive shift in immigration policies by the previous administration pushed us to reclaim our sanctuary status and get more involved with supporting our immigrant neighbors. The pandemic pushed us even further to lean toward San Mateo and participate with their ministries. The crime of George Floyd’s murder by police was part of the impetus for folks to get involved with court watch. Steps toward, and glimpses of, God’s Reign in the midst of intense tragedy and trouble.
We don’t wish for these awful things to happen in the world, to people that we love, or even to people that we don’t know. And our faith teaches us that the terrors of the world need not have the last word for those who are seeking the reign of God. Along with Jeremiah and Jesus, Food Justice DMV and LAR, we can imagine another world – and then participate with the Spirit, and each other, in making it happen. If we want to take it to the next level, we can even invite others to join us in imagining and living it out.
One of the traditions and rituals that can open our minds and hearts and imaginations is the simple “meal” of communion. On the one hand there is not much too it: a bite of bread and a sip from a cup. On the other hand, the meaning and mode keep expanding and being reimagined by groups and congregations and denominations around the world.
Today we share communion together – though we are once again at separate tables. As a way to represent our unity of Spirit there will be opportunities to share responses in the chat throughout our communion service. I invite you to participate as you feel comfortable.
Jesus gathered with his friends around the table many times, to share food, to share stories and parables and imaginings of the reign of God. As we breathe deep of the love that holds us all, across town and across continents, we remember that all are invited, each one of us, is invited to this table. Christ invites us to this meal and meets us here.
As we gather, we notice who is here and we name what we bring:
some of us are hungry, some of us are full,
some of us are wary, some of us are ready,
some of us are eager to imagine and some can’t quite see it.
How do you come to the communion table today? You are invited to share that in the chat.
Giving Thanks –
Jesus took a loaf of bread – and gave thanks.
Jesus took a cup of wine – and gave thanks.
We too take the bread and cup and give thanks.
What are you thankful for in your lives, and in the world, as we come to the table?
Breaking Bread –
Jesus broke the bread saying, ‘This is my body given for you. When you eat this remember me.’
What is broken in our lives and in the world? For whom and for what do we pray? With whom do we pray today?
Sharing the cup
Jesus took the cup saying: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Drink this to remember me until I come again.”
What gives you hope for our lives and for the world? Where do you see the reign of God coming into the world?
Eating together –
Having shared thanks, acknowledged our brokenness – and our hopes, let us eat and drink together. Taste and see that God is good.
Communion – adapted from VT Worship Leader 239