The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: The Prophetic Imagination

Sermon at St. Ann's 150th Anniversary, Nashville, TN

by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori


I was struck by reading the words of Bishop Quintard here 135 years ago, challenging the people of this parish to think boldly and build bigger so they could serve a larger community. He urged them to be aggressive in "shaking off this fossilism." What a wonderfully rich image! I don't think he had doing the hokey pokey in mind, but he clearly did envision overturning what some might think are the limits on living a Christian life.

Shaking off fossilism - maybe shaking off hopelessness, like his crazy idea that Sewanee might be rebuilt from a log cabin and nothing else following the Civil War. Or perhaps he meant the fossilism that says that once we've taken care of the people immediately around us, the ones already here, that we're finished doing God's work. Fossilism has something to do with what the prophets call a heart of stone, unmoved by the lament of God's people or the call of God's spirit. As a physician, Bp. Quintard undoubtedly knew something about the disease of hardened hearts.

Fossilism is a chronic hazard in the church - that we dream too small or have too narrow a view of where God is calling us. It's connected to what Jaroslav Pelikan said about tradition being the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism the dead faith of the living. I don't think fossilism has had much chance to settle in around here - somehow your second bishop fanned a fire that's still burning, and your current bishop is still fanning, still warming the dry bones around here, reminding them of the breath of God enlivening each one. That warm breath turns fossils into living flesh, ready for partnership in God's mission.

And mission is why we're here. Emil Brunner said, "the church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning." These readings are the ones "for social service," or in this frame, ministry with the larger community - one larger than we're usually ready or willing to imagine.

Zechariah invites us to dream about a city where the streets are safe enough for elders to sit sunning themselves on benches, while little children play around their feet. And not just to dream about it, but to begin to put that hope to work, to let those bones live, to make real God's intent for us all. Hear the word of the Lord, "there shall be a sowing of peace, the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground its produce, and the sky its rain: I will give all these things to the remnant."

That remnant is old bones that have begun to fossilize, out of fear or hopelessness or the absence of imagination. Can you imagine a city where all children have several interested adults ensuring that they live up to God's dream for them? Can you imagine a city where it's safe for old ladies and little children to walk down the street at midnight? Can you imagine a city where nobody has to sleep under bridges? Where each and every human person has an opportunity to put his or her gifts to work in creative and dignified ways? Can you imagine that?

Imagination or dreaming or creative possibility is one of the ways we reflect the image of God. Both image and imagine come from the Latin, imitatio, which also gives us "imitate." When we live into the image of God we mirror or imitate God's qualities. That's what Thomas a Kempis was getting at in The Imitation of Christ. And when we turn away from God's possibility because we just can't hold it, we actually commit sin - maybe even that sin against the holy spirit. God is always up to more than we can hold. And the world is always pushing back: "Incarnation? No way!" "Resurrection - not in my frame of reference." "Free the slaves? No, God intended slavery. Here's where it says so in the Bible."

The imagination of prophets is always nudging or prodding us to open a little wider and let the breath of God blow in. It can be frightening and painful to endure that stretching, but the promise is always, Immanuel, God is with us.

That's what goes on with Bartimaeus, this "son of honor" who is nevertheless blind and begging. Jesus' word to him evokes the courage to claim the boldest possibility he can imagine - seeing again. And the response comes, "go, your faith, your willingness to imagine, has made you well and whole." That's Bartimaeus' sending, his commissioning. And the gospel says, "he followed Jesus on the way."

Following Jesus on the way - and the way is what early Christians called it before the word Christian was ever invented - following Jesus is about imagining that healed world that moves beyond dead fossils. St. Ann's has done it repeatedly through your history - this congregation called a woman as rector when that "simply wasn't done!" You've called Fr. Britton into your midst for his gifts of careful and creative pastoral leadership. And you've had the courage to imagine a faithful community that could thrive in a new worship space.

But you've followed Jesus on the way that leads out that door, which is probably the hardest thing of all. Even this service out here under a tent is a statement to all those folks driving by. You've imagined a city where children and elders can thrive in the streets, and begun to make that a reality. Where else is God's image becoming flesh within you? What are you imagining about God's possibility? How is the great dream becoming flesh and blood reality?

That's your challenge in the next 150 years: how to keep imagining a future that looks more like the reign of God. You will need both the prophets who can speak the vision into concrete words and the quieter prophets who read to children and feed the hungry. You will need some who will speak God's truth in tight places, like city councils and state legislatures and even ecumenical gatherings, inviting them to stretch their collective imagination, and build a society that reflects the divine. You can encourage prophets like the one I read about a couple of days ago, who teaches business skills in the poorest communities in India. He said one abused woman wouldn't even lift her head and look him in the face when he began his class, but that before long she left an abusive marriage, sued for child support, and started a grocery store. She wants to go to law school so she can work with other abused women. She is finding imagination.

And in all the imagining work you do, you will need the nurture of the mystics like Thomas a Kempis, like the pastoral leaders here, who keep calling you back to prayer. That's where the warm, moist breath enters, that turns fossilizing bones into flesh-covered ones.

Blessings on your imagining. Be bold, be creative, be brave and faithful, and you will indeed bless many.


[Taken by permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]