Once Upon a Time

Sermon for Sunday, July 6, 2014 || Proper 9A || Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

onceuponatime I confess: I have babies on the brain. I hope you’ll forgive me another sermon that springs from my impending fatherhood. I promise that in the years to come not all my sermons will generate from this experience. But it’s all I can think about right now, so naturally, in a Gospel lesson crammed with various fabulous sermonic content, I would gravitate to the verse about babies. Jesus says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

Jesus isn’t entirely clear as to the antecedent for “these things” his Father has hidden from the wise, but judging by the surrounding verses, Jesus seems to be talking about ways in which we notice and enter into God’s presence. Jesus says God has revealed these ways to babies, so today I’d like to explore four of these ways, in order that we might reclaim some of their power in our own lives. My goal in this is not to glorify childhood, but to uncover some of the delightful and important things we may have lost along the way to adulthood. The good news here is that it’s much easier to recover something lost than it is to invent something new.

For the first several months of a human existence, our species is woefully incapable of taking care of itself. We just lie there on our backs looking up at this new world that’s full of blurry shapes and is neither as warm nor as comfortable as the womb we so recently exited. We rely on our parents for everything. We can’t cook our own food. We can’t change our own diapers. And we can’t even come up with the manual dexterity to turn on the TV.

In the animal kingdom, buffet type animals – that is, animals that, sooner or later, become prey for carnivores – tend to be born ready to take on the world. They can stand after a few hours (minutes, in some cases) and can run soon after. If they were as helpless as we are, not a one would survive to adulthood.

But there’s something precious and special about our utter dependence as babies. We are born into this world in an extreme version of the state that each follower of Jesus is striving for – dependence on God. At some point in our early years, we actively (and appropriately) lose this utter dependence on our parents. After all, a small dose of rebellion is healthy in order to claim our individuality. But when this healthy rebellion sets in, it’s difficult to let ourselves be dependent again, on anyone, let alone God.

Once upon a time, we lived with the kind of dependence that a right relationship with God exhibits, the radical reliance on the Lord in all things. The memory of this reliance on a greater power exists within each of us, and we can access it again, with God’s help.

Along with our dependence, as we grow up we lose access to many other faculties we had in early childhood. One of these is imagination. Now, of course, we don’t lose this faculty fully; the ability to imagine can stick around for a lifetime. But the imagination of early childhood is special. There are neither boundaries nor inhibitions. Whereas an older child or an adult might feel foolish chatting to imaginary people, the small child sees it as the most natural thing in the world.

There need be no prompting or stimulus. The imagination carries the child into new worlds that seem just as real as the real world because the real world hasn’t been explored yet. Exploration of the real and imagined worlds happens simultaneously, much to the bewilderment of parents, who see their children fascinated by the most ordinary things. Of course, to the child, the feather duster isn’t a feather duster – it’s a rare bird migrating home to Antarctica.

Because the imagination of early childhood is so untamed, it’s much better at communing with the source of imagination. We are made in the image and likeness of God. Because we are made in God’s image, we have the ability to imagine. Just as God imagined and then spoke creation into being, our imaginations help us see and celebrate all the profound links between our world and our world’s Creator.

Once upon a time, each of us imagined with unfettered power and scope. But even now, we can imagine ourselves into God’s presence and discover that we’ve been there all the while.

So we have dependence and imagination as vehicles of God’s revelation. And closely linked to imagination we have the expansive concept of wonder. Wonder comes in two forms, and young children exhibit both. First, wonder happens when you are in awe of something, when you are engrossed in something bigger than yourself that you cannot explain, nor do you desire to explain. In small children, this kind of wonder happens for all sorts of things – things that grown-ups consider mundane. The rain pattering a window, the dog’s fur, and the fireplace’s crackle each have the capacity to instill wonder in the young child who has never experienced these things before.

Second, wonder happens when the desire to explain creeps in, but the ability to explain does not yet exist. Here curiosity meets inexperience, and an explosion of questions results. But have you ever noticed that young children hardly ever ask yes/no questions? Theirs are often much deeper than they realize, especially their favorite question: “Why?” We adults have trained ourselves to look for answers. But wonderers like young children are happy exploring without needing such a goal at the end.

Once upon a time, each of us had the ability to wonder. We can again. And when we do, our awe will prompt us to ask questions that do not have easy answers, but instead lead us deeper into the heart of God, who is the object of our wonder.

Dependence. Imagination. Wonder. Rediscovering these facets of ourselves helps us see God’s revelation in this world. And finally, we have the natural physical manifestation of imagination and wonder. This is called play. Play happens when we engage both our imaginations and our bodies. We dance to unheard music, we build castles with pillows and sheets, we sculpt mountain ranges with our mashed potatoes.

Play is the most common manner in which young children encounter and learn about the world. Play leads to better manual dexterity, better spatial relations, and more active imagination. There’s little separation between play and the rest of life. But at some point during childhood, play becomes segregated from the more serious side of life. And by the time we reach adulthood, many of us have simply lost the desire and ability to play at all.

As adults, our version of the play of small children is called recreation. It has other names as well: hobby time, dates with your spouse, relaxation, vacation, Sabbath. Just say the word “recreation” differently and see how our play reveals God’s work: re-creation.

Once upon a time, each of us played just for the sake of it. When we play now, God gives us the opportunity to rediscover the joy and delight we had as children. Such joy and delight connects us more deeply to the God who desires to make our joy complete.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus thanks his Father for revealing to babies ways of seeing and entering into God’s presence. By granting this revelation to the youngest of children, which we all were once, God instilled in each of us certain knowledge and abilities that might atrophy from disuse but will never be lost completely. With God’s help, we can recapture our dependence. We can discover God’s image in our imagining. We can stumble into the sublime state of wonder. We can take joy in play. Once upon a time, these things came as naturally to us as breathing. And as we seek to grow deeper in our relationships with God, they can again.

Art: Detail from  “They Brought the Children,” by Vasily Polenov (c. 1900)

A Tale of Two Helicopters (devo180 recap)

Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life. (John 1:3-4a; context)

For my birthday this year, my then fiancée bought me a LEGO kit of a police helicopter. It was great fun to put together, and when I was finished the helicopter looked exactly like the one on the box. And no wonder, considering that I had followed the directions exactly. Not one piece was out of place. It was the perfect realization of the set on the box.

Then over the summer I instituted a LEGO club at church, and one of the participants brought in a helicopter of his own. It didn’t quite have the sleek lines of the dedicated pieces that the one I made had, but I sure thought his was way better. His was better because he didn’t use instructions to build it. It didn’t come from a kit ready to assemble. He built his helicopter directly out of his imagination. Whereas I constructed mine, he created his.

In this post, we are going to talk about the link between God’s creation and our own creativity. This link is the imagination, the wonderful gift that God gives us that helps us access our creativity. As we move on, I want you to be thinking about how you personally express your own creativity. We’ll get to that later; for now, just thank God simply because God created you.

Still Speaking

Before we go any further in our discussion about imagination and creativity, I have to rehash some stuff that I’ve said before so please bear with me.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…everything came into being through the Word.” So says John the evangelist at the beginning of his account of the Gospel. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…God said, “Let there be light.” So says one of the writers of the book of Genesis at the beginning of the whole Bible.

The important words here for our discussion are “Word” and “said.” As these two writers articulate the miracle of God’s work in the beginning, God speaks creation into being. Now, we get into trouble when we decide that at the end of Day Six, God stopped speaking. God may have rested on Day Seven, but that Word, which God used to organize creation, continued and continues. God has never stopped speaking creation into being.

As parts of this creation, God continues to speak us into being, as well. None of us is finished being made yet. Not even close. God breathes life into us with each word God speaks, giving us the opportunity to grow, to change, to use our imaginations.

Creation is God’s imagination made real. When we access our imaginations, we tap into the kind of energy that God uses to create.


Our imaginations allow us to access our creative sides unrestrained by any thoughts of boundaries or rules. In the beginning of creation, there were no boundaries or rules; there was just God and God’s Word. So when we use our imaginations, we get as close as we can to the state God was in when God began to create. (Of course, we’re still really really really far from the actual state, but we are closer than we normally are.)

Our ability to imagine finds its roots in the reality that God made us in God’s image. You might think that this means, “in God’s physical appearance” because of our use of the word “image” in today’s parlance. But “image” here does not mean “superficial representation.” Rather, it is shorthand for “the deep and abiding spark of God’s Spirit that animates us.” It is that which is within us that allows us to imitate God, to reflect how God is, or to put it another way, to follow.

And it’s no coincidence that the words “image” and “imagination” come for the same root. When we tap into our imaginations, we find ourselves in a pure moment of creative energy. Children are so good at imagining because they don’t have as much baggage, which tends to pollute this pure moment. But even with baggage, we can soar into the heights of creativity. And in so doing, we enable the spark within us that is calling us to create in God’s image.

Talent Not Required

We’ve spent the first half of this post discussing the theological warrant for why we are able to engage our imaginations to aid in creative endeavors. Now let’s talk about one of the pitfalls that can accompany this discussion.

This pitfall centers around a word that is often linked to creativity, and that word is “talent.” Too often we ascribe the creative task only to those people we describe as “talented.” And while it is true that the vast majority of creative artifacts – paintings, musical scores, choreography, to name three – that survive the test of time come from talented people, this does not mean that so-called talented people have a monopoly on creativity. Rather, their works generate value beyond the initial act of creation because other people have decided on sets of factors that assign such value.

But the initial act of creation is much more important than any resultant value of a work. And anyone, no matter how much or how little talent he or she has, can and should create. Exercising our creativity, no matter what the outlet, allows us to reach deep inside and root around for the spark that God buried within us. In this searching for our creative spark, we concurrently probe for our strong, but often ignored, bond with God’s own constant creation. And this leads us to be better followers of Jesus Christ.

So don’t worry if you do not have what the marketplace has decided is “talent.” Don’t worry if the fruits of your creative endeavors sit in your basement once you’re done. Don’t worry if your creativity manifests itself in a way that leaves no material product, but rather leaves a mark on the life of someone else. Rather, create for creation’s sake. After all, that’s what God does.

A Poem for Creativity

As we close our discussion on creativity and imagination, I invite you to imagine with me how you might work with God to release your own creativity. Perhaps you will

Sing a song a way that’s not been heard before,
Or write a play and cast your little brother as the lead,
Or take a day to dig a garden in your yard
And sow some seeds that soon will be a living tapestry.

Or paint a picture with the watercolors in your bottom drawer,
Or stitch a many-colored quilt to lay across a pair of old, scarred knees,
Or take some pages from old magazines and roll them
Into beads for jewelry for your mother’s special day.

Or hum a tune you half-remember hearing at a pub, oh way back when,
Or write some epic verse about adventures Spot has when you are away,
Or take an afternoon to bake a latticed apple pie
And bring it for dessert to potluck night at church.

Or dance a dance that you are making up right then and there,
Or tell yourself the story of the star that shines before the others do,
Or take a piece of rusty clay and throw a pot
And glaze it with a dye you mixed yourself.

Or pick a bunch of daisies for the vase atop your sister’s chest of drawers,
Or weave a brand new romance with the threads of your two lives,
Or take some time to shape a handful of the deepest silence
Into a laugh
Or a cry
Or a long, contented sigh.

I leave this moment with you, God, imagining how you will move in my life tomorrow.

Make believe

(Sermon for November 15, 2009 ||Proper 28, Year B, RCL || 1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-25)

Inigo Montoya, the Spanish hired sword who helped kidnap Princess Buttercup, is losing his duel with the Man in Black. The fight has ranged all over the rocky terrain at the precipice of the Cliffs of Insanity. The two swordsmen had both begun left-handed, but have switched to their dominant hands when they recognized the masterful fencing of the other. Thrust. Parry. Riposte. The Man in Black acrobatically flips off the ruins. Inigo stares at him, clearly amazed: “Who are you?” he asks.

inigoandwestley“No one of consequence,” replies the Man in Black.

“I must know,” pleads the Spaniard.

“Get used to disappointment.”

The fight continues, only to end a minute later with an increasingly flustered Inigo receiving a knock to the back of the head. And the Man in Black sprints off to track down the title character of The Princess Bride.

Get used to disappointment. Sounds like quite sensible advice. Sounds like the Man in Black has been around the block a few times. Sounds like he knows something about the ways of the world. However, this worldly wisdom is often counterproductive to a life of faith. The Letter to the Hebrews urges us this morning to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” In a world that teaches us to “get used to disappointment,” holding fast to our hope can be so very difficult.

Our inoculation begins at an early age. Children enter life with bright, wide eyes and unbounded, unfettered imaginations. Every couch cushion is a stone in a castle under siege by the invading hordes who desire nothing more than to pillage your kingdom. Every bath is a deep-sea expedition to find the lost city of Atlantis. Every day is another chance to see a unicorn. But before long, we start getting used to disappointment. We are told that couch cushions are for sitting, baths are for bathing, and there’s no such thing as unicorns.

I remember my mother shouting: “Young man, there are no dinosaur bones in the backyard. Stop digging up my flowerbeds.” But what she didn’t know was that my imagination was equipped with ground-penetrating sonar and that there was an intact velociraptor skeleton just underneath the gardenias. It was the find of the century. Any moment, Richard Attenborough was going to land in a helicopter and whisk me off to Jurassic Park. (I don’t mean to rag on my mother – she always cultivated her children’s imaginations as long as we left her flowers alone.)

But in the grand scheme of things, from the moment we are born, our imaginations do nothing but shrink as our understanding of so-called reality grows. Only a few people make it to the major leagues or become astronauts or famous singers. But children always start out dreaming about these things. Do you know anyone at age six who wanted to be a CPA?

As we get used to disappointment, our ability to imagine new worlds wanes. The trouble is that hope exists in the imagination’s ability to frustrate the enclosing nature of the so-called “real” world. We are made in the image of God; therefore, our imagination connects us to the creative spark of our Creator within each of us. And hope resides in this spark. As mounting disappointment attempts to snuff out our imaginations, we encounter great difficulty in accessing the hope, which our Creator installed in us.

In this morning’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, Hannah has gotten used to disappointment. She has no children, and her husband’s other, very fertile wife, provokes her on this account. Every year, when the family goes up to the house of the Lord to sacrifice, Hannah weeps and does not eat because of her situation, which is made all the more humiliating by Penninah’s taunting.

But Hannah does not let her disappointment snuff out the hope she has in the Lord. Hannah goes to the temple and asks God to remember her. She pours out her soul before the Lord. She prays so fervently that Eli, the priest, supposes she’s drunk. But no: Hannah is only anxious and vexed. She still believes that God continues to be present in her life, despite the worthlessness, which the world tells her she should be feeling. Hannah combats her own disappointment with the hope that she still has in God to act in her life. Soon God remembers Hannah. She bears a son named Samuel, and he grows up to be the prophet of the Lord.

Hannah’s devotion and perseverance serve as a model for the words of the Letter to the Hebrews. Hannah approaches God “with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” And she “hold[s] fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,” for she knows that “he who has promised is faithful.”

We, too, hold fast to the confession of our hope because he who has promised is faithful. Too often, we think that our faith in God needs to sustain us. We think that if we had been just a bit more faith, everything would turn out the way we want and there’d be no more disappointment. But our faith is a wavering, sporadic thing. If we had to feed on our faith alone, we would have starved long ago.

But Hebrews urges us to reorient our understanding of faith. Our wavering, sporadic faith in God pales in comparison with the ultimate reality that God is the faithful One. God keeps God’s promises. God is the rock upon which our disappointments shatter. We do not manufacture our faith. Faith is not self-centered. Faith is God-centered, and God invites us to step into the reality where our faith is as constant as God’s. The confession of our hope proclaims that this reality exists and that we will encounter its utter joy when we finally and fully enter God’s eternal presence.

We believe that this happens in the power of the resurrection when we pass from life through death to new life. But the confession of our hope does not merely cast our thoughts to the life beyond death. Remember, hope exists in the imagination’s ability to frustrate the enclosing nature of the so-called “real” world. This real world is full of disappointments, but it doesn’t have to be. While we may never find the lost city of Atlantis or see a unicorn, concrete disappointments, which may be better termed “crises,” abound in our world.

But God has blessed us with hope-fueled imaginations. God has blessed us with the mission, as Hebrews says, “to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” God has blessed us with the resources to feed and clothe everyone in this world. We must only provide the will. We must only get over our own disappointments and harness the hope that God’s own faith makes real in our lives.

When we were children, the magical words “Once upon a time” lost their luster when we heard their counterparts: “Sweetheart, it’s only make-believe.” But I say to you that we have the opportunity, we have the imagination, we have the will to change this world for the better. Because God keeps God’s promises, we are able to keep our promises. We are able to make a difference in people’s lives. We are able because God’s own faithfulness makes us believe.