Sermon - 22nd October 2017
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
“Imagine” was one of three post-Beatles songs written by John Lennon. He wrote it in 1971 and it has been incredibly popular. It is based, in part, on some of Yoko Ono's childhood poetry.
Lennon had a vision of a utopia without religion or borders. Ono said that the lyrical content of "Imagine" was "just what John believed — that we are all one country, one world, one people. He wanted to get that idea out." And Lennon himself commented that “Imagine” was an "anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic [song], but because it's sugar-coated, it's accepted."
The song holds up religion, nationalism, capitalism and tradition as being at the root of the world's evils. It has been criticised for seeming to ignore other sources of evil in our world which in their own way bring about tyranny, injustice and inequality; and it can be argued that it offers unduly simple answers to profound questions and describes a world which humanity has never come close to achieving across the many cultures which have come and gone throughout history.
Its vision of the future is immediately attractive until you start to realise that it doesn't deal with the most basic problem of all that humanity faces - human nature.
The sisterhood and brotherhood of men and women which the song envisages is not only broken by external forces: there are times when we humans are our own worst enemies, when our flaws, our emotions, our needs and our fears damage our relationships with the world around us. It’s a big jump to say that if we only lived in a perfect environment we would respond with equally perfect behaviour. Frequently, we don’t.
And yet, for all its attempt to be a secular song from a purely humanist viewpoint, it actually touches on a number of religious themes which are not that far removed from our own Christian values.
The very act of imagining a better world - the use of that uniquely human gift of imagination - is a key feature of our lives as Christians. Our reading tells of a powerful tradition within our faith - a tradition of prophecy - of using our creative gifts to construct visions of our future, of using our life memories, our recollections and our experiences to reflect on the past, to nurture the gift of wisdom, and to dream of what still might be.
As far as we can tell, we humans appear to be unique in God’s creation in having the ability to imagine - to move our thoughts into a virtual world, to explore ideas which are somehow outside of ourselves, to contemplate times which have passed and times which are yet to come and not to be confined to the here and now. In many respects, this is what we do when we pray.
It is in the depths of our inner worlds that we encounter the love, the truth and the power which is God. It is by taking the life and teaching of Jesus into our own thoughts and imaginations, and by focusing on what it is like to walk alongside him, that we come to know him.
These are remarkable gifts which our reading tells us are the touches of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We may no longer describe them as visions, dreams and prophecies; but the use of our imagination and our creative thinking are very powerful resources for how we make sense of the world around us.
So when Lennon invites us to imagine a world without all the evils he describes, we can use our natural gift of imagination to explore his world from the viewpoint of our own values. It’s not that far removed from a religious experience or from reflective prayer. But it also leaves us with a question: how shall we get there from here? Whether your vision is of Lennon’s humanist ideal, or whether your dream is of the Kingdom of God on earth, how shall we get there from here?
Well, for Christians, our journey of faith is the way we get there: even with all the stumbles, the wrong turns, the obstacles and the three steps forwards and two steps back, we still have a path to follow, and Jesus is our way.
That’s not to say that the history of Christianity isn’t littered with the most appalling crimes against humanity - times when the core values of our faith have been distorted and corrupted by the most evil influences; times when ‘religion’ has taken over from ‘faith’ and has become exactly what Lennon would want to eliminate from his world. These are things which Jesus himself would condemn and which would make him weep with frustration at the way his gospel has sometimes been corrupted and misused.
But we, here in this church, have visions and dreams of how to bring about God’s kingdom. Every time a displaced person who is fleeing persecution at home finds support here and is befriended by people who will share their fight for justice, we move a step closer.
Every time someone who is loaded down with guilt about who they are comes to understand that they are loved by God for who they are, we move a step closer.
Every time someone enriches another’s life by forming a simple friendship, by sharing time with them, by being a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on; every time a loving relationship forms; every time we give away to those who have almost nothing a portion of what we have been given; we move a step closer to our Christian dreams and visions of God’s Kingdom.
With our unique gift, we can imagine whatever we want - we can certainly share in Lennon’s vision of a just and equal fellowship of all people living in peace. But through our faith, we can follow a path which takes us there in small, barely perceptible steps. Yet small as they are, these are steps which have the power to change lives and save lives. We know this to be true, because we have seen it happen.
One of our mission values is to be a family to each other. For people with diverse sexual and gender identities, our experiences of families can range from loving inclusion and support all the way down to violent rejection and persecution. It is a challenge to take a community of friends and to add to those friendships the bonds of love which enable us to build that extra family dimension onto our Christian journey together.
The nature of our family here may be different from what we might also share with our blood relations, but for some of us the bonds are no less strong. I realised this when I was asked to be named as the next of kin for someone in this church family. I felt overwhelmed that his bonds with me enabled him to trust me with that task because he saw this family as the family he could turn to when the need arose.
Perhaps we don’t say often enough, and clearly enough, that our family is not the same when people we love are missing from our gathering. People tell me that they miss us when they cannot be here. As family members, what I think we sometimes overlook is that the family is not the same when even just one of you is not here among us, because we miss you too. Every one of us is part of the life, and love, and rhythm of this congregation.
Each of us is part of the heartbeat of our family here, and the relationships between us travel in both directions. We do matter to each other, our dreams are all equally important, especially so when we are journeying together to become the people whom God blesses to be free to love, free to live, and free to dream.
So, while the faith we share here and proclaim here is one which speaks of friendship for those who need a friend; which speaks of liberation from the guilt imposed by bigotry, prejudice and false teaching; which declares the promise that we all have a valued place in God’s kingdom; and which challenges us with the courage to stand up to powers which would oppress and devalue us; my imagination, my reflection, my prophecy tell me there is still more to come, more to do, more to share, more people to welcome; because I believe we walk a life-changing journey of faith with Jesus as our companion.