Texts: Isaiah 49: 8-16; Matthew 6: 24-34
About a month ago I began looking at garden catalogues. For anyone who loves to garden, they are just as beguiling as the serpent’s words to Eve. Replete with color photographs of gardens that only could be created by master English gardeners, they hold out the promise: You, too, can have a garden like this. You, too, for only buying this bulb or that seed can grow something that will not only be the envy of your neighbors but will create beauty beyond your wildest imaginations. You, too…. You, too … And, of course, every year, I ask myself: Can I really? Can I really? Can I?
Plants, of course, multiply, and that corner of bright sunlight in Fellowship Hall seems to expand every winter as plants that some of us have no space for in our homes over the winter. One of these days, as Ralph Cramden used to say, one of these days … I will get a greenhouse. One of these days. But until then, like the promise of the seed catalogues, it remains in my imagination. Winter, especially late winter, is indeed the promise of spring in our minds.
Late winter is like the promise that Isaiah speaks of in this morning’s reading. It holds out a promise that not only will spring really come, but that in the depths of our current economic and social mess that we can create new solutions to old problems if we but use some imagination. Much of what we are facing within our state government and the partisan bickering continues to block positive approaches to the issues we face in our state. Unfortunately we need more than catalogues with glossy pictures; we need moral imagination that looks at children, the poor, and those without the wealth of Mendham and says to those who are in darkness that the light will really come.
I think part of the problem is that as a people, we have lost faith not in that distant idea of “government” per se, but in our own ability to govern ourselves. Instead of being driven by the moral imagination of our religious tradition, we are driven by the material imagination of Wall Street with its trading in commodity futures, not to mention the price of oil upon which we are so terribly dependent.
In some ways the so-called Tea Party revolt is a revolt against expanding our moral imagination. It hearkens back to old ideas that emerged out of some of thinkers and political philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who conceptualized the world as it emerged from the religious wars of the Reformation that continued until at least the beginning of the eighteenth century. In some ways, we are reliving some of those religious wars in this new century, not just within the struggles within Islam and with Islamic fundamentalism but within our own understanding of our professed faith.
A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life examined the social attitudes and religious beliefs of persons who self-identified with the so-called Tea Party. Although this disparate social movement originally claimed to have formed over the issue of taxes, the Pew Forum found that most of the self-identifiers had social attitudes that even some evangelicals would question. Like the Republicans in Congress, they oppose abortion but will not support funding to care for children after they are born and even before they are born. As New York Times columnist Charles Blow pointed out in the Friday paper, prenatal services funding was cut by more than $50 million, research on the causes of premature birth was cut by $1 billion, and the list goes on. This hearkens back to the observation of Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth century philosopher who argued for absolute monarchy, that “life is nasty, brutish, and short.” He was responding to the civil wars that tore England apart in his day.
We are having similar religious wars in our Nation today and they are tearing us apart. People have lost the art of civil discourse. Two weeks ago when I suggested to a political person that we really needed to have a civil discourse in order to address the problems in this society, I received a virulent personal attack calling me a Communist, an atheist, a Muslim-lover, and several other words that cannot be repeated in i>any company. Unfortunately, this just does not apply to the wing nuts of the right; it also applies to the angry and frustrated left that feels it has been betrayed by the very representatives they elected. As the tone of discourse gets louder and shriller, neither side is speaking to each other. Just look at the mess in Wisconsin as an example. No wonder the great middle in America feels disgusted and abandons politics as a means to change society.
Somehow, even in winter, we must look for a spring. As a society we must regain our sense of decent discourse, our understanding that we the people, we who not just dream of spring gardens but do the work to create them that we really do have control over our lives. Creating the framework for civil political discourse that leads to a society responsive to the many needs presented will not be easy. Jesus said it very well when he noted that no one could serve two masters. We cannot serve both God and the material desires that we often have. Of course, we want everything -- low taxes, good services for the poor, nice things to buy … but we all know that in reality we cannot have it all.
Our desires are sort of like those garden catalogues. I sit and look at the pictures, I sit and dream of a garden that will look like the Queen’s garden staff worked in my yard, but the reality is that I am the one working in my yard, and I do not have a small army of gnomes making my garden grow. I know that the flowers come from my ability to put forth blood, sweat, and tears, to paraphrase a great statesman when another nation faced its darkest hour. As a society, we are now facing our darkest hour, the winter of our discontent. We must regain the faith we once had that we really are capable of governing ourselves, that our work for God’s kingdom of justice and mercy really will come as a result of tilling the soil of our moral imagination. God didn’t give us brains and imagination just to wallow in the catalogues but to develop new ways of approaching the age old issues that we face as a society.
Working to expand our moral imagination is one way to move ahead, to take on those who would gut every hard earned piece of progress made over the last century. As Christians who believe in a God who loves us and commands us to love our neighbor, we are called to respond to the needs of others. Then will the lilies of our imagination bloom in this winter of anger and hate-filled speech to blossom into a spring when the earth is green again. There is the promise of what we can do. I believe in it because God has given us the sign through the one who calls us to follow him. And, as the snow melted this week, I even saw the snowdrops and the earth shifting shape above the places where the crocuses and lilies were planted.
Let us pray: Creator of our moral imagination, of our hearts waiting to blossom forth, help us to reach out to the poor and the vulnerable, and the grace to listen, to learn, and to shape this world into your kingdom of justice and mercy. Amen.