The Common Good
November 2006

Power of Imagination

by Robert Roth | November 2006

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle B for November.

As a community of faith, the boundaries of imagination limit us more than anything. Thankfully, imagination also liberates us and carries us—by God’s grace—toward new realities.

This “prophetic imagination,” to use Hebrew Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann’s words, is critical to replacing the corporate media images of the way things supposedly are and will remain with visions of an emerging new world. The necessary “alternative consciousness,” writes Brueggemann in his book The Prophetic Imagination, is both “critical” and “energizing.”

So while critiquing “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7) in a day when the U.S. minimum wage is as tiny as it’s been in 50 years (when adjusted for inflation), we are energized by the declarative statements of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi that “your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16), and of Jesus to the disciples that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31, emphasis added).

The forms and styles introducing that alternative consciousness vary through these weeks, from the nurturing conversations of Naomi to the songs of Hannah and the psalmists. Jesus remains both critical (“beware of the scribes!”) and energizing (“the poor widow has put in more”). This is a month to consider our lineage; we are born of a people of faith, yet we’re birthing a world in God’s providential care.

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.

November 5
Seeing Relationships
Ruth 1:1-18; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

What a bit of moral imagination might do for our weary world! That is just what awaits us in this week’s readings. These imaginings energize us, whether they are orders, statements of fact, or surprising fiats.

With the deaths of Elimelech and Mahlon—the husbands of Ruth and Naomi—Ruth weeps with her mother-in-law and announces that they are now in a covenant relationship for the long haul. How long? With Naomi’s matchmaking help, Ruth’s genealogical line will lead to David, the lineage of Jesus.

The psalmist must have wept, too—though with joy: God is in continuous relationship with prisoners, the blind, the righteous, the hungry, orphans and widows, and, most important, “strangers” (Psalm 146). Relationships based not on class, race, education, or orthodoxy—imagine that! It is the un-imaginable relationships with everyone for which the high priest Jesus Christ “entered once for all into the Holy Place” (Hebrews 9:12).

When loving God is seen as inseparable from loving one’s neighbor—read “stranger” (Mark 12:28-34)—moral imagination meets ethical imperative. Divinely inspired, but otherwise highly unlikely pairings become necessities for salvation and survival.

How about America, our leaders, and our relationships? Where’s the imagination? Can we not explore some way of relating with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the brothers Castro to seek peace with Iran and Cuba today?

November 12
Noticing Possibilities
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Sudoku, our latest mass-market addiction, celebrates inside-the-box, only-one-right-answer thinking. But our verses this week look at the nonlinear and seemingly illogical creativity of Ruth, Naomi, and the widow with the two copper coins.

In a salvation story encompassing all of humanity, Naomi gets Ruth hooked up with Boaz, a descendent of Lot and Moab. Now we’ve got Moabites marrying Israelites—is nothing sacred? The impossible is possible after all and both Jews and non-Jews are sacred.

The women of the neighborhood name Ruth and Boaz’ boy Obed; he “became the father of Jesse, the father of David” (Ruth 4:17), which will lead us (with a leap of a few centuries) to Jesus.

This week, Jesus is a problem for us. He apparently has not attended those mandatory financial stewardship seminars, the ones in which participants are urged to “Get to the big donors first. Challenge others with matching gifts. Celebrate the ‘gold club’ givers, then the ‘silver club’ givers, and then the ‘wanna-be givers.’” Jesus says celebrate this: the widow’s penny (Mark 12:38-44).

Jesus doesn’t have what it takes to be a great Sudoku player. Not only is he resistant to burning up his hours filling grids, he would challenge the Eights and Nines with their fancy robes and long prayers and start picturing the Ones and Twos in their boxes (“best seats”), like so many sheep and goats. Oddly, it would all add up to salvation. Go figure.

November 19
Imagining Birth
1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

Halfway through this month of lections, Ruth exits stage left and Samuel enters from the right (in a bassinet). A foremother of the royal line of David takes her rest and we soon witness the birth of the last of Israel’s judges, the one who will one day anoint David king.

Long-barren Hannah gives birth. Take time to compare this song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10) with the song of Mary (the Magnificat) in the New Testament (Luke 1:46-55). Hannah: “The bows of the mighty are broken” and “the Lord makes poor and makes rich” (1 Samuel 2:4, 7). Mary: “He has scattered the proud” and “he has filled the hungry … and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51, 53). Miraculous conception is illuminated in the microcosm of nativity and the macrocosm of history.

In our gospel reading, Jesus describes “birth pangs” of the historic variety. Even as with pain in childbirth, certain things must take place. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed,” Jesus says; “the end is still to come” (Mark 13:7). We can begin to see this ultimate dénouement of history, according to Hebrews, as we see “the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24).

How does this speak to the waning war-torn days of 2006? Are we stuck in a time when our big buildings, governments, and militaries have god-like qualities in which we trust? Though we bring wars upon ourselves, what kind of new birth would God have us now imagine for Lebanon, Israel, and Hezbollah following the recent devastation? Or, if it is but a proxy war, what might be in store for the United States and Iran if we can see the foolishness of manipulating mass violence?

As Hannah and Mary sing visions of justice, peace, and righteous community to commence with their babies’ lives, we are invited into lives of prophetic imagination. There are times when holding up such a clear vision is ministry enough.

November 26
Visualizing Providence
2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-12 (13-18); Revelation 1:4-8; John 18:33-37

God will take care of us. Beyond what we can see—or are willing to see—God is taking care of us already. There is loving, tender guardianship going on. If only we would be more trusting; if only we would let go and see what God is already doing.

In our Hebrew Testament reading, David says God “has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure” (2 Samuel 23:5). In all things. Secure. God’s providence is ever sustaining. To see it and be reminded of it is energizing.

Jesus, we might say, is the Great Reminder. Asked by Pilate if he is the King of the Jews, Jesus sums up his calling and work: “to testify to the truth” (John 18:37). Jesus’ teaching, preaching, loving, and sacrifice all bear witness to the truth and keep the promise before the people.

The Bible ends with a mystical, astonishing vision: the Revelation to John. Prophetic imagination to the end. At the last, a wondrous vision of what is to come. The one who has loved us, freed us, and made us all royalty is on the way: “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him … all the tribes of the earth will wail” (Revelation 1:7). This is the end of history and the beginning of a new time. All will be fed and have shelter. Peace at last.

The other day, my 25-year-old son Dylan traced an oval on his forearm with his index finger, saying, “I’m going to get a tattoo right here of a sword being beaten into a plowshare.” “That’s great!” I said, and then added a little too quickly, “Maybe I will, too. Though maybe mine will be smaller and a little more hidden.” Immediately, Dylan said he would get information for us about our tattoos when he gets back to Chicago.

Now I will have to discern whether I can give over a small patch of my skin to that biblical vision of peace with justice, both for my son and in witness to a Creator who lovingly cares for the whole universe each day. Will it hurt?

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