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Geography of the imagination

2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17

June 16, 2024

Sir Wilfred Grenfell was a young English doctor, who had been educated at the prestigious Oxford University. 

He was athletic, adventurous and tender-hearted. One night he happened to attend a worship service in East London led by the famous American evangelist, Dwight L. Moody. That worship service inspired Grenfell to decide to do what he called making his religion “practical.” By that, he meant to make the best of his life, combining his hopes for both adventure and significant Christian work.

 

In pursuit of that determination, he taught Sunday school in London slums, giving a place of honor to boxing gloves next to his Bible and hymnbook. Then he established a medical mission to the fishermen of the North Sea. Later, when that work been too routine, he set sail for Labrador to work with the coastal residents of Newfoundland. 

 

As one author put it, “In the face of hardship, peril, and prejudice with a light heart and strong purpose, he healed the sick, preached the Word, clothed the naked, fed the starving, gave shelter to those who had no roof, championed the wronged in all, devotedly fought evil, poverty, oppression, and disease; for he was bitterly intolerant of those things.

 

“The immediate inspiration of Dr. Grenfell’s work was the sermon preached in East London by D. L. Moody. Later in life — indeed, shortly before the great evangelist’s death — Dr. Grenfell thanked him for that sermon. ‘And what have you been doing since?’ was Mr. Moody’s prompt and searching question.”

 

Isn’t that, in essence, what Paul is talking about in our New Testa-ment lesson today? When a person truly accepts Jesus as their savior, their motives, their hopes and dreams, their entire life is radically changed. It is a total transformation of their heart. 

 

One old commentator put it this way: “Christ did not come into the world to patch up an old religion, merely to mend a hole here, and beautify a spot there, and add an attachment to this part or that; he came to make all things new. When he saves us someone, he does not proposing merely to mend him up a little here and there, to cover over some bad spots in him, and to close up rents in his character by strong patches of the new cloth of grace. Christ does not sew on pieces; he weaves a new garment…” Or, as Paul himself put it, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Isn’t that exactly what happened to Paul himself? At one time he was convinced that the followers of Christ were heretics, who were insulting God and destroying the faith of the Chosen People. So he made a reputation for himself as a merciless crusader against Christians. But once he met Christ, directly, he underwent a radical transformation and became Christianity’s leading evangelist. 

 

Paul wants us to know that, as a result of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, literally everything in the world has changed. Christ has brought about a whole new creation, so we can no longer afford to see each other in our habitual ways — that is, “from a human point of view.” Instead, we need to begin to train ourselves to see the world and its people the way God sees them. 

 

Daniel Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress, wrote a three-volume essay on the history of human progress. In that work, he explained that “The ability to make a discovery is the ability to see what lies beyond the common sense of the day.” He then added that the first step toward creativity is taken in what he called “the geography of the imagination.” 

 

That is, before you can make the world different, you have to imagine that it can be different. Albert Einstein said a similar thing when he noted, “We see what our theories permit us to see.” Having experienced the changes that the grace Jesus bestows on us, it is somewhat easier for Christians to look beyond existing situations to see the possibilities we can help God bring about. 

 

Paul exhibited that truth in his relationship with the church in Corinth. They were most definitely his ultimate problem children and a figurative thorn in his side, rivaled only by the church in Galatia for giving Paul headaches and keeping him awake nights, worrying. But that might have been expected of people from Corinth. Corinth was the Las Vegas of the ancient world. It was a wild, rough and tumble “Sin City.”

 

That was the culture out of which the Corinthian church grew and that was the culture to which its members returned every week after leaving their church sanctuary. Perhaps that can help you understand why those members struggled to apply the values of Christianity to their everyday lives after they joined the church. 

Paul wrote them to say that their faith didn’t just offer them forgiveness for their sins, but a chance to help envision and build a whole new world — one that would be founded on Christ’s never-failing love. Faith in Christ should permeate every aspect of their lives and help them transform the culture they lived in. It was as if he were predicting Moody’s question to Dr. Grenfell — what have you been doing since?

 

Dr. Howard Thurman was a theologian and civil rights leader, who served as Dean of the chapels at both Howard and Boston Universities for many years. He was also the grandson of a slave, even though he died  in 1981, which is within most of our lifetimes. 

 

He wrote about his grandmother’s experiences as a plantation slave in the Old South. In particular, he wrote about the impact that attending church had on those slaves. The plantation owner agreed to allow the preacher to hold services in the slave quarters on Sunday afternoons. More than 100 years later, Bishop Leontine Kelly would say, “If you want people to stay where they are put, don’t tell them about Jesus.” But apparently that thought hadn’t occurred to this slave owner. 

 

So the preacher would come every Sunday afternoon and tell the story of Calvary — how Jesus was falsely arrested and beaten and executed. Those were stories the slaves could understand because of their own personal experiences. 

 

Thurman’s grandmother said that “When [that old preacher] went by Calvary,” he was always be moved to shout, “But God raised him again! And he is seated at the right hand of God in heaven!” Then the preacher would take off his glasses, lean over the pulpit and look straight into the eyes of the congregation. Then he would say to them, “But slaves, you are not any man’s property. You are child-ren of God Almighty! Never forget it!” Thurman’s grandmother told him that, whenever the preacher would come to that part of the story, her spine would stiffen, and she could endure another day. 

 

But we, of course, aren’t slaves. We are free people who are, to a very large degree, the makers of our own fate. How does our Christian faith impact the vision we cast for our lives and for our world? How does it make a difference to anyone? 

Will Willimon writes, “One of the peculiarities of the New Testament is that it so rarely tells us what to do. Mostly, it tells us what to see. […] Perhaps Jesus figures […] if he could just get us to see the world through some angle of vision larger than our myopic ‘human point of view’ then we will know how to live the vision. Think of Sunday morning in our church as an attempt to get you to see the world ‘no longer from a human point of view.’ As a pastor, I would say that this is the main reason that I hear from people for why they are living their lives as they are.

 

“[They say] ‘I had no other option,’ or ‘This is all that I could do in my situation.’ But how do we know that we don’t have an option, how do we know that this is all we can do, if we have not attempted to see larger possibilities?” 

 

There’s a story told about a young man who complained bitterly about the pervasive amounts of sin and evil in this world, So he  condemned the God who made it. He said, “I could make a better world than this myself.” His pastor replied, “Good. Go do it — that’s just what God put you into the world to do.”

 

What is the geography of your imagination? How have you and I allowed our culture or even our own self-doubts limit us from becoming the fully-devoted co-creators God has intended us to be? How have we allowed ourselves to become stuck in the sins and compromises of our past without trusting in the gloriously new future offered to us by the Creator of the Universe? 

 

Novelist Iris Murdoch wrote, “[A human] is a creature who makes pictures of himself [or herself] and then comes to resemble the picture.” Through Paul, Jesus is calling us to imagine ourselves as whole new creations. 

 

If we can believe that Jesus can calm a storm with two simple words, if we can believe that a few handfuls of water and a few simple promises can radically alter the lives of people who are baptized, if we can believe a thimbleful of grape juice and small cube of bread can represent God’s undying love for us, why is that we want to draw the line at believing that God can honestly and totally change our lives — and our world — through faith in him? We truly are a new creation. We need to believe that and live into it. 

 

In 1959, Roberto Rossellini directed a film entitled “General Della Rovere.” Set in World War II Italy, it told the story of a man named Grimaldi, who was a petty con man, pretending to be a colonel in the Italian army, so he could extort money from the families of people who had been thrown into jail by the Nazis. 

 

He was arrested by the Gestapo, who then offered him a deal. If he would impersonate General della Rovere — a legendary, but shadowy hero of the Resistance — then he could avoid being executed. The real General has already been shot by the Nazis and since no one knew what he looked like, the impersonation couldn’t be discovered. 

 

Grimaldi’s job was to convince a group of political prisoners that he is della Rovere, so he can discover the identity of another important leader of the Resistance.

 

Yet, once Grimaldi is in prison, he does such a convincing job in portraying the general that the other prisoners look up to him as their moral leader. That’s something that Grimaldi had never experienced before, so he begins to try to live up to their expectations. In the end, rather than betray their trust, he’s willing to be executed on their behalf. And so, Grimaldi was transformed into a true hero, even if that happens under another man’s name. 

 

Think about that for a minute. If the inspiration of the prisoners’ love could so radically transform a petty crook, how can we not be inspired to live up to the love and trust that Jesus has for each one of us? 

 

In the words of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view [….] if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:  everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Amen. 

by Jim McCrea

Rev. Jim McCrea

Pastor

Rev. Jim McCrea

jrmfpc@gmail.com

Biography

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SUNDAY SCHOOL (Sept – May)
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