(There are just a few summer weeks left to play with before we dive back into the narrative lectionary and the book of Genesis, and so I will use this time to preach on some of my favorite passages.)
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts,” says the Lord your God. “… you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” Isaiah 55:9, 12
And from Jesus’ teaching, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?….. indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:25-33
When I was a girl – I would say in 3rd and 4th grades, maybe into 5th – I was pretty serious about becoming a nun. I loved churches – the buildings that is – the high windows, the arched ceilings, the candles, the stone, the serious silence. I wanted to live in a church like nuns did. And I knew all about nuns.
I watched Sally Field in The Flying Nun, I loved Jennifer Jones in the Song of Bernadette, and I knew all the songs and much of the dialog to The Sound of Music. I was given the Medical Mission Sisters records for my birthday two years running, and I knew all the words to every song – in the soprano and alto parts – for the two albums they produced – Joy is like the Rain and I Know the Secret. I was ready to go. I wanted to be a singing nun who ran over hilltops and lived in a stone convent – and scrubbed the floors for penance – and maybe I would become a nanny and fall in love. I didn’t quite have it all worked out, but I experienced one of the great betrayals of my life when I shared this secret with my minister and he told me that Methodist girls couldn’t become nuns.
I was mad at him for a very long time.
But even in disappointment, the nuns’ songs stayed in my head. They formed a theology in imagery and interesting words long before I knew what theology was – and even before I knew the meaning of some of those interesting words.
Lord, I drink and still I thirst for more; I hear Your living water go rushing past my door. Give me to drink, assuage my burning thirst and leave my soul immersed. Don’t worry about your food or what you are to wear. Is life not more precious by far? Christ clothes you in His image and feeds you with His flesh and loves you as you are.
The words of these songs put the Bible in my head long ago. They taught me parables in two-part harmony and psalms with guitar accompaniment. They fed my imagination – and, actually, continue to do so nearly 50 years later. Sister Miriam Therese Winter painted a backdrop that has illuminated, accompanied, influenced the way I read and interpret scripture — I suppose for the rest of my life.
Our imaginations are very powerful things. We were talking last night at the Progressive Yard & Garden Party about our fears as children – of basements, drains, shadows, certain people – and how long those fears have a hold over us and our imaginations. In real estate it’s all about location – in church it may all be about relationships – but in theology, in our relationship to, and understanding of God – it’s all about imagery. What do you have an imagination for when it comes to God? What has fed or formed your imagination?
Because of songs like Joy is like the Rain and Come to springs of living water, flowing from the heart of God, and God loves a cheerful giver, I come looking for joy. To be honest, I come looking for whimsy…. for playfulness and a creative, one-of-a-kind, fanciful approach to life’s most pressing problems. I look for trees clapping their hands and myrtle pushing up through the briars. Whimsy may sound trivial, but I don’t think it is trivial at all. Whimsy is the power of new creation, of something from nothing when nothing is expected. Whimsy is the way of God’s design. It’s on-the-fly adaptation to accommodate our actions…creative solutions from the divine imagination.
The Tower of Babel, the Flood, the Exodus, the period of the Judges and Prophets and Jesus. There are some who think God had it all planned out that way from the very beginning – all very orderly and purposeful, eons of planned suffering building up to Jesus, as the Christ, the savior and Lord. I hold with those who say that God was surprised and mostly disappointed by the human response and constantly had to try a new tactic, come up with a new plan. The cost to God kept rising, but the goal was always the same – to bring us into a relationship with the God of our being, to teach us to float in the waters of grace, to help us believe in joy, and to trust it.
Whimsy as a theological proposal is not a comprehensive approach to the word and work of God. There may need to be more involved in it than playfulness. The gospel is only good news after we realize the bad news. That’s correct Lutheran theology. God’s grace and glory are only operative in one’s life after you know how rotten the whole mess is without God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness and love. We need the fall in order to appreciate forgiveness. We need forgiveness to be real and deep and transformative if we are to have an imagination for the magnificata – the magnification of our soul in God’s presence. So we typically hear and preach sermons that start out with the bad news – that, human nature being what it is, we fool ourselves into thinking everything is fine and good, and then look around for someone to sue when suddenly it isn’t anymore. Only after we’ve hit the bottom are we really willing to look outside of ourselves for sustenance and succor and God.
I don’t doubt the truth of that.
But somewhere along the way, the fanciful nature of God’s work was pushed to the background as unimportant. Whimsy doesn’t have the gravity or credence that Law has. Laws are easier to manage. One knows where one stands if God is all about laws, and requirements, and prohibitions. Thou shall not, thou must always, thou had better…. The mainstream of the church has preferred to focus on the law. That aspect of God’s word has held the stage for a long time. Punishment and retribution and vengeance – those are things we think are in God’s domain. Grace, forgiveness and mercy flow from them as the gospel response. But the gospel, then, is just as weighty in balance. There’s nothing fanciful about confession and forgiveness, right? It’s soul searching and release of the burdens that we bear. It’s important, transformational. There’s nothing fanciful about the smudge of ash on our foreheads that reminds us that we are ashes and to ashes we return, that from ashes we shall arise. There’s no playful splashing about in the waters of baptism. Martin Luther stressed that we drown in those waters – death itself and sin and our old nature drown. We come out of the water a new creation: Gasping, perhaps, but not playfully splashing. It’s all very serious.
But once in a while, once in a while hidden away in a secret covey of images, we find righteousness and peace kissing, or trees clapping their hands as they otherwise grow placidly beside still waters, or mountains bursting into song, or wildflowers decked out in more beauty than Solomon can ever muster even with all his wealth.
Once in a while we find pure whimsy. The Leviathan of Psalm 104 – the sea monster that God made for the sport of it. Or a whale that does God’s bidding in redirecting a reluctant prophet Jonah to save the Ninevites. Or angelic messengers who visit an old man and an old woman in the desert and tell them a baby will be born in the geriatric ward, and the old woman, Sarah, cracks up laughing; or maybe the same messenger centuries later who visits a young unmarried slip of a girl in Nazareth of Galilee – who tells her, “God has chosen you for great things and great joy for all people, for a child will be born to you and his name shall be Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.”
It’s a whimsical story, this biblical tale – but that doesn’t mean it’s less true than the Law and prohibitions – it means that God comes to us in joy, intends for us to experience good news of great joy in our lives, intends for us to find in God the fanciful potential of new beginnings that can lift us out of our selfishness or pain or lack of imagination for anything we can’t touch or eat or drive.
Imagery can change your life. Imagination can alter your reality.
So that’s why some of my favorite biblical passages are lovely little bits of whimsy – because perhaps it’s not enough to be good people or to do justice and walk humbly. Perhaps it’s not enough to follow the commands – not if we miss the joy and delight of living immersed in God’s great love. I think that’s true.
Can you imagine it?