Has anyone asked you about your moral imagination recently - or ever? How is your "moral imagination?" Floyd Bryant took a long time to develop his. Writing in 1956 in The Southern Baptist Review and Expositor, Bryant (a self-confessed "sixty- three year old white man, a Baptist, and a Southerner") wrote this in an article entitled,"On Integration in the Churches":
Throughout the first sixty years of my life I never questioned but that Peter's confession that "God is no respecter of persons" (acts 10:34) referred exclusively to the differences among white Christian persons. Neither did I question that segregation was Christian, and that it referred to the separation of white and Negro people. Three years ago (1953) these views were completely transformed. I became convinced that God makes no distinctions among people whatever their race and that segregation is exclusively by God in the final judgment. I exchanged the former views which I had absorbed from my environment, for the latter views which I learned from the New Testament. I came to understand the meaning of Paul's plea, "Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God." (Romans 12:2) (Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book, Avon Books, NY, NY, 1996, pp. 98-99).
Here is an excellent example in which a heart and mind are changed - or transformed, in Paul's words - because of the reading of scripture. The texts of scripture remain unchanged. While it is true, new interpretations and paraphrases of scripture continue to appear, scripture remains as it is. They are fixed forever. Peter J. Gomes writes in The Good Book, "What has changed, however, is the climate of interpretation, indeed, the lenses with which we read the texts and the tales. The texts have not changed but we have, and the world with us . . . It is not scripture that has changed, but rather the moral imagination by which we see ourselves and see and read scripture" (Ibid., p. 99).
It is our moral imagination that tells us what we see and hear in scripture. It is that same moral imagination that allows us to translate those transforming images into the world in which we find ourselves. The moral imagination liberates us from the cultural captivity of context in both ancient and contemporary times and informs nothing less than what we Christians call the Holy Spirit. (Ibid., p. 100). It was Floyd Bryant's moral imagination that liberated him from a lifetime of racist ideology and practice (based in his reading of scripture) and transformed him into a recovering racist and Christian with particular and clear moral vision for a new world which embraced his sisters and brothers whose skin color was black, brown, and yellow (also based on his reading of scripture). Floyd's liberation and the liberation of millions of other white people like Floyd happened before I was born.
What will it take in our day and age to unleash our moral imagination, for God knows we need it? And God knows it is never too late to be right or to be good in our moral imagination.
I believe our moral imagination can begin its transformative process in today's passage from Matthew 25:31-46. In this parable of "The Last Judgment," Jesus tells of the glorious return of the Risen Messiah at the end of time. Surrounded by all the angels and with all the nations assembled before him, the King of Glory, seated on his throne of judgment will separate humanity - sheep on his right, goats on his left. To the sheep he will offer the kingdom of glory. Why, because they fed him when he was hungry, gave him drink when thirsty, gave him shelter when homeless, clothes when shivering, and visits when sick and in prison. On the other hand, the goats never paid attention to his hunger or thirst. They never provided a bed when he was homeless or clothes when he was shivering. They never visited him when he was sick and in prison. The judgment is this: eternal doom for the goats and eternal reward for the sheep.
This parable hinges on the answer to one repetitive question: "Lord, when did we see you?" It boils down to looking and seeing. The sheep saw him. The goats never saw him. The moral imagination of the text calls us to look at the Lord in the poor, the homeless, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. Truthfully, when I stepped out of my goatskin and bothered to look I see fear, anger, a frozen future, uncertainty, sadness, confusion, embarrassment, and loneliness in the faces of the homeless, the poorly clothed, the sick and the imprisoned. Have you looked? Have you seen?
Who you look at will determine whom you see. You will never see those whom you do not look at. It is possible for all of us to enter this building and never see the men and women clustered by our doors seeking shelter from life's storms. Just as true, it is possible to come inside this sanctuary, to listen to our glorious music, to worship, to hear the sermon and never see the pain in parishioners gathered a few feet away. It is also possible to place ourselves in the Judgment Seat (reserved only for our Savior) and say all sorts of things about "those people" who are suffering. By doing this, we miss seeing people by looking through them. Looking through a person is the art of judging another person without knowing their story.
I am deeply concerned that we are becoming a culture consumed by "Wanting and Wasting" - a culture which doesn't look and thus doesn't see anymore. I am concerned that we are becoming one of the nations in this parable - a nation which looks past the eyes of those in pain and need. One way to test and measure this is through the budgets we have created in church, home, and society. Budgets are measures of what we value. Budgets require moral imagination. When we miss seeing people, we don't include them in our plans for the near or distant future. When we don't see them, we don't place them in our state or federal budgets. But, when we don't see them, we can also eliminate them from family and church budgets. Today, 37 million Americans live below the poverty level. 13 million or one in three living in poverty are children. We need to cultivate a culture of "Compassion and Care" juxtaposed to one of "Wanting and Wasting." Calling upon the moral imagination of Christ in our midst, let begin the new church year by looking, seeing and responding with compassion to those in our midst who need our moral imagination to blossom and flourish.
There is a wonderful story on this last day of the Christian church year, with which I will end this reflection on moral imagination. The story comes to us from Jewish Midrash, the writings of the rabbis. One night, the Synagogue Council was gathered for a meeting. They knew not to begin without the rabbi. But, he was late for the meeting. The Council members became agitated and irritated. Soon, they began to "talk" about their rabbi. What they had to say was not kind. Passing unkindness became judgment. Soon, they were unashamedly judging the shepherd of their flock. Just as the indictment was reaching its climax, the rabbi entered the synagogue smiling. He face was beaming with the light of God.
One woman, who was the most upset by her rabbi's neglect of time and had been most judgmental in the course of conversation, stood and lashed out at him, "Rabbi, we have been wasting our time waiting for you. Where have you been?" Looking into her eyes with love, the rabbi responded, "I have been at your house, Miriam. On my walk to the synagogue I heard the cry of a baby. I stopped and knocked. Seeing that it was me, the children let me in. I fed, rocked, and sung to Benjamin (he is so adorable). While doing so, I told stories to the other children. Benjamin is asleep. All but Rachel are tucked in and dreaming now. God's peace has settled upon your household." With that Mrs. Stein took her seat.
And Jesus said, "I am telling you the truth. Whenever you failed (to see) and do ONE of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me. You failed (to see and) do it to me." As your shepherd I implore you to judge not that you be not judged, remembering that until you know the story, things are not always as they seem in your mind's eye. Remember as well to open your eyes, to look, to see, to do. Therefore, by the power of God that is within you, use your moral imagination to (in the words of Romans 12:2) "Be not conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your minds that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God." Amen.
Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church