RE-imagine

By Lin Story-Bunce, Isaiah 61.1-4

I consider myself fortunate to have had teachers and mentors who have been significant at almost every stage of my life. Sometimes these mentors were with me on the courts or the soccer field – sometimes they were happenstance; people I met in along the way – but most often these mentors were teaching me in the classroom. From elementary school through graduate school, my life has been deeply blessed and enriched by teachers who poured their souls not only into the content we were learning – but also invested themselves in the hearts and minds and futures of the young people they were shaping.  These teachers devoted themselves to the overall well-being and development of each student.  They challenged us to think bigger and to see challenges as opportunities, they encouraged us to broaden our perspective and to listen with respect to our friends around us – they gave us space to make mistakes and they taught us both the patience and persistence it sometimes takes to learn from them – they introduced us to the world as we knew it and dared us to dream of the world as it should be. They reminded us to never underestimate our own potential and to believe we can be agents of change to make the world better. These teachers helped us to evolve not simply as students but as people. 

Like the amazing educators I see adapting to the unprecedented circumstances that teaching in a pandemic has required of them, these teachers go above and beyond to make sure students are not simply surviving, but they are thriving. A Kindergarten teacher, for example, who balances a classroom of 15 in-person students while also maintaining the same level of care and attention for the 4 virtual students on her tablet – who greets with equal enthusiasm the child sitting in the front row of desks and the student who logs in for class 5 minutes late – who answers promptly the inquisitive child with his hand in the air and the tentative “excuse me” that cuts across as she’s teaching from the student in her speaker – who creates genuine interaction between students who cannot actually see one another in order to help build relationships. These educators – OUR educators – take seriously their call to embody love, care, attention, determination, vulnerability, respect, compassion and possibility in ways that teach more than a standard curriculum of content – And I am beyond grateful to have had a village of such exceptional teachers over the years.

One of my teachers who comes to mind on this particular Sunday is my 4th and 5th grade Language Arts teacher, Ms. Surratt. From what I remember about her, Ms. Surratt was a bright, funny woman whose energy and creativity must have filled every ounce of her petite body. She taught us through poems and stories, games, and skits – but most often, she taught us in song. Each year she spent the spring semester of school preparing us for a concert of songs – some that we wrote with her to the familiar tune of radio hits and others she chose hoping they might live on with us beyond that year. 5th graders were allowed to audition for solos – so… I did that! There is actually proof of this. Somewhere – buried deep in a cardboard box, at the bottom of stack of other boxes, somewhere in my parents basement – is a photo of 5th grade Lin – singing her heart out, with blue-jean shorts and green tank top, white keds with socks that pulled up to my calf, and a headband to hide the too-short bangs I let my older sister cut for me. 

Solos are not actually a thing for me – you see … but I didn’t know that then! So I auditioned and was given one of the verses of John Lennon’s song, Imagine. Until then, I had never heard it – or I hadn’t paid it much attention. As we learned that song together as a class – and I spent time with the words I was asked to memorize for my part – I found myself more and more moved by its meaning. 

Now I can’t even remember which line I sang in my solo – and I think that’s because at some point I decided to just learn all the lines. The song drew me in. It captured my heart and my imagination – it helped me articulate and in some instances to see for the first time the ways we were failing to care for each other – and it made me believe not only that it could be different, but that I could be part of making that happen. That despite how slow the change might happen – however insignificant the ripples might seem – even when different seems impossible –  the first step to changing the world as we know it is having the ability to first reimagine our world as it can be.  Even now this song pops up as I wrestle with how complex and broken and hurting our world is. It helps me not feel hopeless about the way the world currently is – and instead reminds to have courage enough to envision a reality that is different. I think that’s what John Lennon hoped might happen when he released this song to be listened to and sung by millions –  – I think it’s what Ms. Surratt hoped might happen when she taught it to a school of 4th and 5th graders who would go on to shape and lead our communities – and I think that is where we find Isaiah in our text this morning – reimagining for a broken and hurting people what the world around them can and should (and will) look like. 

Isaiah has been with Israel in exile for A LONG time. These people continue to waver between – hope and hopelessness, promise and abandon, comfort and judgement.

These are people who have been taken from their homes, who have been separated from those they love, who have experienced deep pain and devastating loss – they are people who feel completely abandoned and profoundly hopeless with no clear way of how to move forward. They have lost their identity as a community and are fairly certain God has abandoned them to their sorrow.

Yet, it is within their exile that Isaiah speaks over them this blessing. To these people have lost so much and have come to only expect disappointment and devastation – Isaiah brings hope and light. In this blessing, Isaiah recalls for them the intimate love of the God who called them out in the beginning, and teaches them the powerful practice of reimagining our world through that love.

We may not know their pain exactly, but in this year, we have come to know a similar reality.  We have felt the hopelessness of a world that seems to be closing in around us – a global pandemic, heightened stress, isolation from people we love, job loss, the pain and division within our communities, grief and death – we have glimpsed the pain of exile, and so we can understand how powerful this blessing would have been to them – because we know how this blessing would bring life to us now.  

It is a blessing that calls them to look past the world as they know it so they can reimagine it through the lens of a God who loves them and who wants for them wholeness. It is a blessing of worth to those who feel worthless, a blessing of promise to those who feel defeated. a blessing of healing to those who are broken. It is a blessing of renewal, to these people who are in deep need of seeing themselves anew.

They cannot see it yet – but in this blessing they are called to witness to the possibility of what God is raising up around and within them.  Despite how slow the change might happen – however insignificant the ripples might seem – even in the midst of this long exile when something different seems impossible –  Isaiah helps ushers in a change to the world they know by first helping them to reimagine the world as it can be.

Isaiah’s blessing doesn’t stay with these exiled people – but as the community moves from exile into renewal – as the history of their story with God continues to evolve, they retell this blessing over and over again – creating within their community a tradition of retelling and reimagining that become woven into the fabric of our faith. It is this blessing of reimagining that allows Ruth, an outsider, to face the expectations of her world with courage and to restore the the worth of Naomi whom she loves … It is this blessing of reimagining that inspires the messages of justice, compassion and love from the mouths of the prophets … it is this blessing of reimagining that drives John the Baptist into the wilderness to preach the salvation of love to the world … it is this blessing of reimagining that echoes throughout the song of Mary, the mother of embodied grace, it is this blessing of reimagining that calls Jesus to preach that spirit of the Lord is upon him bringing goodness and healing, release and renewal to those who are vulnerable, broken, lost, and hurting.

Despite how slow the change might happen – however insignificant the ripples might seem – even when the possibility of a world that looks different seems impossible –  Jesus takes the first step to changing the world as they know it by first reimagining the world as God intended it to be.

This kind of reimagining compels fishermen to drop their nets and to leave family behind; it brings to the table the sick, the hungry, the dying, the cast out; this kind reimagining elevates the lowly and humbles the proud, offers radical welcome and belonging, creates and sustains life, moves us into our better, truer selves. 

It is the kind reimagining that breaks into an unsuspecting world – love wrapped in tattered cloth – a king lying in a borrowed manger – the salvation of the world born into hearts and stable to offer healing to hurting people and wholeness to broken communities. 

In this Advent season and through this Isaiah story, we are reminded that God’s love breaks into the world again and again – to meet the world where it is and to reimagine the world as it can be. Like a creative spirit over the chaos – it comes to reimagine life where once was death, break the world open with hope and possibility.

People who reimagine our world like this, might be led into the slums of Calcutta to preach worth to the poorest and to embody love to those who are viewed as unloveable by the world around them.

People who reimagine our world like this might take on the dangerous ministry of freeing the captives – of providing a passage of escape to those who desperately long for their freedom.

People who reimagine our world like this might take up the the work of organizing and giving voice that will right the wrongs of our communities even though it could cost their lives.

People who reimagine our world like this might dare to believe in the possibility of an all-woman Supreme Court bench.

People who reimagine our world like might take to the streets to fight for equal rights, equal treatment and the dignity of brothers and sisters across racial, religious, political lines.

People who reimagine our world like this might work long shifts to be by the beside of those who are sick and dying – separated from their loved ones – to be love for them as they transition from this life and to comfort those who mourn their life from a distance. 

People who reimagine our world like this might walk alongside our youngest hearts and minds to help them know their own possibility and potential.

Even in the midst of all the chaos – even when we feel like the world is falling apart around us – even when we are sure our life is going to swallow you whole –  even when we think there are parts of this world not even God can redeem – God’s love calls us to reimagine anyway.

Despite how slow the change might happen – however insignificant the ripples might seem – even when different seems impossible – we are called to see the God-given light that shines forth from within us and the God-given light that shines forth from the people and the world around us – and to begin changing the world as we know it is by first reimagining as we know it can be.