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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 01/17/2016

This is the first sermon I’ve ever gotten out of a fortune cookie. We ordered Chinese take out a week ago Saturday, the orange chicken combo platter, very good, a little hot and spicy which I like and if you’ve ever gotten food from the China King over there you know there was more than enough food for the two of us, all for under ten dollars. And of course, there’s always a fortune cookie. The little piece of paper inside this one said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” and I thought hmmm; I talk a lot about imagination and the need for religious imagination, especially in interpreting the Bible. I talk about how more and more I see the Bible as a product of the inspired collective imagination of those who wrote it and that it’s only by using our imagination that we can get to the truth that’s revealed, the only way we can encounter God in these writings.

Imagination is more important than knowledge. That’s not to say that knowledge isn’t important, it is. But for deeper truth our fortune cookie may have had it right. Imagination takes you places and provides insights that can’t be found if you just limit yourself to analysis of the facts. There’s a place for such analysis but as Walter Brueggemann says, “Imagination is the capacity to picture the world out beyond what we take as established given; it’s the ability to hold loosely what the world assumes and to walk into alternative contours of reality.” What happens though, is when we hear imagination, we can immediately equate it with “not true” and then we miss out on those alternative contours of reality.

There’s a tendency to beat the imagination out of the Bible. Instead of reading it as imaginative stories and interpretation, the Bible gets read way too literally, more like we might read a history book, the result being that we get bogged down in asking the wrong questions, sometimes trying to come up with rational explanations for things that aren’t intended to be explained rationally. Even worse, if a literal interpretation is seen as the only possibility, the stories wind up being dismissed as impossible by many people. “This couldn’t have really happened,” they say and from that they decide that none of this is true, religion and faith in God are seen as being silly, just a comfort and a crutch for the weak minded. With that conclusion, those alternative contours of reality remain hidden, the “more” that imagination invites is missed and part of the more that’s missed has to do with grace.

Christianity and Judaism for that matter are both grace centered religions but when knowledge is seen as more important than imagination and faith is seen as intellectual assent to things that are hard to believe, grace can get lost even for those trying to remain faithful. The Bible risks becoming a collection of laws and morality tales which to some degree it is, but the grace of a real encounter with God, the grace of God being revealed, the grace of God’s real presence gets lost and along with that can go any sense of hope. Nothing new is possible without imagination. Without imagination God then becomes a tool for those who are mostly concerned with maintaining order and keeping folks in line, a tool for those who would prefer that we don’t try to imagine anything different.

Of all of the gospel writers, John was the one who was most about imagining things differently. The others do too; you really can’t tell the story of Jesus without imagining things differently, but look at how John begins the story of Jesus’ ministry. With Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus’ ministry begins the way we might expect with preaching and teaching, healing stories, occasionally crossing conventional boundaries and interacting with people a nice Jewish rabbi shouldn’t have interacted with. None of that’s a surprise though; it’s what we expect from Jesus; it’s the Jesus we know and love.

But with John, Jesus’ ministry starts at a wedding. Now, we know this story so well, Jesus changing the water into wine, that we just kind of take it for granted, but when you think about it, what a strange way to begin. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago though, I think John was intentionally up to something very different from the other gospel writers. He wasn’t especially interested in a traditional narrative of events as the means by which he would reveal who he believed Jesus to be. Such a narrative is useful and it certainly provides knowledge about Jesus. John though wants us to use our imagination; he wants us to imagine Jesus and to encounter Jesus as the Son of God. With his words and images his goal isn’t about information, it isn’t about new evidence or additional knowledge; he wants to illustrate the new possibilities that Jesus embodies, those alternative contours of reality that provide hope for a world in need of hope.

So John has Jesus at the wedding in Cana and you know what happens. The wine runs out, Jesus tells them to fill the stone jars normally used for Jewish rites of purification with water, thirty gallons in each one, and when they drew some of the water out of one of the jars they found that it had become not just wine but really good wine.

This story, if taken literally, almost seems silly and pointless. With other miracle stories, including others in John, Jesus does something useful: he heals people of diseases, he casts out demons, he even raises the dead. Here he just ensures that the party goes on. Now this does get analyzed in all kinds of theological ways and that’s legitimate but I’m not going to go there today because I don’t want theological analysis to squeeze the imagination out of the story.

John does have a theological agenda but what he does consistently in his gospel is to imagine the world differently, to imagine what life is like with Jesus at the center. With the word pictures that John creates, he invites us into the world of Jesus, a world where things are different. In the case of the water to wine story, with Jesus’ imaginative performance, divine reality is revealed in overwhelming abundance, jars filled to overflowing with new wine of the highest quality. The party does indeed go on and with a party you don’t have to analyze it, you just enjoy it.

The story of the Wedding at Cana and the water turned to wine is one of the classic texts associated with the Epiphany season; you note that it even gets mentioned in the Eucharistic prayer during these weeks. Epiphany is traditionally understood as the season during which Jesus’ identity begins to be revealed and the way John tells it, that is what happens. He doesn’t exactly explain how or why because John isn’t into explanations but this story ends with Jesus’ disciples believing in him. He gave them a glimpse of his imagined world and with that they perceived something different in all that wine. For them, this event helped to make Jesus known; for others though, they were still into trying to figure out what had happened in ways they could understand and they did, so for them, nothing was different; the bridegroom had just been holding out on the good stuff and their world was still the same.

What John does in this story is to provide an illustration of the transforming power of God alive in the world. It’s kind of a surprising illustration, but it’s effective because we do remember it, don’t we? Approached with imagination, it grows in depth and meaning and the reality of the God revealed in Jesus and what he represents is made known.

The transforming power of God alive in the world is at the heart of biblical faith, at the heart of Christianity. That is the good news that we have to share. Christianity isn’t about being narrow minded and against all kinds of things which, if you didn’t know much, might be what you would think based on how “Christians” are portrayed in the news, movies and TV. In and through Jesus, especially in his death and resurrection, that transforming power of God was revealed and that is what represents the essence of Christianity. In his gospel, John has some very imaginative ways to convey that message in order to help us know that that power is out there and on the loose, doing new things. When we stop believing that, when we stop believing in that transforming power of God, the wine turns back into water; the party’s over.

John invites us into the alternative imagination of Jesus, imagination that includes abundance as is the case in today’s story, but also forgiveness, generosity, vulnerability and justice. In following Jesus, this is the walk we walk, this is the talk we talk.

Imagination is more important than knowledge. I can’t wait to see what I get in my next fortune cookie. I’ll keep you posted.

Revv. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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