Fr. Marcus Halley – The Transformative Power of the Moral Imagination

Marcus HalleySermons

[Sermon preached on Sunday, January 21, 2018 (Epiphany 3, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota]

For the present form of this world is passing away.

1 Corinthians 7:31b (NRSV)

When was the last time you were confronted by the truth of the Gospel in a way that challenged you?

When was the last time you heard the Word of God and you went away thinking, “hmm, I might have had it wrong this whole time”?

When was the last time Love called you by name, summoned you at the fundamental level of your very being, spoke so profoundly that it resonated with poetry inscribed upon your, and you dropped everything to follow?

Summoning humanity – indeed all of creation – to the higher, more excellent way of love has been the work of God from the very beginning. Starting with the first human beings – adam or “earthlings” – in the Garden of Eden, continuing with the wandering people of God at the foot of Mount Sinai or the returning exiles in Jerusalem, including the twelve disciples gathered by our Lord to inaugurate his movement of love, God has always been in the business of gathering a transformed people into a transforming community. Beloved in Christ, the goal of our being together – of our worship, our fellowship, our formation – is to become transformed members gathered into this transforming community called the Church, the Body of Christ.

First, we are transformed because in the Incarnation, God chooses to be known to us, to come to close to us that we might be drawn closer to God, to give us a close encounter of the God-kind. This mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the terrible and fascinating mystery), the presence of God leaves nothing unchanged. Idols crumble, empires fall, hearts change, eyes open, ears are unstopped, walls collapse, the dead are raised to new life whenever God draws near.

Second, we are transforming because, if we are indeed the Body of Christ, we are called to go where he goes and do what he does – enter the world’s deepest pain and transform it in the light of the Kingdom of God. Speaking in the face of Jim Crow segregation, hyper-militarism, and exploitative capitalism of his day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King suggested that the “salvation of humanity lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” The “creatively maladjusted” are those who see the brokenness of our world and employ their God-given creativity, their moral imagination, to see this world through the eyes of God.

Idols crumble, empires fall, hearts change, eyes open, ears are unstopped, walls collapse, the dead are raised to new life whenever God draws near.

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglass, Episcopal priest, Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, and author of Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, defines moral imagination as being “grounded in the absolute belief that the world can be better. A moral imagination,” she says, “envisions Isaiah’s ‘new heaven and new earth,’ where the ‘wolf and the lamb shall feed together,’ and trusts that it will be made real… With a moral imagination one is able to live proleptically, that is, as if the new heaven and new earth were already here.”[1] If we are to be heavenly yeast to leaven the world’s brokenness with the power of God’s love, we must first believe that, in the words of our Savior, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” We must believe that the downtrodden are lifted up, the poor and hungry are filled, and broken communities are reconciled. A moral imagination changes us by changing how we see the world.

When I consider those whose lives reflected the transformative power of a moral imagination, I think of people like Dorothy Day. Raised in a family of nominal Christians, she came of age in a time of great transformation and social movement. While her conversion from a nominal  an active, transforming Christian faith was the process of a lifetime, it is very clear that, in the face of growing poverty and social inequality, her faith compelled her to action. “The Gospel takes away our right forever,” she says, “to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” The Gospel provoked a change in her that propelled her to change the world around her. A moral imagination begins with changing how we see ourselves in relation to those around us.

In the face of the all the brokenness we see around us, it can be tempting to see the Church of the living God as an escape from the real world. Faith can become nothing more than an excuse to put our heads into the sand and to ignore the world spinning apart around us. But this would be an inappropriate misuse of the gift of faith. Rather than inviting us to hide, faith ought to send us out to serve. The community of faith is where we hear of visions glorious – angels ascending and descending, humility and love triumphing over pride and hatred, the eventual death of death itself – in order to fire up our moral imaginations. Faith isn’t about hermetically sealing the faithful away from the sickness of the world. Faith is about sending us into the sickness to heal it.

In his recent book called Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, Archbishop Rowan Williams writes against the idea of holiness as withdrawal, choosing instead to frame holiness as “going into the heart of where it is most difficult for human beings to be human.”[2] That means entering the darkest, most depressing, most dehumanizing spaces to change them. No, being the Church isn’t an escape. It’s the opposite. Faith in God thrusts us into the thick of it. It is an excuse to make good trouble for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

God has come to make all things new, to raise up things that were once cast down, to restore things that are now broken, to raise to new life things that are now dead. Those are the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God. That is what is unfolding in front of our eyes as we watch the convulsions of a dying world give way to the endless life of God. The “creatively maladjusted” people of God, you and I, are called to employ our moral imaginations to reconstruct this world using the original blueprints of goodness written by the finger of God.

But the first people we must allow to change is ourselves.

We cannot hope to change the world when we haven’t allowed ourselves to be changed.

Being the Church isn’t an escape. It’s the opposite. Faith in God thrusts us into the thick of it. It is an excuse to make good trouble for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

In a famous quote attributed to Lao Tzu, Taoist philosopher, we find that the change we seek in others must begin within.

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.

Dear friends in Christ, the world isn’t make of abstract concepts, theories, and systems. The world we live in is comprised of an endlessly complex network of living, breathing, creatures of a loving Creator. Therefore, to change the world is to be changed.

God is calling us to walk this transformative journey, to stick with it when times are tough, to press and pray through it even when it doesn’t feel like it is worth it. Not only do we make this road by walking, but the road makes us.  Every step we take towards God transforms us into who God already knows us to be.

And as we make that journey, the black and white world around us gives way to reveal the technicolor truth of the compassionate community of God.


[1] Kelly Brown Douglas. Stand Your Grand: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2015), p. 225-226

[2] Rowan Williams. Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publications Co., 2016), 50.