The Need for Nimble Imaginations

Rev. Scott Walters
Christ Church, Little Rock
July 24, 2011
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Year A, Proper 12
Genesis 29:15-28

Going to camp is an old strategy for getting away from it all. But you should know that rules are not among the things from which campers get away.

Here’s what I mean. Imagine your own day beginning with a bell ringing in the street, letting you know that you must be at the flag circle in 45 minutes. Breakfast will follow promptly at 8:00. At some point during the meal someone will lift her plastic Pizza Hut water cup and propose a toast to friendship bracelets or breakfast burritos or Marvin’s afro. You are expected to raise your own cup to the toast, then empty it immediately, and slam it to the table, producing one of the 80 or 90 hollow cracks that announce the ritual has been completed.

Then imagine that you are required to go back and clean your house (after signing up for Free Choice, of course) because a neighborhood inspector will be dropping by after chapel. Did I mention that you have to attend chapel every morning? You’ll find out at lunch whether that inspector awarded you a jeweled golden toilet seat for the cleanest house on the block, or a plunger for the dirtiest.

See what I mean? Camp is not a place free of rules. It’s full of rules. And we haven’t even mentioned rules regarding name tags, the yellow rope, talking east of the lamp post, song motions, and games.

Kids don’t go to camp to be free of rules. They go to camp for the adventure and the community that a new set of rules creates. And what I was reminded of this past week at Camp Mitchell was how eagerly kids accept and how nimbly they adapt to new rules.

Case in point. The theme for the week was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So, when it was time to plan the Tuesday night activity, we decided that an Alice inspired riff on Capture the Flag was in order. Teams would be identified by the red diamonds or black spades painted on their cheeks. Instead of flags, we made two cardboard Cheshire Cats and cut them into pieces. Circles were painted at opposite ends of Chigger Field. And instead of a single flag, each team had to send runners into enemy territory and bring back enough cat parts to reassemble into a whole cat. It was brilliant.

Now does anyone want to guess the kids’ response to the new rules? Do you think it was, “How dare you alter the eternal and immutable rules of Capture the Flag!” Well, nobody said that. The kids said, “OK. Let’s play.”

When the game did begin, however, something was not quite right. The diameter of the circles enclosing the cats, which are also safe zones, was too small and too easy to guard. So half way through the game, I took my can of field marking paint, and made bigger circles. After this adjustment, which the kids accepted immediately, the game went on beautifully.

Now, you might be surprised to find that in establishing the dimensions of the circles, we did not appeal to the official Capture the Cat Parts rule book, published by the broader I.C.F.F. (the International Capture the Flag Federation). No, I just painted a circle a couple of steps outside each of the original ones. The proof of the rule, you see, is not in some vested authority. The proof of the rule is in the playing. And Capture the Cat Parts is a much more interesting game with bigger circles.

We grownups like to think that the rules at least to several more serious grownup games never change. Games like marriage. We’re told that marriage is an institution that is fundamental to our social order. Which is surely true. Every culture has its marriage rites and rules. But if you think the rules of marriage never change, you haven’t read the Bible.

For instance, apparently in the time when Genesis was written, if you happened to fall in love with someone with an unmarried older sister (both of these girls happen to be your first cousins, by the way), you might have to work 7 years for their father before you can marry. But if somehow, on the morning after your long awaited wedding day you happen to wake up next to the wrong cousin (the older one), well, too bad. You just married her. Those are the rules. Now you’ll have to bargain again with your uncle/father-in-law. Maybe he’ll let you finish the week of wedding celebration with the older sister, and marry the younger one after that. But the price is seven more years of your labor.

So much for marriage as a stable, unchanging institution.

By going back so far in the Judeo-Christian story, we are reminded just how much things can change over time even with regard to rules about love and family relationships. And I think one thing we can learn by reading these old stories is to keep our moral imaginations nimble. Nimble like the kids on Chigger Field. Nimble enough to imagine life in a different game.

The kids could easily take what they knew about one game, and imagine how another equally coherent and compelling one might be derived from the first. What was most important was not whether the new games rules were exactly like the old games or approved by some authority. What was most important was whether the new combination of rules would result in a game worth playing. And once you start playing, you find out whether the rules work or not.

So to automatically import our rules and ideas about marriage and family directly into the story of Jacob makes as much sense as making the safe zone in Capture the Cat Parts 60’6” wide because that’s how far it is from the pitcher’s mound to home plate in baseball. We’re talking about two different games, or at least two very different forms of the game we call human culture. It’s crucial to both games to get the measurements right, but we need to know more about each game to determine what’s “right.”

Middle Eastern laws about marriage several thousand years ago should not make sense to us taken on their own. Somehow we have to imagine ourselves into as much of ancient Hebrew culture as we can before we write these people off as foolish barbarians. But why have Christians long believed that such work is worth the effort?

Maybe part of the reason is because we believe our moral imagination can grow nimbler as we look back into these old stories. If we look back generously, maybe we can see that Laban and Rachel and Leah and Jacob are people who saw their world through the collection of rules we call culture. And so do we. The way we see the world is just as conditioned and guided by the whole game we live in—the whole culture—as theirs. And maybe after we’ve learned to look back, we can better look forward into the future as well.

At the very heart of Jesus’s teaching in the gospel of Matthew was something called the Kingdom of Heaven. The kingdom was what he preached about and told stories about and tried to help people see for themselves. But he seemed determined not to tell us precisely what that kingdom was or what it looked like. He said it’s like a mustard seed or yeast or treasure hidden in a field. It’s like a pearl of great price or a net cast into the sea, catching fish of every kind. It’s kind of like those things.

Apparently Jesus didn’t want us to assume that because we experienced the kingdom in one moment, or in one context, it will look just the same in another.  We need to use our childlike intuition that knows a good game from a lame one. We can’t just keep looking for mustard seeds just because the kingdom looked like that once upon a time in our lives. Things change. Rules change. The game of culture and even the game of faith changes. Reading the Bible makes this perfectly clear.

It’s difficult when the rules change. But they do. They inevitably do. If you don’t think so, imagine having Jacob’s courtship story today. “Jon and Kate Plus 8” begins to look pretty mainstream.

And if we can’t look back and see grace and meaning and purpose in the lives of those strange ancient Hebrews, it might be hard to see the Kingdom of God when it comes near in some new form in our lives today.

But if our imaginations can become nimble again, if we can relearn how to jump into a new game and assess its fruitfulness by playing it, not by whether each rule simply matches those of the last game we played, maybe we’ll be better prepared to see what God has in store for us today, and in the future. Maybe even though the Kingdom last appeared in our lives as a net full of fish, we’ll be ready to see it when it comes to us as a pearl.