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Thursday, July 8, 2004

Moral imagination.

Below you'll find the text of the sermon I preached yesterday at the Midweek Service at King's Chapel in Boston. I preached an expanded version two weeks ago at the First Unitarian Universalist Society in Middleborough, and a substantially different version at the First Parish in Concord and the First Church in Jamaica Plain last summer. In other words, what follows is the traveling sermon I've been taking around for the past year. I think I'm done developing this particular sermon, so here it is frozen in pixels for you to enjoy.


The reading I’ve chosen is a story about a vacation Jesus took midway through his ministry. I invite you to listen for the moment of transformation in this story, from the seventh chapter of Mark:

Then [Jesus] left that place and went away into the territory of Tyre. He found a house to stay in, and he would have liked to remain unrecognized, but this was impossible. Almost at once a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard of him, came in, and fell at his feet. (She was a Gentile, a Phoenician of Syria by nationality.) She begged him to drive the spirit out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be satisfied first; it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ ‘Sir,’ she answered, ‘even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.’ He said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go home content; the unclean spirit has gone out of your daughter.’ And when she returned home, she found the child lying in bed; the spirit had left her. (Mark 7:24-30, New English Bible)


Our story presents a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. In the first six chapters in Mark’s gospel—the story up to this point—Jesus has been teaching and healing his fellow Galileans. He starts local, sharing his message in his hometown among friends and relatives. But his family and his neighbors already have settled opinions about him: “Isn’t this the young carpenter, Mary’s boy?”

But elsewhere, in the towns and countryside around Nazareth, he draws quite a crowd. And no wonder! In his presence, at his touch, the sick are restored to health. The possessed find their right minds again. The outcasts regain their dignity. By the end of chapter seven, where our story begins, Jesus—pursued by crowds and leading a band of new disciples who don’t seem to catch on quite as quickly as he would like—well, Jesus is exhausted.

So he heads north—out of Galilee, out of Judea, out of his people’s territory—to take a break. So he goes to a town in Syria for a vacation. But, even there people have heard about him. The story says, “He would have liked to remain unrecognized, but this was impossible.”

What happens instead marks a turning point in his ministry. Before going to Tyre, Jesus seems to have thought of his mission as a ministry to his own people. Other people were secondary beneficiaries, if that. But in Tyre, in his encounter with the Syrian woman, a transformation occurs and Jesus comes to acknowledge his healing ministry to the Gentiles, too.

I submit to you that this is a story about moral imagination.

Notice how Jesus responds at first to the stranger who interrupts his vacation. When she falls at his feet and begs him to help her daughter, he doesn’t merely say, “Hey, I’m off duty. Talk to the holy man over there.” No, he says: “Let the children be satisfied first; it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Isn’t this a shocking thing to hear from Jesus? I was surprised by it. Maybe I had thought that Jesus would be above such dismissive, even dehumanizing attitudes. Maybe I thought that although it is hard for me to regard every human being as my neighbor, surely Jesus must have found it easy. Maybe I thought that Jesus, of all people, would recognize the full sisterhood and brotherhood of humankind. But here he is—at first—calling this Syrian woman a “dog.” That took me aback.

But I want to share with you the insight that has helped me understand the transformative power of this story. It’s true that Jesus doesn’t immediately recognize the stranger’s inherent dignity and worth. To be honest, that’s often true in my encounters with other people. But the woman challenges Jesus on his exclusion. And then, most significantly, Jesus responds to the woman’s challenge by stretching his moral imagination to include her.

Stretching the moral imagination: I believe that is the work of religion.

Stretching the moral imagination sounds a little like something you would do at a philosophical gym: Do ten sets of deep-thought bends, run five times around the ethical quandary track, work up a sweat walking along the path of good intentions, whew!

Stretching the moral imagination? Why is that the work of religion? After all, why stretch?

People naturally prefer what is familiar to them: the gravitational pull of a habit; the surge of confidence we feel in rallying to our tribe; the sense of belonging we feel in the thick of our own communities: these parts of our human experience are natural, powerful, deep sources of our personal and shared identity. Without the familiar, we’re lost as human beings. So most of us return, time and time again, to places that anchor and stabilize us—and many of us return to familiar places where we feel secure enough to welcome God’s still, small voice. We go to church in part in order to be blessed and strengthened by the familiar.

Repetition, habit, custom, tradition, familiarity, the same faces, the same names—these things are a blessing. They anchor and root us. If you have a favorite vacation spot, a favorite song, a favorite meal, a favorite chair, you know how important and restorative these things can be.

And yet. What a stultifying, boring, small-minded sort of existence we would have if were purely creatures of habit. Rocks are creatures of habit: They always do the same thing in exactly the same way. Of course we aspire to more. We’re growing creatures, our whole lives long. We learn other languages. We bungee-jump. We climb mountains. We go scuba diving. (Well, I haven’t done any of those things, but you never know!) We buy cookbooks and learn to prepare foods that don’t grow within a thousand miles of here.

Most of us, in the right circumstances, will try new things. We will even learn to do things that are hard for us. Sometimes we’ll ask for forgiveness. Sometimes we’ll throw off a bad habit. Sometimes we’ll recognize that we’ve neglected someone and we’ll do the hard work of change. Sometimes we’ll stretch our moral imaginations and hold ourselves accountable. That’s the way human beings become humane.

And yet. There is something in our story about Jesus and the Syrian woman that cuts close to home. Even though we’re not content to be creatures of habit, even though we’re broad-minded, even though we try to love our neighbors as ourselves—and our enemies, too—I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that most of us, most of the time, stick to our own. And sometimes we don’t even treat our own brothers and sisters like brothers and sisters.

You see, there’s a reason we need moral imagination. There’s a reason it requires some stretching. We’re not really natural Universalists. We’re more like natural parochialists.

The Israeli moral philosopher and humanist Avishai Margalit describes two types of human relationships. We have what he calls “thick relations” with parents, friends, and fellow-countrymen. Our thick relations are the near-and-dear, people whose fates we know we share. For better and for worse, these relations shape our lives. Our thick relations are the people who are there for us—and when they’re not there for us, we recognize a breach of fundamental values.

But Margalit also says we have “thin relations” with people simply because of our shared humanity. Morality, he says, addresses our thin relations. But wait! How can our relationship to humankind be thin? Isn’t it our deepest and most fundamental kinship?

He explains:

“[W]e need morality precisely because we do not care. That is, we usually lack an attentive concern for the well-being of most members of the human race. We usually care about our parents, children, spouses, lovers, friends, and by extension some significant groups to which we belong. But by no means do we care about everyone. For most of humanity, most people most of the time are pretty much indifferent. . . .”

Does this ring true for you? Are your ties to most human beings pretty thin? I know I hardly even read the headlines of news stories describing momentous events in the lives of millions of people every day, but I’ll read a postcard from a friend with a thousand times more interest. I know that by no means do I care about everyone.

“Caring,” Margalit writes, “is a demanding attitude toward others. . . . The snag is not that it is hard to like people we don’t know: caring does not necessarily require liking. What we find hard is the attention that is implied by caring.”

Caring means paying attention. It means responding to another’s needs. But we need morality precisely because we do not care.

What did Jesus say at first to the woman who asked him to help her daughter? He said, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” He did not care about her or her daughter; to him, she was a dog. He was no Universalist; he was a parochialist. But the woman challenged him. She provoked his moral imagination and demanded his attention. She said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”

And after this encounter, Jesus’ ministry changes. He stretches, going not just into the Jewish communities in Galilee where he was at home, but into Gentile communities as well. His moral imagination was stretched in response to a stranger. Jesus came back from his vacation with a renewed sense of who his neighbors really are. And even though the church today is torn and divided over theology and politics and human sexuality and culture and questions of war and peace, every branch of the church knows on some deep level that Jesus’ commandment really is what we’re about: Love God with all that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself.

One reason I go to church is to be lured and enticed and sometimes nudged, and although I’ll never admit it, sometimes to be flat-out provoked, in the midst of the familiar and the reassuring and the thickening relations that anchor me, toward a richer and broader and deeper moral imagination. I need the exercise. I need to be stretched. I don’t need to be torn, but sometimes I have found that I do need to be provoked. You see, we need both the comfort of our traditions, the thickness of our communities, and the challenge to stretch our moral imaginations beyond our comfort zones.

My friends, the church is not gathered around a table with a small and limited feast. The last thing we should be doing is deciding who deserves only the crumbs. We are celebrating life as guests and friends of the Lord of life. We are people of moral imagination—or at least we try to stretch ourselves to be people of moral imagination. Our door is open; our table is open; by grace, we are sometimes surprised to find that even our own hearts are open to others in healing and transformative ways.

Jesus left town for a vacation even when his ministry was thriving. He took a break even though there were people clamoring for his attention. He interrupted his routine. The challenge that stretched and deepened his vision came when he was away from the people he knew best. May you have the wisdom to know when to take a break, and the grace to respond to challenges with a moral imagination that is ready to stretch.

Whether your summer plans include reading a new book or two, or volunteering for a good cause, or going somewhere as close as the beach or as far as a distant country, celebrate the wonderful fact that you are a growing creature, that you are not forever trapped in a habit of mind or practice, that you have the gift of transcending your natural parochialism. May your moral imagination stretch this summer. May you come to recognize your relations to others more deeply, more richly, more warmly than ever before. Amen.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 8 July 2004 at 5:26 PM

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July 10, 2004 12:59 PM | Permalink for this comment


Super sermon. Religion itself is a profound act of the imagination, perhaps the most significant such act of which the human is capable.

Rick Heller:

July 10, 2004 08:48 PM | Permalink for this comment


A number of interest points in your well-written sermon. Just a couple of reactions:

Peter Singer wrote a book, The Expanding Circle, (out of print, but pdf excerpt available) about how we compartmentalize between those we treat as human, and those we treat as animals. Singer, controversially, wants us to treat animals like humans.

As far as family vs non-family, in my parents generation, they always socialized with family and had few friends who were not relatives. In my generation, on the other hand, we socialize mostly with friends and treat family more like an obligation. In fact, it is probably through extended family gatherings that I now meet more people who are unlike me than through social gathers of my friends.

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