Spiritual Imagination in College

Luke 16: 19-30

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In college—and indeed in life, all of life—a moment of quickened spiritual imagination is at hand.


One such may enliven you today, in the ancient story of Lazarus and Dives, a harsh, a tough, a dark tale.


Let me ask you a question.  Do you want to do well, or do you want to do good?


Here is a fresh-woman, from another country, not sure whether to stay in school, watching the strange behaviors of classmates enjoying their own well-being, and not aware let alone concerned about global hurts and doing good.


Here is a young man studying theology and wondering what his future in the world will be and what his future in the church will be and whether in one or the other he will be doing well or doing good.


Here is a newly wed couple emerging from the film, ‘the Butler’, jolted by the reminder of deep racial animosities, and wondering about a balance, for the rest of life of achievement and service, of acquisition and generosity, of being well and being good.


Here is a woman whose neighbor, just a boy, was killed in April and she wonders what good in the end it is to do well, and what doing well means in the shadow of such a day.


Here is a man who has done well, a successful businessman, who lingers in the shadows of the church, listening on the radio, longing for some fuller something, and disappointed in the ministry of the church, so focused as he thinks on being right rather than on doing good.


Do you want to do well?  Do you want to do good?  And if rightly you surmise that some balance of the two is what you seek, how in such seeking will you find?


Through this summer and fall it has been the career of St. Luke to probe your spiritual imagination, at the intersection of well and good.  The gospel, at least as read if not as preached though we hope too as preached, has been circling you, surrounding you, out to capture you with pointed parables and probing questions.  You have every right to be alert.  Listen to Luke…


With the dust of the Jericho Road swirling, your spiritual imagination hears, ‘Who do you think proved neighbor to the man who fell among thieves’?


With tears on the fatherly cheeks abounding, your spiritual imagination hears, ‘This my son is found.  Should I not have celebrated his return?”


With a green visor in front of you, your spiritual imagination hears, ‘What shall I do?  I am too weak to dig and too ashamed to beg?’


With a full barn waiting, your spiritual imagination will hear, ‘These possessions, now whose will they be?”


With a field of flowers fluttering, your spiritual imagination hears, “Which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his life”?


With fear and anger floating forward, your spiritual imagination hears, “Do you think I have come to bring peace?”


With coins jangling in the pocket, your spiritual imagination hears, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”


And were not 10 healed—where are they?  And what a Zaccheus given—half his estate?  And would I not say to the servant, ‘your field work is no substitute for your domestic duties’?


The parables of the Gospel According to St. Luke, these holy words and holy reminders of the holy One, the Son of God, are tapping, tapping at your spiritual imagination…And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me filled with fantastic terrors never felt before

The parables of Jesus, the gospel of Luke, the books of the New Testament, the witness of the church, the saints of God, the preaching of the church, the ministry of Marsh Chapel and this sermon itself are hunting for your soul, are searching for your soul, are chasing you, are pursuing you—to ignite your spiritual imagination.


Soon, like Lazarus, you will be dead.  Soon, like Dives, I will be dead.   Time flies?  Ah no. Time stays.  We go.  What you are going to do, as Jesus said to Judas, do quickly.  Your incessant quest to do well will not go well unless you do good, too.


Here is Lazarus, whose name means ‘God heals’.   He has had no earthly blessing, no purple robe, no fine linen, no sumptuous meal every day.  Here is the rich man, traditionally known as Dives, from the Latin for ‘rich’.  He has known no earthly bane, sores, hunger, dog bites.  This old, old story, probably predating the Christian era, perhaps coming up out of Egpyt, is out to get us, to quicken the spiritual imagination.


The parable accosts us with a stark forecast of death, proximate and personal, as does the benediction in every Marsh Chapel service of worship.


The parable accosts us with a ringing reminder of the irreversibility of time, the permanent loss of time past, as does the sung Kyrie in every Marsh Chapel service of worship.

The parable accosts us with a plain, unvarnished harsh admonishment about economic justice—the divine economy in which those who have much have not too much and those who have little have not too little—as does the offertory, offering and offertory prayer in every Marsh Chapel service of worship.


The parable accosts us with a direct assault on the soul, on the human soul, on your soul and mine, as does the sermon in every Marsh Chapel service of worship.


The parable means to awaken your spiritual imagination.


Do you want to do well or do you want to do good?  Granted that the answer is ‘both’, then where is the balance, where the bridge, where the dialectic, where the dialogue between the two.  Can we do well by doing good?  Is there a way to do good on the basis of doing well?  If you have not done well at all your capacity to do good will be limited and if you do no good what is it to have done well?


There are two ways to be wealthy:  have a lot of money or have very few needs.


At age 19, I was taught how to help sail a sail boat, a ‘Flying Dutchman’.  The elderly lawyer whose boat it was, due to age and to a compromised leg, needed someone to crew for him.  I knew nothing about sailing and must have endlessly frustrated him as I learned.  His world—a yacht club, the boat, different clothing and cars and refreshments than I had know in a parsonage growing up—was all new to me.  Gradually we improved along the ten mile inland lake.  We even started coming in ahead of dead last on the Saturday races.   The lawyer by the way had done well but he had also done a lot of good, including in his tutelage of me.   One day when we had mastered the mainsail, down and up, and had mastered the jib, up and down, and the wind was full in our back and the sun bright and hot he shouted:   ‘now for the spinnaker’.    That third sail made us fly.  It depended on the set up of the other two and a good wind from the stern.  But it was the addition that made all the rest ‘sail’.


I think some of our institutions, when they have done well with two sails, might want to think about doing good by putting up the third, by directly doing good without intention of gain.  I think some of our colleges, when they have done well with two sails, might want to do good by putting up a third, a kind of spiritual spinnaker, by directly helping others without intention of gain.  I think some of our professionals, who have done well with in life, mainsail and jib, might want to do good by putting up a kind of spiritual spinnaker, by directly helping others without benefit of gain.  I think some of our bright students, who have done well, from SAT to MCAT to LSAT, might want to do some good by putting up that third sail to catch the full wind of the full spirit of the full presence of God.


Even in college you may find a moment when a word spoken, like this parable, quickens, enlives, saves, heals and makes your spiritual imagination whole.  This—right now—may be that moment.  Right now.



Or, the maturation of your spiritual imagination may come later, as you read, study and grow.

You are in college.  You are here to read.  “Take and read.”

Hunt for the quiet places.  Find yourself in front of the sculpture of Arthur Fiedler, on a bench.  Sit farther along the river, as the sun sets.  Make permanent friends with the quiet pews of Marsh Chapel and the hidden crannies of the library.  Locate that 2am diner like the one at breakfast that helped Fred Craddock become a preacher.  Find the Public Library reading room, a beautiful spot. When others are at war with the administration, you read.  When others are cursing their professors, you read.  When others are finding fault with faculty hairstyles, you read.  Learn with to “sanctify ambition, not crucify it” (A Pierson).  A close distinction in a careful reading of life.  Learn with Hildegard of Bingham to “become one’s ownmost”.  Learn with 19th century Methodism the lasting danger of poor financial planning.  Learn the merits of disciplined sacramental observance.  All this and more, you can read in the books of your teachers in this finest of Methodist schools.  Read what you want, what you need, when you want, as you need.

And what relationship shall the reader have to the read?  Who among us does anywhere near enough to deconstruct our own various contexts?  Is the text to have the sole divining voice, or is the reader king?  What of the relationship between the unsaid and the uttered?  In reading, how do ranges of power dance with colors of truth?  Is the truth of Scripture the sole truth?  Or one truth among many?  Or primus inter pares?  Or an anachronism altogether?    How then do you read?


Misreading intelligence can land a nation in the soup of a civil war.  Misreading tests can land a patient in the wrong surgical suite.  Misreading accounts payable can land a business in bankruptcy.  Misreading a traffic signal can land you in the ditch.  Most of these have healing solutions available within one generation.  Spiritual misreading lasts for several generations.  It takes three of four generations to bring correction to a sincere or not so authentic spiritual misreading.  Be careful how you read, for how read is how you think, and how you think is how you act.

Here is an October Saturday in the sun.  Read in the city! Take, Read.  Read along with those who also rose to preaching amid the ruins of the church. You rise, books in tow, and walk the Emerald Necklace.  You walk.  At Emmanuel College you read a new book on.  Bunker HillYou walk.  At the Riverway you read A Bavevich, The Limits of Power.  You walk.  At Jamaica Pond you read  M Proust,  The Remembrance of Things Past.   Then you read Vaclev Havel, on almost anything.  But perhaps this fall you read his thoughts on suicide…sentinels… You walk, and you lunch.  After lunch you read H Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited.  Boston is your campus.  Then, resting at Jamaica Pond, you pull out a chapter from the Confessions of St. Augustine.

Augustine did well for a long time—eminent scholar, teacher of rhetoric, African philosopher, admirer of Ambrose.  As a student he did very well.  His Confessions is the primer, the original, the prototype for student life ever since, from 400ce until today.  But like Dives, though sooner, Augustine found his spiritual imagination was kindled…

Now when deep reflection had drawn up out of the secret depths of my soul all my misery and had heaped it up before the sight of my heart, there arose a mighty storm, accompanied by a mighty rain of tears. That I might give way fully to my tears and lamentations, I stole away from Alypius, for it seemed to me that solitude was more appropriate for the business of weeping. I went far enough away that I could feel that even his presence was no restraint upon me. This was the way I felt at the time, and he realized it. I suppose I had said something before I started up and he noticed that the sound of my voice was choked with weeping. And so he stayed alone, where we had been sitting together, greatly astonished. I flung myself down under a fig tree–how I know not–and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to thee: “And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.” For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”29. I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” [”tolle lege, tolle lege”] Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

Do you want to do well or do you want to do good?  The gospel addresses you, addresses your spiritual imagination, today.

~Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel


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