The Contrasted Imagination – Sermon on Colossians 1:15-23

Above is my presentation, and below is the transcript from my message this week.

Last week Joe convinced us that our culture is much like that of Rome’s. The first part of chapter one in Colossians helped us evaluate what was going on and set us up to see how Paul was facing directly into the systems of life in Rome in his letter. Their story was one of a so-called peace that came because of the good news of the gospel of Caesar. Caesar brought forgiveness of sins, he was the controller of destiny, he was the “son of God.” Rome spoke a language of hierarchy where Roman citizens were elevated and treated better. It was a system of getting and not giving, it was a system of climbing ladders and constantly trying to be at the top. Everything depending on Caesar and Rome. This is where your happiness came from.

Images of the emperor were as ubiquitous in the first century as corporate logos are in the twenty-first century. The image of Caesar and other symbols of Roman power were literally everywhere – in the market, on coins, in the gymnasium, at the gladiatorial games, on jewelry, goblets, lamps and paintings. The sovereign rule of Caesar was simply assumed to be the divine plan for the peace and order of the cosmos. Of course this is the way the world works. Under such conditions it becomes hard to imagine any life alternative to the empire.
– Walsh and Keesmat

Rome is now. The culture that permeated Rome and these distorted ideas of justice and peace has also permeated the culture that we live in. If you don’t believe me, or if you need to be reminded, let’s just go through some facts about today.

  • 1.2 billion people live on 23 cents a day
  • The wealthiest 1 billion people in the world have an average income of approx. $70 a day- 1 billion people live on less than $1 a day, 1-2 billion people live on less than $2 a day
  • The 3 wealthiest people in the world are American. Their combined wealth exceeds the GNP of all the world’s least developed countries (over 600 million people).
  • 12% of the world’s population uses 85% of its water
  • 40% of the world lacks basic sanitation facilitation
  • 1 billion people are without safe drinking water, Americans consume 26 billion liters of Bottle water annually
  • Every 16 seconds somewhere in the world someone dies of hunger, 2 out of every 3 Americans are considered overweight
  • Americans spend more annually on trash bags than nearly half the world does on ALL goods.
  • 2 billion people in the world have no electricity
  • 1 billion people in the world cannot sign their name
  • 1% of the people in the world own a computer
  • 1% of people in the world have a college education
  • An estimated 22 million people died from preventable disease in 2001, 10 million were children
  • 4 out of 5 American adults are high school graduates: 1 out of 4 children worldwide have to go to work every day instead of school
  • U.S. hold 42.8% of weapons worldwide, in 2002 the U.S. spent more on defense than the next 19 biggest spenders combined

Consumerism, purchasing, buying, money is where we find out peace.

“The fact that consumerism has become the dominant world faith is largely invisible to us….The image of the ideal human is…deeply set in our minds by the unending preachments of the ad. The ideal is not Jesus or Socrates..In the propaganda of the ad of the idea people, the fully human humans, are relaxed and carefree-drinking Pepsi around a pool-uncumbered by powerful ideas concerning the nature of goodness, undisturbed by visions of suffering that could be alleviated if humans were committed to justice…In the religion of the ad the task of civilization is much simpler. The ultimate meaning for human existence is getting all this stuff. That’s paradise. And the meaning of the Earth? Premanufactured consumer stuff.”
– Brian Swimme

These are just a few of the disgusting statistics that plagues our world right now. I could go on for hours about how messed up of a world that we live in. Everything is so unequally distributed and wealth is created on the backs of the poor. But here is the kicker. The problems exist and really no one is denying that. Christians or not, I think we all know that this is super messed. The problem though that we are addressing this morning isn’t that all these problems exist, it is where we put our hope to address these problems. We have chosen to either ignore them or think that something else will solve them.

Light a $20 bill on fire and let it go to flames.

Q: How do you all feel right now? What kind of thoughts are going through your head?

Here is what we are facing into. At some point, we bought into the lie that money fixes things. We all serve the God of money, our church is consumed by it. We can’t even wrap our heads around the thought of burning it. Deep down, we think that money/paper addresses these statistics. The first thought that ran through my head when I burnt that $20 is that I should just give it to Mike when he walks in here. At some point we allowed Money to rule our imagination and pretend that it had all the answers. The only thing we can think of to bring justice to all thes problems is to spend more money. It is the language of our empire. It tears us up inside to see it be mistreated. In Mark, Jesus found himself in a similar circumstance.

Mark 14:3-9

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages[a] and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Jesus mocked the idea of wasting money as a negative thing as if it was some important god that must be treated properly. This isn’t a message about shirking responsibility. This is about defining and realizing how much money has infected our imagination. The answer to the problems in the world is not money. This piece of paper that I just burned, when given a place of authority in our lives, only perpetuates a system and leaves people powerless and oppressed so we can be powerful and wealthy. Money has completely captured our imagination so we can’t imagine a life without it. Money has completely captured our hearts because we can’t stand to see it destroyed and we actually think it provides the answers. We think money grants us security, happiness, value and forgiveness. I’m not even trying to say money has no use and we should get rid of it all. I am just pointing out our sheer love and dependency on money to solve everything.

So we know that our culture is like this, but unfortunately, we in this room, in our churches are the same. We are saturated by money, power, fame and security. We think our security comes from the economic system, and forgiveness doesn’t happen, instead we ignore it. Our lives are filled with consumerism, materialism, greed and a false salvation. We’ve bought into the lies of the empire. We look no different. We mirror the systems of our culture. As Wendell Berry puts it:

“The church has, for the most part, stood silently by while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households. It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire. It has assumed with the economists that “economic forces” automatically work for good and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history. It has assumed with almost everybody that “progress” is good, that it is good to be modern and up with the times. It has admired Caesar and comforted him in his depredations and defaults. But in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation.”
– Wendell Berry

So now that we’ve established that we are very much in fact in a culture that believes in an empire and a systematic way of living that is about money and power. The world’s problems are our problems. We know that we in this building, in this church, in all our churches still cling to hopes of money and power offering salvation. Now we can better understand what Paul was up to. Paul found himself in a similar world with similar images, similar dreams and pursuits. He saw the church in Colossae at risk of listening and living the dreams of the empire a life completely separate than what Jesus had in mind. Instead of allowing them to fall into the trap of which Wendell Berry states above, he offers an alternative.

Christ is the image
of the invisible God
the firstborn of all creation
for in him were created all things
in heaven and earth
things visible and invisible
whether thrones or dominions
whether rulers or powers
all things have been created through him and for him
And he is before all things
and in him all things hold together
And he is the head
of the body, the church
He is the beginning
the firstborn from the dead
so that he might come to have first place in everything
for in him all the fullness
was pleased to dwell
and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself
all things
whether on earth or in heaven
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Poetry. Now I’m not one that understands poetry at all. But there is something about poetry that I think I’m missing that I need to reclaim in my own life. Paul uses poetry to combat the images and messages of the empire. In a world that has it’s imaginations captured by power, wealth and progress; Paul confronts it with poetic language saying that it’s not true and rather, Jesus is the start and the finish. Everything happens because of him, everything holds together because of him. Caesar is no more. He doesn’t have a spot. This is about Jesus. It always has been and it will end that way. He wasn’t just throw in as a last minute fix to the problem of sin, but he’s been around since day one. This message in an empire that is all about Caesar is nothing less than treason.

Look at all the imagery he uses that is basically taking the names, and images of it’s time and making them all subject to Christ.

“image of God,” “firstborn,” “first place,” “equal to the beginning of all things,” “restored order,” “beginning of life and vitality,” “savior,” “put an end to war and set all things in order,” god-manifest,” “head,” “body,”

All of these words and phrases would conjure up both Hellenistic ideas of Zeus as the sovereign head of the body of the cosmos and images of Caesar as the head of the body politic of the empire. Caesar is the head of the world, the son of God, he restored order and is the beginning of true life. Paul takes these cultural conditions, exposes them, and puts them in their rightful place. He replaces Zeus, Caesar and Rome with Christ and then replaces the body, cosmos or empire with the church.

In the same way that Paul is confronting the empire with his poetry, Christians are called to confront our empire. This isn’t to just make nice words and put them together so they sound nice and rhyme, this is a language that imagines a new way to see the world; a new way which has Christ at its head. It’s a language that confronts injustice and offers an alternative way of life. Recently I heard a modern day style of poetry that did this for me. It confronted the systems of oppression and named the darkness. It was a Pauline experience for me, so we brought this poetry group to our conference a few months later and I was able to record them. So I want to play for you this spoken word piece, and see if you can pick up on the language.

This is a Christian message, it’s the message that Paul gives us in Colossians. Its a poem that imagines a new reality. This is what the church is called to be and represent. We are to model and proclaim an alternative story to that of the empire. So while hundreds of thousands of TV ads and corporate and political images flood through our lives every day, like Paul and the prophets before him, can we find the imagination to sing a different song, to promote a different image, to imagine a different reality? We must! Money does not rule us. Jesus does. Security in retirement is not what we live for. Jesus is. Luxury is not what keeps us happy, Jesus is. Our calling of the church requires that we sing different songs, that we offer different stories that mock and confront the stories and images of the empire. Our imagination has been kidnapped by the empire around us, and we need to reclaim it.

To do this we must seek the kingdom, and proclaim the true song that is all around us in creation. This is about God, not us. We are loved by God. We were created by him and all this is for him. Once we pick up on the right notes that this true song is singing than we can start to fully grasp what the lost and found parables are all about. It will be worth selling everything else to buy the land that the treasure is in, because it’s the only story now that makes sense. We will have found this story that echoes through the scriptures and through the church for ages. We will confront the stories that offer anything less. The church will rise up and sing a new song, and present new images that tell the story of Christ.

We desperately need Christians who can dream and imagine this new way of living. This is one of the reasons that we came downtown, because downtown is full of artists and we need artists to help us dream. They dream differently and they dream counter-empire.

“We will need to open ourselves up to scripture, but in particular, to the role of the artist. In the 21st century the artists will lead us. They are the ones who dream. Dreams and pragmatism are always in tension. Unless we learn how to make this tension more creative we will never be able to see the future for our region. We will always be buying it from someone else. And this is the greatest tragedy of the local church in Canada; when we sing a new song, we have bought it from someone else. When we dream a new dream, we have bought it from another church in another country. God is always doing a new work. Even in Canada. The artists help us to see it.”
Donald Goertz

We live in this world and we are unable to dream and imagine any longer. We have been accosted by the empire’s luxurious and tempting way of life with lies of money, power and fame. And it’s all bull shit. It’s empty and it’s just not true. The empire is full out opposed to a way of life with Christ at the center and it will go to any lengths to prevent us from imagining a life outside of it. I’m not talking about conspiracy theories or specific individuals that are out to get you. I’m talking about that the entire system is built on making us dependant on how the empire functions so that we cannot exist outside of it. This is how it works, just look at these stats:

  • In 1983, companies spent $100 million marketing to kids. Today, they’re spending nearly $17 billion annually.
  • 8- to 12-year-olds spend $30 billion of their own money each year and influence another $150 billion of their parents’ spending.
  • By the time a college student has graduated, changes are that he or she will have more than $3,000 in credit card debt – and have four or more credit cards
  • The average amount of time that a child spends in front of a TV is almost 1500 hours a year, where the average amount of time they will spend in school is only 900 hours a year.
  • Before a child enters first grade science class, and before entering in any real way into our religious ceremonies, a child will have soaked in 30,000 advertisements.
  • The time our teenagers spend absorbing ads is more than their total stay in high school.
  • The number of minutes per week that parents spend in meaningful conversation with their children is less than four minutes but the number of minutes per week that the average child watches television is 1,680.
  • Young people view more than 40 000 ads per year on television alone
  • The average young person views more than 3000 ads per day on television (TV), on the Internet, on billboards, and in magazines.
  • More than 200 school districts nationwide have signed exclusive contracts with soft drink companies.
  • 4500 Pizza Hut chains and 3000 Taco Bell chains in school cafeterias aroundthe country.

Our children along with us are inundated with image after image after image after story after story of our culture and empire. It is a complete onslaught of a way of life that is separate from God and Christ. Imagine how different we would feel if we heard about a country that programmed its citizens in religion like we do with ads? It was this kind of indoctrinating of children that made us upset about how the Soviet Union raised their kids. They removed their natural feelings for God, truth and their parents and replaced them worldviews that would help continue on their oppressive dictatorship. Since however, we are all immersed in consumerism, we just ignore it. We tell ourselves that ads are harmless and just trying to get us interested in products.

It is just too horrible to think that we live in a culture that has replaced authentic spiritual development with the advertisement’s crass materialism. And yet when one compares the pitiful efforts we employ for moral development with the colossal and frenzied energies we pour into advertising, it is like comparing a high school football game with World War II. Nothing that happens in one hour on the weekend makes the slightest dent in the strategic bombing taking place day and night fifty-two weeks of the year.
– Brian Swimme

We don’t think of ads as shaping our worldviews because we don’t want to sit in front of a TV while we are relaxing on the couch and think about the philosophy behind the ad. So we just take it all in and it sets itself deeper and deeper into the way we think and act. If this takes place in an adult, how much more damage do you think is done to our children and advertisers know this, which is why the stats above are as bad as they are. We just don’t care and don’t want to know. We think that a weekly ritual of taking them to church on a Sunday and a prayer before bed is going to fix it and make our kids be Jesus lovers when they grow up, but it won’t.

To prevent this, we need to start re-imagining a new way of life, a way of life that promotes Christ and his Kingdom. A life that isn’t dependant on being fed what to think and believe but that frees us to imagine and be creative about what a world apart from this empire would look like. This is what Paul did, and yet we seem helpless to do so.

Whoever is devoid of the capacity to wonder, whoever remains unmoved, whoever cannot contemplate or know the deep shudder of the soul in enchantment, might just as well be dead for he has already closed his eyes upon life.
Albert Einstein

Imagine for a minute with me. What are some of the new ways of living and counter-cultural stories that we see?

This next quote is from a guy who just wrote an article about kids and consumerism, but really it speaks directly to us. This guy has exposed and is now asking about what kind of world we want to live in and how do we raise our children in that world.

If we come to an awareness of the way in which the materialism of the advertisement is our culture’s primary way for shaping our children, and if we find this unacceptable, we are left with the task of inventing new ways of introducing our children and our teenagers and our young adults and our middle-aged adults and our older adults to the universe. These notes on the new cosmology are grounded in our contemporary understanding of the universe and nourished by our more ancient spiritual convictions concerning its meaning. These notes then are a first step out of the religion of consumerism and into a way of life based upon the conviction that we live within a sacred universe.
– Brian Swimme

Now, just because they are counter-cultural doesn’t make them good. However, they must be counter-cultural for them to be good. We can no longer lie to ourselves and pretend that the systems of economics and politics actually have pure and good kingdom motives behind them and are working for us. They do not acknowledge Jesus at the head. The goal cannot be to try and force Jesus to the head of these systems but rather start telling an alternative tale where he is at the head. If Jesus is at the head, the our world should look radically different. The church needs to start telling stories and offering up alternative realities where Jesus is at the head.

“Jesus is the story that forms the church. This means that the church first serves the world by helping the world to know what it means to be the world. For without a “contrast model” the world has no way to know or feel the oddness of its dependence on power for survival. Because the church the world can feel the strangeness of trying to build a politics that is inherently untruthful; the world lacks the basis to demand truth from its people. Because of a community formed by the story of Christ the world can know what it means to be a society committed to the growth of individual gifts and differences. In a community that has no fear of truth, the otherness of the other can be welcomed as a gift rather than a threat.”
Stanley Hauerwas

The church offers a contrast model to the world. A different way of living. A way of living that isn’t afraid of the powerless and doesn’t need to oppress people to succeed.

Yet what was most original about the first Christians was not the peculiarity of their beliefs, even beliefs abut Jesus, but their social inventiveness in creating a community whose like had not been seen before. To say they believed in God is true but uninteresting. What is interesting is that their very understanding that the God they encountered in Jesus required the formation of a community distinct from the world, exactly because of the kind of God he was. From a Christian perspective, the atheist cannot understand the kind of God he or she does not believe in apart from understanding the kind of community necessary across time to faithfully worship such a God. The flabbiness and banality of contemporary atheism is, thus, a judgment on the church’s unwillingness to be a distinctive people.
Stanley Hauerwas

Paul’s words in Colossians are not a theological debate trying to put people in their place. It is a poem. It is a declaration of how the world really is, which will be backed up by the community of Christ putting actions into these words. As Hauerwas puts it, this is not about whether or not God exists, this is a community of people living and acting in the world as if he does exist and is already ruling. This moves us away from debates and more into declarations and action. To spread the word that God is love, you don’t need to keep pointing back to the bible, you just need to love people. The title for this month is the campaign for real humanity. This is because this is what we are doing. We are to model a humanity that is true and good and bring in as many people as possible into this way of life. This is the role and duty of the church.

‘The church is the campaign for real humanity’ – Rowan Williams

The empire around us seeks to crush imagination. It seeks to monopolize us from an early age to make us people that will keep us in their grip, further their plan and never make us question or think outside the box. The empire establishes a monopoly on our thoughts and our passions and especially our imagination. So they use forces like military, marketing, propaganda and repetition to control everyone. However, as long as people have memories of what it used to be like and have imaginations for the future then the empire cannot function. Their liberated imagination keeps them trucking along against anything that comes in their path because they know that this is not the way it should be. Israel always had these people with liberated imaginations. They were called prophets and they spoke using vivid imagery and with wild references that we can barely even comprehend now. It is these men that break the cycle of the empire. It is these imaginative dreamers who bring hope and sight of a different kind of reality.

I realize that under such onslaught and pressure that it becomes hard to imagine any life alternative to the way of the empire. However this is what Paul was doing, this is what the prophets were doing and this is what Christians are called to do while we live in a home that is not ours. It is imperative that we start modelling different ways to eat, sleep, live, be in relationships, go to school, raise our kids. Imagine what could happen when communities of people start living if Jesus was actually at the head of their lives. Imagine what would happen? Imagine! May we live lives that reflect a kingdom with Jesus at the head. May our church model a way of life that is so radical and so counter-cultural that the world looks at us and sees how empty their endless cycle really is. May we remember that this is about Christ, and always has been and as soon as it becomes about us and we can get out of this, we no longer represent his kingdom. As the onslaught of the empire is all around us, may we not look to money, or power, or fame to fix it, but may we live in the truth that only Christ can make things and set things right.

To end this morning, I’m going to have Kristine come and read a prayer that was in Colossians Remixed by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat. I think this will be a good prayer for us to leave this morning on.

In an image-saturated world,

A world of ubiquitous corporate logos

Permeating our conscience

A world of dehydrated and captive imaginations

In which we are too numbed, satiated, and co-opted

To be able to dream of a life otherwise

A world in which the empire of global economic affluence

Has achieved the monopoly of our imaginations

In this world

Christ is the image of the invisible God

In this world

Driven by images with a vengeance

Christ is the image par excellence

The image above all other images

The image that is not a fa├žade

The image that is not trying to sell you anything

The image that refuses to co-opt you

Christ is the image of the invisible God

The image of God

A flesh-and-blood

Here-and-now

In time and history

With joys and sorrows

Image of who we are called to be

Image-bearers of this God

He is the source of a liberated imagination

A subversion of the empire

Because it all starts with Him

And it all ends with Him

Everything

All things

Whatever you can imagine

Visible and invisible

Mountains and atoms

Outer space, urban space and cyberspace

Whether it be the Pentagon or the West Wing

Disneyland, Microsoft, Cingular, Enron, or an I-Pod

Whether it be the institutional power structures

Of the state, the academy, or the market

All things have been created in Him and through Him

He is their source, their purpose, their goal,

Even in the rebellion,

Even in their idolatry

He is the Sovereign One

Their power and authority is derived at best

And parasitic at worst

In the face of the empire

In the face of presumptuous claims to sovereignty

In the face of the imperial and idolatrous forces in our lives

Christ is before all things

He is sovereign in life

Not the pimped dreams of the global market

Not the idolatrous forces of nationalism or franchised sports

Not the insatiable desires of a consumerist culture

In the face of a disconnected world

Where home is a domain in cyberspace

Where neighborhood is a MySpace or eHarmony page

Where public space is a shopping mall or retail outlet

Where information technology promises

A tuned-in, reconnected world

All things hold together in Christ

The creation is a deeply personal cosmos

All cohering and interconnected in Jesus

And His sovereignty takes on cultural flesh

And this coherence of all things is socially embedded

In the Church

Against all odds

Against most of the evidence

In a “show me” culture where words alone don’t cut it

The Church is the flesh-and-blood

Here-and-now

In time and history

With joys and sorrows

Embodiment of this Christ

As a body politic

Around a common meal

In alternative economic practices

In radical service to the most vulnerable

In refusal of the empire

In love of this creation

The Church reimagines the world

In the image of the invisible God

In the face of a disappointed world of betrayal

A world in which all fixed points have proven illusory

A world in which we are anchorless and adrift

Christ is the foundation

The origin

The way

The truth

And the life

In the face of a culture of death

A world of killing fields

A world of the walking dead

Christ is at the head of the resurrection parade

Transforming our tears of betrayal into tears of joy

Giving us dancing shoes for the resurrection party

And this glittering joker

Who has, in the words of Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn,

Danced in the dragon’s jaws of death

Now dances with a dance that is full

Of nothing less than the fullness of God

This is the dance of the new creation

This is the dance of life out of death

And in this dance all that was broken

All that was estranged

All that was alienated

All that was dislocated and disconnected

What once was hurt

What once was friction

Is reconciled

Comes home

Is healed

And is made whole

Because Grace, in the words of Bono, makes beauty out of ugly things

Everything

All things

Whatever you can imagine

Visible and invisible

Mountains and atoms

Outer space, urban space, and cyberspace

Every inch of creation

Every dimension of our lives

All things are reconciled in Him

And it happens on a cross

It all happens at a state execution

Where the governor did not commute the sentence

It all happens at the hands of the empire

That has captured our imagination

It all happens through blood

Not through a power grab by the Sovereign One

It all happens in embraced pain

For the sake of others

It all happens on a cross

Arms outstretched in embrace

And this is the image of the invisible God

That is the Body of Christ

One Comment

  • Thanks so much for this post. Got money on the mind today…trying to grasp what kingdom living looks like when I feel controlled by our economy. This was really refreshing to read. Blessings. -Meg

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