Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17
Until a couple days ago, I had never heard of the singer-songwriter Thad Cockrell, but this morning I would like to tell you his story:
You see, after some 20 years as a musician, Cockrell had never really broken through. His latest album had gone nowhere, so in early January he decided that the time had come for him to try something else. He wrote his managers the next day and told them he was giving up on the music business.
But on that very day another man was completely taken by a song he heard while shopping in a hardware store. The man didn’t know the song or the singer, and so he pressed the Shazzam app on his smartphone and pointed it in the direction of the sound. The app told him the song was “Swingin” by one Thad Cockrell.
Well, the music lover in the hardware store was Jimmy Fallon of “The Tonight Show.” He had his people get in touch with Cockrell’s people and, on January 26, Cockrell played his “go down swingin” song for a national television audience. The song then hit the very top of the iTunes all-genre sales chart.
I probably don’t have to tell you that Thad Cockrell’s music career is not going down at all. Instead, he is now reimagining his future.
Now, I want to be careful here. As Jesus’ words in our gospel reading have just reminded us, following the Jesus way is not about success or power, achievement, victory, or happy endings. And following Jesus is certainly not about a so-called heavenly future; as Jesus makes clear time and again, his way of love and compassion, community and justice is meant for the here and now.
And as for reimagining the future, these days many of us find it difficult to even think about the future. The previously unimaginable Covid death toll of more than 500,000 Americans, along with countless other losses, has weighed us down with grief. The unrelenting limitations, adaptations, and worries of pandemic life demand all our energy, focus, creativity, and imagination for the day to day, leaving little left for whatever lies ahead. The pandemic has made us all-too-aware of how little we control, and with the course of the pandemic and the pace of vaccinations still uncertain, some of us are having a hard time making plans or even thinking beyond the next few weeks or months.
And when we do manage to lift up our heads and gaze outward toward the horizon, the way forward is clouded by all the normal things—everything from our own struggles, fears, cynicism, and low expectations to unmet goals, lost opportunities, financial worries, health conditions, climate change, and systemic injustice.
I know. I feel these things, too.
Which is why I want to be very clear about proclaiming another truth:
God’s future and, therefore, our future with and in God, is boundless. It is not bound by the past; it is not bound by the present.
I’m going to say that again:
God’s future is unlimited.
It is not bound by the things of the past: including the way things have always been, our own failures, regrets, and disappointments, our unanswered prayers, our unfulfilled longings, or human history.
God’s future is not bound by the present: including the way things are, challenging circumstances, doubt, fear, or our sense of what is and is not possible.
God’s future is not even bound by our hopelessness or lack of imagination. That future may arrive more quickly and the arc of the moral universe bend more sharply toward justice if we are willing to surrender our own plans and to faithfully follow God’s way, but I’m pretty sure we need God more than God needs us.
If our spiritual history is any guide, the future—God’s future, our future, creation’s future, our common future—is shaped by nothing more important than God’s steadfast love and faithfulness and nothing less than God’s intention for our welfare and peace, for our healing and hope, for the redemption and restoration of all creation. The future is shaped by God’s will for justice and abundance, belovedness and togetherness, and by the extent to which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
God is forever and always doing a new thing, and we humans are part of the story—the story of a beloved people, the story of exodus and liberation, the story of exile and restoration, the story of incarnation and servant love, the story of the mighty being cast down and the lowly lifted up, the story of a circle of belovedness that keeps widening until all are included, the story of a feast of life and blessing to which all are invited, and stories still unwritten.
God is forever and always promising a new and previously unimaginable future, and if our scriptures are any indication, the most common human response is “What? How can this be?”
And one of the best ways to begin reimagining and living into future stories is to reflect on the stories of the past.
Consider Abram and Sarai, ages 99 and 90, being told by God again—almost 25 years after God told them the first time—that they would have a son and, eventually, more descendants than stars in the sky. God invited them to reimagine their future. Of course, they laughed!
Consider fugitive Moses being recalled to the scene of the crime to liberate his people. Consider brother-cheating, father-scamming Jacob being made father of a nation. Consider foreign widow Ruth giving rise to the shoot of Jesse that will produce Jesus. Consider shepherd-boy David becoming a king. On and on and on until a young girl named Mary, upon being told by an angel that she will bear a son asks, How can this be?; and another Mary, previously demon-possessed, becomes the first preacher of resurrection.
We forget sometimes that our spiritual history is comprised of an infinite number of unlikely events and a multitude of unremarkable, always clueless, often resistant, but ultimately faithful characters who were willing to imagine that God’s preposterous promises were true and then, accordingly, reimagined the future and their part in it.
We sometimes fail to understand the extent to which our lives are shaped by coincidences we could never have planned, opportunities we could never have created, serendipities we could have never imagined, threads we could have never woven, a grace we could never earn, and a Love we will never comprehend.
Failing to recognize that, basing our future plans on what is tried and true, and living according to the fallacy that whatever happens is all up to us, we work and worry and do everything we can to control outcomes and avoid suffering. We can become so disillusioned that we lose our capacity to imagine anything different. We can be beaten down for so long that we stop looking up. We can grow so desperate that we will spend more money than we have on things we’re told will make us happy, and we will throw our lot in with any powerful figure who promises to save us.
Notice that Jesus is not powerful in the ways of the world. Notice that he doesn’t promise to save us.
Jesus warns that our efforts to save ourselves from want and pain and the suffering of the world will lead to a dead and lonely end. What Jesus offers us is a path to real life, a path of service and generosity, community, nonviolence, solidarity, love, and a willingness to suffer for love’s sake. Jesus challenges us not only to reimagine what a meaningful life is but also how to have one.
Sometimes that will mean naming our disappointments, grieving our losses, dying to our plans of how things were going to be, and letting go of our efforts to make things happen with just a little more money and a lot more control. Often it will mean letting go of our anger and resentment.
Thad Cockrell, for all his talent, hard work, and vision, just couldn’t break through in the music business, which for him meant bringing light and love to the world. One day he realized that all his effort and agony were not bringing him life, and he made the hard decision to let his dream go. Little did he know that his fortunes were about to be reversed and reimagined—maybe because Jimmy Fallon went to the hardware store to buy a light switch, but maybe also because Cockrell had stopped trying to make something happen and simply decided to open himself up to a reimagined future.
From time immemorial, faithful people have somehow managed to trust that something better was possible, that something new and different could happen, that their mistakes could be forgiven, that their hearts could be healed, that they could start over. By God’s grace, they trusted their futures to the God of steadfast love and faithfulness.
When God told the brokenhearted exiles she was doing a new thing, they began to look for it. When God told the people walking in darkness they would see a great light, they went out and bought sunglasses. When God promised weary wanderers that every valley would be lifted up and the rough places made plain, they put on their walking shoes and headed for the door.
Faith, trust, and imagination are far more than spiritual practices for tough times; they are essential practices for life—and they become only more important when times are tough, when pandemic conditions tempt us to simply put our heads down and muddle through, to focus on surviving rather than living.
Perhaps now more than ever, we need new life and new hope. Now, as much as ever, the world needs people who have come alive to what is possible in and through God.
So let us imagine and re-imagine. Let us trust that God’s future is not limited by the past, which includes our seemingly unanswered prayers. Let us trust that God’s future is not limited by the present, which includes our tried, tested, and sometimes tired faith.
Let us live as if God is doing a new thing—even now, even here, even in us.