What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “imagination?”
Maybe it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, especially in the movie with Willy Wonka singing a song about imagination? Or maybe you think of the Wizard of Oz or your childhood daydreams or Toy Story or Mary Poppins or Harry Potter.
For me, when I hear the word “imagination,” I can’t help but immediately think of our three year old daughter. She is in PEAK imagination stage. She has multiple imaginary friends—the two she talks to the most are Little Guy and Little Guy’s Mom. She loves to cook for us in her play kitchen, she builds castles with blocks, she pretends to be the Trail Leader when we go for hikes, she sets up adventures for her stuffed animals. It’s really amazing to see.
But perhaps the best thing we’ve discovered during this season of life is a show called Bluey. We watch it through Disney+, but the show is actually from Australia. It’s about the Heeler family, which is a family of four Blue Heeler/Australian Shepherd dogs. Bluey is six and she has a younger sister named Bingo.
Every episode is about eight minutes long and every episode is about a different imagination game. Sometimes it’s Bluey playing with her sister. Sometimes it’s Bluey playing with her friends. And sometimes the parents get involved.
It’s the only show on tv where the three year old and the 34 year old both laugh out loud at the same parts. And we both love recreating the imagination games we see on Bluey.
One time, Margaux wanted to recreate the episode “Daddy Robot” where her dad becomes a robot who has to do what the kids say. Bluey and Bingo decide that Daddy Robot needs to do all the work to clean the playroom. What Margaux didn’t remember, however, is in that episode, the Daddy Robot pretends to throw the two kids away because they are the reason the playroom always needs to be cleaned. So, I was carrying Margaux and about halfway to the trashcan, she realized her plan was backfiring. She ended up recruiting Little Guy and Little Guy’s Mom to help her clean instead.
Also, thanks to this Australian show, if you’re around our family, you’re very likely to hear the constant refrain, “You’re being cheeky, dad!” … Do with that information what you will, but yes, our child is now recognizing my skill for sarcasm in an Australian dialect…
I’ve mentioned a few examples already, but we could make an almost endless list of things that come to mind when we hear the word “imagination.” Do you see what almost all those things have in common? They’re almost all designed with children as the target audience. There are exceptions for sure, and adults can enjoy those things even if they are designed for kids, but why is there this unwritten assumption that imagination belongs to children?
When grownups play with toys, it’s widely considered odd. Typically, grownups don’t go see the newest Pixar movie unless they’re bringing a kid along with them. Even grownups who study creative subjects like art or music are often asked, “When are you going to find a real job?”
We go to work. We do chores around the house. We meal prep. We taxi family members around. We crawl into bed. Then we do it all over again. Sometimes, we remind ourselves that imagination exists by watching a movie or tv show or by reading the occasional novel, but for the most part, we leave the bigger expression of imagination behind as we move into adulthood. We’ve let our list of responsibilities squeeze the mystery and surprise out of life and our imaginations have suffered.
Fellow grownups—and maybe some teenagers—we are missing out!
This is a loss we should mourn.
But the good news is, it doesn’t have to be gone. In fact, Jesus is very good at inviting adults to use their imaginations.
Jesus walks on water. Jesus heals people of their ailments. Jesus is resurrected. But also, every time Jesus teaches using a parable, he is inviting us in. He is inviting us to use our imaginations to dream of something bigger, to dream of the world as it could be, to dream of our lives in a new way.
But why parables? Why leave something that could be so crucial up to our imaginations? Why not just straight up tell us to love our neighbor or to not hoard our assets or what the kingdom of God is actually like?
Because when we’re invited to imagine, we become part of the process.
And so, here in Mark, Jesus tells a series of parables, a few of which are about the kingdom of God, including the parable of the mustard seed.
Now, this may come as a surprise to you, but I’m not a farmer. In fact, Tory and I have been known to let succulents die at our house, and they’re a literal cactus plant designed to survive with almost no water and care… So, I’m not a farmer, but I do know that a mustard seed is very tiny. Like single grain of sea salt tiny. Or sesame seed on the top of your burger bun tiny.
And I do know that, in ancient Palestine, the mustard seed was a common metaphor to mean “the smallest thing.” So Jesus isn’t talking about mustard seeds out of nowhere. This would have been a metaphorical concept in speaking and storytelling people would have been familiar with.
So, in this parable, Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed—like the smallest thing—and that when it grows, it becomes the greatest of all of the… shrubs…
A shrub. That’s what it says.
Now, if I’m listening to Jesus talk, maybe I do already know about mustard seeds or maybe not, but I’m expecting something more than a shrub. Even a big shrub is still a shrub. I’m expecting Jesus to say that this tiny seed grows into the most magnificent tree of all time! The Tree of Life from the Lion King or Treebeard from the Lord of the Rings or the Tree of Souls from Avatar or a giant redwood from California. I mean, Jesus could have at least given us a parable about the famous great cedars of Lebanon that are mentioned all throughout the Hebrew scriptures… but no.
The kingdom of God is like a really big shrub…
This makes me a little uncomfortable. Any one else? It just feels so bland. This feeling, like this shrub imagery isn’t quite good enough, must be why the authors of both Matthew and Luke change this story in their respective versions—both of them talk about the mustard seed becoming a tree. Apparently, they just couldn’t bear the idea that all the kingdom of God needed to be was a shrub.
It may seem odd to us to compare the kingdom of God to a shrub, but Jesus knows what he’s doing. This entire exercise is designed to get us to think more deeply and more completely—to use our imaginations as we participate in the ongoing story of God.
The kingdom of God is not like one of the great cedars of Lebanon or the Tree of Life from the Lion King because the kingdom of God is not like any kingdom that this world has seen. Remember, the people Jesus is talking to are living under the oppressive rule of the kingdom of Rome. The kingdom of God is not trying to emulate that, nor is Jesus trying to be like Caesar. The kingdom of God isn’t worried about trying to replicate the type of greatness that human systems are trying to build.
So the kingdom of God is like a shrub—a big shrub. In fact, it’s a surprisingly large shrub when you think about how tiny that seed was—it can grow as large as 10 or 12 feet tall. This shrub is big enough to offer shelter to birds, shade for animals on the ground, and more mustard seeds to be harvested. But when you really think about it—when you use your imagination—the shrub is more than simply shelter. It’s a place of rest for creation and it’s a place where the birds can sing their beautiful songs. It’s a place where life can flourish. It’s a place where community is formed and families are raised. It’s a place where abundance thrives.
And I guess, in that way, it is like the Tree of Life. The Shrub of Life.
The kingdom of God is not what we expect in many ways, but it is a place of safety, sustenance, and grace. It is everything it needs to be, and nothing more. It absolutely takes some imagination to see a shrub, even a big shrub, as a valuable space that cultivates life, but that’s exactly what Jesus is asking us to do with this parable.
It’s a different kind of imagination than a work of fiction—it’s engaging and transforming our ability to dream about the possibilities for ourselves, our neighbors, the world, the church, and God.
Where in our world do you see places of safety? Places that offer sustenance? Places full of grace? That’s the kingdom of God realized in our midst. And once we’ve trained our eye to notice the glimpses of the kingdom of God, we’ll start to see them in new spaces.
We see the kingdom of God in the local restaurant that doesn’t require you to be a paying customer to use the restroom.
We see the kingdom of God in the preschool teachers who patiently help potty train a stubborn toddler.
We see the kingdom of God in the teenager that helps an elderly neighbor get her trash can to the street.
And, we see the kingdom of God in a mustard seed shrub that is large enough to accomplish important tasks without dominating the horizon.
Do you see the thread running through here? None of these examples follow the traditional rules of religion. They’re all out of the box ways of creating community, relationships, and grace. We shouldn’t be afraid or embarrassed to use our imaginations, and using our imagination is about more than just metaphors for the kingdom of God. Whether it’s reading scripture or reimagining a sacred space or how we interact with our families or even how we do mundane chores, we need to be engaging our imaginations.
Faith and life are dynamic and shouldn’t be treated as a basic backdrop to be ignored as we walk by. Children are good at noticing the layers because they can’t help but use all their senses.
Minister and professor Barbara Brown Taylor, says, “[Children] are still immersed in it [all], up to their eyes in colors, up to their ears in sounds, with fingertips that ache to stroke a sparrow and noses that can find a creek in the dark by its smell. They live in a world where distinctions need not be made, where green is a texture as well as a hue, where rain has a taste as important as its temperature.”
We can learn from children how to bring this kind of imagination into our faith. Taylor goes on to say, “To apprentice oneself to a child is to learn that the world is full of wonders, a world in which nothing is simply what it seems because everything is packed with endless possibilities of usefulness and meaning. To enter that world, all you have to do is surrender your certainty that you already know what everything is and is for.”
This kind of imagination is how we experience God. God consistently defies the expectations the world sees as important, so we get a parable about a tiny seed that becomes a big scruffy shrub as a metaphor for the kingdom of God. Even Jesus’s handpicked disciples are a ragged group of largely uneducated tradespeople who are full of doubts, full of fears, and continually struggle to understand what Jesus says and does. But they helped change the world. Like the mustard seed, God repeatedly trusts the unlikely to help the reign of God burst onto the scene.
This parable and this promise made to folks who follow Jesus are both humbling, and at the same time exhilarating. We are trusted with this work and all it takes is a little faithful imagination.
So, as fellow followers of Jesus, when you think of the kingdom of God, where does your imagination take you?
Does it take you to the neighborhood cookout where everyone eats in community?
Does it take you to the medical clinic that treats people regardless of their ability to pay?
Does it take you to a church that offers welcome and grace to all?
Faithful imagination is a spiritual practice. It’s holy and it’s sacred. Faithful imagination moves us past the simple black & white faith, it pulls us out of the little boxes of religion, and it carries us beyond what can be measured in a traditional sense. Faithful imagination brings life back to faith. Faithful imagination shifts the way we see ourselves, God, and others.
That’s what we’re trying to do at First Baptist. We’ve always tried to be an innovative church that’s looking for new and exciting ideas, which meant, when COVID hit, we were able to react more fluidly and more naturally.
We’ve made better use of our outdoor spaces than ever before. Volunteers built the outdoor chapel as a way of reimagining what sacred space can be. We’ve seen the Weekday Preschool adapt their entire curriculum to get kids outside and engaging in new ways. We’ve continued to be innovative in how we worship as a community. Through it all, we’ve held to the values of our faith community and commitment to one another with countless examples of imaginative approaches. And that is only possible because you are willing to use your imaginations with us.
Let’s keep doing that, and let’s continue to see how far it can take us.
I’ll end with this story.
Yesterday, we took Margaux to the arboretum for the first time. In a way that three year olds excel, she was interested in everything. She loved the plants and flowers and the huge wind chimes, but she also loved the paths themselves, the bridges, and the bugs. With a three year old, a bench isn’t just a bench, it’s for climbing and jumping and hiding. She was given a flower and, for the next hour, it was the most precious thing she owned. It finished the walk with us, went to lunch with us, and made it all the way back to our house to be added to her nature table on our front porch.
When I’m with Margaux, I see the world with a depth I haven’t known in decades. If we bring that level of imagination to our faith, just think of the depth, feeling, and connection we can have with the story of God around us.
How can you use your imagination to bring the kingdom of God further into this world by offering a place of shelter, sustenance, and grace?
Let’s not allow the world to squeeze the mystery and surprise out of life. Use your imaginations to run wild, to create, and to go deeper with God and with one another.