Text: Isaiah 11:1-10
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I’m not sure what specific problem or problems Albert Einstein was speaking of when he made this statement but his words ring true to me today. It does often seem that we are trying to solve our individual and collective problems by using the same kind of thinking that created our current national and world problems, if not many of our personal struggles.
Take for instance greed and economic injustice in our world. The kind of thinking that has created the magnitude of greed we see in our world is the kind of thinking that says there is not enough for everyone. Not enough food, not enough money, not enough love, not enough education, not enough land—you fill in the blank. Many in our society live from this place of “there’s not enough go to around.” And the kind thinking that goes with that is, “I have to make sure I have more than I need in order to survive.” I heard recently (from Bill Moyers) that there is enough wealth in the US for every household of four to have an annual income of $113,000. I also just read a new study from Princeton that hangs a price tag on happiness at $75,000. That’s the annual household income that gives you the most joy for your buck. People with incomes below that magic number report less happiness, overall, than those at or above it.
But here’s the other side of the study. The effect levels off after $75,000. As your income increases, your cheerfulness also increases, but the good cheer plateaus around $75,000. Another $25,000 a year—or even another $100,000 a year—will make you richer, but it won’t make you much happier. Why $75,000? Because that’s the magic number at which most Americans can pay their basic living expenses and have a little something left over for the good things they want in life. Or, as the Nobel-prize winning research team who ran the study put it:
More money does not necessarily buy more happiness, but less money is associated with emotional pain. Perhaps 75,000 dollars is a threshold beyond which further increase in income no longer improves individuals’ ability to do what matters most to their emotional well-being, such as spending time with people they like, avoiding pain and disease, and enjoying leisure.
From poverty up through plenty, the study charts a curve. At the peak, you have Enough: your living expenses are covered, your future is secure, and you have some fun money to spend on the things you enjoy. Beyond Enough, the curve dives downward into clutter, stress, competition and an array of other sorry outcomes.
The kind of thinking that has created the problem of greed and economic injustice in our society—where the gap between the poor and rich is at its widest—is the kind of thinking that says, “I need more than enough because enough is not enough.” It says that my need to have more than enough is more important than my neighbor’s need to have just enough. Culturally, we continue to think of more as more, and resist policies, for example, that would raise the minimum wage, arguing that we have to entice the brightest minds and most daring talent into a thin wedge of jobs by offering massive sums of money while we pay the masses less money than they need to actually live safe and healthy lives.
Albert Einstein was right. We are never going to lessen the gap between the haves and have-nots by continuing to think that there is not enough for everyone. We can’t address economic injustice by simply trying to come up with more and more and more. As the CEO of Goldman Sachs recently said, “This country does a great job of creating wealth, but not a great job of distributing it.” At the heart of our economic disparity problem is a distribution problem. It is a problem that will require us imagining a different way of sharing our resources with one another as a human family rather than being focused on obtaining more and more. It will require a kind of moral imagination that minimizes individual wealth and maximizes wealth for the common good of all people.
But this sermon is not about economic justice, although on this peace Sunday it would be an appropriate topic. It is, however, about moral imagination. It is about whether we can image a different world; because at the heart of Isaiah 11:1-10 is the question, “Can we imagine?” Can we imagine, Isaiah asks, a world where the wolf shall live with the lamb, where the leopard lies down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together? Can we imagine a world where the cow and the bear graze together and the lion eating straw like the ox? Can you, can we imagine a different kind of world? Can we let go of our old ways of thinking in order to imagine something different? Can we step aside from the kind of thinking that has created so much violence, injustice, greed, hate in world and imagine a different world where peace is possible. Can you imagine?
Greg sings Imagine
Can you imagine? The great leaders of civilization both political and spiritual; the literary giants of our culture; the inspired musicians of our times all have in common one thing: the ability to inspire humanity through their imagination—by the simple yet profound act of seeing something that is not here yet but is certainly possible.
But here is the thing about imagination. Moral imagination is not simply about making better what already exists. Rather, it is about transforming how we think—it is about transforming our ways of thinking. To use our imagination means we work at being able to see what is not here—pieces of the kingdom that are not yet realized.
When I first read Isaiah 11 here are the words I saw:
The capitalists will live with the socialists,
the Democrat and the Republican will work together,
the fundamentalist, the moderate and the liberal will worship as one,
and a transgender person will lead them all.
But then I thought: moral imagination is bigger than that. It is about stripping away those boundaries—those artificial designations like conservative and liberal, gay and straight, male and female, Democrat and Republican, rich and poor—that keep us separated from one another. Moral imagination is about seeing each other as human beings who hurt and bleed for the same reasons, who love and make sacrifices for the same reasons, who hold to a faith and a belief system for the same reasons. Moral imagination opens our eyes to kingdom living where all are created equal and no one is better or more deserving than another. It is seeing our differences and then celebrating our diversity. Moral imagination is about loving beyond our likes, forgiving beyond our hurts and living beyond our fears.
This week, the world lost one of the most imaginative minds in recent history–Nelson Mandela. A beautiful mind that imagined forgiveness and fellowship as a response to generational oppression and cruelty.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis is both disturbing and inspiring people around the world through his moral imagination—seeing and offering a picture much like Isaiah did of what we could be like as one human family where morality is less about doctrines and more about how we love our neighbors.
And we just celebrated the anniversary of another imaginative soul that changed the course of our nation’s history, Rosa Parks. It was her moral imagination that gave her the courage to keep her seat and envision a world where one is not treated differently because of the color of their skin.
Can we imagine? Can we?
It’s not just famous people who hold this ability to inspire change through moral imagination. As a matter of fact, none of the above people started out as famous people. One can’t understand President Mandela without first understanding the jailed Mandela. We can’t understand Pope Francis without first knowing the humble man who cared for the people of a poor country. And we can’t fully appreciate Rosa Parks as “the mother of the freedom movement” until we see her life as an oppressed black woman fighting daily the evils of racism. They were ordinary people—Nelson Mandela, Pope Francis and Rosa Parks—who saw a different way, who are seeing a different way and imagined and are imagining a different path that made and is making the world a better place and humanity a better people.
We don’t need imaginations that see purple dragons or simply see more and more of what already is. We need the kind of imagination that sees the world as it could be in terms of kingdom living—a world of equality for all, a world of economic justice, a world indifferent to the color of a person’s skin, a world that supports commitment regardless of gender, a world whose boundaries are meant to define not divide.
Can you imagine such a world—where there’s no countries, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too. Can you imagine all the people living life in peace…no need for greed or hunger? Can you imagine all the people sharing all the world, living in peace?
The baby that we await imagined such a world. If we follow him, we can too.
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.