Eudolpha Phillips was a witch - and she lived in my hometown. I realized
this one day walking home from 3rd grade with some friends. We decided
to walk atop the retaining wall surrounding her somewhat dilapidated
ante-bellum house. She came out and chased us off with a broom - which
made it all pretty clear. Shortly after that, a friend told me he'd
looked in her basement window and was pretty sure he'd seen 100 dead
Confederate soldiers which she used for her witch's brew. I kept my
maternal grandmother who raised me informed of these developments. Having
gone to school with Eudolpha Phillips, she tried to convince me otherwise,
to no avail. I knew she was a witch.
A few months later, to my shock and horror, the witch not only appeared
in church but sat in my pew. I sang and prayed as unobtrusively as possible
to avoid being turned into a toad. Afterwards, as my grandmother and
I walked to the car, I told my her how shocked I was that a witch would
come to church. In exasperation my staunch Episcopal grandmother stopped,
turned to me and said, "Liza, for the umpteenth time, I'm telling
you she is not a witch. In fact, she was in our church because she's
one of us." "She's an Episcopalian?" I asked, stunned.
Looking right at me my grandmother said simply, "Imagine that."
(I later learned that although Eudolpha Phillips came from a long line
of Episcopalians, she had become pretty much a recluse and hadn't been
to church for years. Apparently, my witch tales had reminded my grandmother
of this who, of all things, had invited her back to church.) Eudolpha
the Witch. She was one of us. Imagine that.
Today is the Feast of Christ's baptism and some people wonder why Christ
was baptized. One reason was "for the same reason he is born in
a manger, ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, cried and prayed,
and died a painful, human death. [Even if it included standing knee
deep in muddy water with a bunch of sinners]. ..Jesus came to be like
us, so we could grow to be like him." (Susan Andrews, Lectionary
Homiletics, January 2001, p. 7)
And our own baptism sets us on a path where we begin our journey of
growth into Christ. Baptism does many things: it makes us a part of
the Body of Christ and of one another. It brings us into a community
where we're not only made aware of the power of sin and death, but of
God's grace which saves us from the ultimate power of them both. But
perhaps there is something else that happens in baptism that helps in
our Christian growth. C.S. Lewis, referring to a writer who had greatly
influenced him, once said "He baptized my imagination." I
wonder if in baptism, our imagination is baptized, saturated with the
love and grace of God which allows us, in grace-filled moments, to imagine
the world as God intended it - and to act on that.
We think of imagination as something out of touch with reality: "it's
just your imagination" we say. But as Episcopal priest Barbara
Brown Taylor has pointed out, imagination can shape our perceptions
and even affect change in our lives. "Physicians use guided imagery
to heal their patients... Elementary school teachers teach their students
to close their eyes and imagine colorful numbers in the air; a yellow
two plus a red three equaling a big orange five. ...When the children
open their eyes and pick up their pencils, their sums add up. Again
and again," says Taylor, "imagination turns out to be the
place where our vision is formed and reformed, where human beings encounter
an inner reality with power to transform the other realities of their
lives..." (The Preaching Life, pp.44-46)
Through baptism, we are called into the life of Jesus Christ, One who
imagined the world as God created it to be, lived in that reality and
so changed the world. A man wasn't blind because God was punishing him
or his parents for their sins. Rather, it was a condition which could
allow the healing power of God's love in Christ to be made known. So
God was no longer seen as a vengeful God nor was illness seen as a result
of God's wrath. Rather, God was seen as a loving God whose will for
us was healing and wholeness. Jesus didn't see Gentiles, women and tax
collectors as outcasts but imagined them as God created them to be:
as part of the human family, as part of God's family. And so people
no longer saw one another as categories, lines were no longer drawn.
Jesus saw things differently because he imagined things the way God
had created them to be, and acting on that, changed reality.
As those baptized into Christ, we are called to do the same; we are
called to participate in God's imagination; "...to see ourselves,
our neighbors, and our world through God's eyes, full of possibility,
full of promise, ready to be transformed." (Id. p. 50) We are called
to see God as one who desires our healing and wholeness, called to see
one another not as labels but as God's beloved child. And that changes
the way we live in the world because it changes the way we see God and
one another. It even changed the way I saw Eudolpha Phillips. I didn't
walk on her retaining wall anymore, I didn't try to see in her basement
- and I didn't worry about being turned into a toad. Though I wouldn't
have articulated it in this way, I imagined her to be a beloved child
of God, one of us - and that changed the way I saw and treated her.
A while ago I read about a Princeton seminary professor who was asked
to speak to a high school youth group about Jesus' baptism. He explained
how Jesus' baptism was a revelation of God's presence in Jesus. Without
looking up, one of the teenagers said, "That ain't what it's about."
Pleased that he had at least been listening enough to disagree, the
professor asked him what he thought it was about. The young man said,
"The story says the heavens were opened up and the Spirit of God
came down, right?" "Right," said the professor. Finally
looking up, the boy said "It means that God is let loose in the
world. And that's dangerous."
The boy was right. In Christ, God was let loose in the world and it
was dangerous. He healed on the Sabbath because he imagined humans more
important than laws, he turned over tables because he imagined offering
our hearts to God more central than offering sacrifices, he associated
with outcasts because he imagined being a part of one another more important
than drawing lines. He imagined the world differently and it was dangerous.
It got him killed - but it also changed the world.
We believe that God's good news in Christ makes for a different world,
a world as God imagines it can be. Today we renew our baptismal vows.
In so doing, we affirm, among other things, that we are baptized into
the Body of Christ and that calls us to see the world and one another
in a new way. That is possible because, by God's grace, our imaginations
are baptized, imaginations that can change our lives, the lives of others,
and our world. Imaginations that can even help us to see that a witch
may not be a witch at all - but one us - not only an Episcopalian but,
far beyond that, a beloved child of God. Imagine that.