Sympathetic Imagination

Homily for February 10, 2019
Epiphany 5C
Luke 5:1–11

Of George Eliot, the 19th century English novelist, reviewers write that she is

an acute delineator of character, a subtle humorist, a master of English, a universal observer and a comprehensive student… (Arthur George Sedgwick, The Atlantic, April, 1873)

…and also that Eliot has “perfect psychological pitch.”  “I am not sure any other writer has ever captured with such precision what it is like to be a member of our species,” writes one (Kathryn Schulz in a New York Magazine review, January 20, 2014).

Of Eliot’s writing itself, reviewers remark how it is

bespoke and cleansed of cliché.  It… [approaches] life’s knotty moral questions with knowledge, intelligence, and experience. (Ibid.)

Of Eliot’s characters, they write things like

“Eliot seems not invent her characters but to approach them,” and she does so with keen perception and abundant sympathy (John Mullan in The Guardian, Feb 28, 2014).

Of Middlemarch, widely regarded as Eliot’s best work, reviewers write that it is

The most morally serious, and the most broadly humane… novel in the English language.  (Schulz, in New York Magazine, Jan 20, 2014)

And that it

looms above the mid-Victorian literary landscape like a cathedral of words in whose shadowy vastness its readers can find every kind of addictive discomfort… [and here we meet some of Middlemarch’s characters]: the loneliness of the disappointed failure, Dr Lydgate; the frustrations of his discontented wife; the humiliation of a good woman, Dorothea; the corrosive bitterness of Casaubon, and so on. (Robert McCrum in The Guardian, Feb. 10,  2014)

The review of Middlemarch that most catches my attention is that of the contemporary philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein.  Goldstein writes of Middlemarch:

The differences between [Eliot’s] characters… are shown as differences in the limits of their capacity for sympathetic imagination.  All of her characters are driven by… the drive to persist and flourish… they [are] after their own wellbeing.  But, for some of them, their characters are such that they are able to imagine themselves into others…  [Eliot] makes the limits of imagination—not the limits of reason—essential to how much… progress a character can make.

To cite two small examples of this “sympathetic imagination:”  Though Dorothea is not sure how to liberate herself from her husband’s tyrannies of passive aggression, yet she is able to realize that he has “an equivalent center of self, whence the light and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.”  And when Rosamond Vincy, arguably the most self-absorbed character in the book, dismisses another woman as “so uninteresting,” the much kinder Mary Garth counters: “She is interesting to herself, I suppose.”

George EliotOne of Eliot’s goals as a writer is to help the reader to imagine what it is like to step out of him- or herself and to see from the other’s perspective.  As Eliot herself wrote in a letter in 1859, “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves.”  Eliot wants us to see what it is like to be in somebody else’s skin, to walk a mile in their shoes, to recognize that others’ lives are just as rich and complex, just as confused and messed up, as ours, AND… they are nevertheless worthy of our attention, respect, even affection.  And so by the end of Middlemarch, who cannot but love Dorothea and her good heart despite how insufferable she sometimes can be, or who cannot but have compassion for Lydgate despite how idealistic he can be, or who cannot but have sympathy for the banker Bulstrode in spite of his past deeds?


If Eliot was perceptive of, and empathetic to, the human condition, so is Luke perceptive of, and empathetic to, us the readers of his Gospel.  Luke keeps an eye out for what it might be like for his readers to first encounter Jesus and the Good News.  And for Luke, Jesus’ Good News is so amazing, so life-changing, that Luke wants us not just to “get it” about Jesus in a head kind of way, but Luke wants us to be drawn in to Jesus and to engage him in a heart kind of way, with our “sympathetic imagination.”  For example, Luke begins his Gospel with an infancy narrative.  Who wouldn’t be drawn into a story about a working-class family from a small town, traveling in obedience to an emperor’s decree while the mother is pregnant, and to which mother had appeared an angel who declared her child destined for greatness?  Or who wouldn’t want to read on in a story—as we heard last week—that would bring

Good news to the poor
… release to the captives
… [and] recovery of sight to the blind.

Or who wouldn’t be moved by Luke’s stories of the Good Samaritan or the father welcoming home the Prodigal?  Like Eliot, Luke wants for our imaginations to be piqued and our sympathies aroused; Luke wants us to enter into these stories and to know not just “what it is like to be a member of our species,” but to know what it is like to be a member of our species when we are with Jesus.

brooklyn_museum_-_the_calling_of_saint_peter_and_saint_andrew_28vocation_de_saint_pierre_et_saint_andrc3a929_-_james_tissot_-_overallHaving compassion for what it might be like for us to first encounter Jesus, at once so like and yet so unlike us, Luke offers his readers an empathetic take on Jesus’ call of the first disciples.  Similar to Matthew and Mark, Luke’s story involves Peter, and James and John.  As in Matthew and Mark, the setting is a lakeshore.  As in Matthew and Mark, the story ends with the disciples leaving everything and following.  But Luke seems to be as dissatisfied as we are in Jesus simply commanding and the disciples inexplicably following.  (“’Follow me,’” says Mark’s Jesus.  “And immediately they left their nets and followed.”)  “That’s not going to work,” I can hear Luke saying.  “Never mind my readers not getting it, they aren’t going to be drawn in to it.  And how will my readers come to love Jesus if they aren’t first drawn to know him?”  So, with his “sympathetic imagination,” Luke fleshes out the account and tells what must have happened, really(!), that day when Jesus called Peter and James and John by the lakeshore:

When [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break… When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he… [was] amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John.

Who wouldn’t follow Jesus, seeing him work such a miracle?  But on a deeper level Luke— with his “perfect psychological pitch”—gives us an even greater reason to follow Jesus, a reason that speaks to the longings and yearnings of our hearts: (which is) wouldn’t we all, in the place that we live our lives and often find its “waters” empty, wouldn’t we love to discover—in this very same place as we live our lives and that we frequent each day and that we have probably countless times “worked all night long but have caught nothing”—[wouldn’t we love to discover in these “waters”] an experience of such extraordinary abundance that we, too, fall down on our knees in amazement?

brooklyn_museum_-_the_good_samaritan_28le_bon_samaritain29_-_james_tissotLuke invites us to meet this Jesus who brings such abundance.  Just as Eliot writes with “sympathetic imagination” and invites her readers to “imagine themselves into others,” so does Luke invites us to imagine ourselves into these stories with Jesus.  I wonder if, over the coming year as we hear from Luke, we can allow ourselves to step out of ourselves, to be drawn into Luke’s beautiful stories, and to imagine ourselves present with Jesus.  I wonder if, as we hear the story of the Good Samaritan, for example, we can imagine Jesus caring for us and tending to our wounds.  Or I wonder if, as we hear the story of the Prodigal Son, we can imagine Jesus welcoming us back home with open arms.  For as we allow ourselves to be drawn in and to imagine, we will discover a compassionate heart who intimately perceives and knows our human condition.  As we step out of ourselves and imagine ourselves into this other, we will come to love him who makes our hearts burn.  As we allow ourselves to exercise our “sympathetic imaginations,” we will uncover, in waters that previously may have seemed empty, in waters that we may have “worked all night and caught nothing,” an extraordinary, extravagant abundance that will not only bring us to our knees in amazement, but will lead us, too, to leave everything and follow.


…before we knew we had begun

Homily for Sunday, February 3, 2019
Epiphany 4C
Luke 4:21–30

prideandprejudicech3detailMr. Bingley to Mr. Darcy: “Come, Darcy,” said he, “I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.”

Mr. Darcy to Mr. Bingley: “I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it…”

Mr. Bingley: “Upon my honor, I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life as I have this evening.”

Mr. Darcy: “You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,” [he said], looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.

Mr. Bingley: “But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me… introduce you.”

Mr. Darcy: “Which do you mean?” and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me…  You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.”

Mr. Bingley followed his advice. Mr. Darcy walked off; and Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings toward him. Continue reading

Using the Voice We Have

Homily for Sunday, January 27, 2019
Epiphany 4C
Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10
Luke 4:14–21

dire_straits_1983_zagreb_3It had been a long time since I last heard Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet,” one of the band’s biggest hits.  But this past November, on Ken Bruce’s BBC music show, there was Mark Knopfler, the former lead, guitar in-hand, singing “Romeo and Juliet.”  He looked so different!  Gone was the jean jacket and the headband from the 1980’s, replaced with a sensible sweater and eye glasses.  Gone was the clean jaw line, replaced with middle-aged jowls.  Gone was the long, wavy hair—like, Gone!  And there was a look in his eyes that suggested that, over the decades, the words had taken on new meaning:  “All I do is miss you and the way we used to be…” Continue reading

Read This!!!

Homily for Sunday, January 20, 2018
Epiphany 2C
John 2:1–11

newspaper boy-lewis wickes hine

Photo Credit: Lewis Wickes Hine, 1914

This past October, Vivian Yee and Miriam Jordan of the New York Times wrote the following about Fernanda Davila, a two year-old from Honduras who had been taken from her parents at the US border and who at the time was in government custody: “The youngest child to come before the bench in federal immigration courtroom No 14,” they said, “was so small she had to be lifted into the chair.  Even the judge in her black robes breathed a soft ‘aww’ as her latest case perched on the brown leather.” Continue reading

Called to the Water

Homily for Sunday, January 13, 2019
The First Sunday After the Epiphany
Isaiah 43:1–7

“When you pass through the water, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”

JP1847I wonder what the water was like in the 17th century when some Japanese Christians were lashed to posts at low tide and left to drown as the tide returned.  Was the sea like glass, as it sometimes is, so that they could see their reflections?  Or was the surface choppy, with swirls and eddies that tugged at their ropes?  Or were there crashing waves sending spray that forcefully yanked and rubbed their skin raw against the wood?  Was the water warm, or was it cold?  Did they sing as they awaited death, as we know other Japanese martyrs did?  Did they shout encouragement to one another, as so many other martyrs have done?  Did their fellows gather on the shore, and—after the soldiers had left—swim out to pray and offer comfort?  Like the Christians who lined the road and sang as Ignatius of Antioch was led to his martyrdom in the Colosseum, did those on shore sing, their voices carrying over the water to reassure those lashed to the posts that they were not alone, that they were loved?  I wonder, what was the water like? Continue reading

Being Found

Homily for Sunday, January 6, 2019
The Epiphany
Matthew 2:1–12
Preached at St John’s, Newtonville

Rainer_Maria_Rilke2C_1900As a young man in his early twenties, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke traveled with his girlfriend and her husband to Russia.  Whether it was the Russian land or people, or Rilke’s encounter with the Orthodox Church, or perhaps his travel arrangements that led to an extraordinary burst of creativity, we don’t know.  What we do know is that upon his return, over the course of 25 days, Rilke wrote his Book of Hours, 67 poems that grew out of his prayer at that time.  They are wonderful!  Here are the openings lines of #45:

You come and go. The doors swing closed
ever more gently, almost without a sound.
Of all who move through quiet houses,
you are the quietest.  (I, 45) Continue reading

Drawn to Jesus

Homily for Sunday, December 30, 2018
First Sunday After Christmas Day
John 1:1–18

Prairie School aerial mh 001.jpgIn my hometown of Racine, Wisconsin, is a school designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  The hallways of this school are both beautiful and peculiar.  Beautiful, because the colors, textures and light all work together to make these hallways beautiful places to be.  (They were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, after all!)  And these hallways are also peculiar.  There’s almost not a straight hallway in the place; almost all the hallways are curved!  Wright wanted people to be drawn forward to see what might be around the corner.  For the most part the only windows in the hallways are narrow, horizontal windows high up at the ceiling line.  Full length windows are in the classrooms, where Wright wanted the abundant light to attract people into the space.  And the ceilings in the hallways are particularly low—maybe seven feet?  Wright wanted people to move through the smaller, tighter-feeling spaces of hallways and into the rooms, where ceilings were higher and rooms felt more spacious.  With their colors and textures—and their curves, low ceilings and high windows—these hallways are places at once beautiful places to linger, and at the same time they urge people onward. Continue reading